The holidays are right around the corner, and if you have an aspiring photographer in your life, the ultimate gift is a DSLR camera. The standard for professional photographers, digital single-lens reflex (DSLR for short) cameras deliver more detail than the camera on your phone. Plus a seemingly endless number of lenses, settings and accessories let you tailor make a camera to your precise wants and needs. Affording you the ability to capture a shot in any way you want.
If you’re considering buying a DSLR, whether it’s for yourself or someone else, just a heads up, they’re pricey. We’ll walk you through all the benefits of a DSLR, and to make sure you’re getting the best camera for you, we talked to multiple professional photographers to get their opinions on what to look for when buying a DSLR. This is all so you can decide what kind of DSLR is right for you.
What is a DSLR camera?
DSLR cameras are widely used in the professional world. Journalists and sports photographers trust them for catching crucial shots – but that doesn’t mean you have to be selling your shots to National Geographic to use one. They’re fantastic at snapping the perfect family portrait and if photography is your hobby, a DSLR can truly help you step your game up.
Shawn Connell is a professional photographer that shoots weddings, fine art collections and even takes pictures of whales underwater. He uses DSLR cameras all the time and praises their high-quality results. “You want a DSLR if you want to have more control over your camera and the way images look, shooting in low light, pretty much if you have an interest in getting better photos.”
Okay, so DSLRs are great, but what exactly are they? To break it down, a DSLR has a mirror inside its body that reflects the image coming through the lens into a viewfinder. You can look through this viewfinder to see what you’re shooting in real time, so you can adjust all of your elements such as frame, focus and much more. As the light passes from the mirror to the viewfinder, it goes through a prism or another set of mirrors that creates the image. When you’re ready to take the shot, the mirror flips up in the blink of an eye to expose the sensor and take the picture. That satisfying kerchunk you associate with big cameras? That’s this process.
DSLRs also allow you to switch different lenses in and out, so you can capture any shot. From a macro lens for pictures of objects up close with tremendous detail, to a super wide lens to capture an entire mountain range, to a super telephoto to zoom in ridiculous distances; all is possible with a DSLR. However, lenses can also be incredibly expensive so make sure to either know what you want to shoot to buy an appropriate lens, or get a versatile lens that can perform in different situations.
One other important aspect is where the images or videos are saved. While point-and-shoots typically have internal storage, most DSLRs do not feature this. Instead, you will need to use an SD card or a microSD card in an SD card adapter to save images and videos.
Mirrorless camera vs. DSLR
Another popular form of camera is the mirrorless camera. They’re very similar to the DSLR but, as the name suggests, they don’t have a mirror inside. This means these cameras are smaller than DSLRs and you don’t get that classic kerchunk. While you might miss the meaty, mechanical sound in some situations, in others it can be quite bothersome. If you’re taking a picture somewhere it needs to be quiet, such as at a golf tournament or when you’re in nature, a mirrorless camera’s lack of noise can be a big plus.
Siddhardha Garige is a full-time engineer who’s also been shooting professional photography on and off for 10 years. He focuses on taking pictures of large mammals, including elk, birds and polar bears in the Arctic. Garige currently uses a Sony mirrorless setup, and says they are more or less on equal ground with DSLRs. “DSLRs [are] getting replaced more and more by mirrorless cameras in today’s market,” Garige says. “Everything that is applicable to DSLRs is also applicable to mirrorless cameras.”
Since there are no mirrors in mirrorless cameras, and the light gets exposed right to the sensor, there’s no optical viewfinder. Instead, mirrorless cameras show you the image on a digital screen on the body or through an electronic viewfinder. Some photographers prefer looking through optical viewfinders to see what’s going on in real life with a DSLR over looking at an image on a screen as you would with a mirrorless. However, that screen allows you to see how settings like your exposure affect your image in real time.
There are pros and cons to both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. DSLRs are the more established, traditional choice, but mirrorless models can go toe to toe with DSLRs in many, if not all, aspects. The decision on which to go with really comes down to you and what you’d prefer.
What to look for in a DSLR
If you are looking for a DSLR, there’s a couple of things to look out for. A couple of the important aspects to look for are the number of megapixels and the sensor type. The combination of this is what determines the quality of your photo. The more megapixels there are, the sharper your image will be. Most basic models have around 24 megapixels or higher.
When it comes to sensors, Connell says beware of cameras that aren’t full frame. “Look for a DSLR with a full frame sensor (if a camera has a smaller sensor, any lens you put on it becomes cropped).” It can sometimes be hard to tell whether a camera has a full frame sensor or not. Canon calls its smaller framed sensor APS-C and at Nikon they all fall under the Dx Series.
When a camera has a full frame sensor, that means that whatever you’re looking at through the lens is exactly what will be exposed to the sensor. With smaller sensors, you get what’s called the cropping affect, which can actually crop out some of the image you’re seeing through the viewfinder, which is a big downside when trying to get wide angle shots. The pixels on a full frame sensor will also be larger, allowing you to play with a shallower depth of field (think Portrait Mode to the max). However, full frame cameras are much more expensive than cropped frame ones.
