Today’s mirrorless cameras now offer an unrivalled combination of size, image quality and features, but there are still lots of good reasons to invest in a DSLR.
For a start, DSLRs have been around much longer than their mirrorless cousins, which means they have a wider selection of lenses and accessories to choose from. And of course, DSLRs come with an optical viewfinder that presents a pin-sharp, clear and immediate view of what the camera is looking at, plus much longer battery lives as a result.
Whether you’re looking to start taking photography more seriously or just upgrade from your current DSLR, these are the best ones you can currently buy.
All of the best DSLRs in this roundup support Raw capture for home processing, as well as JPEGs processed in-camera for immediate sharing. They also offer the traditional PASM (that’s Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual) quartet of manual and semi-manual exposure modes, which are usually backed up by a range of automatic point-and-shoot modes (professional full-frame models aside).
The best top of the range DSLR right now is the Nikon D850. This high-end, full-frame DSLR for professional photographers combines speedy performance with impressive low-light powers in a robust, weather-sealed body. If you’re on a tighter budget, the best entry level DSLR around is the Nikon D3500.
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Best DSLR buying guide – The different types
Entry-level DSLRs are the gateway for new DSLR owners. While they lack the advanced feature sets and robust build quality of more expensive models, they’re a great way to get into DSLR photography. Canon, Nikon and Pentax all produce fine examples of entry-level DSLRs, with the pick of the bunch being the Nikon D3500.
Mid-range DSLRs can be seen as a step-up camera for those who have outgrown their entry-level model, but can also serve as an entry-point for those with a little more money to spend. You can expect to get a few more features, such as a tilting or vari-angle LCD panel, or even a touchscreen. Construction still tends to be fairly lightweight, with polycarbonate housings dominating. A great example of a mid-range DSLR equipped with an APS-C size sensor is the Pentax K-70.
Enthusiast DSLRs are where you begin to see more advanced metering and autofocus systems, accompanied by dual control wheels and a greater number of physical buttons. In addition, construction tends to be more robust, with the introduction of protective metal cages beneath the polycarbonate exterior.
Advanced enthusiast DSLRs take the enthusiast DSLR template a step further. Cameras in this segment use APS-C sensors, rather than full-frame, but they tend to be the flagship models for each manufacturer. As such, they’re generally richly featured and highly capable. The Nikon D500 stands out as a fine example.
Enthusiast full-frame DSLRs have been around since the introduction of the original Canon EOS 5D in 2005. At the time of its launch, the 5D cost around £2,500. Today, the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV costs £2,799. Many camera manufacturers have realised that there should be more affordable offerings in their ranges to encourage a greater number of photographers to full-frame. The Canon EOS 6D Mark II (£1,728) is a great example.
As the name suggests, Professional DSLRs are designed for pros who make a living from their photography. They’re also the pick of those who want the very best that money can buy. Typically, Professional DSLRs cost upward of £2,000, with some of the finest pro-spec DSLRs such as the Nikon D850 costing £3,499 (body only).
The good news for anyone looking to invest in their first DSLR, or upgrade an existing one, is that the choice is wider than ever before. Most of the major manufacturers offer models at all price points and ability levels. With that in mind, we’ve gathered eight of the best DSLRs currently on the market from Canon, Nikon and Pentax. The selection includes easy-to-use entry-level models to advanced professional-spec models and everything in-between.
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1. Nikon D850
- Sensor resolves exceptionally fine detail
- Super-fast autofocus and silent shooting in Live View
- Inherits AF toggle from D500 for fast AF point positioning
- Impressive battery life with EN-EL15a battery
- Lacks on-chip phase detection AF in Live View
- Touchscreen doesn’t allow users to adjust key exposure settings
- SnapBridge connectivity requires improvement
By far the most recent model in this roundup, the Nikon D850 is a high-end full-frame DSLR designed for professional photographers. It combines high-resolution, speedy performance and impressive low-light performance in a robust, weather-sealed body.
