DSLR (digital single-lens reflector) cameras may be bulkier than their mirrorless counterparts, but that doesn’t prevent them from producing beautiful, high-quality images. DSLR cameras let you have the experience of seeing directly through the lens with the mirrored optical viewfinder and in many cases, the battery life is better.
The Nikon D780 is the best DSLR you can buy. Its great performance for both viewfinder and live-view shooting, along with a very capable video mode, make it a fantastic choice for photo enthusiasts and even some professionals.
While we would recommend taking a look at the best mirrorless cameras, if you’re set on a DSLR, these are our current favorites.
At a glance
- Best overall: Nikon D780
- Best Canon DSLR: Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
- Best DSLR for beginners: Canon EOS Rebel T7i
- Best DSLR for video: Canon EOS 90D
- Best DSLR for travel: Nikon D3500
Best DSLR overall: Nikon D780
Why should you buy this: It’s a DSLR that can handle just about everything
Who’s it for: Enthusiasts who want a capable camera that fills multiple roles.
Why we picked the Nikon D780:
The D780 isn’t just Nikon’s newest DSLR, it’s also the most refined. It replaces the incredibly popular D750 — from way back in 2014 — and uses an updated 24-megapixel full-frame sensor. While resolution is unchanged from the D750, the D780 can hit a higher ISO of 51,200.
Essentially the DSLR version of the mirrorless Nikon Z 6, the D780 is Nikon’s first DSLR to incorporate on-chip phase-detection autofocus, giving it responsive performance in live-view and video modes. The eye-detection autofocus, in particular, is very impressive. Unlike the Z 6, however, the D780 features dual SD memory card slots, allowing for backup, overflow, or separating media types to different cards.
Through the viewfinder, the D780 uses the same 51-point autofocus system as the D750, but it has been updated with the focusing algorithm from the flagship D5. That means better accuracy and excellent subject-tracking performance, which we confirmed in our testing. While not a sports camera, specifically, the D780 plays the role pretty well, capturing up to 7 frames per second. Switch to live view, and it will give you 12 fps using the electronic shutter.
Compared to mirrorless (and most other DSLRs, for that matter), the D780 also has marathon battery life. It can work all day long with a CIPA rating of 2,260 shots per charge, the best we’ve seen. Not everyone needs that kind of long-lasting power, but it’s a welcome feature for those who do, like wedding photographers, and means you can save money by not having to buy spare batteries.
Video is another strong suit of the D780. Not only does it shoot 4K, but it also offers 10-bit output over HDMI into an external recorder. Combined with Nikon’s N-Log flat color profile, its suitable for professional use. This is Nikon’s first DSLR to get these features, making it the best DSLR for video in the company’s lineup. The LCD screen also tilts up and down, although does not flip forward, making it easier to get high- and low-angle shots.
The higher-resolution (and higher-cost) Nikon D850 was our previous best DSLR, and that’s still the better camera for some photographers, namely working professionals. The Nikon D780 offers the best balance of features for the price, however, and it’s faster live-view autofocus make it the right choice for the majority of customers.
Read our Nikon D780 review
Best Canon DSLR: Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
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 5D 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. Even in the dim light of morning and evening, we found the camera to focus very quickly.
Like the D780, the Mark IV can shoot continuously at 7 fps. It also uses dual card slots, but sports one SD and one CompactFlash (CF). While slower, CompactFlash media 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.
It was the EOS 5D Mark II that launched the trend of DSLR filmmaking, but the 5D Mark IV is no longer the standard-bearer of DSLR video. Still, it 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, let alone with 10-bit color. The 5D also lacks the D780’s tilt screen.
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 Canon EOS 5D Mark IV an investment you can count on for years to come.
Read our Canon 5D Mark IV review
Best DSLR for beginners: Canon EOS Rebel T7i
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 EOS Rebel 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.
Note: Canon has announced the Rebel T8i, slated to arrive sometime this year. It might be worth waiting for, but we haven’t had a chance to test it yet.
Read our Canon EOS Rebel T7i review
Best DSLR for video: Canon EOS 90D
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:
Honestly, the Nikon D780 could be in this spot, too — or maybe the much higher-end Canon EOS 1D X Mark III. But if you want a strong video camera without dropping north of two grand, the 90D is worth a look. It also has something the D780 doesn’t — a screen that flips out 180-degrees. We don’t recommend a DSLR for vlogging, but if that’s what you want to do, the 90D has you covered.
It was Canon’s EOS 80D that brought Dual Pixel Autofocus (DPAF) to the series, greatly speeding up live view autofocus. Now, the 90D adds 4K to the equation. Unlike older Canon DSLRs that shoot 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 resolutions. With the latest firmware update, 4K can be shot at either 24 or 30 fps, while 1080p can hit 120 fps for slow-motion playback.
The best mirrorless cameras routinely offer more features for video, like electronic viewfinders and in-body image stabilization. But if you’re a diehard DSLR fan in need of a capable video camera, the 90D’s excellent autofocus combined with crop-free 4K make it a good choice.
The Canon EOS 90D is also a good all-around camera with good 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 very good at 1,300 shots per charge, and image quality is near the top of the pack for APS-C sensors.
Read our Canon EOS 90D review
Best DSLR for travel: Nikon D3500
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 also the company’s most portable DSLR and is even lighter than Canon’s 15.8-ounce Rebel SL3. For an easy-to-use camera to take on your next vacation, it checks all the boxes.
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, 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.
However, 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 Nikon 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, you should be cautious when purchasing new lenses to ensure they do not lack 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. This 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?
Despite all that, DSLR still has its benefits, particularly when you get into the real high-end cameras. We found that the Nikon D780 was more reliable in low light than the Z6, for example. Lots of people use a mirrorless camera and are better off for the same price. A real DSLR still holds the edge even in the most demanding photography forms.
Some places where DSLR cameras have the upper hand are sports photography and low light action photography. In addition to that, DSLR cameras have an extended battery life (as long as you use the optical viewfinder). Their larger camera bodies allow more room for features and controls. It’s worth noting that DSLRs usually have better selections for lenses, too, and there are more reasons for this other than the fact that they have been around longer.
Finally, entry-level DSLR cameras tend to be less expensive than entry-level mirrorless cameras. Still, there’s not going to be a better time than now to purchase a mirrorless camera system, especially if you don’t have a ton of lenses yet. The significantly higher image quality, advanced features, and potential for improvement make these compact cameras smart purchases for photographers with an eye toward the future.
A DSLR camera is still a worthy investment, though, especially if you like the stable, robust body and long battery life that they offer. DSLRs will be around for a while, and they’re worthwhile cameras for improving your photography skills.
If you’re ready to add a camera to your collection, check out our collection of the best Cyber Monday camera deals we found.
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