Mirrorless cameras have become increasingly popular, but there remain many reasons to invest in a DSLR. If you want to pursue photography seriously, or want to upgrade from your current DSLR, then you’ll want to cast your eyes over these best examples.
DSLRs have been around for much longer than their mirrorless cousins. As a result, there’s a wider selection of lenses and accessories to choose from – and of course, by definition, they come with an optical viewfinder that presents a pin-sharp, clear and immediate view of what the camera is looking at.
The lead up to Christmas is as good a time as any to invest in a DSLR. Not only will it let you capture all those fun family moments you’ll be able to treasure for years to come, it gives you a great excuse to get out of the house and capture some stunning scenes on a brisk winter walk.
All of the best DSLRs in this roundup support Raw capture for home processing, as well as JPEGs processed in-camera for your convenience. Furthermore, they offer the traditional PASM quartet of manual and semi-manual exposure modes, usually backed up by a range of fully automatic point-and-shoot modes (professional full-frame models exempted).
If you’re coming to a DSLR from a smartphone or basic compact, you’ll be glad to know that all the devices in this group offer built-in Wi-Fi as standard. Having the option to wirelessly transfer images to a mobile device in a matter of seconds, ready to share with family and friends, is a key feature you’ll want to look out for.
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Best DSLR buying guide – The different types
Entry-level DSLRs serve as the gateway for new DSLR owners. While they might lack the advanced feature sets and robust build quality of more expensive models, they’re a great way to get into DSLR photography. Canon, Nikon and Pentax all produce fine examples of entry-level DSLRs, with the pick of the bunch being the Canon EOS 200D.
Mid-range DSLRs can be seen as a step-up camera for those who have outgrown their entry-level model, but can also serve as an entry-point for those with a little more money to spend. You can expect to get a few more features, such as a tilting or vari-angle LCD panel, or even a touchscreen. Construction still tends to be fairly lightweight, with polycarbonate housings dominating. A great example of a mid-range DSLR equipped with an APS-C size sensor is the Pentax K-70.
Enthusiast DSLRs are where you begin to see more advanced metering and autofocus systems, accompanied by dual control wheels and a greater number of physical buttons. In addition, construction tends to be more robust, with the introduction of protective metal cages beneath the polycarbonate exterior.
Advanced enthusiast DSLRs take the enthusiast DSLR template a step further. Cameras in this segment use APS-C sensors, rather than full-frame, but they tend to be the flagship models for each manufacturer. As such, they’re generally richly featured and highly capable. The Nikon D500 stands out as a fine example.
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Enthusiast full-frame DSLRs have been around since the introduction of the original Canon EOS 5D in 2005. At the time of its launch, the 5D cost around £2500. Today, the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV costs £3230. Many camera manufacturers have realised that there should be more affordable offerings in their ranges to encourage a greater number of photographers to full-frame. The Canon EOS 6D Mark II (£1728) is a great example.
As the name suggests, Professional DSLRs are designed for pros who make a living from their photography. They’re also the pick of those who want the very best that money can buy. Typically, Professional DSLRs cost upward of £2000, with some of the finest pro-spec DSLRs such as the Nikon D850 costing £3499 (body only).
The good news for anyone looking to invest in their first DSLR, or upgrade an existing one, is that the choice is wider than ever before. Most of the major manufacturers offer models at all price points and ability levels. With that in mind, we’ve gathered eight of the best DSLRs currently on the market from Canon, Nikon and Pentax. The selection includes easy-to-use entry-level models to advanced professional-spec models and everything in-between.
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DSLR camera jargon explained
APS-C vs Full-frame: Whereas all professional DSLRs come equipped with full-frame sensors that measure 36 x 24mm, most enthusiast and all mid-range and entry-level DSLRs are equipped with APS-C sensors that are slightly smaller at 23.7 x 15.6mm (or 22.2 x 14.8mm on Canon DSLRs). Both are capable of exceptional image quality, but professionals tend to prefer using cameras with full-frame sensors. That said, if you regularly shoot wildlife at a distance then it can pay to use an APS-C DSLR with a full-frame lens attached; the resulting crop factor will give extra telephoto reach.
PASM: All DSLRs provide the standard exposure mode quartet of Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority and Manual modes. These are usually denoted on the camera’s mode dial by the letters P, A, S and M. The only slight departure from this is that Canon cameras indicate Aperture-priority as Av (Aperture value) on the mode dial, while Shutter-priority is written as Tv (Time value).
