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For professional photographers, from those at the Olympic Games to those camped out in distant jungles snapping pics of tigers, the DSLR camera has long been their weapon of choice. With rugged, durable build quality, lightning-fast autofocus, and a long pedigree of reliable service in every conceivable genre of photography, DSLRs remain deservedly popular.
With mirrorless cameras gradually chipping away at the prevalence of DSLRs, there is still good reason to invest in a camera with a mirror, beyond the obvious advantage of a clear, optical viewfinder. Thanks to their decades of service, there is a plethora of affordable, high quality accessories made specifically for DSLRs, and whether you’re just beginning your journey as a photographer, or even if you’re a long time professional, the potential cost savings and creative flexibility this wide range of available equipment affords is not to be ignored. DSLRs are true workhorse cameras.
There’s no getting around the fact that despite its age the D850 is still the camera to beat. With a crazy 45.7 Megapixel Full Frame sensor, it’s the DSLR by which all others are measured. It also offers a continuous shooting speed of up to 9 fps and excels at reducing noise at high ISOs while offering a useful base ISO of just 64. Its 153 point autofocus system is blazing fast and is capable of focusing even in extremely dim lighting situations.
Timelapse video shooters will appreciate its 8k timelapse mode, and videographers will love the quality of its 4k video capability. It will also appeal to film photographers with its negative digitizer mode that works in concert with the optional ES-2 Film Digitizer Adapter. The Nikon D850 comes startlingly close to being the perfect all-around DSLR for almost every kind of photographer.
Extremely low base ISO
8K timelapse mode
Excellent Autofocus in viewfinder mode
Getting a little old
Live view autofocus is a little slow
For beginners looking to upgrade to a camera capable of capturing professional quality images, but without the pro price tag, the Nikon D3500 is an eminently affordable choice. Its 24-megapixel DX size sensor provides high-end DSLR quality images for less money than many point and shoots. It lacks some of the bells and whistles of more expensive cameras, but it’s competent where it counts. You get 5fps continuous shooting, a 100-25,600 ISO range, and full HD video recording at up to 60fps (though unfortunately, it cannot shoot in 4k). Whether you’re just getting started with photography, or you need a decent camera cheap and in a hurry, the Nikon D3500 will get the job done.
Bargain price point
Great image quality
Easy to use and great for beginners
Lacks 4k video
No Wi-Fi connectivity
If you want an upgrade to your entry-level Canon DSLR, but still want to be able to use your APS-C size lenses, the Canon 90D brings high-end features to a crop sensor body. This camera packs in a lot of value between its 32.5 Megapixel sensor and Digic 8 Image Processor, remarkably recent tech for a Canon camera in this price range. It can shoot at up to 10 fps and record 4k video, with advanced face and eye detection and superior autofocus capability. The Canon 90D bats well outside its relatively modest price range. The only caveat is that it lacks a full-frame sensor and professional level durability.
Features the very latest tech
Great for video
Lacks professional-level durability
Smaller APS-C size sensor
For adventure seekers, durability and weather sealing are paramount in the gear they use. The Pentax K1 Mark II is designed to stand up to whatever elements you throw at it. Be it sand, snow, or pouring rain, this DSLR is built to take a beating.
In addition to its robust build quality, the K1 Mark II features a high resolution 36.5 Megapixel sensor and can achieve even greater resolution using its pixel shift mode. Furthermore, this DSLR is one of the few to feature 5 axis image stabilization, which means that it can offer stabilization for any lens and shoot handheld at slower shutter speeds.
In-body image stabilization means that the camera actually moves the sensor itself to correct for camera shake. Pentax has made clever use of this moveable sensor to implement both its high-resolution pixel shift technology, as well as a few other modes. One of these modes is Composition Assist, where you can actually move the sensor around to make micro-adjustments to your composition without needing to move the camera itself.
For people looking to photograph the stars, its AstroTracer mode could be an indispensable feature. This mode uses the built-in GPS to automatically track the movement and position of the stars, while also utilizing a digital compass. This works in conjunction with the moveable sensor to sync the camera to the movement of the stars and minimize star trails while capturing long exposures.
