Bad news, would-be photographers: your phone sucks at taking pictures. That’s saying something, because modern mobile phones take better pictures than ever before. Still: if you’re creatively minded, or want to push your photography to new extremes, you’re going to hit the maximum headroom on a smartphone a long time before you will on a DSLR.
Good news, would-be photographers! The DSLR market has truly come of age, and that means whether you’re a jobbing professional or an aspirational newcomer, there’s a DSLR for you out there. The benefits of DSLRs are everywhere: bigger image sensors mean better-quality images, particularly when the light begins to drop, while the full range of manual controls – daunting at first – allows you to take ownership of aspects of your image that you were previously leaving in the hands of chance. And, of course, an interchangeable lens camera allows you to swap the optic on the front of the camera, allowing you to use everything from ultra wide-angle lenses to mega-long telephoto lenses. Get the right lenses, and you’re equipped to shoot everything from dramatic mountain ranges to high-octane sport.
Here’s how to choose your next entry-level DSLR – and our roundup of the best ones to consider.
How to buy the best entry-level DSLR for you
How much difference is there between entry-level cameras in terms of image quality?
In truth? Not much. Entry level DSLRs all have image sensors that are – roughly – the same size. That means they all enjoy roughly the same (superlative) image quality. Once you start to push a camera’s sensor sensitivity upwards – to get the correct exposure in poor light, for example – you might start to see some cameras generate more noise, but in many cases attempts to differentiate image quality in everyday use are exercises in hair-splitting.
How important is the monitor on the back of a DSLR?
Pretty important. On a real DSLR – like the ones we’ve rounded up here – you compose an image by looking through an optical viewfinder. That means the screen on the back of the camera is only used to review an image, and to check how your camera is set up before taking a shot. That doesn’t mean it’s not important: a camera screen needs to be big, bright and high-enough in resolution that you can see if an image is sharp or not without having to squint. More expensive cameras will also have vari-angle screens, allowing you to tilt and/or rotate the camera screen. This is very useful if you’re shooting at extreme angles, such as over the heads of a crowd at a festival.
How does autofocus work?
Ah, good question. If you mainly shoot portraits of people, or reasonably well-lit landscapes, you don’t have a huge need for incredible autofocus performance. As you get more ambitious – perhaps shooting a news story, or working in poor light, or shooting wildlife – you’ll be demanding more from your camera’s autofocus. An autofocus zone is an area of the frame a DSLR looks at to see if it can define an edge clearly, but cheap DSLRs tend to have fewer autofocus zones, which means they’ll be a little less snappy when it comes to focussing on your subject. More expensive DSLRs will have more cross-type autofocus zones – a more complex, more accurate type of autofocus sensor that generally gives sharper results in awkward-lit or complex scenes.
What should I look for in terms of video?
We haven’t seen a DSLR that doesn’t shoot video for some time, so virtually everything you can buy will shoot video up to Full HD 1080p. If you’ve got ambitions to shoot reasonable quality video, most DSLRs will make a fine job of it, but make sure your intended camera shoots at the frame rates you want – if you’re going to shoot a lot of action you might find that a camera capable of shooting at more than 30 frames per second (fps) makes sense. You should also look out for a microphone jack to attach an external mic. Not all DSLRs have these, but it can make a huge difference to the quality of your final video.
How about connectivity?
We’re seeing an increasing number of cameras – even at the budget end of the market – with Wi-Fi built in. This isn’t just for transmitting images to a computer (inserting your camera’s memory card into a card reader, or using its USB port, will almost always be faster) but for connecting to a smartphone or tablet so that you can control the camera’s functions remotely. This opens up some amazing possibilities when it comes to remote camera operation.
READ NEXT: The best budget, mid-range and full-frame DSLRs to buy
The best entry-level DSLRs to buy
1. Canon EOS 2000D: The best all-round cheap DSLR
Price: £470 | Buy now from Amazon
Canon’s latest in its budget range of X000D cameras, the 2000D offers a very impressive amount in return for just under 500 notes. You get Wi-Fi, for instance, which in conjunction with Canon’s Camera Connect App, allows you a huge range of untethered possibilities. You also get a punchy 24.1-megapixel sensor and, of course, compatibility with Canon’s absolutely vast range of EF and EF-S lenses, not to mention compatible third-party lenses from Sigma and Tamron.
The compromises are few and far between, which is impressive for a camera of this price. The screen on the back is fixed, but has a high 920k pixel resolution, and while the maximum ISO of 12,800 isn’t record-breaking, it will cover you for almost all types of photography. Film-makers might be wary of the lack of a microphone jack, while those with an eye on sports should beware the maximum continuous shooting speed of just 3fps. Otherwise, this has the makings of a superb first camera – although we would argue that more ambitious photographers will find the extra £200 for the Canon 800D money well spent.
