DSLR cameras are the best of the best—they have the largest sensors, the most megapixels, and the highest quality selection of lenses. Below we break down the leading digital SLRs on the market in 2015 in three categories: entry-level, enthusiast or prosumer, and full-frame. The entry-level and enthusiast models have crop-frame image sensors—called DX for Nikon or APS-C for Canon—along with a number of automatic and manual shooting modes. Most professional photographers shoot with full-frame cameras, which have the largest image sensors but also are considerably more expensive. Fortunately, both Nikon and Canon have released entry-level full-frame DSLRs for those looking to enter the market at a reasonable price point.
The majority of people who buy DSLRs stick to entry-level models and these cameras are some of the best sellers. With an entry-level DSLR you get a crop-frame image sensor with significantly more megapixels than even a few years ago (usually between 18 and 24). The least expensive entry-level models are light on features, but at the next level up you start to see flip-out screens, faster frame rates, and better low light performance. Both Nikon and Canon have improved their 18-55mm kit lenses, which are optically superior and lighter than past versions.
Our top entry-level pick for 2015 is the Nikon D3300. The improvements over the older Nikon D3200 were subtle—it too is a terrific camera—but they hit the sweet spot among consumers. First, Nikon removed the optical low pass filter for better sharpness and detail. Second, they upgraded the D3300 to Nikon’s newest EXPEED 4 Image Processer. Finally, Nikon lightened the camera body slightly and cut the weight of the new 18-55mm VR II kit lens by 20%. We love this camera, and especially because it’s selling for under $500 with an 18-55mm kit lens while the Canon Rebel T6i below is around $750. The T6i has a flip-out touchscreen and the D3300 does not, but if video isn’t a priority we recommend saving with the simpler model. Given that the D3200 is only about $50 cheaper and with the improvements in the D3300 mentioned above, we give the nod to the newer version.
Canon offers the widest range of options in the entry-level category, starting with the lightweight Rebel SL1. The SL1 weighs just 14.4 ounces for the camera body, making it one of the lightest DSLR on this list and competition to the increasingly popular mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras. Compared to more expensive entry-level Canons like the T6i below, the SL1 does not have a flip-out screen, the autofocus isn’t quite as advanced, and it shoots slightly slower at 4 frames per second instead of 5. But for travel and the outdoors, the SL1 is a minimalist entry-level DSLR that makes some sacrifices in features but not image quality.
Canon’s Rebel T series has long been its most popular, and the new Rebel T6i is the headliner in 2015. The biggest improvement is a new 24.2-megapixel sensor—the older Rebel T5i has 18 megapixels—bridging the gap between the T6i and its Nikon competitors like the D3300 and D5500. Canon also improved the autofocus and added ever-important Wi-Fi capability to the mix. Given the video prowess of the Canon T6i and the STM kit lenses, this is top entry-level DSLR for video on the market.
The release of the T6i pushed the price of the Rebel T5i lower, making it a better value than it was at the beginning year. With this camera you get fewer megapixels than the T6i at 18, as well as an older Digic 5 image processor. However, the image and video quality is still excellent for the price, and both the T5i and T6i are sold with Canon’s STM kit lenses that focus quietly and smoothly for video. If you’re a video shooter, the Rebel T5i and T6i are very attractive options in this price range. For a stripped-down version of the T5i, the Canon Rebel T5 (no “i”) sells for a bargain basement price at around $400 with an 18-55mm non-STM lens.
Nikon’s step up from the D3300 above is the new D5500, released in 2015. With the D5500 you get beefed-up autofocus and features like in-camera HDR and a flip-out screen for movies. There’s also touchscreen functionality on the rear LCD and improved ergonomics that make the camera lighter in the hand and easier to grip. Like the older D5300, the D5500 does not have an optical low pass filter. We like the decreased weight of the D5500 at 14.2 ounces, but the D5300 and even the D5200 are great values at hundreds of dollars less and produce very similar image quality. For our money, we could lean toward buying one of the older versions to take advantage of those prices.
