Cameras have come a long way since the days of film, and the advent of digital technology has revolutionized the way we capture images. However, with all the advancements in camera technology, it can be overwhelming to decide which camera to buy.

A common term used for describing cameras is SLR, which stands for Single Lens Reflex, and sometimes dSLR, which stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex. But what’s the difference between the two? And if you’re looking to buy a camera, which one should you get?

It’s important to note that the answer to this question depends on your needs as a photographer. But before we dive into the specifics, let’s first understand what SLR and dSLR cameras are and their history.

The SLR camera was first introduced in the mid-20th century and became an instant hit due to its innovative design that allowed photographers to see exactly what they were capturing through the lens, as opposed to a separate viewfinder. This feature made SLR cameras extremely popular and they remained the preferred choice of photographers for decades.

Fast forward to the digital age, and SLR cameras were replaced by their digital counterpart, the dSLR. Unlike SLR cameras that used film, dSLRs capture images digitally, making it easier to view and store images on electronic devices. But while both types of cameras share a similar design, there are a few key differences between the two that are worth exploring.

In this article, we’ll break down the differences between SLR and dSLR cameras, so you can make an informed decision about which type of camera is right for you.

Key Takeaways

  • SLR stands for Single Lens Reflector, indicating how light enters the camera and how the image is captured.
  • SLR cameras use a mirror and prism to reflect the light entering the lens up to the viewfinder.
  • SLR cameras have switchable lenses, which is a significant advantage over other cameras.
  • dSLR cameras work the same way as SLR cameras, but instead of film, they use a digital sensor to capture the image.
  • dSLR cameras can do more with the image than SLR cameras, thanks to the digital sensor.
  • The use of film in SLR cameras limits the number of photos that can be taken and adds to the cost of film and development.
  • Digital photographs can be stored on a memory card and viewed immediately, unlike film.
  • Digital SLR (dSLR) cameras have the advantage of being able to take RAW photos, allowing for greater control over exposure and post-processing adjustments.
  • With digital sensors, dSLR cameras offer various shooting modes, such as aperture and shutter priority, to help users take better pictures.
  • dSLR cameras are capable of recording high-quality video, making them a popular choice for vloggers and YouTubers.
  • Film SLR cameras have a longer battery life and some can even function without batteries, but require manual adjustments for focus and other settings.
  • Sensitivity, measured by ISO, can be adjusted for every shot with dSLR cameras, unlike film cameras where ISO had to be set for the entire roll.
  • Entry-level dSLR cameras are now affordable, with the option to upgrade lenses for better results, while film cameras and film processing can be more expensive.

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.

RAW photos

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.

Shooting modes

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.

Aperture priority

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.

Shutter priority

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

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!


In conclusion, while SLR and dSLR cameras may share a similar design, there are notable differences in the way they capture images. dSLRs have become the standard for professional photographers due to their ability to capture high-quality digital images that can be easily edited and stored.

However, there are still some specialised applications and situations where film SLRs are preferred, such as in the world of fine art photography.

Whether you’re a seasoned professional or just starting out in the world of photography, understanding the differences between these two types of cameras is crucial in making an informed purchase.

So, before you buy a camera, consider your needs as a photographer and the type of images you want to capture. And always remember, the camera is just a tool, it’s your vision and creativity that truly make a photograph shine.