The Beginner's Guide To DSLR Cameras

The Beginner's Guide To DSLR Cameras

What is a DSLR Camera?

The first bit is easy. The D in DSLR stands for ‘Digital’.

SLR is an acronym for ‘Single-Lens Reflex’. In single-lens reflex cameras, both digital and traditional, the light that passes into the lens is reflected via a mirror and prism to the viewfinder.

Which means that the image you see through the viewfinder is (almost) exactly what the camera is capturing through the lens.

how DSLR cameras work diagram

DSLR cameras have huge, powerful sensors that give you amazing clarity and control over your choice of shot.

You can also easily change lenses to shoot better, higher quality images.

What to Expect From Your DSLR Camera or Camera Kit

Most of the time when you purchase a camera, it comes with the DSLR camera and a lens (between 18-55mm) for a good medium-range shot.

Canon EOS 1200D with 18-55m lens

An 18-55mm lens will have around a 3x optical zoom.

When you pick a brand like Sony, Nikon, or Canon, you can feel pretty confident in your purchase; knowing that you got a well rounded, respectably performing camera.

Even further, even if your camera isn’t the most expensive, DSLR cameras can switch lenses, meaning you can still get pretty much any shot you want (such as a panoramic image, a fish-eye shot, an extreme close-up, or long zoom shot).

Sometimes, you can purchase the camera without a lens (note: usually called “body-only”). These kinds of purchases are only recommended if you already own a collection of lenses

You should also make sure that your existing lenses fit your new camera before making any purchases. For example, a Canon lens won’t fit on a Nikon without purchasing a separate adapter.

APS-C v Full Frame Sensor

When you’re going to purchase your camera, there will be an option to select either APS-C image sensors (typically called crop sensors) or full-frame sensors.

Image sensors are basically used to catch light in your picture, digitally recording that light as an image to your camera when you press the shutter button.

Because this sensor is dramatically larger than the sensor in mobile phones (even in point and shoot phones), DSLR cameras can shoot amazingly high quality shots in practically all light situations (especially with high ISO).

The biggest difference between APS-C sensors and Full Frame sensors are size, and usually bigger is better.

Full frame sensors are about 46% bigger, meaning they capture bigger, sharper images – especially when light is an issue.

Full Frame v APS-C comparison / csaveanu (flickr)
Full Frame v APS-C comparison / csaveanu (flickr)

However, if you’re constantly zooming in, you might actually want an APS-C, because the sensor fits the frame of a subject more completely than full-frame sensors would.

Sometimes, ultra-high quality full frame sensors are overkill for new photographers, and can deliver flawed results.

In these situations, novices could save some money and still get exceptional quality with APS-C sensors.

How Many Megapixels Does Your Camera Need?

Each tiny square of a photo (usually you don’t notice them until one is broken) is considered a pixel.

Each megapixel is made up of a thousand pixels. These tiny pixels take a specific color to form the resolution of your photograph.

Megapixel comparison / Design 215
Megapixel comparison / Design 215

Obviously, you’d want more, right?

Believe it or not, you don’t always want higher amounts of megapixels.

You actually want better megapixels.

When you put a ton of pixels into every picture, you’re often trading off the quality of pixels as smaller pixels don’t behave as well as big pixels.

Bigger pixels of DSLR cameras absorb light more efficiently, transfer color, and aren’t distorted by noise and color.

What this means is that a 12 megapixel DSLR camera will almost always outperform a 24 megapixel point-and-shoot camera, no matter the brand of point-and-shoot camera.

And that 24 megapixel point-and-shoot would beat a 40 megapixel phone in a side by side comparison.

How Do DSLR Cameras Process Images?

DSLR cameras process images far better than other cameras.

This gives you a lot of options when it comes to the types of photos you might want to shoot. Consider this processing speed the “brain” of your camera.

Compared to a camera phone, a DSLR is like Einstein.

Manufacturers usually don’t share the specific specs of their cameras because of the competition that exists between them. They’re also designed with specific functions in mind, to give each artist their own approach to photography.

