What the best digital SLR cameras have

  • Image stabilizer: To prevent shaky hands from blurring your photos, all DSLRs in this report have optical image stabilizers built into the body or the lens. Either works well.
  • Viewfinder: An eye-level viewfinder lets you hold the camera steady and close to your body while framing the shot.
  • LCD screen: You can frame your shot on the LCD screen instead -- especially handy if you're shooting video or on a tripod -- and view your images afterward.
  • RAW file support: Most cameras spit out pre-processed JPEG photos. DSLRs can also give you RAW files straight from your camera's sensor to process later on your computer, giving you more control over the editing.
  • Manual settings: Even basic DSLRs let you control focus, aperture, ISO light sensitivity, white balance, exposure, shutter speed and more, or you could just set it on Auto to point and shoot.
  • HD video: The latest DSLRs can record full 1080p HD video, with a choice of frame rates for a film-like look.
  • Self-timer: All DSLRs let you set a time delay, for example, to give yourself several seconds to jump into the family portrait.

Know before you go

What's your budget? Entry-level DSLRs ($500 to $1,000) are nothing to sneeze at: They deliver beautiful images in expert tests and even the most basic models offer robust manual controls, full HD video and more. Enthusiast DSLRs ($1,000 to $2,000) satisfy serious shutterbugs with faster shooting speeds, more sophisticated features and sturdier bodies. Pro DSLRs ($2,000 to $6,000 and up) are the top of the line; they have the toughest bodies and the biggest sensors, and are the fastest shooters.

Are you a beginner? You'll probably find an entry-level DSLR easiest to learn on. The best ones have helpful built-in "guide modes" to walk you through the process of shooting a photograph. These teach you exactly how to do something -- like set a shallow depth of field for a portrait -- and why it's important.

Do you need a lens? Entry-level DSLRs usually come bundled with a versatile zoom lens. More advanced DSLRs are generally sold body-only, because buyers have often been shooting with DSLRs for a while and already own at least one lens.

Do size and weight matter to you? Pro DSLRs tend to be bulky and heavy, up to 3 pounds without the battery and lens. Beginner and mid-range DSLRs usually substitute smaller sensors and lighter bodies weighing 1 to 1.5 pounds, which can make them more comfortable to carry around all day.

Do you need a rugged camera? Weather-sealed DSLRs that can shrug off beach sand and shoot in rainstorms start at about $800. Metal bodies preferred by pros to endure the knocks of all-day, everyday use start at about $1,000. But you don't have to spend that much; even the cheapest entry-level DSLRs' plastic bodies are sturdy enough for normal use, experts say.

How many megapixels do you really need? Most DSLRs -- even the priciest pro models -- have 12 to 18 megapixels on their sensors. Experts say that's more than enough to create gorgeous, sharp, detailed images, even if you blow up big prints. Some DSLRs offer 24 or even 36 megapixels, which can make your photos look even higher-res under a magnifying glass. You might give up some low-light sensitivity, however.

Do you shoot fast action? Pro sports photographers use incredibly fast, incredibly expensive DSLRs that can capture up to 14 fps. But even the slowest DSLRs in this report can shoot 3 fps, which is actually still pretty fast.

Do you shoot in dim light? A broad ISO light sensitivity range can help you get great shots at night or in shadowy rooms without busting out the flash or tripod.

Do you need to shoot for long stretches without recharging? Even the smallest DSLR batteries can deliver more than 400 shots on a single charge. To give you an idea, DPReview.com found that the 540-shot Nikon D3200 (Est. $530 with kit lens) has plenty of battery life "for a typical day of stills shooting with some video capture and image review in between."

Do you need to instantly back up your images? If you're a pro shooting for clients, this can be crucial. Look for dual memory card slots; Compact Flash (CF) or XQD cards work faster than Secure Digital (SD) cards. Dual card slots let you save every image to both cards, just in case. Or you could designate one card to automatically take the overflow when the other fills up, or segregate your JPEGs and RAW files, which can be handy even if you're not a pro.

Do you want a color other than black? Until recently, only a few cameras offered a limited choice besides black. Now you can purchase the Pentax K-50 (Est. $610 with kit lens) in one of 120 color combinations.

Value Expectations: The dollars and cents of it

Lenses are the hidden cost of DSLR ownership. You'll probably be happy for a while with the standard kit lens that came with your DSLR, usually a medium-quality 18 mm to 55 mm zoom lens. Once you see what a DSLR can do, though, you may want a long telephoto lens, a wide-angle lens and a macro lens for close-ups, as well as a Prime lens that gathers more light than the kit lens. Expect to spend $300 to $1,600 per lens, depending on quality. The bonus is that even if you upgrade your camera, you can continue to use those lenses as long as you don't switch brands. For more, see our section on How to buy DSLR camera lenses.

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