So, you want to move up from a smartphone or point and shoot, but are not sure where to start? We’re here to help! From sensor size to autofocus and megapixel madness, this guide gives you the rundown on important features to consider when buying your first beginner DSLR, as well as a few recommendations for cameras.
Sensor size matters. Sensors are made up of pixels called photosites that collect light as information through the lens opening, called an aperture. The bigger the sensor, the more “information” gets translated onto the image. There are two main types of sensors: full frame and cropped sensor. Full frame sensors are about 36 x 24mm, the same size as traditional 35mm film. Slightly smaller, cropped sensors are most commonly found in beginner to intermediate level DSLRs, and measure approximately 23.5 x 15.6mm. They’re sometimes called APS-C or APS-H.In addition to collecting less light, cropped sensors have a narrower apparent field of view that creates a crop of the image circle (compared to full frame). Full frame sensors, meanwhile, offer more flexibility when it comes to print size since you’re able to crop and cut more of the image without sacrificing quality. They also do better in low light since they have more photodiodes, meaning you can shoot with a higher ISO without too much noise. Ultimately, however, crop sensors are simply less expensive than full frames. Most beginner level DSLRs feature crop sensors to cut down on price and size. Keep in mind, that while full frame lenses work on crop sensors, many crop lenses do not work on full frame sensors. If you continue on with photography and eventually upgrade to a full frame, you will need to buy new lenses.
Megapixels, on the other hand, get blown out of proportion – literally. More megapixels allow you to blow up your images very large at extra resolutions, rather than just sharing them online at smaller sizes. Especially if you just post to Instagram or the like, you shouldn’t need more than 16 or so megapixels – some say as few as 12. However, camera manufacturers like to flaunt more megapixels as if they translate to greater image quality (hint: they do not). If you’re making a career out of photographing things far away, like bird or wildlife photographers, then you need might need 24 or more megapixels to ‘zoom’ crop after the fact. As a beginner, megapixels won’t really matter, unless you plan to showcase your creations in galleries. Since you’re just starting out, you might want to hone your craft first.
Autofocus does what it sounds like – it focuses your image with the click of a button. However, DSLRs vary with autofocus points, which the camera uses to focus on subjects. Beginner cameras have very few autofocus points. (Our most bare bones recommendation comes with 9.) The more autofocus points, the easier and more accurately the camera tracks a subject in motion. There are, however, different types of autofocus points: vertical and cross-type. Vertical points only sense in a vertical line, while cross-type points use both vertical and horizontal lines. Cross-type sensors are more accurate, but an autofocus system will likely features less of them. If you shoot motion, cross-type points are crucial. While something like the Nikon D850 features 153 autofocus points, beginners can aim for something closer to 11 through 51.
ISO is the sensitivity of the cameras sensor. . The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the camera is to light. In layman’s terms, it refers to a camera setting that brightens darkened photos. If you increase your ISO, your photographs will get brighter. For that reason, ISO is very useful in low light photography. However, raising ISO carries consequences in the form of “noise.” If you raise your ISO too high, your picture will show a lot of noise – or appear grainy. Whatever your lowest ISO setting is (usually 100), is your “base ISO.” Shooting at your base ISO minimizes noise as much as possible. Cameras with higher ISO ranges offer better low light capabilities. Of the cameras we recommend below, the Nikon D7500 offers the greatest range at 100 through 51,200.
More and more videographers use DSLRs to shoot video rather than camcorders. While shooting more than 30 minutes of footage at a time will use up your battery, shooting clips is popular. Many DSLRs come with 4K, which is considerably high resolution, and more expensive beginner cameras sometimes offer that capability. However, for most beginners, 1080p at 24 fps or 30 fps will work just fine. You can also purchase different types of microphones (we recommend an on-camera mic) to improve audio. Vloggers often prefer DSLRs that come with articulated screens to watch themselves as they film. For better looking video, it’s important to match up your frame rate and shutter speed, meaning a shutter speed of 1/50th when shooting at 24 fps, 1/60th at 30 fps, and so on.
The Canon versus Nikon debate is old. Not as old as time, but definitely up there. The thing is, both Canon and Nikon are great brands. They wouldn’t have survived this long if they weren’t. They both offer great beginner DSLRs. Nikon tends to offer a slightly better frame rate, while Canon traditionally offers better video quality. As a rule, Nikon also has cheaper lenses than Canon. While that certainly shouldn’t be your only buying factor, it’s something to consider as you build your collection.
Most DSLRs come with kit lenses, which are generally an inexpensive, slow options. They’re often zoom lenses, which means that they allow the user to switch between various focal lengths (example: 18-55mm). As a beginner DSLR user, kit lenses are okay. However, if you want a better quality lens without the enormous price tag, then we recommend a prime lens. Prime lenses feature a fixed focal length (example: 35mm) and offer better image quality. Often, something like a “nifty fifty” 50mm prime lens will suit beginners just fine. It comes closest to what your eye naturally sees, and so it’s a good length to train your eye at.
Our Recommendations: From Beginner to Enthusiast
- 18.0 Megapixel CMOS (APS-C) Sensor
- DIGIC 4+ Image Processor
- ISO 100–6,400 (Expandable to 12,800)
- 9-point AF System
- Large, Bright 3.0-inch LCD Monitor
The T6 is a bit of a bare bones camera that gets you into the Canon family for a low price. Its 18MP sensor is fine for most beginners, but doesn’t compete with the 24MP of the Nikon D3400. It offers a standard (and slow) 9-point AF module and a reasonable battery life at 500 shots per charge. Like the Nikon D3400, the viewfinder doesn’t cover 100% of the screen, which makes composing a little tricky (i.e. you might end up with some details you didn’t intend). However, the light plastic body is easy to handle, and the image quality is good in bright light – but lacking in low light. It features a 100-6,400 ISO range, with the option to expand the upper limit to 12,800. Ultimately, the Canon T6 is perfectly fine, but we mostly recommend it for beginners who are inheriting Canon lenses or determined to get into the Canon line at a very low price point.
