Digital SLRs are a melting pot of modern and traditional technologies. Despite all the cutting-edge tech hidden within, their cosmetic design hasn’t changed dramatically since the days when film cameras ruled the roost, and the single lens reflex mechanism that gives SLR its name harks way back to 1884. It’s that delicate marriage of centuries-old engineering and the very latest digital technology which allows today’s SLRs capable to flatter even the most modest of photographic talents.
There’s a good reason why some things haven’t changed, though. The SLR mechanism might have its origins in the 1800s, but for those of us who still prefer viewfinders to digital displays, its ability to bounce light from the lens through a series of mirrors and direct into your eye still gives you the most direct view of the shot you’re about to take. SLRs also have decades of lens design to draw on, as they use the same lens mounts as film SLR cameras – even if you’ve been snapping photos since the days of film, you can get more out of your old SLR lenses with one of the latest models on the market.
Today’s SLRs have long since abandoned film in favour of digital sensors, but that’s not the only difference. They can record video, track moving subjects around the frame, communicate with other devices over Wi-Fi and much more besides. Meanwhile, the latest sensors go way beyond 35mm film for image quality.
Whether you have £400 or £4,000 to spend, our guide explains what features you need, and which ones you don’t, and pinpoints the best DSLRs you can buy – regardless of whether they’re the latest and greatest, or last year’s models which are now selling for a bargain price.
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How to pick your perfect digital SLR
There’s nothing much wrong with entry-level SLRs, but these are the various reasons why you might want to up your budget and splash out on one of the pricier models here.
Doesn’t spending more deliver better quality photos?
Not necessarily. There’s not much to separate a £400 from a £1,000 SLR for image quality. The big jump comes when you move from cropped-sensor to full-frame SLRs.
These terms describe the size of the sensor that captures the image. A cropped SLR sensor measures around 24x15mm, which is equivalent to 23 smartphone camera sensors arranged in a grid. In a nutshell, that’s why their image quality is so much better. Full frame sensors are around 36x24mm, which is 58 times bigger than a smartphone’s sensor. These cameras cost from around £1,300.
The choice of lens can make more of a difference than choosing between a cropped and full-frame sensor. Even if you can afford to go full-frame, you will often get better results by going for a cropped-sensor camera and having more to spend on lenses.
So why else should I spend more money?
There are other reasons why cropped-sensor SLRs range from £400 to £1,500, and full-frame SLRs vary from £1,300 to £5,000.
Pricier models have bigger viewfinders, which greatly enhances the overall experience of using the camera. Lots of buttons and dials make it quicker to adjust settings without taking your eye from the viewfinder. Pricier cameras tend to be physically bigger, which might not sound like an advantage but it means they’re more comfortable to hold and have room for longer-lasting batteries. Paying more also gives you faster performance and more sophisticated autofocus and video, which we’ll come onto below.
What cameras are best for landscape photography?
Landscape photography is relatively undemanding for the camera. A high megapixel rating is useful for big prints but a high quality lens is probably more important. 24 megapixels is more than enough for sharp A3 prints.
What cameras are best for portraits?
A blurred background can really flatter portrait shots. Full frame helps to achieve this, but a wide-aperture lens is a cheaper route to the same result. Go for both for the strongest effect. Having a camera with lots of autofocus points makes it easier to focus precisely on the subject’s eyes.
What cameras are best for sports and wildlife?
Fast-moving subjects really put an SLR through its paces. A fast burst speed and large buffer let you capture lots of shots, and sophisticated autofocus with subject tracking keeps moving subjects in focus. You’ll also need a telephoto lens — these start from around £250, but expect to pay at least £1,000 for one that matches the quality of a full-frame SLR.
What do I need if I want to shoot video?
All modern SLRs shoot video but some do a much better job than others. 1080p resolution is standard but some support 4K recording — a feature that’s well worth having. Autofocus performance varies widely: at best it’s smooth and responsive, at worst, like a bull in a china shop. An articulated touchscreen is extremely useful for video, letting you position the camera freely and move the autofocus point while recording.
The best DSLRs to buy
1. Nikon D3400: The best DSLR under £500
Price: £390 (with 18-55mm VR lens)
This keenly priced SLR delivers the goods where it counts and has a number of advantages over its main rival, the Canon EOS 1300D. It has a slightly bigger viewfinder, faster burst mode and longer battery life. Its 24-megapixel sensor captures more detail than the 1300D’s 18-megapixel sensor, and it also exhibits less image noise in low light. It beats the Canon for video quality, too, with crisper details in its 1080p footage and smoother autofocus.
As with any SLR at this price, there aren’t many single-function buttons and dials so various functions require a trip to the menu. Its flash is relatively weak and its Bluetooth transfers to iOS and Android devices could be more reliable. Otherwise, though, this is a great little all-rounder at a very attractive price. Make sure you get the VR version of the kit lens, which includes stabilisation to avoid blurry handheld shots.
2. Canon EOS 750D: The best DSLR under £700
Price: £650 (with 18-55mm IS STM lens)
This direct descendent of the first consumer digital SLR has built up a solid collection of features over the years. It has an articulated touchscreen backed up by a decent number of physical buttons and dials to ensure straightforward operation. There’s Wi-Fi built in, plus wireless control of off-camera flashguns.
