The best DSLRs compete surprisingly well with the latest mirrorless cameras. While it's true that mirrorless cameras are grabbing all the attention these days, many photographers still like the size, grippability, optical viewfinders – and battery life – of digital SLRs. Some of the latest models even steal technologies from mirrorless cameras, such as 4K video and on-sensor phase detect autofocus for equally fast and effective live view modes.
DSLRs have been going a long time, and they have a lot of loyal fans. New cameras like the Nikon D780 and Canon EOS 90D incorporate some of the latest video and focus technologies and can still compete strongly in today's market.
Just as important is that DSLRs are still just about the cheapest way to get into 'proper' photography. Our old favorite, the Nikon D3500, is still a terrific and affordable beginner camera, and the Canon EOS Rebel T100 / EOS 4000D might not be the most advanced camera in the world, but where else can you get an APS-C interchangeable lens camera with a viewfinder at these prices?
There's another thing to think about: lenses! When you buy a Canon or a Nikon DSLR (and let's not forget Pentax!), you're opening the door to a whole world of lenses, from inexpensive prime lenses, through fisheyes, ultra-wide lenses, superzooms, telephotos and specialized optics like tilt-shift lens. Mirrorless cameras are catching up slowly, but the level of lens support has a long way to go to match what's available for DSLRs.
• Read more: What are the best camera lenses to buy?
One of the main advantages of DSLRs is its optical viewfinder (as opposed to the electronic viewfinder found in mirrorless cameras). Many photographers prefer viewing their image naturally, rather than through a 'mini TV screen' EVF. The large, ergonomic handgrips make the best DSLRs super comfortable to use when shooting for long periods of time.
We've collected what we think are the best and most interesting DSLRs currently available, separated into bodies for beginners, enthusiasts and professionals.
The best DSLR in 2021
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.
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
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
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
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 prepared to spend a little more.
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
Nikon fans looking for an all-round equivalent to the do-it-all Canon EOS 90D should take a look at the Nikon D7500. Also designed for enthusiasts, it offers a slightly faster 8fps continuous shooting speed, a proven 51-point autofocus system and the ability to capture 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 which 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
The Nikon D780 takes the on-sensor phase detection autofocus of Nikon's own mirrorless Z6 model to offer a DSLR with mirrorless camera live view performance – brilliant! In fairness, Nikon has been a bit slow off the mark here, since Canon DSLRs have long used Canon's Dual Pixel CMOS AF technology to do the same thing. Essentially, the D780 is like a modernised, supercharged version of Nikon's still popular D750 full frame DSLR. 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 though out design with solid build and very satisfying handling.
Read more: Nikon D780 review
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
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.
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!
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.
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 a beginner photographer, there's no better (or cheaper) way to wrap your head around the core principles of photography than investing in a starter-level DSLR. Not only will you have the benefits of interchangeable lenses and an optical viewfinder, but you'll also have the ability to take full manual control over your camera – essential for taking your photography to the next level.
If you'd describe yourself as more of an enthusiast or professional, then a DSLR is still a very good option to consider. Some of the best photographers in the world shoot with DSLR cameras, from the Nikon D850 to the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.
But which is the best DSLR to invest in? Well, this will depend on a variety of different factors, from your budget, to your favored photographic genre, to your previous experience. While a beginner would likely prefer an affordable and easy-to-use DSLR, more experienced photographers will begin to look at factors such as sensor size, megapixel count, video capabilities and more. Meanwhile, professional photographers will be looking for the crème de la crème of DSLRs that will guarantee image quality and durability.
Whichever you choose, we think you'll enjoy these sturdy and affordable alternatives to mirrorless cameras.