High-resolution full-frame sensor
In-body image stabilization
Rugged and weather-sealed
Clever extra features
Slow autofocus and burst rate
Lackluster video features
Limited lens selection
The Canon 6D Mark II is Canon’s most affordable DSLR with a full-frame sensor. It may lack some of the bells and whistles of more expensive full-frame cameras, but it does provide an attractive entry-level option into the world of full-frame.
The 6D Mark II achieves its attractive price point largely by implementing slightly dated technology, primarily in its 26.2 Megapixel sensor and last-gen Digic 7 processor. However, given the cost of this camera, such aging hardware should be considered to be more like aged cheese than spoiled milk, and the camera is capable of producing fantastic full-frame photos and video, so long as you can deal with being limited to 1080p at 60fps and 6.5fps still frame shooting.
It’s worth considering that if you don’t mind the smaller sensor, the cheaper Canon 90D offers more modern components and better specs. Despite this, the 6D Mark II offers a more enthusiast-grade experience and the improved image quality that a full-frame sensor provides.
Full frame sensor
No 4K video
Nikon’s latest DSLR has clearly taken more than a few notes from mirrorless cameras, and that’s a great thing, particularly for video shooters. It might very well be said that the Nikon D780 is a DSLR version of Nikon’s excellent Z6 mirrorless camera, which has quickly become renowned for its video capabilities.
In the D780 you will find a 26.3 Megapixel sensor and Expeed 6 processor that combine to produce high-quality 4k footage at up to 30fps, and 1080p footage at up to 120fps for spectacular slow-motion shots. Additionally, the camera excels at shooting in low light with an ISO range of 100 to 51,200. Lightning-quick autofocus with eye-tracking aids immensely whether you’re shooting stills or video. Pro photographers will appreciate the D780’s dual card slots for in-camera image backup.
Excellent video shooting capability
Dual card slots
A little expensive
Canon’s 5D line of cameras are their flagship DSLRs and the favorite tool of many professional photographers. Released back in 2016, the 5D Mark IV may be getting a bit long in the tooth, but it is no less popular among people who make a living from photography despite its age. It is built tough for proven reliability, and at its core is a 30.4 Megapixel sensor that produces stunning image quality. Its features and specifications may seem dated, but pros value the quality, consistency, and reliability of the 5D Mark IV over flashy cutting edge tech.
However, if you plan on shooting a lot of videos, you might want to avoid the 5D mark IV. Yes, it can shoot great looking 4k video, but unfortunately, it only uses part of the sensor to do so resulting in a cropped image. Furthermore, the MJPEG codec with which it records 4k video is highly inefficient and will eat up storage space like crazy. For photographers, the 5D mark IV is ideal, but for videographers, there are far better options available.
Proven and reliable
Excellent image quality
Somewhat old and outdated
Flawed 4k video recording
Sony has largely neglected their lineup of DSLRs since they released the A99 II, but it’s still a fantastic camera with a unique trick up its sleeve. Unlike other DSLRs with solid, traditional mirrors, the A99 II is equipped with a translucent mirror. This enables it to implement a dual autofocus system that uses both the 79 AF points on the image sensor as well as a 399 point AF sensor for unbelievably fast and accurate autofocus even when shooting at blazing fast 12 fps continuous shooting speeds.
In addition to fantastic autofocus, the A99 II utilizes a 42.4 Megapixel sensor that provides top-notch resolution and low light performance. If that isn’t enough, this DSLR also features 5 axes in-body image stabilization. In many ways, the A99 II exceeds the capabilities of Sony’s more recent mirrorless cameras.
It’s worth considering, however, that Sony may decide to abandon the A series of cameras and lenses entirely in favor of focusing on mirrorless cameras. This makes planning for future system upgrades difficult for users of the system.
Incredible dual autofocus system
Fast continuous shooting speed
Excellent video capability
Built in image stabilization
Future of A mount system is questionable
The Canon 1D X Mark III is the new and undisputed king of DSLRs. It is possibly the most powerful and versatile camera ever made, though it also has the weight, bulk, and eye-watering price tag to match.
