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The best DSLR in 2021: old-school DSLRs for beginners, enthusiasts and pros

best dslr
(Image credit: Digital Camera World)

Mirrorless cameras might be super popular but the best DSLR cameras will always have a place in the photography world. Not only do many of them offer plenty of megapixels, ergonomic handling and features like wifi connectivity, they are also beginning to incorporate popular mirrorless camera technologies. While many manufacturers have put most of their energy into developing mirrorless technologies, the classic DSLR still remains a firm favourite among many photographers.

It's easy to see why too - DSLRs are renowned for their excellent battery life, high-quality optical viewfinders and comfortable, ergonomic grips. The best DSLR'S even include some modern mirrorless features such as 4K video, on-sensor phase detect autofocus and effect live view modes. 

For years, if you wanted the best camera, you needed to invest in a DSLR. Now camera manufacturers are releasing some of the best mirrorless cameras, that is no longer the case. That doesn't mean though that DSLRs are obsolete. Take the Nikon D850 or the Canon EOS 5D IV for example - both are still popular cameras among professional photographers and people are still buying them new. Just last year Nikon released the Nikon D780 which is capable of 4K 30p video recording and Canon released the Canon EOS 90D in 2019 which incorporated new autofocus technology. 

As DSLRs have been on the market for a while, it's an affordable way of making the jump from one of the best camera phones or best compact cameras. The Nikon D3500 or the Canon EOS Rebel T100 / EOS 4000D are great beginner cameras and even though they don't have all the features of more advanced models, they'll get you started doing 'proper' photography without breaking the bank.

Another big advantage of investing in a DSLR over a mirrorless camera is that you've got years' worth of lenses to choose from. Not only are your options better but you can also pick them up cheaper either second-hand or brand new. Whether you want to invest in one of the best 50mm lenses or pick up a telephoto zoom you can bet you'll be saving yourself a fair bit on the price of a mirrorless equivalent. It's wise to think about what type of photography you want to do and decide which are the best camera lenses to buy.

Another reason DSLRs have remained a firm favorite among photographers is that they have an optical viewfinder. This means that rather than seeing a digitally generated image as you do in a mirrorless camera, you see what you would if looking through the lens via the mirror houses inside. EVF quality has greatly improved but for some photographers, it won't ever beat optical viewfinder quality. 

No matter what reason you prefer DSLRs vs mirrorless cameras, we've rounded up the best DSLR camera for you to peruse below. We've separated the sections into DSLRs for beginners, enthusiasts and professionals for your ease of use.

The best DSLR in 2021

Beginners

Here we've picked our favorite entry-level DSLRs. We think these are all the best all-around DSLRs for new users, however, we rate them all for different reasons. Some are highly affordable, while others have more sophisticated features, so take a look through and see which ones seem like they'd suit you best.

(Image credit: Nikon)

1. Nikon D3500

Our long term favorite for beginners, students and anyone on a budget

Specifications
Type: DSLR
Sensor: APS-C
Megapixels: 24.2MP
Lens mount: Nikon F (DX)
Screen: 3in, 921,000 dots
Max burst speed: 5fps
Max video resolution: 1080p (Full HD)
User level: Beginner
Reasons to buy
+Interactive ‘Guide’ shooting mode+Solid performance; good handling
Reasons to avoid
-Fairly basic controls-LCD has no tilt or touchscreen

The Nikon D3500 was launched back in 2018 as an evolution of Nikon's best-selling line of starter DSLR cameras. We also rate it as one of the best Nikon cameras right now, as well as one of the best cameras for beginners. Novice photographers are often worried about DSLRs being complicated to use, but the Nikon D3500 has a brilliant ‘Guide’ shooting mode that acts as a fully interactive tutorial on photography, delivered via the rear LCD screen. The rear screen is fixed, and you’re limited to Full HD video rather than 4K, but the 24-megapixel sensor delivers super-sharp images and the retracting 18-55mm kit lens is rather good too. The D3500 is small, light, cheap and easy to use – all the qualities that will appeal to beginners. It might seem as if camera technology is advancing at breakneck speed right now, but the D3500 has all the qualities we still look for in a beginner camera, and we still haven't seen anything to touch it at this price. 

