I need a new camera. Not anything fancy. But something that won’t take crappy, blurry snapshots like my phone. Maybe DSLR camera, but not a pro camera like yours. I figured that because you are a photographer, you would have recommendations, right?

I get asked this question about weekly. Problem was, I didn’t have ANY clue what to tell people. So I set off to use my expertise and find my top recommendations for consumers like you! I scoured the internet and found that all of that technical mumbo jumbo has been written and readily accessible using our friend Google. And if you are like most people, you still have no idea what the hell you are doing even with your friend Google. So here is a guide that is more like advice you’d get from a friend over a beer than overly complicated website reviews. This covers introductory DSLRs, not point and shoot cameras. If you’re interested in a point and shoot model, you can find that review here:

What No One Wants to Admit About Cameras

Most DSLR cameras on the market are excellent. They all generally have more megapixels than you actually need, a versatile lens, “idiot-proof” modes that keep the dial fiddling to a minimum, and decent battery life. Most also have HD video, built-in flash, and large LCD screens too. I’m not saying every model is perfect for you, but if you just picked one in your price range, chances are, you’d end up liking it just fine. Spending a few weekends comparison shopping until you drop may not be necessary.

I’ll also note that while nicer cameras take “better” photos, there are limits to what better means. There is a point at which spending more cash on a camera isn’t necessarily worth the money unless you know how to use the extra features you are purchasing. Most people don’t, and that’s PERFECTLY fine. Will a DSLR take “better” photos than your iPhone? Yes. You will have less blur and vastly superior low light performance. But will a professional camera in Auto Mode take “better” photos than an introductory DSLR in Auto Mode? Debatable.

What Features Am I Supposed To Care About?

One factor I’d suggest you seriously consider is how intuitive a camera feels to you. Before dropping hundreds on a camera, a visit to your local store is in order to use your favorite models in real life. You will likely find yourself drawn to a particular brand or even model. In other words, exclusively online shopping means you miss out.

As far as the other features go, most are really “about the same”. Competition in the DSLR market is so fierce that each manufacturer can’t afford to get left behind. Generally, even small differences in specs don’t make a darn bit of difference when actually using the camera. Therefore, there are many specs that you can just disregard and assume are comparable enough to call them “the same”. These include:

  • Megapixels | Yup, the numbers vary but most have plenty. You will NEVER be able to tell the difference between 18 and 20. Promise.
  • Flash & Video | Most cameras have these features. If one is absolutely essential, ensure the model you plan to purchase isn’t missing it.
  • Storage Card Types | Most are SD cards, but some models use CF. If you have a card stash you want be able to use, check this feature.
  • Shutter Speed & Frames Per Second | Most cameras offer 1/4000 sec as the fastest shutter speed and 3 frames per second which is suitable for the average consumer.
  • ISO | This number describes how sensitive the sensor is to light. The higher the number, the better able your camera is able to pick up light in a dark room. The problem is, many other factors effect ISO, including how well exposed your image is and how large your sensor is. Images taken at higher ISOs are usually very noisy and can look pixelated. In most cameras, ISOs 100-1600 produce good images so anything above that is “just in case you need it” because they will be slightly fuzzier and of lower quality.
  • Focus Systems | Higher end cameras have more focus points and even higher end cameras have more “cross-type” focus points. Your new camera is going to already have far superior focusing ability than what you are used to so these “extra” focusing features are not critical.
  • Sensor Size | The upper-level professional cameras ($1000+ for a body alone) have what are called “full frame” sensors. All the cameras in this article have smaller sensors that are approximately the same size as each other. While bigger is better in terms of image quality, most people don’t want to spend $1,500 on a camera plus lens!
  • LCD & Viewfinder Coverage | LCD screens hover around 3 inches these days which is a great size. Viewfinders cover at least 95% which is plenty.  Most also have “Live View” features as well. That allows you to see what you are about to photograph in the LCD screen instead of looking through the viewfinder. Some LCDs even have a swivel screen which pops out much like an old fashioned video camera. It supposed to make taking photos at funny angles easier. If any of these features are deal breakers, check to see that the model you like the best has them.
  • Build Quality | Most cameras in this class have plastic bodies and included lenses, referred to as “kit lenses.” Higher end models will be made of metal and be more durable, however, they will also weigh much more and cost substantially more. The cameras in this introductory class have comparable built quality.
  • Image Format | Most cameras take images in JPEG, RAW or both. I’d recommend keeping your camera in JPEG format because RAW images take up MUCH more space and require special processing with software most people don’t own. They cannot be uploaded from the camera, for example. However, they do contain more information than JPEGs which does make them ideal for professionals and those who use higher end editing software.

