Are you in the market for a DSLR camera? This buyer’s guide is dedicated to the best entry-level, mid-level and professional APS-C DSLR cameras available at the moment.
Centerpiece of photography, the DSLR camera is the go-to camera for demanding photographers. These last few years, and despite the competition from hybrid cameras, digital DSLR cameras have continued to evolve by focusing on image quality and versatility, thanks to an ever increasing selection of available lenses.
Why buy a DSLR camera?
DSLR cameras are still the most well regarded cameras by any serious photographer because of the considerable advantages that they offer over other types of devices. Their continuous development over the last few years has transformed DSLR cameras into tried and true devices with better autonomy and longevity (this last factor varies depending on the product level).
DSLR cameras also offer the user manual control, for incomparable responsiveness, by means of direct access to settings via numerous buttons. Speaking of responsiveness, DSLR cameras are the fastest and most responsive cameras around, even though hybrid cameras are catching up to them in this regard.
Lastly, an optical viewfinder and a large range of lenses make DSLR cameras the most comfortable and versatile devices to use. Despite all of these factors, it should be remembered that DSLR cameras are usually much bulkier, heavier, and more expensive (especially when adding a good-quality lens to the bundle) than the other types of cameras available in the marketplace.
This guide is exclusively dedicated to APS-C sensor DSLR cameras, as opposed to full frame models. The main difference between these two types of DSLR cameras is in the size of their respective sensors. I invite you to read our full frame DSLR camera buyer’s guide to better understand the differences between them.
In terms of ISO sensitivity, you will see that the entry-level APS-C DSLR cameras that we will be discussing are capable of increasing their sensitivity up to 3200 ISO. The mid-level and professional models are able to do better, but even these cameras quickly reach the limits of what is possible with APS-C sensors, which by definition have difficulty offering good image quality at high ISO sensitivities – due to their too densely packed photosites.
Entry-level models are gaining in performance and dropping in price
If you are just starting out in photography and you are not looking to break the bank, the following cameras will grant you a good degree of creative freedom thanks to their manual settings, the great image quality of their APS-C sensors and their versatility. For a number of years now, these cameras have been evolving into very decent devices which offer surprisingly good results considering how little they cost.
The Canon EOS SL1 and the Nikon D3300
The Canon EOS SL1 is the smallest DSLR camera with an optical viewfinder and is a good choice for those starting out in DSLR camera photography. Equipped with an 24.2 megapixel sensor and inheriting components from the T6i, it is light-weight (453 g) and has an excellent Dual Pixel autofocus which allows this camera to do something crazy: on its touchscreen, you can indicate with your fingertip what zone you want to be in focus, and the camera will take care of the rest. It’s image quality – up to 51200 ISO – is respectable for an entry-level camera and despite its small size, it is still an easy and comfortable camera to hold, with a real DSLR camera viewfinder. It can be purchased from 549$ dollars without any lens but we recommend that you buy the kit which includes the EF-S 18-55 mm IS STM lens for a total of 599 dollars. For this price, this camera is a very good choice for people looking to become initiated into the world of DSLR photography.
Launched at the very beginning of 2014, the Nikon D3300 took over for the already very good D3200. It is a well-built, responsive and silent camera. It also incorporates the 24 megapixel sensor used on the Nikon D7100 which allows it to increase its ISO sensitivity up to 3200 ISO without digital noise. It is also very light-weight (460g) and features a Guide menu which makes it easier to use. The only real downside is that its 18-55 mm zoom is retractable, which adds an extra step before being able to use the camera (the user needs to rotate the ring around the zoom to deploy the lens). In a kit with the stabilized 18-55 mm lens, the D3300 can be purchased starting at 450 dollars.
