Are you looking to take your photography skills to the next level with a DSLR camera? As a beginner, choosing your first DSLR can be an exciting yet daunting task. There are many makes and models aimed at entry-level users, each with their own set of features, advantages, and limitations.
In this post, I’ll explain exactly what an entry-level DSLR camera is, discuss what features are most important for beginners, review the top 5 starter DSLR options, and answer some frequently asked questions about getting started with DSLR photography.
What is a DSLR Camera?
DSLR stands for digital single lens reflex. These cameras allow photographers to swap out lenses according to their shooting needs, in contrast to fixed lens point-and-shoot cameras.
Inside a DSLR is a complex system of prisms and mirrors that allow the optical image from the lens to be viewed directly through the viewfinder. When the shutter button is pressed, the mirror flips up, allowing light to hit the image sensor which then captures a digital image.
DSLRs provide several key advantages including:
- Interchangeable lenses – choose from a wide variety lenses from ultra wide angle to super telephoto.
- Superior image quality – larger image sensors, specialized processors, and sophisticated autofocus systems result in photos with sharper detail, less noise, and accurate colors.
- Faster performance – very short lag time and fast burst shooting for capturing action.
- Advanced autofocus – sophisticated AF systems with multiple focus points track subjects quickly across the frame.
- Full manual controls – take full creative control over exposure settings like aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
- Better low light shooting – high ISO capabilities reduce image noise when shooting in dim lighting.
- Optical viewfinder – provides an accurate through-the-lens viewing experience.
While DSLR cameras used to be bulky, expensive, and complicated, entry-level models are now compact, affordable, and designed specifically for beginner photographers.
If you want to take the next step in your photographic journey, an entry-level DSLR will provide significant advantages over your smart phone or point-and-shoot. Let’s look at what features you should consider when choosing one.
What to Look for in an Entry-Level DSLR
Image Sensor Size
The image sensor is the most important component inside a digital camera. Larger sensors can capture more light and detail. Beginner DSLRs use sensors that are smaller than professional models but still significantly larger than point-and-shoots.
Cropped sensor DSLRs have APS-C size sensors that crop the image compared to 35mm film, reducing the field of view by 1.5-1.6x. This makes lenses seem more zoomed in. But they provide a compact form factor.
Full frame DSLRs have sensors equivalent in size to 35mm film with no cropping factor. But they come at a much higher cost. Beginners should stick with APS-C cropped sensors when starting out.
Also pay attention to the megapixel count. Entry-level models typically range from 15MP to 28MP. More megapixels allow larger prints but don’t necessarily improve image quality. Around 18-24MP is a good range.
The ISO determines how sensitive the camera sensor is to light. Using a higher ISO allows you to shoot in dimmer lighting without flash. However, it also increases digital noise.
Entry-level DSLRs typically have a native ISO range from 100 to 25600. Good low light performance with usable noise levels up to ISO 3200 or 6400 is ideal. This provides the flexibility to shoot in different lighting conditions.
Choosing a camera with a fast, accurate autofocus system is important for beginners. Look for one with multiple AF points spread widely across the viewfinder. More cross-type points improve performance.
Entry-level DSLRs will have between 9 to 51 AF points generally clustered in the center. High-end models have more coverage. The number of focus points isn’t everything – actual AF speed and accuracy also depends on the camera’s processor.
Beginner-friendly autofocus modes like automatic AF area selection are great when starting out. The ability to select a single AF point manually provides more control as your skills improve. Continuous AF for tracking moving subjects is also nice to have.
Continuous Shooting Speed
The continuous shooting rate or burst rate determines how many shots per second you can capture. This capability is important when photographing fast action like sports or wildlife.
Most entry-level models have a decent 3-7 fps burst speed. Combined with predictive autofocus tracking, this allows you to shoot short bursts of action. Higher-end DSLRs designed for sports go up to 10-14 fps but are overkill for beginners.
DSLRs are extremely popular for shooting video as well as stills. When choosing a starter DSLR, look for one that supports full HD 1080p video at frame rates up to 60 fps. Some may offer 4K video too.
Useful video features include manual exposure control, microphone input, and clean HDMI out for external recorders. But focus mainly on getting great 1080p footage with beginner-friendly video AF.