You should also think about what kind of photos you want to shoot when considering sensor size. Sometimes you don’t need that wide angle, and a cropped frame can actually help you when you’re trying to zoom in over large distances. “A landscape photographer would prefer a full frame high resolution camera and a wildlife photographer would prefer a crop body sensor for more reach,” Garige says. “Know your needs and see which one fits your needs well.”
Garige and Connell both also suggest staying away from camera kits, which are cameras that come with a standard lens. “Spend extra money and get a decent lens,” Garige says. “Get lenses in focal range 24-105 and 70-300mm. These lenses should cover most of your needs and let you photograph everything from landscapes, people, streets, sports to wildlife.”
While buying a range of extra lenses will help up your shots, it can also be quite expensive. If you don’t want to push up your costs, or you don’t want to deal with finding a lens, camera kits are an easy way to get started. Oftentimes the kits include an extra battery and storage as well. We’ve listed out several cameras below that you can either buy with a kit lens, or just the body so you can find a higher-quality lens for yourself.
Above all, Connell recommends finding a camera that is easy to use. “I would look for a camera with a simple menu, easy controls,” he says. “Photography is about going out and taking photos — an easier camera to use will be more fun and result in being used more.” He also suggests finding a camera with two card slots, that way if one of your SD cards fails, you have another to back it up.
Garige echoes Connell and says finding a camera you like is the most important aspect. “For a beginner, choosing a DSLR is like choosing their first car,” Garige says. “Does not matter if it is [a] Honda Accord or Toyota Camry or Nissan Murano, they are equipped with identical specifications and take you from point A to point B… I suggest going to a local camera store and [picking] up a camera. See how it feels in your hand and [look] through [the] viewfinder.” Talking over your options with a local camera store can be an invaluable experience, just make sure to wear a mask!
With tips from professional photographers in mind, we scoured the internet for the best DSLR cameras for beginners that fit the bill. Here’s what we found.
Best DSLR cameras for beginners
The D3500 from Nikon is one of the cheapest, most reliable cameras in the market. It’s not a full frame camera and comes with a kit lens, but it’s perfect for beginners with a sturdy build and intuitive interface. It’s a 24.2 megapixel camera with an ISO range of 100 to 25,600. Plus, it shoots video in full 1080p HD and is enabled with bluetooth. If you want a user-friendly experience and an upgrade from your smartphone but nothing too crazy, this camera is a solid pick.
The 24.1 megapixel camera from Canon is another favorite for novices, though it’s a few hundred dollars more than the Nikon we already mentioned. Canon offers more features though – namely the ability to capture 4K video and use a 45-point autofocusing system. It’s a cropped frame camera, but it has built-in WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities so you can share your latest shots easily. You can buy the kit, or if you want to experiment and find your own lenses you can also purchase just the body for $749.99 at Canon.
Canon’s smallest and lightest DSLR camera, the EOS Rebel SL3 is a great option for someone who doesn’t want a massive camera around their neck all the time. Weighing in at a hair under one pound, it still packs a punch with a 24.1 megapixel sensor, 9-point autofocusing system and 4K video capabilities. The body is available for $549 at Adorama.
What’s this? A camera that isn’t Canon or Nikon? That’s right, the big two aren’t the only dogs in town, and this DSLR from Pentax is surprisingly good. With a 24.2 megapixel, cropped frame sensor, image stabilization and more, it really gives the other cameras a run for their money. This Pentax K-70 is dust- and weather-resistant, and usable in conditions as cold as 14 degrees Fahrenheit, so you can take it on your most extreme adventures. The body alone is priced at $546.95 at Adorama.
This mid range DSLR from Canon is ultra responsive, has a 45-point system autofocus system and has an LCD monitor that you can move around for easy viewing. It’s got a 24.2 megapixel sensor and 1080p video capabilities, making it the perfect option for someone who wants an entry-level camera that has a few more features than average. Purchasing this camera without the lens is actually the same price at $899, so you might as well get the kit for the included lens.
The first DSLR with a full frame sensor on our list, the D610 from Nikon is a beast of a camera. With 24.3 megapixels and that full frame we were talking about, you’ll be able to capture high-quality images with a wide dynamic range. It also has a 39-point autofocusing system to help you keep your subjects sharp and clear. Just note, this camera only comes with a body, so you’ll have to buy a separate lens. You can browse pairing options at B&H.
This compact DSLR is another model with a full frame sensor. A huge step up from other entry-level cameras, but cheap as far as full frames go, this camera is a nice balance between top-tier performance and price. The 26.2 megapixel sensor helps the camera get outstanding images in low-light situations. The price featured is just for the camera body, so you’ll have to purchase a separate lens or snag a kit that includes one for $2,299.
