DSLR Buying Guide

DSLR cameras are ideal for photographers who require the best possible image quality and performance, as well as total creative control. DSLR cameras offer the ultimate flexibility of interchangeable lenses, flashguns and accessories, so you aren't limited to a single photographic genre - instead your creative options are limitless. Indeed, the key feature of any digital SLR is the ability to change lenses to suit your shoot and there's glass for every eventuality - from telephoto lenses for distant subjects through to Marco lenses for working up close. This makes DSLRs a must for professional and enthusiast photographers, but they're not just suited to advanced users - beginners wanting to improve their skills will certainly benefit from making the jump from compact camera to DSLR and can always utilise the automatic functions such as face detection, scene recognition and guide modes while perfecting their use of manual modes.

Whether you're thinking of buying a first digital SLR camera or upgrading from your current model, with all the options available to you making the right choice can be tricky. This guide will teach you what to look for in your new DSLR camera and empower you to choose a camera that'll take your creativity to the next level.

Brand Appeal

The first question people new to DSLR photography ask is which brand they should go for? There's no right or wrong answer here - the simple truth is that all the camera brands we stock offer excellent options - otherwise they wouldn't still be in business. Rather than get bogged down with which brand is best, you are much better placed to consider all the models available within your budget and make your decision based on their specifications and features.

When considering buying a DSLR camera, you are effectively buying into a branded camera system, as you'll also want to purchase lenses and accessories. Each manufacturer carries a different range of options of these and for this reason it's important to consider brand. Having brought a camera that offers lens interchangeability, you'll most likely want to start building up your lens arsenal, so it's a good plan to investigate what options each manufacturer has for glass. Our lens buying guide tells you exactly what to look for.

Sensor Size: APS-C Versus Full Frame

At the heart of every camera lies its image sensor - the most important and expensive part. In simple terms it's the sensor that converts the shot you've framed into a digital image, so it plays a huge role in both image quality and operation. Your most important consideration when buying a new DSLR camera is whether to go for a DSLR camera with APS-C size or full frame sensor. Your camera's sensor is far more important than your camera's megapixel count - all the DSLRs currently on the market have more than enough megapixels to satisfy most people's needs, so it pays not to get caught up in this 'megapixel myth'.

You have two main choices when it comes to DSLR image sensor: APS-C or full frame. APS-C sensors are smaller than full frame sensors, making use of the central portion of the lens only. With an APS-C sensor camera you get an effect of shooting with a longer lens than you actually using. DSLR cameras with APS-C sensors are cheaper than those with full frame sensors. Lenses designed for DSLRs with APS-C sized sensors require less glass than those for full frame sensor cameras so they are generally smaller, lighter and cheaper to buy.

Full-frame sensors are typically found in professional level DSLR cameras and serious enthusiast models. Serious photographers tend to favour full frame cameras because they use the whole of the lens and keep the focal length exactly the same as if you were using the lens on a traditional 35mm cameras. Other benefits of paying extra for a full frame camera include better detail and less noise - which is achieved because a full frame sensor is physically bigger than an APS-C sensor, so pixels can be larger. Shallow depth of field and pleasing bokeh are also easier to achieve when you have a full frame camera.

Image Quality

As we've covered above, the key to high image quality is at the heart of the camera: the sensor. Your camera's megapixel (MP) number also has a bearing on your image quality. As a rule of thumb, the higher the megapixel number, the better the image resolution, however all DSLR cameras on the market have enough MP for most people's requirements, so don't choose your camera based on this.

A low noise processor uses advanced technology to reduce the grainy appearance of images (the 'noise'), which can be a pain which shooting in low light. Another feature which adds to overall image quality is a high ISO sensitivity. At night or in low light, a high ISO like 1600 helps you capture what you see naturally. Shooting at a high ISO speed can also reduce the need for flash when photographing indoors, giving more natural results. Don't forget that when it comes to producing high quality images, your lens choice is as important as your camera body - DSLR photography is all about investing in a camera system after all.

A Question of Speed

With 'instant' start-up and no shutter lag, DSLR cameras are designed for fast shooting. This means the camera can be switched on and taking a rapid succession of frames in the time it takes you to make these movements - you won't have to wait for the camera to be ready and you'll never miss a shot.

When buying a new DSLR, you'll also want to check out the automatic focusing (AF) system and burst rate on any cameras that you're considering - particularly important if you're planning on doing sports and action photography. A good focusing system will have several options for focusing on still and moving subjects. If you can, go for a DSLR camera with a focusing system that covers a wide proportion of the frame, with lots of focus points - a good AF system will make your life much easier and result in many less missed shots.