An optical viewfinder or OVF is the through-the-lens viewing system that gives DSLRs their name. You’ll be composing and following the action through the viewfinder, so get one that’s comfortable with a high magnification ratio for a larger, brighter view.
Pentamirror OVFs found in entry-level models provide sharp, accurate framing as you shoot. You can also opt for an electronic viewfinder with live image preview using the LCD.
On the back of every DSLR is an LCD for image playback, menus, and live view shooting. Standard 3-inch LCDs with 920k to 1.04M dot resolution provide a sharp image preview.
Look for a vari-angle LCD that can tilt and swivel vs. a fixed screen. This allows you to compose shots from high and low angles. Touchscreen operation also provides an easy, interactive way to navigate menus.
Size and Weight
DSLRs appeal to beginners because entry-level models are fairly compact and lightweight compared to professionals. Look for a starter DSLR under 2 lbs with comfortable hand-grip and controls.
Smaller DSLRs with slim, compact bodies sacrifice some features but provide exceptional portability. Bigger models are heavier but offer more advanced capabilities and larger batteries.
Ergonomics and Controls
Handling comfort and control layout influences how easily you can operate the camera. Look for one with controls at your fingertips, textured hand and thumb grips, and intuitive menus.
Many entry-level DSLRs now feature guide modes with tips and tutorials right on the LCD. This allows you to understand camera settings as you shoot. Full auto modes are also available when starting out.
As you advance, look for dedicated dials and controls for frequently used functions like shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. This allows you to manually adjust exposure settings quickly.
DSLRs have high power demands. Battery life is important since you’ll be doing a lot of on-camera review and adjustments as you learn. Look for an entry-level model that can capture 500-600 shots on a single charge.
Having one or two spare batteries is a must for extended outings. Some starter DSLRs accept affordable AA batteries while others use proprietary lithium ion packs.
One major advantage of a DSLR over other cameras is the ability to swap lenses. Each brand offers their own lineup of lenses. Canon and Nikon have the most diverse ecosystems from ultra wide to super telephoto.
Make sure the system you choose provides affordable starter zoom lenses equivalent to 18-55mm and 70-300mm in the APS-C crop format. This covers wide angle to telephoto needs for beginner photographers.
With these key factors in mind, let’s take a look at the top recommended entry-level DSLR cameras.
Reviews of the Top 5 Entry-Level DSLR Cameras
1. Nikon D3500
The Nikon D3500 sits at the top of our list providing a great combination of image quality, easy handling, and value for money. Despite its low price, it doesn’t cut corners on core performance and capabilities.
This 24MP entry-level DSLR utilizes a 23.5 x 15.6mm APS-C Nikon DX format sensor with excellent dynamic range and high ISO performance. It shoots from ISO 100-25600 to handle diverse lighting conditions. The EXPEED 4 processor delivers Full HD 1080p video at smooth 60 fps.
For beginners, the D3500 features a fast 11-point autofocus system with subject tracking. It shoots continuously at 5 fps making it suitable for fast action. Battery life is an impressive 1,550 shots per charge.
A 3″ LCD provides intuitive access to settings. The camera offers Bluetooth connectivity for transferring images to a mobile device using the Nikon SnapBridge app. It weighs just 415g and offers an ergonomic deep grip.
Ideal for: First time DSLR buyers who want superb image quality from an affordable, portable, and easy to master camera. It’s great for travel and everyday use.
2. Canon EOS Rebel T7
Canon’s EOS Rebel T7 offers an incredible value proposition giving beginners a fully-featured DSLR for under $500 including a starter 18-55mm kit lens. It’s a great entry point into the expansive Canon EOS system.
At the heart sits a 24MP APS-C sized CMOS sensor combined with Canon’s DIGIC 4+ processing for excellent color reproduction, sharp details, and low noise up to ISO 6400. Full HD 1080p video is supplemented by three-axis hybrid autofocus for smooth focusing.
The 9-point AF system provides accurate focus in diverse lighting conditions. Subject tracking helps you maintain focus on moving objects. While not the fastest, the T7 can shoot continuous bursts at 3 fps. ISO is expandable up to ISO 12800 for dim conditions.
Despite the low cost, Canon includes many upscale features like a pentamirror optical viewfinder with 95% coverage, built-in flash and hot shoe, RAW shooting, and wireless remote control support. The intuitive interface makes adjusting manual settings simple.
