2020 has just begun and already we’ve already been graced with two new DSLR announcements, the enthusiast-focused Nikon D780 and the extremely-professional-focused Canon EOS 1D X Mark III. Both of these cameras look very promising, but as they’ve yet to make it to market, we can’t include either on this list.
So for now, the long-standingremains the best DSLR you can buy. Its combination of speed, resolution, build quality, and decent video capabilities will satisfy the most demanding professionals and advanced enthusiasts alike. It’s one killer camera, even if it feels a bit like a last hurrah to a dying breed.
DSLRs are losing ground to smaller, lighter mirrorless cameras, but they still have some benefits. The core feature is the optical viewfinder, which uses a mirror to let you see directly through the lens (see our DSLR explainer for more information). They also get much better battery life.
While we also recommend taking a look at the best mirrorless cameras, if you’re set on a DSLR, here are our current favorites.
At a glance
- Best overall: Nikon D850
- Best Canon DSLR: Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
- Best cheap DSLR: Canon EOS Rebel T7i
- Best DSLR for video: Canon EOS 90D
- Best compact DSLR: Nikon D3500
Why should you buy this: It’s a DSLR that can handle just about everything
Who’s it for: Pros and advanced amateurs who want the best of the best in full-frame DSLRs.
Why we picked the Nikon D850:
The D850 is why we still love DSLRs, even as mirrorless cameras have surpassed them in some ways. Nikon packed this camera with so many features that it’s the most versatile DSLR you can buy. The 45.7-megapixel full-frame sensor should satisfy a wide range of photographers and 4K video at 30p makes it attractive for hybrid still and video shooters, too.
Where the D850 really shines is its autofocus system. With 153 points, it offers a level of accuracy not seen in DSLRs before. Combined with Nikon’s excellent 3D Tracking in continuous autofocus mode and the ability to shoot up to 7 frames per second (or 9 when using the optional battery grip and EN-EL18 battery), photographing moving subjects is easy. This is one area where Nikon’s DSLRs remain ahead of its mirrorless cameras.
Built for working professionals, the D850 is fully weather-sealed so you can keep working through rain, snow, or dust. The bright pentaprism viewfinder offers a class-leading 0.75X magnification and is simply beautiful to look through. The tilting LCD touchscreen also boasts class-leading resolution of 2.36 million pixels and is one of the best LCDs of any camera, DSLR or mirrorless.
Nikon also put its Snapbridge 2.0 wireless connectivity in the D850, which uses Bluetooth LE to handle low-level functions with a smartphone, like automatically transferring downsized photos you can then quickly share online. Another advanced feature is support for XQD flash memory, which is quicker than the fastest SDs cards, helping ensure the camera doesn’t get bogged down when firing off 45MP RAW files at 7 frames per second. Be aware, though, that XQD cards are much more expensive than SDs.
Of course, what it really comes down to is image quality, and here the D850 is at the top of its class and shows no signs of aging anytime soon. Beyond resolution, the sensor produces excellent dynamic range and very good noise performance up to a maximum ISO of 25,600. Nikon pulled out all the stops in creating its flagship full-frame DSLR, and we’re still impressed two years later.
Read our Nikon D850 review
Why should you buy this: Superior live-view autofocus, and Canon’s best full-frame sensor to date
Who’s it for: Professionals and enthusiasts who want a capable full-frame DSLR.
Why we picked the Canon 5D Mark IV:
The Mark IV is the latest member of the legendary EOS 5D family and one of the best Canon cameras. It has a familiar design and control layout, great image quality, and the best performance the series has ever seen.
Besides a newly developed 30-megapixel full-frame sensor, the 5D Mark IV uses a 61-point viewfinder autofocus system and Canon’s Dual Pixel Autofocus in live view. This is a DSLR that focuses as quickly in live view as it does through the viewfinder, removing a big pain point common to other DSLRs (like the D850 above). Even in the dim light of morning and evening, we found the camera to focus very quickly.
Like the D850, the Mark IV can shoot continuously at 7 fps (but it does not get faster when you add a battery grip). It also uses dual card slots, but instead of modern XQD memory, it supports SD and older CompactFlash media. While slower, CompactFlash has been used for generations of professional full-frame cameras, so many photographers have these cards lying around. The Mark IV is also the first 5D-series model to include Wi-Fi with NFC and even has built-in GPS for geotagging photos.
The 5D Mark II is known for launching the trend of DSLR filmmaking. Although the 5D-series is no longer the standard-bearer — Canon since moved into full-on cinema cameras for that — the 5D Mark IV is the first in the series to offer 4K video, albeit from a cropped region of the sensor (4K also cannot be output over HDMI). But thanks to Dual Pixel Autofocus, video is very easy to shoot on the 5D Mark IV compared to competing DSLRs. A tilt screen, however, is lacking, and the 5D’s LCD is significantly down on resolution compared to the D850’s, at just 1.62 million pixels.
