The Best DSLR Cameras
How We Found The Best DSLR Cameras
50 cameras considered
6 photographers interviewed
3 top picks
The Best DSLR Cameras
Finding the right DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera usually comes down to your photography goals and skill level. But the best DSLR camera should be user-friendly and accessible to even the most inexperienced user. We consulted professional photographers and considered dozens of models to help pair you with the best DSLR camera.
How We Chose the Best DSLR Cameras
On a DSLR camera, the sensor captures light coming in through the lens and converts what you see on the screen/viewfinder into an image. Essentially, it’s the electronic equivalent of film and the most important component when it comes to image quality. As a general rule of thumb, the bigger the better — a larger sensor captures more light, and therefore more information to convert into an image. We looked to DxOMark, an independent database and trusted industry standard for image quality metrics, to identify cameras with sensors capable of producing above average image quality (scores of 70+).
Large lens collections
Different lenses can impact your image in different ways. For example, a wide angle lens has a wide perspective that is great for expansive landscapes, while a macro lens is perfect for photographing subjects very close up (like “wings on a bee” close up). As your skills develop, photography becomes more about finding the appropriate lenses for your needs than collecting camera bodies. So we sought out DSLR camera brands that with extensive lens collections for all kinds of shots, big and small.
The beauty of a DSLR camera is its versatility — adjustable settings to get you closer to that perfect shot. We looked for cameras with a wide ISO and shutter speed range as well as easily controllable aperture settings. However, knowing how to tweak those settings to your advantage takes time and practice, so we also wanted cameras with different modes that make adjustments easier.
Our top picks make it simple to adjust three key settings:
- Aperture: Controls how much light travels into the camera, adjusting focus on a subject and allowing you to mess with the depth of an image or depth of field.
- Shutter speed: Faster shutter speeds can freeze objects in motion while slower speeds allow for motion blurs.
- ISO: Lets you lower the light sensitivity of your camera for crisp images in a well-lit area or raise sensitivity to capture an image in a darker area.
“Entry level cameras offer so much room for growth. Those wanting more will soon discover their own niche.”
Intuitive and helpful design features
Intuitive design is vital. According to Chan, “If you waste time fumbling with the switches and buttons, you will miss the shot, [so] it is crucial that the photographer learns the camera inside and out.” Does the camera have an intuitive display? Does it offer any features that make learning different functions easier? We wanted to identify the cameras that allowed us to focus on learning different photography skills and came with beginner guides. Eventually you’ll outgrow the need for hints, but they’re helpful when practicing the basics. Beyond that, we looked for cameras that would work with you, not against you, while you experiment with the craft. That meant searching for cameras that would be easy to handle and carry while providing added conveniences like long battery lives.
Although we prioritized finding cameras that offered the best learning experience, we also recognize the best DSLR should still take great photos. To find our picks, we looked through photography websites like DPReview and Imaging-Resource.com to see what experts had to say about our cameras. The Nikon D3400 received praise for its punchy and sharp image quality as an entry-level camera. The Canon Rebel T6i also received recognition for its image quality, but hobbyists still noted the smaller sensor may lead to a lower depth of field.
The 3 Best DSLR Cameras
- Nikon D3400 -
Best for Beginners
- Canon EOS Rebel T6i -
Best for Intermediate Users
- Pentax K-S2 -
Best for Advanced Users
Why we chose it
The Nikon D3400 comes with a Guide mode that lets you switch between “easy” and “advanced” operation settings. In easy mode, the camera adjusts its own settings for common landscape and portrait shots, but you still have room to experiment with the ISO and see how settings impact your subject. Advanced mode lets you practice with complex settings like shutter speed. Both modes provide example photos and suggestions to help you on your way.
Impressive picture quality
According to DxOMark’s sensor evaluation, the Nikon D3400 scored a relatively high 86. This score indicates how well the Nikon can capture light and images and it’s above average on the DSLR market (the average DxOMark sensor rating is 81). Photographers can expect balanced light and dark areas in their photos as well as very low grain even with increasing ISO levels — a common problem with high light sensitivity settings.
Extensive lens options
With the Nikon D3400, you have access to 105 Nikon-produced lenses (up to 278 lenses if you include compatible lenses not made by Nikon). Such a wide range of available lenses means that whatever your subject matter or photography needs, you can find the right lens for your perfect shot.