Making its debut at the end of 2016, the Nikon D3400 is now the successor to the D3300. However, there are no major differences between these two cameras: they have the same design, same size, same photographic performance characteristics, same sensor… Ultimately, the only real change is the addition of the SnapBridge feature which allows for the transfer of photos via a Bluetooth connection to a smartphone or tablet, even when the camera is switched off. Just a side note: it does not have WiFi capability. None of its new features are revolutionary, since the D3400 can be bought in a kit with the 18-55 mm lens starting from 496 dollars, the difference in price between it and the D3300 is hardly significant. (Check current price and user reviews on Amazon)
The Pentax K-50, an entry-level weatherproof DSLR
If you are looking for a compact and resilient entry-level DSLR camera to take with you on your travels, the Pentax K-50 is weatherproof (resistant to all kinds of weather conditions, namely splashing water and dust, but for this type of use you will also need weatherproof (WR) lenses) and has some serious advantages: a 16 megapixel Sony sensor, a 100% viewfinder, two settings dials (for added comfort), an intervalometer, an electronic level, a 6 images/second burst mode and very good responsiveness. If you intend to travel with this camera, consider buying a second battery since the autonomy of this type of camera is not very good (around 400 exposures). Otherwise, consider buying the D-BH109 adapter which allows you to supply power via 4 AA batteries – which is practical in isolated geographical areas. It is also worth mentioning that the weatherproofing of this camera makes it a little bit heavier than others (650g). It is available starting at 680 dollars in a kit with the 18-55 mm lens; you would be hard-pressed to find a better mid-level DSLR camera for taking on your adventures.
Mid-level: the Canon T7i/77D and the Nikon D5500, the best of enemies
After having discussed some entry-level DSLR cameras, the following will deal with more complete models geared towards photographers looking to get a little bit more out of their cameras. These cameras also provide superior image quality as well as additional manual / professional adjustments. Within this product-level, we will continue to indicate the kit price, but if you would really like to get the most out of your DSLR camera, we recommend that you consult our lens buyer’s guide. Reminder: when buying a DSLR camera, do not allocate the totality of your budget to the purchase of the camera itself, make sure to also choose a good lens – or several – since they will last, as an investment, for years to come.
In 2017, Canon is renewing its line of mid-level DSLR cameras with two new models meant to replace the EOS T6i and T6s released in 2015: the EOS T7i and the 77D. However, for the time being, the T6s is still coexisting with its successor, the 77D. Just like their predecessors were, these two cameras have more or less the same components, with a few differences: the T7i is more geared towards the general public while the 77D, which dropped the last number in its name to more clearly place itself behind the 80D, is geared towards enlightened amateurs who are looking for a feature-rich and ergonomic camera.
Both of these cameras use the same 24 megapixel CMOS APS-C sensor, and DIGIC 7 processor. They both have a more extended AF than their predecessors: 45 intersecting collimators. These cameras are able to increase their ISO sensitivity up to 25,600 ISO (can be extended up to 51,200 ISO) and are able to capture up to 6 RAW or JPG images per second. They both have the same connectivity (Bluetooth, WiFi, NFC) and can both record video in Full HD definition. With the release of these two new cameras, Canon has also released a new 18-55 mm kit lens which is smaller than previous versions, stabilized and has an STM motor for silent autofocusing. One downside of this lens is that its minimum aperture opening is f/4.
Nevertheless, where the 77D sets itself apart from its fraternal twin is in terms of its ergonomics since it has an extra dial at the back of its case, customizable buttons and a top-mounted LCD control display. Lastly, while the 77D retains the use of a classic menu, the 800D offers, by default, a guided interface, which is very helpful for novice users (which can however be deactivated) who can take advantage of the supplementary information and recommendations such as what type of photo should be taken with each setting for example. While this type of menu is not turned on by default on the 77D, it can still be activated.
The T7i is sold without a lens for 699$, and in a kit with the 18-55 mm lens starting from 749$. The 77D, alone, sells for 649$, and 799$ if purchased in the kit. The price difference between them is minimal, especially in terms of the kit! That is why we recommend the 77D over the T7i, since they both have the same weight and bulk and practically identical components – especially since the simplified menu can be activated on the 77D.
The T6i and T6s are still available, and their lower prices can be attractive: from 549$ for the T6i (without a lens) and 683$ for the T6s (without a lens). If you have to choose between these two, we recommend the more complete T6s (Amazon).
