While recent years have seen mirrorless cameras growing in popularity, DSLR cameras still hold a place in many photographers’ tools of the trade. They still come with several advantages that make them top-notch choices, especially for pro photographers. These include optical viewfinder benefits, better ergonomics, longer-lasting batteries, and wider lens selection.
More and more DSLRs are also becoming cheaper, making them more affordable ways to get into photography compared to mirrorless cameras.
That said, there are still some really incredible cameras that are available as pretty good deals. Keep in mind, however, that the best DSLR for you depends on your budget and what you intend to shoot with a camera. In case you’ve settled on getting a DSLR but aren’t sure yet which model to get, we’ve narrowed down the choices for you.
What We’re Looking For
Simply put, we wanted to put the spotlight on the models that carry the best combination of features that make DSLRs still great tools, at the best price points available. For example, DSLRs are obviously bigger than mirrorless cameras, but many photographers find that they are still more comfortable to hold.
We also want to see which models continue to keep their autofocus, low light performance, and video capabilities at par or better with more popular mirrorless counterparts.
As always, we also wanted to put together a selection that has something for every photographer out there, from beginners to professionals.
Our choices fall under the following categories:
- Best Overall DSLR: Canon EOS-1D X Mark III
- Best DSLR for Most People: Canon EOS 90D
- Best DSLR for Most Professionals: Nikon D850
- Best DSLR for Beginners: Canon EOS Rebel SL3
- Best Compact DSLR: Pentax K-3 Mark III
- Best DSLR for Sports: Nikon D500
- Best Bang-For-Your-Buck DSLR: Nikon D780
Best Overall DSLR: Canon EOS-1D X Mark III
Launched in early January 2020 as Canon’s latest professional flagship camera, the EOS-1D X Mark III boasted of making a remarkable jump from its predecessor for both stills and video shooting.
This full-frame DSLR is equipped with an updated 20.1 MP CMOS sensor with Dual Pixel AF, a new DIGIC X image processor, a new mirror drive mechanism for less vibration and blackout, amazingly fast continuous shooting speeds (up to 16 fps using the optical viewfinder and 20 fps in Live View), AF subject recognition using machine learning, improved Live View and viewfinder AF systems with up to 191 AF points (OVF), and dual CFExpress card slots. On the video side, it has 5.5K/60p 12-bit RAW video recording, uncropped 4K/60p 4:2:2 10-bit H.265/HEVC recording, and HEIF 10-bit recording.
With specs like these, it’s easy to see the well-rounded EOS-1D X Mark III in the hands of a good variety of photographers, most especially pro photographers shooting sports, wildlife, and events. Since the body is essentially the same as previous models, long-time Canon photographers will also be delighted to handle a camera with controls already familiar to them. The two CFExpress card slots are also handy for those who prefer having their images in two extremely fast cards instead of one.
Some may say that the D6, Nikon’s latest and greatest offering for professional sports photography, may be a contender for this category. However, the 1D X Mark III just beats it in so many categories, most notably on the continuous shooting speed, live view autofocusing, essentially unlimited buffer of 1000 shots, and video capabilities. The 1D X Mark III’s Dual Pixel CMOS AF system is also able to track subjects more accurately and achieve more precise eye autofocus compared to the D6’s much slower contrast-detect autofocus. As for video shooting, the 1 DX Mark III simply sweeps the D6 with more video features.
Best DSLR for Most People: Canon EOS 90D
A year and a half since it was released, the mid-range Canon EOS 90D is still a good and affordable DSLR for prosumers. It sports a 32.5-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor with a 1.6x crop, a DIGIC 8 image processor, a 3-inch Vari-angle LCD touchscreen display, 100% coverage optical viewfinder, and an AF joystick. Key features include a Dual Pixel CMOS AF system with 45 cross-type AF points, up to 11 fps continuous shooting, and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connection. As for shooting videos, the EOS 90D can shoot cropless UHD 4K 30p and Full HD 120p.