The D850 succeeds the 36.3-megapixel D810 released in 2014, bringing numerous improvements to what was already an excellent DSLR in it own right. In terms of hardware, the highlight is the 45.7-megapixel sensor, which brings the D850 into line with direct competitors such as the Canon 5DS (50.6 megapixels) and Sony A7R II (42 megapixels).
For those who either don’t require the D850’s full 45.7 megapixels for a particular shot or just want to save memory card space, there’s also the option to shoot at either 25.6 megapixels or 11.4 megapixels.
The D850’s new high-resolution sensor is paired with a powerful EXPEED 5 processor, as used by both the D500 and flagship D5 models. This combination gives the D850 plenty of processing power, and ensures noise is kept to a minimum when using higher sensitivity settings. Continuous shooting maxes out at 7fps, although connecting the D850’s optional MB-D18 battery grip (£369) and EN-EL18b (£179) battery increases this to 9fps.
The D850’s 153-point Multi-CAM 20K autofocus system has also been lifted directly from the D500 and D5. It’s a proven AF module that’s both fast and accurate, thanks in part to the inclusion of 99 cross-type AF points.
The central AF point is sensitive down to -4EV, which should ensure accurate focus, even when light is in short supply. Elsewhere, the D850 also becomes the first Nikon DSLR to support 4K video capture at up to 30fps, with separate microphone and headphone inputs located on the side of the camera.
Construction is – as you’d expect of a £3500 pro-spec DSLR – pretty much bombproof, with the D850 securely housed inside a weather-sealed magnesium alloy body. Buttons and controls are plentiful, as are customisation options. The back of the camera is fitted with a 3.2-inch, 2.36m-dot tiltable touchscreen, and above this the 100% viewfinder is described by Nikon as the largest the company has ever made.
2. Nikon D3500
- Great value for money
- Good quality kit lens
- Excellent image quality
- Quick and silent autofocus
- Video is only HD rather than 4K
- Big compared to a mirrorless camera
It’s a close call between this and Canon’s 250D (below) for the title of ‘best learner DSLR’, but if value for money is paramount the Nikon D3500 is the best around right now.
It might lack the 250D’s swivelling touchscreen, instead offering a fixed 921k-dot display, but the D3500 is otherwise very capable for the price. It has a 24-megapixel APS-C sensor, which is complemented by an impressive 18-55mm AF-P kit lens that is sharp and consistent across its focal range.
The D3500’s 100-25,600 ISO range means it’s pretty capable in low light, while its ability to rattle off 5fps in continuous shooting means it can keep up with fast-moving objects like kids, even if it’s a little short of being a sports camera.
You might only be able to shoot video in HD rather than 4K, but Nikon’s new stepper motor autofocus improves on most contrast autofocus systems and works well in live view. And as usual, Nikon’s 24-megapixel APS-C sensor delivers good image quality too, with realistic colours in both indoor and outdoor situations.
Perhaps the Nikon D3500’s biggest advantage compared to mirrorless cameras, though, is its superb 1,550-shot battery life, which is about five times more than a similarly priced mirrorless rival.
Naturally, it’s quite a bit chunkier than a mirrorless camera, but those with photography L-plates might prefer the extra grip and balance of a DSLR. The D3500’s kit lens also handily retracts, which makes it a little easier to carry around.
Mirrorless cameras like the similarly-priced Panasonic GX80 may offer even better autofocus and video performance, but the Nikon D3500 remains a very solid and excellent value option for those looking to take their first steps into photography.
3. Pentax K-1 Mark II
- Excellent image quality with superb resolution and dynamic range
- High features-to-price ratio
- Great controls
- Weather-sealed body
- In-body image stabilisation
- Heavy and bulky
- Slow to wake up
- Screen not touch-sensitive
- Sluggish live view autofocus
Pentax has long lagged behind Nikon and Canon in terms of sales, despite making excellent cameras and high-quality optics. Part of the problem for Pentax was that up until 18 months ago, the company didn’t actually make a full-frame DSLR. The release of the Pentax K-1 in 2016 finally redressed this, giving existing Pentax APS-C DSLR owners a viable full-frame upgrade path. Now, several years later, we’ve got an upgrade from the original, in the shape of the K1 Mark II.
