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How to buy the best DSLR

By Ryan Shaw

DSLR cameras are great for beginners, enthusiasts and professionals alike, but with so many models out there, how do you pick the right one for you?

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The best DSLR cameras don’t just produce the best pictures of any type of camera, they also open up the door to more creative photography, with all controls for focus, aperture, shutter speed, ISO and white balance at your fingertips. They give you the choice of trusting the camera’s automatic settings or taking full manual control when you need it. 

Whether you’re looking for a top-of-the-range model or an entry-level DSLR, there are plenty of other options available, such as a compact system camera (CSC), also known as a mirrorless camera. Similar to DSLRs, they offer the ability to change lenses and more flexibility when capturing a shot but, in some cases, are cheaper than DSLRs. 

However, while the best models have intuitive controls and great handling, and produce the pictures of your dreams, the worst suffer from poor design, cheap build quality or short battery life. 

We test dozens of DSLRs every year. To discover which models we recommend, visit our Best Buy DSLR cameras.

Buying the best camera for you

Before buy a new camera, take a look at our interactive choosing tool below. This will help you decide between a compact system camera (CSC) or a digital SLR (DSLR) camera, with advantages and disadvantages of both types.


 

What makes a good DSLR camera?

Thanks to our rigorous lab testing, we’re uniquely placed to offer you our essential DSLR camera buying tips, as well as the key pros and cons of owning a DSLR camera.

  • Image quality The larger body of a DSLR means it can house a bigger image sensor than both compact and bridge cameras. Larger sensors, featuring 24Mp or more, mean DSLRs can capture a huge amount of photographic detail.
  • Speed DSLRs are extremely fast when it comes to shutter speed and focusing, with DSLRs able to shoot images one after another in rapid succession, described as burst mode. The best DSLRs capture around eight or more fps (frames per second).
  • ISO range The ISO value of a DSLR or CSC camera determines how sensitive the sensor is to light. A higher ISO range of 1,600 and upwards is particularly useful when taking night photography or shooting in low-light conditions. A large ISO range is best for flexibility and shooting in different conditions.
  • Adaptability and creativity Most budget-level DSLR cameras come with a starter 'kit lens'. Frequently, this will be an 18-55mm lens as this is the normal focal length for DSLR cameras. Depending on your budget and what you're shooting, you can buy different camera lenses, such as a wide-angle or fisheye lens, to achieve different effects in your shots.
  • Image stabilisation If you’ve got a shaky grip on your camera, image stabilisation in a DSLR will counteract photo blur. Because image stabilisation is often built into the lens, it’s a lot more effective when compared with compact digital cameras.
  • Manual controls While some compact and bridge cameras come with the ability to shoot in manual mode, DSLRs are designed in a way that you'll want to control your own settings. Shooting in auto mode is OK for beginners, but advanced users want to control every aspect of the shot.
  • Weatherproofing comes as standard The majority of DSLRs are weatherproofed, making them resistant to conditions such as rain and snow, as well as protecting the internal parts from dust and moisture.
  • Connectivity Wireless connectivity built into your camera used to be a rare bonus, but now most DSLRs come with wi-fi or Bluetooth for transferring photos and videos wirelessly to your smartphone or tablet. The best DSLRs also come with built-in GPS - handy when travelling, as it helps you remember where shots were taken.

Does sensor size matter? APS-C vs full frame

When buying a DSLR, typically you'll be presented with a choice between two different sensor sizes - APS-C (also known as a crop sensor) or a full-frame sensor. When it comes to image sensors, bigger is definitely better, as the size of the sensor determines how much light is used to create the image.

To see how different image sensor sizes compare, see our camera sensor sizes explained interactive tool.

Your budget may also dictate which style of camera you opt for - APS-C sensors are more commonly found in cheaper DSLRs and full frame inside enthusiast or professional-level cameras. 

