Until recently, the prohibitive cost of digital SLR (dSLR) cameras meant that many amateur photographers settled for budget-friendly point-and-click compacts. This is a shame, since dSLRs offer a great deal of manual control over settings such as aperture, shutter speed and white balance, helping you get the best picture in a wide range of conditions.
Today's dSLRs can be divided into two groups: entry-level cameras, and more advanced pro and semi-pro models. The visual similarities hide a huge disparity in features, which is reflected in their pricing. The entry-level Canon EOS 1000D costs around £400, for example, while the professional EOS-1Ds Mark III costs up to £7,000. But the latter offers far more than merely improved build quality and a higher pixel count.
Entry-level models are far simpler in terms of the controls and features that they offer, making them suitable choices even for fairly inexperienced snappers. But even these can be overwhelming if you've only just taken the jump from point-and-shoot compact to fully featured dSLR.
While all dSLRs will have an automatic mode, settling for this would be a waste. A dSLR's automatic mode will offer greater precision than that of a compact, but you won't be using your new camera to its full potential.
An important difference between the two types of camera is that dSLRs use a separate lens. Companies such as Pentax, Nikon and Canon provide a large stock of compatible lenses, for which the focal length is measured in millimetres.
A typical focal range is 35-55mm. This means the lens can produce an image the same size as a pinhole 35 to 55mm away from the camera sensor. The higher the focal length, the closer a lens can zoom into a subject. Pros will often spend more on lenses than the camera body itself, but an 18-55mm lens will be sufficient for most images.
Follow our step-by-step guide to the modes and manual settings that will help you take the perfect image.
Step 1: DSLR cameras include a series of complex manual controls, but it's also possible to use them in auto mode. Select AF or full auto mode (the square icon) for automatic settings. Now you can simply point your camera at the subject, press the shutter button and review the image in the viewfinder.
Step 2: As well as the fully automatic mode, most cameras have a series of pre-defined auto settings for use in different conditions. For example, if you want to take a picture at night or as a close-up, turn the mode dial to the icon for Night Portrait or Close-up, then click the shutter to capture your shot.