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Should Your Next Camera Be a DSLR?

Should Your Next Camera Be a DSLR?
Point and shoot cameras and smartphone cameras take pretty good pictures and are easy to carry around, but if you want to take pictures like the pros, you’re going to have to consider moving up to a DSLR camera. DSLRs cost more than pocket cameras but offer a great deal more in features, performance and picture quality. In this guide to DSLRs we’ll talk about important features and share some of the DSLRs we like.
What is a DSLR?SLR stands for single lens reflex which describes a mechanism that uses a mirror and a prism (or another mirror) to display, in a viewfinder, exactly what’s coming through the lens. SLRs started out using film but became digital (DSLRs) when pixels replaced film. The way they typically work is, after you’ve composed your shot and are ready to take a picture the mirror flips up exposing the digital image sensor which turns light into electrical signals that are used to create an image in memory.
Advantages of a DSLR’s Optical Preview Over an LCD ScreenWhen you change lenses, zoom or adjust the focus on your DSLR you get an exact representation of what the picture is going to look like because you are looking through the lens with an optical viewfinder. Point and shoot cameras and smartphones also show you what’s coming through the lens but the image appears on an LCD screen. LCD screen images are much slower to respond to changes than optical viewfinders. On the other hand, previewing a photo on the display can be useful and most DSLRs have a “Live View” or preview mode that in most cases flips the mirror out of the way so the image sensor can be used to show what the lens is seeing, displayed on the DSLR’s LCD screen. Live view is a standard feature on most new DSLRs and can come in handy however, the tradeoff with live view is the latency in focusing and shutter response, something you don’t get using the DSLR’s optical system.
Electronic Viewfinders and DSLTs That Use Translucent Mirrors Some new DSLRs have switched to high resolution LCD, electronic viewfinders rather than a prism and lens. While some pros prefer the precision of optics, an LCD viewfinder can provide information on the display to help you adjust the settings. Translucent mirrors have also started appearing in DSLRs. Translucent mirrors don’t have to physically move out of the way of the sensor. DSLTs, as they are called, use a translucent mirror that transmits around 70% of the light onto the imaging sensor while reflecting the remaining light up to the camera's phase detection autofocus (AF) sensor. What you see on a high resolution electronic viewfinder comes from the digital image.
What Makes a DSLR Better Than Other Cameras?Aside from a couple of downsides like the fact that most DLSRs cost more than point and shoot cameras and don’t fit in your pocket or pocketbook, there are lots of reasons to spend the extra bucks on a DSLR.

  • Interchangeable Lenses, on a pocket camera the lens is usually a general purpose version with a limited optical zoom. You can get an add-on lens for a smartphone but on a DSLR you can get high quality lenses including everything from fisheye lenses to telephoto lenses.
  • Better Image Sensors, DSLRs have much larger and higher quality image sensors that offer superior image quality and low light sensitivity.
  • Through-the-Lens Viewing, an optical viewfinder that shows you, in real-time, what the lens is “seeing,” gives you precise control over the picture you are trying to capture.
  • Larger Aperture Lenses, “faster” lenses with wider apertures or lower “f-stops” not only help in low light conditions but can be used for depth of field effects.
  • Much Faster Picture Taking, although pocket cameras have gotten better, with a DSLR you get rapid fire picture taking, less shutter lag, faster focusing, faster zooming and virtually no waiting between shots.
  • Manual Focus and Zoom, nothing matches the ability to zoom or focus using the focus or zoom ring on the lens.
  • Hot Shoe Mount for Flash, most DSLRs have a bracket on the top of the camera to mount a flash or microphone.
  Is a DSLR a Better Camcorder?Normally when you think of DSLR cameras, you think of still photography however you’d be surprised how many TV shows including parts of Saturday Night Live are recorded with a DSLR (SNL uses a Canon 5D and 7D). Filmmakers are attracted to DSLRs for the same reasons still photographers are, including large sensors for special focus effects, low light performance, and superior image quality not to mention the ability to use lots of different lenses. Lack of a continuous focus on DSLRs had been a challenge for video makers who tended to go with manual focus but newer DSLR cameras are now offering continuous focus while shooting video. The only drawback is the possibility of picking up noise from the autofocus motor when using the internal microphone.  
Megapixels and DSLR Sensor SizeFrom the first introduction of digital cameras, manufacturers have been one-upping one another in the megapixel department. Not that there’s anything wrong with more megapixels; they’re an important factor when enlarging or editing photos but at some point they offer diminishing returns. Lately image sensor size is being recognized as a more important spec. Larger sensors can process more light and deliver superior image quality especially in low light. When you put the same number of pixels in a larger sensor, the pixels can not only be larger but there is less noise interference among pixels.

