You may be happy with your two year old compact camera and ask therefore why on earth should I spend money on a new camera that has similar specs? Taking pictures with a SLR has several advantages compared to compact cameras:
Simply: An SLR takes better pictures than a compact camera. This is largely down to the the sensor size that sits in an SLR, which is far greater than what you will find in compact cameras. Therefore a SLR takes better pictures, especially in lowlight conditions. The small sensors in compact cameras means you have to take pictures with a high sensitivity (ISO) that results in grainy images.
In addition, the large image sensors increases dynamic range, which means more detail can be produced in both bright and dark areas in the image. You also have greater opportunities to create depth effects to photos because focal lengths used are longer. Visuals are in most cases also sharper, so that the pictures you take are more detailed and therefore more suited to high magnifications.
Generally SLRs are also faster than compact cameras. This applies both to the number of pictures they manage to take per second, and the speed of focus (especially in low light) and startup time. An SLR is ready for action within a tenth of a second, which means that you are able to take pictures faster if something unfolds in front of you. A compact camera unusual takes a few seconds before you can start focusing.
The optical viewfinder in an SLR shows exactly what you're shooting. In addition it encourages you to keep the camera close to your body, making it more stable and less sensitive to shaky hands. Sunlight and its reflections on an LCD screen can make it difficult to compose the image on a compact camera; a problem that is not applicable when you look into the optical viewfinder on a SLR camera. In addition, an LCD screen uses more battery power. Therefore SLRs have better battery life than a compact camera.
There are admittedly few compact cameras that gives you good control over manual settings. On an SLR, you have complete control over aperture, shutter speed, flash delay, etc so you can achieve the exact effect you want.
An SLR camera can be upgraded with an array of accessories. If you need to take pictures of subjects at a long distance, you can buy a telephoto lens. Need more light indoors you can attach an external flash, or switch to a bright lens. You can also choose the filters that affect the image being taken, for example. A polarizing filter takes away reflected light, an ND filter allows you to use slower shutter speeds even if it is bright outside. These are just small examples of the flexibility of an SLR camera.
With RAW format you can afterwards (via your PC) adjust the white balance, exposure, sharpness, remove noise and so on. Most compact cameras do not have this opportunity, and such adjustments degrade the image quality.
The first question you should ask yourself is how much you are willing to spend on a new camera. This helps you narrow down the range of current cameras. Also remember that additional costs may apply, such as the purchase of a memory card, carrying case, filters etc.
In addition, it is important to remember to budget for good optics. Many are replacing their old cameras with new ones, only go for the standard lens. Instead it would make more sense to put this money into a better lens, or an external flash.
Most camera manufacturers have at any time a handful of models on the market, and the price can vary from a couple of hundred right up to the thousands of pounds. Wondering what you get extra if you buy a more expensive model, you may want to check around a bit, but here are a few aspects:
The cheapest cameras are mostly made of plastic and can not tolerate wild weather. If you go for a more expensive model, often one of the main differences is that the camera is more solidly built, and can tolerate water, dust, shock and so on. If you often go on tours where the camera is exposed to tough conditions, you should look for a model that can handle the rough stuff.
Another factor affecting the price tag is the camera speed. A more expensive model can often take twice as many frames per second (useful if the kids play sports, for example) and often have a faster and more accurate auto focus system.
The cheapest models have a basic assortment of buttons, where you sometimes have to resort to the menu system to make adjustments. More advanced cameras often have more buttons and wheels as shortcuts to functions and settings that make life a little easier.
More expensive cameras also have more advanced features. This may be features that are not on the cheap camera whatsoever, or features that provide greater flexibility than the equivalent of cheaper models (eg. he ability to adjust the exposure ± 5EV versus ± 2EV).
Naturally, the more you spend on a camera the better image results you will get. This may not always be huge, but you should notice a difference between a camera that cost a few hundred compared to one that cost a few thousand.
Avoid paying for something you strictly don't need. It's better spend the money on better optics or other accessories.
Do you take pictures mostly in your living room or at the park during the summer months? If that's the case you can safely do without weather seals.
If you'll be using your camera at a location that doesn't have electricity to recharge your battery, you may prefer a camera that takes 800 pictures on one charge than one that takes 300.
Consider also whether you have to have the latest model. If you have limited budget but need a camera that takes high speed burst shooting, you can often get a bargain by purchasing an outgoing model, which falls in price when it is replaced by a new one.
Don't get sucked in by the megapixel figures. If a camera has 20 megapixels, that doesn't necessarily mean it will take better pictures than a camera that has 10 megapixels.
You should ideally see and handle the camera you plan to buy, as not all cameras are equally comfortable in your hands. Feel the grip and make sure that you do not touch any buttons when you hold it, and also check that the screen is of the quality you want, etc.
A small camera is easier to take with you, but may be less comfortable to hold. Meanwhile, there is little point buying a camera that is too heavy to carry on long trips.
Also take into consideration what kind of equipment you might have. Old lenses are often used on new cameras; sometimes with certain limitations, such as the inability to autofocus. One trick is to search (camera brand) lens compatibility on Google so you can check if your old lenses will work on a new camera of the same brand.
Equally important is what friends and family have. If your best friend has a flash, and a handful of lenses you can ask him or her if you can borrow the equipment.
The market for SLRs today is so vast that it's extremely hard to make a bad purchase. All manufacturers put a great deal of effort, ensuring that their cameras are packed with the latest technology and take the best photos possible. If you're still unsure which model to buy, you can always use the World Wide Web to search for camera reviews to find that perfect model that suits your needs.
If you have made up your mind as to which is the right SLR camera for you, please visit our dedicated SLR camera page.