Putting Smartphones to Shame
If you’re feeling limited by what your point-and-shoot can do, there are plenty of reasons to consider an interchangable lens camera (ILC), whether it be a traditional DSLR or a more modern mirrorless model. These advanced shooters feature larger image sensors, superior optics, robust manual controls, faster performance, and the versatility of changeable lenses.
All this functionality doesn’t come cheap, though, and the cost of an ILC can add up, especially when you start factoring in lenses. You also need to remember that you’re buying into a camera system. If you start with Canon, chances are that your next one will be as well, simply for the fact that you’ll be able to make use of existing lenses and accessories. Here are the most important aspects to consider when you’re shopping for a digital SLR, as well as the highest-rated models we’ve tested.
Entry-Level DSLRs vs. Mirrorless Cameras
A decade ago, if you wanted a camera with interchangeable lenses, an SLR was really your only option. Times have changed. Today’s mirrorless cameras, even those at the entry end of the price spectrum, are just as, if not more capable than an SLR at a comparable price point. And while you can buy a mirrorless camera without a built-in viewfinder, more and more low-cost models include the feature.
Our favorite entry-level ILC, the Sony a6000, has an autofocus system that runs circles around comparably priced SLRs and an 11.1fps burst rate, and there are many mirrorless models available for under $1,000 with 4K video—you’ll need to spend at least $1,200 to get an SLR with 4K support.
But there are reasons to opt for an SLR. If your eyesight isn’t perfect, an optical viewfinder may prove to be a better match rather than an electronic one, you may simply prefer their familiar feel, or you may already have access to compatible lenses. When moving beyond entry-level, SLRs catch up to mirrorless in capability quickly, and typically offer a larger library of lenses and accessories from which to choose—although it’s mainly in exotic, very expensive options offered by Canon and Nikon that the wider selection comes into play.
Understanding Sensor Size
Most consumer ILCs use image sensors that, while much larger than those found in point-and-shoot cameras, are somewhat smaller than a 35mm film frame. This can be a bit confusing when talking about a camera’s field of view, as focal lengths for compacts are often expressed in terms of 35mm equivalency. The standard APS-C sensor features a “crop factor” of 1.5x. This means that the 18-55mm kit lens that is bundled with most DSLRs covers a 35mm field of view equivalent to 27-82.5mm.
Micro Four Thirds, which has a 2x crop factor, is another popular mirrorless format, with cameras available from Olympus and Panasonic. Its kit lenses are typically around 14-42mm in
There are many inherent advantages to a larger sensor. It allows you to better control the depth of field in images, making it possible to isolate your subject and create a blurred background. This blur is often referred to by the Japanese term bokeh. Much has been written about the quality of the bokeh created by different lenses, but the general rule of thumb is that the more light a lens can capture—measured numerically as its aperture, or f-number—the blurrier the background can be. A lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 lets in eight times as much light as one of f/4, and can create a shallower depth of field at an equivalent focal length and shooting distance.
Another reason to go for the big sensor is to minimize image noise. A 24MP APS-C sensor has much larger pixels than a point-and-shoot of comparable resolution. These larger pixels allow the sensor to be set at a higher sensitivity, measured numerically as ISO, without creating as much image noise. An advantage to the larger surface area is that changes in color or brightness are more gradual than that of a point-and-shoot. This allows more natural-looking images with a greater sense of depth.
Some cameras feature sensors that are equal in size to 35mm film. These full-frame cameras are generally more expensive than their APS-C counterparts. If you see yourself moving up to a full frame in the future, be careful in buying lenses. Some are designed to be used with APS-C sensors, and either won’t work at all with a full-frame
Choose a Camera That Feels Right
It’s very important to choose a camera that feels comfortable in your hands. While most DSLRs are similar in size and build, mirrorless cameras are more varied in design. Some are shaped much like SLRs, with an electronic viewfinder centered behind the lens mount. Others put the EVF in the corner, similar to the position of an optical finder in a rangefinder camera, and typically offer a smaller handgrip.
As a general rule of thumb, an SLR-style camera is a better fit for use with larger lenses. The centered viewfinder and sizable handgrip make balancing a big lens a bit more pleasant. Rangefinder-style cameras are better suited if you expect to use smaller zoom or prime lenses.
The camera you choose should be one that you are most comfortable using. If a DSLR is too big or small for you to hold comfortably, or if the controls are not laid out in a way that makes sense to you, chances are you won’t enjoy using it as much as you should.