Full frame sensors get their name from the fact that they are the same size as a 35mm film frame. DSLRs with these large full frame sensors are often the choice of professionals who don’t mind paying a premium and carrying around a larger size camera to get the best low light sensitivity and other benefits from full frame sensors.

APS or Advanced Photo System is the most common sensor used in DSLR cameras. The APS-C standard used in most DSLRs is slightly smaller than the less common APS-H standard found in some older Canon cameras. APS sensors offer image quality close to full-frame sensors without the added bulk and cost.

Micro Four Thirds is a relatively new sensor size found in mirrorless cameras that offer interchangeable lenses in a smaller and lighter camera, These DSLR-like cameras may start to give true DSLRs some competition but they may also compromise on things like speed of focusing and image however, we expect to see the popularity of mirrorless cameras increase as tradeoffs become less pronounced.

Bottom Line: Unless you’re a professional photographer, you’re probably better off with an APS-C sensor but you might want to also consider one the new Micro Four Thirds cameras.

Lenses and StabilizationInterchangeable lenses are what DSLRs are all about. Unfortunately there is no universal standard so a Canon lens will not work on a Nikon DSLR and vice versa. Lenses made of glass are generally higher quality than plastic lenses and can be a bit heavier to lug around.

The focusing mechanism which includes a tiny motor can be either in the lens itself or in the camera body. Optical image stabilization in the lens means the image in the viewfinder is stabilized this can be an advantage but the lenses can be more expensive. Good quality lenses keep their value longer than cameras so camera owners tend to stick with a brand like Nikon or Canon when they upgrade their cameras.

A long telephoto shot is much more susceptible to blurring from camera shaking but stabilization systems are built into most cameras and are either found in the lens, camera body (sensor) or in the image processing firmware. The least effective but also least expensive technique uses the processor to optimize settings like ISO or fix a blurred image after the picture has been taken. Digital stabilization not commonly found in DSLRs.

Bottom line: Optical stabilization in the lens shows you a stabilized image in the viewfinder is probably the best technique however it can also create a more expensive lens collection.

High Frame Rate
One of the annoyances in point and shoot cameras and smartphone cameras is the delays for everything including the time it takes to turn on the camera to the time between shots. DSLR cameras do everything faster, from autofocusing to shooting pictures. Continuous shooting or burst mode is a feature that might be more important for shooting sports or wildlife but it’s a good feature to have and more frames per second is something to look for. Many of the higher quality DSLRs can shoot 10 or more frames per second but 5 fps should be enough to get a good shot of the kids smiling.

Bottom Line: Look for a DSLR with a continuous shooting mode with a minimum of 5 frames per second.

Other Features to Consider

  • Live View, the ability to use the larger LCD screen to preview shots and be useful but it can slow down the whole process of taking a picture. Live view is also used when shooting video.
  • Audio Annotation, that lets you record something about the picture you just shot
  • Microphone input that allows use of an external mic
  • Dust Buster; although DSLRs are supposed to be tightly sealed, one potential problem with a DSLR is that over time or in harsh environments dust can accumulate on the image sensor. Dust busters vibrate the sensor to shake dust off into a piece of adhesive.
  Mirrorless Cameras Are Becoming Good Alternatives to DSLRsMirrorless cameras were developed by Olympus and Panasonic as a lighter and less expensive alternative to DSLRs. Mirrorless cameras or as some prefer to call them Interchangeable Lens Cameras (ILCs), like DSLRs, offer interchangeable changeable lenses (sorry, you won’t be able to use your old lenses although there are adaptors you can try) but they don’t have a mirror and optical viewfinder. In other words, you get interchangeable lenses but give up the benefits of a reflex optical viewfinder. A Micro Four Thirds camera also gets you a smaller, lighter and quieter camera with a high resolution electronic viewfinder. Micro Four Third lenses are also smaller, lighter and typically less expensive. On the downside, mirrorless cameras are often much slower to focus, smaller sensors than DSLRs and you don’t get the optical, through the lens viewfinder. Although Canon and Nikon largely remain out of the Micro Four Thirds market, Sony with its NEX-series and Samsung with its NX-series have jumped in.  
Take a DSLR for a virtual spin around the blockIf you want to get a feel for how a DSLR works you might want to try one of these DSLR simulators that let you adjust settings and snap a virtual picture. CameraSim offers a virtual DSLR experience.


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