Tutorial Choosing the Right Digital SLR E-mail

Digital SLR CamerasChoosing a digital SLR can be a daunting task.  In general, the more you read, the less likely you are to make an objective decision.  Quite honestly, when it comes to these things you'll very quickly fall back on some sort of emotional response to the design of a particular camera, or a recommendation by someone you admire or just a nice sample picture.  This tutorial will give you the basics you need to make an informed decision, but it won't tell you which particular camera to buy, that, after all, is up to your heart's desire...


So what are the real things to consider when buying a digital SLR?  Well, it cooks down to 4 simple things:

  1. Image quality
  2. Speed
  3. Build quality
  4. Longevity

Image quality obviously relates directly to what the camera is actually able to reproduce, this is where you find aspects such as the type of sensor, the megapixel count, dynamic range, ISO-range and metering system.  The speed relates to how quickly the camera can take single and multiple pictures in sequence, which is relevant for sports and nature photography in particular.  The build quality is of particular interest if you want to be outdoors a lot, your camera should survive a little rain shower and some sand blowing in the wind.  Finally, an oft-overlooked aspect is the longevity of the brand/make.  My first "almost serious" camera taught me to be careful of this one, my Konica-Minolta A1, while a great camera at the time (but with a fixed lens), vanished when the company went under.  So the rest of this article will tell you what and why to care about the various aspects.

Image Quality

There are an endless array of aspects that define image quality, but the things you really need to worry about are, fortunately, not so many.  Firstly, the sensor is the guy responsible for the image quality...the other aspects concerning image quality are, in essence, just features or aspects of the sensor, it's capabilities so to speak.  However, there is one basic distinction you'll come across: "Full Format" or "Not full format", and that is really an old-fashioned silly thing because it goes back to the time before digital and simply means that the sensor is the size of a 35mm film negative, so basically full-format just means that the sensor is 36X24mm.  Obviously the size in itself is of no interest, except that the photo industry loves standards, and so, all numbers such as focal length on lenses, are defined based on the full-format sensor.  So if your camera is not full-format (which is most digital cameras), then the focal length of your lens will be different than if it were full format, i.e. a 24mm wide-angle lens will give an 84 degree ange of view in full-format, but will give less, e.g. 62 degrees (if the crop factor is 1.5).  The bottom line, if you want superb wide-angle shots you might be better off with a Full Frame Sensor....which of course is much more expensive, so if you don't need it, then don't go for it.  However, if you're going for narrow long shots of faraway things you might actually be better off with a non-full-frame.

Now the sensor, whether full format or not, has a megapixel count.  Now there isn't much to say here, the higher the count the more datapoints on the sensor, i.e. the more information is recorded.  The question, however, becomes "how much do I need"?  Well, for ordinary photography that you want to print up to A3 you'll do more than fine with 10 Megapixels.  For your facebook pictures you'll get along fine with 1 Megapixel.  As we're talking digital SLR I'd say that anywhere from 10 and up is great.

The dynamic range of the camera is an oft-overlooked aspect as it is difficult to quantify but very important.  The dynamic range is basically the ability of the camera to capture nuances, a typical challenging subject would be capturing the nuances of white and grey in sunlit clouds.  A camera with very bad dynamic range will simply overexpose the clouds calling them "white", while a camera with good dynamic range will give you suttle nuances of white and grey, capturing the clouds as they really are.  Your best bet at "checking" the dynamic range of a camera is to read a professional review of the particular camera you're interested in.  When I say professional I mean something like what they do a www.dpreview.com.

The camera's ISO range is, to put it simply, it's ability to capture images when there is less light.  The higher the possible ISO, the less light is required for the camera to take pictures.  However, don't take the stated value as the correct value.  Almost all camera's will state a higher ISO than what will give you a good picture, basically the quality degrades at higher ISO through "noise", specs/pixels of miscoloration on your picture that give it a "graininess" that you don't want.  So make sure you check the reviews for the "real" ISO range of the camera, i.e. the range where it will NOT give you unwanted noise.  Typically the top number will be much lower than the spec based on that measurement.  However, remember that this is a measurement only relevant for shooting in darker conditions, for regular pictures in daylight high-ISO will simply give you overexposed pictures, so you might not want to pay extra for good high-iso quality...that's a decision you should make.  Personally I never shoot above ISO 600 with my camera (partly because it gives me too much noise above that, but also because I seldom shoot in darkened conditions).  If you're going to do lots of indoor photography with natural light, or regular room lighting then you certainly want good high-ISO performance (in the ISO 1000- 3000 range at least).

