What Is a DSLR Camera?

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Updated July 25, 2022
What is a DSLR Camera
Discover what makes a digital SLR camera a DSLR.

Learn all about the best digital camera. We have the info.

Those photographers who have used a basic digital camera know the simplicity with which those devices work. Point. Shoot. Done. Those looking for a higher-quality camera, such as a DSLR camera, know they’ll have to sacrifice some of that simplicity to achieve better image quality. The Nikon Coolpix S9700 – Best Thin Zoom Travel Camera is a good example. Before you begin seeking a more advanced camera though, you’ll be well served to answer the question: What is a DSLR camera?

DSLR is short for a digital Single Reflex Lens, or digital SLR, camera. A DSLR differs from other types of modern digital cameras in terms of the technology and components used to create the image.

Basic DSLR Design

A DSLR borrows its basic design from SLR 35mm film cameras that dominated the camera market for many decades. The DSLR camera uses a mirror to block the light traveling through the lens from reaching the image sensor, redirecting it toward the viewfinder, where a pentaprism mirror reflects it through the viewfinder window, so you can see it. (In the SLR film camera, the mirror blocked the light from striking the film, rather than the image sensor.) Additionally, if the image isn’t clear, you may have to clean the DSLR’s mirror. Not keeping it clean can also prevent the horizontal split focus on a digital camera.

When you press the DSLR’s shutter button, the mirror lifts out of the way, allowing the light to reach the image sensor, recording the digital photo. The process of the mirror lifting out of place and then returning to its position, all of which usually occurs in a fraction of a second, may cause a clicking or slapping sound from the mirror’s movement. This mode is called the DSLR’s Viewfinder mode. Alternatively, if the camera delays while taking pictures there might be a bigger issue to investigate.

When working in the DSLR’s Live View mode, you’ll be able to see the scene on the display screen, as the mirror lifts out of the way continuously. However, the DSLR camera works more slowly in Live View mode than it does when using Viewfinder mode. When a DSLR records a movie, it must work in Live View mode.

DSLR Camera Advantages

A DSLR camera offers a host of advantages over other kinds of digital cameras, smartphone cameras, and even film cameras. If you’ve ever wondered about a DSLR camera versus a point-and-shoot camera, some of the DSLR camera advantages include:

  • High Image Quality: DSLR camera makers give these advanced models large image sensors in terms of physical size, which equates to high-end image quality versus other digital cameras with smaller sensors. DSLR cameras also can record in the RAW image format, where the camera’s software does not apply any compression, as occurs with the more common JPEG image format and which may cause a slight loss in image quality.
  • Full Manual Control: As you gain experience as a photographer, you’re going to learn more about how light and other factors affect your image results. As you learn more, you will want to have more control over the camera’s settings, which is possible with a DSLR camera versus a simple point-and-shoot camera that works primarily in automatic mode.
  • Performance and Speed: DSLR cameras work very fast compared to more basic cameras, allowing for faster recovery between shots, minimal shutter lag, and better continuous shot performance, called burst mode.
  • Interchangeable Lenses: A DSLR camera contains a lens mount, on which you can attach different lenses, which each have different strengths. By changing the lenses, you can change the capability of the camera quite effectively. A fixed lens camera is one where the lens is built into the camera body and cannot be swapped out.
  • Viewfinder: Few fixed lens digital cameras offer viewfinders, but all DSLR cameras have viewfinders as a part of their original film SLR design. Some photographers prefer viewfinders to frame the scene on a display screen.

What to Know About DSLR Cameras

Nikon D7200 What Is a DSLR Camera
The Nikon D7200 DSLR camera makes use of interchangeable lenses and has a large image sensor, allowing it to create images of great quality.

The list of manufacturers who offer DSLR cameras is not very long, led by stalwarts Nikon and Canon. Some camera makers seeking to offer advanced interchangeable lens cameras have chosen to not compete with the top two manufacturers in the DSLR category and have turned their attention to mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (or ILCs).

A mirrorless ILC offers great image quality and manual controls but in a smaller form factor than the DSLR, because the mirrorless ILC doesn’t include the flip-up mirror in the design. As a general rule, mirrorless ILCs can’t quite match DSLR cameras in image quality, but they are another option for those seeking advanced cameras.

The best DSLR camera makers are:

  • Canon DSLR Cameras: Canon’s Rebel line of DSLR cameras are especially popular as starter DSLR cameras, and Canon also offers some high-end, professional-level DSLRs.
  • Nikon DSLR Cameras: Nikon’s DSLR cameras appeal to all ranges of photographers, including professionals, just as did the company’s high-end film cameras.
  • Ricoh/Pentax DSLR Cameras: Ricoh now manufactures DSLR cameras under the Pentax brand name, carrying over from Pentax’s strong film SLR line of cameras.
  • Olympus Digital Cameras: Olympus now offers more mirrorless ILCs than DSLRs, but it still has a few older DSLR models available.
  • Sony Digital Cameras: Sony once offered nearly a dozen DSLR models, but the company has cut back in the past few years, focusing on mirrorless ILCs.

Final Thoughts

While answering the question, what is a DSLR camera, you do need to understand a couple of potential drawbacks to these types of advanced models. First, they’re usually more expensive than fixed lens cameras, sometimes quite a bit more expensive. The “extra” costs can be quite high too, as you add lenses, external flash units, tripods, and other components to your budget. And DSLR cameras are large and heavy compared to even the best compact cameras and smartphone cameras, which some people will not like.

But the design of this type of model means a DSLR camera can be used in many different types of photography situations, making it more versatile than a point-and-shoot camera. And a more basic camera simply cannot match the image quality of a DSLR. The design and performance levels of DSLRs are perfect for those photographers who are looking to create more than a simple snapshot they can share on Twitter.

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