Bad news, would-be photographers: your phone sucks at taking pictures. That’s saying something, because modern mobile phones take better pictures than ever before. Still: if you’re creatively minded, or want to push your photography to new extremes, you’re going to hit the maximum headroom on a smartphone a long time before you will on a DSLR.
Good news, would-be photographers! The DSLR market has truly come of age, and that means whether you’re a jobbing professional or an aspirational newcomer, there’s a DSLR for you out there. The benefits of DSLRs are everywhere: bigger image sensors mean better-quality images, particularly when the light begins to drop, while the full range of manual controls – daunting at first – allows you to take ownership of aspects of your image that you were previously leaving in the hands of chance. And, of course, an interchangeable lens camera allows you to swap the optic on the front of the camera, allowing you to use everything from ultra wide-angle lenses to mega-long telephoto lenses. Get the right lenses, and you’re equipped to shoot everything from dramatic mountain ranges to high-octane sport.
Here’s how to choose your next entry-level DSLR – and our roundup of the best ones to consider.
How to buy the best entry-level DSLR for you
How much difference is there between entry-level cameras in terms of image quality?
In truth? Not much. Entry level DSLRs all have image sensors that are – roughly – the same size. That means they all enjoy roughly the same (superlative) image quality. Once you start to push a camera’s sensor sensitivity upwards – to get the correct exposure in poor light, for example – you might start to see some cameras generate more noise, but in many cases attempts to differentiate image quality in everyday use are exercises in hair-splitting.
How important is the monitor on the back of a DSLR?
Pretty important. On a real DSLR – like the ones we’ve rounded up here – you compose an image by looking through an optical viewfinder. That means the screen on the back of the camera is only used to review an image, and to check how your camera is set up before taking a shot. That doesn’t mean it’s not important: a camera screen needs to be big, bright and high-enough in resolution that you can see if an image is sharp or not without having to squint. More expensive cameras will also have vari-angle screens, allowing you to tilt and/or rotate the camera screen. This is very useful if you’re shooting at extreme angles, such as over the heads of a crowd at a festival.
How does autofocus work?
Ah, good question. If you mainly shoot portraits of people, or reasonably well-lit landscapes, you don’t have a huge need for incredible autofocus performance. As you get more ambitious – perhaps shooting a news story, or working in poor light, or shooting wildlife – you’ll be demanding more from your camera’s autofocus. An autofocus zone is an area of the frame a DSLR looks at to see if it can define an edge clearly, but cheap DSLRs tend to have fewer autofocus zones, which means they’ll be a little less snappy when it comes to focussing on your subject. More expensive DSLRs will have more cross-type autofocus zones – a more complex, more accurate type of autofocus sensor that generally gives sharper results in awkward-lit or complex scenes.
What should I look for in terms of video?
We haven’t seen a DSLR that doesn’t shoot video for some time, so virtually everything you can buy will shoot video up to Full HD 1080p. If you’ve got ambitions to shoot reasonable quality video, most DSLRs will make a fine job of it, but make sure your intended camera shoots at the frame rates you want – if you’re going to shoot a lot of action you might find that a camera capable of shooting at more than 30 frames per second (fps) makes sense. You should also look out for a microphone jack to attach an external mic. Not all DSLRs have these, but it can make a huge difference to the quality of your final video.
How about connectivity?
We’re seeing an increasing number of cameras – even at the budget end of the market – with Wi-Fi built in. This isn’t just for transmitting images to a computer (inserting your camera’s memory card into a card reader, or using its USB port, will almost always be faster) but for connecting to a smartphone or tablet so that you can control the camera’s functions remotely. This opens up some amazing possibilities when it comes to remote camera operation.
READ NEXT: There are DSLRs out there to suit every budget and experience level. Cilck here to find your next DSLR
The best entry-level DSLRs to buy
Canon EOS 2000D: The best all-round cheap DSLR
Price: £470 | Buy now from Amazon
Canon’s latest in its budget range of X000D cameras, the 2000D offers a very impressive amount in return for just under 500 notes. You get Wi-Fi, for instance, which in conjunction with Canon’s Camera Connect App, allows you a huge range of untethered possibilities. You also get a punchy 24.1-megapixel sensor and, of course, compatibility with Canon’s absolutely vast range of EF and EF-S lenses, not to mention compatible third-party lenses from Sigma and Tamron.
The compromises are few and far between, which is impressive for a camera of this price. The screen on the back is fixed, but has a high 920k pixel resolution, and while the maximum ISO of 12,800 isn’t record-breaking, it will cover you for almost all types of photography. Film-makers might be wary of the lack of a microphone jack, while those with an eye on sports should beware the maximum continuous shooting speed of just 3fps. Otherwise, this has the makings of a superb first camera – although we would argue that more ambitious photographers will find the extra £200 for the Canon 800D money well spent.
