Many people looking for a dedicated camera see the hype surrounding mirrorless systems and wonder if a single-lens DSLR is still worth it in 2023. And the answer is: absolutely! While camera technology is going mirrorless, there are still plenty of amazing DSLR cameras out there that you shouldn’t overlook.
Whether you don’t have the budget to go mirrorless, prefer an optical viewfinder to an electronic one, or don’t want to change your collection of DSLR lenses (or buy adapters for them), it’s still well worth buying one.
DSLR cameras still have the advantage of longer battery life than mirrorless, and the later models can shoot stunning videos that are almost on par with mirrorless cameras. Buying a DSLR means you get the benefit of a larger used market and a variety of brand name and third-party lens options to choose from.
What should I look for in a DSLR?
There are a few things to consider when buying your first (or fifth) camera. What is your skill level? What are you looking to do with this camera: photos, videos, or both? What is your budget? Are ergonomics and the way the camera feels in your hand important to you? Do you already have experience using a particular camera system and are you willing to switch to another if you find a better fit?
Mirrorless vs DSLR: What’s the Difference?
In DSLR cameras and early film SLR cameras, a mirror inside the camera body reflects light entering through the lens to a prism to create the image seen through the camera’s viewfinder. When the shutter button is fully depressed, a mechanism reverses that moves the mirror up and out so that light can hit the camera’s image sensor and record a digital image. In film cameras, light similarly strikes and exposes a piece of 35mm film to record the image.
Mirrorless cameras remove the mirror and mechanism, leaving only the sensor. Viewfinders on mirrorless cameras are actually small screens that project whatever hits the sensor into the eye, which is why they’re called electronic viewfinders (EVFs), while those on DSLRs are optical viewfinders.
This design has several advantages: faster shutter speeds are achieved with electronic shutters, lenses with a larger f-stop can be made because the distance between the lens and the sensor is shorter allowing more light in, and autofocus systems without a video mirror are more advanced.
There are some issues that mirrorless cameras are still solving. One of the main ones is battery life, since mirrorless cameras are essentially always in live view mode and always transmitting an image, they use more power and drain their batteries faster. However, leaps and bounds have been made in this area, and professional mirrorless cameras these days have improved battery life.
As a freelance photographer, I have been shooting with DSLR cameras for the past six years, starting with an APS-C camera and eventually upgrading to a full frame. I shot from the Canon 5DMkIV with my primary camera, a Nikon D750 camera. So while I haven’t gotten my hands on every camera on this list, that experience has informed me of what I think makes a good DSLR camera and what makes a good balance between cost and function.
The DSLRs selected here strike a good balance between price and performance for their category. There are beginner options for under $1K and professional cameras for more than twice that What you get depends on your personal preference, what you can afford, and what is the best tool for the job you are going to do.
Best DSLR Cameras
For beginners looking to get into photography, this can be a challenging question. Stats sheets may sound impressive, but they may not tell you much about the actual performance of the camera you’re holding. And frankly, you may not need the most powerful, most impressive-sounding camera you can buy.
When I bought my first camera, I did a lot of research before making a decision. I read reviews, talked to professional photographers I know, and compared spec sheets. While it’s helpful to know what you’re getting into, don’t spend too much time thinking about it. As one photographer told me, the difference between Nikon and Canon is like Honda and Toyota; Whatever you choose you will get a good product.
Where you buy your gear is also important, especially if you buy it used, which can save you a ton of money if done right. Big retailers like MPB and KEH are popular options for used equipment and will even give you some cash for your old stuff. Local and chain camera stores often sell used equipment as well.
Even if you do some proper research on their seller, eBay can be a good place to find a deal, but the other options listed here require less work: Many camera stores have eBay stores. I bought through Facebook Marketplace once, and the transaction wasn’t the best, so I’d avoid it now and recommend more legitimate options instead.
Best Overall DSLR Camera: Nikon D850
• Super high resolution
• High burst rate for fast shooting scenes like animals/sports
• Weather-sealed and rigidly constructed
• Wide variety of professional lenses
• Not the best for recording video
If you’re looking for a monster of a DSLR that can handle any shooting situation you can imagine, this is it. Nikon’s successor to the popular D810 has a powerful 45-megapixel sensor, a rugged, weather-sealed magnesium body, and is compatible with a variety of name-brand and third-party lenses.
Released in 2017, the D850 is a few years old at this point, but it still produces great images. Its ISO drops down to 64 for impressive dynamic range, allowing for clean images with plenty of room for editing when shooting RAW. According to DP Review, it’s Nikon’s fastest-shooting DSLR, so sports and wildlife photographers will really love it.
The D850’s high resolution makes it ideal for portraits both in the studio and on location. It has the same large, bright optical viewfinder as the D810, a bonus for any kind of shooting.
Even if you’re just starting out or plan to take your camera on the occasional vacation, this camera is worth the investment if you have a little extra cash, especially if you buy it secondhand. While the body will set you back about $2,500 new, it’s about $1,800 used from a reputable dealer.
Other DSLRs like the D750, D780, or Canon 6D might be better for occasional use or if you want to learn about camera bodies with full-size 35mm-equivalent sensors and don’t want to spend too much. The D850 isn’t the most advanced video option Nikon has (we’ll cover that later), though it still shoots fantastic-looking 4K images.
Best DSLR Camera for Beginners: Nikon D5600
• Great value for money
• Simple controls and an easy start make learning easy
• Great image quality
• Will not give you the dynamic range of a full-frame sensor
• It doesn’t have as many features as its full-frame counterparts
While many people recommend starting with a less expensive full-frame camera if you can swing it, there are some great options on the crop sensor market as well.
