A digital single lens reflex camera used to reside in the realm of the still photographer. But the landscape changed in 2008 once the ability to shoot high-quality video evolved.
DSLRs have experienced remarkable improvements in capture quality, with sensor resolution now up to 36 megapixels (MP) in some of the latest flagship models. The DSLR models listed here can shoot video in HD - either 720 or 1080, and some in the highest 1080/60p mode.
The hallmark of DSLRs has been the availability of a wide variety of interchangeable lenses. We also have another category of smaller digital cameras with smaller interchangeable lenses - but lacking the mirror systems which made their predecessor DSLRs larger and heavier.
In this buyer's guide we break down the DSLR camera category by type of shooter - beginner, intermediate, and advanced user, and give you some tips on what to look for in each user category. For the smaller, interchangeable lens cameras we'll highlight models and features from the leading camera companies.
Beginner Range DSLRs ($500 to $1,000)
Important performance features to look for are: sensor size, resolution (MP), image stabilization (IS), sensitivity (ISO), HD video capability, included kit lens, viewfinder/LCD, size and weight. Sensor size is measured in millimeters, resolution typically ranges from 10-18MP, representing millions of pixels. The higher the MP number, the greater the amount of pixels defining each image.
Image stabilization is a critical "must have" feature for stills or video. When hand-holding the camera, IS minimizes camera shake. ISO is a range of how well the camera can shoot in low light. The high ISOs, greater than 1000, allow more detail to be captured without additional light. Unfortunately higher ISOs also introduce degrading image noise.
Nikon has four models: D3100 ($650), D3200 ($700), D5100 ($750), and the D90 ($900). With the exception of the 18-55mm lens with the D3100, each may be found for its body only price. The D90 has 12MP and add two MP respectively when you look to the D3100 then D5100. HD video recording at 24fps is available on each model. Since these cameras use Nikon DX sensors, the effective focal length is a 1.5x multiplication factor. Body weight is very light,16-22oz, depending on model.
Canon has four DSLR models: EOS 60D ($1,000), EOS T3i ($750), EOS T2i ($600), EOS T3 (with lens, $550). The included 18-55mm IS zoom kit lens is very practical. Each model can record HD video at 1080p at 30/25/24fps with the exception of the T3 which is capable of 30 and 25fps. All four have a focal length magnification factor of 1.6x, and while the 60D, T3i and T2i have 18MP, the T3 has 12MP. All models (save for the T3) have optical viewfinders, while the LCD is 3-inches except for the T3 at 2.7-inches. With body-only weights between 15 and 24oz. these are very easy to hand-hold.
Sony offers its Translucent Mirror Technology in a couple different models, notably, the SLT-A65VK (with lens, $1,000) and the SLT-A57K ($700). A good 24MP resolution is present in the A65, but shifts down to 16MP for the A57. HD video can be captured at 1080, with frame rates at 60p or 24p. The A65 also has a high resolution OLED viewfinder (2.3 million dots), which is unique among DSLRs. Both Sony SLTs have IS built into their camera bodies, so there's no need to buy more expensive IS lenses. The A57 also has an external microphone jack for recording quality audio.
Intermediate Range DSLRs ($1,001 to $2,000)
It's all about more performance in the intermediate class - and that comes by way of improved image sensors, and faster still image capture. We're looking at these as body-only models, but a wide variety of affordable interchangeable lenses are available.
Nikon has two models - the D7000 ($1,200), and the D300S ($1,700), with resolutions of 16MP and 12MP respectively. The D7000 captures stills at 6fps while the slightly speedier D300S shoots up to 7fps. Be aware that the D300S shoots video in AVI at 1280x720 and 24p, but the D7000 can capture 1920x1080 and 24p.
Canon's EOS 7D ($1,700) has an excellent 18MP CMOS sensor, and can also shoot HD video at 1080, 24p/25p or 720, 50p/60p. The EOS 60Da fits our intermediate category but is tailored for the astrophotographer and in terms of video capability is the same as the 60D, so don't get mixed up. Canon offers a wide variety of EF prime and zoom lenses in many popular focal lengths and each is compatible with the 7D and 60D.
Sony's flagship 24MP SLT-A77V ($1,400), is a speed demon when it comes to stills at 12fps. Thanks to their unique Translucent Mirror Technology, the A77 is a videographer's dream camera - offering full time continuous auto focus, and capturing HD video at 1080 with 60p, or 24p frame rate. The selectable 16000 ISO represents exceptional range. The A77's OLED viewfinder can display five important controls, and shows images in vivid color with real-time adjustments. Sony A-mount lens are compatible.
Olympus' flagship E-5 ($1,700) gets 12MP and has a 3-inch swivel LCD. The E-5 may use a full library of Zuiko Digital lenses, and is a rugged DSLR. Video recording is at 720p resolution. The recording format is AVI Motion JPEG with a maximum HD recording time of seven minutes.
Advanced DSLRs ($2,001 to $6,000)
In this category, it's all about image quality and audio capability. Image quality is largely determined by sensor size, and here you'll find larger sensors from the APS variety up to largest "full frame" type - 35mm with resolutions reaching 36MP. Full frame sensors are the "holy grail" of advanced and pro users because with them, one can use the entire focal length of a lens, not some magnified factor equivalent. Most DSLRs carry some type of mic, but having an external mic jack is a differentiating factor. Physicality is again an issue since all the high-end models are on the heavy side at about two pounds; you won't be hand-holding them for long!
