The DSLR has evolved over decades, and today’s digital SLR cameras benefit from those generations of product evolutions. When you have to capture the lightning-fast action, with precise focus and reliable performance, the DSLR can be counted on to get the shot.
There has been a lot of attention lately on an unusual corner of the camera universe. For generations, the cameras garnering the most attention from “serious” photographers were DSLRs, but recently it has been smaller, more compact mirrorless cameras that have garnered the lion’s share of press. So, does that mean DSLRs are passé? Not by a long shot. The standard in professional cameras is still the DSLR.
How DSLRs Work
A DSLR is a digital single-lens-reflex camera. The word “reflex” refers to a mirror inside the camera between the sensor and the lens that directs light to the viewfinder for composing and autofocusing, then swings out of the way at the instant of exposure. Initially, this was a distinction from the original 35mm film camera format, the rangefinder, which featured two lenses—one for viewing, one for taking—a design that caused the occasional misaligned composition since the photographer could never see exactly what the taking lens would see. This issue was known as parallax, and it’s the first problem solved by the SLR: The optical viewfinder provides a direct view through the taking lens, ensuring the photographer and sensor see exactly the same image.
It’s never been the DSLR’s ability to fight parallax that makes it popular, but rather that, compared to point-and-shoots and many compact cameras, it’s the DSLR’s ability to provide lots of features and total manual control that makes it the first choice of professionals and advanced amateurs alike. DSLRs, by virtue of size and design, have room for more buttons and switches that put exposure controls and things like white balance, autofocus adjustments and drive settings all at the photographer’s fingertips. For photographers who insist on total control, the DSLR is the camera that’s built to most easily provide it.
Photographers gain even more imaging control through the vast array of lenses and accessories that manufacturers have long made first and foremost for DSLRs. A Canon or Nikon user, for instance, has dozens if not hundreds of lens options available from multiple manufacturers, such as Sigma, Tamron, Tokina and Zeiss—not to mention the camera manufacturers themselves. For example, a photographer will find more than 20 distinctly different options on the first page of B&H’s search results for “Canon 50mm.” Nikon shooters might be surprised to learn that their 60-year-old F-mount lenses will still function on today’s newest Nikon DSLRs. DSLRs rule for photographers who want lens options.
Speaking of options, DSLRs are the standard among photographers for whom certain highly specialized lenses and accessories are required. Sports and wildlife shooters, for instance, need ultra-long telephotos—like 600mm and 800mm focal lengths—to reach out and practically touch distant subjects. Other photographers may need lenses with larger optics to provide faster—i.e., wider—maximum apertures that are essential for working in low light. There’s no camera system that compares to the vast universe built to serve DSLRs.
The DSLR also tends to be where a camera manufacturer first implements its latest innovations. This is particularly true of the high-end, professional models used by the photographers who are typically the most demanding when it comes to image quality, resolution and autofocus speed, as well as build quality, weather resistance and longevity.
Photographers ready to purchase a DSLR have a fundamental choice to make, even before deciding upon which brand and model of camera they like, and that’s a question of sensor size. A “full-frame” DSLR has a sensor approximately the same size as a single frame of 35mm film. These sensors tend to offer high-quality, low-noise, large file sizes and the ability to produce shallower depth of field—a technique relished, in particular, by portrait photographers and those who count on beautiful bokeh to replace distracting background details. Depth of field is based largely on aperture size, but it’s also impacted by the focal length’s proportion to the sensor—meaning ƒ/4 on a 100mm lens delivers a shallower depth of field on a full-frame sensor than it would on an APS-C sensor. APS-C, by the way, is a popular smaller sensor size found in many DSLRs. These smaller sensors produce a “crop factor” on lenses, effectively magnifying focal lengths by 50 or 60 percent. (A 100mm lens on an APS-C sensor, for instance, will perform equivalent to a 150mm lens on a full-frame sensor. For photographers who shoot wide angles a lot, full-frame sensors become even more important.
It’s important to mention, too, that a DSLR—particularly if it’s one of the flagship models mentioned first off below—is more ruggedly constructed and weatherproof than almost any other consumer electronics device. The technology found in high-end DSLRs eventually makes its way into other camera devices. But why wait? For serious photographers, there are lots of serious options available right now in the world of DSLRs.
