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The Best DSLR Cameras for Beginning Photographers

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Mason Resnick is the editor of the Adorama Learning Center and a lifetime photography enthusiast.

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The Best DSLR Cameras for Beginning Photographers

For those new photographers looking for a DSLR camera, check out this digital camera buying guide. Learn more about the DSLR camera.

Getting bored with your point-and-shoot? Ready to grow as a photographer but afraid of all the technology? Here are some great low-cost DSLRs that will get you pro results easily.


Additional research by Jena Ardell


DSLRs have the largest image sensors, and therefore will produce the best quality images of any digital camera. Interchangeable lenses give you entrée into a world of flexible picture-taking options that lets you run with the pros. And yet, if you are intimidated by the thought of too many controls to learn, no worries: The current crop of starter DSLRs, available at Adorama's DSLR department, is just as point-and-shoot easy as compact digital digicams.

The best news? These entry-level DSLRs cost under $800 these days, and bargain hunters can find some models for around $500, with a kit lens! That's just slightly more expensive than high-end compact cameras...but the results are a world better.

Then there’s HD video, a feature that, until only a couple of years ago, could only be found on camcorders. Since the beginning of 2010, nearly every DSLR that has been introduced has HD video.


DIY Search Tips

While the four DSLR models listed below are a good starting point, there are many more entry-level DSLRs available at Adorama. You may want to save money by buying an older model that is still available at Adorama, or a manufacturer-refurbished model. Here's how to narrow your search and find a starter DSLR  at Adorama that fits your needs:

1. Go to the Adorama Digital Cameras Department.

2. Select DSLR Cameras.

3. Under "Sort by:" select "Price Low to High" (on the right side of the black bar going across the top of the camera listing). Keep in mind that some cameras are listed with a kit lens, others just body only.

4. Finally, if you know which brand of camera, choose it from the Brand list on the left side of the page. You can also choose number of megapixels and even camera body color!

 

The result of this will be a list of DSLRs from least expensive to most expensive; if you are looking to save money, consier a refurbished model (those are likely to be listed first). You may also find that last year's model of the camera listed below is much more affordable, and offers most of the same features.

Here's a quick look at four cameras that I believe are a great way for snapshooters to enter the world of digital photography. All of these cameras have been designed with the snapshooter in mind, but have features that more advanced shooters can access—if they wish—to take more control over their images. Pricing and info are accurate as of November 6, 2012.

What are the "Test results"?

Test results are a new feature to this article, and are based on objective measurements provided by DxOMark's state-of-the art camera test facility, with their permission.

Each camera's sensor is measured for color depth (which indicates how smooth the transitions are between colors), dynamic range (the range of visible detail in shadows through bright highlights in the same scene), and low-light ISO. Low-light ISO determines which is the highest ISO that will produce acceptable levels of digital noise in an image. I present the data along with an explanation which is intended to help you understand each camera's performance. Note that we do not yet have results for all cameras listed here but as new cameras are tested we will add that information.

Learn more! What's a "Night Portrait" mode? What do we mean when we say a camera has a "Beach/Snow" or "Action" setting? Go to our Canonical List of Digital Camera Scene Settings and find out!

     

Canon Digital Rebel T4i

 

A Great DSLR Camera For Beginners: Canon Rebel T4i

Canon EOS Rebel T4i body only: Adorama price: $799. Get current price.     


Overview: The Canon T4i, while being touted as a starter DSLR, is in many ways almost as sophisticated as the prosumer-oriented Canon 7D and enthusiast-level 60D models. Canon is calling the Rebel T4i the most sophisticated Rebel-class DSLR yet. With an 18MP APS CMOS sensor, a new DIGIC 5 image processor, 5 fps, on-screen help, and a new, snapshooter-friendly 3-inch flip-out touch screen, it borrows key features from the prosumer-level 7D as well as from lower-end models while adding some neat tricks of its own. The T4i's performance is said to be the fastest yet, with a hybrid live CMOS AF system for faster autofocus and an ISO range that can top out at 25000. Bottom line? If you're coming from the point-and-shoot world, simply put the camera on auto and shoot away; you won't be disappointed. But when you're ready to grow as a photographer, the T4i will still be there with enough features to keep you interested and happy. Read our First Look for details.


The Juicy Details: 18MP APS sensor measures 14.9x22.3mm; ISO range 100-12800, expandable to 25000; 9-point cross-type Hybrid CMOS AF system; multi-shot noise reduction; Movie Servo AF; Touch-Screen 3pinch LCD monitor; beginner-friendly Feature Guide; Scene Intelligent Auto; HDR Backlight Control; 7 Creative Filters (Grainy Black and White, Soft Focus, Fish-eye Effect, Toy Camera Effect, Miniature Effect).


What's special about this camera? Amazing bang for buck, a great camera for beginners to grow with as well as an affordable, capable second body for owners of more advanced cameras.

