The cameras used to photograph news events, take family photos and snap pics of your adorable cat have changed over the years — and from hobbyists to professionals, there’s healthy market interest that pushes for cameras that are smaller, faster and better. It’s accelerated innovation — if you’re a true enthusiast, you’ll probably consider the camera you buy today to be obsolete in a matter of a few years. The big manufacturers continue to develop new features to woo photographers away from their current tools of choice.
One innovation that stands out is the introduction of the SLR, or single-lens reflex camera. It used a mirror and a prism so that the image you saw through the viewfinder was more accurate to the one that would actually be captured on film. It was followed by the DSLR, or digital single-lens reflex camera, which used the same technology but saved the image digitally rather than on film.
Today, there’s no shortage of cameras on the market. Interestingly, photo apps such as Instagram — sometimes said to glorify poor photography by adding an easy filter — have renewed people’s interest in actually taking good pictures. The question, then, is where to start?
If you haven’t used a DSLR before, you may not be familiar with the technology that makes it different — what makes it the preferred camera for experienced photographers. Some components include the optical viewfinder and interchangeable lenses. Cameras in general utilize lots of interesting technology, but we’ll focus on a few key pieces that make the DSLR different.
A Mirror and a Prism
Unlike an SLR, a DSLR will often have two viewfinders — a digital display which is also used for menus or to view photos already taken, and the traditional optical viewfinder, which represents the main selling point of an SLR over the cameras that came before it.
In an SLR or DSLR, the optical viewfinder or eyepiece offers the most accurate optical preview so the photographer can be confident the photo is framed well and the lighting is correct before she snaps a shot. It’s nearly the same as the image that is captured.
So, when you line up the shot, the light enters through the lens (which is removable and interchangeable, as you’ll see below). Light is reflected twice before becoming what you see through the viewfinder. The first time it is reflected off the mirror, and the second time, it is reflected off a pentaprism. A pentaprism is used in the viewfinder to reflect an image at a right angle without reversing it. It has five sides to deviate a beam of light and is used in higher-end DSLRs. An alternative is the pentamirror, which is cheaper and lighter, but the viewfinder image will be less bright and lower quality.
When the picture is taken, the mirror moves, which causes the viewfinder to go black momentarily, so the light can shine directly onto the sensor that takes the picture (in an SLR, the light would have hit the film).
The biggest selling point of DSLRs is customization. Different lenses are used for different environments, perhaps due to lighting, or to zoom. The downside is that lenses can sometimes cost just as much as the camera body itself. It’s easy to get excited about the cool pictures you could take with a lens that allows you to, say, zoom in to capture every detail of a bug hovering over a flower — but you run the risk of buying a lens for every possible situation, and it’s not likely you’ll lug all your lenses with you wherever you go. It’s best to start with two or three that you’ll use frequently.
Not every lens is compatible with every DSLR camera body, but there are adaptors that enable you to use a certain lens with your camera even if they weren’t built to be used with each other. Even different brands can be used together.
Mirrorless cameras also allow for interchangeable lenses without the bulk of a DSLR, and with comparable quality, but do not provide the direct optical preview — which is really what makes an SLR or DSLR different.
The flexibility of a DSLR is what makes it the best tool for experienced photographers and also serves as a barrier of entry for newbies. The focus and exposure can be adjusted manually. The optical viewfinder allows a photographer see the most accurate representation of what the photo will actually look like — so it’s up to the photographer to make the adjustments that will capture the image as desired.
Do you use a DSLR? What do you love about it? Tell us in the comments below.