Compact and efficient design
The 0.87 pound Nikon D3400 has a compact design that feels lighter and more comfortable than its competitors, many of which weighed almost twice as much. That difference in weight is noticeable when carrying around other accessories like tripods or additional lenses. In addition to its smaller design, the Nikon also has a far superior battery life. The Nikon’s battery lasts for an impressive 1200 shots, while the closest competitor, the Sony SLT A68, only lasts for 510. The less time at home charging your camera batteries, the better.
Points to consider
No adjustable screen
Unlike the Canon EOS Rebel T6i and Pentax K-S2 that have swivel screens for easy selfies and video recording, the screen of the Nikon is fixed. That said, it’s still easy to see, and the smaller design makes it maneuverable enough to shoot quality video in tight spaces.
The flipside of the Nikon’s easy learning curve is that you may well outgrow its functionality once you know what you’re doing. Still, the Nikon D3400 is likely to keep pace with you for a while — professional photographer Nicholas Purcell says, “It takes a long time to really master the combination of seemingly basic functions like shutter speed and aperture.”
Why we chose it
Better video experience
Canon T6i’s swivel screen makes shooting from different angles a breeze and it’s an enjoyable feature to use. Simply hold the camera over your head, or in a hard-to-reach spot, and adjust the screen to see what the camera sees. In addition to freezing moments in time, the Canon T6i is also able to capture an integral part of videography: audio. With the addition of a built-in microphone port, you can film scenes and implement your own compatible microphone to capture audio the way you want. The Canon also includes support for the UHS-1 SD card standard, which is more effective at capturing large HD videos.
Extensive lens options
Nearly every expert we talked to recommended Nikon and Canon as the most reliable DSLR brands. It makes sense, considering the two companies dominate the DSLR market and have extensive and highly regarded lens systems for budding and professional photographers alike. The Canon’s impressive collection of lenses rivals the Nikon’s, and can equip you for any photo shoot. Like with the Nikon, this exhaustive resource also ensures that if you upgrade to a more advanced Canon in the future, you won’t need to start a new lens collection from scratch.
Points to consider
Not for beginners
We wouldn’t call the Canon T6i a great camera for beginners. Unlike the Nikon D3400, there was no Guide mode to ease the transition for first-timers. Most people starting out in photography aren’t going to understand settings like shutter speed or aperture. While the Nikon D3400 had adjustable auto settings that allowed for experimentation, we would have liked to see a little more of that in the Canon T6i.
Less impressive image quality
While it’s true that the Canon T6i fared better than the Nikon when it came to video quality, the main purpose of a DSLR is to shoot better images. With a below-average sensor score of just 71 from DxOMark, the Canon T6i lags behind the pack in terms of image quality.
Why we chose it
Impressive technical specs
The Pentax K-S2 sports a higher shutter speed and higher max ISO than our other top picks, superior hardware that allows it to capture high-quality shots of a variety of subjects. Moving target? No problem. Intimate anniversary picture in a dim restaurant? Say no more. These settings require a more experienced touch to really produce good shots, but if you know what you’re doing, you can get it done with the Pentax.
Built-in video capability
Like the Canon T6i, the Pentax K-S2 comes with a swivel screen and microphone port for a better video recording experience. While not essential, the swivel screen makes it easier to raise the camera and film from different angles. Combine that with the built-in microphone port and you have a camera that can shoot great images and capture quality footage should the need arise.
Points to consider
The absence of a built-in guide or hints about different camera modes will make learning the ins-and-outs of the Pentax K-S2 harder. Although we would have liked to see some guide modes and examples of photo settings to make this camera accessible to a wider audience, advanced users should be fine navigating the Pentax K-S2’s features.
Shortest battery life
We were disappointed by the relatively short battery life of the Pentax K-S2. It has the shortest battery life of all our contenders, only lasting for 410 shots. When it comes to capturing that perfect photo, those few hundred shots will fly by in no time. At the advanced skill level required for this camera, we expect our camera to last for the duration of our shoot. But if you know you’ll be near power to recharge during a break, this may not be a dealbreaker.
