What To Look Out For When Buying A DSLR

With just so many DSLR models out there and new ones coming onto the market all the time, it can be a minefield for anyone in search of a new camera. This must be especially so for someone just starting out on their DSLR journey, but it can be a struggle even for experienced photographers.

People frequently ask me to recommend a camera to them, but it’s impossible to know all there is to know about the plethora of models available, so specific recommendations are often hard to make.

What I can do, however, is give a guided tour of the most important features to look out for when choosing your new camera.

The pointers below will help guide you towards making a choice that is appropriate for your needs and skill set.

 

The most critical choices

First of all, there are some important choices you need to make. These features will have a major impact on what category of DSLR you're likely to go for.

what to look out for when buying a dslr

 

The sensor

The very first choice you’ll make will probably revolve around the sensor. In today's DSLRs, there are two types: full-frame and cropped.

The former has a sensor of the same size and dimensions as a frame of 35mm film (i.e. 24x36mm). On the other hand, cropped sensors have a variety of dimensions, though mostly reproducing those of the smaller APC film frames.

Both have major pros and cons. For a full-frame, the biggest plus is the image quality, but they are expensive. The sensors themselves are generally more expensive and tend to only be included in the top-end cameras.

However, most DSLR models come with cropped sensors, which makes them significantly cheaper and usually lighter than their full-frame cousins. Those are two big advantages of cropped sensor cameras.

A downside of cropped sensors is that they usually deliver smaller file sizes than full-frame sensors, reducing image quality.

The former results from the sensor being physically smaller, meaning there are fewer pixels present to capture light. The reduction in image quality is down to the crowding of pixels on the sensor to compensate for the first problem. This crowding usually manifests itself in images with bright highlights burning out – i.e. losing all detail when hit by too much light.

Many photographers, particularly newcomers, will hardly notice this issue, however, so shouldn't be overly concerned about it – but it’s an important consideration for someone looking for higher image quality.

 

Sensor size and lens abilities

what to look out for when buying a dslr

Another sensor-related issue comes with the lenses that you couple with your DSLR. A lens' focal length indicates its angle of view and magnifying ability. It is always quoted when mounted on a full-frame camera.

However, when fitted onto a cropped sensor camera, things are rather different. Cropped sensors cannot make full use of a lens' entire field of view, meaning the outermost part is lost.

In other words, the view is partially cropped on a cropped-senor camera compared to what would be visible if the same lens was used on a full-frame camera. This leads to a magnification factor.

All cameras from the same manufacturer have the same magnification factor. For example, Canon cameras have a crop magnification of x1.6, but for most others, it is x1.5. On an Olympus camera, the magnification factor rises to x2.

This means that on a Nikon camera, for example, a lens rated as having a focal length of 16mm on a full-frame camera will actually have a view equal to that of a 24mm lens when fitted to a cropped sensor camera and 32mm when on an Olympus.

As a result, cropped sensors have a negative effect on wide-angle photography, though the simple solution for anyone who likes wide-angle photography is to invest in one of the super-wide lenses that have been developed specifically to overcome this issue. Either that or invest in a more expensive full-frame camera.

At the telephoto end of the lens scale, things work in favour of the cropped sensor as the crop magnification factor gives the lenses greater reach. For example, a 300mm lens fitted onto a Canon cropped sensor camera will have an effective focal length of 480mm – a significant boost in the lens' reach. Because of this, it’s quite common for sports and wildlife photographers to use some of the higher-end cropped-sensor cameras for their work, as they enable them to have a powerful focal length reach with smaller lenses.

 

Picking out the most important functions and how to access them

what to look out for when buying a dslr

Among the often confusing sea of camera functions, the next step in choosing the right DSLR is to decide which functions are the most important and how easily they can be accessed and used.

Most functions can be found in the camera's main menu, but given that in today's DSLRs, these are interminably long and complex, the last thing you want to have to do is delve in there to make regular changes during a fast-moving shoot.

Fortunately, most of the really important functions can be found via a series of dials and buttons on the camera backs, thankfully bypassing the main menu.

Let’s go through what I’d consider being a DSLR's most critical functions.

 

Shooting mode

All DSLRs offer the options to shoot at least in fully automatic, shutter priority, aperture priority, fully manual and bulb (long exposures over 30 seconds), plus sometimes a few situation-specific modes. Accessing the options is generally quite straightforward, as this is almost always selected by a prominent dial on top of the camera.

 

Image format

Essentially, we need to choose whether to shoot in Jpeg, Raw or both formats. Many cameras also offer a choice of several Jpeg file sizes, and some also offer this for Raw files. Since this is something that most photographers will set when the camera is new and will change only occasionally, this is often accessed only via the main menu. However, on some cameras, Canons, in particular, it can also be accessed via a mini-menu (which Canon calls the ‘Quick Control screen’).

 

Shutter speed and lens aperture

This is the ability to change the length of time the shutter is open for and the diameter of the aperture in the lens regardless of which shooting mode is chosen. Depending on the shooting mode, shutter speed and lens aperture should be easily alterable via a dial or button on the camera’s back.

 

Exposure compensation

The in-camera exposure meter doesn't always get the exposure quite right, so when shooting in fully automatic or semi-automatic modes, we need to tell the camera to under or over-expose the image. This function is normally displayable as a scale ranging from +2 or +3 down to -2 or -3, but its display and use varies hugely from one camera model to another.

It is permanently and prominently visible on some cameras, activated and used very simply through a dial. On others, it has to be called up and then used via a combination of buttons and dials.