Like its predecessor, it features a 36-megapixel full-frame sensor, a rugged, weatherproof design and in-built image stabilisation. Upgrades are definitely on the incremental side, but you gain extended high-ISO shooting, a hand-held version of the interesting ‘pixel-shift’ mode and the promise of faster autofocus.
Although these days, a high-resolution sensor is a bit more de-rigeur, for the price of the camera, it can still be considered pretty good value for money. If you’re not brand loyal towards one of the bigger brands, like Canon or Nikon, then going towards Pentax sees you get quite a considerable amount of features for your outlay.
Image quality is excellent, while its controls are sensible and will be appreciated by enthusiasts. It’s ideal for landscape photographers – or those who shoot relatively placid subjects, and certainly one to consider if you’re even a little bit old-school leaning.
4. Canon EOS 250D
- Good image quality
- Fully articulating touchscreen
- Small and light for a DSLR
- 4K video recording (with a crop)
- Limited 9-point autofocus through viewfinder
- Kit lens isn’t the best
The Canon 250D is a small, lightweight DSLRs for beginners. It’s a relatively modest upgrade on its predecessor, the 200D, with new features including 4K video, improved Live View autofocus and a boosted battery life. This means the 200D remains a decent option, if you don’t need those features.
While mirrorless cameras like the Canon EOS M50 and Fujifilm X-T100 offer more features at this price, the Canon 250D brings traditional DSLR strengths (good handling, long battery life, a huge selection of lenses) and crams them into a relatively compact form factor that means it can be used one-handed.
Given this petite size, it’s also a pleasant surprise to find a 3-inch, vari-angle touchscreen, which is handy for both composing from awkward angles and vlogging. This screen’s resolution might not be cutting edge, but it does also fold inwards, which helps protect it from scratches if you want to chuck it in a holiday rucksack.
Image quality is pretty good in most situations, with bright and punchy colours and Canon’s metering system serving up reliably balanced exposures. While that vari-angle screen is handy for vlogging, it’s worth knowing that the 250D’s 4K video is cropped – which means you’ll likely want to shoot in Full HD much of the time.
Still, the Canon 250D is a well-rounded DSLR that’s a good choice for anyone looking to take their first steps in photography. It’s not quite as much of a bargain as the Nikon D3500 or D5600, and you may find the Canon 200D offers better value, but with Dual Pixel AF, a 3-inch tilting touchscreen and the option of 4K video, you’ll certainly be happy if this is your ultimate choice.
5. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
- Full-frame sensor
- Touchscreen is useful
- Solid 4K video recording
- Built-in Wi-Fi
- Frame rate isn’t particularly high
The original Canon 5D, launched in 2005, was the first ‘affordable’ full-frame DSLR. Since then the 5D range has undergone several revisions, with the 5D Mark IV being the latest in the line. Released towards the end of 2016, the 5D Mark IV sticks to the tried-and-tested 5D template of being richly featured and highly customisable, while also introducing a raft of hardware and performance upgrades along with some all-new technology not previously seen in a Canon DSLR.
Whereas the 5D Mark III came equipped with a 22.3-megapixel full-frame sensor, the Mark IV bumps resolution up to 30.4 megapixels. Native sensitivity has also been increased and now ranges from ISO 100-32,000, complete with expanded settings of ISO 50-102,400.
The 5D Mark IV’s new sensor further benefits from Canon’s Dual-Pixel AF technology, and is complemented by not one but two image processors: a DIGIC 6 chip for metering duties and a DIGIC 6+ chip for high-speed image processing. While the number of AF points available through the viewfinder remains at 61, they now cover a greater area of the viewfinder and are sensitive down to -3EV.