Ideal for: Budget-minded beginners who want a traditional DSLR with strong image quality at the lowest possible price point from a trusted brand.
3. Pentax K-70
Pentax may fly under the radar, but their K-70 packs in premium capabilities way above its affordable price making it a hidden gem among entry-level DSLRs. Weather-sealed construction allows you to shoot in rain, snow, or dusty locations.
At the heart is a 24MP APS-C CMOS sensor with an extremely wide sensitivity range of ISO 100-204800. Low noise performance is spectacular – ISO 51200 shots are very usable. The advanced SAFOX X11 AF system provides fast, precise focus while tracking subjects in motion.
This DSLR rips off 6 fps continuous shooting speeds even when capturing RAW files. The optical viewfinder provides 100% frame coverage. Five-axis shake reduction delivers crisp images when shooting handheld. Built-in WiFi makes sharing photos easy.
Thoughtful design includes a bright 3″ LCD that tilts, dual control dials, and well-placed buttons. The K-70 exceeds expectations, providing pro features and rugged performance at a very wallet-friendly price.
Ideal for: Outdoor enthusiasts who want good value from a weather-sealed DSLR and shooters who demand top-notch low light capabilities.
4. Sony a68
With the Sony a68, you can enjoy unique advantages like subject tracking while shooting video and built-in GPS geotagging at a reasonable price. This makes Sony’s upscale technology accessible to beginners.
The 24MP APS-C sensor captures vibrant, detailed imagery with great dynamic range. The BIONZ X processor enables a speedy 8 fps burst rate. When recording Full HD 1080p video, the 4D FOCUS system automatically keeps subjects in sharp focus.
For still photos, the 79-point AF module features 15 cross-type points delivering fast, accurate focus. The OLED Tru-Finder electronic viewfinder previews exposure settings changes in real time. A tilting 2.7″ LCD swivels for flexible viewing angles.
Built-in SteadyShot INSIDE stabilization provides a 4.5 EV advantage for crisp handheld shooting. While menu navigation takes some learning, the a68 provides great performance if you don’t mind skipping an optical viewfinder.
Ideal for: Videographers wanting fluid subject tracking focus during filming and photographers who enjoy composing on a high resolution live view display.
5. Canon EOS Rebel SL3
Weighing just 15.8 ounces, the Canon EOS Rebel SL3 is currently the world’s smallest and lightest DSLR with a vari-angle LCD touchscreen. This provides a uniquely compact and portable imaging powerhouse.
Canon’s Dual Pixel CMOS AF offers lightning fast focus during Live View shooting and video recording. When using the optical viewfinder, the 9 point phase detection system focuses quickly in both bright and dim light. It shoots Full HD video with touch focus control.
The 24MP sensor captures outstanding color and a wide dynamic range. Low light performance is also good for its class with clean ISO up to 25600. While the burst rate tops out at 5 fps, an external flash sync of 1/200 sec helps freeze action.
A Feature Assistant guides you when adjusting settings. Battery life reaches 1,060 shots per charge. Weighing just over 1 pound with an 18-55mm lens, the SL3 delivers incredible quality in the most portable DSLR package available.
Ideal for: Travel photographers wanting a lightweight but powerful DSLR and vloggers who do a lot of handheld filming.
FAQs about Entry-Level DSLR Cameras
What lenses should I get for my entry-level DSLR?
Most first time buyers should look for a versatile 18-55mm kit lens which covers wide angle to standard perspectives without breaking the bank. This focal range works nicely for landscapes, groups, and everyday shooting.
Another essential is a 70-300mm telephoto zoom lens to reach farther subjects like sports, wildlife, concerts, and portraits with background blur. These two lenses will meet most needs at the start.
Eventually you can add a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens for beautiful bokeh and low light shooting. But the 18-55mm and 70-300mm duo make a perfect starter pair.
Third party brands like Tamron, Sigma, and Tokina offer affordable high-quality alternatives too. Explore your camera brand’s lens ecosystem to enjoy the versatility of interchangeable lenses.
Which brands make the best entry-level DSLRs?
The two most popular brands, Canon and Nikon, offer the widest selection of affordable starter DSLRs. You really can’t go wrong with either – both produce excellent image quality and performance.
Sony has fewer entry-level DSLR options but innovates with mirrorless technology like subject tracking AF when filming video. Pentax provides pro-grade features at very attractive price points.
