Best DSLR camera: Five things to consider
Beginner, professional, videographer, or somewhere in between: Here’s what you need to know when choosing a DSLR camera.
What’s the best DSLR camera you can buy? Well, let’s (for now!) answer your question with some more questions. Are you looking for the best camera for professional photography? The best DSLR for video? The best DSLR camera for beginners? The best cheap DSLR camera? Or are you cost-is-not-a-factor shopping for the straight-up best camera out there? Once you can answer that question, we can give you answers—just take a look below.
But a word, first, on some big picture (e.g., life beyond this one camera body) questions, as well as the technical specifics to not compromise on, and ones that get overhyped.
On the big picture: Keep in mind that lens mounts are different from brand to brand, which means your Nikon lenses won’t work on another system, such as Canon, Fujifilm, or Leica. And lenses matter. Yes, the camera’s sensor is essential, but it can only do so much without the right lens for the subject, desired style, and shooting environment. What this means, practically speaking, is that you should play the long game with your lens investments. If you’re looking for anything beyond the most basic beginner kit lens with no plans to expand, think carefully about the make.
On the tech specs: Pay attention to numbers such as megapixels and ISO range, but also sample images (noting lenses, too), for what makes the most sense for your particular shooting needs. Likewise, the weight and size of a camera—how it feels in your hands—may seem frivolous, but if you’ve ever carted around a camera on assignment or even on vacation, you know it’s not. Beyond comfort, too, is the reality that if you don’t like using it, you’re not going to use it. The specs to not get too romanced by? Megapixels. Yes, more information is better! That is detail! But without a large, quality sensor—the nonnegotiable part that’s doing the recording—supercharged MPs are just going to mean giant file sizes, not better images.
- Best all-around DSLR camera: Canon EOS 90D DSLR
- Best DSLR camera for beginners: Nikon D3500 DSLR
- Best camera for professional photography: Canon 5D Mark IV Full Frame DSLR
- Best DSLR for video: Nikon D780 DSLR
- Best digital camera for over $5,000: Canon 1D X Mark III DSLR
- Best budget DSLR camera: Canon EOS Rebel T7 DSLR
Features to consider when shopping for the best DSLR camera
The best DSLR camera for you depends largely on the subject matter, your experience level, and your budget. We’ll walk you through the questions to ask—and the DSLR cameras we recommend, accordingly.
Are you looking for an easy-to-use DSLR camera that takes high-quality shots?
You want a solidly built, quality, enthusiast-level camera that will go setting-to-setting with you and produce great shots. One with a wide ISO range to accommodate a host of environments, a good battery life, a great sensor, and ease of use with the option to dig deep into manual settings, too. Good news: That DSLR camera exists.
Worth mentioning: Canon and Nikon have battled it out over the years, and as DSLR technology was first developing, there were noticeable differences in quality. At this point, however, they are very neck-and-neck, and innovations by one are quickly matched by the other. They, of course, still each have their followings. If undecided, see if one feels more intuitive to use or better to hold, and go from there.
Best DSLR camera overall: Canon EOS 90D DSLR
Ease of use and features that will help you take great shots at a range of experience levels, the Canon EOS 90D is an excellent all-around DSLR camera. Amazon
Easy to use, comfortable to hold, with solid checkmarks in all the right boxes to consistently produce high-quality shots, the Canon EOS 90D DSLR is the all-around best DSLR camera pick. (It also has WiFi, Bluetooth, a moveable LED screen, and shoots 4K video.)
Why it’s worth paying a little extra for the 90D versus the 80D? It’s lighter (701g vs. 730g), three years newer (2019 vs. 2016) and has a significantly higher sensor resolution (32.5 MP vs. 24.2 MP), has twice the shutter durability (200k vs. 100k), shoots four more frames per second (11 fps vs. 7 fps), a much higher ISO sensitivity (25,600 vs. 6,400 native; 51,200 vs. 25,600 boosted), and better battery life (1,300 shots vs. 900 shots).
It’s not built for professionals, but it has all the settings a pro could need in a pinch. Still, it’s simple enough to use in its automatic modes that it’s easy to pick up and start shooting.
Do you need an entry-level camera?