Sensitivity: In the pre-digital days, all film used to come with a sensitivity rating. This indicated how sensitive to light it was: the higher the number, the more sensitive it was. In digital photography, sensitivity is controlled by the sensor and expressed as an ISO number. Again, the higher this is, the more sensitive the sensor will be to light. The main thing to bear in mind is that while higher ISO settings enable you to shoot in dimmer conditions, or at a higher shutter speed, they also increase the degree of noise that appears in your images.
Pentaprism vs Pentamirror viewfinder: As far as DSLRs go, there are two main types of viewfinder design: pentaprism and pentamirror. Pentaprism viewfinders are constructed from a single piece of glass, whereas pentamirror viewfinders are constructed from several pieces assembled together. In terms of quality and performance, pentaprism types are more desirable since they tend to produce a much brighter image than their pentamirror cousins.
Dual-Pixel AF: Introduced with the EOS 70D in 2013, Dual-Pixel AF is the name given to Canon’s proprietary on-sensor phase-detection technology. Each pixel on the sensor’s surface is split into two individual photodiodes – one left and one right. Each of these can be read separately, thereby allowing them to be used for phase-detection autofocus. The main benefit of Dual-Pixel AF is that it greatly speeds up focus acquisition when the camera is being operated in Live View mode.
Lens mount: All of the DSLR manufacturers have their own proprietary lens-mount system. For Nikon this is the F-mount, for Canon it’s the EF-mount, and for Pentax its the K-mount. If you’re buying your first DSLR then it definitely pays to think ahead about lenses. This is because you’re effectively buying into a system, and once you’re in, you’re committed to that system. Specialist adapters that let you mount Canon lenses on Nikon bodies (and vice versa) are available, but they can be expensive and largely impractical.
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Best Mid-point APS-C DSLR
- 24.2-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor
- ISO 100-102,400
- 6fps continuous shooting
- 3-inch, 921k-dot vari-angle LCD
- 11 AF points, including 9 cross-type
- Pentaprism viewfinder with 100% coverage
While Pentax lags some way behind the “big two” of Nikon and Canon in terms of DSLR sales, there’s no doubting the quality of its cameras – or, indeed, the unbeatable value-for-money proposition they offer.
In fact, the K-70 is a textbook example of how Pentax DSLRs tend to offer more for less compared to their rivals. It’s a generously featured DSLR that actually offers some key advantages over its rivals in the mid-range DSLR segment.
Chief among these is the K-70’s weather-resistant construction, which allows it to be used in inclement weather. Similarly priced DSLRs from Nikon or Canon would prefer to be kept dry.
In addition, the K-70 – in keeping with virtually all Pentax DSLRs – benefits from built-in image stabilisation in the form of Pentax’s “Shake Reduction” technology. This gives you up to 4.5 stops of shutter speed compensation, regardless of the lens you have attached. It also means that buying lenses for the K-70 will generally be cheaper than for equivalent Nikon or Canon DSLRs.
Note that while there aren’t as many lenses to choose from, Pentax optics are of excellent quality. Nearly all third-party lens manufacturers offer their products with a Pentax K-mount too, so you won’t lose out in that respect either.
At its core, the K-70 is built around a 24.2-megapixel APS-C sensor that’s had its optical low-pass filter removed for enhanced resolution of fine detail, and Pentax’s latest PRIME MII image processor that comes with a new accelerator circuit for extra speed. This combination enables to K-70 to top its class in a number of areas.
Native sensitivity, for example, ranges from ISO 100 to 102,400. By comparison the Canon 800D offers a top (extended) setting of ISO 51,200 while the Nikon D5600 has a top setting of ISO 25,600. Likewise, the K-70 has a top shutter speed of 1/6000sec, whereas both the 800D and D5600 max out at 1/4000sec.
Another notable area where the K-70 outshines its rivals is with the inclusion of a pentaprism viewfinder that provides 100% coverage. In contrast, both the 800D and D5600 get cheaper pentamirror viewfinders with 95% coverage.
The only area where the K-70 struggles to keep up with it nearest rivals are with its 11-point AF system (the 800D provides 45 AF points, while the D5600 provides 39). Video, too, is a little underpowered with a top quality setting of 1080p Full HD at 30fps. In all other respects, the K-70 is more than a match for its big-name rivals.
At time of review, the Pentax K-70 was available for £599 body-only, or £799 with a Pentax 18-50mm DC WR RE kit lens.