DSLRs have long been the go-to option for professional photographers looking to get the most out of every shot. This is because DSLRs offer a level of image quality and versatility that is as of yet unmatched by other cameras. Unfortunately, professional DSLRs can be prohibitively expensive.
Entry-level DSLRs offer lesser degrees of this functionality at a much lower cost. With an entry-level DSLR, you can enjoy the benefits of increased image quality, intuitive shooting and advanced manual controls without breaking the bank. The best entry-level DSLR cameras, like the Nikon D5300 and D5200, or the Sony Alpha a58, offer all of this plus additional features like an articulating screen, GPS and Wi-Fi. To learn more about cameras, check out our articles on entry-level DSLRs.
The best beginner DSLRs keep costs down while providing excellent image quality, a good design and robust additional features. Whichever is most important to you will determine what camera suits you best. Since every camera offers a different combination of these features, we've broken down the most important ones into categories.
A common misconception with all forms of cameras is that higher megapixel counts equate to better image quality. While it can certainly help, especially when enlarging or cropping a photograph, image quality in DSLRs is much more dependent on the size and quality of your imaging sensor.
Although there are slight variations between brands, beginner DSLRs typically feature an ASP-C imaging sensor. For this reason, the performance of each sensor in the areas of dynamic range, low-light performance and color depth becomes a much more important consideration.
Scored in EVs (exposure values), dynamic range refers to a camera's ability to capture details across the exposure range of an image. Details are often lost in the highlights or shadows of an image. A good DSLR is able to reduce this loss of information and produce detail-rich images. A DxO Mark score of over 12 EVs is considered excellent.
ISO setting determines how sensitive your sensor is to light. Setting your camera to a higher ISO like 1250 will brighten your images and allow you to shoot at higher shutter speeds in low light without a tripod. This is especially convenient for sports photography. Unfortunately, higher ISOs also lead to grainer images.
Low-light performance refers to a camera's ability to shoot at elevated ISOs while maintaining acceptable levels of grain. The best entry-level DSLRs can produce usable images at high ISOs like 800, 1000 and 1250.
A camera's ability to differentiate small differences in color is called color depth. Accurate color rendition is an important aspect of image quality. If your camera can recognize subtle differences, it has a much better chance of realistically reproducing the colors in a particular subject. Color depth is measured in bits. A DxO Mark score of over 22 bits is considered excellent.
In recent years, video recording has become an important feature in entry-level DSLRs. As you compare video capabilities among cameras, it’s a good idea to look at your resolution and frame rate options. Most entry-level DSLRs are capable of shooting full 1080p HD video at up to 30 frames per second, with some able to shoot as high as 60 fps.
You should also consider the lens that comes with your DSLR. Some lenses are designed to be silent when auto focusing to keep unwanted lens noises out of your footage. If you plan to do video work, this can make a big difference.
Other features to look out for include Wi-Fi connectivity and GPS. Built-in Wi-Fi isn't currently offered by many entry-level DSLRs, but it can be useful. With it, you can connect your camera to a smartphone or tablet to remotely control the shutter release or quickly download photos for sharing. You can also embed GPS information in your photos.
Design features like an articulating display, touchscreen and autofocus illuminator can make a big difference in how easy your camera is to use. If cost is your primary concern, however, you might be better off opting for a simpler model.
An articulating display allows you to take pictures from awkward angles. Being able to tilt the display can be very valuable. With many articulating displays, you can shoot over a crowd, at hip level, or even flip the display all the way around to take a quick selfie.
If you're a beginner, shooting with a DSLR camera can be complicated to figure out. Having a touchscreen display makes things much easier. You can use it to navigate menus and browse through photos, but the most helpful aspect of a touchscreen is being able to adjust exposure settings on the screen while the preview updates in real time.
An autofocus illuminator is typically a small LED that provides additional light for autofocusing. When shooting in low light, cameras will often struggle to focus properly, leading to long focusing times. With a built-in LED, the camera briefly illuminates the scene for quick focusing.
Battery life is another important part of how a camera is designed. Cameras that prioritize size and portability often suffer in this area. The cameras that we reviewed typically fell between 400 and 700 shots per charge.
Entry-level DSLRs are a great way to expand your photographic potential without the cost and complexity of professional DSLRs. Smart, user-friendly features allow for easy casual shooting while advanced manual controls allow you create custom photographs of any scene. Regardless of your shooting style, an entry-level DSLR will enable you to produce detailed and beautiful photographs.