Best SLR: which should you buy?

We explain how SLRs work, what to look for and how to choose the right one

Best SLR which should you buy

Digital SLRs are what most people would consider a 'proper' camera. Our camera reviews list every new DSLR because this is a very important sector in the digital camera market. It's the type of camera chosen by professional photographers and keen amateurs, and for three main reasons:

First, digital SLRs have much larger sensors than compact cameras. This has nothing to do with megapixels – it's about the sensor's physical dimensions. Larger sensors give sharper, smoother images and better quality in poor light.

Second, digital SLRs take interchangeable lenses. They're usually supplied with a general-purpose 'kit' lens which covers everyday needs, but you can also get specialist lenses for ultra-wideangle shots, long-range telephoto work, portraits, architecture and more.

Third, you get much more manual control. You can get different creative effects by adjusting the shutter speed, lens aperture and focus yourself rather than leaving it to the camera to do it automatically.

Best D SLR
Canon and Nikon are the two big names in digital SLRs, but Pentax is a third contender with cameras like the high-end K-3

DSLRs vs mirrorless CSCs

All these advantages apply to the new breed of mirrorless compact system cameras too. The key difference is that DSLRs have a mirror in the body reflecting the image up into an optical viewfinder, whereas mirrorless cameras use the sensor itself to generate an image which is fed to a screen on the back of the camera and sometimes an electronic viewfinder too.

Some people prefer optical viewfinders and the size and feel of a DSLR. Others prefer the small size and 'always on' live view of a mirrorless compact system camera. It's a debate that's likely to carry on for some time.

DSLRs for beginners

Digital SLRs have a reputation for being complex and intimidating, but they can actually be as straightforward to use as a regular compact digital camera. The important thing is to choose a camera that you feel you can get to grips with.

A typical entry-level SLR has plenty of automatic control options, such as 'scene modes' for landscapes, portraits and other subjects, which allow the user to concentrate on timing and composition while the camera handles exposure and white balance etc. The more advanced exposure modes (aperture priority, shutter priority and manual) are also usually present to give 'room to grow' as you gain in experience.

Most entry-level SLRs are small, light and inexpensive. They lack the robustness and features of more expensive models, but they're still capable of taking top-quality shots.

See our list of DSLRs for beginners for our current favourite models.

DSLRs for enthusiasts

Digital SLRs designed for enthusiasts generally have more of everything – more megapixels, faster continuous shooting, more advanced features, better movie modes and other options designed for photographers who've moved beyond the basics.

These cameras will still have fully automatic modes for new users, or for situations where you don't have time to mess with manual adjustments, but when you do want to take control you'll find it easier than it is with a beginner model.

Dual card slots
Some cameras have dual card slots to increase the overall storage capacity or store live backups.

Digital SLRs for enthusiasts are generally larger, heavier and more robust. They may have metal construction and weather sealing for adverse conditions and some full-frame DSLRs now fall within the price range of keen photographers.

Metal D SLR body
Enthusiast and pro-level SLRs will often have metal bodies for greater durability.

See our list of DSLRs for enthusiasts.

DSLRs for professionals

Professional DSLRs don't always have the highest resolution sensors. Pros look for different things in their cameras, and one of the primary factors is robustness and longevity. Pro DSLRs have strongly-made metal alloy bodies, no-fuss controls which make no concessions for novices but are built to withstand hard use in all kinds of conditions, and will usually have larger-than-usual batteries so that they can shoot for longer.