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|1080p Video||60 fps, 50 fps, 30 fps, 25 fps, 24 fps||30 fps, 25 fps, 24 fps||60 fps, 50 fps, 30 fps, 25 fps, 24 fps||60 fps, 50 fps, 30 fps, 25 fps, 24 fps||30 fps, 25 fps, 24 fps|
|Weight||15.1 oz.||19.6 oz.||14.8 oz.||16.9 oz.||16.9 oz.|
|Pros||A great value at around $450 with a kit lens||The best entry-level DSLR on the market for video||Feature packed and lightweight||Similar image quality as the D5500||Great video and easy to use|
|Cons||No flip-out screen for video||Pricier than the mid-range Nikon D5500||Video quality could be improved||No touch screen functionality on the rear LCD||The fewest megapixels in the top 5|
Prosumer or Enthusiast DSLRs
Before the introduction of budget full-frame DSLRs—when full-frame set-ups were $5,000 and up including lenses—enthusiast or prosumer cameras were extremely popular among experienced photographers. These cameras have sturdier builds than the DSLRs above and a number of advanced features, manual controls, and weather sealing for shooting outdoors.
If there were doubts about whether this is a dying breed on camera, Canon answered them in 2015 with the recent release of the Canon 7D Mark II. This beast of a DSLR is awash in features including an advanced 65-point autofocus, dust and weather resistance, high quality Full HD 1080p video, and continuous shooting at up to 10 frames per second. The fast burst rate makes is a viable option for sports and action photography, which no other crop-frame DSLR is. What we don’t like about the 7D Mark II is the price, which is well over $2,000 with a kit lens. In this territory you should seriously consider a mirrorless camera like the Sony a7 II, which is under $2,000 with a 28-70mm kit lens, or the full-frame DSLR Canon EOS 6D (more on that below).
Nikon doesn’t have a direct competitor to the Canon 7D Mark II, but the D7200 is the company’s leading DX-format camera and boasts outstanding image quality and build. Many of the technical specs are similar to the D7100, but the newer model offers increased buffering speeds, Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity, a much-improved top LCD screen, and longer battery life. Compared to the Nikon D5500 above, the D7200 shoots faster, has a more advanced autofocus, performs better in low light, and is weather sealed. This may not be a “pro” camera like the Canon 7D Mark II, but it’s a top-notch crop-frame digital SLR for those who value advanced functionality and features.
A more direct competitor to the D7200 is the 20.2-megapixel Canon 70D. This enthusiast DSLR is similar in specifications to the Nikon D7200 but has a flip-out screen, built-in Wi-Fi, and continuous focus for video. And although the 70D has only 19 focus points vs. 51 on the D7200, it uses superior phase-detection autofocus instead of contrast-detection autofocus. Both the Canon 70D and Nikon D7200 are terrific prosumer cameras available at similar price points, so the choice comes to brand preference and whether or not you already own lenses (that can help make the decision a lot easier). For those looking to save, the older Canon EOS 60D currently is selling at a big discount.
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|1080p Video||60 fps, 30 fps, 24 fps||60 fps, 50 fps, 30 fps, 25 fps, 24 fps||30 fps, 25 fps, 24 fps||60 fps, 50 fps, 30 fps, 25 fps, 24 fps||30 fps, 25 fps, 24 fps|
|Weight||32.1 oz.||23.8 oz.||27.4 oz.||27.4 oz.||23.8 oz.|
|Pros||Shoots fast for action photography and has great autofocus||Faster buffering than the D7100||A terrific all-around camera for the price||A great value with the release of the D7200||Cheaper and lighter than the Canon 70D|
|Cons||Similar in price to some full-frame cameras like the Nikon D610||Similar image quality to the D7100 but $300 more expensive||Low light performance could be better||Wi-Fi requires an adapter||Fewer megapixels than other cameras on this list
Nikon pioneered a new type of DSLR with the release of the D600 in late 2012, which was billed by many as the world’s first budget full-frame DSLR. The price of the camera body was less than $2,000, unthinkable even a few years prior. That camera, along with the release of the D610 in 2013, was plagued by an unusual accumulation of dust and dirt on the image sensor (it likely is related to the sealing on some of the cameras). It was a rocky start for Nikon in a very important sector of the market.