Whether on the go or in the studio, the 30MP full-frame sensor provides great image quality with more than enough resolution for most tasks and a respectable maximum ISO setting of 32,000. The body is fully weather-sealed and built like a tank, making the 5D Mark IV an investment you can count on for years to come. As it approaches 3-years old, photographers are likely wondering if a replacement is on the horizon, but for now, the 5D Mark IV remains the Canon to beat.
Read our Canon 5D Mark IV review
Why should you buy this: Performance, features, and ease of use in an affordable package
Who’s it for: First-time DSLR buyers who want a camera that can keep up with the action.
Why we picked the Canon EOS Rebel T7i:
The Rebel T7i may be two years old, but it remains Canon’s best Rebel. Built around the same sensor and autofocus systems as the more expensive EOS 80D, the T7i packs a serious punch for an entry-level camera. In our review, we found its 45-point viewfinder autofocus easily kept pace with planes competing in the Red Bull Air Race, while the on-sensor Dual Pixel Autofocus worked just about flawlessly for video and live view shooting. With a 7-frames-per-second burst rate, it also won’t have any trouble keeping up with your kid’s little league game, and in such burst-shooting scenarios, you’re likely to get some 2,000 photos out of the battery.
But performance isn’t the only thing that makes the T7i a great camera. It also incorporates the new Feature Assistant menu system that guides novices through the various modes and exposure settings, offering illustrated explanations of aperture and shutter speed effects. This makes the T7i as approachable as it is powerful, and it is truly one of the most well-rounded cameras available for beginners and budget-conscious enthusiasts, alike.
One of our few complaints about the camera is the lack of 4K video — a feature that found its way into the newer Rebel SL3, albeit with some pretty big limitations — but we still like the T7i as a budget video camera thanks to the aforementioned Dual Pixel Autofocus. As with the 5D Mark IV, this means video is simply easier to shoot — and that can lead to better results. The T7i isn’t Canon’s least expensive Rebel, but it is far and away the best. If you’re in the market for a low cost camera, consider stretching the budget for the T7i over the base T7. We think it’s well worth it.
Read our Canon EOS Rebel T7i review
Why should you buy this: Great live view autofocus, articulating touch screen, and decent battery life
Who’s it for: DSLR shooters who need a capable video camera
Why we picked the Canon EOS 90D:
Canon’s EOS 80D brought Dual Pixel Autofocus (DPAF) to the series which meant excellent performance while recording video, something that many other DSLRs struggle with. Now, the Canon EOS 90D adds 4K to that solid autofocus system. Unlike other Canon DSLRs that have shot 4K, the 90D does it without cropping the sensor, meaning your field of view doesn’t change between still and video modes, or when switching between 1080p and 4K. And there’s good reason to step down to 1080p on occasion as the 90D can shoot at 120 frames per second for slow-motion playback.
The best mirrorless cameras routinely offer more features for video, like 4K resolution, electronic viewfinders, in-body image stabilization, and often professional filetypes and color profiles that you won’t find on the 90D. Video autofocus also tends to be better on a mirrorless camera, but this is where the 90D actually holds its own thanks to DPAF. If you’re a diehard DSLR fan but need a capable video camera, the 90D’s autofocus combined with uncropped 4K make it a good choice.
The 90D is also a good all-around camera with excellent still photo performance, as well. The 32.5-megpaixel sensor is the highest-resolution of any crop-sensor camera, DSLR or otherwise, while the 10fps burst rate means that the camera can keep up with most action. Battery life is also excellent, and image quality is near the top of the pack for APS-C sensors.
Read our Canon EOS 90D review
Why should you buy this: Beginner-friendly DSLR features in a compact body
Who’s it for: Travelers and first-time DSLR buyers
Why we picked the Nikon D3500:
Nikon’s entry-level DSLR isn’t just ideal for beginners — at 12.9 ounces, it’s the company’s most portable DSLR and is even lighter than Canon’s 15.8-ounce Rebel SL3. The D3500 uses a re-designed body made for both a compact size and better ergonomics. The design is also geared towards beginners with a simpler control scheme and a Guide Mode for learning photography tips right from the back of the camera.
While compact, the D3500 still fits in a 24-megapixel APS-C sensor that offers much better image quality than your phone, plus you get the versatility of interchangeable lenses. As a budget camera, the D3500 only snaps 5-fps bursts and uses an 11-point viewfinder autofocus system (a far cry from the 151-point system in the Nikon D850), but it also starts at a very affordable price. Video tops at Full HD 1080p, and you don’t get anything like the fast Dual Pixel Autofocus to help you out. But for beginning still photographers, the D3500 offers plenty to inspire you to move beyond your phone and into the world of interchangeable lens photography.
