So you’re ready to move beyond your smartphone and invest in a real camera? Bold move, friend. There are plenty of choices out there, whether you’re in the market for one of better point-and-shoot models, a bridge offering, or something with an interchangeable lens. Here, we’re dealing with the last option, and specifically one subset of it: The digital single lens reflex, or DSLR. If you want to upgrade your photographic capabilities without getting too complex — or breaking the bank — then take a look at our choices for the best DSLR cameras for beginners.
What’s a DSLR?
First, some brief background. DSLRs have their roots in SLRs (single lens reflex, sans digital) the dominant camera of the 35mm film era. DSLRs work the same way as their film-era counterparts, with a mirror that reflects light from the lens into an optical viewfinder, allowing you to see straight through the lens to frame your photo. When you press the shutter button, the mirror flips out of the way, the shutter opens, and the sensor (where the film used to be) is exposed to light. The shutter closes and the mirror returns (reflexes) into its starting position.
The alternative to the DSLR today is the mirrorless camera, which, as the name suggests, makes due without a mirror. The sensor is always exposed to the light from the lens, and you simply frame your photos on the LCD screen or with an electronic viewfinder. All else held equal, there is no inherent image quality difference between DSLR and mirrorless, but mirrorless cameras can be more compact while DSLRs tend to have much better battery life — and, for some people, there’s just no substitute for a real optical viewfinder. And while both DSLRs and mirrorless have a wide range of features, DSLRs tend to offer more features at the entry level price.
If you’ve decided a DSLR is right for you, here is our favorite and a few alternatives that you should consider. We also have a comprehensive roundup of the best mirrorless cameras, if you’re looking for something a bit more compact.
Canon EOS Rebel T7i
Why should you buy this: Great autofocus, fast performance, easy to use
Who’s it for: Beginners, students, parents, and just about anyone who wants a capable, easy-to-use camera.
How much will it cost: $750 (body only), $900 (with 18-55mm lens) wiith sales sometimes dropping the price by about $100
Why we picked the Canon EOS Rebel T7i:
The T7i is on the high-end for entry-level cameras, but it is still one of the best DSLRs for beginners and offers great value. It features a redesigned guided menu that helps get novice users up to speed with various camera settings, with an easy to navigate touch-based interface and plenty of on-screen images that illustrate what different settings do.
But once you familiarize yourself with the Rebel T7i, it reveals a very powerful camera under the hood. The 45-point autofocus system is both fast and accurate, even when photographing fast-moving subjects. It can also shoot at up to six frames per second, so if you have kids who play sports or dogs who like to run around on the beach, you’ll have no problem keeping up with them. The 24-megapixel APS-C sensor took great pictures in a variety of lighting conditions, and is more resolution than most people need.
Video is another strong point of the T7i thanks to Canon’s Dual Pixel Autofocus (DPAF) technology. Many DSLRs suffer from slow autofocus performance in video mode, but DPAF allows the Rebel T7i to focus both quickly and smoothly, helping to make your videos look more professional. The camera does not have 4K, so it won’t show off the capabilities of your new 4K television, but the 1080/60p footage is fine for most home movies.
As with every camera on this list, if there’s one point of caution we would offer it is this: the Rebel T7i is a much better camera than the kit lens allows it to be. Keep that in mind, and start saving up for a good lens down the road.
The best DSLR for the Instagram-obsessed
Why should you buy this: Always-on Bluetooth connection, great image quality, excellent value
Who’s it for: Casual photographers who want to share images right away
How much will it cost: $500 (with 18-55mm lens), with sales sometimes at $400
Why we picked the Nikon D3400:
The D3400 lives at the entry point of Nikon’s DSLR lineup, but it contains a 24-megapixel sensor that’s one of the best in the business and also one of the most affordable. That alone makes it one of the best DSLRs for beginners, but it goes a step further with Nikon’s SnapBridge technology, which uses Bluetooth Low Energy to maintain an always-on connection to your smartphone. The Bluetooth allows you to use an iOS or Android device to remotely trigger the camera and automatically back-up low-resolution files. For full resolution transfers, Wi-Fi is also built in.
