Digital single-lens reflex cameras, or DSLRs for short, provide passionate photographers with more than just a host of lenses, accessories, and a steep price tag. Rather, DSLRs allow for greater control and precision over nearly every aspect of the picture-taking process given their reflect design and digital imaging sensor, easily trumping compact cameras and smartphones in every specification category. However, though renowned manufacturers like Nikon and Canon offer DSLR cameras at an upwards of $8,000, most companies remain committed to getting their DSLRs into the hands of budding photographers with entry-level alternatives.
The less-expensive models still feature much of the same functionality — quicker focus and shutter speeds, interchangeable lenses, better overall image quality, etc. — but at a price far more affordable to the average consumer. And though the iPhone Photography Awards prove you don’t necessarily need expensive gear to capture brilliant and stunning photographs, investing in a quality camera can’t hurt, either.
There are plenty of budget options to choose from. Thankfully, we’ve done the research on your behalf, curating a list of the best entry-level DSLR cameras that are easy on your wallet but still chock fully of functionality. Taking professional-quality photographs on a shoestring budget has never been so easy.
Nikon D5500 ($747)
Even though Nikon’s D5500 comes in as one of two most expensive entry-level DSLR on our list (the other being the Canon EOS Rebel T6i), its features still make it well worth the premium price tag, particularly for first-time buyers who can afford something a little more robust. The D5500 ditches the GPS found in its predecessor, the D5300, and retains Wi-Fi to make transferring photos to your smartphone a breeze, as well as geotagging via Nikon’s mobile app. Nikon also managed to shave off some of the weight and dimensions, although it’s barely noticeable. ISO sensitivity has also increased to 25,600. For the most part, the D5500 is a minor upgrade over the D5300. Both use a 24.2-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor without an optical low-pass filter, a 39-point autofocus system, and a vari-angle 3.2-inch LCD screen that’s larger than the display that adorned the previous versions of the camera. Additionally, the D5300 makes use of a melange of shooting and exposure modes that provide novice photographers with the ability to capture great images in any situation. Sadly, though, Nikon has kept the 5300’s less-than-stellar construction.
The D5500 shoots Full HD 1080p video at 50/60p. This means your video will shoot in high-definition 1080p and film at either 50 or 60 frames per second depending on the selected video mode. You also have the option of shooting high-quality, slow-motion footage. Perfect for short videos, the D5500 records the highest-quality video for up to 10 minutes. Combine said video capabilities with the equipped, high-resolution format sensor and high-quality LCD screen, and Nikon’s D500 is at the top of the entry-level DSLR class. If you do buy this, we recommend foregoing the weak kit lens and investing in one that’s of better quality. Also, note that the D5300 is still available, and is much more affordable than the D5500. However, Nikon is letting the inventory run dry, so act fast. Read our full review here.
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Canon EOS Rebel T6 ($550)
Like Nikon’s D5500, the T6 is a minor refresh of the T5, which has long been the best-selling DSLR on the market. Not only is it one of the most affordable DSLRs of the bunch, but it’s also one of the most user friendly. For starters, its Scene Intelligent Auto mode combines many of Canon’s camera flagship technologies into a single shooting mode. It utilizes the device’s Automatic Lighting Optimizer, Picture Style Auto, Autofocus, Automatic White Balance, and Automatic Exposure components to produce the best shot possible. Capturing faces and bright colors pose little issue – nor do action and high-contrast images – meaning even novice photographers won’t have to worry about altering a bevy of settings. What’s new is an upgrade of the image processor (from the Digic 4 to the Digic 4+), enhanced auto white balance system, increased resolution on the 3-inch LCD (from 460,000 pixels to 920,000), a scene mode for food photography, and, perhaps most importantly, Wi-Fi and NFC. Now, a couple of years ago, we used to tell buyers to avoid Wi-Fi models because they were usually half-baked. The latest wireless implementations now work far better with phones and tablets, however, and we now think it’s a desirable feature.
Canon also includes five different still-shot filters to help give your photos some unique flair, as well as Basic+ and Creative Auto modes. The latter feature allows you to change various image effects, ambiance, and scene types with ease via the camera’s Quick Control Screen. Its Creative Auto function helps you gain a better understanding of the camera’s more advanced functions. All the settings function as if set on automatic operation, yet the camera explains how the various visual changes you can implement affect your photos. The Canon EOS Rebel T6’s low price point and impressive set of features make it an easy choice for novice photographers, and though it still doesn’t quite stack up against all of Nikon’s entry-level offerings, it still touts solid performance across the board. Canon’s lenses are also some of the industry’s best.
Pro tip: Because the T6 and T5 aren’t dramatically different, if you are willing to forego Wi-Fi, you might as well opt for the T5 and save some money.
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Pentax K-50 ($295)
Most entry-level DSLRs sacrifice advanced features in order to help lower their respective prices. However, Pentax’s K-50 found a way to include enthusiast-grade extras in an affordable package. Packing a 16.3-megapixel APS-C sensor and Pentax’s Prime M processor, the K-50 produces high-quality images. The camera boasts quick, continuous shooting at 6 frames per second, with an ISO sensitivity topping at impressive 51,200 for low-light situation — a capability directly on par with Pentax’s top-of-the-line K-5 II (although we advise against going that high in general). Moreover, the K-50 films in full 1080p HD at up to 30 frames per second when recording video. Two physical dials allow for allow for quick exposure and settings control. Pentax also includes the K-30’s beautiful, full pentaprism optical viewfinder and an 11-point autofocus function with subject tracking.