These are just some of the features that should be sufficient for most prosumers engaged in various kinds of photography. The EOS 90D is particularly a good choice for those who want to get into portraiture, especially with Canon’s great selection of portrait lenses. The Face Detection AF and Eye Detection AF will also help with sharply focused portraits. Since it also has weather sealing, it’s also great for travel and landscape photography. Meanwhile, its ISO range of 100-25,600 and working range of as low as -3 EV allow for accurate autofocus in low light. While the kit lens is mediocre, you can pair it with more capable glass for the photography you want to do, and you’ll get superb results.
Best DSLR for Most Professionals: Nikon D850
While the Nikon D850 is already almost four years old, this full-frame DSLR remains a capable tool for professional photographers. It boasts of a 46 MP backside-illuminated CMOS sensor, 7 fps continuous shooting mode with AE/AF, an AF system with 153 points, a 3.2” tilting touchscreen, illuminated controls, and advanced timelapse features. For video shooting, it has full-width UHD 4K capture at up to 30p, 1080 video at up to 120p, and in-camera 4K timelapse video creation. Sporting a slimmer form, better grip, and supposedly improved weather sealing, this model promises better handling and durability in various conditions.
Pro photographers will also need to be nimble in dealing with different light conditions, and this model is ready for that. The backside-illuminated sensor provides improved low light performance and image quality near the edges. As with the D810, the D850 also has the ISO 64 mode for better photos in bright conditions and a wider dynamic range. Add to all these the full AF capabilities of the D5, Nikon’s flagship sports DSLR, and you have a very capable camera for a wide range of professional applications.
The $500 price slash in October 2020 also made the D850 an even more affordable option for anyone looking into getting a full-frame professional DSLR.
Now, some of you may say that the Canon 5D Mark IV fits the bill better. However, the company’s last 5-series DSLR was actually an overall disappointment, with poor video specifications and underwhelming dynamic range. While it’s fine for a Canon shooter to theoretically upgrade over a Mark III, it actually would be smarter to move to Canon’s mirrorless offerings than to spend the money on a DSLR that was already behind the times when it launched. Of all the pro-level DSLRs, it was the weakest of the DSLR generations.
Best DSLR for Beginners: Canon EOS Rebel SL3
For those who are just getting into doing photography more seriously, the two-year-old Canon EOS Rebel SL3 would be a good jump from a smartphone camera. This ultra-compact DSLR camera comes with all the features you need to learn the ropes: 24-megapixel APS-C sensor, fast Dual Pixel on-sensor autofocus, optical viewfinder with a secondary 9-point autofocus system, a fully articulating touchscreen, 4K video recording (albeit with a 1.7x crop), WiFi with Bluetooth connectivity for transferring photos, and a battery life of up to 1,070 shots when using the optical viewfinder (320 shots when using live view with Dual Pixel AF).
In a field inundated by 24-megapixel APS-C cameras that produce great photos, what makes the Rebel SL3 a better choice than more popular mirrorless models that offer the same image quality? Mainly the excellent, beginner-friendly “guided” mode and the preference for an optical viewfinder. By using the guide mode, beginners will have a better idea about what makes a proper exposure. The optical viewfinder works great alongside this feature since you can essentially just have the guide mode on the screen then compose and take your shot through the viewfinder. You can’t do this with mirrorless cameras with electronic viewfinders, since both the screen and the viewfinder will only show you the live view of your scene.
Best Compact DSLR: Pentax K-3 Mark III
The freshly announced Pentax K-3 Mark III has been on the radar of compact DSLR fans for its significant updates from previous iteration. Most of its major components have been completely upgraded or replaced, such as the stabilized 25.7-megapixel backside-illuminated CMOS sensor, a new optical viewfinder with 1.05x magnification and eye-detection AF, and a new shutter mechanism that provides up to 12 fps continuous shooting. Its in-body stabilization system now has 5.5 EV of correction, which is the highest seen in a K-mount camera. The completely new SAFOX 13 AF module also has a wider frame coverage than the previous version, with 101 AF points that include 25 cross-types. According to Ricoh, the K-3 Mark III also now has a better AF tracking performance thanks to machine learning.