The system: An extensive range of Canon lenses from the mid-range "kit"zoom lens (kit lenses are typically 18-55mm, with smaller apertures. They are relatively inexpensive; quality is usually good enough for up to 8x10 prints) to a wide range of pro optics. Canon was the first camera company to offer image stabilization in its lenses, and offers a wide range of IS lenses if you are willing to pony up the extra cash. Most Canon lenses are extremely quiet and autofocus quickly and decisively.

Who would love it: Snapshooters with ambitions to improve their photography, enthusiasts looking for a low-cost body that provides optimal image quality in low light.

Lab test results (Provided by DxOMark):
Maximum ISO for acceptable image quality (digital noise): 800
Maximum ISO for acceptable dynamic range: 800
Color depth: Very Good (21.7 bits on a scale of 1-25)
Overall image quality: Very Good (62 on a scale of 1-100)
Dynamic range: Up to 11.2 stops

The Canon T4i's image quality performance is roughly equal to that of its predecessor, the T3i, with several new features mentioned above. Image quality is more than sufficient for general photography in most light situations.

Bargain Alert: The very capable Canon T3i ($599 body only) is still available, and with the announcement of the T4i its price has dropped.

     

Nikon D3200

 

Nikon D3200 is a Smart Choice For DSLR Camera Beginners

Adorama price: $596.95 with Kit Lens. Get current price.
     

Overview: With the Nikon D3200 (which replaces the D3100 in the Nikon DSLR lineup) Nikon has raised the bar for image resolution in the sub-$700 camera category. With an announced price of $699.95, the D3200 combines a 24MP DX-format (APS) CMOS sensor that measures 15.4x23.2mm with a feature set that's designed to please snapshooters who are stepping up from point-and-shoot photography and for more serious shooters looking for a low-cost second body. Nikon's popular Guide Mode, which was introduced with the D3000, offers on-screen guidance for beginners and holds your hand as it allows you to explore the camera's range of creative picture-taking options. Full HD 1080p video capture should appeal to budget-conscious videographers. The camera is lightweight; it is well-suited for soccer moms who want to capture Junior's sports activities with its 4 fps burst rate. The Nikon D3200 is compatible with a new WU-1a Wireless Mobile Adapter ($58), which can send images to mobile devices like smartphones and tablets and let you control the camera remotely from your device (Android app available now, iPhone/iPad version coming in the fall).
 

The juicy details: 24MP DX CMOS sensor, ISO range 100-5400, expandable to 12800. 3-inch, 921k monitor; 1080p HD video at 24, 30fps; stereo mic jack; 4fps burst rate; 11-point autofocus system; guide mode; 6 scene modes (Portrait, Landscape, Child, Sports, Close-Up, Night Portrait). Compatible with Nikon FX-format and DX-format lenses, Nikon Speedlight strobes.

Tip: The 18-55mm kit lens offers excellent resolution for most snapshots and prints up to 8x10. However, because the D3200 lacks an internal focusing motor, some older Nikon lenses may not focus automatically. They will focus manually, however.

What's special about this camera? Super-high resolution, legendary flash system and Nikon lenses.

The system: Over 70 current-production Nikon lenses and teleconverters (including close-up lenses, fisheyes, superwides, long zooms, Vibration Reduction lenses, and super telephotos) are available (although some may not focus automatically), plus eight flash units, many with wireless operation.

Lab test results (Provided by DxOMark):
Maximum ISO for acceptable image quality (digital noise): 1600
Maximum ISO for acceptable dynamic range: 1600
Color depth: Outstanding (24.1 bits on a scale of 1-25)
Overall image quality: Excellent (81 on a scale of 1-100)
Dynamic range: Up to 13.1 stops
The Nikon D3200's sensor showed one of the best performances of all APS sensors tested by DxOMark Labs. This includes a 13-stop Dynamic range and 42db signal-noise ratio at its native ISO (100). When applying noise reduction this camera should deliver excellent image quality for just about all uses right up to ISO 1600. Tested ISO is consistantly half a stop lower than the indicated one.


Who would love it: First-time DSLR buyers who don't expect to go beyond that. Snapshooters can cruise in auto or grow in their abilities by experimenting with its For pros, it has enough features to qualify it as a worthy back-up camera, and since it is light and small it wouldn't add significantly to a pro's gadget-bag payload.


Next step up: The enthusiast-level Nikon D7000, with its 16MP sensor, ability to record 1080p HD videos, and incredible ISO range of 100-51,200, has been rocking the photo world since its introduction in Fall 2010 and is hard to keep in stock due to high demand. Once you are ready to take the D3100’s triaining wheels (read: Help function) off, the D7000 may be the next camera for you.

 

Pentax K-30

 

The Pentax K-30 Serves as an Ideal Digital Camera For New DSLR Users

Adorama price: $796.95 with kit lens, also available in blue. Get current price.

