Just when everyone thought that smaller, cheaper CSCs (compact system cameras) were going to kill DSLR camera sales, the reverse appears to be happening. DSLRs sales are on the rise, and there are plenty of great new models to choose between. See also The 7 best CSC: the best sub-£500 compact system cameras you can buy in 2014.
Best SLR cameras: buying advice
DSLRs offer the winning formula for a couple of good reasons. First, they offer the largest sensors which, in conjunction with large lenses, leads to the best image quality.
Another reason they remain popular is their performance and handling. DSLRs, by definition, have a mirror system which means they have an optical viewfinder. What this means is that you see through the lens when framing your image, and this beats just about every electronic viewfinder which must display the image on an LCD screen.
They’re almost universally quick, too. They turn on and are ready to shoot in a fraction of a second, and can capture several (if not 10s) of photos per second.
As well as optical viewfinders, DLSRs also have Live View mode where you can use the LCD screen to compose images and shoot video. These screens tend to be articulated, allowing you to shoot high or low by adjusting the screen’s angle. You’re not restricted to shooting at eye-level.
There are extra features on offer in certain models, such as built-in GPS and Wi-Fi, which make it easier to share and place your images. Full manual control goes without saying and even if you’re not yet ready to start setting shutter speeds and apertures, the auto modes will help you get fantastic photos with a mere click of the shutter button.
Prices range from just a few hundred to thousands of pounds. It all depends on whether you’re after an entry-level model, semi-pro or even a professional SLR. It’s possible to buy an SLR camera without a lens, which means you can choose your own lenses rather than pay for a ‘kit’ lens that’s bundled with the camera.
Best SLR cameras: lenses
There are a multitude of options when it comes to lenses, and you’ll want to have at least two or three to cover various scenarios. A zoom lens covering wide-angle to moderate telephoto will likely become your default choice, and this is what most kit lenses offer. A prime lens (one with no zoom) offers better quality and a larger aperture (known as ‘faster’ in photo-speak) and is great for portrait shots. Finally, a long telephoto lens, say 70-300mm, lets you get close to the action when you can’t get closer physically. Some also double as a macro lens.
Best SLR cameras: video
Pretty much every DSLR shoots HD video these days, but if this is a priority for you, make sure your chosen model has the features you need. For example, some force you to focus manually, which is tricky. Others may not have a headphone output, so you won’t be able to monitor the quality and levels of the audio you’re recording.
Best SLR cameras: Size and weight
One of the disadvantages of a DSLR is that it isn’t nearly as convenient as an iPhone. You certainly won’t want to carry it everywhere with you, but for holidays and other special occasions, you’ll be glad you put up with its bulk and weight because of the superior quality of its images and videos.
The 7 best DSLRs you can buy in 2014
- Price: £249 inc VAT
A DSLR with a kit lens for '249 was unheard of until recently and strictly speaking, the A3000 isn't an SLR. It's an SLT ' Single Lens Translucent ' which means the mirror is see-through and makes it swift to take photos and videos.
However, you can't have everything, and the A3000 has no optical viewfinder (it uses an electronic version). The 3in LCD has a low resolution of 230,000 dots and doesn't tilt or fold out. As you'd expect, there's no built-in Wi-Fi.
Importantly, you get a 20.1Mp APS-C sensor and an 18-55mm kit lens. Autofocus isn't as snappy as on cameras costing three times as much, but image quality is miles better than you'd get from a point-and-shoot compact camera. If you're on a tight budget, the big-and-bulky A3000 offers buckets of value.
6. Nikon D3200
- Price: £369 inc VAT
More expensive than the Sony A3000, the D3200 also gives you more. For a start, it has an optical viewfinder (albeit smaller than on semi-pro SLRs) and comes with an 18-55mm optically stabilised lens. It also has a 24Mp sensor and a 3in LCD with 921,000 dots. There's an optional Wi-Fi adapter.
It's supremely easy to use, and a great step-up from a compact or bridge camera. Plus, you're getting a bigger sensor and better range of lenses than Nikon's J3 and V2 CSCs for a similar amount of money.
Image quality is seriously impressive for the price, although you might need to dial in some exposure compensation to avoid over-exposing in high-contrast scenes.
