Let’s talk about gear: a common term used for describing cameras is SLR and sometimes dSLR. So what’s the difference between the two? And if you’re looking to buy, which one should you get?
What are (d)SLR cameras
So the first thing to talk about would be SLR cameras in general. dSLR cameras are actually a subset within SLR cameras, so once you understand what an SLR camera is, it will be quite simple to discuss dSLR cameras.
SLR is short for Single Lens Reflector.
This indicates the way light enters the camera, how the image is captured, and what you see in the cameras viewfinder or eyepiece.
In regular point and shoot cameras, the viewfinder sits above the lens, so there’s a tiny difference of a few centimeters between the center of the lens and the center of the viewfinder.
Manufacturers have to do this because compact cameras usually don’t have enough room to route the light from the lens to the viewfinder directly.
In SLR cameras, the light entering the lens is reflected using a mirror up to the viewfinder through a prism, so what you see through the viewfinder is what the lens is actually seeing.
The prism is important because the image hitting the mirror is actually upside down, and the prism makes it right-side-up again.
Note: Interestingly enough, the image that lands on your retina is also upside down. This is because the lens refracts the light and turns it upside down. Your brain automatically compensates for this and makes it right side up.
When you click the shutter button, the mirror springs up, letting light onto the film or image sensor, and springs back down to shut it again.
That’s why you see the viewfinder closing and opening when you take a photo.
Finally, SLR cameras have switchable lenses, which is arguably the biggest advantage they have over other cameras.
SLR cameras vs dSLR cameras
Now that you know what an SLR camera is, let’s talk about dSLR cameras and how they’re different from SLR cameras.
Essentially, dSLR cameras work in the exact same was as SLR cameras. Light enters through the lens, and a mirror reflects the light up through a prism into the viewfinder.
When you click the shutter button on an SLR camera, the mirror springs up and light falls on a roll of film, commonly 35 mm film.
When you click the shutter button on a dSLR camera, the mirror springs up and light falls onto a digital sensor which captures the image.
The major difference, as you can see, is that SLR cameras use film, and dSLR cameras use a digital sensor.
Because a digital sensor is involved, dSLR cameras can actually do a lot more with the image than a regular SLR camera.
Pros and cons of SLRs and dSLRs
Even though the basic mechanism is the same, since dSLRs are digital and SLRs use film, there’s a lot of differences.
Film and memory cards
The first and possibly most important distinction to make between the two is the fact that SLRs use film and dSLRs are digital.
Film cameras used to be the standard even after digital cameras first came about, because at the time, digital sensors were not quite advanced and could not capture as much detail as a film camera could.
Nowadays, digital sensors are very advanced and can capture huge images with incredible amounts of detail.
In today’s world, it’s difficult to find film anywhere, and it’s also difficult to find places that still develop film!
Aside from that, the obvious advantage of digital photographs is that you can store thousands on a memory card, whereas you can only take 30-40 photos per roll of film, so the cost of film and the cost of developing really adds up.
You can also view photos right away on a digital camera. With film, you have no idea how the photograph turned out until you develop it, and if you took a bad shot, that much film was basically wasted.
Another difference between SLRs and dSLRs is the ability of dSLR cameras to take RAW photos. RAW photos are photos where the whole range of exposure is captured in the photo, so you can post-process the photo to adjust exposure and bring out highlights and shadows.
Of course, this is only possible with the digital sensor.
Using film, you can only get what you captured, nothing else.
Since the digital sensor is picking up the image live, you can actually utilize a variety of shooting modes and the camera can actually help you take better pictures.
In aperture priority mode, you can control the aperture of the shot and the camera will automatically compensate the shutterspeed to get a good shot. Of course, the result will not always be perfect, but you can at least get a good range of shutter speeds to work with automatically.
In Shutter priority mode, you can control the shutter speed and the camera will compensate with the aperture. Sometimes you’ll end up with a darker photo if you set the shutter speed too high for the lighting conditions and the camera just doesn’t have enough aperture to keep up.
Finally, digital SLR cameras actually can record really respectable video! Many vloggers and YouTubers actually like to use dSLR cameras for shooting video, often with a microphone attached to the hotshoe bay.
Power consumption is one avenue where SLRs actually do better than dSLRs. Because there is so much going on in a digital SLR, they will consume a lot of power and drain the battery fairly quickly.
Regular film SLRs won’t consume nearly as much power and one set of batteries can actually last quite a long time.
Heck, some film SLRs can work without batteries too, but you’ll have to adjust everything(including focus) manually.
Finally, let’s talk about sensitivity.
Sensitivity is measured by ISO, which is a measure of film speed, or how fast it can capture light. In films, higher ISOs were used for nighttime photography as they could capture light better.
With digital sensors such as in dSLRs, ISO was adapted into a feature that you could adjust up and down. In a film camera, you’d have to finish one roll of film of a given ISO before being able to change it.
With digital cameras, you can adjust the ISO up and down for every single shot. Plus, film ISOs only reached a certain sensitivity. Digital sensors are now capable of sensitivities hundreds of times greater.
dSLR cameras are now really inexpensive and entry level cameras can be found without breaking the bank at all. The beauty of these cameras is that you can just upgrade your lens when you want to up your game.
Film SLR cameras are not too common nowadays and if you factor in the cost of film and developing, it works out to be a lot more expensive!
As you can see, SLR and dSLR cameras are quite similar in their basic workings but as soon as you get past the mirror and reach the film or sensor is where the differences start to come out.
Today, dSLRs are the standard and film SLRs are just used by hobbyists and for highly specialized applications and situations.