Key specs: 24.1 megapixel sensor; 9-point, 1x cross-type (centre) autofocus; Video modes: 480p at 30, 25fps; 720p at 60, 50fps; 1080p at 30, 25, 24fps; Shutter speed range: 30s-1/4,000th; Max continuous speed: 3fps, 150 JPG, 11x RAW; ISO range: 100-12,800; Memory card slot: SD, SDHC, SDXC; Lens mount: EF / EF-S; Monitor: 3in, 920k-pixel; Connectivity: Hi-Speed USB, HDMI mini, Wi-Fi, NFC; Battery life: 500 frames; Dimensions: 101 x 78 x 129mm (WDH); Weight: 475g without lens.
Canon EOS 4000D: The best DSLR under £400
Price: £365 | Buy now from Amazon
Just how cheaply can you make a DSLR? We’d say that a shade over £350 is going some, and that the 4000D actually represents a pretty good bet for pro photographers looking for a camera to use in high-danger environments – not least because, despite its bargain-basement price, the EOS 4000D still rocks Wi-Fi.
It doesn’t rock much else, mind. Its megapixel count of 18 is the lowest here, though that’s still more than enough for most purposes. Its screen also betrays its price; not only is it small, at 2.7in, but it’s fixed and has a low 230k pixel resolution. Fix the lens to the camera and you’ll notice that the lens mount – where the lens attaches to the body – is made from plastic rather than the metal used in every other Canon EOS body. It feels, if not flimsy, then lightweight. The 3fps maximum continuous speed isn’t a barrel of laughs, either, and those who want to shoot RAW images should beware the tiny image buffer of just six RAW files before the EOS 4000D needs to stop for a breather.
Yet get past all that and there’s a lot to like. Image quality is everything you’d expect from an APS-C model straight from camera, and the 4000D still shoots 1080p video at very decent quality, albeit without the option for an external microphone. We also love its weight. At under 450g before you attach a lens this a camera that doesn’t make itself known on the shoulder.
Key specs: 18 megapixel sensor; 9-point, 1x cross-type (centre) autofocus; Video modes: 480p at 30, 25fps; 720p at 60, 50fps; 1080p at 30, 25, 24fps; Shutter speed range: 30s-1/4,000th; Max continuous speed: 3fps, unlimited JPG, 6x RAW; ISO range: 100-12,800; Memory card slot: SD, SDHC, SDXC; Lens mount: EF / EF-S; Monitor: 2.7in, 230k-pixel; Connectivity: Hi-Speed USB, HDMI mini, Wi-Fi; Battery life: 500 frames; Dimensions: 102 x 77 x 129mm (WDH); Weight: 436g without lens.
Canon EOS 800D: High-end features and cracking image quality
Price: £684 | Buy now from Amazon
Price-wise, the Canon EOS 800D sits at the very top of what we’d consider an entry-level DSLR, but photographers who want a body that will last while they grow their photographic skills will be well rewarded. The 800D’s body might be almost exclusively made of plastic (with the exception of the decent-quality, metal lens mount), but in many other ways it comes close to treading on the toes of Canon’s higher-end snappers. For example, you get 45 cross-type autofocus sensors, giving plenty of compositional flexibility and good low-light performance. It also shoots 1080p video at up to 60fps and offers a 3.5mm microphone jack. The screen on the back is a 3in vari-angle number, while those with a penchant for shooting moving subjects will appreciate its 6fps maximum frame-rate – it can shoot up to 27 frames at that speed with the camera set to RAW mode, or JPGs up to the limit of your memory card.
Image quality is excellent, and it should be noted that the 800D allows you to shoot around 100 frames more per battery charge than either of Canon’s lesser models. If you’re looking to buy your first DSLR, and don’t mind spending a little more for a model with lots of headroom, the 800D should see you a long way down the road.
Click here to read our full review
Key specs: 24.2 megapixel sensor; 45x cross-type autofocus; Video modes: 480p at 29.97, 25fps; 720p at 59.94, 50, 29.97, 25fps; 1080p at 59.94, 50, 29.97, 25, 23.98fps; Shutter speed range: 30s-1/4,000th; Max continuous speed: 6fps, unlimited JPG, 27x RAW; ISO range: 100-51,200; Memory card slot: SD, SDHC, SDXC; Lens mount: EF / EF-S; Monitor: 3in, 1,040k-pixel vari-angle; Connectivity: Hi-Speed USB, HDMI Mini, 3.5mm stereo mini-jack for microphone, Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth; Battery life: 600 frames; Dimensions: 131 x 76 x 100mm (WDH); Weight: 532g without lens.
