Putting Smartphones to Shame
If you're feeling limited by what your point-and-shoot can do, there are plenty of reasons to consider an interchangable lens camera, whether it be a traditional DSLR or a more modern mirrorless camera. These advanced shooters feature larger image sensors, superior optics, robust manual controls, faster performance, and the versatility of changeable lenses.
All this functionality doesn't come cheap, though, and the cost of a DSLR can add up, especially when you start factoring in lenses. You also need to remember that you're buying into a camera system. If your first DSLR is a Canon, chances are that your next one will be as well, simply for the fact that you'll be able to make use of existing lenses and accessories. Below are the most important aspects to consider when you're shopping for a digital SLR, as well as the highest-rated models we've tested.
Entry-Level DSLRs Versus Mirrorless Cameras
Before you start shopping for an SLR, you should take a look at the alternatives. This is especially true if you're looking at an entry-level model, as you'll be able to get more camera for your money by opting for a mirrorless system. You won't have an eye-level viewfinder with the most compact, basic mirrorless models, but those that are in line with pricing on entry-level SLRs typically offer an electronic viewfinder.
Our favorite entry-level shooter, the Sony Alpha 6000, has an autofcous system that runs circles around comparably priced SLRs and an 11.1fps burst rate, and there are many mirrorless models available for under $1,000 with 4K video—you won't get 4K in an SLR for less than $2,000.
But there are reasons to opt for an SLR. If your eyesight isn't perfect, an optical viewfinder may prove to be a better match rather than an electronic one, you may simply prefer their familiar feel, or you may already have access to compatible lenses. When moving beyond entry-level, SLRs catch up to mirorlesss in capability quickly, and typically offer a larger library of lenses and accessories from which to choose—although it's mainly in exotic, very expensive lenses offered by Canon and Nikon that the wider selection comes into play.
For more, the The Best Mirrorless Cameras.
Understanding Sensor Size
Most consumer DSLRs use image sensors that, while much larger than those found in point-and-shoot cameras, are somewhat smaller than a 35mm film frame. This can be a bit confusing when talking about a camera's field of view, as focal lengths for compacts are often expressed in terms of 35mm equivalency. The standard APS-C sensor features a "crop factor" of 1.5x. This means that the 18-55mm kit lens that is bundled with most DSLRs covers a 35mm field of view equivalent to 27-82.5mm. If you're upgrading from a point-and-shoot that has a 3x zoom lens that starts at about 28mm, the DSLR kit lens will deliver approximately the same field of view.
There are many inherent advantages to a larger sensor. It allows you to better control the depth of field in images, making it possible to isolate your subject and create a blurred background. This blur is often referred to by the Japanese term bokeh. Much has been written about the quality of the bokeh created by different lenses, but the general rule of thumb is that the more light a lens can capture—measured numerically as its aperture, or f-number—the blurrier the background can be. A lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 lets in eight times as much light as one of f/4, and can create a shallower depth of field at an equivalent focal length and shooting distance.
Another reason to go for the big sensor is to minimize image noise. A 24MP DSLR has much larger pixels than a point-and-shoot of the same resolution. These larger pixels allow the sensor to be set at a higher sensitivity, measured numerically as ISO, without creating as much image noise. An advantage to the larger surface area is that changes in color or brightness are more gradual than that of a point-and-shoot. This allows more natural-looking images with a greater sense of depth.
Some DSLRs feature sensors that are equal in size to 35mm film. These full frame cameras are generally more expensive than their APS-C counterparts. If you see yourself moving up to a full frame in the future, be careful in buying lenses. Some are designed to be used with APS-C sensors. Canon refers to its APS-C lens line as EF-S, while lenses that cover full frame are EF. Nikon takes a similar approach, calling APS-C lenses DX and full frame lenses FX. Sony adds a DT designation to its APS-C-only lenses, and Pentax designates its APS-C lenses as DA.
Choose a Camera That Feels Right
It's very important to choose a camera that feels comfortable in your hands. While most DSLRs are similar in size and build, the styling of the handgrip, position of controls, and other ergonomic features can differ drastically. The camera you choose should be one that you are most comfortable using. If a DSLR is too big or small for you to hold comfortably, or if the controls are not laid out in a way that makes sense to you, chances are you won't enjoy shooting as much as you should.
Get the Best Viewfinder
By definition, a DSLR features an optical viewfinder that shows you the exact image the camera's lens is capturing—but not all of these viewfinders are created equal. A mirror directs light from the lens to the viewfinder, which is one of two types. The first, the pentamirror, is generally found on entry-level cameras. This type of viewfinder uses three mirrors to redirect the image to your eye, flipping it so that it appears correct, as opposed to the upside down and backwards image that the lens is actually capturing.
The second type of optical viewfinder is the pentaprism. This is a solid glass prism that does the same job as the pentamirror. A pentaprism is generally heavier and brighter than a pentamirror. The extra brightness makes it easier to frame images and to confirm that your photo is in focus. Pentaprisms usually start appearing in mid-range DSLRs and are standard issue on pro bodies. Pentax SLRs are the exception, with a few ancient exceptions, they all feature pentaprism finders and many also include weather sealing.
You should also pay attention to magnification and coverage numbers for pentaprism finders, as they give you an idea of the actual size of the finder and how much of the captured image can be seen. In both cases you'll want to look for a higher number.
Another Option: The EVF
A few SLRs on the market offer a third viewfinder option—an electronic viewfinder. Sony cameras that feature fixed, semi-transparent mirrors are sometimes referred to as SLTs. Rather than redirecting light to your eye, the semi-transparent mirror in these cameras redirects it to an autofocus sensor. If you aren't set on an optical finder, these cameras are worth considering. But be aware that Sony has been investing more heavily in its mirrorless system as of late. If you're buying an A-mount Sony SLR be sure that you're happy with what's available for it now, as we don't expect to see a lot of future lens or accessory releases.