Other key players include Fujifilm’s stylish mirrorless systems and Olympus with its compact Micro Four Thirds cameras. Try out different models to see which menu system and controls suit you best.
How big of a memory card do I need?
Entry-level DSLRs use secure digital or SD memory cards for storage. A 16GB card serves as a good starting size. This lets you save a few hundred high resolution JPEGs or a few dozen RAW image files.
Work your way up to a 32GB or 64GB card for more capacity. Cards with fast write speeds up to 95-100MB/s allows quick saving of photos during burst shooting.
Have a spare card or two so you can immediately swap a full card for an empty one. Consider getting one main card rated for higher speeds like UHS-I U3 and a cheaper spare card rated at U1, Class 10, or 80MB/s.
What accessories should I get with my first DSLR?
A few must-have accessories will help you get the most out of your entry-level DSLR:
- Extra batteries – allow you to shoot longer when away from an outlet.
- UV or polarizing filter – protect the front of your lens while cutting glare.
- Cleaning kit – safely remove dust from the sensor and lens surfaces.
- Camera bag – safely carry your gear to your shoots. Look for one designed specifically for DSLR gear.
- Flash – add light when the built-in pop-up flash isn’t enough.
- Remote control – trigger the shutter without touching the camera to prevent blur.
- Tripod – stabilize the camera for sharper long exposures and self-portraits.
- External hard drive – back up your images so they’re safe if your memory cards fail.
Is an entry-level DSLR too complicated for a beginner?
While high-end DSLRs have a steep learning curve, entry-level models are specifically designed for first-time photographers. Most feature intelligent auto modes that handle all the technical settings for you so you can just compose the shot and capture away.
As you get comfortable, you can try out scene modes for portraits, sports, landscapes etc. that optimize camera settings automatically. Gradually explore priority and manual modes to take more creative control.
Many entry-level DSLRs today also provide helpful guide systems. Just tap a setting and the camera explains what it does along with tips for using it. Don’t fear the advanced capabilities – start simple and build your skills.
How do I choose between an entry-level DSLR and mirrorless camera?
Mirrorless cameras offer an alternative to bulkier DSLR systems with the same image quality in a more compact form factor. But DSLRs still excel for action shooting thanks to superior autofocus tracking.
Those new to photography may find a DSLR’s optical viewfinder more familiar and easier to learn on. But electronic viewfinders and LCD previews on mirrorless cameras provide a more digital-age live view shooting experience.
DSLR lenses tend to focus faster and more reliably for sports, wildlife, and other fast action. But mirrorless cameras offer incredible speed and accuracy these days.
Ultimately, it comes down to your shooting preferences. Want the traditional DSLR optical viewing experience? Get a starter DSLR. If a lighter kit for travel and street shooting appeals to you, consider an entry-level mirrorless model.
You can’t go wrong starting with either system. Many enthusiasts actually own both mirrorless and DSLR cameras for different applications. Try out models in person to see which resonates best with you.
Will my entry-level DSLR be good for professional work?
Entry-level DSLRs provide excellent quality for beginners, but generally lack the advanced features required for professional photographers who rely on their cameras to earn a living.
Limitations include less rugged build quality, fewer direct control buttons and dials, slower burst shooting rates, and fewer autofocus points. Image quality from APS-C sensors can’t match full frame models.
That said, many entry-level models do provide very capable performance that’s suitable for semi-pro needs if you have the glass to match. For paid side work, an enthusiast-oriented mid-range DSLR is a better choice.
Budding professionals should plan to eventually upgrade to a rugged pro-grade body with faster FPS, refined AF, and full frame sensor to give clients the quality they expect.
I hope this guide has helped demystify entry-level DSLR cameras for those ready to take their photography more seriously. While smartphone cameras continue to improve, a starter DSLR still offers clear advantages through interchangeable lenses, manual exposure control, and superior image quality.
Doing your research to find a camera suited for your needs and style is important. I recommend getting hands-on trying out models in person before you buy. Features like a comfortable grip and intuitive controls are hard to gauge just by specs.
Pair your entry-level DSLR with a couple of good starter lenses, essential accessories, and beginner-friendly shooting modes when you’re starting out. Learn how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO affect your images.
Don’t be overwhelmed by all the settings. Grow at your own pace, consult your camera manual, and have fun seeing what you can create with your more powerful photography tool!