You want to buy a DSLR camera but don’t know what to go for? Then you’ve come to the right place, as this is where we round-up the best DSLR cameras of 2018. We’ll guide you through the hottest cameras available – and only models that we’ve seen in reality – to save you time when it comes to working out what the best options are.
DSLR cameras – which stands for digital single lens reflex – have removable lenses so that different optics can be attached in order to give a different view on the world. This potential variety allows you to start small and build-up to the more varied, sharper and desirable featured lenses as you go along.
DSLR cameras aren’t to be confused with the newer breed of mirrorless cameras (sometimes called compact system cameras), which we have covered in a separate feature.
Whether you’re new to the DSLR concept, are looking to upgrade, know plenty about cameras already and are weighing up the options, or are considering a more pro-spec option, we’ve broken down our list of great DSLR cameras into sub-headed categories to make things that bit easier to digest. You name it, we’ve got you covered.
A quick lesson in lenses
First thing’s first: cameras don’t work in a one-size-fits-all way. Brands like to keep their own heritage and, as such, each manufacturer has its own lens mount.
For Canon it’s EF-mount (including EF-S), for Nikon it’s F-mount, for Pentax it’s K-mount, and Sony has A-mount. There are some additions and exceptions, but those are the current four to focus on. Don’t fall into the trap by buying the wrong lenses just because the brand names match up.
Second to the equation is sensor size. Entry and mid-level cameras typically have what’s called an APS-C size sensor. Some pro-spec cameras have full-frame sensors that, because they’re physically larger, need specific (typically pricier and more advanced) lenses that are capable of covering these larger sensor dimensions. In each case the mount size remains the same per brand’s DSLR line, irrelevant of the sensor size. If you are looking at a top-of-the-range lens for a top-of-the-range camera, you’ll know all this already. For those starting out, don’t worry: it may seem a bit of a minefield out there, but a fairly easy one to understand once you get into the lingo of the manufacturer you’ve chosen.
Focal length equivalent
There are plenty of things to consider with lenses and this all depends on the type of photography you are planning on doing. If it is all about portraits you’ll want something around the 50mm or 75mm mark. If you are trying to snap that lion on the Savannah and don’t want to get eaten then you’ll want something with a long zoom closer to 300mm or beyond.
Best entry-level DSLR
Canon EOS 1300D
The Canon EOS 1300D is a safe bet and typically a few quid cheaper than its Nikon D3400 competitor. Between the two there’s not a huge difference in performance, price, or resulting image quality, though, so your choice may be based on price or brand perception alone.
If you want to use the Canon’s rear LCD screen to compose pictures then you might as well forget about it here, as this is a to-the-eye and through-the-viewfinder optimised camera – if screen-based shooting is your absolute must then look to a compact system camera instead.
But if raising it to the eye is what you want then the 1300D’s deft autofocus ability sells it, plus there are a huge range of lenses to buy into should you wish to expand in the future.
Read our full review: Canon 1300D review
Best small-scale DSLR
Canon EOS 200D (Canon EOS SL2)
The Canon EOS 200D (or SL2 for our America friends) sits in a world of its own, as the update to the small-scale 100D (SL1). It’s as small as DSLR cameras come – and that in itself is the single biggest reason for buying it.
This is the DSLR to take up less bag space while delivering quality akin to the EOS 80D model (listed below) thanks to the 24-megapixel sensor on board.
Read our preview: Canon EOS 200D
Best mid-level DSLR
Canon EOS 80D
If you’re looking for an all-rounder when it comes to both still images and movie capture then the 80D is one of the best pure DSLRs to cater for such a varied and successful feature set.
Where the 80D really excels is with its autofocus system. The Dual Pixel AF system – which uses on-sensor phase-detection via live view and a different phase-detection system through the viewfinder – comprises 45 autofocus points and is super-fast whether you’re looking through the viewfinder or using the rear screen to compose your shots.
Elsewhere the 80D ups the viewfinder ante with a what-you-see-is-what-you-get 100 per cent field-of-view – something cheaper DSLR cameras often lack, and that the earlier 70D couldn’t muster – while its 3.2-inch, tilt-angle touchscreen remains one of its strong points, especially in a competitive world against compact system cameras.
However, the Nikon D7500 (below) now offers much of the 80D’s equivalent, plus that features 4K video capture too.
Read our full review: Canon EOS 80D review
Nikon arrives a little late to ruin the Canon 80D’s party, but it’s a formidable camera with great all-round features.