So what makes Ricoh’s new flagship APS-C DSLR one to keep an eye out for? It can compete with full-frame sensor cameras in terms of high ISO shooting. If you’ve used Pentax DSLRs extensively, early reviews say you’ll feel right at home with it, from how it fits in the hand to how fast it operates. If you’re a Pentaxian, this compact model likely carries the technical upgrades you’ve been waiting for.
Best DSLR for Sports: Nikon D500
The other professional DSLR models previously mentioned would certainly serve a sports photographer well. If you want to have another option, the five-year-old Nikon D500 will also do well to capture those action shots. This high-end, semi-pro crop sensor DSLR boasts of a new 20.9-megapixel CMOS sensor, Nikon’s professional AF system with a new AF-point selector, 10 fps continuous shooting, a large optical viewfinder, and a tilting touchscreen display. It also inherited the pro-level Nikon D5’s 153-point phase-detect autofocus array and EXPEED 5 processor, allowing it to utilize the best balance of performance, precision, and low light capabilities.
The discontinued D5 may have had the upper hand when it comes to imaging capabilities due to its larger sensor. This may lead you to consider getting a slightly used D5 instead. Still, the D500 makes up for it with a host of other features for advanced DSLR users. These include built-in WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, tilting rear screen for more flexible shooting, higher dynamic range, and of course, a more affordable price point. Like the D5, the D500 can also shoot 4K UHD videos, although with a 2.25x crop.
If you’ve owned any recent high-end Nikon DSLR, this mid-sized shooter will feel right at home in your hands. If the D5 is too bulky for you, the smaller D500 is a great alternative. With its lightweight, weather-sealed body, well-placed controls, and ergonomics, you’ll have a capable camera ready to chase the action with you.
Best Bang-For-Your-Buck DSLR: Nikon D780
The Nikon D750 is considered by many as one of the most well-rounded DSLR cameras ever made. Its successor, the D780, follows in its footsteps but made more capable. It still carries the 24.5-megapixel sensor and 51-point AF system, but what makes it special is that it has a lot of mirrorless tech built into it. This is the first time such a combination is seen in a DSLR. So essentially, you’re getting the best out of the beloved D750 and the all-around Nikon Z6 for the price of a DSLR.
The D780 packs features from the company’s higher-tiered DSLRs in a smaller, lighter, and cheaper body. It boasts of a backside-illuminated full-frame CMOS sensor, maximum ISO of 51200 (expandable to 204800), 7 fps continuous shooting at full resolution (12 fps using the electronic shutter), and the same EXPEED 6 image processor seen in the Z6 and Z7 full-frame mirrorless cameras. These give it faster speeds, better low-light performance, and lower energy consumption.
Are you used to optical viewfinders but also want the flexibility to switch to a reliable live view shooting? The D780 gives you both. The optical viewfinder uses a 51-point AF system with the enhanced AF algorithm as the D5. Switch to live view and you’ll put the 2,733-point focal plane Hybrid AF system of the Z6 to use, at 90% of the frame.
As for video shooting, the D780 also carries the most powerful set of video features among Nikon DSLRs, again, thanks to Z6 tech. These include full-frame 4K video at 40 fps with full pixel readout, 10-bit output with N-Log or HDR support, and intervalometer.
All these features and more come together to give you a DSLR that you can use for almost any kind of photography. The weather-sealed body, USB charging, and excellent battery life make it a great companion for travel photography. It also has good enough resolution and very good JPEGs and RAW files for landscape photography.
If you can work around the lack of eye detection when shooting through the viewfinder, you’ll be pleased with its performance for portrait and lifestyle photography. Of course, as a D750 successor, it’s a good match for wedding photographers. It may not be the fastest camera for sports photography, or the most discreet for street photography, but it still gets the job done. Most importantly, if you’re a D750 user looking to upgrade, going for this will most likely benefit you the most.