You might expect the 1D X Mark III to feature a sensor with a ludicrous resolution, but in fact, its 20.1 megapixels fall well below the count found in most modern DSLRs. The 1D X Mark III is proof that megapixel count isn’t everything. It’s capable of continuously shooting full-resolution still images at up to 20 fps, aided by a state of the art autofocus system, built-in image stabilization, and Canon’s cutting edge Digic X image processor. It is also capable of shooting 4k video at up to 60fps, or even 5.5k RAW video. With other amazing specs such as an ISO range of 100 to 102,400 and tank-like rugged build quality, the 1D X Mark III is a cutting-edge do-it-all beast that will deliver fantastic results for many years to come.
Cutting edge technology
20 fps continuous shooting speed
Excellent video features
Big and heavy
If a Full Frame sensor doesn’t quite cut it for you, the Pentax 645Z can provide the awesome photo quality of a medium format sensor at a relatively affordable price. Though growing old in the tooth, the 645Z is no slouch when it comes to image quality; with 51.4 megapixels it offers higher resolution than most cameras with smaller sensors. More importantly, those pixels are far larger, which is even more vital for achieving the ultimate in image quality. It’s typically available for around $5000, which is a bargain when it comes to the world of medium format.
This is a very specialized camera. It is big, heavy, slow, and not a good pick for video. It’s designed for those photographers who need to capture the highest quality images, with speed and weight being but minor, secondary features.
Spectacular image quality
Excellent build quality
Limited video features
Large and heavy
DSLR vs. Mirrorless:
Perhaps the most difficult conundrum you will face in buying a new, interchangeable lens camera is whether or not to get one with a mirror, or one without. A DSLR uses a mirror to allow you to see through the lens without electronic aid. The mirror is raised whenever a photo is taken. Mirrorless cameras are entirely digital, with no mirror and EVFs (Electronic ViewFinders) instead of optical viewfinders.
Typically, DSLRs are larger, heavier, and more robust, while mirrorless cameras are smaller and lightweight, but not as durable. DSLRs often have quicker autofocus systems, faster burst rates, and their optical viewfinders provide a style of shooting that is preferable to some people.
The sensor is what captures the image and transforms light into digital information, and in DSLRs, it comes in one of three sizes. APS-C (also known as DX) measures 23.5mm x 15.6mm, Full Frame sensors are 36mm x 24mm, while Medium Format sensors are 44mm x 33mm. Typically, the bigger the sensor, the better the image quality, but also greater weight and expense. The same goes for the lenses each sensor size requires.
If you’re on a budget, APS-C is great, but if you can afford to spend more for Full Frame you will appreciate the improved image quality. Another advantage of Full Frame DSLRs is that they usually feature greater build quality and improved controls and functionality since they are marketed towards professional photographers.
Medium Format is another story altogether. These camera’s gigantic sensors render with fantastic resolution and quality, yet they are certainly not for everyone. They tend to be slow and cumbersome machines with slow burst rates and unimpressive video features.
Perhaps even trickier and more important than choosing which DSLR to buy is choosing which lens to buy. Most cameras can be bought with a so-called “kit lens” or set of lenses. Such lenses are typical of acceptable quality and often represent good value when bought bundled with the camera. However, if you’re buying a camera with interchangeable lenses you should not be content with mediocre kit lenses. Beginning photographers should definitely consider adding a prime lens with a fast maximum aperture early on to take better advantage of their new camera.
One advantage of DSLRs is the wide range of lenses available from various manufacturers. If you go with Canon or Nikon you can take advantage of a wide range of lenses not only from Canon and Nikon, but from Sigma, Tamron, and other companies. Sony’s A-mount system and Pentax’s K-mount systems are less widely adopted and supported by third parties, though fortunately both Sony and Pentax have a decent selection of first-party lenses available.
If you’re on a budget, but want to expand your creativity with more lenses for very little money, the backward compatibility of Nikon and Pentax DSLRs is a huge bonus. Both companies have been making cameras and lenses for decades, so with each, you have access to an impressive selection of old lenses that can be found used for astonishingly low prices. Canon and Sony DSLRs are not so easy to use with old lenses.
Few days go by in which Andy Zahn doesn’t spend hours capturing the world around through his camera lens. When he’s not shooting macro photos of jumping spiders or capturing the wild landscape of the Pacific Northwest, he’s scouring the internet for info on the latest innovations in camera gear. Photography and the technology that makes it possible have been a passion for him since childhood.