Key specs: 24.1 megapixel sensor; 9-point, 1x cross-type (centre) autofocus; Video modes: 480p at 30, 25fps; 720p at 60, 50fps; 1080p at 30, 25, 24fps; Shutter speed range: 30s-1/4,000th; Max continuous speed: 3fps, 150 JPG, 11x RAW; ISO range: 100-12,800; Memory card slot: SD, SDHC, SDXC; Lens mount: EF / EF-S; Monitor: 3in, 920k-pixel; Connectivity: Hi-Speed USB, HDMI mini, Wi-Fi, NFC; Battery life: 500 frames; Dimensions: 101 x 78 x 129mm (WDH); Weight: 475g without lens.
Read our full Canon EOS 2000D review
2. Canon EOS 4000D: The best DSLR under £400
Price: £365 | Buy now from Amazon
Just how cheaply can you make a DSLR? We’d say that a shade over £350 is going some, and that the 4000D actually represents a pretty good bet for pro photographers looking for a camera to use in high-danger environments – not least because, despite its bargain-basement price, the EOS 4000D still rocks Wi-Fi.
It doesn’t rock much else, mind. Its megapixel count of 18 is the lowest here, though that’s still more than enough for most purposes. Its screen also betrays its price; not only is it small, at 2.7in, but it’s fixed and has a low 230k pixel resolution. Fix the lens to the camera and you’ll notice that the lens mount – where the lens attaches to the body – is made from plastic rather than the metal used in every other Canon EOS body. It feels, if not flimsy, then lightweight. The 3fps maximum continuous speed isn’t a barrel of laughs, either, and those who want to shoot RAW images should beware the tiny image buffer of just six RAW files before the EOS 4000D needs to stop for a breather.
Yet get past all that and there’s a lot to like. Image quality is everything you’d expect from an APS-C model straight from camera, and the 4000D still shoots 1080p video at very decent quality, albeit without the option for an external microphone. We also love its weight. At under 450g before you attach a lens this a camera that doesn’t make itself known on the shoulder.
Key specs: 18 megapixel sensor; 9-point, 1x cross-type (centre) autofocus; Video modes: 480p at 30, 25fps; 720p at 60, 50fps; 1080p at 30, 25, 24fps; Shutter speed range: 30s-1/4,000th; Max continuous speed: 3fps, unlimited JPG, 6x RAW; ISO range: 100-12,800; Memory card slot: SD, SDHC, SDXC; Lens mount: EF / EF-S; Monitor: 2.7in, 230k-pixel; Connectivity: Hi-Speed USB, HDMI mini, Wi-Fi; Battery life: 500 frames; Dimensions: 102 x 77 x 129mm (WDH); Weight: 436g without lens.
Read our full Canon EOS 4000D review
3. Canon EOS 250D : Best entry-level DSLR for enthusiasts
Price:£509 Buy now from Amazon
More expensive than Canon’s bargain-basement DSLRs, but offering better performance, longer battery life and 4K video recording, the EOS 250D is the camera for anyone who’s sure photography is more than a passing phase.
It’s capable, to say the least – its 24.1-megapixel sensor can shoot up to 5fps, and our test images demonstrated Canon’s solid reliability when it comes to image quality. Great colour science and sharpness means your shots are more likely to be limited by the lens you opt for. Naturally, Canon has you covered here – the EOS 250D is compatible with the company’s vast range of both EF and EF-S lenses.
Its small size – just 122mm wide – does mean some sacrifices. The buttons are pretty small and we didn’t like how the AE-lock and AF point buttons are stacked on top of each other. However you do get a great 3in vari-angle monitor for framing up in live view or reviewing images.
Battery life is normally a key differentiator between DSLRs and mirrorless cameras but even so, the EOS 250D’s exceptional ability to go 1,070 frames between charges puts it towards the top of its class.
Video quality is excellent, although this isn’t a natural camera for those with Hollywood ambitions – no log picture profiles and no audio out limit its appeal. But for those who want a camera that offers plenty of headroom straight out of the box, with lots of room to grow, the EOS 250D is tough to beat.
Key specs: 24.1 megapixel sensor; 9-point, 1x cross-type (centre) autofocus; Video modes: 720p at 50fps; 1080p at 25, 50fps; 4K at 25fps; Shutter speed range: 30s-1/4,000th; Max continuous speed: 5; ISO range: 100-51.200; Memory card slot: SD, SDHC, SDXC; Lens mount: EF / EF-S; 3in, 1,040k-pixel monitor; Connectivity: Hi-Speed USB, HDMI mini, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth; 1,070 frame battery life; Dimensions: 122 x 70 x 93mm (WDH); Weight: 451g without lens.