If size and portability are your primary concerns, you may be better off looking at one of the best mirrorless cameras. But if you’re already a Nikon DSLR owner, or you want the better battery life that comes with a DSLR’s optical viewfinder, the D3500 is a great value.
Read more about the Nikon D3500
What is a DSLR camera?
DSLRs remain the workhorse cameras for many photographers, from beginners to professionals. Paired with a good lens, any modern DSLR is capable of shooting terrific images. Advanced models offer stronger performance, more features, and better construction, but they’ll also command a higher price, naturally.
A DSLR is a type of camera that uses interchangeable lenses, and because of the similarity, it’s often confused for mirrorless cameras, which also use interchangeable lenses. DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex, an evolution of the film-era SLR. A DSLR uses a mirror to reflect light from the lens up to the optical viewfinder (OVF); when the shutter button is pressed, a mirror flips up to allow light to hit the sensor instead. Mirrorless cameras do away with the mirror system and OVF (hence the name).
Because of the mirror, DSLRs tend to be bulkier than their mirrorless cousins. However, the OVF shows a clearer picture — it’s like through a window, whereas the electronic viewfinders of mirrorless cameras are more like looking at a small TV screen. This also gives DSLRs better battery life as they don’t have to power those electronic viewfinders. However, you won’t be able to preview the effect of your exposure settings or review your photos in the viewfinder like you can with a mirrorless camera.
Canon and Nikon are the dominant DSLR manufacturers. You’ll also find strong options from Pentax (which has a loyal following), but Canon and Nikon are certainly the biggest players in the DSLR space.
Should I buy a Canon or Nikon DSLR?
Longstanding rivals, Canon and Nikon often have competing models — so which brand is better? There’s no quick and easy answer to the question because both brands are excellent. One may be first to introduce a compelling new technology, or have a feature that performs better, rarely is one the clear winner. Comparing specific models is a better option than buying based on brand alone. Look for the features that matter most to you — which could be low light image quality, speed, or live view autofocus performance — and also pay attention to the lenses, even aspirational models that maybe you can’t afford right now but think you’ll want down the road. Nikon, for example, makes a 105mm f/1.4 that Canon doesn’t match, while Canon offers a ridiculously wide 11-24mm f/4 that Nikon doesn’t match.
Are Nikon and Canon DSLR lenses interchangeable?
Not really. A Nikon lens won’t fit on a Canon body and vice versa. The mounts are proprietary, and both companies want to keep you entrenched in their respective systems. This makes it very hard to switch systems once you’ve built up a collection of lenses, and that’s the idea.
Nikon uses a slightly longer flange-back distance (the distance from the back of the lens to the imaging sensor) than Canon, and this does allow for Nikon lenses to be mounted on Canon bodies using an adapter. However, focus and exposure will all be manual. This is relatively popular for using old Nikon film SLR lenses on modern Canon bodies for shooting video, as those lenses can be found for quite cheap and filmmakers often shoot manual focus anyway. For most people, however, this just isn’t an option.
Even within brands, be careful when buying new lenses to ensure compatibility. A full-frame or FX Nikon lens, for example, will fit on a crop sensor or DX camera with a crop. A DX lens will mount on a full-frame camera as well — but with this set-up, the image is cropped to that smaller DX size, which eliminates all the benefits of shooting with a more expensive full-frame camera. (Canon EF-S lenses for their APS-C cameras will not mount on full-frame bodies, however.) Both Nikon and Canon mirrorless lenses will not fit on a DSLR, but DSLR lenses can be adapted to mirrorless cameras of the same brand without any major performance drawbacks.
Is the DSLR dead?
The DSLR isn’t dead — but in some ways, it has become the underdog, and saving it may require new innovations. Mirrorless cameras have advanced enough to house the features and performance most photographers are looking for. Image quality is right on par with DSLRs and performance is at or near the same levels — in some cases, like video, mirrorless cameras easily outperform DSLRs. Mirrorless cameras are more compact and many have features like in-body image stabilization that DSLRs don’t offer (with the exception of some Pentax models).
The DSLR still has it’s perks, particularly for the high-end models. The Nikon D850, for example, focuses better in low light than the Nikon Z 7. While many can make the move to mirrorless and be better off for that change, a DSLR can still hold a slight edge for the most demanding types of photography, such as sports and low light action. DSLRs also have longer battery life (when using the optical viewfinder) and the larger body typically leaves room for more controls and features. For entry-level models, DSLRs are often less expensive than similar mirrorless cameras.
Now is a great time to get into a mirrorless camera system — especially if you haven’t yet invested in lenses. The bodies are smaller, the features are excellent, and the image quality is great. But if you prefer the ergonomics of a larger body, hate electronic viewfinders, or want a battery that will last all day, you’re not investing in dead technology by picking up a DSLR.
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