DSLR technology is continuing to evolve at a rapid pace, with new features being added as older ones are updated and refined. The upshot of this is that technology that was considered cutting-edge only a few years ago, now often comes as standard on all but the most basic models. Of course, there are compromises to be made, especially when manufacturers are trying to pitch their products at certain price points. In practice, this means that while nearly all DSLRs offer live view they may not all feature an adjustable LCD screen or weather-proofed seals.
For precisely this reason it pays to think about the specific features that will be most beneficial to your photography and to find out which models include them – just as you would were you looking for a compact camera or a CSC.
Whereas ten years ago it was all but impossible to buy a DSLR for under £1000 (the 6.3MP Canon EOS 300D became the first when it was introduced in 2003 priced at £999), nowadays there are over 20 models.
Hunt around and you’ll find entry-level DSLRs available for as little as £360 online, including a standard zoom lens. But what exactly can you expect for your money, and why would you want to carry the extra bulk involved anyway? What's a DSLR got that a compact hasn't? Well, the main benefit offered by buying a DSLR is a noticeable step up in image quality, and this is primarily (but not wholly) due to the larger sensors they use.
The vast majority of entry-level, mid-range and even enthusiast DSLRs use APS-C sized sensors, which are more that 12 times larger than the sensors found inside regular compacts. This increase in size has many advantages, including the ability to produce a much shallower depth of field, along with an increase in dynamic range. Just as importantly, it also allows for larger individual light-capturing diodes to be deployed on the sensor’s surface, which in turn improves the camera’s performance in low-light.
In addition, DSLRs are considerably faster to operate than compacts, with most models able to start-up and be ready to shoot in the flick of a switch, as well as shoot continuously at a faster speed. Naturally enough, cheaper entry-level DSLRs can’t shoot as fast as more expensive models can, but you will still see a performance boost over all but the very fastest compacts. Performance differences between CSCs and DSLRs (especially entry-level DSLRs) tend to be less pronounced however, with some CSCs able to outperform similarly priced DSLRs in terms of continuous shooting speed.
Of course, the other great advantage of buying a DSLR – even an entry-level one – is that it opens up a whole new world of interchangeable lenses that are able to produce much sharper images and resolve greater amounts of detail than the relatively small optics used by compact camera.
Don’t expect to see lots of advanced shooting features on most entry-level DSLRs. That said, you can at least expect to find a fully automatic mode that can be used as a safety net while you learn how to use the more advanced settings. Look out for models that offer on-screen advice or even a dedicated ‘guide’ mode, as this can also help you to get to grips with your first DSLR.
MID-RANGE AND ENTHUSIAST MODELS
Mid-range and enthusiast-level DSLRs tend to offer a more comprehensive set of shooting options along with the ability to customise certain settings so that you can set your camera up to shoot the way you want.
Another benefit more expensive DSLRs enjoy is better build quality. At the top end you can expect to see cameras housed in magnesium alloy cages and seals that are fully weather-proofed against rain and dust, but even a bit further down you will notice that most cameras and larger and feel heavier that their entry-level cousins.
These are the tools of the professional and as such usually offer the very fastest shooting speeds and highest resolutions. While many semi-pro models stick with APS-C sensors most fully fledged professional models use what’s called a ‘full frame’ sensor. This is essentially the same size as an old-school frame of 35mm film. This means that lenses attached to a full-frame camera are unaffected by the various crop factor calculations that must be applied to other sensors (e.g 1.5x for APS-C, 2x for Micro Four Thirds, right down to 5.62x for 1/2.3inch compact sensors). Much physically larger and heavier, professional DSLRs often come with a double-grip and twin shutter buttons, allowing them to be held in either portrait or landscape mode too.
DSLR SYSTEMS – WHO OFFERS WHAT
Remember that when you buy your first DSLR you also buy into a whole system of lenses, flashguns and other accessories.
- Canon's comprehensive EOS system offers models at all price points and levels of ability. The entry-level model is the 1100D, while further up the line, the mid-range 550D offers Full HD video recording. On top of this, the 600D gets a vari-angle screen, while the 60D gets a slightly more robust build. The 7D and 5D MkII mark the starting point for Canon’s high-end DSLRs, with the £5000 1DX currently the top model. Whichever model you opt for there’s a mind-bogglingly huge number of Canon lenses and accessories to build your system up with.
- Nikon offers a good range of solid-performing DSLRs in which the D3100 serves as the entry-level model, with the D5100 neatly filling out the middle ground. The magnesium alloy-bodied D7000 and D300s are both aimed at enthusiasts and semi-pros, while the full-frame D700 and D3x/s models satisfying the needs of professional. In addition to its DSLR range, Nikon offers a comprehensive range of lenses to suit every occasion, alongside dedicated flashguns, hot-shoe mounted GPS systems and other accessories.
- Sony is a relative newcomer to the DSLR market but has already built up a large range of DSLRs catering for all levels. In the last couple of years the company has also pushing its own innovative Translucent Mirror technology that uses dual sensors alongside an EVF for super-quick shooting. Presently, the A390, SLT-A33 and SLT-A35 are the three entry-level models, with the SLT-A55, SLT-A65 and A580 offered as the step-up models. At present Sony offers both the A850 and A900 as its top models, although a new SLT model can’t be far off. Sony’s lens and accessory range is continually expanding, with Sony users also able to use old Minolta-Dynax lenses.
- Pentax has been releasing a slow but steady flow of innovative entry-level and mid-range DSLRs in recent years. The K-x is the current entry-level model and sports a 12.4MP sensor, along with internal image stabilisation. Higher up the range, the K-r packs in an impressive range of shooting features, while the K-5 is Pentax’s current flagship DSLR. Pentax offers good range of lenses for its DSLR system that tend to be a bit cheaper than their rivals, however there isn’t quite as much choice as there is for Nikon, Canon and Sony users.