In 2015, the D750 is Nikon’s leading budget full-frame DSLR, featuring a 24.3-megapixel sensor, Nikon’s EXPEED 4 Image Processor, and an impressive 51-point autofocus. In addition, Nikon sealed the camera to the standards of the pricier D810, alleviating the image sensor issue. The D750 has been getting rave reviews across the board for its impressive full-frame image quality and reasonable price, but unfortunately the camera has a new issue: lens flares. When shooting a bright light source at certain angles, a dark band appears at the top of the screen. Nikon has issued an official advisory for the camera and offered to repair cameras that have experienced the issue. Unfortunately this makes the D750 a far less attractive option for now, and some retailers have halted sales while the issue plays out.
Canon’s top budget full-frame camera is the EOS 6D. The 6D is a terrific camera with superb image and video quality and impressive low light performance. The camera is only 20.2 megapixels, which is fewer than the D750 (24.2) or more expensive Canon 5D Mark III (22.3) below. However, we love the Canon 6D at under $2,000, and it’s a great option for experienced photographs who want to jump into the world of full-frame photography without taking out a second mortgage. There are two attractive kit options for the 6D as well, each of which includes a different version of Canon’s 24-105mm lens (one STM and one non-STM).
The 22.3-megapixel Canon EOS 5D Mark III is Canon's top full-frame DSLR and a popular choice among professional photographers. For the majority of uses, there are few discernable differences in quality between it and the Nikon D810 below. If you plan on enlarging photographs to massive proportions, the difference between the 22.3 megapixels of the 5D Mark III and 36.3 megapixels of the D810 will become apparent at multiple feet wide. The 5D Mark III is faster both in frames-per-second (6 fps vs. 4 fps) and shutter lag. And if you prefer Canon functionality over Nikon, the Mark III is a great choice. Keep your eyes peeled for the new Canon 5Ds, which is rumored to feature a ridiculous 50.6-megapixel image sensor and a roughly $4,000 price tag.
The D810 is Nikon’s leading full-frame DSLR and a very impressive camera indeed. With the D810 you get the same powerful 36.3-megapixel full-frame image sensor as the older D800, but new is the lack of an antialiasing filter for better sharpness, an upgraded EXPEED 4 Image Processor, faster shooting at 5 frames-per-second instead of 4, and a longer battery life. The D800 is a quality full-frame DSLR in its own right, but the D810 is a worthy upgrade that quickly has become a favorite among top professionals. The cost is prohibitive to some, and you expect to spend a healthy amount more for FX lenses that measure up to the D810’s full-frame sensor. But purely from an image and video quality standpoint, this camera is the best of the best.
