Photography

The best DSLR cameras for beginners

canon eos rebel sl3
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

It may not be the cheapest, nor the newest, but the Canon EOS Rebel T7i is still the best DSLR for beginners. We were incredibly impressed with its performance, from autofocus to shooting speed to battery life, and it has one of the most approachable user interfaces of any camera. But perhaps the best thing about it is that it leaves you with some room to grow into; you won’t find yourself longing for a better camera after you master the basics.

The T7i isn’t the only game in town, however. Here are our four favorite DSLRs aimed at beginners, each of which has some unique advantages and features.

At a glance

The best DSLR camera for beginners overall: Canon EOS Rebel T7i

Best DSLR cameras for beginners Canon Rebel T7i
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: Great autofocus, fast performance, easy to use

Who’s it for: Beginners, students, parents, and just about anyone who wants a capable, easy-to-use camera.

Why we picked the Canon EOS Rebel T7i:

The T7i is on the high-end for entry-level cameras, but it is still one of the best DSLRs for beginners and offers great value. It features a redesigned guided menu that helps get novice users up to speed with various camera settings, with an easy to navigate touch-based interface and plenty of on-screen images that illustrate what different settings do.

But once you familiarize yourself with the Rebel T7i, it reveals a very powerful camera under the hood. The 45-point viewfinder autofocus system is both fast and accurate, even when photographing fast-moving subjects. It can also shoot at up to six frames per second, so if you have kids who play sports or dogs who like to run around on the beach, you’ll have no problem keeping up with them. The 24-megapixel APS-C sensor took great pictures in a variety of lighting conditions, and is more resolution than most people need.

Video is another strong point of the T7i thanks to Canon’s Dual Pixel Autofocus (DPAF) technology. Many DSLRs suffer from slow autofocus performance in video mode, but DPAF allows the Rebel T7i to focus both quickly and smoothly, helping to make your videos look more professional. The camera does not have 4K, so it won’t show off the capabilities of your new 4K television, but the 1080/60p footage is fine for most home movies.

As with every camera on this list, if there’s one point of caution we would offer it is this: The Rebel T7i is a much better camera than the kit lens allows it to be. Keep that in mind, and start saving up for a good lens down the road.

Read our Canon EOS Rebel T7i review

The Best Nikon DSLR for beginners: Nikon D5600

nikon d5600 review 13992
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: Great photos and performance mixed with a beginner-friendly design that doesn’t skimp on features

Who’s it for: Beginners and anyone who wants a great camera with features that go beyond the bare basics

Why we picked the Nikon D5600:

The D5600 is Nikon’s basic camera that doesn’t feel basic. The Nikon D5600 packs in several more features than the cheaper D3500, but does so in a way that keeps the beginner-friendly controls. The body is compact with simpler controls, yet includes a tilting screen that the D3500 doesn’t offer, with touch capability as a plus for users used to snapping photos on a smartphone.

Inside, the D5600 houses a 24-megapixel APS-C sensor that produces excellent images. Performance goes a bit further than the basic D3500 with fast, 39-point autofocus and a 5 fps burst mode. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi allows for transferring photos to a phone without needing a computer. High definition video at 1080p/60 is offered, but like the T7i, 4K resolution is absent. Nikon also doesn’t use on-chip phase-detection autofocus like Canon does with DPAF, and that means live view performance is slower, for both stills and video.

But for viewfinder shooting, the D5600 is a very solid choice. With a beginner-friendly control scheme, performance that goes beyond basic, and image quality that rivals DSLRs costing much more, the D5600 a good buy for both novices and enthusiasts.

Read our Nikon D5600 review

The best compact DSLR for beginners: Canon EOS SL3

canon eos rebel sl3
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: A compact, beginner-friendly camera that doesn’t skimp on performance

Who’s it for: Beginners, enthusiasts and anyone who wants a compact DSLR with decent performance

Why we picked the Canon EOS Rebel SL3:

Beginner doesn’t have to mean basic. The Canon EOS Rebel SL3 is a step up from Canon’s base model, the Rebel T7 (no i), in several ways, while it’s also even more compact. Billed as Canon’s lightest DSLR, it’s designed to be as portable as possible — but we should note that the Nikon D3500 is even a few ounces lighter. The SL3 isn’t a bottom-of-the-line model, however, and in some ways even outperforms the higher-end Rebel T7i.

