How to Choose A DSLR Camera (+ FREE worksheet!)

There are a few questions I see time and time again, and one of these is about which camera to buy. It doesn't matter whether it is for buying your first DSLR, or you are looking to  upgrade and getting the next "step up" up:  buying a new camera is a big commitment so it can get a little nerve wrecking to know which one to get!  It's also damned confusing out there, with so many options, and all having different prices and benefits, to know which is going to be best for YOU. 

Photography Tutorial | Camera Gear | How to Choose a DSLR 

So, in this post, I'm going to break down for you what are the most important features to consider, and how you can compare two cameras side by side to see the differences in them.  I've even created a worksheet for you that will help you compare cameras - just click on the image below to download it! 

Before we do much else, let's take some to time to understand what areas you should give greater consideration to when weighing up the pros and cons of different models. 

#1: Sensor Size

There are two main sensor sizes for DSLR - full frame or cropped frame sensors.   Back in the days of film, there was only one sensor size - 24 x 36mm.   When a digital camera has roughly that same sensor size,  it is referred to a full frame.  But in order to make  photography more accessible, most manufacturers also produce cameras with smaller sensors, known as crop frames.   Entry and mid level cameras will generally be crop frame, and the more expensive cameras are full frame.  

So, which should you get? 

Well, to be fair, this will probably be decided for you in terms of affordability 😊.  Full frame sensors are much more expensive, so it does almost rule it out for any beginners out there, but if we put price aside for a second, there are a couple of other things to think about too.

As a general rule, cameras with full frame sensors have better image quality, and also handle using high ISO's better than their crop frame counterparts, so you get less noise or "grain" at high ISO's.   If you shoot indoors with low light, then you will find a full frame very handy indeed.  These are also much better for landscape images since you can fit more into the frame. The downside to a full frame is that they are heavier and bulkier than their crop frame counterparts, so they aren't as portable for trips to the park and so on. 

If you shoot mainly outdoors with plenty of light, and you don't shoot landscapes primarily, then going full frame might not be that big a deal for you, as you won't be shooting at terribly high ISO's.  You will also get a lighter and more compact DSLR to lug around. 

So, how do you know what you are getting? In the specs for Canon it will either say "full frame" or "APS" if it is a full frame camera, or "APS-C" if it is a crop frame.  If you are looking at Nikon, FX is Full Frame and DX is crop frame. 

#2: ISO Range

Having the option to use higher ISO capabilities is particularly useful if you take a lot of photos in lower light situations.  Many crop frame cameras will only allow you to go up as high as ISO6400, whilst a full frame may go up to something like ISO25600.  This extra ISO reach means you can take photographs in places with less light, like dark wedding receptions or indoors in winter.  If you shoot regularly indoors, check out the ISO range and make sure it goes reasonably high. 

#3: Frames per second

Frames per second (FPS) is also known as shutter lag, and it is simply how fast your camera can record pictures.

When you press the shutter and take a photo, the camera writes that photo onto it's internal memory, called a buffer, before putting it onto your memory card.  If you are taking a number of pictures consecutively, your camera has to try to keep up with writing new pictures on this internal memory and moving them across to your card. Go too fast, and your camera will simply not allow you to take an image until it catches up and it has "room"  in it's memory. 

The higher the FPS number, the more images you can have on your buffer before your camera has to stop to catch up.  Some top of the line camera bodies can capture 14 pictures in one little second, whilst a point and shoot camera will much slower is the 2-3 pictures per second range. 

If you take a lot of action images, such as sports or wildlife, or even a running toddler, then FPS can be important, since it can be the difference between getting that perfectly timed shot and a not so great one. 

#4: Number of Auto Focus Points

Every camera is supplied with a number of auto focus points - these help your camera to latch focus on your subject. Your camera will use these all by it's own-some if you use auto focus, or you can toggle to these individually if you want to manually select your focus points.  The more of these focus points you have, the more accurate your focus is likely to be. Again, this is more useful when it comes to any type of action shot - so if you shoot photography where there is a lot of movement, it's an important one to take note of. 

You'll see this written in the specs as something like "11-point AF" or "45-point AF"

#5: Number of Dual Type Sensors

Now, something you may not know 😀

Not all of these auto focus points have been created equal.  You get two different types of auto focus points - single point and dual (or cross) type sensors.  These cross type sensors are the mothership of sensors because they can find both vertical and horizontal lines, which in turn makes them much more likely to lock focus.  Once again, higher end models will have more of these babies, whilst entry or mid level cameras will probably only have one in the centre. 

