Digital SLR Guide

Ready to shoot like a pro?

Keep a few basics in mind and you'll find a camera that will grow with you. Stepping up to a digital SLR means you'll gain access to a wide range of interchangeable lenses, faster capture rates, higher resolution images, more manual control over your exposures, and much more. These features give you more creative control over your photos and allow for more freedom of expression.

Not sure if you're ready? If you can answer yes to at least one of the following questions then you're ready!
  • Do you shoot lots of photos of kids or animals who are in constant motion?
  • Do you wish your indoor photos looked more natural?
  • Do you want to shoot more photos at night or in low light situations?
  • Do you want to be able to print large poster sized photos?

Terms to Know

SLR

Stands for single lens reflex, and refers to a camera construction that, by employing a system of mirrors and prisms, displays in the viewfinder exactly what is "seen" by the lens. Light enters the end of the lens and is directed to the viewfinder giving you a completely accurate view of what your photo will look like before the shot is taken.

This system is superior to cameras with a separate viewfinder for two reasons. First, a camera with a separate, non-SLR viewfinder will display a scene from a slightly different viewpoint than the lens itself. Second, an SLR system allows the photographer to view which elements of the scene are in focus more accurately.

Megapixel

Describes the maximum image resolution offered by the camera, measured in millions of pixels. While megapixel refers to the rated resolution of the camera's image sensor, another term, "effective pixels," is a more meaningful measure of resolution. For various reasons, not every pixel is available for use by the image sensor. Effective pixels therefore refers to the number of pixels that are actually captured. The more megapixels your camera captures, the larger the print you can produce without losing image quality.

Raw

Uncompressed image format available on most digital SLRs. The format gives photographers with advanced video editing software more manual control over color, white balance and other exposure properties. Even if you have no plans of shooting photos in Raw mode right away this can be nice option to have later down the road.

Features to Look for

Interchangeable Lens Mount

Choose from a broad array of zoom, telephoto and wide angle lenses. Lenses from a variety of manufacturers are designed to work with camera bodies from specific manufacturers. Many digital SLRs, especially those on the higher end of the price scale, are sold as a body only. Meanwhile, cameras that do include a lens usually ship with a "starter" lens that has limited focal range. Keep in mind, too, that many lenses from 35mm SLRs are compatible with digital SLR bodies.

DSLR GuideResolution

Image capture resolution for digital SLRs currently ranges between 6 and 21 megapixels. In addition to allowing you to produce razor-sharp, poster-size (or larger) prints, images captured by high-megapixel cameras can be cropped and blown up with little or no quality loss.

Frame Buffer

Determines the number of photos that can be captured in rapid succession without lag. More advanced cameras usually feature larger frame buffers and faster image capture rates. This feature is particularly useful when shooting sports or other fast action subjects.

Memory

To accommodate the larger file sizes produced by high-resolution digital SLR images, purchasing a high-capacity, high-speed memory card is recommended. At the highest resolution settings, a 12 megapixel camera can output a single image file nearly 5MB in size. While CompactFlash has long been the standard memory solution for digital SLRs, many models now also accept Secure Digital or SDHC media.

Flash

Many digital SLRs come with an integrated pop-up flash. A "hot shoe" for larger and more versatile flash attachments is usually provided as well. An external flash is more powerful and versatile than any pop-up flash could ever be.

ViewfinderViewfinder

Most digital SLRs feature an LCD that displays captured images, as well as an optical viewfinder that provides diopter adjustments for eyeglass wearers. Many newer digital SLRs include the option to use the LCD screen as a viewfinder much like compact digital cameras currently do.

Exposure Settings

  • Aperture priority - Shutter speed automatically set to complement manual aperture settings
  • Shutter priority - Aperture automatically set to complement manual shutter settings
  • Full manual - Both aperture and shutter can be controlled manually

ISO Settings

The digital equivalent of film speed settings, allows you to adjust the light sensitivity of your exposures. The higher the ISO the better the camera will perform in low light situations.

White Balance

Offers control of "temperature" of the pure white shades in your pictures. Most cameras will offer several preset white balance modes as well as give you the option to customize the white balance settings to your liking.

Power/Battery

Rechargeable batteries offer the lowest long-term cost and best battery life. Digital cameras use a sizable amount of power and a large capacity rechargeable battery is the only way to go. If you never want to run out of batteries at the wrong time make sure you have a fully charged spare with you at all times.