Digital SLR Cameras Buying Guide

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For serious and professional photographers, Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras are the way to go. They offer faster performance and more flexibility with adjusting settings, and changing lenses than even a top-of-the-line point-and-shoot camera.

And thanks to recent innovations, their popularity with casual photographers is growing, too. Many DSLRs now feature preset shooting modes, friendly interfaces, and smaller designs.

You can find great DSLR cameras for well under $1,000. Still, a DSLR is a considerable investment. How to choose the right one? We've got some tips on shopping for a DSLR if you're in the market for one this holiday season. And we've got a few recommendations for cameras that topped our testing over the past year.

Buying advice

The megapixel myth: A high megapixel rating doesn't mean better image quality. However, it does give you more flexibility when making enlargements or cropping. As a point of reference, a 6-megapixel image will produce a top-notch 8-by-10-inch print. Also keep in mind that higher megapixel counts also produce larger files, which in turn take up more room on your hard drive.

Be practical: DSLR prices range from $500 to well beyond $1,000. If you're new to DSLRs, look for a camera in the sub-$1,000 range. They'll have preset shooting modes you can use while you learn how to master the manual settings, and you won't sacrifice much in terms of image quality.

Body only: Some DSLRs are body-only and require that you supply a compatible lens in order to take photos. Others--especially entry-level models--ship as part of a kit that includes a decent-quality multipurpose lens. Kit lenses tend to be relatively slow, meaning you may have trouble getting sharp action shots in low-light situations without a flash. If you tend to shoot indoors, you may want to consider also investing in a faster lens.

Lens selection: If you think you'll want to use different lenses for different shooting situations (like a zoom lens for distance shots, a macro lens, or even a lens with an effect like fish eye), consider the lens selection for the DSLR before you buy the camera. (If you're not sure where to start, read our primer on buying a new lens.)

Image stabilization: DSLRs use one of two methods of image stabilization to offset subtle camera shake. In-lens stabilization tends to be stronger and can produce a stable image in the camera's viewfinder, but because it's in the lens, you won't have stabilization with lenses that don't have it built-in. Sensor-based stabilization corrects subtle camera shake at the sensor within the camera's body. This makes it available with any lens you use, but it's not as strong as in-lens stabilization and you won;t be able to see its effect as you're shooting.

Heavy lifting: A DSLR is larger and heavier than a point-and-shoot camera, so comfort is key. A camera that fits comfortably in one person's hand may be too large or small in someone else's. If size and weight are a serious concern, you may want to consider a Micro Four Thirds camera (more on that in a moment).

Live view: In addition to offering an optical viewfinder, many newer SLRs include a "live-view" LCD, which make it possible to compose shots via the LCD. This makes it easier to take shots at awkward angles since your eye doesn't have to be at the viewfinder.

Dust buster: If you think you'll be changing lenses often, look for a DSLR with an internal sensor cleaner. This will make sure your image sensor is dust free.

Speed: DSLRs don't have the shutter lag that many point and shoot cameras have. But autofocus speed is important, and focusing a DSLR requires pressing the shutter button halfway. If you can get a hands-on experience with a DSLR before you buy, check the autofocus speed.

File formats: DSLRs support the RAW file format, which offers the most editing flexibility when you open the image in an image-editing program. However, if the camera is still relatively new, keep in mind that you may need to wait for editing programs from third-parties, such as Adobe and Apple, to support the camera's raw format. DSLRs also support the JPEG format, which all image editors can read. JPEG uses compression to create smaller file sizes that won't take up as much storage space as RAW. But JPEG image quality isn't as good as RAW.

Storage card: Most DSLRs use either Secure Digital (SD) or CompactFlash (CF) cards. The card that's bundled with the camera is usually of small capacity, so you'll want to buy one or more additional cards with larger capacities. Also, consider memory cards with higher speed ratings; these cards save files faster than standard cards, which can be handy if you plan to do continuous-frame shooting.

Video: Many DLSRs now offer video recording features--often at HD resolution. You'll have to make some usability compromises that you wouldn't have to make if you used a camc order--or even a point-and-shoot camera--but it's a feature that comes in handy. And because you can take advantage of a variety of lenses, including fish-eye lenses, you can achieve interesting video effects with an SLR. Remember, video requires a lot of storage space, so plan accordingly.

Micro Four-Thirds with interchangeable lenses: These cameras (like Panasonic's Lumix DMC-GF1 pictured below) are part of a new product category that sits between true SLRs and advanced point-and-shoots. The Micro Four Thirds specification lays out a camera design that omits an SLR's mirror chamber and moves the sensor closer to the back of the lens. The lack of a mirror chamber allows for a smaller camera body, while moving the sensor closer to the lens allows for smaller lens design.

All of this means that Micro Four Thirds cameras and lenses can be made much smaller than those from a traditional SLR, while delivering the image quality of an SLR and the flexibility of using additional lenses. However, this also means they lack an optical view finder. Some cameras in this category offer an electronic viewfinder instead; other--particularly those at the smaller end of the scale--lack even that and rely on the LCD for framing shots.

Our favorite DSLR cameras

There are several DSLRs you'll want to investigate as you shop for the camera that's right for you.You can view our slideshow of the hottest new DSLR and Micro Four-Thirds cameras available this holiday season. And for quick suggestions, here are some of our top-rated cameras we've reviewed this year.

The Canon EOS Rebel T1i ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) produces high-quality images and does a startlingly good job of shooting in low light at high ISOs. Equipped with a 15.1-megapixel sensor and a Digic 4 processor, the T1i is Canon's best Rebel yet. The T1i is also compact and light and a dazzling 3-inch LCD with Live View. Read our full review. [$900 (Get best current price); Canon]

The Olympus E-30 ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) combines a solid feature set with a truly creative personality. This 12.3-megapixel camera lacks a video capture mode, but it has six Art Filters built into the camera to give your pictures unique artistic looks. The E-30 also has a Multiple Exposure function that combines up to four captures on to one file so you can combine different elements into a single image. Read our full review. [$1000 (Get best current price); Olympus]

With Live View, 720p video capture capability, and great images, the Nikon D5000 ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) is a lot of camera for the price. The D5000 has a tilt-and-swivel screen for when you hold the camera at an angle, 12.3-megapixel resolution, 19 automatic-exposure scene modes, and a maximum burst mode of 4 frames per second. Read our full review. [$800 (Get best current price); Nikon]

[Roman Loyola is a senior reviews editor at Macworld. Ben Long is a senior contributor.]

[Editor's note: This article was originally published on 11/24/2008. It has been updated to reflect changes in the market and with our new picks.]

This story, "Digital SLR Cameras Buying Guide" was originally published by Macworld.

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