 

ISO

This is a measure of the sensitivity of the sensor to light. ISO is represented on a linear scale, usually 100 at its lowest and several thousand at its highest. Changes to the ISO can normally be made quickly and easily via a button on the camera’s back or via the mini-menu/Quick Control screens.

However, the default ISO setting on almost all DSLRs these days is 'Auto', meaning that the camera will automatically raise or lower the ISO depending on light levels. This is fine for snap-shooting but disastrous for creative photography, where long exposure times are common. Getting the camera off auto ISO and onto a fixed ISO level should be very easy, but in some models, it involves delving deep into the main menu, finding the hidden components and making separate changes.

 

Self-timer/shutter delay

You may not always want the camera shutter to fire the moment the shutter button is pressed. DSLR self-timers should come with at least 2-second and 10-second delay options, though some have more, including the option to enter your own timings. This frequently-used feature is usually easily reached via a camera-back button marked by a clock icon. However, on some models, it can be reached only via the main menu.

 

Automatic white balance (AWB)

This system controls how the camera sees and records colours under a range of lighting conditions. It comes with a range of pre-set options that usually include automatic, sunshine, sunny shade, cloudy, fluorescent lighting, tungsten lighting, and at least one custom setting, too.

Some cameras also include options for different types of fluorescent lighting and even for underwater photography. Again, this is usually accessed via a camera-back button or in the mini-menu/Quick Control screens.

 

Focusing points

Every DSLR has multiple focusing points scattered across its viewing screen, directing the autofocus mechanism. As a general rule of thumb, the more expensive the camera, the more focusing points there are.

However, it should be possible to alter the number of active focusing points. Displaying and selecting which focusing points should be active is usually done by a couple of camera-back buttons, but again, this is hugely variable from one camera to another, and exactly which button(s) to press can be confusing and not necessarily obvious.

 

Light metering modes

This is how the camera measures the amount of light exposing the sensor. There are usually several options that need to be accessed, including a single central spot, a centre-weighted region, and an entire screen-wide option. The options are usually easily reached and selected via either a camera-back button (often denoted by two concentric circles) or the mini-menu/Quick Control screens.

 

Histogram display

A greatly overlooked feature, the histogram displays the spread of tonal values in each image as a graph, highlighting any under or over-exposed pixels. The histogram display is by far the best tool for determining whether each image has been correctly exposed.

In some more advanced cameras, the histogram is usually activated and displayed for every image simply by scrolling through the image display options via a button often marked by 'Disp' or 'Info'.

Unfortunately, however, in some ‘consumer-level DSLRs’, the manufacturers have decided that the buyers of these cameras won't be bothered with such complexities, so activating the histogram display can be a more complex process.

The LCD screen mini-menu/Quick Control screen, available in many cameras, is a hugely useful means to quickly accessing most of these important functions. I would recommend choosing a camera that has this feature.

 

Second level considerations

what to look out for when buying a dslr

Of course, to some extent, the list of important functions has a subjective element, and I may not have included one or two that some might consider crucial. However, beyond that crucial list is a host of secondary considerations whose level of importance will vary hugely from one person to another depending on personal preferences, needs, and the environment in which the camera is going to be used.

Some of these include:

 

One or two memory cards

Do you need a camera with slots for two memory cards, or will just one suffice? Obviously, having two slots potentially doubles your storage capacity, but it will also increase the cost of the camera. If you intend to shoot videos as well as stills, having two slots can be useful to keep the two media forms separate.

 

Shooting speeds

If you intend to shoot a lot of action, such as sport or wildlife, then the speed with which the camera can shoot continuously may be important. Here, you'll need to consider things like the fastest rate at which the camera can fire continuously and how long it can keep that up before its memory buffer fills up. Linked to this is the speed and focusing accuracy of the camera and lens.

 

Build quality

How resistant is the camera to impact, and how water, dust or sand-resistant are the various seals? If you're taking your camera into rough, rugged environments, or shooting a lot in the rain or out on the water, then these become important factors. You don't want to have a camera that packs up the first time it’s bumped or subject to a heavy shower.

 

Video capabilities

Today, all DSLRs can shoot video as well as stills. If you intend to use a new camera for both, then, of course, its video capabilities become critical. Does it shoot in HD only, or can it do 4K as well? What is the longest single video or largest video file that it can shoot, and in what format(s)? What kind of internal microphone does the camera have, and can the camera be coupled to an external microphone or external sound recording system? How easy is it to check for correct exposure, focus and depth of field? What frame rates does the video system offer, and at what qualities?

Beyond these functions, there’s a whole host of others that may have varying levels of importance to different buyers but which are not critical to a camera's essential functions.

These might include functions such as a touch LCD screen versus button-operated only; ability to transfer images via Wi-Fi (or cable only); a GPS function; the ability for the autofocus to track a moving subject; high dynamic range (HDR) photography; time-lapse photography, and so on. These hi-tech features can be very alluring, but they shouldn’t distract away from buying decisions based on each camera's most essential and critical functions.

 

Choosing the package

what to look out for when buying a dslr

Putting all these considerations together into a package that equates to a camera that works for you at a price you want to pay is no easy task. Still, hopefully, this article has detailed some of the considerations you need to make to help prioritise your wants and needs.

It should help you answer questions regarding budget and how you intend to use your camera, what you hope to get out of it, what functions are most necessary for you, and how they can be used best.

 

This blog was written by Nigel Hicks, a hugely experienced Devon-based professional photographer. Nigel works with the USA's prestigious National Geographic Image Collection, among many other bodies, and is a Fellow of the British Institute of Professional Photography.

To find out more about Nigel's work, take a tour of the website at www.nigelhicks.com.

 

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