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DSLR Buying Guide

By: Angela Stringfellow on August 05, 2016

What the best digital SLR camera has

  • 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. Some newer DSLRs have swiveling, touchscreen LCDs, making it possible to operate the camera and adjust settings in different ways.
  • Auto-focus: Auto-focus functionality is a fairly common feature among various types of digital cameras, but top-rated DSLRs offer a multitude of focal points (11 to 51 points or more) for more versatility in focusing on off-center subjects.
  • 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: Most DSLRs can record full 1080p HD video, with a choice of frame rates for a film-like look. Some higher end, and even some enthusiast-grade, DSLRs can now also record 4K (UHD) video as well.
  • Self-timer: All DSLRs let you set a time delay, for example, to give yourself several seconds to jump into the family portrait.
  • Wi-Fi capability: Mid-range DSLRs increasingly offer wireless capability, enabling users to connect their smartphone or tablet to their camera to easily share photos or operate the camera remotely using their mobile device. Some cameras are also NFC (near field communications) capable, allowing simple connection (with a tap) for image sharing that's easier still.
  • Long battery life: Most DSLRs have a rechargeable battery, but the number of shots a camera can take on a single battery charge varies widely, from 180 shots to more than 1,200 shots in the cameras profiled in this report.

Know before you go

What's your budget? Entry-level DSLRs 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 (which start at around $800 for the camera body only, or around $1,000 in a kit with a normal or telephoto lens) satisfy serious shutterbugs with faster shooting speeds, more sophisticated features and sturdier bodies. Though not covered in this report, true professional grade DSLRs ($2,000 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 often sold body-only (though some are available in bundled packages) 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 2 pounds (16 ounces to about 30 ounces), which can make them more comfortable to carry around all day.

Do you need a rugged camera? Most weather-sealed DSLRs that can shrug off beach sand and shoot in rainstorms start at about $800; however, some newer budget models boast impressive weather-proofing features. 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 16 to 24 megapixel sensors. Experts say that's more than enough to create gorgeous, sharp, detailed images, even if you blow up big prints. That said, don't get too hung up on the megapixel rating. "We've always pointed out that simply cramming lots of pixels onto a sensor does not mean your camera will take great pictures," the experts at ConsumerReports.org say, adding that other factors, such as lens quality and sensor size (not resolution) play a bigger role.

Do you shoot fast action? Pro sports photographers use incredibly fast, incredibly expensive DSLRs that can capture up to 20 fps. But even the slowest DSLRs in this report can shoot 5 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? If so, look for a camera with a higher capacity battery. Some of the DSRs in this report have batteries that are rated to take 1,000 shots, or more, before needing to be recharged, while others will peter out at well less than 200 shots.

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. Additionally, some DSLR models have built-in Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity, allowing users to connect to a smartphone or tablet to their camera to easily send photos to their mobile device.

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