DSLR cameras can appear intimidating to novice users, with their size and weight compounded by an array of external controls and different lens and accessory options. If you're looking to upgrade, then major manufacturers competing for your cash look to make the process of choosing a DSLR as simple as possible.
It's for this reason that most DSLR manufacturers have sought to cater for novice users by way of compact bodies, small lenses and user interfaces which explain key functionality. Current options from Canon, Nikon and Sony meet these criteria, which provide a more painless transition for those looking to upgrade from compact or bridge cameras.
Choosing a DSLR - Entry-level models
The most basic DSLRs typically incorporate APS-C-sized sensors which are smaller than those used in professional models. Entry-level models generally have polycarbonate bodies and stainless-steel frames, with burst modes around 3-4fps and 3in LCD screens on the rear.
In order to make them as accessible as possible to new users, the past few generations of entry-level DSLRs have seen Guide modes and Help functions gain prominence, with these kinds of features educating users as to the functionality of their models and helping out when issues arise.
Such cameras also offer pentamirror viewfinders which see a hollow mirrored chamber reflecting the light that exits the lens to the eyepiece. These viewfinders are perfectly usable, although many on these kinds of models crop a little of the sides out (known as coverage) and they can appear somewhat pokey too.
Choosing a DSLR - Advanced models
More-advanced DSLRs often better these with pentaprism viewfinders, which make for a heavier camera but are much brighter and give a larger, clearer view of the scene. Their coverage is also typically increased: on cheaper models you will only see about 95% of what is being captured, but here you may get 97% or more.
These models also tend to boast higher-resolution LCD screens, some of which may be articulated round a hinge at their bottom or side, as well as bodies which employ magnesium or aluminium alloy for durability.
It's not uncommon to see these also include some kind of weather-sealing, whereby points of water and dust incursion are sealed to ensure this does not get inside and cause any damage.
Other functionality to be enjoyed on more senior models usually includes a flash sync socket for compatibility with external lights (useful for studio work), as well as an extended sensitivity range which broadens their usability in low light. The degree of customisation for these models is also typically much higher, with user-definable settings on mode dials, custom menus and more options for noise reduction and camera personalisation on offer.
Choosing a DSLR - Manufacturer choice
The brand of DSLR to go for is only something you need to factor into your decision-making if you already own a selection of lenses which may be compatible with one particular system. While Canon and Nikon may have the most users by some margin, Sony and Pentax have each developed a reputation for being competitive with the functionality of their models, often delivering high-end functionality in more attractively priced models.
1. Pick your system
Each manufacturer has a different lens system, as well as differing operational quirks and available accessories. Canon and Nikon are the most popular, and have the largest number of lenses available, but both Sony and Pentax produce some superb models throughout the price ranges. Be sure to choose a model that suits your needs.
2. Choose your price range
You can buy a DSLR for less than £400, but don't expect a rapid burst rate or high-resolution sensor. Above this price range more features are added, and the usage of the DSLR becomes more focused towards rapid motion (action) or high amounts of detail (portraiture, landscape).
3. Prioritise your features
Are you a complete beginner? Then a decent guide mode will be helpful. An aspiring sports shooter? Aim for a higher burst rate. How about landscapes? More detail is needed in the images. Check the feature list to see what suits your needs, as manufacturers' products can differ wildly at the same price range.
4. Give it a try
Don't rely entirely on our expert advice; try handling the camera before you shell out the cash. You'd be surprised by how much difference a dial or button being a few millimetres in a different direction can make to handling, and the feel of a magnesium body compared to a plastic one.
5. Lens selection
DSLRs either come ‘body only', meaning without a lens, or with a lens included. A standard kit lens is a short zoom, usually about 18-55mm. Extra lenses can be included in kits, so look out for deals on longer zooms or wideangle options.
6. Invest in a memory card
Annoyingly, DSLRs don't come with memory cards, so one is required when you buy a camera. Around the 4GB mark should be considered a minimum.
7. Buy a filter
Be sure to grab a UV filter for your lens, as it'll protect the front optics.
8. Get a camera bag
With delicate optics and the potential for dust infiltrating, a decent bag is imperative.
9. Extra battery?
If you're heading out for an extended period of time, a spare battery can be a godsend.
10. Shop around
Don't be turned off by older models, as regardless of the new sensor or spinning screen an up-to-date model might include, it's the image quality that counts.