Nikon D3400: The best cheap DSLR for travelling
Price: £392 | Buy now from Amazon
Nikon is a stalwart of the DSLR game, offering everything from the unbelievably affordable D3400 up to the unbelievably unaffordable D5. There are signs of its prowess even at the low end of the market, though – the D3400 shoots up to 5fps, and the 24.2-megapixel sensor returns image quality more than worthy of the brand.
Video options are mixed to say the least – on the one hand you can shoot up to 60fps at 1080p, which is great, but there’s no option for an external mic, making this a camera best suited for stills shooters who occasionally dabble in video blogging. A further compromise is the lack of Wi-Fi; without it, Nikon’s SnapBridge app allows you to transfer new images over Bluetooth, but you can’t control your camera remotely.
Those looking for a camera that will do significant mileage – on, say, a gap year or on multiple trips away from civilisation – should note the D3400 offers the second-lowest weight in this group at just 445g before a lens is attached, while its ability to shoot up to 1200 images on a single charge is the best here by a long way. Speaking of lenses, the D3400 supports all Nikon’s F-mount lenses except much older glass (older Nikon lenses depend on an autofocus motor within the body of the camera itself, which the D3400 doesn’t offer). That’s a lens library that easily rivals Canon’s.
There’s absolutely loads to like here, not least of which is the awesome Guide mode, which walks beginners through changing settings such as shutter speed and aperture. If you’re looking for a DSLR with excellent continuous shooting performance that will go for a long time between charges the D3400 is well worth picking up.
Click here to read our full review
Key specs: 24.2 megapixel sensor; 11-point, 1x cross-type (centre) autofocus; Video modes: 720p at 59.94, 50fps; 1080p at 59.94, 50, 29.97, 25, 23.976fps; Shutter speed range: 30s-1/4,000th; Max continuous speed: 5fps; ISO range: 100-25,600; Memory card slot: SD, SDHC, SDXC; Lens mount: Nikon F mount; Monitor: 3in, 921k-pixel; Connectivity: Hi-Speed USB, HDMI mini, Bluetooth; Battery life: 1200 frames; Dimensions: 124 x 76 x 98mm (WDH); Weight: 445g without lens.
Nikon D5600: Luxury features and improved autofocus make for a great all-rounder
Price: £547 | Buy now from Amazon
Like its rival, the Canon EOS 800D, the Nikon D5600 is geared towards the top end of mass-market, affordable DSLRs. Yet, also like the Canon, it offers plenty to photographers who want a camera with performance which, while it may not seem immediately useful, will continue to deliver as your experience grows.
The D5600’s autofocus engine is significantly upgraded compared to the cheaper Nikon D3400; you get 39 autofocus points instead of 11, nine of which are cross-type. This makes for a camera that should keep up with most subjects, particularly when the D5600 offers a fastest continuous drive mode of 5fps.
There are touches of luxury throughout. The vari-angle screen is the largest in this group at 3.2in, and connectivity includes Bluetooth, NFC and Wi-Fi. The D5600 offers a more-than respectable video mode, shooting at industry standard frame rates up to 60fps, and packs in a microphone socket too. It also continues Nikon’s reputation for excellent battery performance, shooting up to 970 frames on a single charge.
At this price, in this group, you’re choosing between the Canon EOS 800D and the Nikon D5600 – a tricky choice given the excellence of both cameras. Both take superb images, and although the Nikon is a shade cheaper, the Canon has a slightly faster continuous mode and a substantially more sophisticated autofocus system, as well as an extra stop of available ISO. However, the Nikon shoots nearly 400 frames more on a single battery charge. Between them, ambitious novice photographers have a real head-scratcher on their hands.
Click here to read our full review
Key specs: 24.2 megapixel sensor; 39-point, 9x cross-type autofocus; Video modes: 720p at 59.94, 50fps; 1080p at 59.94, 50, 29.97, 25, 23.976fps; Shutter speed range: 30s-1/4,000th; Max continuous speed: 5fps; ISO range: 100-25,600; Memory card slot: SD, SDHC, SDXC; Lens mount: Nikon F mount; Monitor: 3.2in, 1,037k pixel vari-angle; Connectivity: Hi-Speed USB, HDMI mini, 3.5mm stereo mini-jack for microphone, Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth; Battery life: 970 frames; Dimensions: 124 x 70 x 97mm (WDH); Weight: 465g without lens.
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