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If you’re considering buying a DSLR, whether it’s for yourself or someone else, just a heads up, they’re pricey. We’ll walk you through all the benefits of a DSLR, and to make sure you’re getting the best camera for you, we talked to multiple professional photographers to get their opinions on what to look for when buying a DSLR so you can decide what kind of DSLR is right for you.
What is a DSLR camera?
DSLR cameras are widely used in the professional world. Journalists and sports photographers trust them for catching crucial shots — but that doesn’t mean you have to be selling your shots to National Geographic to use one. They’re fantastic at snapping the perfect family portrait and if photography is your hobby, a DSLR can truly help you step your game up.
Shawn Connell is a professional photographer that shoots weddings, fine art collections and even takes underwater pictures of whales. He uses DSLR cameras all the time and praises their high-quality results. “You want a DSLR if you want to have more control over your camera and the way images look, shooting in low light, pretty much if you have an interest in getting better photos.”
Okay, so DSLRs are great, but what exactly are they? Let’s break it down. A DSLR has a mirror inside its body that reflects the image coming through the lens into a viewfinder. You can look through this viewfinder to see what you’re shooting in real time, so you can adjust all of your elements such as frame, focus and much more. As the light passes from the mirror to the viewfinder, it goes through a prism or another set of mirrors that creates the image. When you’re ready to take the shot, the mirror flips up in the blink of an eye to expose the sensor and take the picture. That satisfying kerchunk you associate with big cameras? That’s this process.
DSLRs also allow you to switch different lenses in and out, so you can capture any shot. From a macro lens for pictures of objects up close with tremendous detail, to a super wide lens to capture an entire mountain range, to a super telephoto to zoom in ridiculous distances; all is possible with a DSLR. However, lenses can also be incredibly expensive so make sure to either know what you want to shoot to buy an appropriate lens, or get a versatile lens that can perform in different situations.
One other important aspect is where the images or videos are saved. While point-and-shoots typically have internal storage, most DSLRs don’t come with this feature. Instead, you’ll need to use an SD card or a microSD card in an SD card adapter to save images and videos.
Mirrorless camera vs. DSLR
Another popular form of camera is the mirrorless camera. They’re very similar to the DSLR but, as the name suggests, they don’t have a mirror inside. This means these cameras are smaller than DSLRs and you don’t get that classic kerchunk. While you might miss the meaty, mechanical sound in some situations, in others it can be quite bothersome. If you’re taking a picture somewhere it needs to be quiet, such as at a golf tournament or when you’re in nature, a mirrorless camera’s lack of noise can be a big plus.
Siddhardha Garige is a full-time engineer who’s also been shooting professional photography on and off for 10 years. He focuses on taking pictures of large mammals, including elk, birds and polar bears in the Arctic. Garige currently uses a Sony mirrorless setup, and says they are more or less on equal ground with DSLRs. “DSLRs [are] getting replaced more and more by mirrorless cameras in today’s market,” Garige says. “Everything that is applicable to DSLRs is also applicable to mirrorless cameras.”
Since there are no mirrors in mirrorless cameras, and the light gets exposed right to the sensor, there’s no optical viewfinder. Instead, mirrorless cameras show you the image on a digital screen on the body or through an electronic viewfinder. Some photographers prefer looking through the optical viewfinders of a DSLR to see what’s going on in real life over looking at an image on a screen as you would with a mirrorless. However, that screen allows you to see how settings like your exposure affect your image in real time.
There are pros and cons to both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. DSLRs are the more established, traditional choice, but mirrorless models can go toe to toe with DSLRs in many, if not all, aspects. The decision on which to go with really comes down to you and what you’d prefer.
What to look for in a DSLR
If you are looking for a DSLR, there’s a couple of things to look out for. A couple of the important aspects to pay attention to are the number of megapixels and the sensor type. The combination of this is what determines the quality of your photo. The more megapixels there are, the sharper your image will be. Most basic models have around 24 megapixels or higher.
When it comes to sensors, Connell says beware of cameras that aren’t full frame. “Look for a DSLR with a full frame sensor (if a camera has a smaller sensor, any lens you put on it becomes cropped).” It can sometimes be hard to tell whether a camera has a full frame sensor or not. Canon calls its smaller framed sensor APS-C and at Nikon they all fall under the Dx Series.
When a camera has a full frame sensor, that means that whatever you’re looking at through the lens is exactly what will be exposed to the sensor. With smaller sensors, you get what’s called the cropping affect, which can actually crop out some of the image you’re seeing through the viewfinder, which is a big downside when trying to get wide angle shots. The pixels on a full frame sensor will also be larger, allowing you to play with a shallower depth of field (think Portrait Mode to the max). However, full frame cameras are much more expensive than cropped frame ones.
You should also think about what kind of photos you want to shoot when considering sensor size. Sometimes you don’t need that wide angle, and a cropped frame can actually help you when you’re trying to zoom in over large distances. “A landscape photographer would prefer a full frame high resolution camera and a wildlife photographer would prefer a crop body sensor for more reach,” Garige says. “Know your needs and see which one fits your needs well.”
