If you’re feeling limited by what your point-and-shoot can do, there are plenty of reasons to consider an interchangeable lens camera (ILC), whether it be a traditional DSLR or a more modern mirrorless model. Compared with your phone or point-and-shoot, these advanced shooters feature larger image sensors, superior optics, robust manual controls, faster performance, and the versatility of changeable lenses.
All this functionality doesn’t come cheap, though, and the cost of an ILC can add up, especially when you start factoring in lenses. You also need to remember that you’re buying into a camera system. If you start with Canon, chances are that your next one will be as well, simply for the fact that you’ll be able to make use of existing lenses and accessories. Here are the most important aspects to consider when you’re shopping for a digital SLR.
Entry-Level DSLRs vs. Mirrorless Cameras
A decade ago, if you wanted a camera with interchangeable lenses, an SLR was obvious choice. Times have changed. Today’s mirrorless cameras, even those at the entry end of the price spectrum, are just as, if not more capable than an SLR at a comparable price. And while you can still buy a mirrorless camera without a built-in viewfinder, more and more low-cost models include the feature.
Our favorite entry-level ILC, the Fujifilm X-T30, has an autofocus system that runs circles around comparably priced SLRs, so it can track fast-moving subjects and keep them sharply in focus for every shot. It also shoots very high-quality 4K video, although it does omit in-body image stabilization (IBIS), a feature more common to pricier mirrorless models.
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But there are reasons to opt for an SLR. If your eyesight isn’t perfect, an optical viewfinder may prove to be a better match rather than an electronic one, or you may simply prefer their familiar feel or already have access to compatible lenses. When moving beyond entry-level, SLRs are closer to mirrorless systems in performance, and typically offer a larger library of lenses and accessories from which to choose—although it’s mainly in exotic, very expensive options offered by Canon and Nikon that the wider selection comes into play.
Understanding Sensor Size
Most consumer ILCs use image sensors that, while much larger than those found in point-and-shoot cameras, are somewhat smaller than a 35mm film frame. This can be a bit confusing when talking about a camera’s field of view, as focal lengths for compacts are often expressed in terms of 35mm equivalency. The standard APS-C sensor features a “crop factor” of 1.5x. This means that the 18-55mm kit lens that is bundled with most DSLRs covers a 35mm field of view equivalent to 27-82.5mm.
Micro Four Thirds, which has a 2x crop factor, is another popular mirrorless format, with cameras available from Olympus and Panasonic. Its kit lenses are typically around 14-42mm in design, but don’t give you a wider view than an 18-55mm APS-C lens. Micro Four Thirds is the oldest mirrorless system, so there are plenty of lenses available. And even though the format is smaller than APS-C, it is significantly larger than a smartphone or point-and-shoot image sensor.
There are many inherent advantages to a larger sensor. It allows you to better control the depth of field in images, making it possible to isolate your subject and create a blurred background. This blur is often referred to by the Japanese term bokeh. Much has been written about the quality of the bokeh created by different lenses, but the general rule of thumb is that the more light a lens can capture—measured numerically as its aperture, or f-number—the blurrier the background can be. A lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 lets in eight times as much light as one of f/4, and can create a shallower depth of field at an equivalent focal length and shooting distance.
Another reason to go for the big sensor is to minimize image noise. A 24MP APS-C sensor has much larger pixels than a point-and-shoot of comparable resolution. These larger pixels allow the sensor to be set at a higher sensitivity, measured numerically as ISO, without creating as much image noise. An advantage to the larger surface area is that changes in color or brightness are more gradual than that of a point-and-shoot. This allows more natural-looking images with a greater sense of depth.
Some cameras feature sensors that are equal in size to 35mm film. These full-frame cameras are generally more expensive than their APS-C counterparts, but you can get started with an entry-level kit for around $1,500. If you see yourself moving up to a full frame in the future, be careful in buying lenses. Some are designed to be used with APS-C sensors, and either won’t work at all with a full-frame body, or will work, but with reduced resolution.
Choose a Camera That Feels Right
It’s very important to choose a camera that feels comfortable in your hands. While most DSLRs are similar in size and build, mirrorless cameras are more varied in design. Some are shaped much like SLRs, with an electronic viewfinder centered behind the lens mount. Others put the EVF in the corner, similar to the position of an optical finder in a rangefinder camera, and typically offer a smaller handgrip.
As a general rule of thumb, an SLR-style camera is a better fit for use with larger lenses. The centered viewfinder and sizable handgrip make balancing a big lens a bit more pleasant. Rangefinder-style cameras are better suited if you expect to use smaller zoom or prime lenses.
Think about controls too. If you are interested in capturing fast action and working with big lenses, look for a camera that has a joystick control on the rear panel—it comes in handy for interfacing with the autofocus system. Other models, including many from Fujifilm and Nikon’s retro Z fc, include dedicated dials to set shutter speed, a plus for photographers who want to try their hand at manual exposure.
The camera you choose should be one that you are most comfortable using. If a DSLR is too big or small for you to hold comfortably, or if the controls are not laid out in a way that makes sense to you, chances are you won’t enjoy using it as much as you should.
Get the Best Viewfinder
SLRs use optical viewfinders and mirrorless cameras sport EVFs. The difference isn’t as huge as you’d expect. With an optical finder you see through the lens thanks to a series of mirrors and optics that direct light to your eye. With an EVF, an electronic feed from the image sensor is shown on a small screen, typically an OLED.
The two technologies offer different views of the world. Optical finder brightness varies based on the f-stop of your lens, so if you put an f/1.4 prime on, it will appear brighter than it would with an f/4 zoom. You get an uncluttered view of the world—typically you’ll see the active focus point light up when making an image, and you may be able to add framing guidelines, but that’s it.
