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What Is a DSLR Camera Exactly?

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DSLR cameras are the standard, most popular camera choice by far. They are versatile and offer professional photographs with high image quality. They can also work with an array of interchangeable lenses or lens types.

So what is a DSLR camera exactly? Read on to find out.

A Canon DSLR camera resting on a table outdoors
Photo by Oscar Ivan Esquivel Arteaga on Unsplash

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What Is a DSLR Camera?

Whatever your budget or subject is, a DSLR is a great choice. But what does DSLR stand for, or even mean?

DSLR is the abbreviation for Digital Single Lens Reflex. I can still see people scratching their heads, so let’s expand.

Digital means that the camera doesn’t operate with photosensitive film. Instead, there is a fixed, digital sensor in it.

Single-lens means the camera uses the same lens for framing, focusing, and taking the photograph. This is different from rangefinder and twin-lens-reflex constructions. With those types, you can’t see the view from the lens that will take the shot. This leaves you with the need to rely on other methods for setting up the shot.

Reflex refers to a system where a mirror splits or directs the incoming light towards the optical viewfinder. It allows you to see an exact, optical view of the scene. This mirror can be fixed and semi-transparent (in SLT-type cameras) or can flip up during exposure (in SLRs and DSLR).

(To learn more about photography basics, check out our Photography for Beginners course!)

How Does a DSLR Work?

A DSLR system consists of two main elements: the lens and the camera body. These can be interchanged to an extent. Professionals have multiple lenses and often more than one camera.

Understanding their basic concept is not rocket science. It is explained best by showing the way of light:

Illustration on how a D S L R camera works

First, light hits the lens from the front. Then, it travels through the lens, which shapes it to a form the photographer desires. Shortly after, it makes its way through the lens mount to the camera.

It encounters the main mirror. The mirror reflects most of it upwards, to the viewfinder. There, a pentaprism or a pentamirror directs it to the viewer’s eye, allowing you to see exactly what the lens sees.

Meanwhile, in SLRs and DSLRs with autofocus, a small portion of the incoming light actually passes through the main mirror. There, it hits the secondary mirror, which directs it down to the autofocusing sensor.

As you can see, in this state none of the light hits the imaging sensor. This is a key trait of DSLR systems.

Now, let’s press the shutter button and take a photo. At this moment, the mirrors flip up, enabling light to hit the sensor. Consequently, there is a blackout in the viewfinder – the main mirror no more reflects anything there.

The shutter mechanism, right in front of the sensor, opens up. It exposes the image and closes down after a set amount of time. That time is called the shutter speed.

After the exposure, the moving parts go back to their previous state.

Why Do You Need a DSLR ?

Why do most professionals use a DSLR? What is so unique about them?

First, it is a really well-tested and tried construction. SLRs have been around for a century and most people associate them with the word ‘camera’.

A technical advantage of DSLRs over anything else is that they provide a direct, optical view from the lens. Therefore, latency or low-light noise in the viewfinder are not an issue. This, however, is not the case with some mirrorless, bridge, and compact cameras.

Their bigger size provides space for more buttons. This allows for faster and more precise manual controls.

But they have an edge simply because of being the most wide-spread type.

You can find DSLRs ranging from entry-level devices (from a few hundred dollars) to the highest quality, fine-art medium format models (which will easily cost you a 5-digit sum). Still, as the elements are interchangeable, you could choose to mount a top professional lens on the most basic body.

So, the options are plenty in every category, for every budget.

Also, the two most popular DSLR systems (Canon EF and Nikon F) have over a thousand lenses available natively. These include lenses manufactured by the brand or third-party manufacturers (such as Sigma or Tamron).

Photo of two DSLR cameras

What Are the Disadvantages of DSLR Cameras?

Partially inherent to their design, and partially to other reasons, DSLRs also have some drawbacks.

First, they are bulky, especially professional DSLRs. The rotating mirrors, the autofocusing sensor, and the complex viewfinder take up a lot of space.

The optical viewfinder – besides its clear benefits – also introduces problems. Its display options are very limited. You cannot see the current exposure, for instance. This means that just by looking at an image in the optical viewfinder, you cannot judge if your shot will be properly exposed.

The separate autofocusing sensor might cause headaches, too. If this sensor and the image sensor are misaligned, autofocus won’t work accurately. It might catch focus in front of or behind the subject you aim for.

What Can You Choose Instead of a DSLR?

Mirrorless Cameras

DSLR cameras may one day become a thing of the past. Just as twin-lens reflexes made way for their single-lens younger siblings, new systems are being developed constantly.

The largest recent advancement in photographic technology is high-end mirrorless camera systems.

These are beneficial as there is no mirror action. Mirror flicking affects image stabilization, sound levels, and burst rate. Without them, we can take photographs faster and quieter.

They are lighter, more compact, and have many lens options. Old lenses are much easier adapted to them. Perfect for any kind of photographic need, from street to time-lapse photography.

For more information on mirrorless cameras vs. DSLRs  – read our article here.

Close-up photo of a Sony camera
Professional mirrorless cameras can be much smaller. Photo by Michael Soledad on Unsplash

Point-and-Shoot Cameras

Point-and-shoot cameras are a cheaper and smaller alternative to a DSLR. A point-and-shoot system is just that; you point it at something and shoot automatically.

The main benefit is in street, documentary, or travel photography. It means the camera doesn’t have to be stuck to your eye.

Newer DSLRs have movable LCD screens that allow you to do this, but you still lose out on the size of your device. A small camera allows you to take better candid images than a bigger one.

DSLRs require you to master manual control of each button in order to bring the most out of them. A P&S is built on a different philosophy – ready to go from opening the packaging.

They are also much cheaper, for the most part. Some advanced models have image quality, controls, and price levels similar to mid-range DSLR cameras.

They will even shoot in RAW format, such as the Ricoh GR II Digital.

Photo of a Sony point-and-shoot camera
Compact Sony Camera. Photo by Dennis Klein on Unsplash

 

If you want to learn more about shooting modes and autofocus, check out this article on Understanding Your First DSLR
Do you have a new camera you’ve been dying to start using? Are you a little lost when it comes to settings and metering modes?
Do the words exposure compensation, f-stop and ISO setting mean nothing to you? How about white balance, low light photography, and shallow depth of field?
Check out our articles and take control of your new DSLR! 

3 comments
  1. DSLR is related to photography but few people are aware of what does DSLR actually stands for. This article describes brief details about DSLR. If anyone is interested to know more about the camera this content is definitely a good help.

  2. What is a DSLR camera? This question is not a big thing for this modern generation. The modern generation is very knowledgeable about those technical devices. In the past, analog cameras are used but with time increased the generation of camera gradually developed. Nowadays the DSLR camera is very popular. This camera is a digital form of an SLR camera. This camera can generate the photo instantly no need to wash the pics like the old process.

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