Overview: If you're stepping up from a compact camera to a DSLR to improve image quality, the K-30 should be at the top of your list. As one of the top cameras for overall image quality, the K-30 has an ISO range up to 25,600, which makes it a great camera to have in low-light situations. If you prefer letting the camera make exposure decisions for you, the K-30 is an expert, thanks to its Auto Picture mode, which can take the guesswork out of picture taking. However, if you are more advanced, the camera offers many ways to manually control exposure. The camera also offers many features you'd expect of a more expensive model: You can capture rapid action sequences at 6 frames per second, built-in HDR improves shadow and highlight detail capture, and use the camera's wide-range of in-camera special filters and effects creative results.


Do you sacrifice quality for the camera's low price? No way. In fact, the K-30's test results blow away the image quality of any Pentax DSLR that preceded it. See DxOMark.com's full image quality test results, below.
 
The juicy details: Beginners can simply put the camera, with its  16MP sensor that measures 15.7x23.7mm, in its green mode and start shooting. It's that simple. Press a button to flip up the on-board flash. The optical anti-shake reduction makes it possible to shoot in lower light without flash. When photographing parties and post groups, the camera's Face Detection can ID up to 16 faces in a scene and optimize focus and exposure.

For more advanced shooters, as well as for those who want to grow as photographers, there are mode dials, a multi-function four-way controller, and switches that take you under the hood so you can tinker with focus, exposure, color balance and more. You can choose between standard JPEG format and the higher-quality RAW format. The camera can handle ISO 100-12,800, and has a shutter speed range of 30-1/6000 sec. Focusing can be manual, spot or wide, and digital filters that include: Toy Camera, High Contrast, Soft, Starburst, Retro, Color Extract (N/A) Custom Image Modes includes Bright, Natural, Portrait, Landscape, Vibrant and Monochrome modes; Color Custom Image Modes include gamut radar and fine adjustment for saturation, hue, contrast and sharpness; Monochrome Custom Image Mode includes adjustment for film filter effects (green, yellow, orange, red, magenta, blue, cyan, infrared), toning (sepia warm/cool), contrast and sharpness (regular and fine adj scales). 

What's special about this camera? It's simple, inexpensive, and small from a company known for producing SLRs with staying power.  And it has...drumroll please...true 3-exposure HDR, which combines an overexposure, underexposure and normal exposure to bring out more details in shadows and highlights.

The system: Pentax has spent decades perfecting the art of lensmaking. And while you can get great shots with the kit lens that is bundled with the camera, the Pentax lens mount is compatible with just about any lens Pentax has ever made (although you may lose some automation with the older lenses). Explore bargain used lenses, which throws enough light to supplement the small, built-in, flip-up flash.

Lab test results (Provided by DxOMark):
Maximum ISO for acceptable image quality: ISO 800
Maximum ISO for acceptable dynamic range: ISO 1600
Color depth: Excellent (23.7 on a scale of 1-25)
Overall image quality: Excellent (79 on a scale of 1-100)
Low-light performance is exceptional.

Who would love it: Snapshooters for whom image quality is a high priority, low-light photography fans students and travelers to more serious photographers who want HD video, in-camera HDR and image quality that rivals that of cameras costing twice as much.

 

 

Sony Alpha 65 

The Sony Alpha 65 Will Help Beginners Learn About DSLR Cameras

Adorama price: $798 with kit lens, after $200 instant rebate. Get current price.
       
Overview: The A65 represents a great value and comes fully loaded with 1080p HD video recording capabilities (in 30 min intervals) and built-in GPS. Its Function Guide provides intuitive on-screen help for those who are not yet comfortable with SLR controls while offering respectable specifications, impressive image quality, and good performance. Sony offers a diverse and growing lineup of lenses, from basic kit-type lenses to fancy Zeiss-designed optics—and the cameras are compatible with classic Minolta mount SLR lenses.


The juicy details: While the price is entry-level, the features are enthusiast-friendly: In addition to built-in SteadyShot image stabilization (which is compatible with all Minolta-mount lenses), the camera has a big 24.3MP APS-C CCD sensor that measured 15.6x23.5 mm with reduced noise and the ability to make poster-sized prints and to crop considerably and still get crisp prints. Specs include a 3-inch LCD monitor, ISO range 100-16000, Eye-start AF, 15-point cross sensor AF, up to 10fps continuous shooting, pop-up flash, Dynamic Range Optimizer, Anti-Dust technology, creative style settings.


What's so special about this camera? If you own one or more of the millions of Minolta lenses out there, you already know the answer.

The system: In addition to all of those already-owned Minolta lenses, Sony has a full line (over 25) lenses in the Alpha/Maxxum mount, many of which are made for Sony by Carl Zeiss.

Lab test results (Provided by DxOMark):
Maximum ISO for acceptable image quality: ISO 600
Maximum ISO for acceptable dynamic range: ISO 800
Color depth: Excellent (23.4 bits on a scale of 1-25)
Overall image quality: Very good (74 on a scale of 1-100)

Who would love it: First-time DSLR users, and anyone who needs to keep their payload light and small. It's a great camera if you want to learn as you shoot! And if you used to own a Minolta SLR and still have the lenses, they'll fit on the Sony. The interchangeable lens mount is the same.

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