DSLRs Of Note
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II And Nikon D5
When it comes to DSLRs, the biggest games in town are Canon and Nikon. And, for professional photographers who want top-of-the-line, professional DSLRs, the choice is either the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II or the Nikon D5. Each camera was introduced early in 2016, and each has remained perched at the top of its respective product line ever since. Perhaps surprisingly, these flagship models don’t deliver massive file sizes. In fact, at 20.2 and 20.8 megapixels, respectively, there are many higher-resolution options available from each manufacturer. But what the bodies do possess are the features, reputation and rugged build to withstand the rigors of the most demanding professional photographers—whether they’re journalists assigned to war zones or fashion photographers who never leave their New York studios. The cameras share other features in common as well, including their large size, heavy-duty magnesium-alloy construction, full-frame CMOS sensors, 4K video capability and ISO ranges from a low of 50 to a ridiculously high 409,600 for the Canon and a whopping 3,280,000 for the Nikon. They also offer the best each company has to offer in autofocus speed and accuracy, with a 61-point high-density reticular AF II system in the 1D X Mark II and a 153-point system in the D5. If you’re the kind of photographer who demands the best, these are the DSLRs for you.
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II Price: $5,999. Website: usa.canon.com
Nikon D5 Price: $6,499. Website: nikonusa.com
Canon EOS 6D Mark II
Canon’s EOS 6D marked the unofficial advent of a full-frame yet affordable, entry-level DSLR. Now the company’s newest full-frame DSLR, the EOS 6D Mark II, improves on the idea. This well-balanced camera uses a 26.2-megapixel CMOS sensor with Dual Pixel AF to provide improved autofocus and higher resolution than its predecessor. Thanks to the new DIGIC 7 processor, the camera can process image files quickly to deliver 6.5 fps continuous shooting. The 3-inch LCD screen is touch-sensitive and fully articulating—a look at the likely future for full-frame DSLRs. Native ISOs range from 100 to 40,000, and can be expanded to 102,400 for shooting in near-total darkness. Built-in GPS makes location-tagging images easier, and WiFi, near-field communication and Bluetooth provide easy-to-use options for efficient data transfer—no cables or accessories required. Weather-sealed construction is helpful for pros who want a dependable backup camera. Those pros might find the 45-point autofocus, maximum shutter speed of 1/4000th or lack of 4K video capability a bit of a limitation, but for advanced amateurs who are serious about full-frame image quality, no crop factor and robust features, the 6D Mark II is a great place to start.
Price: $1,699. Website: usa.canon.com
The full-frame Nikon D850 is built for those who want professional features in a slightly smaller, more affordable DSLR (read: about half the price) than the top-of-the-line Nikon D5. The D850 features a 45.7-megapixel BSI (backside illuminated) CMOS sensor and EXPEED 5 Image Processor for sustained image quality and 7 fps speed, even in low-light conditions. Incorporating 4K UHD video recording makes the camera useful for serious video shooters, too, and the expandable ISO range from 32 to 102,400 (native 64 to 25,600) allows photographers to dial in exactly the exposure settings they’re after, no matter the light. A 153-point autofocus system has trickled down from the flagship D5, and 99 cross-type sensors make focusing in low lighting fast and accurate. A 3.2-inch touch-screen display and large optical viewfinder make composing, viewing and menu adjustments a snap. This camera can seemingly do it all—stills and video, and fast focusing, even in low light.
Price: $3,299. Website: www.nikonusa.com
The Pentax KP DSLR is good for those who want a slightly smaller form factor without sacrificing the rugged build and weatherproof characteristics of a more expensive DSLR. Incorporating a 24.3-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor, the KP is missing one piece of fairly standard DSLR equipment: an anti-aliasing filter between sensor and lens to eliminate moiré. The AA filter also slightly hampers the sharpness of the sensor so, without it, a DSLR like the KP is able to produce sharper, crisper images. Built-in WiFi makes image transmission easy, while in-body shake reduction means every lens that’s attached to this camera becomes automatically stabilized up to five stops during handholding. Video shooters will appreciate the full HD 1080p/30 fps, as well as 4K video settings. Photographers who work in the cold will appreciate the KP’s dedication to work with them, as the camera remains capable down to -14° F. A 3-inch touchscreen can articulate, and optional battery grips (three) can make this a great value on a broadly capable DSLR.
Price: $899. Website: us.ricoh-imaging.com
Canon EOS Rebel SL2
The Canon EOS Rebel SL2 is the latest in a long line of venerable—yet—affordable DSLRs from Canon. It packs a tremendous punch into its small, lightweight body. The camera has a 24MP APS-C sensor and the company’s DOGOC 7 processor. The processor, combined with the Dual Pixel autofocus system, allows the camera to lock onto subjects incredibly quickly in both Live View and video shooting modes, and the camera can capture stills up to 5 fps. This Rebel has a lot of higher-end features, without a higher end price tag. The camera has a 3-inch fully-articulating LCD touchscreen and an interface that won’t send users scrambling to find a manual. To transfer images, the Rebel SL2 has both Wifi and Bluetooth connectivity, allowing for in-the-field transfer of images to your mobile device. For photo enthusiasts, it’s a nice starting point when moving up from camera phones or compact camera systems.
Price: $549. Website: usa.canon.com