How To Buy A Digital SLR Camera

How To Buy A Digital SLR Camera

If you’re feeling limited by what your point-and-shoot camera can do, there are plenty of reasons to consider a DSLR. These advanced shooters feature larger image sensors, superior optics, robust manual controls, faster performance, and the versatility of changeable lenses. All this added functionality doesn’t come cheap, though, as the cost of a DSLR can add up, especially when you start buying lenses. And the cameras are understandably larger and heavier than their compact and mirrorless interchangeable lens counterparts. You also need to remember that you’re buying into a camera system. If your first DSLR is a Canon, chances are that your next one will be as well, simply because you’ve already bought some Canon lenses and accessories. Here are the most important aspects to consider when you’re shopping for a digital SLR:

Understanding sensor size

Most consumer DSLRs use image sensors that, while much larger than those found in point-and-shoot cameras, are somewhat smaller than a 35mm film frame. This can be a bit confusing when talking about a camera’s field-of-view, as focal lengths for compacts are often expressed in terms of 35mm film equivalency. The standard APS-C sensor features a “crop factor” of 1.5x (sometimes referred to as the “focal length multiplier”). This means that the 18-55mm kit lens that is bundled with most DSLRs covers a field-of-view equivalent to a 27-82.5mm lens on a 35mm film camera. If you’re upgrading from a point-and-shoot that has a 3x zoom lens that starts at about 28mm, the aforementioned DSLR kit lens will deliver approximately the same field-of-view (note: A 1.5x crop factor is not the same as a 1.5x magnification).

There are many inherent advantages to a larger sensor. For one, the depth-of-field decreases as the size of the sensor increases making it easier to isolate your subject and create a blurred background. This blur is often referred to by the Japanese term ‘bokeh’ and is lens-dependent too. Much has been written about the quality of the bokeh created by different lenses, but the general rule of thumb is that the more light a lens can capture – measured numerically as its aperture, or f-number – the blurrier the background can be. A lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 lets in six times as much light as one of f/4, and can create a shallower depth-of-field at an equivalent focal length and shooting distance.

Another reason to go for a bigger sensor is image noise. A 14-megapixel D-SLR has much larger pixels than a point-and-shoot of the same resolution. These larger pixels allow the sensor to be set at a higher sensitivity, measured numerically as ISO, without creating as much image noise. Another advantage to the larger surface area is that changes in colour or brightness are more gradual than that of a point-and-shoot. This allows more natural-looking images with a greater sense of depth.

Some DSLRs, like the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Nikon D800 feature sensors that are equal in size to 35mm film. These full-frame cameras are much more expensive than their APS-C counterparts. If you do see yourself moving up to a full-frame camera in the future, be careful when buying lenses. Some lenses are specifically designed to be used with APS-C sensors. Canon refers to its APS-C lens line as EF-S, while lenses that cover full-frame are EF. Nikon takes a similar approach, calling APS-C lenses DX and full-frame lenses FX. Sony, the only other manufacturer that currently offers a 35mm full-frame DSLR camera, adds a DT designation to its APS-C-only lenses.

Choose a camera that feels right

It’s very important to choose a camera that feels comfortable in your hands. While most DSLRs are similar in size and build, the styling of the handgrip, position of controls, and other ergonomic features can differ drastically. The camera you choose should be one that you are most comfortable using. If a DSLR is too big or small for you to hold comfortably, or if the controls are not laid out in a way that makes sense to you, chances are you won’t enjoy shooting as much as you should.

Get the best viewfinder

By definition, a DSLR features an optical viewfinder that shows you the exact image that the camera’s sensor will see through the lens – but not all of these viewfinders are created equal. A mirror directs light from the lens to the viewfinder, which is one of two types. The first, the pentamirror, is generally found on entry-level cameras like the Canon EOS 600D and Nikon D5100. This type of viewfinder uses three mirrors to redirect the image to your eye, flipping it so that it appears correct, as opposed to the upside down and backwards image that the lens is actually capturing.

The second type of optical viewfinder is the pentaprism. This is a solid glass prism that does the same job as the pentamirror. A pentaprism is generally heavier and brighter than a pentamirror. The extra brightness makes it easier to frame images and to confirm that your photo is in focus. Pentaprisms usually start appearing in mid-range DSLRs like the Canon EOS 60D, and are standard issue on pro bodies like the Nikon D4.

You should also pay attention to magnification and coverage percentage numbers for pentaprism viewfinders, as they give you an idea of the actual size of the finder and how much of the captured image can be seen. In both cases, you’ll want to look for a higher number.

Another option: the electronic viewfinder (EVF)

A few cameras on the market offer a third viewfinder option – an electronic viewfinder. Sony cameras that feature fixed, translucent mirrors, like the Alpha 35, are referred to as SLTs. Rather than redirecting light to your eye, the semi-transparent mirror in these cameras redirects it to an autofocus sensor. If you aren’t set on an optical finder, these cameras are worth considering. Models that use OLED EVF technology, like the Sony Alpha 65, produce a viewfinder image that is brighter and crisper than pentamirror finders, but not quite up to the same level of optical quality as a good pentaprism.

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