The camera's metering system is how the camera measures light to correctly reproduce the colors from reality onto your digital picture.  Now there are a variety of metering systems such as Digitla ESP and 3D Colour matrix...I'm not going to talk about them as the details there are beyond the scope of this website, but there is another aspect to metering that is very much a concern.  Which metering modes does your camera support, i.e. how can you direct your camera to measure light.  There are 2 modes you MUST have: Spot metering and Average of whole picture, you might also want center-weighted etc. but that's just extra.  For most purposes you'll be fine with letting your camera use the average of your whole picture to meter, i.e. measure, light correctly.  However, in some cases this will fail miserably, typical examples are when you have a very bright sky and an object in shadows or when you have a single source of light in a dark room and you only want the light to be clear/crisp.  For these you need spot metering, which basically tells your camera "measure at this point and ignore the rest".  There are of course lots of variations in addition to these two, but those are just nice-to-haves.  If you can spot meter and lock the exposure you'll be able to get the results you want under any conditions.


While image quality is obviously the single most important aspect of a camera, it doesn't help much if it isn't quick enough to capture what you're trying to take a picture of.  Now for single shots this really isn't an issue, the issue becomes more important when you want to take continuous multiple shots.  Now that'll be when you want to shoot a runner, or a horse or something else that's moving about....either because you want to have a series of shots of the event in continuous sequence, or simply because it's so difficult to get a good shot that you need to take many in order to get a good one.  This continuous shooting is often called the "burst", and consists of two numbers, the first is the number of RAW images it can take in one burst (typically something like 5-28) and secondly the speed in FPS (frames per second) that will typically fall between 1.5-7 fps.  The higher the FPS the quicker the camera.  So if you have a burst of 8 shots at 3.5 fps that'll give you 8X3.5 = 28 seconds of shooting non-stop, i.e. you'll hold the button down for 28 seconds and get 8 frames from it.

If you're going to shoot stills or studio work this is not really a big deal, but if you are going out into nature and want to capture animals or sports events, this is perhaps as important if not more than the basic image quality.


Camera Build and Longevity

A digital SLR camera is an expensive thing, and while you find one that will shoot the right quality for you you will also want to find one that doesn't break under the circumstances you shoot under.  When it comes to "camera build" this is basically not very important if you're shooting indoors in a studio or the likes.  It is when you get out into rugged nature that you need something that can take a kick or two.  There are 3 elements of build quality that you want to be aware of.  Firstly the weather-proofing.  Typically rubber-ceiled camera's are good if you're out in the wet.  Even though you can buy outer coating for your camera, if you're going out in fog, rain or storm, make sure your camera can handle a little water.  The manufacturer will usually be very proud of their water-proofing etc. so they'll tell you if it's good, but remember to double check the reviews.  The second aspect is simple robustness of the camera.  Putting it simply, what happens if you, as you're climbing up a hill or tree, knock the camera against something or even drop it on the ground.  A well-built camera will survive, while a cheaper plastic-based thing will say goodnight. The third build quality crieteria is more universal; how does it "sit in your hand".  A well-balanced camera can hang from your fingers when walking without any effort, and will of course sit nicely in your hand when you shoot.  Only way to test that is to try it out.

My final note is one that is seldom covered in this type of guide: longevity.  I'm not really talking about the longevity of the camera itself, as much as the company that makes them and by extension the equipment available over time.  There aren't that many manufacturers of SLR cameras, and many of them are fairly new to the game.  Minolta used to be a big name, now it doesn't exist (its remnants live on in Sony I think).  Sony, while a big player in electronics, has only been in the Digital SLR game for a few years.  Olympus makes some good cameras, but they still have a small market share, and may not survive.  A digital SLR camera will quickly become a great expense as you buy lenses and other equipment over the years, the last thing you want to experience is that your manufacturer suddenly stops up because they simply weren't big enough.  So my recommendation on this point is very simple, stick to Nikon or Canon, they both have roughly a 40% share of the world's SLR market, ensuring that they are big enough to survive for many years to come.  Also consider that you might want to upgrade from a semi-pro to a pro, and that's where the choice narrows down to Nikon and Canon.  If you do choose not to go for the big guns, then at least make sure your camera is compatible with Nikon or Canon lenses, anything else is sure to bring sorrow down the road, you have been warned.

Now that's all you need to know to make an informed and sensible purchase, all you have to do now is click on one of the google ads and buy a great camera.  Once you've narrowed your preference down to 3-5 candidates that appeal to your needs, that's when you can let your heart decide which one is truly the right Digital SLR for you.




Now that you know how to buy the right digital SLR, make sure you also know how to buy the right lenses for your needs.

See other tutorials.


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