Our last full frame DSLR, the D750 from Nikon features a tilting vari-angle display, a 24.3 megapixel sensor and can film in 1080p at 60 frames per second. It’s also WiFi-enabled, has an ISO range of 100-12,800 (expandable to 51,200) and is built with a slim, compact design so it’s not as cumbersome as some other high-end cameras. This price is for the body only, but right now you can get the body plus a 24-120mm lens for $1,996.95.
If you opt for buying just a body, or want some extra options when you’re shooting, you’ll need to buy some lenses. We’ve compiled some of the most popular lenses that can capture nearly any moment. Just make sure to double check the lens will fit your camera, as different brands have different attachments.
Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens ($125; amazon.com)
If you want to try out another lens, there are tons available, but we like this 50mm from Canon. Connell says 50mm is the closest lens to the human eye, so you can have capture moments just as you see them.
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G Lens ($216.95; bhphotovideo.com)
Another 50mm lens, this time from Nikon, this is a great go-to option for beginners. It’s easy to use, works in lowlight and will help you get crisp photos in many situations.
Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM Lens ($119, originally $149; bhphotovideo.com)
This 24mm lens can help you take wide angle shots, so think landscapes and other situations where you’re trying to fit a lot of content into the frame.
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Lens ($419; bhphotovideo.com)
85mm lenses are a must-have for portrait photographers, as it can easily get the bokeh effect, which is that blurring you see when you click Portrait Mode on your iPhone.
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G Lens ($476.95; bhphotovideo.com)
For portrait-takers opting for a Nikon, you should consider this 85mm lens.
Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G Lens ($196.95; bhphotovideo.com)
A 35 mm lens is also a good option to have in your kit, as it’s small and super versatile, allowing you to shoot nearly any situation.
DSLR camera accessories
There are a few accessories you might want when you buy a new DSLR. The most obvious would be extra SD cards, batteries and maybe a tripod, but DSLRs have tons of inputs so you can add mics, extra flash and much more.
Joby GorillaPod Tripod ($89.94; amazon.com)
This lightweight and flexible tripod is a fantastic option for uneven ground, and its bendable joints can even wrap around a pole so you can suspend your DSLR in the air.
AmazonBasics 60-Inch Lightweight Tripod with Bag ($27.99; amazon.com)
If you want a more basic tripod, this 60-inch option from Amazon will do the trick. It also includes a carrying bag for added convenience.
Manfrotto Compact Aluminum Monopod ($24.88; bhphotovideo.com)
If you want ultimate portability, this compact monopod from Manfrotto is your best bet. It slides down to 15.4 inches and weighs only 11.7 ounces. However, it can only support cameras up to 3.3 pounds, so make sure to double check the weight of your camera and lens before using it.
Oben CTM-2600 6-Section Carbon Fiber Monopod ($84.95, originally $94.95; bhphotovideo.com)
This six-section monopod can handle loads up to 26 pounds, so you can throw your full setup without a worry.
SanDisk Extreme Pro CompactFlash Memory Card 32 GB ($52.99; amazon.com)
At 32 GB, these memory cards have a solid amount of space. You can buy smaller or larger options from SanDisk as well, but remember, Connell recommends doubling up so you never lose any of your work.
Canon Battery Pack LP-E6N ($72.50, originally $100; amazon.com)
There’s nothing worse than your camera dying before you’re finished taking photos. Keep it charged up with an extra battery.
Nikon EN-EL15b Rechargeable Lithium-Ion Battery ($54; bhphotovideo.com)
This battery will keep your Nikon charged up and ready to go. An extra battery never hurt.
Canon 200DG Digital Camera Gadget Bag ($45.99; amazon.com)
Stash all your gear in this Canon camera bag. It’s got tons of pockets and easy access sections so you can store your camera body, extra lenses, batteries and more.
Nikon 25395 MC-DC2 Remote Release Cord ($25.87, originally $35.50; amazon.com)
If you’re shooting wildlife with a big telephoto lens, or maybe you’re trying to take a photo with a long exposure, you’ll need this remote release cord. It replicates the camera’s shutter button so you won’t accidentally shake the camera when trying to do it yourself.
Rode VideoMicro Ultracompact Camera-Mount Shotgun Microphone ($59; bhphotovideo.com)
If you want to capture crisp audio along with your video, you’ll need a microphone. This low-cost and compact option is great for having on hand at all times.
Rode VideoMic Pro Camera-Mount Shotgun Microphone ($229; bhphotovideo.com)
If you want some higher quality audio, check out this shotgun microphone from Rode. It’s ideal for journalists, vloggers, budget filmmakers and anyone who wants a portable yet high-caliber microphone.
Neewer 750II TTL Flash for Nikon DSLR Cameras ($52.99; bhphotovideo.com)
If you need some extra flash for low light situations, check out this attachment for Nikon cameras.
Godox VING V860IIC TTL Li-Ion Flash Kit for Canon Cameras ($139, originally $179; bhphotovideo.com)
And for Canon cameras, this flash attachment will give you bright light so you can get your perfect exposure.