Nikon has the D4 ($6,000) and D800 ($3,000). First, the D800 uses the new "king of the hill" 36MP full-frame FX CMOS sensor. Other pro features include: magnesium alloy frame for durability with dirt and moisture-proof construction. It has high and expandable ISO with low noise, an external mic jack, and uncompressed HDMI video output for broadcast quality external HD video capture. On the negative side, its body alone is hefty at 32oz. Nikon's D4 has made big splashes so far with its 16MP and FX CMOS sensor. It features a 2.7x crop mode that allows full resolution at the 2.7 magnification and can take 2MP stills while shooting 1080p video. Control a stereo mic with on-screen audio levels and 20-step adjustments. Mass may be an issue here since the D4 weighs in at 42oz.
Canon offers two models - the EOS 5D Mark III ($3,500) and the EOS 5D Mark II ($2,200). The lesser-costing, 5D Mark II has video captured at 1080 resolution. Both models have full frame CMOS sensors, and their video frame rates include 30p, 25p and 24p. The 5D Mark III features a 61-point auto focus system to help ensure effective use of its 22MP resolution. Couple either of these camera bodies with a EF prime lens f/1.8 or less and it's possible to achieve true cinema-like shallow depth of field. Many low budget features have been shot with the 5D Mark II for this very reason. The 5D Mark II weighs in 20oz. and the 5D Mark III is 30oz., making the magnesium alloy construction well worth the weight.
These cameras are characterized by smaller and lighter bodies, without mirrors but with EVFs, and smaller interchangeable lenses. Sony, Panasonic, and Olympus are leaders in this newest category so we'll focus on their models. We'll also highlight the Canon EOS M.
The Sony NEX-5N (with lens, $700) has 16MP resolution, while the NEX-7 (with lens, $1,350) has 24MP. The NEX-7 has the same OLED viewfinder as the A77 that displays clearly in varied shooting conditions. Both NEX-5N and NEX-7 models can shoot stills at a speedy 10fps. E-mount lenses are available for both models. Video is captured in 1080 at 60p or 24p, and can be output via HDMI Mini. Make the most of manual focus with a peaking function that highlights the edges of what's in focus. Both models are very lightweight, about 10oz. (body only).
Panasonic offers five cameras in the Lumix G series, the DMC-G3 ($600), DMC-GF5 (with lens, $600), DMC-G5 (with lens, $800), DMC-GX1 ($700) and the DMC-GH2 (with lens, $1,000). Each one except the GF5 has 16MP resolution, a 3-inch touch LCD, and an EVF. These can record to the limit of the SD memory card or as many as 30 minutes.
Olympus offers six models, for example, the E-P3 ($900) and E-PM1 ($500). These models have 12MP and use the Micro Four Thirds Lens system. They shoot 1080 at 60i. A negative for this series is no external microphone ports.
Olympus' newest OM-D E-M5 ($1,000), is a retro digital version of the classic OM series SLRs. The 16MP OMD E-M5 is built-into a lightweight 15oz. aluminum, magnesium-alloy frame that is dustproof and splashproof. Five axis IS helps eliminate five different forms of unwanted camera movement. The 3D AF tracking feature is also perfect for video capture with rapidly moving subjects. The built-in 1.4 million dot high resolution EVF has unique real-time features such as monitoring exposure adjustments. HD video is either 1080i or 720p. Rare among all cameras is the 3-inch tilting/touch OLED display screen. The level of control over exposure and focus give this camera plenty of uses.
Nikon has a couple competing models: the 1 J1 and 1 V1. The 1 J1 is available in four different lens kits starting at $650. The more expensive 1 V1 is available for $900 for the single zoom lens or $1,150 for either the wide angle or telephoto zoom kit. The Nikon 1 V1 and 1 J1 CMOS sensors are a fraction of the size of the APS standard, but deliver good image quality with 10MP resolution. Video can be recorded at 720, 60p and 1080, 60i/30p. Unique features of these cameras are the slow-motion modes - 400 and 1,200 fps. The viewing screen is a fixed 3-inch diagonal LCD. Small size and weight are paramount in the Nikon 1, with the bodies weighing in at 8.3oz. and 10.4oz for the 1 J1 and 1 V1 respectively.
Finally Canon recently developed the EOS M (with lens, $800) which comes with a solid 18MP CMOS sensor and can use Canon's EF lenses.
There are other things to consider before popping for one of these cameras: What is the maximum HD recording time? How convenient is it to make audio recording adjustments? Do you want to create cinematic video with full depth of field control? Could you manipulate the focus or other features while shooting handheld?
Many cameras here can record a maximum of 29 minutes per shot. If you need longer recording time, such as for events, you might be better served with a traditional camcorder without the recording time limits.
Next, how easy is it to make changes in audio recording level? Only a few camera models in this overview offer an external microphone input with full manual control, the Canon 5D Mark II being a popular choice. If you want full depth of field control, then a DSLR with a "fast" prime lens is your only answer. Only through the use of such a lens with a wide f-stop can you achieve the narrow depth of field that is the cinematic standard today.
All the best DSLRs and mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras have manual features. You're going to have to practice your manual focus before you achieve that smooth rack focus - something you would expect from a traditional camcorder.
Any of these DSLR or mirrorless cameras can capture outstanding still images. But depending on your needs, or existing compliment of lenses you might also find them essential for shooting video as well. The era of the all-in-one camera/HD camcorder seems to be finally at hand. Happy shopping!
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Tony Gomez is a veteran producer, editor, videographer, digital photographer, and reviewer of consumer and professional digital imaging and video products, with over 30 years experience.