If your eyes are crossing (or perhaps producing tears) at the sight of DSLR spec sheets, and your burning question at this point is “Please, just tell me: What digital camera should I buy?”—fear not, for actually using an entry-level DSLR camera is not nearly as intimidating as trying to pick one out. That is, it shouldn’t be, which is why intuitive setup and ease of use are top considerations in choosing the best DSLR for beginners. You want the camera to help you, not fight you, after all.
You’re looking, basically, for the Honda Civic of cameras: It’s conveniently sized, it does the job well, it’s built for the long haul, and it has a great track record.
(Related note: If you are a beginner, do yourself a giant favor and read up, thoroughly, on f-stop and shutter speed before adding on lenses, lest you waste your money and have to buy all over again.)
Best DSLR camera for beginners: Nikon D3500 DSLR
The lightweight champ of entry-level DSLR cameras. Stack Commerce
Widely heralded as the best DSLR camera for beginners, the Nikon D3500 does its job and does its job well. An attainable price point, supremely easy to carry (especially as you’re first getting used to not shooting from a smartphone), and solid entry-level specs all around make it the best DSLR camera for beginners.
If you are a committed Canon user (say, your friend has a stash of Canon lenses you can try out), check our budget option for an entry-level Canon.
Are you looking for a full-frame DSLR camera for professional photography?
To the uninitiated, it perhaps seems strange that any camera is not shooting a full frame. Cameras still often measure their imaging sensors as they did with film back in the analog days. Full frame cameras have an image sensor that’s the size of a single picture taken on 35mm film. Move down to a camera with an APS-C sensor and the total light gathering area is roughly two-thirds the size of a full-frame shooter.
Because APS-C sensors are smaller, they don’t capture the entire picture the lens provides, which makes it appear as though you’ve zoomed in. That means wide-angle lenses aren’t so wide and telephoto lenses have even more reach.
If you’re shooting professionally, you will likely want a full-frame DSLR camera. And the convenient news is that full-frame DSLRs are generally also outfitted with the other features a professional-quality camera will need, like superb marks in light metering, ISO, autofocus, and image processing for quick capture of consistently excellent images, both still and video.
Best camera for professional photography: Canon 5D Mark IV Full Frame DSLR
The Canon 5D Mark IV is a favorite of professional portrait, event, and nature photographers for a reason. Amazon
The best DSLR for professional photographers is the Canon 5D Mark IV, a full-frame DSLR with rock-solid stats: 30.4 MP (with a beefy enough image processor to still shoot 7 frames per second), a native ISO of 32000 that expands to 102400, 61-point reticular autofocus, and dual-pixel recording in stills and video.
Despite all its heft, the Canon 5D Mark IV is still remarkably comfortable to use and carry, and for all its technical prowess, it remains an intuitive model, even if it is getting a little long in the tooth.
Are you looking for a 4K DSLR camera for video?
The 4K here refers to the width of the video coming in at more than 4,000 horizontal lines of resolution. If you’re filming and you want to do anything with that footage here in 2021, you need to be shooting in 4K.
Once you’re in the 4K universe, considerations for the best 4K DSLR for video more or less mirror those for still photography—including looking for a full-frame DSLR if you’re doing anything on a professional level. You want quick, accurate, and directable autofocus. You want fast, reliable image processing with a great sensor and MP resolution. And, more essential for video than for stills, you want your DSLR for video to have a viewfinder that you can flip up or out, as you’ll likely be using the screen more than the optical viewfinder (the opposite of shooting stills, generally).
And battery life. Video tears through battery, and you want your camera to support you and your recharging game as much as possible.
Best DSLR for video: Nikon D780 DSLR
The Nikon D780 offers standout image quality and technical capacity for shooting 4K video. Amazon
The Nikon D780 is the best DSLR for video. Its focus abilities (including two autofocus systems, and a focus-stacking mode to increase the depth of field), as well as its performance in low light, image processor, and overall image quality (it offers a 10-bit, versus 8-bit, option, which means that much more detail preserved), make this model a standout.
We also absolutely recommend the Canon 5D Mark IV, our pick for best camera for professional photography, as a 4K DSLR camera for video.
Are expensive DSLR cameras worth the price?
When it comes to DSLR cameras, you do, largely, get what you pay for, and a better camera body (and better set of lenses, etc.) is going to come at a higher price. There are limits to this, of course, and we’re not going to insist you spend 40 grand on a camera. But in the $5,000–$7,000 range, if you are a professional photographer, then yes, expensive DSLR cameras are worth the price.
