DSLR cameras are used by beginners, enthusiasts and professionals alike, but if you’ve never bought one you may not know what you should be looking for. Our guide explains what you need to know when choosing a DSLR camera.

Choosing a DSLR used to be a confusing task as there were simply too many models from too many manufacturers, with a great deal appearing very similar on the surface to one another. Most companies have now turned their focus to the compact system camera market instead, leaving fewer models to consider, but the choice can still be a tricky one.

Canon or Nikon? Or Pentax? Or someone else? (Or does it matter?)

Most people begin by asking which brand they should be going for, usually Canon and Nikon, but this isn’t as important as you might believe. After all, if one brand were ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’, only one would still be in business. It’s a far better idea to simply focus on the models available within your budget, looking at how their specifications compare with one another.

The brand is, however, important when it comes to lenses and accessories, as each manufacturer carries a different range of options. If you imagine yourself buying a lens or two in the near future, it would be wise to investigate what options each offers in advance so you can get an idea of what’s available. Yet, with most ranges now being comfortably furnished with a raft of lens and accessory options at different price points, and third-party helpings from the likes of Sigma, Tamron increasing this choice further still, you should find a handful of options available for whatever system you choose.

Getting to the heart of the matter

The most expensive part of a camera is the sensor, and this plays a major part in a camera’s image quality and operation. For a long time people considered a sensor’s pixel count to be a good indicator of the quality of its images, but all current DSLRs have more than enough to satisfy most people’s needs so this is not as great an issue. It’s true that more pixels can mean greater detail and wider scope for cropping and enlargement, but it can also mean more grainy images (known as noise), slower burst speeds and memory cards filling up faster. In short, high-megapixel cameras aren’t best suited for everyone’s needs.

What’s perhaps more important is the size of sensor, and there are two in common use: APS-C and full frame. APS-C sensors are typically found in cheaper cameras and full-frame sensors inside pro models, but many popular enthusiast models – some used as backup bodies by professionals – make use of the former.

Your budget will probably dictate whether you go for one or the other, but so should your style of photography; as APS-C sensors are smaller than full frame, they only make use of the central portion of the lens. This makes it appear as though you’re using a longer lens, so they’re well suited for more distant subjects such as those found in nature or when shooting sports. Lenses specifically designed for these cameras can also be made smaller and cheaper than full-frame ones (as they require less glass). Furthermore, with a smaller area than full-frame sensors, a camera’s AF system will often cover a wider proportion of the frame with an APS-C sensor, helping the camera to quickly focus on subjects away from the centre.

Full-frame cameras keep the focal length the same as if you were using the lens on a 35mm film camera, so they’re great for when you need your wideangles, be it for landscapes, architecture, street photography or something else. Furthermore, pixels can be larger on a full-frame sensor than they can on an APS-C sensor (assuming the amount is the same on each), and this can help to keep noise in images low while also recording plenty of details in shadows in highlights simultaneously. It’s also easier to achieve shallow depth-of-field with a full-frame sensor to produce pleasingly blurred backgrounds, which is great if you capture portraits.

Time for some action

If you tend to shoot sports or any other fast-moving action, you may want to investigate a DSLR’s focusing system and burst rate. Some focusing systems cover a wide proportion of the frame to help keep a track of a subject as it moves and contain many options for focusing on both still and moving subjects. AF systems with lots of ‘cross-type’ points are also worth seeking out as they tend to be more sensitive than more conventional systems. Fast burst rates, meanwhile, denoted in frames per second (fps), will help you to capture images in quick succession, so they’re great for speedy subjects.

If you tend to capture images from the ground, above crowds or any other unorthodox position, look out for DSLRs with displays that can be pulled away from their bodies and adjusted around an angle. Otherwise, check the resolution of the display, as this will show you how clearly a camera is likely to display the scene, menus and any captured images. Cheaper cameras will offer a display of around 460k dots while more expensive ones increase this to over 1million. Technologies differ between models but, as a general rule, the higher the better.

Another thing to pay attention to is the viewfinder. Pentaprism viewfinders are typically bigger and brighter than pentamirror types (and so usually found on pricier models), but the coverage is important too. Given in percentages, this shows how much of the scene you can see through the viewfinder, with 100% on pro models and around 95-98% on cheaper ones, the latter just shaving off a little around the peripheries.

And…. cut!

Of course, today’s DSLR shoot more than just images; they’re capable of capturing professional-quality video too. If this is something you think you’ll be using with some frequency, look at the video frame rates offered by a model, as well as what control there is over audio recording and whether you can attach an external microphone for superior sound to the camera’s own microphones.

Other things you may want to check is whether a camera has Wi-Fi, a feature offered on many cheaper models but only a handful of more expensive ones, as well as GPS system, which can come in handy when travelling. If you tend to capture your images outdoors, look out for models with weather sealing as this should help protect your camera in inclement conditions, although remember the lens you use will also need to be weather sealed for utmost protection.