Read more: Nikon D3500 review

Learn: Photography tips for beginners

(Image credit: Canon)

2. Canon EOS Rebel SL3 / EOS 250D

This small but feature-packed DSLR even shoots 4K video

Specifications
Type: DSLR
Sensor: APS-C
Megapixels: 24.2MP
Lens mount: Canon EF-S
Screen: 3in vari-angle touchscreen, 1,040,000 dots
Max burst speed: 5fps
Max video resolution: 4K
User level: Beginner
Reasons to buy
+Guided screen options+Pivoting touchscreen+4K video
Reasons to avoid
-The body might be too small for some

Canon does make a couple of cheaper DSLRs than this one, but we reckon they’re a little cut down in features and build quality and we’d recommend paying just a little bit extra for the EOS Rebel SL3 DSLR (sold as the EOS 250D in Europe). Why? Because it has a vari-angle touchscreen on the back and a sensor with Canon’s Dual Pixel CMOS AF technology, so the autofocus in live view is really snappy. We also love the fact that you can start from a simple Guided user interface when you’re still learning, and then switch to the standard setup when you feel more confident and want more control. This is the best DSLR for beginners keen to learn and experiment with new techniques – it's also as good in live view mode as a 'mirrorless' camera.

Read more: Canon Rebel SL3 / EOS 250D review

(Image credit: Canon)

3. Canon EOS Rebel T100 / EOS 4000D

A bare-bones camera that strips back the cost but still delivers

Specifications
Type: DSLR
Sensor: APS-C
Megapixels: 18MP
Lens mount: Canon EF-S
Screen: 2.7in fixed, 230,000 dots
Max burst speed: 3fps
Max video resolution: 1080p (Full HD)
User level: Beginner
Reasons to buy
+Super-cheap to buy+Easy to use
Reasons to avoid
-Poor viewfinder and screen-No image stabiliser on kit lens

Canon has deliberately built the EOS Rebel T100 (EOS 4000D) down to a price, and we think they might have taken the cost cutting a fraction too far. It's a decent camera, but only if you can get it for a lot less money than the Nikon D3500 (above). The Canon is well suited to beginners, with the same ‘intelligent’ full auto shooting mode and feature guide as you’ll find in pricier Canon cameras. The ‘Quick’ menu is typically intuitive, and there are plenty of scene modes as well as more advanced shooting modes. There’s also a Creative Auto mode to help you progress from ‘basic zone’ to ‘creative zone’ modes. The 18MP image sensor is a very old design and a little lacking in megapixels compared with most current DSLRs, though, and there are more serious cutbacks in other areas. We wouldn’t expect a touchscreen at this price, but the rear LCD is disappointingly small and low-resolution. Ultimately, it’s a very basic camera but the best DSLR to get if you just want to dip your toe in the photographic water and spend as little cash as possible.

Read more: Canon EOS Rebel T100 / 4000D review

Enthusiasts

Which of the best DSLRs for enthusiasts you pick will depend highly on your budget. Accordingly, we've kicked off this enthusiast's section with APS-C cameras because they provide excellent image quality, features and performance at a very affordable price point. However, full-frame sensors provide a notable step up in image quality, so we've chosen some full-frame alternatives for photographers who are prepared to spend a little more. 

(Image credit: Canon)

4. Canon EOS 90D

It's the enthusiasts DSLR with everything, including 32.5 megapixels!