Guide to DSLR Cameras
How to find the right DSLR camera for you
Rent cameras and lenses first
If you want to try out a camera or lens for yourself, you can often borrow one from a camera rental service. Our experts advised us that trying out equipment for a week can help you determine if it’s the right fit. This becomes especially helpful when you have to find a new lens. Given that camera brands can have upwards of 200 lenses, finding the perfect match on the first try can be close to impossible. A lens rental takes away the risk of buying a lens you don’t want or need. Rental services can charge around $25-30 per day, so it’s a good idea to create a shortlist of the lenses you’d like to try out.
Become familiar with these six common modes for picture-taking
- Auto mode: This mode is helpful for beginners who want to learn the basics of framing a shot before moving on to adjusting camera settings. According to food photographer Katie Moseman, “Jumping straight into manual mode on an advanced camera can be intimidating” — starting with automatic mode will help you learn the basics.
- Program mode: This mode will set the optimum aperture and shutter speed. You’ll be able to adjust either of these settings, and the camera will automatically adjust the other. If, for example, you want blur in your photo of a waterfall, you can reduce the shutter speed. The camera will shift to a smaller aperture to keep the exposure on point.
- Aperture priority: You’ll be able to control the aperture in this mode while the camera takes care of shutter speed. Changing aperture will affect your depth of field. For example, a lower setting will bring objects into focus while blurring your background.
- Shutter Priority: Shutter priority does the exact opposite of aperture priority. This mode allows you to adjust shutter speed, which makes moving objects appear still or blurred. Photographers who shoot moving subjects will benefit from different shutter speeds.
- Manual mode: This mode gives you full control over the camera. You’ll be able to customize your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. The benefit of manual mode is being able to adjust your settings exactly where you want them. However, it takes a lot of skill and experience to tap the full potential of fully manual controls.
- Scene modes: Common scene modes are portrait, landscape, and nighttime. The camera will adjust its settings to account for these differences, but you won’t be able to make further adjustments. In a pinch, they’re great for beginners, but they won’t beat learning how to adjust settings on your own.
Learn about common lens types
The sheer number of lenses on the market can make it difficult to know what you should be looking for. Some lenses are also better for certain subjects than others.
- Kit (standard): These lenses often come packaged with a DSLR and are great for beginners. They are versatile, but will eventually be outgrown by developing photographers. Most of our experts suggested buying a camera body and investing in a better lens, like a prime, at the beginning.
- Prime: A prime lens has a single focal length. A fixed focal length means you’ll lose the ability to zoom. While this may seem like a disadvantage, the tradeoff is often a cheaper price and an opportunity to practice framing. They are often faster and lighter, which makes them great for shooting moving objects.
- Wide angle: In basic terms, a wide angle lens captures more of a scene. The wide angle is great for capturing landscapes, such as a sunset or the night sky against some trees. With more advanced skills, you can also use them with smaller subjects to add emphasis to the foreground.
- Telephoto or Superzoom: These lenses allow you to zoom in on a subject. A superzoom will offer greater zoom ranges that will allow you to focus in on subjects from far away, like wildlife.
- Macro: These lenses are great for close-up photography as they give photos an incredible amount of detail. Common subjects include flowers, insects, and morning dew.
DSLR Camera FAQ
What format should I shoot in?
Most DSLRs will shoot in RAW and JPEG formats. According to professional photographer Alexi Shields, “Shooting in RAW will give you greater control over your photo when you go to edit it on your computer; If you shoot underexposed, you’ll have the ability to adjust the exposure in post processing to lighten that image up. Shooting in JPEG compresses the image more and that information is lost, which makes it difficult to make those adjustments.”
Can a DSLR camera record video?
Some DSLR cameras, like Canon EOS Rebel T6i and the Pentax K-S2, are capable of recording video. That being said, you’ll want to invest in a camera that specializes in video recording if you would rather pursue a path in film.
How do I choose the right DSLR camera?
Consider your skill level and work your way up from there. Before we could even come up with these top picks, we first had to educate ourselves on some of the fundamentals of photography. Lucky for you, we’ve covered most of these in this review. Another thing that could help you choose is by renting a DSLR camera and some equipment. This will give you a chance to get a feel for the tools of the trade without making a huge investment.