Garige and Connell both also suggest staying away from camera kits, which are cameras that come with a standard lens. “Spend extra money and get a decent lens,” Garige says. “Get lenses in focal range 24-105 and 70-300mm. These lenses should cover most of your needs and let you photograph everything from landscapes, people, streets, sports to wildlife.”
While buying a range of extra lenses will help up your shots, it can also be quite expensive. If you don’t want to push up your costs, or you don’t want to deal with finding a lens, camera kits are an easy way to get started. Oftentimes the kits include an extra battery and storage as well. We’ve listed out several cameras below that you can either buy with a kit lens, or just the body so you can find a higher-quality lens for yourself.
Above all, Connell recommends finding a camera that is easy to use. “I would look for a camera with a simple menu, easy controls,” he says. “Photography is about going out and taking photos — an easier camera to use will be more fun and result in being used more.” He also suggests finding a camera with two card slots, that way if one of your SD cards fails, you have another to back it up.
Garige echoes Connell and says finding a camera you like is the most important aspect. “For a beginner, choosing a DSLR is like choosing their first car,” Garige says. “Does not matter if it is [a] Honda Accord or Toyota Camry or Nissan Murano, they are equipped with identical specifications and take you from point A to point B… I suggest going to a local camera store and [picking] up a camera. See how it feels in your hand and [look] through [the] viewfinder.” Talking over your options with a local camera store can be an invaluable experience.
With tips from professional photographers in mind, we scoured the internet for the best DSLR cameras for beginners that fit the bill. Here’s what we found.
Best entry-level DSLRs
B&H Photo VideoNikon D3500
The D3500 from Nikon is one of the cheapest, most reliable cameras in the market. It’s not a full frame camera and comes with a kit lens, but it’s perfect for beginners with a sturdy build and intuitive interface. It’s a 24.2 megapixel camera with an ISO range of 100 to 25,600. Plus, it shoots video in full 1080p HD and is enabled with bluetooth. If you want a user-friendly experience and an upgrade from your smartphone but nothing too crazy, this camera is a solid pick.
AmazonCanon EOS Rebel T8i
The 24.1 megapixel camera from Canon is another favorite beginner DSLR, though it’s a few hundred dollars more than the Nikon we already mentioned. Canon offers more features though – namely the ability to capture 4K video and use a 45-point autofocusing system. It’s a cropped frame camera, but it has built-in WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities so you can share your latest shots easily. You can buy the kit, or if you want to experiment and find your own lenses you can also purchase just the body for $749.99 at Canon.
AdoramaCanon EOS Rebel SL3
Canon’s smallest and lightest DSLR camera, the EOS Rebel SL3 is a great option for someone who doesn’t want a massive camera around their neck all the time. Weighing in at a hair under one pound, it still packs a punch with a 24.1 megapixel sensor, 9-point autofocusing system and 4K video capabilities. The body is available for $599 at Adorama.
AdoramaPentax K-70 DSLR
What’s this? A camera that isn’t Canon or Nikon? That’s right, the big two aren’t the only dogs in town, and this DSLR from Pentax is surprisingly good. With a 24.2 megapixel, cropped frame sensor, image stabilization and more, it really gives the other cameras a run for their money. This Pentax K-70 is dust- and weather-resistant, and usable in conditions as cold as 14 degrees Fahrenheit, so you can take it on your most extreme adventures. The body alone is priced at $546.95 at Adorama.
Canon EOS 80D ($899, originally $1,249; bhphotovideo.com)
B&H Photo VideoCanon EOS 80D
This mid range DSLR from Canon is ultra responsive, has a 45-point system autofocus system and has an LCD screen that you can move around for easy viewing. It’s got a 24.2 megapixel sensor and 1080p video capabilities, making it the perfect option for someone who wants an entry-level camera that has a few more features than average. You can purchase this camera without the lens for $899, but getting the 18-55mm kit lens included is the same price.
B&H Photo VideoNikon D610 Digital SLR Camera
The first DSLR with a full frame sensor on our list, the D610 from Nikon is a beast of a camera. With 24.3 megapixels and that full frame we were talking about, you’ll be able to capture high-quality images with a wide dynamic range. It also has a 39-point autofocusing system to help you keep your subjects sharp and clear. Just note, this camera only comes with a body, so you’ll have to buy a separate lens. You can browse pairing options at B&H.
AmazonCanon EOS 6D Mark II DSLR
This compact DSLR is another model with a full frame sensor. A huge step up from other entry-level cameras, but cheap as far as full frames go, this camera is a nice balance between top-tier performance and price. The 26.2 megapixel sensor helps the camera get outstanding images in low-light situations. The price featured is just for the camera body, so you’ll have to purchase a separate lens or snag a kit that includes one for $2,299.
B&H Photo VideoNikon D750
Our last full frame DSLR, the D750 from Nikon features a tilting vari-angle display, a 24.3 megapixel sensor and can film in 1080p at 60 frames per second. It’s also WiFi-enabled, has an ISO range of 100-12,800 (expandable to 51,200) and is built with a slim, compact design so it’s not as cumbersome as some other high-end cameras. This price is for the body only, but right now you can get the body plus a 24-120mm lens for $2,196.95.