||Canon 5D Mark III
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|1080p Video||60 fps, 50 fps, 30 fps, 25 fps, 24 fps||30 fps, 25 fps, 24 fps||30 fps, 25 fps, 24 fps||30 fps, 25 fps, 24 fps||30 fps, 25 fps, 24 fps|
|Weight||31.1 oz.||33.5 oz.||26.5 oz.||26.8 oz.||29.1 oz.|
|Pros||14 more megapixels than the Canon 5D Mark III||Currently a great value with the impending release of the 5DS||A full-frame DSLR from Nikon at under $2,000||Very inexpensive for a Canon full-frame camera||An astonishing 50.6 megapixels of resolution|
|Cons||$500 more expensive too||Heavy and lags behind Nikon in resolution||Pricier than the Canon 6D||Only 11 cross-type focus points||Too expensive for most photographers and video is subpar|
DSLR Buying Advice
Here at Switchback Travel we praise sensor size over megapixels, which has a larger impact on image quality. You have two main image sensor sizes to choose from when buying a DSLR:
- Crop (Nikon “DX” or Canon “APS-C”): 24 x 16mm or slightly smaller
- Full frame: 36 x 24mm
Crop sensors are by far the most common, measuring approximately 24 x 16mm for Nikon’s DX cameras and 22.3 x 14.9mm for Canon’s APS-C. Full-frame cameras have considerably larger sensors that are roughly 36 x 24mm. The good news is that large sensors are a big reason that many people choose DSLRs in the first place. Even an APS-C sensor is capable of producing professional-grade images that can be enlarged and hung on your wall with pride. To step up to full frame, you’ll need to spend close to $1,500 for the camera body plus the cost of lenses. Professionals feel the extra cost is worth it, but most amateurs stick with crop sensor cameras.
Megapixels matter, but not nearly as much as marketers would lead you to believe. It’s the combination of megapixels and sensor size that plays an important part in determining resolution. Many newer entry-level and mid-range DSLRs offer megapixels counts around 24, including popular models like the Nikon D5500, D3300, and Canon T6S. Nikon’s last generation offered similar megapixel counts, but Canon made a jump from the T5i (18 megapixels) to the T6i and T6S (24.2 megapixels).
The truth is that megapixels should be merely one factor of many when making a camera buying decision. It’s worth noting when major jumps were made: the D3100 to the D3200, for example, or the Canon T5i to the T6i. But most crop sensor DSLRs are comparable in terms of megapixels and the small differences won’t make or break the quality of your photos.
At the top end of the DSLR spectrum, there is more megapixel variation. A big battle that continues today is the full-frame Nikon D810 (36.3 megapixels) vs. the Canon 5D Mark III (22.3), which represents a notable megapixel difference if you plan on enlarging photos for professional purposes. In 2015, Canon released the 5DS R, which boasts an incredible 50.6 megapixels. Those spreads matter much more than at the APS-C level.
With specs like megapixels and image sensor getting most of the attention, don’t overlook the importance of autofocus in your buying decision. Many cheaper digital SLRs cut costs with inferior autofocus, including the number of focus points and types of autofocus (phase detection and contrast detection). An extraordinarily inexpensive DSLR like the Canon Rebel T5 ($399) has merely 1 cross-type focus point, while the Canon EOS 7D Mark II has a whopping 65 cross-type focus points. That’s a staggering difference between two APS-C cameras from the same brand.
Unfortunately, there aren’t hard-and-fast rules as to what constitutes great autofocus, but you can start with the number and type of focus points. Multiple focus points help improve accuracy, so the more the better. In addition, Contrast Detection is slower than Phase Detection, and cross-type sensors are more accurate than simpler vertical line sensors. Understanding the full complexities of autofocus is worthy of a full article in itself, but generally you can expect the quality of the autofocus to correlate with the price of the camera. If a DSLR is an outlier to this rule, we will let you know in the write-ups above.
Video is all the rage in 2015. In terms of video resolution, 1080p is the standard with some high-end cameras now offering 4K. Generally, cheap DSLRs shoot inferior video compared to mid-range and high-end models. Factors to consider include the quality of the autofocus, size and type of the image sensor, video speeds that the camera offers, and the lens or lenses that you intend to use. The audio capabilities of DSLRs also vary significantly as do the outputs.
Over the years, Canon DSLRs have been known for producing the best video. Nikon has bridged the gap recently but the distinction lingers. For example, the entry-level Canon Rebel series is best in class in terms of video, and Canon has geared its kit lenses accordingly by adding STM (Stepping Motor) technology for smooth and silent focusing. In the enthusiast DSLR category, the Canon 7D Mark II shoots by far the best video with an extremely advanced autofocus that can challenge many professional full-frame cameras.