That being said, relevant image processing speeds are far superior to other cameras despite being controlled by internal settings.

The best way to evaluate a camera is by its ability to shoot the photos that you’re regularly going to be shooting.

Look at how many frames per second the camera can handle, and whether or not it has immediate auto-focusing abilities, even when used in burst or macro-mode.

Camera processors are always improving, operating significantly faster than older models (and their point and shoot counterparts).

DSLR cameras can even use several processors at once (like phones and laptops) to give them even more enhanced speed and capture abilities.

How Does Exposure Affect Your DSLR Camera?

The most basic parts of the picture are the aperture range, the shutter speed of your camera, and how sensitive it is to ISO.

The best DSLR cameras give you complete control over these settings + a lot more individual features like brightness and contrast.

But if this sounds a little confusing, don’t worry! Most modern cameras come with automatic settings if you aren’t sure what you’re looking for or aren’t prone to guessing.

Here are some facts to consider when it comes to aperture, shutter speed, and ISO sensitivity:


No matter what type of camera you buy, your camera lens has an aperture range.

When the number on your F-stop is higher, your aperture is actually lower, meaning less light gets through.
When your F-stop is lower, the aperture of your pictures is higher, and they’ll look more diffused and stylized, with more unique color and blending.

A good example of this is comparing an F-stop of 22 with an F-stop of 3.2.

image credit: Patti (flickr)
image credit: Patti (flickr)

The higher aperture puts the majority of your image in focus while the lower one puts a much smaller portion as the focal point.

Because DSLR cameras move so fast, they can capture better images at low apertures. This is why they’re so good at night.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed controls the light that goes through your camera.

When your shutter is open longer, you’ll get more light.

Lower shutter speeds blur pictures, but it’s easy to use a DSLR camera to carefully adjust the speed to the perfect level to freeze action when people are moving, but also give more color brilliance, beauty, or blending on a still shot with the perfect light.

Often, finding the best camera means finding an easily adjustable shutter speed with a wide variety of options.

ISO Sensitivity

ISO measures your camera’s sensitivity to light coming in through the lens (NOT exterior light).

The easiest way to understand this setting is to remember that to catch stars, you’ll need a camera with extremely high ISO.

Porth Dafarch Milky Way / Kev Lewis
Porth Dafarch Milky Way / Kev Lewis

Brighter scenes require lower ISO settings, which is why most point-and-shoot cameras have low ISO sensitivity.

DSLR cameras can shoot well in both scenarios, mastering shots in a wide range of lighting conditions. So much so that you often don’t need flash.

The best rule of thumb when it comes to ISO is to use as little as you can get away with.

On the other hand, higher ISO gives you sharper pictures, less noise, and far less distraction (with flash or lights) than you’ll ever get on a camera with a small sensor.

If you’re a novice, these settings are often best left alone.

What Features Does Your DSLR Camera Offer?

Cam PerspThis next section will highlight some of the many reasons that DSLR cameras are so popular.

You won’t find these features on point-and-shoot or mobile phone cameras, and if you do, they’ll work far better on a DSLR camera because they have such superior components and design.

Many of these features are so essential for developed photographers that they’d never go back to traditional point-and-shoot cameras.

This speed and performance is one of the number one reasons that DSLR cameras have become so popular.

That’s why it’s more important than ever to know what the best DSLR cameras can do, and how to choose a DSLR camera that has the perfect features for you.

Burst Mode Pictures and Frames Per Second

Burst mode means that you can shoot an expansive amount of photos at once – usually as many as ten or more. This total is measured as “frames per second.”


After you’ve taken a succession of shots (we’ve taken as many as a thousand pictures) it’s then time to review your pictures and take a few of your favorites.

To get this speed, your camera has to be able to process images fast. That’s why the best DSLR cameras have lots of processing power and are best at shooting demanding, high-speed pictures.

To make the most of this combination, you have to give your camera a high quality memory card that can handle the task of saving at a moments notice.

