What SLRs are there for different types of user?
The SLR market can be divided into broad sectors, catering for novices, enthusiasts, semi-pro and full-blown professional photographers.
A typical entry-level SLR has plenty of automatic control options that 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 light on buttons and dials, and may make greater use of menus for some adjustments.
Stepping up to the next level introduces more features, perhaps a touchscreen (although these are still uncommon on an SLR) and a faster processor that enables higher continuous shooting rates. Although most enthusiast level SLRs have an APS-C format sensor, there are some, such as the Nikon D610 and Canon 6D which have full-frame sensors. You may also find that there are more complex autofocusing systems, which are particularly useful for shooting moving subjects, and addiitonal physical controls which can make changing settings quicker than using a menu.
Top pro models tend to have super-higher pixel counts (D800) or are can rattle off large numberds of images in next to no time.
- Buying guide: best SLR for beginners
- Buying guide: best SLR for enthusiasts
- Buying guide: best top-end SLR
Four things you need to know
Sensor type: as we've seen, the type of sensor is an important consideration, as it also affects price. Full-frame SLRs are popular with serious portrait and landscape pros as they can potentially capture more of a scene, and in more detail. For many enthusiast photographers, however, a higher-end APS-C format SLR is a good (and cheaper) compromise.
Resolution: don't obsess about 'more is better' when it comes to megapixels in SLRs. While the Nikon D800 boasts a 36Mp sensor, the downside is very large (30Mb plus) raw files, which can eat up memory cards and computing power.
Storage: If you're a heavy duty user, it's worth getting an SLR with dual memory slots to maximise your storage options. Modern SLRs now take SD/SDHC or Compact Flash cards.
Lenses: Canon and Nikon, the main SLR makers, offer a massive lens choice for every situation. Be aware that the kit lenses you get with cheaper SLRs tend to be built down to a price, so be prepared to upgrade. You can use full-frame lenses on APS-C SLRs, but they will be subject to the increased crop factor; full-frame lenses either won't work on APS-C SLRs, or will only use a small part of the sensor.
How much will I need to spend?
An entry level SLR, such as the EOS 1100D/EOS Rebel T3 costs around £240/US$350, while a good starting point for a quality enthusiast SLR such as the Nikon D7100 is £1000/US$1500. To go full frame, you'll start off around £1400/US$1900 (body only) while pro SLRs such as the Nikon D4s will set you back around £5000/US$6500.
What other things should I consider?
Don't forget that each SLR maker has its own type of lens mount – so a Canon SLR lens won't work on a Nikon SLR unless you buy an adaptor. Many older film lenses will work on digital SLRs but you might need an adaptor, and might lose some functionality – check with your SLR maker before you buy.
Other SLR jargon explained
Optical viewfinders: the typical SLR viewfinder is essentially a reversed telescope that lets you see what the camera sees.
Live view: a feature that allows the SLR's screen to be used as a viewfinder; useful for studio/candid compositions and checking sharpness when focusing manually.
Phase detection focusing: the fast, responsive autofocus system used by digital SLRs.
Focal length: the distance in mm from the optical centre of a lens to a point at which a subject at infinity appears in sharp focus.
Now you know a bit more about which type of SLR you need, take a look at our buying guides to find teh perfect SLR for you.