All-new technology from Canon comes in the shape of Dual-Pixel Raw. This new feature utilises the split-pixel design of Canon’s Dual-Pixel AF tech in order to capture two images with slightly different points of view. This enables users to fine-tune the point of maximum sharpness after an image has been captured using Canon’s Digital Photo Professional software.
In terms of video, the Mark IV is also the first 5D model to support 4K video capture. And while the 3.2-inch, 1.62m-dot LCD is fixed in place (to help with the camera’s overall weather-sealing rating), it now offers touchscreen functionality. This can be used for selecting the active AF point to changing key settings in the in-camera menu.
The only issue is that Canon has since released the Canon EOS R, which is effectively a mirrorless version of the 5D Mark IV. It’s more portable than the latter, but lacks the twin card slots and AF joystick – so if these are important to you, the 5D Mark IV remains a good choice.
6. Nikon D500
- 100% optical viewfinder
- Tilting screen
- Enthusiast-centric controls
- Dual memory card slots
- APS-C format sensor
- Screen not articulating
Released in 2016, the D500 is Nikon’s current flagship APS-C DSLR. As such, it sits directly above the more recent D7500, which actually borrows a number of its more expensive sibling’s core specifications and features. These include the same 20.9-megapixel sensor, EXPEED 5 image processor and 4K movie abilities.
There are quite a few differences between the two, however. Despite being slightly older, the D500 has the edge over the D7500 in several departments, most notably in terms of its more advanced autofocus system (153 AF-points vs 51 AF-points), higher continuous shooting speed (10fps vs 8fps) and superior buffer performance.
In addition, the D500 also gets a higher-resolution rear LCD (2.36m-dots vs 922k-dots), a dedicated AF-point positioning joystick and two SD memory card slots to the D7500’s single slot. Physically, the D500 is larger and heavier than the D7500 and slightly more robust in its construction too. For all these extra features and enhancements, you can expect to pay around £500 more for the D500.
One of the most impressive features of the D500 is its 153-point autofocus system. This is spread out across the entire viewfinder and includes 99 cross-type sensors. Tracking abilities are excellent, too, making this a great camera for wildlife and sports photographers. The D500’s APS-C sensor helps out here too, since its inherent 1.5x crop-factor has the effect of giving full-frame telephoto lenses even more reach when mounted on the D500.
Elsewhere, the D500 comes with an 100% optical viewfinder that’s impressively large, while below this an impressively sharp 3-inch, 2.36m-dot tiltable LCD offers touchscreen control over the camera.
Video enthusiasts are well catered for too, with the D500 able to record 4K footage as well as 1080p Full HD at up to 60fps. Image quality, as you’d expect is excellent.
Overall, the D500 serves as a timely reminder that while full-frame might be desirable, there remains a place for APS-C cameras – especially for those who value shooting action sequences continuously at high speed. As such, it’s an ideal DSLR for wildlife, sports and action photographers.
7. Nikon D7500
- Great handling and controls
- Excellent image quality up to high ISOs
- Tilting screen very useful
- Sluggish Live View autofocus
- Only one SD card slot
Looking for a capable APS-C DSLR to help fine-tune your photography skills, but can’t quite stretch to the Nikon D500 (see above)? The D7500 is a fine alternative, particularly as it can now be found for around £900 (body only), around £400 less than its original asking price in 2017.
Its 20.9-megapixel sensor can handle most photographic situations, producing very good image quality at low ISO settings and controlling noise well up to around ISO 6400. Out-of-camera JPEGs are impressive, while the 3.2-inch 922k dot LCD screen handily tilts up and down, a feature that you don’t get on all DSLRs.
Shoot through the viewfinder, and you’ll find autofocus is speedy and decisive, even in low light situations. The only real downsides are that autofocus when using Live View on the LCD is considerably slower, which means it isn’t the best camera for video (a camera like the Sony A6400 is stronger here).
