So you’re new to photography and want to buy your first DSLR camera?
Here’s what you will learn in this guide:
- What you should know before buying a DSLR
- Our 5 most recommended DSLR models for beginners
- We will explain specifications and common technical terms
- Lenses and other important accessories
If you enjoy taking pictures but want something way more advanced and versatile than your phone or a compact camera, DSLRs give you all of that and more.
Their sensors are bigger and therefore offer superb image quality. Photographing in low light is also easier and results in more pleasing images, as bigger pixels receive much more light.
Besides that, you can blur the background, choose from over 150 different lenses and easily shoot sports. We talk about all of this towards the end of the post.
In short, the sky is the limit with a DSLR.
What you should know before buying a DSLR?
We also have a guide on best lenses.
You’ve probably been referring to DSLRs as “those big professional cameras”, but you definitely don’t have to be a pro to use one.
Many models that we recommend also have a “built-in guide” for beginners, but you can always learn by reading the manual, reading online or simply experimenting (you can’t mess up anything). For example, the Nikon D3400 offers a Guide Mode that gives you an explanation of what every selected button/setting does.
The two biggest brands are Canon and Nikon. Their lens selection, image quality and support from third-party companies are by far the best.
The other two companies in the DSLR game are Sony and Pentax, whereas the most famous third-party lens brands are Sigma, Tamron and Tokina.
What about lenses?
A DSLR body needs a lens to operate as it’s how the camera sees the world. We seriously recommend you to start with the kit 18-55mm lens, or any other kit lens that’s included in the official bundles. As long as it fits your budget of course, but the 18-55mm is already a perfectly good choice for daily photography (wider scenes, walking around, people etc.).
The cameras in our guide all have the kit 18-55mm included in the links we provide. These lead you to Amazon, and if you decide to buy anything through them you also support us as we receive a small commission. It’s what allows us to write these guides.
5 Best Entry-Level DSLR Cameras in 2017
Here’s what we mostly paid attention to:
- Great image quality, many useful features
- From $400 to $800
- Good for complete beginners and also more skilled DSLR users
- Something you can use for many years
You can’t go wrong with any Canon or Nikon camera, but we selected our favorites based on getting the most for the money.
These are our 5 favorite DSLR models:
1. Nikon D3400 – Simply our favorite DSLR, even for more experienced users
2. Canon T6 – Slightly cheaper and with less features, but great for newcomers to photography
3. Canon T6i – More advanced than both cameras above, better AF, improved build and more
4. Nikon D5500 – Competes with the T6i, but offers more AF points and Full HD at 60fps
5. Canon SL1 – If you’re looking for the smallest and lightest DSLR, this is it
1. Nikon D3400
With a 24.2MP sensor, the Nikon D3400 gives you by far the most resolution for an entry-level camera. The pixels don’t define the image quality, but it’s always good to have more in case you decide to print some of your images really big. You can also crop (zoom in) a shot and not lose any quality or whatsoever. However, you should know that having more pixels does not equal more sharpness; all DSLRs have more than enough resolution for probably 99% of photographers.
The D3400 offers a native ISO sensitivity from 100 to 12,800 which can be expanded up to 25,600. The higher a DSLR camera goes the easier it is to shoot in low light, but you also introduce more and more visible noise to your images. Fortunately, the D3400 handles ISO up to 6,400 relatively good, especially for smaller prints. You can see examples in Dpreview’s review, but the camera is perfectly usable even at 3,200.
Speed wise, the Expeed 4 processor allows the camera to shoot at 5fps burst mode, which is quick enough for sports or any other fasted paced action. It’s got an 11-point AF system just like its predecessor, but once again only the center point is cross-type. While this isn’t that big of a deal, cross-type points do focus more accurately in low light. Number wise, 11 is quite enough and is 2 more than what the Canon below offers anyways.
Nikon D3400’s Important Features:
- 24.2 megapixels
- 11 AF points
- 5 frames per second
- ISO 100 – 12,800 (25,600)
- Full HD at 60fps
- 3.0″ Fixed LCD touch-screen
For viewing pictures and recording videos, the 3.0″ LCD screen is big and bright enough to be used outdoors. Despite the fact it’s aimed at beginners, the D3400 offers video at 60fps in Full HD. You also have built-in Wifi and NFC for quickly sending your images.
If you’re looking for a small and light DSLR that you can easily carry around, you’ll be happy to know that the D3400 with the 18-55mm kit lens, a battery and a memory card, weighs only 0.87lbs (395g). It’s actually 40g lighter than the D3300! What’s also awesome is the fact that you can take up to 1200 shots with a single battery charge. That’s almost twice as much as what most other DSLRs offer today.