Some good rules of thumb for picking camera speeds:

  • General photography: 3 frames per second
  • Kids and pets photography: 5 frames per second
  • Action, sports, and wildlife photography: 10 frames or higher

Auto focus and facial recognition

While most cameras have decent focus functions, some cameras let you pick moving targets, tracking a single image (and keeping it in focus above the rest), as well as scene recognition and facial recognition to make sure you always have the right exposure.

Other digital SLR cameras auto focus and adjust automatically in the time it takes to hit the shoot button.

HDR (High Definition Resolution) Photography

If you thought that all your camera could do is take basic pictures, think again.

Some DSLR cameras take pictures at different exposure levels automatically and pick the best overall image to keep (showing you which ones to toss), or even combine elements of all of the photos together.

Can DSLR Cameras Record Video?

One of the best parts of a DSLR camera is that it can shoot video as well as it can shoot pictures.

Cameras with high ISO saturation are the best for video, because they deliver high quality details and brilliant colors, with amazing focusing technology that keeps subjects in focus the entire time.

This allows DSLR cameras to capture brilliant, but sizable video files.

The video below was captured on a Canon EOS 1200D.

WiFi Connectivity

You might not know you need WiFi connectivity yet, but it’s a welcome addition for anyone on the go.

Some DSLR cameras can create a WiFi hotspot and project that network for phones around you to download pictures, giving instant wireless sharing access.

Other phones even have GPS technology that lets you tag the photos if you wanted to.

Making Your Final Digital SLR Camera Decision

When it comes down to it, there are three aspects that really decide what you should purchase:

DSLR Camera Price

DSLR cameras come in many different price ranges – from a moderate price, to a premium price for a professional model of camera.

Size of the Camera

You absolutely have to find a camera that you enjoy carrying, or you’ll never use it. Many brands offer flexible neck straps that make it much easier to carry a big, bulky camera.

Finding the Best DSLR Camera Features for Your Needs

Make sure that your camera fits your needs!

Think about why you’re buying it, what you’re going to be taking pictures of, and how high of quality you’d like those pictures to be.

When you’ve got these answers in mind, read back through the guide and make your decision.

Accessories for Your New DSLR Camera

There are an endless variety of options when it comes to accessorizing your camera, and each option could very well have it’s own buying guide:

  • Memory Cards in a Huge Range of Capacities
  • Camera Bags
  • Batteries
  • Lenses and Filters
  • Do you Need Flash (External Flash for Special Events)?
  • Tripods
  • Wrist Straps and Neck Straps
  • Lens Cleaning Kits and Protective Screen Covers

What is the Best DSLR Camera For Beginners?

If you are starting out in photography and looking to purchase your first DSLR then there are two specific cameras we would recommend: The Canon EOS 1200D and the Nikon D3300 (shown below).

nikon D3300
nikon D3300

They are both very similar cameras feature wise, with fantastic automatic shooting settings, so really it comes down to personal choice.

Some say the Nikon has slightly better image quality, although I would personally recommend the Canon (it was in fact my first DSLR camera).

In Conclusion: Which DSLR Camera is Right For You?

In the end it comes down to your specific needs; because there are far too many features, options and new models to ever pick a single “best” digital SLR camera for your needs.

Just remember that it’s important to pick a model that works well with your style of photography, offering you plenty of options for general purpose pictures.

If you’re shooting wildlife or sunsets (even architectural photos) opt for more megapixels to give you options to manipulate the pictures.

If you like shooting at dusk, dawn, or nighttime, get a camera with a high ISO saturation to make sure you get the clarity you need in low light.

If you like to frame your shots, you might even be interested in an articulating screen, so you can see what you’re shooting at an awkward angle (like over your head or at your waist).

You should also consider camera packages and what you get for your purchase – because accessories can get expensive quick.

Perhaps what’s most important is having fun! That’s what makes the entire purchase worthwhile.

Now head over to our DSLR camera review section, where we compare the best DSLR cameras on the market, and match them up with the best deals online in the UK.

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