APS-C sensors are still capable of producing fantastic-quality images but, if you're looking to step up in image size and quality, full frame is the way to go. Ideal for panoramic and landscape shots, full frame also excels in low-light conditions because the bigger sensor captures more light. On the other hand, if you're zooming in on far-off subjects, such as a lighthouse or a mountain, an APS-C sensor will suit this better as the subject will fill more of the frame.

While full-frame sensors may be preferred by professionals and enthusiasts alike, it could be considered overkill for beginners or intermediate photographers - you can still get high-quality shots from an APS-C sensor.

How much should I spend on a DSLR?

DSLRs cost anywhere from around £300 for the most basic, entry-level model to £5,000 or more for high-end cameras. Our Best Buy DSLRs range from £400 to an eye-watering £2,300, although that buys you the kind of camera that the professional photographers aspire to.

What type of interchangeable-lens camera should you buy?

A DSLR or compact system camera (CSC) is definitely worth investing in if you want a little more finesse from your photos - with big sensors and the ability to switch between lenses, these models can capture a lot more detail than a standard digital camera - but which type you should buy depends on your needs and budget. 

  • Compact system camera (CSC) This type of camera is ideal for anyone wanting to jump up a level from a simple point-and-shoot camera, but without getting bogged down by settings and menus. They offer similar photo and video quality, but they are smaller and easier to use.

Pros: Almost as slim as a compact camera, generally less expensive than DSLRs, plus more scene modes and automatic settings.
Cons: Some models lack a viewfinder, fewer quick-access dials and buttons.
Buy if: Interchangeable lenses are a must, but DSLRs are too bulky.

  • Digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR) Used by professionals and amateur photography enthusiasts alike, a DSLR camera is the best option if you want high-level control over your photos. You can use different lenses to create different effects, for example, pick a wide-angle one for landscapes or a macro lens for extreme close-up shots.

Pros: Optical viewfinder, you can adjust shutter/aperture/ISO and white balance levels, better image quality than a compact or bridge camera.
Cons: Bulky size, flagship models have a high price tag, changing lenses can sometimes be a hassle.
Buy if: Only the best photo and video quality will do.

DSLRs vs compact system cameras (CSC) - the key differences

Slimline vs chunky design DSLRs contain a mirror and a prism (similar to how a periscope works) to view a more accurate image, but a CSC doesn't use a mirror (why they're sometimes referred to as mirrorless cameras). Some photography purists argue that the mirror in a DSLR makes for more detailed photos, but our expert testing doesn’t agree. Both types of camera have received numerous Best Buy awards. Since CSCs don’t use a mirror to take photos, they’re a lot slimmer and more portable than DSLRs.

Bigger sensor, better photos Generally speaking, cameras with a bigger sensor take better photos. This is because they can capture more scenery and greater detail in low light. If picture quality is paramount to you, you will want to shop for a DSLR with an APS-C or an even larger full-frame-sized sensor. CSCs predominantly rely on APS-C sensors or a smaller micro four thirds sensor, however, there are full-frame models available now as well.

CSCs are cheaper, DSLRs are more premium Although features such as wi-fi, tilting displays and 4K video recording are just being introduced to DSLRs, they’ve been available for some time now on CSCs. These cameras start at £200 and tend to offer more features for less money, whereas DSLRs are available from £300 and concentrate on offering a more premium experience.

An electronic viewfinder means increased accuracy If a CSC does have a viewfinder, typically it will be electronic (EVF) instead of optical (OVF). An EVF is essentially a tiny LCD screen. You use it just like an OVF, and what you see is what you get with an EVF - it shows exactly what the lens sees, provides 100% coverage and there’s no guesswork to how an image will turn out before you’ve taken a photo. One noticeable downside is that it can mean a lag between the scene in front of you and that shown in your viewfinder. As well as not suffering from this lag, optical viewfinders in a DSLR show around 96-97% of the entire photo you’ll capture, instead of the 100% preview you’ll get with a CSC.

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