Improvements over its predecessor, the 700D, include a new 24-megapixel imaging sensor and updated autofocus and metering sensors that work together to give subject-tracking autofocus. It performs much more efficiently when composing shots on the screen in live view mode, and video autofocus is smooth and reliable too. The relatively small 0.51x viewfinder is disappointing, though, and a good reason to consider spending more.
Also check out the Canon EOS 760D, which is mostly identical but adds a rear wheel, additional passive LCD screen to relay settings and a continuous autofocus option in live view mode.
3. Nikon D500: The best DSLR for sports and wildlife photography
Price when reviewed: £1,650 (body only)
The Nikon D500 costs more than some full-frame SLRs, but this cropped-sensor model is fast, feature-packed and ready for action. Its 153-point autofocus sensor almost fills the frame and excels at tracking fast-moving subjects. Burst shooting is at 10fps, and the buffer is good for 82 JPEGs or 34 RAW shots. There are masses of buttons, dials and sockets, a large articulated touchscreen and big viewfinder. Video is recorded at 1080p or 4K, and while video autofocus could be better, the D500 records relatively static subjects superbly.
Image quality is as good as we’ve seen from a cropped-sensor SLR, and not far behind full-frame quality. If you want fast performance and don’t want to shell out £5,000 on something like the Nikon D5, this is the camera to get.
4. Nikon D750: The best full-frame DSLR under £2,000
Price when reviewed: £1,600 (body only)
Full-frame SLRs are a step up from cropped-sensor models for image quality, and the Nikon D750 hits a homerun for features and value. There are cheaper full-frame SLRs such as the Nikon D610 and Canon EOS 6D but these models have relatively basic autofocus sensors. We believe it’s worth paying more for the D750. Its 51-point autofocus system not only has more points but they also cover a larger area, making it much easier to compose shots and track moving subjects. It also beats the D610 and EOS 6D for noise levels at fast ISO speeds.
The controls are very similar to the D610’s but that’s no bad thing, with quick access to key settings. The articulated screen is a bonus for video, which is generally well catered for although it’s limited to 1080p and autofocus is a little clunky.
For 4K from a full-frame SLR you’ll need to spend much more on the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV (see below). If video isn’t a huge priority, the D750 is a sublime camera at an extremely competitive price.
5. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV: The best full-frame DSLR under £4,000
Price when reviewed: £3,200 (body only)
Canon’s 5D series of cameras has a superb track record and the Mark IV is the best of the bunch. The big changes this time around are an upgraded 61-point autofocus sensor, 7fps continuous shooting and 4K video capture. Videos also benefit from Canon’s Dual Pixel technology for slick autofocus and a touchscreen to move the autofocus point while recording. The massive file sizes for 4K video are a pain, though. Image quality lives up to highest expectations, with its 30-megapixel photos exhibiting less noise than the 22-megapixel 5D Mark III. Dual Pixel also improves live view autofocus performance.
As with previous 5D models, the ergonomics are top notch, with elegant controls and lots of information overlaid onto the big viewfinder. The magnesium alloy body is weather-sealed and Wi-Fi and GPS are built in.
It’s certainly not cheap, but this is a camera that performs exceptionally well across the board.
The best DSLRs of last year: Last chance to buy
If you can’t afford the latest and greatest, or you’re looking to get a mid-range or high-end DSLR for a little less, then it’s well worth considering buying one of last year’s models. There are some fantastic deals to be had if you hunt around Amazon, eBay and all the usual online stores, and the money you save may be enough to allow you to budget for a spare lens – or simply to upgrade to a better all-round camera. Below you’ll find our pick of last year’s crop and links to our full reviews to help you make up your mind.
1. Nikon D3300: A brilliant budget DSLR that’s worth snapping up
Price when reviewed: £339 (with 18-55mm AF-P VR lens)
It’s been replaced by the Nikon D3400 (see above), but the D3300 is still available at a bargain price – it’s well worth keeping an eye on Amazon and eBay for bargains. Upgrades on the D3400 were relatively minor, especially as the D3300 is now being sold with the new AF-P version of the kit lens, which gives smoother autofocus for video. The D3300 also includes a microphone socket (absent from the D3400) and a more powerful flash.
Otherwise it’s relatively low on bells and whistles, but this is a solid little performer with excellent image and video quality and a decent turn of speed. The control system could be better but most key functions are quick to access.
Overall, this is a superb choice for anyone on a tight budget. Put the money you saved towards a prime lens such as the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 (£159 from Amazon), which captures four times as much as the kit lens and delivers a big boost to image quality.
2. Canon EOS 70D: A stunning mid-range DSLR for the money
Price when reviewed: £699 (with 18-55mm IS STM lens)
When the Canon EOS 80D showed up in 2016 we weren’t exactly bowled over. The problem wasn’t so much that there was anything wrong with the 80D, but rather that it only made small improvements over the already-brilliant EOS 70D.
The 70D is no longer listed on Canon’s website but it’s still available at some retailers at extremely competitive prices. It’s a big step up from the Canon EOS 750D and 760D (see above), with a bigger viewfinder, more buttons and dials, bigger battery and faster 7fps burst mode, plus Canon’s Dual Pixel technology that delivers responsive, reliable autofocus for live view and video capture.
It’s beginning to show its age for noise levels at fast ISO speeds, but otherwise this is a superb all-rounder and a bargain at current prices.