Specifications
Type: DSLR
Sensor: APS-C
Megapixels: 32.5MP
Lens mount: Canon EF-S
Screen: 3in vari-angle touchscreen, 1,040,000 dots
Viewfinder: Pentaprism
Max burst speed: 10fps
Max video resolution: 4K UHD
User level: Enthusiast
Reasons to buy
+Highest APS-C resolution yet+10fps continuous shooting+Uncropped 4K video
Reasons to avoid
-Limited buffer capacity-18-135mm IS USM lens disappointing-Losing detail by ISO 1600

This is the best Canon camera for enthusiasts, and it arrived with groundbreaking specs that no other camera in this category can match and could leave a few professional photographers and videographers taking a look too. The EOS 90D packs in an amazing 32.5 million pixels – the highest yet for an APS-C camera – though don't expect to see any obvious and instant benefit in image quality. Instead, revel in this camera's 10fps continuous shooting capability and its uncropped 4K video capture – a consumer level Canon that (finally) doesn't reduce the angle of view for 4K video. The extra megapixels do dent the EOS 90D's high ISO/low light performance, but this camera has so many capabilities and so much potential, we think it's a dazzlingly good all-rounder for enthusiasts who want to try every facet of photography.

Read more: Canon EOS 90D review | Canon EOS 90D vs EOS 80D vs EOS 7D Mark II

(Image credit: Nikon)

5. Nikon D7500

Nikon’s tough and sturdy enthusiasts DSLR also has 4K video

Specifications
Type: DSLR
Sensor: APS-C
Megapixels: 20.9MP
Lens mount: Nikon DX
Screen: 3.2in tilting touchscreen, 922,000 dots
Viewfinder: Pentaprism
Max burst speed: 8fps
Max video resolution: 4K
User level: Enthusiast
Reasons to buy
+Has the best bits from the D500+Lightweight build
Reasons to avoid
-Less robust than the D500-Downgraded autofocus system

Despite being released four years ago we still think the Nikon D7500 deserves to take the second spot in our list of best DSLR's for enthusiasts. It's a decent all-rounder and Nikon's equivalent to the Canon EOS 90D. It offers a slightly faster continuous burst shooting speed at 8fps but lacks the resolution of the 90D. The 51-point autofocus system is reliable and it has the ability to record 4k video. It has a tilting rear screen rather than the fully-articulated design on the EOS 90D and relies on slower contrast AF in live view mode, but if you do most of your shooting through the viewfinder these will be small points. The D7500 also has a lower resolution (20MP vs 32.5MP) but in real-world shooting its high-performance sensor delivers images that are not far behind the definition offered by the Canon, despite the difference in megapixels. Nikon fans who like sports photography might also want to take a look at the Nikon D500, but this is a much more expensive camera and it's growing harder to find.

• Read more: Nikon D7500 review
• See also: Nikon Z50 vs D7500

(Image credit: Nikon)

6. Nikon D780

The impressive Nikon D780 uses mirrorless AF tech for its live view

Specifications
Type: DSLR
Sensor: Full frame
Megapixels: 24.4MP
Lens mount: Nikon FX
Screen: 3.2in tilting screen, 2,359k dots
Viewfinder: Pentaprism
Max burst speed: 7/12fps
Max video resolution: 4K UHD
User level: Enthusiast/professional
Reasons to buy
+Great handling+Fast live view AF+Uncropped 4K video
Reasons to avoid
-Two AF systems to master-Manual live view swapping-Expensive while new

The long-awaited upgrade to the much-loved Nikon D750 certainly didn't disappoint. The Nikon D780 includes the same on-sensor phase detection autofocus as the Nikon Z6 plus and incorporates mirrorless live view performance. Admittedly, Canon was a bit slow off the mark as Canon has used Canon's Dual Pixel CMOS AF to do the same thing for years. The D780 doesn't just have advanced live view AF – it also comes with a high-resolution tilting touchscreen display, 4K UHD video, dual UHS-II compatible memory card slots and continuous shooting speeds up to 12fps in live view mode. Combine that with its solid design and comfortable grip and you've got a camera that's an instant classic. The D780, like other Nikon DSLRs, combines well thought out design with a solid build and very satisfying handling.