That’s because cameras with full-size 35mm-equivalent, or full-frame, sensors are what professionals use — they can capture more information for a richer RAW file, allowing for more editing flexibility. However, crop sensor cameras, also called APS-C cameras, still deliver very solid RAW files, even if they don’t do well in terms of resolution and low-light handling. Case in point: the Nikon D5000 series.
The D5600 is the latest iteration of Nikon’s advanced entry-level APS-C camera. Costing around $800 for the kit body and lens, this camera also has a drop-down screen, perfect for learning the basics of photography and video on a DSLR. Smaller and lighter than a full frame, Nikon’s DX lineup still has plenty of great lenses you can put on this camera for quality photos.
This camera comes with a respectable 24.4 megapixel, which is about the same as a full-frame camera like the D750. It records 1080p Full HD video, has Bluetooth connectivity, and works with Nikon’s SnapBridge app for remote shooting and wireless image transfer.
It’s cheaper if you go for renovations. I started with Nikon’s 3000 crop sensor line with a D3300 before moving to full frame myself, and I don’t regret it one bit. And just $100 more for a starter kit with the 5600 camera body and a basic zoom lens.
It’s a camera that can take decent pictures in a relatively short time and get started. A great option to learn and support yourself until someone upgrades to a more professional team.
Best Value DSLR Camera: Canon 5D MK IV
• Good price for entry-level frame complete with relatively modern technology
• Tilt and tilt LCD screen
• Improved processing speed from 6D
• Image quality is good enough for professional work
• I can’t shoot fast enough for things like sports and wildlife.
The 5D Mk IV is the latest and final entry in Canon’s flagship DSLR line. Released in 2016, it was a monster camera and remains a workhorse for many professional photographers today. Capable of high-resolution photos and videos and modern touches like a touch-to-focus LCD touch screen, this camera represents some of the best of Canon DSLR technology beyond its top-tier 1D lineup.
For just $1,600 for the body (at least according to a refreshed listing), you can get a camera that actually delivers professional results for about half of what it cost when it was released. Pair this with Canon’s line of L lenses and you have a camera that will last you years without breaking a ridiculous amount of money.
The 30-megapixel sensor combined with the Canon lens will allow you to get professional-looking images to easily hand out to clients, share on social media, or create decent-sized prints. For video, this camera records 1080p HD with Canon’s powerful video codec, more than enough for something like YouTube or if you’re just learning to shoot video. If you’re taking selfies or recording video footage, you can control it wireless via Canon’s Camera Connect app.
This camera can shoot still images at up to seven frames per second, which is fast enough for travel photography, portraits, and most events. However, if you want to shoot sports or wildlife, you’ll want to invest in something fast. Overall, this is a camera that people have made a career out of, and it’s a great way to learn full frame professionally at a low cost.
Best DSLR Camera for Video: Nikon D780
• Image resolution is good enough for professional work
• Same autofocus system as the Z6
• 4K video without cropping
• Excellent value for the set of features
• Eye Detection AF in Live View mode
• Not as powerful as higher-tier offerings like the D5
Nikon’s D780 is the follow-up to the company’s long-awaited D750, a camera that many professional photographers consider a versatile and reliable workhorse. Released in 2020, this is the newest DSLR on this list.
The D780 offers everything people love about the D750 with some notable improvements. On the video front, it has the same autofocus system as Nikon’s Z6 mirrorless camera while in Live View mode. That means eye and face tracking, as well as some of the best Live View autofocus you’ll find in a DSLR – it’s basically a Z6 with an optical viewfinder. If you’re a portrait photographer looking for your first serious DSLR, it’s worth checking out.
The D780 can switch between still and video shooting with almost zero buffering, making it ideal for hybrid photographers who need to switch modes on the fly. For example, wedding photographers will get a lot out of this camera. It records 4K videos without cropping the image.
Add to that a durable, weather-sealed body and this camera could easily be your new all-rounder, and not just for video. For a full technical breakdown of how it fares against Canon’s 5D Mk IV and the mirrorless Sony A7III, check out this video from The Slanted Lens.
Best DSLR Camera for Travel: Canon 6D Mk II
• Compact and easy to carry a DSLR
• Good picture, decent video
• Easy to use
• Slow autofocus, especially for full frame
• Not the best video codec
The price balance, compact design, and features of this camera make it not only a great budget camera but also a good travel camera. Easy to pack but with enough power to produce fairly data-rich RAW files, the 6D II makes perfect sense to take on your next trip.
It’s a camera you can put a 35mm lens on, set it to auto, and shoot your heart out even if you don’t yet know the finer points of DSLR shooting. The video codec isn’t quite as good as other Canon DSLRs like the 5D series, but it’s an attainable full frame for those who might otherwise be left out of the market.
A word of caution: this camera’s autofocus is quite slow and all autofocus points are in the center of the frame. For fast shooting or trying to focus on something at the edge of your frame, this can be cumbersome.
If you can afford it, you can get something like the Canon 5D MkIV It’s bigger than the 6D II but has more features, better autofocus, and takes better HD video.
And that will end the list of best DSLR cameras. If you need a good mirrorless camera option, or you just don’t want to take the plunge, there are plenty of great cameras to choose from. I myself still shoot with a D750 DSLR.
Bottom line: The best camera for you is the one that best suits your needs and style of photography. If you’re completely new to photography, you’ll be fine with something of reasonable quality that’s fun to learn.
Know your budget, and why you’re buying a camera, and do your homework within those parameters. If you can, hire your two best options and try them first. Then get the one that makes the most sense to you, not everyone tells you to buy.