2. Canon T6
The Canon T6 was released in the same year as the D3400 above, but is slightly cheaper and offers less exciting features.
For starters, it uses an 18 megapixel sensor, so that’s 6MP less. Will that make a difference for having most of your shots online? Nope, quality is just as good. However, the T6’s ISO goes up to 12,800 compared to 25,600 on the Nikon, and it also shows a little bit more noise when above 3,200.
It also shoots only at 3fps versus 5fps on the Nikon, and that does make a difference if you plan on shooting a lot of action. While none of these cameras are the ultimate choice for extreme sports and wildlife, you should know that having 5fps gives you more chances of getting more, sharp results (when shooting in burst, you usually take 5-20+ pictures so at least a few will be in complete focus). As mentioned previously, the T6’s AF system uses 9 focus points (one center cross-type).
Canon T6’s Important Features:
- 18 Megapixels
- 9 AF points
- 3 frames per second
- ISO 100 – 6,400 (12,800)
- Full HD at 30fps
- 3.0″ Fixed LCD screen
Video recording is available at 30fps in Full HD (vs 60 on the D3400) and it features a microphone jack which the Nikon does not. For recording shorter movies where high quality audio is crucial, this is a big advantage.
Yes, the T6 offers less features which is one of the reasons why it’s around $50 cheaper, but as far as image quality, colors and sharpness go, it’s a great DSLR camera. Whether you’re a complete beginner or just want to spend as little as possible to get into the DSLR world, you definitely won’t be disappointed. Just like the D3400, it has a built-in WiFi and NFC.
3. Canon T6i
If you’re looking for a more advanced camera, check out the Canon T6i. It’s got a newer sensor with 24.2MP and delivers impressive results even at higher ISO speeds.
In many ways, it’s like the T6’s bigger brother. We really like its 19-point all-cross type AF system as it’s the same one that is used in more expensive Canon DSLRs. With all points being cross-type instead of just vertical, or horizontal, the AF system is way more accurate in difficult to focus situations. It’s helpful for any indoor scene (parties, indoor group shots, weddings etc.) as you’ll be able to focus on your subject quicker.
In terms of image quality, it’s easily the best Canon Rebel made so far, and you’ll be impressed with both outdoor and indoor results. Video is also great on the Canon T6i, and paired with an STM lens (Stepping Motor), you won’t get any noise on your videos from the lens’ auto focus. You should check out the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM for $125 that’s sharper and better at blurring the background than most more expensive zooms.
Canon T6i’s Important Features:
- 24.2 Megapixels
- 19 AF Points (all cross-type)
- ISO 100 – 12,800 (25,600)
- 5 frames per second
- Full HD at 30fps
- 3.0″ Articulated touch-screen LCD
Feature wise, the T6i has a fully articulated 3.0″ touch-screen LCD monitor and 5 frames per second burst mode. Compared to its predecessor, the T6i can take up to 940 JPEG shots before the buffer fills, compared to just 22 on the Canon T5i. This is great if you plan on taking tons of action shots and don’t want to lose a moment. Unfortunately, RAW buffer increased from 6 to 8, which is a little bit disappointing. Maybe Canon thinks most beginners buying the Rebel line don’t shoot in RAW, but it wouldn’t hurt if they tried more here. Check out the RAW or JPEG article here to see the pros and cons of each format.
Also, the T6i does not shoot Full HD at 60fps, instead it’s 30/25/24fps just like on the previous Canon T5i. If you plan on doing a lot of slow motion videos and expect super smooth results, go for a DSLR with 60fps (like the D3400). If you don’t need 60 then this is not a big issue as any of those 3 frame rates are good for YouTube videos and movies.
4. Nikon D5500
The Nikon D5500 replaced the D5300 (Nikon decided to skip the D5400, they’re that bad-ass).
Again, for every Canon model there’s a similarly priced Nikon. The D5500 features a 24.2MP APS-C sized sensor and is more or less the same as the Nikon D3400 when it comes to quality, sharpness and colors.
They both share the same shooting rate (5fps), Expeed 4 processor and record Full HD videos at 60fps. So why does the D5500 cost that much more? Because of its 39-point AF system, fully articulated 3.2″ LCD touch-screen with a higher resolution, timelapse function and a microphone port.
Out of those 39 AF points, 9 are cross-type. So besides having 28 more AF points, those 9 will have a much higher chance of successfully focusing on your subject in low light/tricky situations. Having more points also lets you be more precise where you want the focus to be, as they’re spread all over the viewfinder.
