Tackling And Answering The Question: What Does DSLR Mean?

What Does DSLR Mean?

DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex, and it is a type of camera favored by professional and amateur photographers alike. But what does DSLR really mean?

We’ve demystified the camera lingo to answer the question of what does DSLR mean in terms that a layperson can understand, while also providing advice and recommendations for purchasing your own camera.

So, without further ado, let’s explain what it is and how it differs from other types of cameras.

Digital Single Lens Reflex

canon lens

Digital single lens reflex refers to the technology used by the camera to capture a picture. We’ll break the explanation down into three parts.

Digital means that the camera saves pictures to a memory card rather than capturing them on film. To get technical, light passes through the lens to something called a CMOS sensor, which converts the photons into electrons and processes the images onto the memory card.

Single lens means the lens you look through and the lens that captures the picture are the same. In standard, point and shoot cameras, you look through a viewfinder that sits above or to the side of the picture lens.

Reflex refers to light reflection using mirrors, which is how you're able to see an image through the same lens that captures the picture. One mirror takes the light from the lens and bounces it up towards the viewfinder. A second mirror turns the image around, so it isn't backward.

What’s the Difference Between DSLRs and Point and Shoot Cameras?


Digital point and shoot cameras use multiple lenses. The first lens captures the actual picture, saving it to a memory card and, in many models, displaying the image on a low-resolution LCD screen. The second lens sends the image to the viewfinder.

Advantages of Point and Shoot Cameras

  • Standard digital cameras are small and lightweight and can fit in your pocket. They don't require extra lenses or accessories to carry around.
  • Point and shoot cameras have a fixed lens, so you don’t need to buy multiple lenses or learn how to swap them out.
  • Standard cameras have a huge depth of field, meaning they don’t differentiate between the foreground and the background, and everything is in focus.
  • Point and shoot cameras are significantly cheaper than DSLR cameras and are typically a one-time investment since they don't require accessories or maintenance.

Disadvantages of Point and Shoot Cameras

  • The sensor inside a standard camera is too small to produce the crisp, high-quality images of a DSLR.
  • The large depth of field makes it difficult to focus on the subject of the picture.
  • You can’t upgrade a point and shoot camera with nicer lenses or custom flashes.
  • Standard cameras don’t have as many options, so you have less control over the aperture and shutter speed and can’t manipulate the composition of the picture.
  • Point and shoot cameras don’t work as well at night or in low-light environments.
  • Standard camera lenses are too narrow to take wide angle shots.
  • Point and shoot cameras are typically very slow, so you won’t be able to get any action shots, and any kind of motion will make your pictures blurry.

Advantages of DSLR Cameras

  • DSLRs have a large camera sensor, which can get high-quality images without noise (the graininess you sometimes see in low-quality pictures).
  • You can purchase a variety of lenses for your DSLR, giving you the ability to take super close-ups, wide-angle photos, and other interesting shots.
  • The sensor in your DSLR is more sensitive to light, which means it's able to capture quality images in dim conditions.
  • You can adjust the shutter and focus speeds to take faster photos, with some professional DSLR models capable of shooting up to ten frames per second.
  • Since you’re looking through the same lens that’s capturing the photo, you have better control over the composition of the picture, and can see everything in higher resolution than the tiny LCD screens on standard digital cameras.
  • Looking through a viewfinder, rather than at an LCD screen, produces a steadier picture because you hold the camera close to your face.
  • DSLR cameras have lots of buttons and controls, which you can use to take more creative photos (once you learn how to use them!).
  • You can adjust the depth of field of a DSLR camera, which means you can focus on the foreground to create blurry background effects, or vice-versa.
  • DSLR cameras are built of sturdy materials and have weather sealing, which means you can use them in dusty, wet, or cold conditions.

Disadvantages of DSLR Cameras

  • The price tag on a DSLR camera will be significantly higher than on a standard digital camera, plus you need to purchase extras like lenses, bags, tripods, and filters.
  • You’ll need to spend some time learning to use your DSLR camera, and there’s a steep learning curve.
  • DSLR cameras require regular maintenance to clean dust and dirt out of sensors and lenses. If you damage your DSLR, the repairs can be expensive as well.
  • Your DSLR camera will be much larger and heavier than a point and shoot. Holding such a heavy camera still may require a lot of practice, plus you have to carry it around.
  • The shutters on DSLR cameras make a lot of noise, so they’re not well-suited to situations requiring stealth unless you’re zooming in from far away.

Mirrorless Cameras

shooting on train tracks

Technically, all point and shoot cameras are mirrorless, since they use multiple lenses rather than reflecting light from a single lens. However, mirrorless cameras refer to a newer type of digital camera that has swappable lenses and more options than most point and shoot cameras.

Mirrorless cameras are emerging as a sort of middle ground between DSLRs and point and shoots. They’re smaller and less expensive than DSLRs, but have swappable lenses and higher image quality than point and shoot cameras. Mirrorless cameras still can’t produce images of the same professional quality as DSLRs, but they could catch up in the future.

Which Camera Is Right for You?

Here are some factors to consider when you’re shopping for a new camera. Taking time to think about these things first can save you a lot of time and hassle.


How much are you willing to spend on a camera, and can you make more than a one-time investment? A DSLR camera will run you anywhere from $500 on up to several thousand dollars, depending on the model, and that doesn’t include lenses and other accessories.

On the other hand, you can get a highly-rated digital point and shoot camera for less than $300, and not have to spend a cent on extras.


How much time and energy do you want to spend on photography? Unless you’re already an expert, you’ll need to invest at least a few hours into learning how to use a DSLR camera. Otherwise, your picture quality may end up even worse than with a standard camera's auto-settings.  

If you just want a camera you can pick up on a whim to take a handful of pictures, then a standard digital camera may be your best bet. If you'd like to learn more about photography and are willing to spend some time reading and practicing, you may find a DSLR camera more enjoyable.


Why are you purchasing a camera, and what kind of pictures do you want to take with it? For most people, their camera is just a tool for capturing moments in their families lives, and the only people who are going to view the pictures are other friends and family members. For these folks, convenience is more important than overall quality.

If you want your camera to produce images that are creative, artistic, or extremely accurate, you’ll need a DSLR. You’ll be committing more time, energy, and money, but if that seems like a worthwhile trade, then a DSLR is the right camera for you.


DSLR cameras use a single lens with multiple mirrors to allow you to view exactly what you’re capturing a picture of. They provide a high level of control over characteristics like shutter and aperture speed, focus, zoom, and depth of field.

Point and shoot cameras are smaller and lighter than DSLRs, and less expensive. They're easy to use and generally produce middling pictures regardless of the photographer's skill level. You don't have much control over the composition of the photograph, but the automatic settings are good enough for the average user.

A new species of camera called “mirrorless” cameras are becoming a popular middle ground. They offer the control and customizability of a DSLR camera, at the size and weight of a point and shoot, with a price and image quality that fall somewhere in between.

We hope our DSLR camera guide broke down the technology of digital cameras enough that you can purchase your own without needing to take a photography class first. Which camera is right for you?


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