The SL3 sports the same 24-megapixel APS-C sensor as the T7i, but an even newer Digic 8 image processor. While it’s still down on still shooting performance from the T7i, this gives it a big advantage over the cheaper T7 (which is still using the many-years-old Digic 4 processor). The SL3 can shoot at 5 fps speed instead of the T7’s paltry 3 fps, and boasts a much wider ISO range of 100 to 25,600. More impressive, battery life is rated at 1,600 shots per charge when using the optical viewfinder — far above competing mirrorless models.

The one advantage the Digic 8 gives the SL3 over the T7i is 4K video. However, unlike 1080p, 4K is recorded from a cropped area of the sensor and Dual Pixel Autofocus does not work in 4K mode. This means the shooting video in 1080p will offer a much more user-friendly experience, but 4K does produce a noticeable increase in detail if you don’t mind the crop or slow autofocus.

While performance and quality is a step above the T7, the SL3 still sports a control scheme that’s not too overwhelming for novices. The buttons and even mode dial are simplified compared to the older SL2, while a touchscreen is a plus for easier navigation. Creative Assist mode offers in-camera photography tips for beginners that learn by doing.

The Rebel SL3 is basically the DSLR version of the mirrorless Canon EOS M50. We’d suggest considering this samller mirrorless camera if a compact body is important, but if you want both reasonably compact and the great battery life, the SL3 isn’t a bad buy.

Read our full Canon EOS Rebel SL3

The best full-frame DSLR for beginners: Nikon D750

Nikon D750
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: A top performing full-frame DSLR that doesn’t (completely) break the bank

Who’s it for: Enthusiasts and semi-pros

Why we picked the Nikon D750:

While the D750 isn’t technically Nikon’s entry-level full frame, the age of the camera has pushed the price lower than the entry-level D610 — and why not go with the cheaper camera that has more features? The Nikon D750 — and really most full-frame cameras — aren’t for beginners that will be easily discouraged by a lot of buttons and dials. The D750 literally has so many controls that two of the dials are stacked on top of each other. But for the tech-savvy beginner, the D750 offers a lot of features at an excellent price.

Inside, the D750 holds a 24-megapixel full-frame sensor that takes excellent images. That quality is paired with solid performance, including a 6.5 fps continuous shooting and a 51-point viewfinder autofocus system. 1080p 60 fps video is also included, but 4K is not — not that we can fault the camera too much for that; it was released back in 2014. At the launch, we found very few faults with the D750.

That makes the D750 pretty old in camera years, however, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see a replacement hit the market soon if Nikon can tear themselves away from the new mirrorless Z series long enough. The age, however, means getting a great camera for an even better price. The D750 is now easy to find for nearly half the original cost, making it a tempting buy for beginners who want more than they can find on a crop-sensor camera without spending a professional’s budget.

Read our Nikon D750 review

The best cheap DSLR for beginners: Nikon D3500

Canon and Nikon Black Friday deals
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: A cheap DSLR with images that look much more expensive

Who’s it for: Beginners and anyone that wants to step up from a smartphone without spending a ton of cash.

Why we picked the Nikon D3500:

Both Canon and Nikon have similarly priced entry-level DSLRs on the market, but Nikon managed to eke out just a bit more speed and resolution with their entry-level model. The Nikon D3500 is a compact DSLR that offers a simple control scheme for photographers picking up a DSLR the first time, along with a guide mode built into the camera that explains different functions in an easy-to-understand way.

While the controls are simple, the image quality is excellent considering how little the camera costs. With a 24-megapixel APS-C sensor, the D3500 can capture images that are much better than smartphones that cost twice as much. While the 5 fps burst speed isn’t anything to brag about, it is faster than the competing Canon Rebel T7’s 3 fps. The autofocus system, likewise, has more points than competitors at the same price point.

As an entry-level model, the D3500 has a simpler menu and control scheme compared to pricier Nikons. That, combined with the low price, makes it an excellent option for first-time DSLR buyers, with potential to grow into a more advanced camera down the road without starting that lens collection from scratch.

What is a DSLR camera?

A DSLR is a type of interchangeable-lens camera, meaning the lens can be removed and replaced with other.  Paired with a good lens, any modern DSLR is capable of shooting terrific images. The other type of interchangeable-lens camera is the mirrorless camera, and the biggest difference between the two is that a DSLR uses an optical viewfinder, while everything on a mirrorless camera is electronic.

DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex, named after the film-based SLR (sans D). A DSLR uses a mirror to reflect light from the lens up to the optical viewfinder (OVF); when the shutter button is pressed, a mirror flips up to allow light to hit the sensor instead. Mirrorless cameras do away with the mirror system and OVF (hence the name).

DSLRs, therefore, tend to be bulkier than their mirrorless counterparts. However, the OVF shows a clearer picture, like looking through a window, whereas the electronic viewfinders of mirrorless cameras are more like looking at small TV screens. This also gives DSLRs better battery life as they don’t have to power those electronic viewfinders. However, you won’t be able to preview the effect of your exposure settings or review your photos in the viewfinder like you can with a mirrorless camera. Optical viewfinders also don’t work in video mode.

Canon and Nikon are the dominant DSLR manufacturers, but Pentax also has some strong options.

Is the DSLR dead?

The DSLR isn’t dead, but it’s not the only game in town anymore, and saving it may require new innovations. Mirrorless cameras have improved at a faster rate,  and now offer performance and image quality that rivals and sometimes exceeds that of DSLRs. When it comes to video, mirrorless cameras easily outperform DSLRs. Mirrorless cameras are more compact — at least, usually — and many have features like in-body image stabilization that DSLRs don’t offer (with the exception of some Pentax models).

The DSLR still has it’s perks, particularly for the high-end models. The Nikon D850, for example, focuses better in low light than the Nikon Z 7, which is mirrorless. While many photographers can make the move to mirrorless and be better off for it, a DSLR can still hold a slight edge for the most demanding types of photography, such as sports and low light action. DSLRs also have longer battery life (when using the optical viewfinder) and the larger body typically leaves room for more controls and features. For entry-level models, DSLRs are often less expensive than similar mirrorless cameras.

Now is a great time to get into a mirrorless camera system — especially if you haven’t yet invested in lenses. The bodies are smaller, the features are excellent, and the image quality is great. But if you prefer the ergonomics of a larger body, hate electronic viewfinders, or want a battery that will last all day, you’re not investing in dead technology by picking up a DSLR.

Should I buy a Canon or Nikon DSLR?

Longstanding rivals, Canon and Nikon often have competing models — so which brand is better? There’s no quick and easy answer to the question because both brands are excellent. One may be first to introduce a compelling new technology, or have a feature that performs better, but rarely is one the clear winner.

Comparing specific models is a better option than buying based on brand name alone. Look for the features that matter most to you — which could be low light image quality, speed, or live view autofocus performance — and also pay attention to the lenses, even aspirational models that maybe you can’t afford right now but think you’ll want down the road. Nikon, for example, makes a 105mm f/1.4 that Canon doesn’t match, while Canon offers a ridiculously wide 11-24mm f/4 that Nikon doesn’t have.

Remember, switching systems is very expensive once you’ve built up a collection of lenses, so it’s certainly worth putting some thought into your initial purchasing decision.

Are Nikon and Canon DSLR lenses interchangeable?

In any practical sense, no. A Nikon lens won’t directly fit on a Canon body and vice versa. The mounts are proprietary, and both companies want to keep you entrenched in their respective systems. This makes it very hard to switch systems, and that’s the idea.

Nikon uses a slightly longer flange-back distance (the distance from the back of the lens to the imaging sensor) than Canon, and this does allow for Nikon lenses to be mounted on Canon bodies using an adapter — the adapter makes up the difference in the flange distance. However, focus and exposure will all be manual. This is relatively popular for using old Nikon film SLR lenses on modern Canon bodies for shooting video, as those lenses can be found for quite cheap and filmmakers often shoot manual focus, anyway. For most people, however, this just isn’t an option.

Even within brands, be careful when buying new lenses to ensure compatibility. A full-frame, or FX, Nikon lens, for example, will fit on a crop sensor, or DX, camera. A DX lens will also mount on a full frame camera — but with this set-up, you won’t be able to use the full area of the larger sensor, which eliminates all the benefits of shooting with a more expensive full-frame camera. (Canon EF-S lenses for their APS-C cameras will not mount on full-frame bodies, however.)

Both Nikon and Canon mirrorless lenses will not fit on a DSLR, but DSLR lenses can be adapted to mirrorless cameras of the same brand without any major performance drawbacks. Third-party adapters also exist to mount Canon and Nikon DSLR lenses on Sony and Panasonic mirrorless cameras.

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