Nikon D5500’s Important Features:
- 24.2 Megapixels
- 39 AF Points (9 cross-type)
- ISO 100 – 25,600
- 5 frames per second
- Full HD at 60fps
- 3.2″ Articulated touch-screen LCD
The 3.2″ touch-screen LCD is excellent for recording videos, especially if you don’t always want to be directly behind the camera. For example, if you want to record a video of yourself, it’s way easier to just flip the LCD screen and instantly spot if anything’s wrong. The slightly bigger resolution is a minor change, but it’s easier to spot if your files are sharp. Whereas the D3400 doesn’t have an option to use an external microphone, the D5500 gives you the ability to connect one.
Can’t decide if it’s worth spending more for the features we mentioned, when it’s quite similar to the D3400? Just ask yourself if videos and faster, more precise auto focus are important to you. If you answered yes to both, and have the budget, they will make your life much easier. As far as image quality is concerned, they’re identical.
5. Canon SL1
Our final pick is the Canon SL1, the world’s smallest DSLR available. It does almost everything that the more expensive models do, but is simply easier to carry around.
It’s more or less the Canon T5i in disguise. 18 megapixels, 4 frames per second, ISO up to 25,600 and a 3.0″ touch-screen LCD are really impressive for a camera at this price.
Canon SL1’s Important Features:
- 18 Megapixels
- 9 AF points
- ISO 100 – 12,800 (25,600)
- 4 frames per second
- Full HD at 30fps
- 3.0″ touch-screen LCD
Just like with the T6, you only get 9 AF points, but it’s slightly faster with 4fps vs 3fps. It used to be the lightest DSLR as well, but the recently announced D3400 took that spot (it is a bit bigger though). The SL1 weighs 407g, whereas the D3400 only 395g. Both results are impressive though!
You buy the SL1 for one simple reason; size. You can get more features from the Nikon D3400 that costs the same, but if small size, touch-screen and a microphone jack are more important to you, you’ll love the Canon.
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If you don’t understand some (or any) of the terms we talk in descriptions of every camera, make sure to read further.
The Most Important Features of Every DSLR
It’s one of the first things you probably look for when buying a camera. However, remember that having more megapixels doesn’t somehow make your images sharper or more pleasing to the eye. It just means you can see more details but only if the device/material you’re viewing your pictures on is capable of displaying that many pixels.
For example, if the majority of your photographs are going to be shared online, and you use a Full HD monitor (which is 1,920 x 1,080 resolution), you won’t even be able to see more pixels than what the monitor is capable of displaying.
Obviously for printing big, cropping images or just “future-proofing” yourself when higher resolution monitors do arrive, more megapixels make a huge difference.
In 2017, this is hardly anything you need to be extra careful about, as all cameras offer over 18 megapixels. Full HD resolution is around 2 megapixels, so there’s no reason to worry here. Tom’s Guide wrote a How Many Megapixels Do You Really Need? in which you’ll exactly see why stressing over this is pointless unless you print big.
Every digital camera uses a sensor to capture images. Phones and other compact devices have tiny ones, which is why their quality and low light performance aren’t that good.
Having a bigger sensor means the pixels can be bigger, and that translates to better light “reading”. Bigger pixels have by far better quality, less noise, and simply see more information from the light available. It’s why the background can be blurry on a DSLR camera, whereas almost everything is always sharp when taking a picture with your phone.
We have 2 types of sensors in DSLRs:
- Full Frame
- APS-C / DX
Full frame sensors measure 36 x 24mm, identical to film in the old days. They’re more expensive, bigger, heavier, and are the best on the market when it comes to high ISO shooting.
APS-C / DX is 1.6x smaller than full frame (Nikon is actually 1.5x smaller). While image quality is just as good, these cameras can be smaller, cheaper and lighter. Any lens that you put on an APS-C camera makes it look as if you’re 1.6x times closer to your subject. So if you use a 50mm lens on both full frame and APS-C camera, it would look as if you’re using a 80mm lens on APS-C. Same lens, same position, simply because of that 1.6x crop factor.
You can check out Wikipedia’s APS-C article on all companies that use the sensor.
Different lenses are made for different types of sensors:
- Canon – EF and EF-S lenses fit on every APS-C camera (so all in this guide). EF-S does not fit on full frame.
- Nikon – DX and FX lenses fit on every DX camera (all under $1,500). DX lenses do fit on full frame, but you get smaller images.
- Sigma – DG and DC types are designed for APS-C / DX cameras. You can’t mount DC on a full frame.
- Tamron – Di and Dii work on all APS-C / DX cameras. You can’t use Dii on full frame cameras.
In short, you only have to worry about this when you get a full-frame camera. As a beginner you’re probably overwhelmed with all this new information, but If you’re really interested in photography you just might upgrade to a full frame DSLR some day, which is why we wrote this. You can always ask us directly or post a comment if you’re unsure about something.
Having more auto focus points means the camera, or you, can be more specific when it comes to focusing on your subject.
