DSLR (or Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras are named after the way light bounces around inside them: travelling in through the lens, light rebounds off a mirror that moves to send it either to the viewfinder or to the digital image sensor.

This design means you can look “through the lens” of a DSLR, seeing almost exactly what you’re going to see when the image is captured. DSLRs also support interchangeable lenses (which we’ll get into the basics of below), and tend to offer a much wider range of creative control than compact point-and-shoot camera, which makes them the ideal investment for those looking to step up from compact and smartphone photography into something a little more serious. 

What advantages does a DSLR offer?

The main selling point of a DSLR is its ability to use a range of different lenses. The sheer breadth of depth of glass available means that users can kit out their DSLRs for specific purposes: portraits, landscapes, indoor shots, shots of things far away.

While cameras with a fixed lens are limited in scope, DSLRs can be tailored to perform brilliantly at almost any photography job (for a price, admittedly). And while the lens range of mirrorless cameras are getting better, the widest lens selections around are for Canon and Nikon DSLRs – which is why most professional photographers use those models.

DSLRs and other interchangeable lens cameras also offer a wide degree of creative control. Most feature an Auto setting for newcomers alongside shooting modes and physical controls that allow the user to quickly adjust criteria like exposure compensation, ISO sensitivity, aperture, shutter speed and white balance. Each of these influences how the photograph turns out, so once you’re comfortable using the Auto settings, you can experiment with these controls and develop your photography skills.

What’s the picture quality like?

Outside of specialist medium- or large-format cameras, DSLRs have traditionally offered the best image quality of any consumer cameras, although in recent years you’ll find plenty of mirrorless compact system cameras that are capable of going toe-to-toe with a DSLR on image quality.

There are two main reasons for DSLRs’ high image quality: support for interchangeable lenses and sensor size.

DSLRs use image sensors that are physically larger than those of most compacts. These are usually in a format called APS-C or ‘crop sensor’, but some higher end DSLRs use the even larger full-frame format, so-called because it’s the same size as a full frame of 35mm film. Larger sensors mean better image quality because more light falls on them in a smaller amount of time; that means shorter shutter speeds can be used in lower light conditions, and in turn that means less potential for blurry shots due to camera shake.

Is a DSLR right for me?

If portability and ease of use are key needs, you’ll probably be more comfortable with a mirrorless compact system camera, which offer many of the performance advantages of a DSLR in a smaller, lighter and often simpler package.

And, while smaller, some CSCs sport a similar design to DSLRs, with the same amount of physical controls to hand and a viewfinder (albeit electronic rather than optical) that lets you look “through the lens” when composing shots.

However, if versatility is your main concern, you may be better off with a DSLR. DSLRs still have the widest range of lenses available – particularly if you opt for a Canon or Nikon model.

[Read more: Mirrorless cameras: Whar are they - and are they better than DSLRs?]

DSLRs to suit all pockets

Budget

Canon EOS1300D

Canon EOS 1300D

£280

Canon’s entry-level model lacks a few niceties – the viewfinder only covers 95% of the frame, for instance – but it’s hard to argue with its affordability.

Nikon D3400

£379

Thanks to Bluetooth on board, the D3400 can share shots to social media almost as quickly as your smartphone, and can also be set to back up images automatically to a mobile device.

Sony A68

£548.97

Stepping up towards the mid-range, Sony’s model features fast, accurate autofocus, fast continuous shooting (at up to eight shots per second) and great image quality. Due to their translucent mirror design, Sony’s A-mount cameras are technically Single-Lens Translucent (SLT) models rather than DSLRs – but for simplicity’s sake they’re widely considered part of the same category.

Mid-range

Nikon D750

Nikon D750

£1,399

The D750 is large and weighty, but comfortable in the hand and possessed of great shooting capabilities and impressive photo and video quality, even at high ISO settings.

Canon EOS 80D

£968.17

Superb photo quality, plenty of controls and a wide range of focusing modes make this a do-it-all DSLR that takes fantastic shots in all situations. Highly recommended if you’ve got around £1,000 to spend.

Pentax K-1

£1,799

It’s certainly not “cheap”, but the K-1 is among the most affordable full-frame DSLRs around. With a huge 36.4-megapixel sensor, it’s a natural for photographers who want to pack more detail, more depth and just more full-stop into their images. Not the fastest shooter, though.

High-end

Sony A99 II

Sony A99 II

£3,999

Sony’s flagship SLT A-mount camera is built for speed, shooting 42.4-megapixel full-frame stills at up to 12fps. It can also capture video at 4K Ultra HD quality, making it a tempting all-in-one creative tool for those who want to dabble in both photography and videography.

Canon EOS 5DS

£2,799

With an astounding 50-megapixel full-frame sensor, the 5DS is a master of resolving detail – in fact it’s the best DSLR on the market for it. Be warned, though: you’ll need to pair it up with top-quality lenses to get the best out of it, which means spending a lot of extra money on glass.

Nikon D5

£5,299

Beloved by pros who make a living shooting sport or photojournalism, the D5 is tough, fast and capable of superb performance even in poor lighting. It’s overkill for most of us, but if you really must get that perfect shot, this is the tool for the job.

Read more: Do you really need a DSLR?