Get the Best Viewfinder
SLRs use optical viewfinders and mirrorless cameras
The two technologies offer different views of the world. Optical finder brightness varies based on the f-stop of your lens, so if you put
An EVF will, typically, show the image as the capture is going to make it. You get a real-time preview of the depth of field, any color filters you’ve applied, a live histogram, and any other information your camera is able to display. If you’re getting started with photography you’ll find the preview offered will help you make images in-camera that are truer to the photo.
There are different levels of quality with a viewfinder, regardless of the tech that drives it. Entry-level SLRs typically include pentamirror optical designs, which use a series of mirrors to show you the view through the lens. They are smaller and lighter than the premium, solid glass pentaprism viewfinders found in pricier SLRs. But there are downsides to a pentamirror—images don’t appear as big as with most pentaprisms, you don’t get truly accurate image framing, and pentaprisms tend to be a bit brighter.
The same is true for EVFs. You’ll want to pay attention to the magnification rating—a larger number denotes a bigger EVF—along with the resolution and underlying panel technology. OLED screens tend to provide the best resolution and motion reproduction. Many LCD EVFs use field sequential designs, which can create a false rainbow color effect in your eye when panning or photographing a fast-moving subject.
Continuous Shooting and Autofocus Speed
Interchangeable lens cameras have another big advantage over point-and-shoots—speed. The time that it takes between hitting the shutter button and the camera capturing a
Continuous shooting is measured in frames per second. Entry-level models typically offer around 5fps capture, but we’ve seen affordable models with capture rates up to 11fps. That’s quick enough to satisfy the needs of photographers capturing sports, wildlife, and other types of intense action.
As frame rates increase, autofocus systems do as well. Entry-level SLRs usually only have a few focus points, bunched up toward the center of the frame. This is because of the way SLR focus systems work. Light is not only directed to the viewfinder, but also to a discrete autofocus sensor. The dedicated sensor checks for focus at several points—ranging from around ten for basic systems up to more than 150 for advanced cameras, which also spread points further across the frame for wider focus coverage.
Mirrorless cameras are different. There’s no autofocus sensor.
Live View and 4K Video
The different focus systems also change the way cameras handle video recording. With an SLR you’ll need to press a button or tap a switch to change from the optical viewfinder to the rear LCD to facilitate video capture, but with mirrorless cameras the switch is seamless.
SLRs from Nikon and Pentax use contrast focus for video capture, which means autofocus is a little slow and choppy when making movies. Most Canon SLRs use the company’s proprietary Dual Pixel AF tech, which splits each sensor pixel into two. This gives the camera the same smooth, fast focus when recording video as you get from a mirrorless camera.
Mirrorless cameras use the same focus system for video as they do for stills. There’s usually no need to change modes to switch to from stills to video, and focus is just as quick and smooth regardless of whether you are capturing stills or moving images.
There are other features to look for if you are serious about filmmaking. At a
Be Realistic About Lenses and Accessories
Most first-time ILC users aren’t going to purchase a whole bevy of lenses, but there are a few to consider to supplement the kit lens that ships with the camera. The first is a
Another popular lens choice is a fast, normal-angle prime lens. Before zooms were popular, film SLRs were often bundled with a 50mm f/2 lens. The rough equivalent is a 35mm prime on an APS-C sensor and a 25mm on Micro Four Thirds. The standard angle gives you a field of view that is not far off from that of your eye, and the fast aperture makes it possible to shoot in lower light and to isolate your subject by blurring the background of your photos. Prices for these lenses vary a bit depending on your camera system, but you can expect them to run you between $175 and $350.
Even though consumer DSLRs have built-in flashes
What Else Is Out There?
Want speed and top-notch images, but don’t want to haul a heavy camera and a bunch of lenses? You may spend just as much—or more—on a bridge camera or compact camera. If you opt for a model with a 1-inch or larger sensor you’ll find image quality is closer to an ILC than to a smartphone.
If you do opt for an ILC, following our guidelines will help you to choose the camera and lens system that fits your needs and your budget. Just be sure to take time and research your purchase, and go to the store and pick up a couple of cameras to see which feels best. And once you’ve made your pick and are ready to start shooting, check out our 10 Beyond-Basic Photography Tips.
Pros: 24MP full-frame BSI sensor. 10fps with tracking. 5-axis stabilization. 4K HDR video. Silent shooting available. Tilting touch LCD. Dual SD slots. Vastly improved battery. Focus joystick. Flat profiles available.
Cons: Screen not true vari-angle. Only one card slot is UHS-II. No in-body flash. Accessory required for time-lapse. Shooting buffer must clear to start video. Dense menu system. Omits PC sync socket.
Bottom Line: The Sony a7 III is an entry-level full-frame camera that goes well beyond the basics in features, with excellent image quality, 10fps subject tracking, and 4K video capture.