Continuous Shooting and Autofocus Speed
DSLRs have another big advantage over point-and-shoots—speed. The time that it takes between hitting the shutter button and the camera capturing a picture, referred to as shutter lag, and the wait time between taking photos—recycle time—are often concerns with compact cameras. DSLRs generally focus very quickly and deliver shutter lag that is nearly immeasurable.
Continuous shooting is measured in frames per second. At minimum, you should look for a camera that can shoot three frames per second, although sports and nature shooters will want to look for a camera that can shoot faster than five frames per second.
Of course, the autofocus system has to be able to keep up with the frame rate. Basic DSLRs often only have a few autofocus points, which makes it difficult to track moving subjects. High-end models sport autofocus points that cover most of the frame, making them favorites of photographers interested in capturing sports action and wildlife. Continuous shooting and autofocus performance go hand-in-hand, so it is important to look for a camera that does both well.
Live View and HD Video
Video recording is now a standard feature in DSLRs. Look for one that continues to autofocus while recording. You should also check its autofocus speed when taking photos using live view, as that can often be very slow. Canon has made strides in improving focus speed when recording video with models that feature its Dual Pixel AF system, and Sony cameras focus just as quickly when recording video as they do when shooting stills. A microphone input jack is important if you plan on using the video function often—an external mic will capture much better sound than the camera's built-in microphone.
Affordable SLRs top out at 1080p, but a few high-end models have added 4K capture. We expect to see it appear more often in the future. Right now you're going to spend at least $1,000 to get an SLR with 4K video support.
Be Realistic About Lenses and Accessories
Most first-time DSLR users aren't going to purchase a whole bevy of lenses, but there are a few to consider to supplement the kit lens that ships with the camera. The first is a telezoom to complement the standard 18-55mm lens. There is usually a matching zoom, starting at 55mm and ranging up to 200mm or 300mm, that will help you get tighter shots of distant action. Plan on budgeting $200-300 for this lens.
Another popular lens choice is a fast, normal-angle prime lens. Before zooms were popular, film SLRs were often bundled with a 50mm f/2 lens. Because of the smaller sensor in consumer DSLRs, a 35mm f/2 is the current equivalent. The standard-angle gives you a field of view that is not far off from that of your eye, and the fast aperture makes it possible to shoot in lower light, and to isolate your subject by blurring the background of your photos. Prices for these lenses vary a bit depending on your camera system, but you can expect them to run you between $175 and $350.
Even though consumer DSLRs have built-in flashes as a rule, many photographers opt to use a more powerful external flash. These flashes emit more light and can often be repositioned so that you can use reflected light to illuminate a subject. Bouncing flash off of a ceiling to brighten a room is possible with a dedicated flash unit, but not with the ubiquitous DSLR pop-up flash. Depending on your needs for power, recycle time, and movement, a dedicated flash can cost anywhere from $150 to $500.
Is a DSLR Too Big?
Want speed and top-notch images, but don't want to haul a heavy DSLR? You may also want to consider a mirrorless camera, like the aforementioned Sony Alpha 6000. It uses an APS-C sensor, just like an entry-level SLR, has a built-in EVF, and can shoot at 11 fames per second. It delivers image quality that's better than some SLRs in a more compact package.
If you don't see yourself investing in extra lenses you can also opt for a premium compact camera. Some have image sensors that are close to SLRs in size, but the smaller 1-inch size is much more common. You'll still enjoy a huge advantage over a smartphone camera by opting for a premium compact, but you should expect it to cost as much (or more) as an SLR.
If you do opt for a DSLR, following our guidelines will help you to choose the camera and lens system that fits your needs and your budget. Just be sure to take time and research your purchase, and go to the store and pick up a couple of cameras to see which feels best. And once you've made your pick and are ready to start shooting, check out our 10 Beyond-Basic Photography Tips.
Bottom Line: The Nikon D850 offers the best of all worlds: extreme resolution, fantastic image quality, fast shooting, and an exceptional build. It's our favorite pro SLR.
Bottom Line: The Canon EOS 5D Mark IV balances resolution and shooting rate, making it an ideal camera for professional photographers.
Bottom Line: The top-of-the-line Nikon D5 SLR doesn't disappoint thanks to best-in-class autofocus, 4K video recording, and a full-frame image sensor.
Bottom Line: The Nikon D500 puts the company's finest autofocus system in a tough, compact SLR body that will please demanding enthusiasts and pros alike.
Bottom Line: The Nikon D750 delivers pro-level performance at a reasonable asking price, making it our Editor's Choice for full-frame DSLRs under $2,500.
Bottom Line: The Sony Alpha 77 II has one of the quickest autofocus systems we've seen on an SLR and can shoot at 12fps, making it our Editors' Choice.
Bottom Line: Canon's EOS Rebel T7i DSLR offers an improved autofocus system in both standard and Live View modes, giving owners of older Rebels a compelling reason to upgrade.
Bottom Line: The Canon EOS 80D offers some significant upgrades over its predecessor, and is a strong performer in the midrange SLR space.
Bottom Line: The Nikon D3300 is a solid entry-level camera for shooters moving up to a D-SLR, but it's not quite worthy of being named Editors' Choice.
Bottom Line: The Nikon D5600 SLR undercuts its predecessor's asking price and doesn't skimp on features, but still lags behind competing Canon models when it comes to Live View autofocus.