What is a DSLR camera?

by David Em
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A DSLR is a digital single-lens reflex camera. It’s a popular type of camera that many professional and amateur photographers use.

Selective focus on a camera.

Understanding the DSLR camera

DSLR is an acronym for digital single-lens reflex. It’s the digital version of a single-lens reflex camera, also known as an SLR.

Related: Best DSLR camera for beginners

The single-lens reflex technology uses an internal mirror and prism system that allows you to see what the lens sees by looking through the viewfinder. With modern technology, use the LCD screen to see the live view.

The biggest difference between a regular SLR and a DSLR is that SLR cameras are analog and film, while the DSLR uses a digital image sensor.

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Film cameras store the image on a film that is developed, whereas a digital camera takes the image on a sensor and stores it on a memory card.

When you look through the viewfinder or LCD screen, you’re able to see exactly what you’re going to photograph because of the internal mirror.

Related: How to capture sharp portraits

Once, you’ve framed your shot, press the shutter and the mirror flips up allowing the image sensor to capture the image.

Shooting modes

Digital SLR cameras have a mode dial that allows you to change the camera mode settings. Whether you want complete creative control or to use a semi-automatic mode, the dial will allow you to quickly change the settings.

Related: How to use manual mode

The dial will allow you to shoot in the following modes:

  • Automatic: You press the shutter to take a photo while the camera chooses all of the settings for you.
  • Program mode: The middle-ground between automatic and manual mode. You control flash, exposure compensation, ISO, and white balance.
  • Aperture-priority: Set the aperture and the camera will select the right shutter speed to properly expose the photo.
  • Shutter-priority: Set the shutter speed and the camera will select the right aperture.
  • Manual: You have full control over the exposure and white balance.

Common features

The following features are common among DSLR cameras:

  • Interchangeable lens: The ability to use different lenses allows you to swap the lens depending on the type of photo you want to take. For example, you can get a larger aperture, longer focal length, or better autofocus with different lenses.
  • Dust reduction system: Whenever you change your lens, dust can settle on your camera’s sensor which appears as small black dots. This system means that your camera can repel or remove dust from the sensor.
  • Great autofocus: Generally DSLR cameras have fast autofocus capabilities and can track a subject that’s moving. Lenses also play a role, as newer lenses have better autofocus capabilities than older lenses.
  • Video capability: DSLRs have an advantage compared to a regular SLR camera because they can record videos.
  • Immediately view images: Since the photos are taken with a digital image sensor, you can see the image right after taking it.

Disadvantages of using a DSLR

Although there are many benefits to using a DSLR, there are disadvantages too.

For example, size and weight are common reasons you may not want to use a DSLR. If you’re traveling or going out to shoot with friends, carrying a DSLR and a few lenses can be quite the load.

Related: Understanding focus in photography

If you’re using a lightweight DSLR camera, it’s more susceptible to a blurry image due to camera shake that can easily occur.

Digital SLR cameras also have a steep learning curve. If you’re brand new to photography, getting used to the settings and different modes can be challenging. Therefore, you’ll have to spend time learning and practicing to get comfortable.

Since DSLRs are popular among photographers of different skill levels, you’ll find cameras of different price ranges and quality.

If you’re just getting started, beginning with a crop-sensor camera is a good choice because they cost less than full-frame cameras. The Pentax K-3 II, Nikon D7500, and Canon EOS 90D are three high-quality APS-C cameras.

The following are the best and most popular DSLR cameras:

Nikon D850

Black Nikon camera body without a lens.
Photo courtesy of Adorama.

The Nikon D850 is a full-frame DSLR camera that has 45.7 megapixels, great autofocus, and battery life.

Nikon D500

Nikon camera without the lens.
Photo courtesy of Adorama.

Although it’s a crop sensor, the Nikon D500 is a fantastic camera. It has 20 megapixels and powerful 153-point autofocus.

Canon EOS 6D Mark II

Black Canon DSLR camera body without a lens.
Photo courtesy of Adorama.

The Canon EOS 6D Mark II is a full-frame camera with 26.2 megapixels, fast autofocus tracking, and face recognition.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Canon DSLR camera without a lens.
Photo courtesy of Adorama.

The Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is a full-frame DSLR camera that has 30 megapixels and stunning performance.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

Canon DSLR without a lens.
Photo courtesy of Adorama.

The Canon EOS-1D X Mark III has 20.1 megapixels. It’s designed to capture sharp and detailed images, even in low-light scenarios. This is one of the best DSLR cameras because it takes great photos, has extremely fast autofocus, high frame rates, long battery life, and a durable body.

Pentax K-1 Mark II

Pentax DSLR camera body with lens.

Pentax makes one full-frame camera and it’s the Pentax K-1 Mark II. It has 36 megapixels and APS-C crop mode which allows you to use other Pentax lenses with it.

Other types of cameras

Point-and-shoot and mirrorless cameras are two other common types.


When comparing a DSLR to a point-and-shoot, the biggest differences are creative control and the learning curve.

Point-and-shoot cameras work best when you’re shooting in automatic mode, which means you don’t have to do the work, the camera does everything for you.

DSLR cameras are better when it comes to creative control and tough lighting situations because you can change the settings to capture the exact image that you had in mind.

Related: How to shoot portraits at night

However, point-and-shoot cameras are smaller and easier to use, which means the learning curve isn’t as difficult as a DSLR.


When you compare a DSLR to a mirrorless camera, there are several benefits and disadvantages. The biggest difference is that mirrorless cameras don’t have the mirror that a DSLR has.

The benefits of using a mirrorless camera are that it’s lightweight, more compact, faster, and produces better videos.

Instead of light reflecting off of a mirror and to your image sensor, the mirrorless cameras reduces a step.

The light goes directly to your image sensor which allows you to see exactly what the photo will look like through the rear screen or electronic viewfinder.

Frequently asked questions

Are DSLR cameras good for video?

Yes, a high-quality DSLR will take great videos, have the ability to use external microphones, and work well in low-light.

Why is a DSLR camera better than a phone?

Most digital SLR cameras have higher resolution than phones which is why DSLR cameras are better than using a phone to take a photo.


While smaller and lighter mirrorless cameras are becoming more popular, DSLR cameras are still favored among many photographers. Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned professional, you can take great photos using a DSLR.

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Featured photo courtesy of Unsplash.

About David Em

David Em.

David Em is the founder of Portraits Refined. He’s a published portrait photographer dedicated to helping photographers develop skills, capture incredible photos, and build successful businesses.

About Portraits Refined

Portraits Refined (PR) is a media company that publishes the latest expert-backed portrait photography tips, in-depth camera gear reviews, and helpful advice to grow your photography business.