Digital SLR Cameras overview

Jan 12, 2011 No Comments by

SLR stands for ‘single lens reflex’.  What that means isn’t important.  Fundamentally a digital SLR (DSLR) looks pretty much the same as a 35mm SLR film camera and has interchangeable lenses.  This latter distinction sets DSLRs apart from a new breed of camera – superzooms – that sit somewhere between a pocket-sized compact and a DSLR.  Superzooms have many of the characteristics of a DSLR but are generally smaller and have a non-interchangeable zoom lens.  To confuse the issue, Panasonic have now brought out the G-series; small-ish DSLRs now known as ‘bridge’ cameras that do have interchangeable lenses and, along with the Olympus Pen cameras and a few others also belong to a category known as ‘micro-four thirds’.  Something to do with the relative size of the image sensor, among other things.  A pointless point of difference?  Pass the Nurofen.

As is often the case in consumer electronics generally, the ever-increasing variety and abundance of cameras seems born of a feverish need for companies to create something ‘new’.  Something different.  One of Tech Fogey’s many mantras – new is not necessarily better – has never been more pertinent than when applied to cameras.  Whether digital cameras and digital imaging are better than analogue film is still a moot point in the same way as the debate between vinyl LPs and CD.  Digital is certainly easier and more convenient but TF can’t help but feel that, for all the relative simplicity that digital cameras offer, they somehow devalue the result.  Photographs are no longer cherished moments in time but disposable snaps.  Since when did ‘easy’ and ‘convenient’ become by-words for success and desirability?

Anyway, enough of the Fogey sermon.  Back to cameras…

In much the same way that 35mm film cameras were aimed at people who took photography fairly seriously so are DSLRs.  The big difference now, though, is that thanks to digital imaging taking perfect pictures is much easier than it ever was with film. Taking great shots used to involve not only seeing the possibilities of a picture but also having the technical expertise and skill to capture it.  Now much of any learned ability is taken care of by the camera’s internal wizardry.  Another factor that brings DSLRs further into the mainstream is that most cameras, big and small, now have LCD screens on which menus are scrolled through and choices made, most often using a click wheel.  This makes controlling any camera fairly intuitive for anyone who has mastered the controls on the most basic point-and-shoot snapper.  And even though it always helps to read the manual, no self-respecting Fogey would ever do such a thing.  Using any product should be intuitive and if it isn’t, the design is crap.

DSLRs generally have a longer shelf-life than compact cameras.  They also occupy a much broader price range.  You’d be hard pressed to spend over £400 on a compact but DSLRs range in price from around £300 to way over £5,000.  What you get for your money as you venture up the price list is generally better resolution which in turn takes the buyer into professional territory.  The megapixel count on a consumer DSLR would be around 14-15 whereas a pro camera such as the Nikon D3x has 25.72.  If you take photographs that might appear in print then going for the higher resolution makes sense although it might also be an idea to ask the publication’s picture editor what’s acceptable before splashing out.

Aggregating information from both consumer websites such as Amazon and tech review sites such as Cnet can throw up certain anomalies.  A sweep of ten sites taking the top ten cameras on each site and then aggregating further between editorial reviews, consumer reviews and best-sellers resulted in a list of 35 cameras.  Of those only 15 were common to more than one list.  There’s also the issue that products ranked by virtue of consumer and expert reviews can stay high in the ‘charts’ so long as lots of people said, and keep saying, nice things about them and posting that online.  So the top ranked DSLR on Google Shopping is the Nikon D200, a camera designed to bridge the gap between consumer and pro.  Launched back in 2006 your only way of buying one now is second-hand.

So there are some caveats with our Fogey Five:

  • You might have to shop around or be prepared to go for a second-hand or refurbished camera.
  • There might be a newer version that hasn’t been out long enough to have made an impact on sufficient Top 10 lists.
  • As ever: Newer doesn’t always mean better.
  • Even top-rated cameras can have issues.  The Canon EOS 450D (AKA the Rebel XSi) is the best-selling DSLR on Amazon in the US and makes our Fogey Five but there are 143 posts (and counting..) on discussing problems users are having with the camera’s auto-focus.


More companies than Canon and Nikon make DSLRs.  Sony, Olympus, Pentax, Panasonic, Sigma, Leica, Ricoh, Minolta and Samsung for example.  £500 should be more than enough to get a decent body with lens.  Not from all of them, of course – you’d need to sell your children for a decent Leica.  It all depends on how fussy you are, what you plan on doing with your camera, what your budget is and whether you’re swayed by fashion/kudos (eg Leica X-1, Olympus Pen series) or slightly unconventional offerings from the newbies (Panasonic Lumix G1, Samsung NX-10).

*          If you already own a 35mm film camera with a selection of autofocus lenses just buy a same-brand digital body.  The lenses will almost certainly be compatible.  You might even be able to pick up lenses in charity shops or on ebay for a fraction of their new cost.  And most people look after such things, so it’s not that big a risk.