This feature can also be found on all other recent Nikon DX (APS-C) DSLRs, including the D5600 — Nikon’s answer to the Rebel T7i. We selected the Nikon D3400 here, however, because it uses the same sensor and saves you a couple hundred dollars. It does have some limitations, such as an 11-point autofocus system and 12-bit RAW files compared to the 14-bit files on higher-end cameras, but these are things that will be fine for most beginners. But if you want the simplicity of SnapBridge with better performance, then you may want to consider the Nikon D5600.
The rest of the D3400’s specs are decent for a camera at this price, including 1080/60p video and a burst rate up to 5 frames per second. This may not be a camera with a lot of room to grow into, but it’s a very solid choice for first-time DSLR buyers.
The best DSLR for the world traveler
Canon EOS Rebel SL2
Why should you buy this: Compact size without sacrificing the optical viewfinder
Who’s it for: Beginners, vacationers, and anyone who wants the smallest possible DSLR
How much will it cost: $550 (body only), $700 (with 18-55mm lens) with sales occasionally dropping the price by $100
Why we picked the Canon EOS Rebel SL2:
Despite being advertised foremost as a compact DSLR, the Rebel SL2 doesn’t skimp on features. It has an articulating monitor that includes a selfie mode, and even uses the same 24MP sensor as the Canon T7i. It also shoots continuously up to 5 FPS and uses Dual Pixel Autofocus for live view and video shooting. It is a significant upgrade over the original Rebel SL1, which came out some five years ago, but is a great choice for first-time DSLR owners, too — especially traveling photographers.
In fact, the SL2 looks a lot like a miniature T7i on paper, but there is one significant shortcoming: It makes due with just a nine-point autofocus system. The 45-point AF module in the T7i was one of our favorite features of that camera, so don’t expect the Rebel SL2 to give you the flexibility and performance.
The SL2’s advantages simply come from its size; at just 4.8 × 3.6 × 2.7 inches, it’s the smallest of any DSLR. It also weighs just 14.3 ounces for the body only, lighter than the Canon Rebel T7i (18.72 ounces) and just a smidgeon heavier than the Nikon D3400 (13.9 ounces). The fact that it packs an optical viewfinder and associated mirror box, along with a tilt screen, into such a small package is commendable.
The best DSLR for the outdoor adventurer
Ricoh Pentax K-70
Why should you buy this: The only entry-level DSLR with a weather resistant body
Who’s it for: Hikers, campers, and landscape photographers
How much will it cost: $600 (body only), $650 (with 18-55mm kit lens)
Why we picked the Ricoh Pentax K-70:
Pentax (now owned by Ricoh) isn’t generally the first name to come up in camera discussions, but the company makes fantastic cameras with great value, and its history is as storied as that of Canon or Nikon. One thing Pentax does better than anyone else at this price point is weather sealing. The Pentax K-70 is the only sub-$1,000 DSLR to feature dust and moisture resistance, sealed at 100 different points, making it a great option for outdoor adventures where inclement weather may be of concern.
The camera’s durability certainly isn’t the only strong point, either. It is built around a 24-megapixel sensor that, like the Nikon D3400, lacks an anti-aliasing filter, giving it improved sharpness. It boasts an impressive (for the category) 6fps continuous shooting speed, equal to that of the Canon Rebel T7i.
Unlike Canon or Nikon, Pentax also employs a clever sensor-shift internal stabilization system. Beyond helping to steady handheld shots, this also allows for Pixel Shift Resolution mode, which captures four frames, shifting the sensor by a single pixel’s width each time, to record full color information at every pixel location. Due to the longer total exposure time, it’s best to use a tripod when in this mode. While this may sound complex, the result is even more sharpness; it’s a fantastic feature for landscape photographers who are already working from a tripod.