- 24.2 Megapixel DX-format CMOS Sensor
- EXPEED 4 Image Processor
- ISO 100–25,600
- 11-point AF System
- 1080/60p Video Capture
The paired down controls of the 24 megapixel Nikon D3400 make it a great entry level camera, combined with a comfortable and deep handgrip that’s easy to learn on. While the viewfinder only covers 95 percent of the screen – so you’ll get details you didn’t intend in your final image – it’s large and bright. (Plus, the tiny autofocus points are tricky to make out through the viewfinder, so it’s difficult to determine if your shot is in focus.) Plus, a 3-inch LCD offers touch-screen capabilities. It has almost double the battery life of its predecessor. Low light shooting with limited noise is solid with an ISO range from 100 to 25,600, and the image quality is excellent for its class. Although movie shooting is easier than with the D3300, Nikon removed the microphone jack – so the Nikon D3400 is not exactly for beginners looking to get serious about video.
- 24 Megapixel APS-C Sensor
- Digic 7 Image Processor
- ISO 100–25,600 (Expandable to 51,200)
- 45-point AF System
- 1080/60p Video Capture
Great for family or casual photographers, the Canon T7i offers consistent shooting with a 24 MP APS-C Sensor. The Dual Pixel autofocus system provides a simplified user experience that tracks subjects around the frame. So while the video only features 1080/60p capture, it lets you track the subject in movement without hunting for focus. The respectable ISO range is comparable to both the Nikon D3400 and D5600, and well up from the Canon T6. Ultimately, however, the Canon T7i’s greatest strength is that it’s a camera to grow with. The user interface is straightforward and guided with a level of direct control once you get the hang of it.
- 24.2 Megapixel DX-format CMOS Sensor
- EXPEED 4 Processor
- ISO 100–25,600
- 39-point AF System
- 1080/60p Video Capture
This advanced entry level DSLR features 24.2MP, excellent image quality, articulating touch screen, and ergonomic handgrip without an overly cluttered design. The native ISO sensitivity runs from 100-25,600, which makes the Nikon D5600 suitable for most low light conditions. As with many cameras on this list, the viewfinder provides less than 100% coverage, so you may end up with some unwanted details in the final shot. When it comes to video, this Nikon doesn’t offer 4K, though it does include 1080p capture and in-camera timelapse. The autofocus, meanwhile, is decent with 39 points and 9 cross-type AF points, down from the Canon 80D. Quick and accurate, both single and continuous autofocus lock easily onto static subjects and work well enough for moving subjects. The burst shooting speed is 5 fps, which is solid for its price bracket.
- 20.9 Megapixel DX-format Sensor
- EXPEED 5 Image Processor
- ISO 100–51,200
- 51-point AF System
- 4K Video
Moving right along, the 20.9MP Nikon D7500 is an enthusiast’s DSLR with a price point over $1,000. It offers 950 shots per charge (though some users report upwards of 2000) with improved weather sealing compared to the beloved Nikon D7200. It’s also slightly smaller than its predecessor. The tilting touchscreen is responsive, and offers an easy and effective way to move around autofocus points. The Nikon D7500 has 51 autofocus points over the Canon 80D’s 45. Subject tracking is also reliable so long as the subject is visible in a major portion of the frame. The burst rate is up from the D7200 to 8 fps, which is 3fps more than the Canon D80. The Nikon D7500 also offers 4K video with a built-in microphone and headphone jack, though the autofocus is a bit too jumpy for video enthusiasts – it’s definitely tolerable for casual users.
- 24.2 Megapixel (APS-C) CMOS Sensor
- DIGIC 6 Image Processor
- ISO 100–16,000 (Expandable to 25,600)
- 45-point All Cross-type AF System
- 1080/60p Video Capture with Time-lapse Movie
For a significantly better (but more expensive) Canon DSLR, go for the 24MP Canon 80D. We’re getting into the enthusiast branch of ‘beginner’ cameras now. The polycarbonate exterior and magnesium alloy chassis body is sealed against dust and moisture, while most controls are usable via the articulating rear touchscreen. The 45-point autofocus system with all cross-type points is up from the 19 all cross-type points of its predecessor. While it lacks 4K video, budding video enthusiasts might still find the Canon 80D suitable thanks to continuous autofocus during shooting and 1080/60p capture. Plus, there’s a microphone port! The camera offers an ISO range of 100-16,000 (expandable to 25,600) with reduced noise. So it may not be perfectly ISO-invariant, but it’s pretty darn good.
Getting started with DSLR photography is intimidating. With all the specifications to learn, it’s no wonder that many people get stuck. However, if you focus on sensor size, ISO, autofocus, megapixels, and video, it’s a little easier to digest all the terms. For beginners, we recommend a crop sensor to learn on. While megapixels don’t usually matter, you’ll want a camera with more of them (Nikon D3400, Canon 80D, or Nikon D5600) if you plan to show your images for galleries. For low light photography, choose something with a wider ISO range like the Nikon D7500, Nikon D5600 or even the Nikon D3400. If more accurate autofocus is important to you, then go for a camera with more points like the Nikon D7500. However, if you’re truly a beginner, than something like the bare bones Canon T6 (at only 9 AF points) is fine. Most beginner cameras don’t come with 4K, but if you plan to shoot a lot of video, then the Nikon D7500 is your best option. If you have any questions about choosing a beginner DSLR, contact us. Our experts are happy to help!