As far criteria you should more seriously consider,

Traditional DSLR vs. Mirrorless DSLR-like | Two of the seven cameras reviewed below are part of the “mirrorless” or “DSLR-like” cameras. The mirrorless cameras lack the large mirror present in DSLRs and are therefore smaller, and much lighter. The major drawbacks are slow focusing and image preview. Because these cameras rely on electronics (contrast differences) instead of optics to focus, they do take slightly longer to focus. They also have inferior LCD preview because they aren’t relying on mirrors to show you exactly what the sensor will see. Manufacturers have attempted to minimize these disadvantages but they are the reason that DSLRs are still the most popular.

Image Stabilization or Vibration Reduction | Some lenses from Nikon and Canon and some camera bodies from Sony, Olympus, and Panasonic have an image stabilization or vibration reduction feature (same thing). This prevents trembling hands from making your final image blurry. For most people, it means you can hand hold the camera at a lower shutters speed making it easier to capture images in low light. A common misconception is that image stabilization will prevent the pictures of your scurrying child from being blurry. Motion blur, as that is called, is only remedied by a fast shutter speed.

Zoom | Most entry level cameras come with a “kit lens” that zooms from wide angle to about 50mm. 50mm is approximately what we see when we use our own eyes. Some models have an option to bundle a longer zoom lens instead (for example, the Nikon 5300). Zoom lenses generally cost more and are bigger and heavier than the kit lens. I’m hoping to do a post about lenses in the near future to help you make that decision as well. But for now, I’d recommend the Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4.0-5.6 IS II as a great lens in addition to your kit lens. The Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS is a fabulous choice instead of the kit lens. Nikon offers a similar model, the Nikon 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR. These are not going to perform as well as the giant, professional telephoto lenses but they are excellent choices for consumers like you. If you would like a lens that performs very well in low light, most companies offer a 50mm f/1.8 lens at a lower price point which allows much more light in to your sensor than a traditional kit lens. Learn more about lenses in my dedicated lens review article.

Fun Features | Features like GPS, panoramic images, and HDR are found in only some models. These are what I like to call “fun” features because they are not essential. If geotagging photos is critical to you, find a model with GPS built in. If you like outdoor photography and appreciate a beautiful panorama, why not find a model that can do this for you in camera? HDR images are great when you have your subject in a shadow and the background is very bright. Using this feature, the entire image will look properly exposed.

Size & Weight | Most cameras are about the same. The mirrorless models are significantly smaller than the traditional DSLRs and some DSLRs (like the Canon SL1) are smaller than their competition. If size is the most important factor, then a point and shoot camera is probably your best bet. Remember, guide coming soon, that’s not covered here.

What’s Up With “Nikon vs. Canon”?

Nikon and Canon are both extremely popular brands for both professionals and consumers alike. Both Nikon and Canon are optics companies first (before electronics like Sony, for example) so the diversity of their lens lineups simply cannot be beat. Plus, their companies have pretty substantial resources for consumers. Which is better? Depends who you ask. Most pros have a brand they are loyal to for gear compatibility reasons. (If you have a camera and lens that are Nikon compatible, a new Canon lens isn’t going to work so people stick with what they have.) I’ll be the first to tell you it doesn’t matter. Some will disagree, but if you ever plan to get into photography seriously, I’d recommend choosing a Nikon or Canon model instead of other brands but between those two, it doesn’t matter. And if you don’t plan to ever invest in a bunch of lenses and you plan to stick with using your camera for snapshots of the family, go with whatever brand you like!

Where Should I Buy A Camera?

My favorite local store is Southeastern Camera in Raleigh. With expert advice givers on staff, free sensor cleanings for the life of your camera, and same day convenience, it’s a no brainer. Normally $30-$40 each, the free sensor cleanings alone are worth buying locally. It’s recommended that you get your sensor cleaned yearly to avoid “spots” on your images caused by sensor dust. This isn’t something you want to attempt at home so having it done by experts is key.

Plus, you can feel warm and fuzzy about supporting a local business. You know what happens when you don’t support local businesses? This –> “I can’t believe they had to close. It was always the nicest little store. I meant to go more often but never did. I wonder why it went out of business?” So let’s make purchases locally when we can!

