The top performers in our review are the Nikon D5500, the Gold Award winner; the Nikon D5300, the Silver Award winner; and the Nikon D3300, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a camera to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 entry-level DSLRs.
DSLR cameras have long represented the utmost in speed, image quality and performance in photography. Thanks to a reflex mirror, large sensors and robust physical controls, they are the ultimate tool for professional and enthusiast photographers. While professional DSLRs are too costly for most, entry-level DSLRs put this excellent image quality and performance in the hands of more budget conscious photographers.
In addition to being less expensive than their professional counterparts, entry-level DSLRs are also somewhat simplified. This makes them much more accessible to beginning photographers, and they are also suitable for some casual users who have no interest in learning the intricacies of a professional camera. Despite their simplification, they still offer much more precise control than typical point and shoot, compact or even bridge cameras. For this reason, you'll have much more freedom to experiment and learn as you continue to grow as a photographer.
As you begin your search for an entry-level camera that meets your needs, there are many factors to consider. Aside from cost, image quality is the most important aspect that you'll want to consider. Your camera may have all of the coolest features, but if you are unsatisfied with the resulting images, it is essentially useless.
While features like an articulating rear display, Wi-Fi or GPS can be useful, they also increase the cost of your camera without having a direct effect on your images. These should be treated as add-ons that, while they can improve you shooting experience, should never be prioritized over quality. Instead, consider your budget and buy the camera that offers the best image quality for your price range. You may take a hit on features, but you'll have better images. And better images are the real reason that you're purchasing a DSLR.
In our articles concerning specific entry-level DSLRs, we discuss the image quality, features and design of various models to help you decide on the camera that meets your needs best. Each of these DSLR cameras has been thoroughly evaluated and scored based on the aspects that matter most. Read on for more information on the attributes we look for and the methods we use to evaluate them.
Image Quality: Colors, Detail and Low-Light Performance
Image quality among entry-level DSLRs is mainly influenced by two things: lens quality and sensor performance. In order to make our reviews of DSLRs as fair as possible, we evaluated the potential image quality of each model based on the performance of its sensor alone. Our metrics on sensor performance come from independent sensor testing available at DxOMark.com.
For many years, resolution was considered by most consumers as a good indicator of a camera's image quality. In the early days of digital photography, when high-resolution sensors were yet to be seen, this may have been helpful. But today, cameras almost always offer more resolution than a typical user takes advantage of, and so, it has only a minor role in image quality evaluations.
For this reason, we instead focus on attributes like color depth, dynamic range and low-light performance. Measured in bits, Evs and ISO sensitivity respectively, these attributes allows us to gauge a camera's ability to accurately reproduce colors, to capture details in highlights and shadows and to minimize noise when shooting in low light. Although shooting performance, features and design are also important, these sensor qualities determine the potential quality of your photographs.
The entry-level DSLRs that we reviewed average about 23.6 Evs for color depth, with the Nikon D3200 leading the pack at an impressive 24.8 Evs. For dynamic range, which represents a camera's ability to capture details in highlights and shadows, the cameras averaged 12.9 Evs, which is 0.9 points above DxOMark's threshold for excellent dynamic range. This time, another Nikon camera, the D5500, took first with 14 Evs. The D5500 also had the best low-light performance on our lineup, besting the category average of 1110 ISO, with a score of 1438 ISO.
Many cameras also have an anti-aliasing filter placed in front of the sensor in order to reduce the risk or moiré in your photos. Moiré is a strange-looking patterning effect caused by a sensor's inability to reproduce intricate repeating details and can show up in clothing, buildings and more. Unfortunately, this filter also reduces the sharpness of your sensor and limits the details that it can record. As cameras become more equipped to handle moiré without the filter, some entry-level DSLRs have begun leave it out altogether, opting instead for increased sharpness.
Video quality is another important attribute to consider when looking at entry-level DSLRs. Aside from the sensor qualities that we've already discussed; maximum resolution and framerate have the greatest impact on your images. Resolution is essentially the size of your videos and influences the size of displays on which you can clearly view them. Frame rate determines how smoothly your videos play back, especially when slowed down. Think of it like a flipbook – the more pages you have, the smoother the animation.
Performance: Capturing Moments With Precision
Beyond image quality, performance plays the next largest role the in the way your images turn out. Your camera may have the specifications to deliver accurate colors and sharp details, but without the ability to focus accurately or shoot quickly, these benefits are useless.