At the top end of the full-frame market, we are now seeing some divergence between video and still design. The new 50.6-megapixel Canon 5DS R camera bucks the hybrid trend without video-centric features like headphone sockets or an HDMI output. We understand the rationale: many dedicated videographers have cameras specifically for that purpose. It’s a good idea to have separate models with higher resolution sensors like the 5DS R that aren’t as good for video.
Built-in Wi-Fi is a nice perk available on most new DSLRs, allowing you to transfer and upload photos and video to your device or social media platform directly from the camera (some even offer light in-camera editing). The software and Wi-Fi platforms vary, and some are easier to use and less buggy than others, but we like the option of using Wi-Fi. One thing to keep in mind: using Wi-Fi to transfer photos all of the time can eventually take a toll on your camera’s processor. Don’t be afraid to use Wi-Fi, but if you have a cord handy and it’s convenient to transfer photos in that manner, doing so will help prolong the life of your camera.
Some enthusiast and full-frame DSLR cameras are weather sealed for added protection from the elements (you can see our full list of weather-sealed DSLRs here). Weather sealing varies by model and there aren’t universal standards, but the process involves adding rubber sealing and housing on the body and around the buttons to make the camera more resistant to moisture and dust (both can be an absolute killer to your electronics). Calling these cameras weatherproof or waterproof would be an exaggeration, but they certainly can handle tough conditions well and are popular among professionals who frequently are out in the field in inclement weather.
When choosing a digital SLR camera, you’re also choosing a family of lenses that may stay with you for an extended period of time. If you buy a Nikon or Canon DSLR and start acquiring specialty lenses, you may want to upgrade your camera every few years, but with proper care the lenses should last for decades.
Just as Canon cameras offer superior video, Nikon glass is preferred by a small majority of professional photographers that we know. However, both brands have extensive collections of crop and full-frame lenses including a wide range of zooms and primes. You can’t go wrong with either brand, but keep in mind that there are transaction costs associated with selling lenses and buying new ones. Many people start with one brand and stay with it both for convenience and cost effectiveness.
Some people are intimidated by the prospect of using a DSLR and instead stick with the camera on their phone or a fully automated point-and-shoot. These worries are unfounded: DSLRs across the spectrum from entry-level to full-frame have automatic shooting modes that can do most of the work for you. It’s true that they also have a number of advanced and manual features that can really make your photography shine.
Our advice is to read the manual when you first buy a DSLR and watch some of the short introductory videos on its functionality. Before taking a big trip where you really want great photographs, head out for a test shoot to experiment and look at your results. The good news is that you can always shoot with auto mode in a pinch, but it’s nice to have some fluency with things like shutter speed, ISO, and lens aperture. The process takes time, but with all of the available settings on today’s models, there is no reason to avoid taking the DSLR plunge.
What About Mirrorless Interchangeable-Lens Cameras?
This is a question that just about every photographer must ask in 2015. Mirrorless cameras have made inroads on the DSLR market—they forego the bulky internal mirror system of DSLRs for an all-digital design that is more compact. The camera and lens options still are limited compared to DSLRs but are expanding quickly, and Sony has released a very attractive line of full-frame mirrorless cameras including the a7 II and a7R.
DSLRs have the most extensive selection of lenses and decades of experience to back it up. Mirrorless cameras are more compact but the cost savings is debatable, particularly when you add mid-range and high-end lenses (all things considered, they could be more expensive than DSLRs). For personal use, we own mirrorless cameras and we own DSLRs. If you’re a top landscape professional looking to shave ounces, Sony’s a7 series is a great option. For most people, DSLRs still are an excellent choice.
Selecting a camera body is only the first step—you also want to choose the right lenses to match your budget and style of photography. Below are our guides to the best lenses for the DSLRs mentioned above:
Enthusiast or Prosumer DSLRs