This comes down to processor speed, battery life, resolution, frames per second, etc., and the better the tech, the better the shots—and functionality while shooting.
Best digital camera for over $5,000: Canon 1D X Mark III DSLR
Sometimes, you get what you pay for. And with the Canon 1D X Mark III, what you get (and what you’ll pay for) is an absolutely top-notch DSLR for still photography and video. Amazon
If the Nikon 5300 is a Honda Accord, the Canon 1D X Mark III is a Porsche. And we say that with no shame on the former (camera or car), it does what it does great. But if you want a Porsche, you want a Porsche.
The Canon 1D X Mark III won out over the Nikon D6 because of a few small factors, and one big one. The small: The Canon 1D X Mark III has a more hand-friendly button and wheel layout on the camera body, particularly the top, double the frames-per-second shooting speed in continuous mode, and a much larger buffer (1,000 frames vs 200 frames) for image processing. The big: The Nikon D6 does not begin to measure up on the video front, and at this level (and, to the dollar, same price point), that’s a major, limiting shortfall.
On a budget? What you get for under $450
Yes, you get what you pay for with a DSLR (look just a few lines up). But not every situation demands a top-of-the-line camera, and $6,500 is not a small pile of money. So move the decimal and knock a few hundred more off, and we’re now in best cheap DSLR camera territory.
What you’re looking for, here: As much of the good stuff, our five other best DSLR camera pics offer as possible, at a much more reasonable price point.
Best budget DSLR camera: Canon EOS Rebel T7 DSLR
The Canon EOS Rebel T7 DSLR will get the job done for way less. Amazon
Starting out with a camera that’s too complex can get in the way of learning photography. Also, paying for features you’ll never use can soak up the photography budget you could otherwise dedicate toward lenses and accessories. We like the Canon EOS Rebel T7 for its durability and ease of use, as well as a solid assortment of features for the very-low-for-DSLR price. Plus, it readily upgrades with a new lens or two, which can then carry to another Canon camera body, should you choose.
Note: The Canon EOS Rebel T7 has been on backorder recently. If that’s the case and you can stretch your budget some, we recommend our DSLR camera for beginners, the Nikon D3500.
Q: What is a DLSR camera?
If you’re wondering what is a DSLR camera in the first place, it stands for ‘digital single-lens reflex.’ Cameras in the DSLR category use a mirror that sits inside the camera body, between the back of the lens ahd the film plane and shutter. The mirror reflects the image coming in through the lens for the eye, and then flips up out of the way to let the light through the shutter and onto the digital sensor when the shutter button is pushed.
Q:Is a DSLR still worth buying?
Yes, a DSLR is still worth buying. While camera phones have improved drastically, you still have a smaller, inferior sensor on the phone (which no number of megapixels can counteract) and are stuck with one lens, among other limitations. Mirrorless cameras offer some advantages, but some shooters would still prefer an optical viewfinder over a digital one. For high-end applications like fast-action sports photography, DSLRs still have an edge when it comes to focus speed.
Q:What digital camera should I buy?
What digital camera you should buy depends on your primary goals and intended use (e.g., stills, video, or both?) and your budget. Overall, it’s worth going to the top end of your budget, as price really does reflect quality here—but do not forget to consider a lens budget, too, particularly if you are wanting to do any portrait photography, as kit lenses really fall short.
Q:How many megapixels is enough in a DSLR camera?
A camera’s megapixels (MP) are how many million pixels sensor has onboard to capture light. The MP number alone does not indicate quality, but rather how much information is gathered. So how many megapixels is enough in a DSLR depends on sensor size as well as how large you’ll print or scale the images—and your storage capacity (those high MP files take up a lot of space). Unless you’re doing ultra-large-scale work, 20 MP is going to be plenty and even less for an amateur user. For quality, focus on your lens, aperture setting, and sensor size/quality—particularly how it deals with light.
A final word on shopping for DSLR cameras
The best DSLR camera is out there, and the more you know what you want from the camera, the easier it will be to choose.
Remember: You get what you pay for. And your skill can only do so much when up against an inferior camera. So while respecting your budget, if you want the best photos possible, go for the reach — and buy yourself time before you’ll need to upgrade.
And lenses, please remember to plan for lenses. If you want the best DSLR camera, you also need the right lens(es) for the job.