If you shoot a lot of sports and activities, then getting an auto focus system that has more than just one cross types sensor is will be super helpful. 

#6:  Size and Weight

The next thing to consider is size and weight. This is where "professional grade" cameras are at a disadvantage, because they are larger and heavier than their entry level counterparts.  If throwing your camera into your bag for a trip to the park (NOT literally - always protect your camera!!!) is important to you, then make sure you take note of the size and weight of the camera you are considering - and don't forget to add on the size and weight of your lens too.  It might not seem like too much of an issue, but after a while you do get fed up lugging a big brute of a camera around the park, and will leave it at home instead of adding it to your bag, which defeats the purpose. Just something to think about. 

#7: Megapixels 

Whilst this can be a moot point for many people, the number of megapixels can be important because it determines how large you can print your images and still have good image quality.   Simply put, more megapixels means you can print larger images.

It's also important because it gives you some leeway when cropping your images, as you can get quite ruthless with the crop tool and not have to worry that you have just lost half of your available megapixels.  

Most cameras these days have more megapixels than you really need: for example 14 megapixels will allow you to print up to A2 or 16" x 20" size with absolutely no problems, and most cameras have at least that - and usually much, much more.  

However, if you want to have the option to make very large prints, or do some serious cropping and still print large, then a good amount of megapixels might be useful. If you are only going to make normal sized prints and share online, then this won't be something that should factor into your decision making process. 

To sum up, if the camera you are eyeing up has 20mp, but another camera has 21mp, I wouldn't let that be the deciding factor 😀

#8 - Other Stuff

Yes, I'm grouping all the other stuff under one category because these depend on your individual requirements.  For example, if you want to shoot video, or would like to have GPS enabled so you can see where you took your images, or even  have wi-fi capabilities so you can upload to Facebook directly from your camera, you'll obviously want to have a camera that has that functionality!  These are not important for everyone, but they may be important to you, so if there is something that you dearly want, take note of it. 

#9 - Price

Yep,  unless you are Steve Jobs then I'm guessing price is going to be a factor too! If this is your first camera (and therefore don't have the hassle of switching lenses and so on) you can also compare pricing between similar models from Canon or Nikon, for example. Take note of your budget - your maximum spend, and preferred spend, and don't forgot to make allowances for any additional purchases, such as lenses. 

Now, work all that out!

Right, now that we understand a little more about the most important features, it's time to grab your worksheet (get it below if you haven't done it already!) and start to look at some different models that you have been eyeing up.   For each section in the worksheet, write down the spec for the models you are comparing. You can print out the worksheet a couple of times if you want to compare more than two models.

When you have them, you can start to compare.

The important part here is to pay special attention to your most pressing requirements.  I know (I mean, I really, really, know) that you are going to want a camera that is full frame, has a great AF system, all cross sensors, a huge amount of megapixels, GPS and video and whatever else, but getting a camera that has everything will be incredibly pricey, and that is just not likely to be in the budget for everyone. 

So, think more about your primary reason for wanting the camera, where you are likely to shoot and what your main subjects are likely to be.

Is it mainly indoors?  Then look for a good ISO range or a full-frame model instead of one that has a great AF system.

Do you mainly shoot outdoors, or want to ensure you can capture fast action?  Then maybe forgo the full frame and go for one with more AF points and perhaps a couple of cross type AF sensors. 

Is being able to take the camera to the park without feeling like you are lugging around a TV with you important? Then consider the size and weight, but most likely, a crop frame is going to be your best bet. 

If you are upgrading your camera, also think about WHY you are upgrading - how is your current model holding you back? (If you don't know the answer to that question then I would recommend learning how to use the current camera that you have - you will be amazed at how much your knowledge of light and camera settings can make)  When you know that, make sure the model you are looking at has better features in that particular area.

Between comparing different models side by side, and knowing what elements are most important to you, you should be able to narrow it the choices quite considerably!

When you download the worksheet you'll see this process in action on the second page - I've compared two Canon DSLR's that have are exactly the same price point, so you can see the differences and how you would work out which of those two cameras is better suited to you.  

I hope that you have found this post to be useful!