Pros: Shoots at 8fps with mechanical shutter and 14fps with electronic shutter. 5-axis sensor stabilization. 24MP APS-C sensor. 200Mbps 4K video. Log video profile. Tilting rear LCD. Dual card slots. Monochrome information LCD. Weather-sealed body.
Cons: Expensive. Not a true vari-angle LCD. No EV dial. Add-on grip required for top performance. No built-in flash. Omits headphone jack. Video recording chews through batteries.
Bottom Line: The Fujifilm X-H1 camera adds in-body stabilization to the X series and offers loads of tools for both photographers and videographers.
Pros: Incredibly fast autofocus. 11.1fps burst shooting with tracking focus. Amazing high ISO image quality. Sharp OLED EVF. Tilting rear display. In-body flash and multi-function hot shoe. Wi-Fi with NFC. Downloadable camera apps. 1080p60 video capture.
Cons: Overly sensitive eye sensor. Slow start up. EVF lags in very dim light. Lacks analog mic input. Some apps must be purchased.
Bottom Line: The Sony Alpha 6000 focuses instantly and shoots at 11.1fps. Its image quality matches its speed, making it our Editors’ Choice.
Pros: Quick autofocus. 11.1fps burst shooting. 4K video capture. Crisp EVF. Tilting rear display. Strong high ISO performance. Built-in flash. Wi-Fi with NFC. Weather-sealed body.
Cons: Omits touch-screen support. Lacks in-body stabilization. Dense menu system. Some apps must be purchased. Doesn’t include external charger.
Bottom Line: The Sony Alpha 6300 adds weather-sealing and 4K video to the popular midrange Alpha 6000. It’s the premium mirrorless camera that Sony photographers have been waiting for.
Pros: 24MP APS-C image sensor. 45-point cross-type autofocus system. 6fps burst shooting. Dual Pixel AF in Live View. Vari-angle touch LCD. Wi-Fi.
Cons: Video limited to 1080p. Pentamirror viewfinder.
Bottom Line: Canon’s EOS Rebel T7i DSLR offers an improved autofocus system in both standard and Live View modes, giving owners of older Rebels a compelling reason to upgrade.
Pros: 45-point autofocus system. 7fps capture with focus tracking. Vari-angle touch-screen display. Pentaprism viewfinder. Smooth video autofocus. 1/8,000-sec shutter and 1/250-sec flash sync. Wi-Fi with NFC.
Cons: No 4K video support. Single SD card slot. Omits PC sync connection.
Bottom Line: The Canon EOS 80D offers some significant upgrades over its predecessor, and is a strong performer in the midrange SLR space.
Pros: 24MP image sensor with no OLPF. Excellent image quality. 39-point AF system. 5fps continuous shooting. Speedy operation. 1080p60 video capture. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth communication. External mic support.
Cons: Cramped controls. Pentamirror viewfinder. Older screw-drive lenses won’t autofocus. Underwhelming contrast autofocus during video recording. Limited Wi-Fi remote control.
Bottom Line: The Nikon D5600 SLR undercuts its predecessor’s asking price and doesn’t skimp on features, but still lags behind competing Canon models when it comes to Live View autofocus.
Pros: Slim design. Excellent image quality. Speedy focus. 8fps burst shooting. Integrated EVF. Solid control layout. Crisp touch LCD. 4K video. Wi-Fi.
Cons: Omits in-body flash. Not weather sealed. No in-body stabilization. 4K footage shows rolling shutter effect. Display doesn’t tilt. Pricey.
Bottom Line: The Fujifilm X-E3 delivers excellent image quality in a slim body, making it a perfect option for photographers who like to pack light-as long as you pair it with the right lens.
Pros: Superlative video. Strong image quality. In-body stabilization. 10.3fps Raw capture. 4K and 6K photo modes. Sturdy all-weather build. Dual UHS-II card slots. Vari-angle touch LCD. EVF. Wi-Fi.
Cons: Focus tracking slows shooting rate. Pricey for stills-first shooters. Omits built-in flash.
Bottom Line: The Panasonic Lumix DC-GH5 is the mirrorless camera to get for 4K video, but if you’re more concerned about stills, it’s not a clear-cut winner.
Pros: Compact. Built-in EVF and flash. Tilting touch screen. Quick autofocus. 8.6fps continuous shooting with large buffer. 30fps 4K Photo mode. 5-axis image stabilization. 4K video capture. Wi-Fi.
Cons: 4K video is slightly cropped. Omits weather sealing. Shooting rate slows during Raw or AF-C capture. Screen doesn’t face forward for selfies. No mic input.
Bottom Line: The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX85 is a compact mirrorless camera with quick autofocus, strong image quality, and 4K video capture.