The Nikon D5500 has taken over for the Nikon D5300 by perfectly situating itself between the Nikon D3300 and the Nikon D7200. Compared to its big brother, the D5500 has undergone an impressive ergonomic evolution: the grip is more defined, the case is more robust thanks its carbon fiber construction which also makes it lighter (420g instead of 530g). Some other ergonomic improvements here and there combine to give this camera a very professional appearance. The device still has WiFi connectivity, but strangely enough, Nikon has removed its built-in GPS – which was a highly appreciated feature. Perhaps there was a problem related to battery life, we don’t really know. The D5500’s pivoting display is now a touchscreen. On the inside, the camera uses the same components as the D5300: a 24 megapixel sensor without a low-pass filter, borrowed from the D7100 which produces very good-quality images up to an ISO sensitivity of 3200 ISO. It also incorporates an Expeed 4 processor which allows it to rival Canon’s 750D and 800D. The final choice between these cameras will come down to a matter of ergonomics and the types of lenses that you will be interested in mounting on them. The D5500 is available from 796 dollars in a kit with a 18-55 mm lens. (This product has been discontinued)
Update 26/06/2017: The Nikon D5600, the successor to the D5500, was released at the end of November 2016. But, in our opinion, it hasn’t introduced enough innovations to justify its price, apart from SnapBridge connectivity, and it is more or less identical to its predecessor. In a kit with a 18-55 mm lens – it is now available starting at 696 dollars. (Check current price and user reviews on Amazon)
For enthusiasts: Nikon D7500 and Canon 80D
Let’s move on to the “enthusiasts” product line, where you will find APS-C DSLR cameras designed for performance, with impressive burst rates, rugged cases, and a complete range of settings. We will only be indicating the bare price of the cameras (no lens) in this product line since if you would really like to take advantage of these cameras, we highly recommend that you acquire another lens in addition to the one that comes in the kit – which is often very limited.
Announced in April 2017, for its release in June, the Nikon D7500 is not really a replacement for another camera, instead it incorporates elements from both the D500 and the D7200. In this way, it is geared towards expert amateurs who are looking for good performance, excellent image quality and improved ergonomics at a reasonable price. To do so, it makes use of the same EXPEED5 processor and the 20.9 megapixel APS-C sensor as the D500 (fewer megapixels than the D7200’s 24.2) as well as a range of ISO sensitivity extending from 100 to 51 200 ISO. It is able to shoot up to 8 images/second (with a 50 RAW image and 100 JPG image buffer). Like the D500, it is also able to film in Full HD definition with stabilization as well as in 4K definition.
It also reuses the D7200’s 51 collimator autofocus system which is able to reach -3 IL sensitivity – useful in low light situations. The D7500 has WiFi, Bluetooth and SnapBridge connectivity.
Finally, compared to the D7200, the D7500 has improved ergonomics as well as an improved grip. It has also incorporated a pivoting touchscreen which is especially useful for shooting video. You can also add reduced weight its list of improvements since the D7500 is lighter than the D500.
It is available from 1,146$ (without a lens), making it less expensive than the D500 which sells for around 1896$, but much more expensive than the D7200 which can be had starting at 996$.
Competing with the D7500 is the Canon 80D, released in the summer of 2016, which offers interesting alternative in several regards. It differentiates itself from its competition by having an improved video autofocus (Canon’s Dual Pixel AF works like a charm compared to Nikon’s). Compared to the 70D, the 80D’s autofocus now has 45 intersecting collimators, versus the 19 it had before. The pivoting display is a great new addition, even though using its touchscreen functionality is a matter of taste. In burst mode, the 80D matches the 70D’s capabilities – 7 images/second, and is able to record up to 110 JPEG images and 25 RAW images with a UHS-I memory card. With its high-performance 24 megapixel sensor the ISO sensitivity can be increased to 1600 without any difficulty; digital noise only begins to appear around 3200 ISO. The Canon 80D is extremely versatile and pretty convincing as a professional DSLR camera. It is a shame however that Canon has not integrated a dual card reader into this camera. Fortunately it is WiFi capable.
In this face-off between the two brands, it is hard to determine a winner: both cameras have a sensor with a megapixel count between 20 and 24. The D7500 is better at handling high ISO sensitivity and its color rendition is also more accurate; on the other hand, the 80D is much better at capturing video and has a very effective Dual AF. The D7500’s case is more refined and more resilient; it also has 2 SD slots and now has a pivoting touchscreen.
