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 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 T5i below is around $750. The T5i has a flip-out touchscreen and the D3300 does not, but for our money we will take more megapixels (24.2 vs. 18) and a lower price tag. 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 T5i 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. Unfortunately the T6i has had sensor issues off the bat and Canon issued an official product advisory offering to make any necessary fixes. We’ve seen sensor issues in the past with other new DSLR models, and hopefully only the first wave of cameras is affected.
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 $450 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||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|
|Weight||15.1 oz.||20.5 oz.||14.4 oz.||14.8 oz.||16.9 oz.|
|Pros||A great value at around $500 with a kit lens||One of the best entry-level DSLRs on the market for video||Small form factor and bargain basement price||Feature packed and relatively lightweight||Similar image quality as the D5500|
|Cons||No flip-out screen for video||Fewer megapixels than its Nikon competitors||Fewer features than the T5i and T6i||Pricey||No touch screen functionality on the rear LCD|
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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|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|
What About Mirrorless Interchangeable-Lens Cameras?
This is a question that just about every photographer must ask in 2015. Mirrorless interchangeable-lens 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.
Choosing Lenses for Your DSLR
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