How to buy: DSLR cameras

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While today’s point-and-shoot and advanced fixed-lens digital cameras produce excellent image quality at very affordable prices, you’ll need a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera to get high-quality images and to maintain maximum creative control over your shots. DSLRs are analogous to 35mm film cameras, though there are some very critical differences between the two.

Camera manufacturers now recognize that hobbyists and other nonprofessional shooters have become more serious—and more skilled—at producing a wide variety of photographic images and are demanding more-affordable DSLRs to help them do it. While the $1,000 DSLR price barrier was broken several years ago, lower-priced cameras with more-extensive features have been released in the past year. If you’ve thought of switching to a DSLR, considered upgrading from the one you already have, or wondered what all the DSLR hoopla is about, read on to learn the differences between SLR and point-and-shoot cameras and to check out our reviews of five of the newest DSLR models:

  • Canon Digital Rebel XTi;   ;
  • Nikon D40;   ;
  • Nikon D80;   ;
  • Pentax K100D;   ;
  • Sony Alpha DSLR-A100K;   ;
  • You say ‘SLR,’ I say ‘bigger’

    SLR stands for single-lens reflex, and a DSLR uses the same mechanism found in the traditional 35mm film cameras that many pros and amateurs have used for more than 100 years. The viewfinder on an SLR is a through the lens, or TTL, viewfinder. Thanks to a complex series of mirrors and prisms, when you look through the viewfinder of an SLR, you are looking through the same lens that exposes the sensor. When you press the shutter button, a mirror moves out of the way (this is the reflex part) so that the light passing through the lens illuminates the sensor.

    A point-and-shoot camera uses its main lens to expose the sensor and a separate lens for its optical viewfinder. If there is no optical viewfinder, then the main lens illuminates the sensor, and the sensor generates the image that the camera’s LCD screen shows. Though you could argue that an LCD viewfinder is a TTL viewfinder (it is, after all, looking through the same lens that exposes the image), there’s an important difference: in an LCD viewfinder, you’re limited to an image generated by the camera’s sensor, and that sensor is much less sensitive than your eye. Consequently, you may not be able to see dark shadows and other details that would be visible through an optical viewfinder, making informed exposure decisions difficult.

    The reflex mechanism—the series of mirrors and prisms—that enables an SLR to use one lens for both the viewfinder and the exposure requires a fair amount of physical space. Therefore, SLRs tend to be bigger than their point-and-shoot counterparts.

    This additional space requirement yields an advantage: it allows camera makers to build cameras that have larger sensors. A larger sensor can hold more pixels than a smaller sensor, and those pixels can be larger than on a smaller sensor. Larger pixels provide a better signal-to-noise ratio and allow for images that have less noise and better dynamic range.

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