In terms of price, the Nikon D7500 is newer and therefore more expensive than the 80D which is much more affordable, selling for around 999$ instead of the 1146$ that the Nikon D7500 retails for. If you are unsure as to which model to choose, be sure to try them both out in reality since ergonomics could be a deciding factor for you. Another important factor is the range of available lenses of each of the manufactures.
Within this product line can also be found Sony’s Alpha 77 II which has a 24 megapixel sensor and a 79 point AF. For people who like SLT viewfinders (Sony’s electronic viewfinder technology; the camera also offers good performance in the Live View mode), this camera can be purchased from 1198$ – lens not included. (Check current price and user reviews on Amazon)
Pentax’s K-3 II is the spearhead for professional excursion DSLR cameras, with a weatherproof case, a 24 megapixel APS-C stabilized sensor – without a low-pass filter – a 100% viewfinder and very good responsiveness whether you are using the SAFOX 11 to 27 collimator autofocus or taking 8.3 images/second in burst mode (JPG or RAW format). This camera also has a GPS and WiFi, but no built-in flash. The GPS, in addition to allowing you to geotag your photos, also has an astronomical tracking function which could be interesting for astrophotographers. This camera introduces a nice new feature: the Resolution mode which allows you to take several photos and to create a file without moiré and with superior sharpness. The camera can be purchased starting at 799 dollars. (Check current price and user reviews on Amazon)
Nikon D500 and Canon 7D Mark II, the professional APS-C DSLR cameras
Long overlooked by manufacturers, the professional APS-C DSLR camera product line is making its comeback with the new Nikon D500 announced for release in 2016.
The Nikon D500 is the successor to the Nikon D300(s). It has everything one could expect of a professional full frame DSLR camera in an APS-C design: 20 megapixel sensor, fast autofocus, 10 images/second burst mode in RAW format, all-weather construction. This camera was, incidentally, directly inspired by the Nikon D5, Nikon’s flagship model. It has a pivoting display and is able to record video in 4K definition. In low-light conditions it can perform miracles thanks to its ability to increase ISO sensitivity up to 1 640,000 ISO. Until 1 600 ISO, we found the digital noise to be negligible. Past 1,600 ISO and up to 6,400 ISO, we started to see some digital noise, but not enough for the image to suffer too much from smoothing or dynamic loss. Starting at 12 800 ISO, the digital noise became more obvious and the details became more attenuated. Beyond 51 200 ISO, image quality deteriorates and color fidelity decreases, even if it is still possible to recover detail in post processing when using RAW format. At 1 640,000 ISO, there is not much detail left at all, but the image is captured nevertheless.
In our opinion, Nikon’s D500 is its most mature APS-C DSLR camera. Despite a somewhat conservative design, this camera has everything that professional photographers want. It is rather expensive – sold without a lens for around 1896$ – and it won’t fit into everyone’s budget. But, once you start using it, it won’t be long before you forget about how much you paid for it. In our opinion, this is the best professional APS-C DSLR camera for sports, action or nature photography.
With the 7D Mark II, Canon was attempting to put the technology found in its full frame cameras into a more compact format, taking inspiration from the 5D Mark III for the general ergonomics (it even has the pop-up flash), and from the EOS-1D X for the autofocus and burst mode features (up to 10 images/second). From the 70D, it borrowed its improved 20 megapixel sensor as well as its Dual Pixel AF (65 points) which allows for phase detection autofocusing which is more fluid as well as faster. This camera’s exposure metering is also excellent. It you are interested in knowing exactly where you took each of your photos, you will be happy to know that this camera has a built-in GPS, but Canon did not include WiFi connectivity. The camera’s case is weatherproof and has slots for 1 SD card as well as 1 CF storage card. Video lovers will be interested to know that this camera is able to film in 1080p definition at 50 fps and that the Dual Pixel AF does a good job at tracking subjects.
Aging, the 7D Mark II is more affordable than the Nikon D500: the camera – lens not included – can be purchased starting from 1069 dollars. It is important to remember that the camera should not be your only consideration, and that sometimes the choice of lenses offered by a manufacturer will make all the difference (see our lens buyer’s guide).
You should be able to find your ideal camera among this selection of APS-C DSLR models. You can also explore our other buyer’s guides, like our full frame DSLR camera buyer’s guide. These last few years, some manufacturers such as Nikon have been going all out trying to offer ever more powerful cameras.