It’s fair to say that mirrorless rivals like the Sony A6400 and the Fujifilm X-T3 are strong alternatives at the D7500’s price point too. But if you already have some Nikon DX lenses, or prefer the optical viewfinders and superior battery lives of DSLRs, then the Nikon D7500 is still a strong choice at today’s lower price.
8. Canon EOS 80D
- Very solid, weatherproof construction
- Fast autofocus system
- Excellent image quality
- No 4K video capture
- Larger than mirrorless rivals
Its price might not have dropped hugely from its original £999 tag in 2016, but the Canon 80D is still an excellent step-up DSLR for hobbyist photographers.
Whereas Canon’s triple-digit DSLRs are primarily targeted at new and novice users, double-digit models such as the EOS 80D are pitched more towards enthusiasts and those looking to take a step up from one of the more basic models.
As such, the 80D comes with an expanded feature set, greater customisation options and more durable construction than its triple-digit stablemates. In terms of positioning, it sits above the more recent 77D but below the sports and action-orientated 7D Mark II.
The 80D is built around a 24.2-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor and Canon’s DIGIC 6 image processor. While the DIGIC 6 has given way to the DIGIC 8 chip in more recent Canon DSLR models, the 80D performs well with a maximum continuous shooting speed of 7fps.
Sensitivity, meanwhile, ranges from ISO 100-16,000, with an extended setting of ISO 25,600. While 4K movie recording isn’t supported, the 80D does provide 1080p Full HD recording at up to 60fps. An external microphone jack is present on the side of the camera, alongside a headphone jack for real-time audio monitoring, which means it’s a decent choice for vlogging too (aside from its considerable bulk compared to mirrorless alternatives like the Canon EOS M50).
Used through the viewfinder, the 80D employs a 45-point phase-detection AF module, which is a significant improvement over the 19-point system of the 70D. Better still, all AF points are of the cross-type variety, which means they’re equally as responsive, regardless of whether the camera is being held in landscape or portrait orientation. Switching to Live View, the 80D also benefits from Canon’s innovative Dual-Pixel AF technology.
In terms of construction, the 80D is protected by a magnesium alloy chassis encased by a polycarbonate shell, which gives it a solid, weighty feel in the hand. The body is sealed against dust and moisture, allowing it to be used in inclement weather with a higher degree of confidence, while the pentaprism viewfinder offers 100% frame coverage. Below that is a 3-inch, 1.04m-dot vari-angle LCD with handy touchscreen functionality.
9. Pentax K-70
- Effective in-body image stabilisation that works with every lens
- Large, bright viewfinder is the best in class
- Good contingent of external controls makes it easy to change settings
- Relatively slow and clunky live view
- In-camera JPEG processing needs a lot of tweaking for the best results
- LCD screen isn’t touch sensitive
While Pentax lags some way behind the “big two” of Nikon and Canon in terms of DSLR sales, there’s no doubting the quality of its cameras – or, indeed, the unbeatable value-for-money proposition they offer.
In fact, the Pentax K-70 is a textbook example of how Pentax DSLRs tend to offer more for less compared to their rivals. It’s a generously featured DSLR that actually offers some key advantages over its rivals in the mid-range DSLR segment.
Chief among these is the K-70’s weather-resistant construction, which allows it to be used in inclement weather. Similarly priced DSLRs from Nikon or Canon would prefer to be kept dry.
In addition, the K-70 – in keeping with virtually all Pentax DSLRs – benefits from built-in image stabilisation in the form of Pentax’s “Shake Reduction” technology. This gives you up to 4.5 stops of shutter speed compensation, regardless of the lens you have attached. It also means that buying lenses for the K-70 will generally be cheaper than for equivalent Nikon or Canon DSLRs.
Note that while there aren’t as many lenses to choose from, Pentax optics are of excellent quality. Nearly all third-party lens manufacturers offer their products with a Pentax K-mount too, so you won’t lose out in that respect either.
