By now, most people are using and buying mirrorless cameras, but that doesn’t mean DSLRs are worthless. You can still buy a DSLR new like the Canon 1DX III or the Nikon D850. And, because most people are selling their older cameras, you can get amazingly good DSLRs lightly used for an excellent price. Since most types of photography can be done just as easily with a DSLR as with a mirrorless camera, you shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of buying a DSLR, and this guide will get you started with all the information you need.
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What is a DSLR?
DSLR stands for digital single-lens reflex camera. This means that a DSLR is a camera that uses a mirror mechanism to reflect light to a viewfinder through a lens. Basically, a DSLR is like an older SLR film camera but with the film replaced with a digital sensor.
DSLRs are a lot different than mirrorless cameras that many people use today, which use the input through the sensor to display an image through a viewfinder or rear screen. If you’re interested in the inner workings of DSLRs, check out What is a DSLR?. You might think that since DSLRs are older, they are not as capable. But they still have some advantages due to their single-lens reflex design:
- The DSLR optical viewfinder shows the light directly from the scene and is often superior to many EVFs, and some people prefer the optical viewfinder
- DSLRs use less battery power, since they don’t need battery power to activate the viewfinder
- Used DSLRs are cheaper and don’t require adapaters to use older, DLSR lenses. For Nikon cameras, many Nikon DSLRs can still autofocus screw-drive lenses whereas Nikon mirrorless cameras cannot
Which Brand of DSLR Should You Buy?
There are two major brands of DSLRs: Nikon and Canon. Most other camera companies today only produce mirrorless cameras. Either brand is fine, and which one you get may depend on where you are and what is available. In terms of mid-tier DSLRs, Nikon has slightly more competitive offerings such as the D500 and D850, which outperform Canon’s offerings like the older Canon 7DII, Canon 5D Mark IV, and Canon 90D. In terms of flagships, the Canon 1DX III, 1DX II and Nikon D6 and D5 are all amazing cameras.
I would generally consider the lens selection before buying. Both Canon and Nikon have some unique lenses that aren’t available in the other’s camp. I tend to recommend Nikon more for wildlife, especially because of their PF lenses like the 500mm f/5.6 PF, but I think for most applications, both brands will work well.
It’s worth noting that Ricoh still makes DSLRs under the brand Pentax, and in fact they’re the only ones still investing into DSLR development. Their latest Pentax K3 III is a fairly advanced camera, and perhaps one of the nicest DSLRs out there. The only downside to Pentax is that Pentax has fewer lenses compared to Canon and Nikon. But if all the lenses you need are offered by Pentax, they are worth looking into.
Check out complete list of the best DSLRs you can buy in 2023 for a starting point.
Where Should You Buy a DSLR?
Where you buy a DSLR is as important. There are some DSLRs that you can still buy new, such as the Pentax K3 III, Nikon D6, and Canon 1DX III. In this case, check out your local camera store, B&H Photo, or Adorama. These sites will often have discounts on older models. The only thing to be aware of is that some sites like B&H sometimes sell grey-market cameras. Of course, B&H clearly marks the camera as grey-market, and thus consequently, that the camera isn’t covered under the same warranty as the domestic model.
The next option is a used DSLR. The same sites above like B&H and even your local camera store may have some lightly used models (assuming you even have a local camera store). But there is a far larger used market out there. Some stores like KEH specialize in used DSLRs and other gear, and then of course there are local marketplaces like Craigslist and the Fred Miranda forum.
Personally, I only buy gear from sellers online like those on Fred Miranda who have high ratings and good feedback. Local sellers are another option, but they can be more flaky and have unusually high prices sometimes, but they could be a good option if you take your precautions.
For more information, check out our guide on how to buy a used DSLR!
Frequently Asked Questions About Buying a DSLR
1) I only have a phone. Should I get a DSLR?
This is probably the most frequently asked question by those who are just getting into photography. First of all, there is a common misconception that one can only create professional-looking pictures with a professional camera. This is absolutely not true. Some of the best photographs out there are shot with point-and-shoot cameras and yes, people even manage to take awesome pictures using their phone cameras.