The burst rate on a DSLR camera, or indeed any digital camera, is the measure of how many frames you can shoot per second (fps). If you're interested in sports or action photography a high burst rate is essential. Even if action photography is not your interest, it's good to have a camera capable of shooting at a good rate, so that you have the option of shooting off frames in quick succession. This can be more useful than you might at first think. For example - in portraiture, the difference between a mediocre shot and an arresting portrait can be just a split second.

Framing and Viewing Images

Unlike most compact cameras, DSLR cameras all have viewfinders, in addition to LCD screens on the back. Viewfinders allow you to see more clearly than you're able to on the LCD Screen when there's harsh sunlight. With viewfinders, the important feature to look out for is coverage percentage, which tells you the percentage of the screen you'll see through your viewfinder. High end DSLRs should come with a pentaprism viewfinder, which offer a brighter view and are generally bigger than the pentamirror viewfinder found on cheaper DSLRs. If you're buying a DSLR with a pentamirror viewfinder, try to opt for one which offers a higher percentage as possible - 98% is good.

Modern DSLR cameras all come equipped with large LCD screens on which you access menus, view and review images. The resolution of a camera's LCD dictates how clearly you can see the scene in front of you and your captured images. Generally speaking the more dots the better - higher end models boast over a million dots. Choose a DSLR camera in your price range with an LCD made up of as many dots as possible.

Some DSLRs come with fixed position LCD screens, where as some come with tiltable LCDs. If you intend to do a lot of shooting from unusual angles or from the ground, for architecture photography for example, then a tiltable screen will save you a lot of uncomfortable body contortion. Whether or not a DSLR has a fixed or tiltable screen isn't really dictated by price, so if this a feature you'll use, add it to your 'must have' list.

Video

DSLR cameras shoot great quality, and in some cases professional quality, video as well as still images. If this is something you'll be using a lot, pay attention to the frame rates - the higher the better and to audio recording control. If you're serious about video it pays to go for a DSLR which allows an external microphone to be attached.

Further Features

DSLR cameras all come will a host of features, which vary model to model. If you're shopping for your first DSLR camera you'll be well placed to buy a beginner or enthusiast model so that you can make the most of intelligent auto modes allow for easy point-and-shoot photography when you need to and while you're getting used to your camera's more advanced features and maual shooting. Lots of entry and mid-level DSLR cameras have built-in artistic effects such as fisheye, miniature effect and film looks. On models you can even do your retouching in-camera. Guide modes are another helpful feature beginners should look for - helpful options and tips are displayed on the LCD screen when required to enable photographers to take better pictures without having to refer to a traditional manual.

More serious photographers with less interest in auto and guide modes are more likely to go for a pro model, which won't have these features. In pro level cameras, your money buys you the ultimate in build and image quality with an emphasis on manual control. In addition to the points we've already covered you should check your camera has an extended dynamic range. When faced with extremely dark areas or those bathed in bright light, our eyes do a better job than a camera of picking out detail and contrast, but DSLRs with high dynamic range sensors are designed to recognise extra contrast detail.

Depending on the type of photographer you are, you might be keen to buy a model that has built-in Wi-Fi, so you can share your images wirelessly via a smartphone or tablet. If you travel a lot a DSLR with built-in GPS will probably appeal to you. This function automatically registers where you shot each photo and enables you to view via location. Build

The build of your DSLR camera is another important consideration. Digital SLRs are built to higher standards than most compact cameras, with less plastic and more metal, and many are 'ruggedised' and weather-sealed for use in tough conditions. They actually vary considerably in terms of weight and size - you need to pick one that fits your requirements, which you know you'll be happy to carry around and use.

In terms of build quality you really do get what you pay for. More expensive higher end DSLRs are built to last and made with robust, premium materials, such as magnesium. Many are weather proofed, meaning they boast seals around the working parts to keep out dust and moisture - they're designed to withstand the elements that can typically hamper photographers, especially rain and snow.

Final Word

The beauty of buying a DSLR camera is that you have an unrivalled range of accessories available to choose from including lenses, flashguns and filters to suit any kind of creative photography. Of course you'll want to build your kit over time, but if you've room in your budget for some extras when you buy your new DSLR you broaden your photographic horizons immediately.

Do remember to read our guide to buying lenses before you make your final decision on your new DSLR camera. Keep in mind at all times that you're buying into a whole system, rather than buying a camera as a one off.

Choosing a new DSLR camera should be exciting rather than nerve-racking. Digest and consider all the points in this guide and if you don't feel well equipped to select a DSLR that will take your photography to the next level, then visit a Jessops store. The friendly and knowledgeable staff will be happy to advise you based on your personal requirements and suggest models for you to try in store.

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