- Price: £469 inc VAT
If the size of an SLR puts you off, the 100D might just change your mind. It's surprisingly small, and comparable with many CSCs. It has a fixed touchscreen alongside an optical viewfinder. The 18Mp sensor isn't headline-grabbing but you'll still be pleased with the images and movies.
The bundled 18-55mm STM lens uses a quiet stepper motor to focus, which you'll appreciate when taking videos. Image quality is excellent, with realistic colours and hardly any noise even at higher ISO settings.
The 100D particularly impresses in Live View mode, where autofocus is fast and smooth, providing a usable alternative to the optical viewfinder. Like the Nikon D3200, the 100D is very easy to use, meaning the entire family can take great photos and videos.
- Price: £600 inc VAT
For what is a very reasonable price, the 700D is a capable SLR. It has an 18Mp sensor, an articulating touchscreen and a respectable 5fps continuous shooting mode. It comes with the same 18-55mm kit lens as the 100D and is great for photos and videos alike.
Image quality is impressive, although naturally it can't compete with more expensive cameras such as the Nikon D7100 or its bigger brother, the 70D, when it comes to noise levels. However, you're unlikely to notice or complain at this price, especially if you mainly shoot in good light.
If there's one criticism, it's that autofocus isn't as quick in live view as the 100D, but if you stick to the optical viewfinder, you'll have no quibbles.
3. Pentax K-3
- Price: £1199 inc VAT
The K-3 is Pentax's flagship model, even though it doesn't have a full-frame sensor. Instead it has a 24.3Mp APS-C chip which will be perfectly good enough for most people, as will its 8.2fps burst shooting mode.
Around the back is a 3.2in LCD screen which, disappointingly, is fixed rather than articulated. There's no Wi-Fi, either, but you do get in-body image stabilisation which means you save money on cheaper lenses. The price includes an 18-55mm kit lens.
Still image quality is excellent, with accurate colours and razor-sharp images. Plus, the K-3 handles and performs just like you'd expect of a top-notch model.
2. Nikon D7100
- Price: £989 inc VAT
A step down from Nikon's full-frame D800 and D900, the 24Mp D7100 offers similar performance and handling in a smaller, lighter body. For this price you get an 18-105mm lens, but the body will cost you only '839.
It's a decent upgrade from the older D7000, but its limited internal buffer means you'll be shooting in JPEG, rather than RAW mode, for burst / sports photography.. One other slight negative is that video output isn't as sharp as the best, but if you're after a DSLR for landscapes, this is absolutely superb.
- Price: £968 inc. VAT
Every bit an enthusiast camera, the 70D brings back features missing from its predecessor, the 60D. You get a 20.2Mp sensor, a 7fps burst shooting mode and ' importantly ' a faster and more accurate autofocus system (taken from the 7D). There's also built-in Wi-Fi, an excellent articulated touchscreen, stereo microphones and a mic input.
It all adds up to a brilliant SLR, with rapid focusing in live view and movie mode. Image quality is almost on a par with the Nikon D7100, save for a lack of shadow detail. For the most part, it's hard to separate the two. Video quality is very good, helped by the quiet focusing of the bundled 18-55mm STM lens and excellent autofocus system.
Conclusion: So which DSLR is right for you?
Ultimately this will depend on your budget. But you need to think about a few things as well as the initial outlay. Besides the larger sensors that take better-quality images even in low light, the reason to get a DSLR camera is really about the interchangeable lens system.
Will you be happy with the camera and kit lens or will you want to upgrade to better lenses in the future? If the latter, you should also look at what lenses will be available for your camera system. Nikon lenses will not fit Sony, and Canon lenses will not fit Nikon and so on. You'll need to read lens reviews to find out how much you'll need to shell out for extra lenses, but don't forget you don't have to buy lenses from your camera manufacturer. Tamron, Sigma and others make lenses which fit Nikon, Canon and other mounting systems, often at much reduced prices.
Finally don’t be fooled by the megapixel war. All these cameras have more then enough pixels to print out poster-sized prints at incredible detail. What's more important is the focusing system, as this will determine if the camera focuses on the right part of the picture or not. Basic models might struggle to focus on certain subjects especially in lower lighting conditions (such as indoors or even simply on overcast days). Spending a little more now will give you a camera with a better focusing system, which will ultimately get you more keepers (photos that are properly in focus).