An EVF will, typically, show the image as the capture is going to make it. You get a real-time preview of the depth of field, any color filters you’ve applied, a live histogram, and any other information your camera is able to display. If you’re getting started with photography, you’ll find the preview offered will help you make images in-camera that are truer to the photo.
There are different levels of quality with a viewfinder, regardless of the tech that drives it. Entry-level SLRs typically include pentamirror optical designs, which use a series of mirrors to show you the view through the lens. They are smaller and lighter than the premium, solid glass pentaprism viewfinders found in pricier SLRs. But there are downsides to a pentamirror—images don’t appear as big as with most pentaprisms, you don’t get truly accurate image framing, and pentaprisms tend to be a bit brighter.
The same is true for EVFs. You’ll want to pay attention to the magnification rating—a larger number denotes a bigger EVF—as well as the resolution. Today’s entry-level mirrorless cameras have slightly larger viewfinders than comparable SLRs, backed with 2.4 million dot OLED panels. Spending more on a midrange or pro-level mirrorless camera often, but not always, gets you a larger viewfinder. Look for 0.78x magnification and at 3.7 million dot resolution if you’re shelling out for a flagship.
Continuous Shooting and Autofocus Speed
Interchangeable lens cameras have another big advantage over point-and-shoots—speed. The time that it takes between hitting the shutter button and the camera capturing a picture, referred to as shutter lag, and the wait time between taking photos are often concerns with compact cameras. DSLR and mirrorless cameras generally focus very quickly and deliver shutter lag that is nearly immeasurable.
Continuous shooting is measured in frames per second. Entry-level models typically offer around 5fps capture, but we’ve seen affordable models with capture rates up to 11fps with tracking, and speeds as high as 30fps with focus locked after the first shot. That’s quick enough to satisfy the needs of photographers capturing sports, wildlife, and other types of intense action.
As frame rates increase, autofocus systems do as well. Entry-level SLRs usually only have a few focus points, bunched up toward the center of the frame. This is because of the way SLR focus systems work. Light is not only directed to the viewfinder, but also to a discrete autofocus sensor. The dedicated sensor checks for focus at several points—ranging from around ten for basic systems up to more than 150 for advanced cameras, which also spread points farther across the frame for wider focus coverage.
Mirrorless cameras are different. There’s no autofocus sensor, instead focus is done using the image sensor. The tech has opened up new possibilities for subject recognition, including better subject tracking, automatic face and eye detection, and (for some systems) eye detection for pets.
They’re not all created equal. Some entry mirrorless cameras don’t have all the bells and whistles, and rely on contrast focus for tracking. If you’re interested in photographing action, it’s wise to spend a little more on one with on-sensor phase detection.
Live View and 4K Video
The different focus systems also change the way cameras handle video recording. With an SLR, you’ll need to press a button or tap a switch to change from the optical viewfinder to the rear LCD to facilitate video capture, but with mirrorless cameras, the switch is seamless.
SLRs typically use contrast focus for video capture, which means autofocus is a little slow and choppy when making movies. Most Canon SLRs use the company’s proprietary Dual Pixel AF tech, a type of phase detection that splits each sensor pixel into two. This gives the camera the same smooth, fast focus when recording video as you get from a mirrorless camera.
Mirrorless cameras use the same focus system for video as they do for stills. There’s usually no need to change modes to switch from stills to video, and focus is just as quick and smooth regardless of whether you are capturing stills or moving images.
There are other features to look for if you are serious about filmmaking. At a minimum you’ll want a model with a microphone input for better quality audio. But you’ll also want to look for stabilization, either in-body or in-lens, 4K recording, and a flat log color profile.
Be Realistic About Lenses and Accessories
Most first-time ILC users aren’t going to purchase a whole bevy of lenses, but there are a few to consider to supplement the kit lens that ships with the camera. The first is a telezoom to complement the standard 18-55mm lens. There is usually a matching zoom, starting at 55mm and ranging up to 200mm or 300mm, that will help you get tighter shots of distant action. Plan on budgeting $200 to $300 for this lens.
Another popular lens choice is a fast, normal-angle prime lens. Before zooms were popular, film SLRs were often bundled with a 50mm f/2 lens. The rough equivalent is a 35mm prime on an APS-C sensor and a 25mm on Micro Four Thirds. The standard angle gives you a field of view that isn’t far off from that of your eye, and the fast aperture makes it possible to shoot in lower light and to isolate your subject by blurring the background of your photos. Prices for these lenses vary a bit depending on your camera system, but you can expect them to run you between $175 and $350.
Even though consumer DSLRs have built-in flashes as a rule, mirrorless cameras don’t always include them. To make up for this, you’ll typically find a small, clip-on flash included with an entry-level mirrorless camera. But as long as your camera has a standard hot accessory shoe, you can opt to add a more powerful external flash. These flashes emit more light and can often be repositioned so that you can use reflected light to illuminate a subject. Bouncing flash off of a ceiling to brighten a room is possible with a dedicated flash unit, but not with the ubiquitous pop-up flash. Depending on your needs for power, recycle time, and movement, a dedicated flash can cost anywhere from $150 to $500.
What Else Is Out There?
Want speed and top-notch images, but don’t want to haul a heavy camera and a bunch of lenses? You may spend just as much—or more—on a bridge camera or a compact camera. If you opt for a model with a 1-inch or larger sensor, you’ll find image quality is closer to an ILC than to a smartphone.
If you do opt for an ILC, following our guidelines will help you to choose the camera and lens system that fits your needs and your budget. Just be sure to take time and research your purchase, and go to the store to pick up a couple of cameras to see which feels best. Once you’ve made your pick and are ready to start shooting, check out our 10 Beyond-Basic Photography Tips.