Where the K-70 falls behind is in autofocus performance, as it features just nine focus points. Also, all of that extra robustness does come with a penalty to weight: At just over 1.5 pounds for the body alone, the K-70 is nearly half a pound heavier than the other above contenders in our guide to the best DSLR camera for beginners.
How We Test
In today’s photography landscape, every camera is capable of taking great images. While image quality differences exist between models, those differences are often quite small. When selecting the best DSLRs for beginners, we instead look at features like ease of use, features, room for growth, and of course, price.
The cameras on this list were chosen not only because they proved to be good products, but because they each offered something unique to make them stand out from the others. Any one of them would provide a big upgrade from a smartphone (or a point-and-shoot camera, for that matter). In the end, you really can’t go wrong, but one model may provide specific advantages that are worthwhile for you. Click here for a complete rundown of our camera testing methodology.
Understanding camera terminology
New to digital cameras? Here are some helpful explanations of some of the terminology and tech that you’re likely to run into along your search. There’s a lot of jargon out there, and understanding it is key to knowing what you’re getting.
DSLR – This stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex. This type of camera uses a mirror to reflect light from the lens up into an optical viewfinder. The mirror then moves out of the way when the shutter button is pressed, allowing the light to pass through the shutter and land on the sensor.
Mirrorless – A mirrorless camera, as the name suggests, does not use a mirror. Instead, light from the lens goes directly to the sensor and photos are framed on the LCD screen or through an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Mirrorless cameras tend to be smaller than DSLRs because of this.
Sensor – The digital equivalent to film, the sensor is covered in light-sensitive pixels. Each sensor “sees” only red, green, or blue light, the data being combined later into a full-color image.
Megapixel (MP) – One million pixels. Used to denote the resolution of a sensor. A 24MP sensor has 24 million pixels.
Mechanical shutter – A physical curtain that opens and closes in front of the sensor to expose it to light.
Electronic shutter – Many cameras also employ optional electronic shutters, which either bypass or are used in conjunction with mechanical shutters. Electronic shutters are silent and often much faster than mechanical shutters, but can introduce distortion into the image.
Shutter speed – The length of time the shutter remains open to expose the sensor to light. Shutter speeds typically range from 1/8,000 of a second to as slow as 30 seconds. The longer the shutter is open, the more light is allowed in, but this also can lead to blurry images. A faster shutter freezes action, but does not let in as much light.
Lens – The eye of the camera. A lens is made up of several different glass elements that focus the light onto the sensor. Wide-angle lenses have a larger field of view (good for landscapes and group photos) and telephoto lenses have a narrower field of view (good for single-subject shots like wildlife and portraits).
Aperture – The diaphragm in a lens that can open or close to increase or decrease the amount of light the lens allows in. A wider aperture also creates a shallow depth of field, which allows for a subject to be in focus while the background is blurred, a technique often used for portraits. A small aperture keeps more distance in focus and is often used for landscapes.
F-number – You’ll see this on the lenses of both interchangeable-lens cameras and fixed-lens models. The f-number refers to the size of a lens’s aperture, but a smaller number means a larger aperture. Lenses are identified by their maximum aperture value, so if you see 50mm f/1.4 that means that lens can open up to a maximum of f/1.4, not that f/1.4 is it’s only aperture setting. When shopping lenses, looking at the f-number is an easy way to compare which can let in more light and produce a shallower depth of field.
IS – Image stabilization. Different manufacturers brand this in different ways, such as OIS (optical image stabilization), OSS (Optical Steady Shot) or VR (vibration reduction). Different manufacturers put stabilization in the sensor, the lens, or both.
FPS – Frames per second. The number of photos a camera can shoot sequentially in one second, or the number of video frames recorded in every second.
4K UHD – 4K Ultra High Definition video has a frame size of 3,840 x 2,160 pixels (roughly 4,000 lines of resolution, hence “4K”) and is four times the pixel count as Full HD 1080p.
Full HD 1080p – Full High Definition video has a frame size of 1920 x 1080 pixels. The “p” refers to progressive scanning, as opposed to interlaced scanning which is less common today.