Read more: Nikon D780 review

(Image credit: Canon)

7. Canon EOS 6D Mark II

Full frame image quality with a vari-angle screen and a great price

Specifications
Type: DSLR
Sensor: Full frame
Megapixels: 26.2MP
Lens mount: Canon EF
Screen: 3.2in vari-angle touchscreen, 1,040,000 dots
Viewfinder: Pentaprism
Max burst speed: 6.5fps
Max video resolution: 1080p (Full HD)
User level: Enthusiast
Reasons to buy
+Packs a lot of upgrades+Lightweight for a full-frame DSLR
Reasons to avoid
-Pricier than the original EOS 6D-AF points clustered in centre of frame

We like the Nikon D780, but the EOS 6D Mark II has been around longer and has impressive features of its own. The 26-megapixel sensor is good rather than great, but it does have Canon’s Dual Pixel CMOS AF system, so the live view autofocus is very fast and effective. The 45-point viewfinder AF system is pretty good too, although the focus points are all clustered towards the centre of the screen. The EOS 6D Mark II can capture images at 6.5fps in burst mode, and extremely useful vari-angle touchscreen display. It has been upstaged somewhat by the newer Canon EOS RP and Canon's other mirrorless models, but it's a solid buy that's cheaper than the Nikon D780 (above) and it has a fully articulating screen.

Also read: Canon EOS 6D Mark II review | Canon EOS 5D Mark IV vs EOS 6D Mark II

Professionals

There are several categories of professional DSLR to consider. Some favor high-resolution models like the Nikon D850, which are designed to provide superior image quality above all else. For those who want a more well-rounded shooting tool, there are also reliable professional all-rounders like the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV or Pentax K-1 Mark II

Lastly, there are also high-speed sports specialists like the Nikon D6 and Canon EOS-1D X Mark III. We've left these last two out of our list because they are so specialized, but the models we've chosen below are suitable for professionals and within the reach of keen amateurs too. If you want to know more, read our guide to the best professional cameras.

(Image credit: Nikon)

Possibly the greatest high-resolution full frame DSLR there will ever be

Specifications
Type: DSLR
Sensor: Full frame
Megapixels: 45.7MP
Lens mount: Nikon FX
Screen: 3.2in tilting touchscreen, 2,359,000 dots
Viewfinder: Pentaprism
Max burst speed: 7fps
Max video resolution: 4K
User level: Enthusiast/professional
Reasons to buy
+Mighty resolving power+Pro-grade build but still compact
Reasons to avoid
-Fairly noisy at very high ISO settings-Vertical grip is an optional add-on

APS-C format DSLRs offer the best compromise between features, quality and price, but professionals will demand a step up in image quality, and that means a full frame DSLR. The Nikon D850 is an expensive camera (though prices are falling), but its capabilities put it in a class of its own. Its 45.7MP resolution is spectacular, it has a 153-point autofocus system, and can capture images at 7 frames per second – or 9fps with the optional MB-D18 battery grip. Amazing video features also makes it one of the best 4K camera choices around – though the newer Nikon D780 would be a better and cheaper choice for DSLR videographers. The Nikon D850 doesn't have the new Nikon D780's hybrid on-sensor autofocus technology, so its live view autofocus speeds are relatively pedestrian, but that scarcely puts a dent in the D850's all-round appeal as arguably the best DSLR of all for professional photographers. It looked spectacular when it first came out in 2017, and it looks just as good today... but cheaper!