Read our full Canon EOS 250D review
4. Nikon D3500: The best cheap DSLR for travelling
Price: £471 | Buy now from Amazon
The D3500 is the camera Nikon hopes will lure photographers away from the current crop of superb, small, lightweight mirrorless cameras. Compared to its predecessor, the D3400, it’s 40g lighter, a shade smaller and – more interestingly – offers 300 shots more per battery charge, giving beginner photographers a very impressive 1,500 shots per charge.
Everything else stays as it is. The 24.1-megapixel sensor is the same, as is the lightweight 11-point autofocus system. That’s not a huge cause for complaint – the D3400 took excellent images and so does this, with noise very well controlled up to ISO 800, and good results on offer even beyond that. It’s a good performer, too, shooting 5fps for 15 images in JPEG mode.
Its video mode produces great-looking movies. However, they don’t sound quite as good thanks to the lack of a mic-in socket, and it’s frustrating that if you choose to set a manual exposure for your videos, you can’t adjust the aperture in live-view mode, which is a weird little quirk.
We like just about everything else. The buttons, though small and a touch “clicky”, are easy enough to hit, and the single exposure dial feels positive. The menu system, including its great Guide mode, speaks to Nikon’s prowess with digital photography and makes the D3500 a superb option for those who want to get into DSLR photography but find it a somewhat daunting prospect. To that end, the monitor, a 3in, 921,000-pixel panel, is a good one. It doesn’t tilt and isn’t a touchscreen. Connectivity comes via the usual wired suspects (including micro-USB) and Bluetooth 4.1, which can be used to transfer images (albeit slowly) and trigger the camera remotely. It’s not quite as fast or refined a system as Wi-Fi cameras we’ve seen, but it’s a start.
Great image quality, a vast lens library and absolutely stonking battery life make the D3500 a very affordable option as a first DSLR.
Key specs: 24.2 megapixel sensor; 11-point, 1x cross-type (centre) autofocus; Video modes: 720p at 59.94, 50fps; 1080p at 59.94, 50, 29.97, 25, 23.976fps; Shutter speed range: 30s-1/4,000th; Max continuous speed: 5fps; ISO range: 100-25,600; Memory card slot: SD, SDHC, SDXC; Lens mount: Nikon F mount; Monitor: 3in, 921k-pixel; Connectivity: Hi-Speed micro-USB, HDMI mini, Bluetooth; Battery life: 1500 frames Dimensions: 124 x 70 x 97mm (WDH); Weight: 415g without lens.
5. Nikon D5600: Luxury features and improved autofocus make for a great all-rounder
Price: £547 | Buy now from Amazon
Like its rival, the Canon EOS 800D, the Nikon D5600 is geared towards the top end of mass-market, affordable DSLRs. Yet, also like the Canon, it offers plenty to photographers who want a camera with performance which, while it may not seem immediately useful, will continue to deliver as your experience grows.
The D5600’s autofocus engine is significantly upgraded compared to the cheaper Nikon D3400; you get 39 autofocus points instead of 11, nine of which are cross-type. This makes for a camera that should keep up with most subjects, particularly when the D5600 offers a fastest continuous drive mode of 5fps.
There are touches of luxury throughout. The vari-angle screen is the largest in this group at 3.2in, and connectivity includes Bluetooth, NFC and Wi-Fi. The D5600 offers a more-than respectable video mode, shooting at industry standard frame rates up to 60fps, and packs in a microphone socket too. It also continues Nikon’s reputation for excellent battery performance, shooting up to 970 frames on a single charge.
At this price, in this group, you’re choosing between the Canon EOS 800D and the Nikon D5600 – a tricky choice given the excellence of both cameras. Both take superb images, and although the Nikon is a shade cheaper, the Canon has a slightly faster continuous mode and a substantially more sophisticated autofocus system, as well as an extra stop of available ISO. However, the Nikon shoots nearly 400 frames more on a single battery charge. Between them, ambitious novice photographers have a real head-scratcher on their hands.
Key specs: 24.2 megapixel sensor; 39-point, 9x cross-type autofocus; Video modes: 720p at 59.94, 50fps; 1080p at 59.94, 50, 29.97, 25, 23.976fps; Shutter speed range: 30s-1/4,000th; Max continuous speed: 5fps; ISO range: 100-25,600; Memory card slot: SD, SDHC, SDXC; Lens mount: Nikon F mount; Monitor: 3.2in, 1,037k pixel vari-angle; Connectivity: Hi-Speed USB, HDMI mini, 3.5mm stereo mini-jack for microphone, Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth; Battery life: 970 frames; Dimensions: 124 x 70 x 97mm (WDH); Weight: 465g without lens.
Read our full Nikon D5600 review