However, a DSLR is a great option for a beginner. Not only can you save a lot of money compared to getting the latest mirrorless camera, but you can also use your DSLR lenses on a mirrorless camera later. Here is a list of advantages DSLR cameras have over phones or point and shoots:
- Ability to change lenses and depth of field. A point and shoot has an integrated general purpose lens, while you can get a wide range of lenses for a DSLR. If you are wondering why you would need different lenses, take a look at this shot:
You would not be able to get this shot with a point and shoot (unless you had digiscoping gear) because the coyote would not let you get that close. Even if it did, it would feel threatened and run away or perhaps even attack you. I used a long telephoto lens to produce this picture and you cannot mount a lens like that on a point and shoot. Ability to mount different lenses is quite powerful, since you can capture anything from landscapes with wide lenses to little birds with long telephoto lenses. Another big advantage is something called “depth of field“. See how the background is blurred on the above photo, while the coyote is sharp and in focus? A DSLR allows you to change the depth of field and you can control the background blur on your photographs (also known as “Bokeh“), from smooth to harsh.
- Overall better image quality. A DSLR has a bigger sensor than a point and shoot, resulting in less noise, faster speeds and better image quality.
- Shutter and focus speeds. DSLRs can acquire focus very quickly and take multiple shots per second. Have you ever tried to photograph a flying bird with a point and shoot? Moving subjects are extremely hard to photograph with point and shoot cameras because they lack good focus/shutter speeds.
- You see what you shoot. A DSLR is constructed with reflex mirrors, which means that you look through the lens, instead of a see-through hole in the camera. This is especially useful in long telephoto lenses, because you can adjust focus on your subject as if you are looking through binoculars.
- Lots of ways to control the camera. Although some of the new point and shoots have a good number of manual controls, DSLRs have the most ability to control the camera. You can customize everything from ISO to focus points and even create your own custom layouts (in more advanced DSLRs).
If you want to see a more detailed comparison between point and shoot and DSLR cameras, please see Lola’s point and shoot vs DSLR camera article.
Let’s move on to the next important question.
How many megapixels do I need?
While there was once a race for megapixels, there isn’t much choice in the DSLR realm now since you will likely have to get a fairly recent model if you want something that still works. For an APS-C camera, you will likely get something in the 16MP-32MP range. I would recommend getting something in the 20MP range or higher for APS-C cameras since they will have a more recent sensor.
For full-frame cameras, there is still the choice between a lower-resolution model around 24MP or a higher-resolution model around 45MP. This is mostly dictated by price: the higher-resolution models will still be more expensive, even if they are a little older. There are specific reasons to get more megapixels, but for most people, and especially for beginners, a 24MP camera ought to be enough.
What Should I Do After Buying My First DSLR?
Read about photography! The best book on digital photography is Bryan Peterson’s “Understanding Exposure“. I learned a lot from this book and it will definitely help you to get started. It covers all the basics of photography and even covers some advanced techniques for you to practice. Make sure to practice everything you learn – I would read the book with a camera in your hands. There are lots of other great books by such authors as Ansel Adams, Joe McNally and Scott Kelby that are absolutely worth reading.
In addition to traditional books, there is a wealth of information online. Here are the sites I visit regularly and learn a lot from (in no particular order):
There are many more websites on the Internet that provide lots of useful information and I’m sure you will find your own favorites soon.
My friends say DSLRs are outdated. Is that true?
Absolutely not. A DSLR works just as well as a mirrorless camera in 99% of cases. It is true that mirrorless cameras have some advantages, such as better video tools and silent shutter, but a DSLR can take shots every bit as good as any mirrorless camera.
Of course, mirrorless cameras are more future-proof in the sense that they are more supported now. However, if you can find a cheap, high-end DSLR, it’s still worthwhile to get it because it will last at least five years, and in that time if you really want a mirrorless camera, you can buy a lightly used one later.
Now that most companies have stopped manufacturing DSLRs, you might think you need to get a mirrorless camera. However, that is simply not true. A good, used DSLR will last for many years and many be much cheaper than getting a high-end mirrorless camera.
I hope this guide helps you in picking your first DSLR, and please let me know if you have any comments or questions.