Read more: Nikon D850 review

(Image credit: Canon)

Canon’s full frame workhorse is a durable classic and popular with pros

Specifications
Type: DSLR
Sensor: Full frame
Megapixels: 30.4MP
Lens mount: Canon EF
Screen: 3.2in touchscreen, 1,620,000 dots
Viewfinder: Pentaprism
Max burst speed: 7fps
Max video resolution: 4K
User level: Enthusiast/professional
Reasons to buy
+30.4MP is a good compromise+Pro performance, manageable size
Reasons to avoid
-Touchscreen fixed in place-Big price jump from EOS 5D Mark III

The EOS 5D Mark IV is Canon’s all-time best DSLR camera if you want a reasonably high megapixel count without sacrificing too much in the way of continuous drive speed, and clean, noise-free image quality at very high ISO settings. On paper, its features look unspectacular compared to the Nikon D850’s, but for many pros the 30MP resolution is more than enough – and the 4K video makes it regarded as the best camera for filmmaking by many DSLR users, even if there is quite a severe crop factor. Canon’s Dual Pixel CMOS AF gives the ESO 5D Mark IV perky autofocus performance in live view and video modes, too. It’s proved itself versatile, robust and reliable – all major plus points for pro photographers. Canon has shifted its attention towards its full frame mirrorless EOS R cameras of late, however, so it's not clear when - or even if - we will see a successor to the EOS 5D Mark IV.

Read more: 

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV review
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV vs Nikon D850

(Image credit: Pentax)

10. Pentax K-1 Mark II

Pentax makes only one full-frame DSLR, but it packs in a raft of features

Specifications
Type: DSLR
Sensor: Full frame
Megapixels: 36MP
Lens mount: Pentax K
Screen: 3in three-way-tilt, 1,037k dots
Viewfinder: Pentaprism
Max burst speed: 4.4/6.4fps
Max video resolution: 1080p (Full HD)
User level: Enthusiast/professional
Reasons to buy
+Robust construction+5-axis image stabilisation
Reasons to avoid
-Pedestrian continuous drive speed-Relatively low 670-shot battery life

Pentax seems to soldier along in its own little bubble, seemingly unaffected by outside events, so the Pentax K-1 Mark II is typically solid but unadventurous in is specifications. It does have a tough, weather-sealed construction, and a highly effective sensor-shift image stabilisation system that works with any attached lens, unlike competing Canon and Nikon DSLRs, which do not have in-body stabilisation. Better still, the 5-axis stabilizer can work in trick modes to deliver anti-aliasing correction, an increase in fine detail and texture based on Pixel Shift through multiple exposures, and even an Astrotracer mode to avoid stars appearing to streak through the sky. With a 36MP full-frame image sensor, the K-1 Mark II certainly gives you a lot of megapixels for the money, though the 33-point autofocus system does feel dated, and Live View autofocus is poor. For DSLR fans who want a big, solid, premium-quality and traditional camera, though, it still has strong appeal.

Read more: Pentax K-1 Mark II review

So which DSLR should you buy?

If you're just starting out in photography, investing in one of the best DSLRs for beginners is a no-brainer. It'll get you learning the core principles of photography, get you used to shoot in manual and you don't need to spend loads of money. Being able to use interchangeable lenses will take the type of photography you can do to new levels and you will have much more control over your camera settings. 

If you've already owned an entry-level DSLR and are looking for something more advanced, an enthusiast or professional DSLR is still worth consideration. Some of the best professional photographers in the world still swear by the Nikon D850 or the Canon EOS 5D IV despite the advance in mirrorless technology.

What DSLR you do end up choosing will come down to a variety of factors such as budget, the type of photography you want to pursue and what previous experience you have. It's worth thinking about whether you will ever want to take the leap into video and in which case it might be worth looking for a DSLR with 4K capabilities. The pro-end cameras will guarantee image quality, build quality and are perfect for really advancing your photographic practice. 

Whichever you choose, we think you'll enjoy these sturdy and affordable alternatives to mirrorless cameras.

Read more:

• The best camera for beginners
Best cameras for enthusiasts
Best professional cameras
• 
The cheapest full-frame cameras
• 
Best mirrorless cameras
• 
DSLR vs mirrorless cameras