9 is probably the minimum we recommend nowadays, but this was a common number in professional DSLRs back in ~2008. We’ve come a long way obviously, as beginner models like Nikon D5500 and Canon T6i both offer an advanced AF system.
Usually, the more you pay, the more points the camera has. Cross-type AF points are more accurate and will focus on your subject quicker, but this is reserved for more expensive models. Both Nikon D3400 and Canon T6 have one in the center, while the Canon EOS 80D, a more expensive camera, gives you 49 all-cross type points.
Shutter Speed – Aperture – ISO Sensitivity
The video above is the best tutorial we’ve seen so far. You will learn almost everything you need to know to in order to immediately start taking better pictures.
Shutter Speed -> Use fast speeds for freezing the subject and getting sharp shots, or slower speeds when shooting in low light.
Aperture -> You can control how much is in focus with it (to get that blurry background), and it also controls how much light hits the sensor.
ISO sensitivity -> It’s how sensitive to light the sensor is. In most situations the Auto ISO is good enough and you’ll rarely have to change this. However, when shooting indoors where there isn’t a lot of light, you might have to change it manually. Anything over 1,600 is recommended.
These 3 settings are actually the most important if you plan on shooting manually (which you should eventually). In all automatic and semi-manual modes, the camera decides what settings to go with.
LCD Screen & Viewfinder
You can take pictures through the viewfinder, or the LCD screen.
The viewfinder is by far the most accurate and cleanest, as the mirror in the camera reflects the light directly into it. Plus, auto focus is way more accurate and quick compared to shooting through the LCD, but DSLRs are getting better and better at this.
For videos or photographing on a tripod, using the big LCD screen is a huge advantage (not to mention you can’t record videos through the viewfinder). Having an articulating monitor is helpful, especially if you plan on recording yourself. It saves you a lot of time and headaches going back and forth with focusing, exposure etc. Just flip the screen and instantly see results.
The 3.0″ size is currently a standard, with few cameras offering 3.2″.
Wi-Fi and NFC
If you want to instantly send your shots to your phone or any other WiFi connected device, make sure your camera has this built-in. Otherwise, you’ll need to buy an adapter or if you’re lucky enough, get one in a bundle for a low price. Same with NFC, it’s a big time saver if you’re going to share your shots on Facebook, Instagram etc.
What About Lenses?
Lenses are even more important than the camera you use.
See, we have 2 different types:
- Zoom Lenses
- Prime Lenses
A zoom lens can go from one focal length to another, a great example is the kit Canon EF-S 18-55mm lens f/3.5-5.6 IS STM. You can simply go from 18, all numbers between, and 55 by rotating the zoom ring. It takes less than a second and is extremely convenient for traveling or situations where your subject isn’t always where you want it to be.
A prime lens has one focal length, there’s no zoom; check out the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8. It’s always at 50mm, and you might be asking yourself, why would anyone choose this when you can get a zoom that covers this range and more?
Simply because a prime lens needs less glass to do its job, which results in better optical quality, lighter weight and way more compact design. The maximum aperture can also be way bigger so it’s great for blurring the background and low light/indoor photography.
There are obviously zoom lenses with big apertures and just as good, if not even better quality, but this is more or less the standard. The majority of prime lenses are also relatively cheap (the 50mm f/1.8 costs only $125 and is worth every dollar).
How to tell how much you’ll be able to get in your scene with a different lens?
- Wideangle – Up to 35mm
- Standard – From 35 to 85mm
- Telephoto – Above 85mm
As you can see, the bigger the number, the closer you can get to your subject.
Nikon has a great Lens Simulator where you can use the slider to see the differences by changing the focal length.
We also wrote guides for choosing the best lens for every specific camera.
Still Don’t Know Which DSLR To Buy?
Get the Nikon D3400. It’s cheap and gives you more features, pixels and better low light performance than even more expensive models.
- Literally any Canon or Nikon DSLR released after 2012 has enough megapixels and features for most of your needs.
- Quality, sharpness, colors, 99% the same among all models.
- Which brand to go with? It doesn’t matter, but we advise you to check what lenses each company offers and see which ones you prefer.
- If someone you know already has a Canon or a Nikon and could lend you some lenses, then go with that brand. Or go with the opposite one, just to mess with them.
- As far as video is concerned, an articulating screen helps a lot but is not a must. 60fps for slow motion is great, if you don’t need it, ignore it.
- For wildlife and sports, more frames per second is always a plus, so is having more AF points.
- For low light photography, high ISO performance is important as it affects the quality of your shots.
- Good lenses are just as important as a good camera!
- Once you get a DSLR, experiment, read, shoot and have fun. You only get better as you try what you’ve read (literally applies to almost everything in life).
Any questions? Feel free to post a comment or ask us directly.