Performance deals with features like battery life, continuous shooting, auto-focus and more, and allows you to determine how well your camera will operate in typical use. Although it has the least impact on your images, battery-life is perhaps the most important. It is, after all, the one element of your camera upon which everything else depends.
Using a standard developed by CIPA – the Camera and Imaging Products Association – manufacturer's measure battery life in shots per charge. The average for the products that we reviewed was 522 shots per charge, though there was a wide variation among them. The worst battery life on our lineup belongs to the Canon Rebel SL1 with 340 shots per charge, and the best belongs to the Nikon D5500 with 820 shots per charge.
Continuous shooting enables you to hold down the shutter during an action sequence and capture multiple frames more quickly than you could otherwise. Using this technique, you can capture the subtle moments that you'd normally miss if it were up to your timing alone. Obviously, the more frames you can capture during a sequence, the more likely you are to get the shot you were trying for. On average, the cameras we tested provided about 5 frames per second, only varying one frame in either direction.
Auto-focus points are a huge part of how your camera focuses. Each of these points corresponds to a specific location on the frame and is equipped to determine when an image is in focus. The more sensors you have, the more adept your camera is at providing an accurate focus, regardless of your subject's location in the frame.
Shutter speed range and maximum ISO are two ways of controlling the amount of light you'll have in your photographs. With a faster shutter speed, you can use wider apertures without over exposing your images. Higher maximum ISOs allow you to capture brighter images in low light.
Features & Design: Convenience, Size and Ease of Use
Entry-Level DSLRs vary very little in design – they all have basic adjustment dials, roughly 3.2-inch screens and sizable grips. For this reason, the actual image quality and performance of each camera is all the more important. However, there are a few axillary features that may make the difference when all else remains equal.
One such feature is an articulating display. While is seems like a subtle difference, a display that can be tilted up or down can prove very useful in many circumstances. Rather than getting on the floor to frame a low shot, you can simply move the camera low and tilt the screen towards you, and rather than guessing when shooting over a crowd, you can angle the screen down so you can see the subjects and get accurate framing.
Another helpful display-related feature is a touchscreen. Touchscreens provide a way for beginners to learn settings adjustment, focus on subjects and explore the menus. Although you can do these things using the camera's physical buttons and dials, the touchscreen simply makes things much more intuitive.
Built-in Wi-Fi is probably the next most popular feature among entry-level DSLR users, although it has as of yet to make a widespread appearance. Wi-Fi allows you to do a few things, the most important of which is using your phone or tablet to remotely adjust settings or frame and capture images. You can also transfer images over Wi-Fi for quick editing or sharing.
GPS allows you to tag your photos with geographical information for later use. This information lets you see exactly where you took your photos. This way, you'll never forget the location of a particular landmark or subject. It also makes it possible to filter your photos by location, which can make it easier to find a specific shot in your catalog.
Lastly, it is a good idea to consider the size and weight of each of the cameras on our lineup. If you're looking for the lightest and smallest option, you may want to consider cameras like the Canon Rebel SL1 because it's the most compact DSLR on our lineup. Just be aware, smaller cameras typically make compromises for their size, particularly when it comes to battery life.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained the units in our comparison on loan from their respective companies. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
The best entry-level DSLRs combine excellent image quality and performance with smart designs and features. Although it's a little more expensive than its competitors, the Nikon D5500 is simply the best entry-level DSLR in every way. Its image quality is unrivaled, its performance excellent, and with built-in Wi-Fi and an articulating touchscreen display, it's the most feature-rich DSLR in our review. For this reason, it gets our Top Ten Reviews Gold Award.
The runner-up, the Nikon D5300 lags only a little behind. Its image quality scores are barely lower, it has a shorter battery life and its display isn't a touchscreen. Other than that, the D5300 is essentially a slightly heavier, slightly cheaper version of the D5500. Considering the performance of that camera, that's quite a compliment and makes the D5300 worthy of our Top Ten Reviews Silver Award.
Our Top Ten Reviews Bronze Award belongs to yet another Nikon DSLR – the D3300. The D3300 is a considerably more purist option than the Nikon models detailed above. Rather than offering articulating screens, built-in Wi-Fi or GPS, it supplies photographers with excellent image quality and battery life as well as solid performance. For budget conscious purist, this is the way to go. However, if you'd prefer an articulating screen over extended battery life, reach for the D5200.