It can be hard to remember a world where digital cameras and semi-pro photographers weren’t ubiquitous. Once an expensive, time-consuming, and extremely specialized hobby, photography drastically changed with the introduction of digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras. Today, almost anyone can make a great image. Modeled similarly to their film counterparts, DSLRs are significantly more complex than digital point-and-shoots. Thinking of buying one for the first time? Here’s what you need to know when you’re choosing a DSLR camera.
Contrary to popular belief, your megapixel count won’t add up. Digital SLR cameras are all about the sensor. A general rule of thumb is that the higher the sensor, the better your image. A camera’s sensor is the mechanism that allows it to convert an optical image (what you see) to a digital signal (digital information that codes your photograph). There are two main types of sensors used in DSLRs today: CMOS and CCD. CCD sensors have long been the industry standard, but many manufacturers are moving toward CMOS. CCD takes photos using a “global shutter,” which means what you see in your viewfinder is constructed as is. CMOS sensors use “rolling shutter” technology, which allows your camera to constitute the image from top to bottom of the frame, rather than all at the same time. If you’re shooting in a room that has a flickering light, using a camera with a CMOS sensor may result in a black line on the frame.
With so many options, don’t settle for a sensor that measures less than 18 megapixels. Nikon cameras tend to be a solid choice for sensor size.
Moving up to a DSLR means moving up to the big leagues when it comes to lenses as well. One of the most attractive features of a DSLR is the ability to interchange lenses, giving you a whole array of new options and artistic possibilities. Most DSLR models have a package option, which usually includes a standard 18mm–55mm lens. If you’re brand new to photography, an 18mm–55mm lens is a good starting point because it works for both close-up and zoomed-in shots. In low-light settings, however, your images will start to retain digital grain. A 50mm lens can be an easy way to up the ante when it comes to shooting in low light. Aperture is another important aspect of a lens: this is, simply, how much light can pass through the camera sensor. When the aperture in low, objects in the foreground of your photo will be in focus and those in the background will be blurry. The higher your aperture, the wider your focus. Doing a bit of personal research into how aperture works will take your photography to the next level.
Many professionals point to Canon as the industry leader when it comes to lenses. They were the first manufacturer of the AF–S lens, which made Canon the go-to manufacturer for high-speed sports photographers and the like.
3. LCD Screen & Viewfinder
Your camera’s LCD screen and viewfinder don’t necessarily influence its performance, but they’re probably the features that will most affect your user experience. Most DSLRs have an option to use the back LCD screen as a live view viewfinder, but if you’re planning on using super long lenses or want absolute control over your image, utilizing the viewfinder is a better option. There are two main types of viewfinders in addition to an LCD live view: optical and electronic. Optical viewfinders, which show you exactly what the lens sees, are the typical choice of professionals and allow you to see what you’re photographing as closely as your eye sees it as possible. Electronic viewfinders, on the other hand, do not have the same dynamic capabilities, and can make it more difficult to make creative decisions on the fly when shooting. Cameras with electronic viewfinders, however, are significantly lighter and smaller.
You can always invest in a viewfinder adapter if your model doesn’t have the viewfinder you’re looking for. Panasonic and Zacuto make the best viewfinder adapters on the market.