Smartphone cameras are great nowadays, rivalling compact cameras in terms of image quality and usability. And you know what they say – the best camera is the one you have on you. But if you want to get serious about photography – and take much better photos in the process – a DSLR might be for you.

Confused about what a DSLR is? Don’t be. We’ve broken down everything you need to know about them and how they differ from other kinds of cameras.

[Read more: How to choose a DSLR - from budget models to professional lenses]

What does DSLR stand for?

DSLR stands for digital single-lens reflex, a camera that combines interchangeable lenses with a mirror and digital imaging sensor.

Light travels through the lens, hits a mirror and is sent to a viewfinder; when you take a photo the mirror swings up (taking a fraction of a second) and light goes to the imaging sensor.

What’s the difference between a bridge camera and a DSLR?

A bridge camera – also known as a hybrid camera – looks very similar to a DSLR, but it’s smaller. This means it’s lighter and more portable, though the crucial difference is you can’t swap the lens as you can with a DSLR, so you can’t add a zoom lens or wide-angle for different types of shots.

Like a DSLR, bridge cameras do have manual controls though like shutter speed, ISO, aperture, and so on. These give you more control over how you take each shot.

DSLR on stand at night

What’s the difference between a mirrorless camera/compact system camera and a DSLR?

Unlike bridge cameras, mirrorless cameras (or compact system cameras) do have interchangeable lenses, making them suitable for more advanced photographers. There are some important differences though.

DSLR cameras have a mirror which is used to show the viewfinder image, mirrorless cameras don’t have a mirror, which enables them to be smaller.

To compose a picture, DSLRs use an optical viewfinder, or you can see a Live View through the screen on the back. With a mirrorless camera you compose photos using the screen or an electronic viewfinder.

[Read more: Mirrorless cameras: What are they – and are they better than DSLRs?]

When was the DSLR first introduced?

In 1991 the first consumer model went on sale: the Kodak DSC 100 was customised and featured a Nikon F3 body.

As is usually the case with technology, the price stayed prohibitively high for a while, deterring all but the richest enthusiasts from buying one. But now you can pick one up for about £200-£300.

Who needs a DSLR?

Anyone who’s serious about photography. Smartphone and compact cameras have come on huge leaps in recent years, offering much better image quality than previously from a much smaller body than a DSLR.

But they don’t have interchangeable lenses, which is the crucial advantage DSLRs still have. This means you can attach all kinds of different lenses for different purposes: macro for nature close-ups, wide-angle for landscapes, zoom for long distances, and so on. The downside is you’ll have to buy the lenses, and they don't come cheap. But no one ever said photography was a cheap hobby.

[Read more: Do you really need a DSLR?]