The camera bears Pentax’s patented, 81-point weather sealing design, conveniently protecting it from rain, snow, or other unwanted weather conditions (it’s not waterproof though, so don’t go swimming with it). Still, it’s the K-50’s robust color flexibility rendering it one of the most unique on our list. Pentax offers the laudable DSLR in more than 120 different color combination, giving users the ability to show off their personal style on the go. Pentax’s K-50 may sit atop the class of entry-level DSLRs, but its impressive features and flexibility allow it to sit among cameras of a much higher class. At $700, you’ll be hard pressed to find another camera offering sporting more bang for the buck.
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Canon EOS Rebel SL1 ($400)
Canon returns to our list with one of the smallest and lightest DSLRs on the market, the Rebel SL1. The device is considerably smaller than the Rebel T5 at just 13 ounces, yet the SL1’s smaller stature doesn’t mean it sacrifices performance. With a newly designed 18-megapixel CMOS sensor and the fast DIGIC 5 image processor, the SL1 easily impresses with clear and crisp photos. Its ISO range — ranging between 100 and 12,800 for stills and 100-6,400 for video — allows for gorgeous shooting in low-light areas even without a flash. Furthermore, the camera features high-speed, continuous shooting at 4 frames per second and uses shooting speeds up to 1/4000 per second to help capture beautiful action shots. When shooting video the SL1 captures full 1080p HD video in 30 frames per second or full 720p HD at 50 frames per second. Canon has also included manual exposure and focus control, Live View features, and the ability to edit your clips on the camera itself. It even takes video snapshots at 2, 4, or 8 seconds before combining them into a single video album. Its built-in attenuator also helps reduce audio clipping during recordings.
Although the SL1 touts a standard 3-inch LCD monitor, the display uses the same capacitive touchscreen technology seen in modern smartphones. Simple finger gestures allow you to zoom in on photos, swipe through your photo library, or access and change control settings. while a smudge-resistant coating ensures the glare-free LCD screen will remain crystal clear despite the gesture controls. The SL-1 also features Scene Intelligent Auto mode akin to the Rebel T5, combining many of Canon’s photo technologies and allowing you to shoot the best possible photos and videos in any situation. This feature is especially useful for novice photographers, as it allows you to focus on shooting the pictures instead of fumbling with a slew of complicated settings. Canon’s EOS Rebel SL1 may lack built-in Wi-Fi, but it’s not exactly difficult to upload your video elsewhere once on your computer. Read our full review here.
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Nikon D3300 ($447)
Last, though certainly not least, Nikon’s D3300 does nearly everything the D5300 does (with a few notable exceptions) at $150 cheaper. Absent is the Wi-Fi connectivity, built-in GPS, and the 3.2-inch screen (it packs a 3-inch screen), but stands toe-to-toe in nearly every other category. Users have the ability to take gorgeous 24.2-megapixel photos and high-resolution panoramas, and even have the option of including unique special effects. If the setting calls for video, the 3300 shoots full 1080p HD videos in beautiful color, and even softly blurs the background to help focus on what you’re recording. Nikon also makes it easy to take the D3300 with you anywhere by making it incredibly compact and lightweight. Weighing in at just under one pound, anybody has the ability to get a firm, comfortable grip with the 3300.
Though this model lacks built-in Wi-Fi, Nikon does offer the optional WU-1a Wireless Adapter that plugs easily into the camera, granting wireless connectivity. With the adapter attached, users have the option of sharing their photos with any tablet or smartphone, emailing them, or sharing them on social media sites. If you feel a photo isn’t complete after you snap it, the D3300 allows you to apply a variety of fun special effects and filters to give any project some added flair. With an easy-going price tag, compact design, and capability of taking beautiful photos and videos, the Nikon D3300 proves itself as one of the best entry-level DSLRs on the market. Read our full review here.
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Canon EOS Rebel T6i ($750)
Don’t confuse T6i with the T6. Despite sharing a similar model number, the T6i is a far stronger camera, one that’s in line with the Nikon D5500. Coming in at $750 with an 18-55mm kit lens, the slight premium gets you a newly developed 24.2-megapixel APS-C sensor – the highest currently available from Canon – and a newer Digic 6 image processor that delivers a responsive 5 frames-per-second continuous shooting. The Hybrid CMOS AF III autofocusing is also speedy, but it has only 19 AF points and a top shutter speed of 1/4,000th of a second. It may not have the 1/8,000th shutter speed or 51-point AF system of an enthusiast DSLR like the Nikon D7200, but you’re also not paying more than $1,000.
Regardless, in our tests we found the T6i to be a highly capable, fast entry-level DSLR, and a reason why we’ve always liked the Rebel series. Photo quality is top-notch, and delivers the natural-looking photos that we appreciate from Canon. The ISO sensitivity range is 100-12,800, and we found the camera performed well up to ISO 6,400 with little noticeable noise. If we had to knock any component of this camera, it would be the small viewfinder and the fact it can only shoot Full HD 1080 video at 30p — a fine spec, but the competition is up to 60p, which offers videomakers more options. Also note that the T6i has a twin brother, called the T6s. They are identical in specs, but the T6s has a few more enthusiast-centric features, like a status monochrome LCD on the top-deck. Read our full review here.
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