At its core, the K-70 is built around a 24.2-megapixel APS-C sensor that’s had its optical low-pass filter removed for enhanced resolution of fine detail, and Pentax’s latest PRIME MII image processor that comes with a new accelerator circuit for extra speed. This combination enables to K-70 to top its class in a number of areas.
Native sensitivity, for example, ranges from ISO 100 to 102,400. By comparison the Canon 800D offers a top (extended) setting of ISO 51,200 while the Nikon D5600 has a top setting of ISO 25,600. Likewise, the K-70 has a top shutter speed of 1/6000sec, whereas both the 800D and D5600 max out at 1/4000sec.
Another notable area where the K-70 outshines its rivals is with the inclusion of a pentaprism viewfinder that provides 100% coverage. In contrast, both the 800D and D5600 get cheaper pentamirror viewfinders with 95% coverage.
The only area where the K-70 struggles to keep up with it nearest rivals are with its 11-point AF system (the 800D provides 45 AF points, while the D5600 provides 39). Video, too, is a little underpowered with a top quality setting of 1080p Full HD at 30fps.
In all other respects, the K-70 is more than a match for its big-name rivals.
- Read our Pentax K-70 review
DSLR camera jargon explained
APS-C vs Full-frame: Whereas all professional DSLRs come equipped with full-frame sensors that measure 36 x 24mm, most enthusiast and all mid-range and entry-level DSLRs are equipped with APS-C sensors that are slightly smaller at 23.7 x 15.6mm (or 22.2 x 14.8mm on Canon DSLRs). Both are capable of exceptional image quality, but professionals tend to prefer using cameras with full-frame sensors. That said, if you regularly shoot wildlife at a distance then it can pay to use an APS-C DSLR with a full-frame lens attached; the resulting crop factor will give extra telephoto reach.
PASM: All DSLRs provide the standard exposure mode quartet of Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority and Manual modes. These are usually denoted on the camera’s mode dial by the letters P, A, S and M. The only slight departure from this is that Canon cameras indicate Aperture-priority as Av (Aperture value) on the mode dial, while Shutter-priority is written as Tv (Time value).
Sensitivity: In the pre-digital days, all film used to come with a sensitivity rating. This indicated how sensitive to light it was: the higher the number, the more sensitive it was. In digital photography, sensitivity is controlled by the sensor and expressed as an ISO number. Again, the higher this is, the more sensitive the sensor will be to light. The main thing to bear in mind is that while higher ISO settings enable you to shoot in dimmer conditions, or at a higher shutter speed, they also increase the degree of noise that appears in your images.
Pentaprism vs Pentamirror viewfinder: As far as DSLRs go, there are two main types of viewfinder design: pentaprism and pentamirror. Pentaprism viewfinders are constructed from a single piece of glass, whereas pentamirror viewfinders are constructed from several pieces assembled together. In terms of quality and performance, pentaprism types are more desirable since they tend to produce a much brighter image than their pentamirror cousins.
Dual-Pixel AF: Introduced with the EOS 70D in 2013, Dual-Pixel AF is the name given to Canon’s proprietary on-sensor phase-detection technology. Each pixel on the sensor’s surface is split into two individual photodiodes – one left and one right. Each of these can be read separately, thereby allowing them to be used for phase-detection autofocus. The main benefit of Dual-Pixel AF is that it greatly speeds up focus acquisition when the camera is being operated in Live View mode.
Lens mount: All of the DSLR manufacturers have their own proprietary lens-mount system. For Nikon this is the F-mount, for Canon it’s the EF-mount, and for Pentax its the K-mount. If you’re buying your first DSLR then it definitely pays to think ahead about lenses. This is because you’re effectively buying into a system, and once you’re in, you’re committed to that system. Specialist adapters that let you mount Canon lenses on Nikon bodies (and vice versa) are available, but they can be expensive and largely impractical.