A Note On Rebates

Camera manufacturers love to offer rebates! I’ve listed retail prices below but it’s likely that some models will come in cheaper than the prices listed because of the rebate programs. Typically, they are only for a short time frame and rotate among models. If you see your favorite model on sale courtesy of a rebate, purchase quickly. Local stores offer the exact same manufacturer discounts and are the best resource for finding the best value.

My Favorite DSLR Cameras on the Market

A huge shout out to Tony and the crew Southeastern Camera on Atlantic Ave in Raleigh for their willingness to let me fiddle with most of these models in person. Keep in mind these are my personal recommendations and not necessarily theirs. Note: The camera icons link to the Amazon pages for each model but the photos displayed ARE NOT to scale.

Sony A3000 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens | $400

This is a mirrorless camera that is compact and really delivers in image quality. This model is at a lower price point because it lacks some of the features and build quality that the other, more robust models listed below have. The viewfinder has fairly poor resolution and it’s slow-ish to focus but the kit lens does have image stabilization which is great for low light photos. The camera has few buttons overall which can be both good or bad, depending on who you are asking. If ease of use (in automatic mode) and image quality are your primary concerns, this camera delivers for a great price. If looking for a solidly built camera, something with easy to use manual controls, or you plan to take up photography as a serious hobby later, I’d skip this model.

Canon T5 with 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 IS lens | $550

This is a brand new DSLR model from Canon, an improvement to their extremely popular T3 model. It has an improved LCD screen and a much better sensor than it’s predecessor. If your budget maxes out in the $500-$550 range, this is an excellent choice. The other Canon camera models (the smaller SL1 and touch screen T5i) covered here have improved LCD screens, low light capabilities, and can shoot slightly more frames per second. This camera has a great feel to it and also has an image stabilized lens. If you have a bit more to spend, I’d probably consider the Nikon D3300 for just $100 more.

Nikon D3300 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR II | $650

This is Nikon’s introductory DSLR camera and it’s an excellent choice for any consumer. The camera is well-built and is set up much more like a professional camera (and feels it too). It has a great LCD, is great in low light, fast focusing, and has an image stabilized lens but is a bit larger and heavier. The user interface is busy but has a “?” feature to help you figure out what buttons do what. I think this feature is brilliant! At this price point, the Nikon D3300 won me over pretty hard and although I’m a Canon user, I would probably snag this as my top pick of all of the cameras listed on this page, especially given the price.

Canon SL1 with 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 IS lens | $750

Packed with the features of the other introductory DSLRs, this camera is a bit smaller. While it will not fit in your pocket, Tony affectionately referred to it as “Canon’s little one”. It’s got an image stabilized lens, is great in low light, and is fast to focus. If a small DSLR is your primary criteria, this is the camera for you. While mirrorless models (DSLR-like) may be smaller, access to Canon’s lens compatibility, and the tried and true advantages of a a Canon Rebel DSLR make this a great buy.

Olympus EM-10 with 14-42 f/3.5-5.6 | $800

This is the newest mirrorless camera from the amazing Olympus OM-D series and they have lowered the price for this model and removed a few non-essential features. It’s a favorite of pros who want a small vacation camera with the image quality they are accustomed to but without the weight of other models. It has a cool retro design, tilt-LCD, and metal build quality. The IS is built into the camera body and the lens has a collapsible feature allowing the camera to pack even smaller. If I had an extra $800 laying around, I’d buy this in a heartbeat and keep it in my purse for park outings and short weekend trips to my parents. It would fit into a “man pocket”, but probably not my jeans.

Canon T5i with 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 IS lens | $850

Of the Canon cameras in the introductory DSLR market, this one is priciest. It has a neat touch screen with swivel LCD and can shoot 5 frames per second. But unless those features are deal breakers for you, I’d stick with another model. I feel the extra features in this model are not essential and a Canon T5 or Canon SL1 would be just fine. For just $50 more, the Nikon D5300 is superior. Because it’s so popular and part of the Canon family, I did want to cover it in my guide. It would make any owner very happy, but it’s not my top pick.

Nikon 5300 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR II | $900

The Nikon 5300 is a beautiful camera and close to a professional camera. It’s got better low light capabilities, a more robust focusing system, and a swivel LCD screen. In terms of technical specifications, this camera has everything else beat for this price. It’s a great camera and a great, albeit substantial price tag. If money is a concern, the cheaper Nikon 3300 is a perfectly fine choice.


jessFeel free to post questions about DSLR cameras in the comments. I’m happy to help you!

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