For serious and professional photographers, Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras are the way to go. They offer the most flexibility with adjustment settings, changing lenses, speed, and much more than even a top-of-the-line point-and-shoot camera.
DSLRs now feature preset shooting modes, friendly interfaces, and smaller designs, and their popularity with casual photographers is growing. You can find great DSLR cameras for well under $2,000.
Still, a DSLR is a considerable investment. How to choose the right one? We’ve got some tips on shopping for a DSLR if you’re in the market for one this holiday season. And we’ve got a couple recommendations for cameras that topped our testing over the past year, as well as an old favourite that offers an irresistible bargain.
Digital SLR cameras buying advice
The megapixel myth A high megapixel rating doesn’t mean better image quality. It does give you more flexibility when making enlargements or cropping.
Be practical: DSLR prices range from around $1000 to well beyond $2000. If you’re new to DSLRs, look for a camera in the $1000 range. They’ll have preset shooting modes you can use while you learn how to master the manual settings, and you won’t sacrifice much in terms of image quality.
Body only: Many DSLRs are body-only and require that you supply a compatible lens in order to take photos. Others ship as part of a kit that includes a decent-quality multipurpose lens.
Lens selection: If you think you’ll want to use different lenses for different shooting situations (like a zoom lens for distance shots, a macro lens, or even a lens with an effect like fish eye), consider the lens selection for the DSLR before you buy the camera.
Image stabilisation: DSLRs use one of two methods of image stabilisation to offset subtle camera shake. In-lens stabilisation tends to be stronger and can produce a stable image in the camera’s viewfinder, but because it’s in the lens, you won’t have stabilisation with lenses that don’t have it built-in. Sensor-based stabilisation corrects subtle camera shake at the sensor within the camera’s body. This makes it available with any lens you use, but it’s not as strong as in-lens stabilisation.
Canon EOS 450D (a.k.a. Rebel XSi in the US)
Heavier lifting: A DSLR is larger and heavier than a point-and-shoot camera, so comfort is key. A camera that fits comfortably in one person’s hand may be too large or small in someone else’s.
Live view: In addition to offering an optical viewfinder, many “live-view” LCDs now feature the ability to compose shots through the LCD, so it’s easier to take overhead shots.
Sensor size: A DSLR’s image sensor is smaller than a frame of 35mm film. Plus, the sensor can vary in size among DSLR manufacturers. To find common ground when comparing DSLRs, you can convert the focal length equivalency using a multiplication factor determined by the manufacturer.
Dust buster: If you think you’ll be changing lenses often, look for a DSLR with an internal sensor cleaner. This will make sure your image sensor is dust free.
No shutter lag: DSLRs don’t have the shutter lag that many point and shoot cameras have. But autofocus speed is important, and focusing a DSLR requires pressing the shutter button halfway. If you can get a hands-on experience with a DSLR before you buy, check the autofocus speed.
File formats: DSLRs support the RAW file format, which offers the most flexibility when you open the image in an image-editing program. DSLRs also support JPEG, which uses compression to create smaller file sizes that won’t take up as much storage space as RAW. But JPEG image quality isn’t as good as RAW.
Storage card: Most DSLRs use either Secure Digital (SD) or CompactFlash (CF) cards. The card that’s bundled with the camera is usually of small capacity, so you’ll want to buy a card with a large capacity. Also, consider memory cards with higher speed ratings; these cards save files faster than standard cards, which can be handy if you plan to do continuous-frame shooting.
Video: The ability to record video with a DSLR is a recent development. You’ll have to make some usability compromises that you wouldn’t have to make if you used a camcorder, but it’s a feature that comes in handy. Remember, video requires a lot of storage space, so plan accordingly.
Our favourite DSLR cameras
The Canon EOS 450D produces high-quality images and performs very well in low light. Equipped with a 12-megapixel sensor and a Digic III processor, the 450D is a marked improvement on its predecessor. The 450D also has a compact and light body to compliment a superb control layout, a big LCD screen, and a very good 18-55mm kit lens. Read our full review.
The Nikon D40 is a really good deal. The D40 kit includes the small, lightweight camera and a separate 18-55mm lens. The D40’s 6.1-megapixel sensor is low compared sensors on many of today’s point-and-shoots, but it offers plenty of pixels for comfortably printing up to 8-by-10-inch images, and the image quality shines. Read our full review.
With its excellent image quality, high ISO performance, robust feature set, and sturdy build, the Nikon D300 is a DSLR to seriously consider. Nikon includes every feature you want for everyday shooting (including two- to five-step autobracketing, and two drive speeds), as well as features that you won’t find on other DSLRs. Read our full review.
[Roman Loyola is a senior reviews editor at Macworld. Ben Long is a senior contributor.]