With a new tilt-angle screen for this level in the company’s series, its touch-sensitive controls make it versatile – whether using viewfinder or screen for composition. However, the live view screen-based focus just isn’t quite as snappy as the Canon equivalent. Still, it comes with 4K movie capture, which the Canon does not.
Just like the Canon equivalent, it’s Nikon’s autofocus system that really sells the D7500. The second-generation Multi-CAM 3500 delivers 51 AF points that are super quick to acquire subject focus – even in the dark thanks to operability down to -3EV – but that is the same system as found in the earlier D7200 model, which might make that older, more affordable model all the more tempting.
Overall the Nikon D7500 is an impressive enthusiast DSLR that gives the Canon 80D a run for its money. However, money is the bone of contention here, given how much pricier the newer Nikon is.
Read our full review: Nikon D7500 review
Best entry-level full-frame DSLR
Full-frame is the holy grail of DSLR photography. Sensors the same size as traditional 35mm film negatives are considered full-frame. This large sensor sizes produces a pronounced depth of field, while the sensor’s “pixels” are typically larger for a cleaner signal and, therefore, usually superior image quality compared to APS-C sensors (this can be resolution dependent).
The words “entry-level” and “full-frame” tend not to go hand in hand. Given that close to £2,000 needs to be spent for that full-frame experience – and that’s before considering lens costs – you need to be sure that you’re ready to dip into the larger-sensor world.
The D610 replaces the earlier D600 and, frankly, doesn’t change much. If you scour the internet you will find a series of complaints about some Nikon D600 owners experiencing issues with oil on the camera’s sensor. It’s not an issue we had, but the sudden arrival of the D610, with only a modest bump in features, suggests that it’s a solution to brush any issues of its predecessor under the carpet. It does have a new shutter mechanism after all.
What the D610 really does, however, is fill the budget gap when it comes to full-frame. It’s not a brand new camera by any means, so it lacks some of today’s mod cons, but if it’s the sensor size that you’re chasing down then this is a great place to start. If you want some more resolution then go with the 45-megapixel D850 (below) instead.
If you’re looking for greater versatility then the tilt-angle screen of the Nikon D750 might suit better.
Read our full review: Nikon D610 review
Also well worth a mention is the only Pentax in our list: the K-1. This formidable camera – the company’s first and only full-frame DSLR – is feature packed, which is what makes it so appealing for the price point.
It doesn’t have the best autofocus system going, nor is it the fastest continuous shooter out there (at 4.8fps), while video feels like an afterthought. But features like the flex-tilt screen and 5-axis stabilisation ensure the K-1 stands out from the crowd in its own way, plus some of the legacy lenses are fantastic – if you can get hold of them.
Read our full review: Pentax K-1 review
Canon EOS 6D Mark II
Ok, so there’s quite a big jump in price point here, as the 6D Mark II is a far more recent addition than some of the aging selections in our list.
But it’s also perhaps the most versatile full-frame camera you can buy. It’s got a brand new sensor. It’s got a vari-angle touchscreen and excellent live-view autofocus for on-screen composition. It’s got an autofocus system way better than its 6D predecessor. And it’s far cheaper than the 5D MkIV (below). Sure, you can get a Nikon D610 for about half the price, but you’ll be years in the past.
It’s not quite perfect, though. The live view, while fast, isn’t as pinpoint perfect when it comes to focus as an equivalent mirrorless camera. Then there’s the viewfinder’s 98 per cent field-of-view (the outermost two per cent isn’t visible in the finder, but is captured), which for a near-£2k camera seems like a bit of a kick in the side. Oh, and there’s no 4K movie capture, which is no surprise from a Canon DSLR, but puts it a step behind some competitors.
Nonetheless, if you’ve been thinking about buying a full-frame DSLR but have been waiting for some of the more modern technologies – touchscreen control, a vari-angle screen, Wi-Fi sharing and so forth – then the 6D Mark II does a grand job.
Read our full review: Canon EOS 6D Mark II review
Best pro-spec all-rounder (APS-C sensor)
When full-frame 35mm film was settled upon back in the day, it later spawned a smaller format that came to be known as APS-C. By having this smaller sensor the image produced by a lens is “cut into” – imagine literally cutting the negative down by 50 per cent – which gives the impression of a greater zoom. That’s why you’ll see some lens’ focal lengths described in “35mm equivalent”.
Either way, this size of sensor doesn’t mean it’s necessarily any less professional. Manufacturers pour a lot of time and effort into making the best sensors at this scale, complete with full feature sets. It’s the most common sensor size, and arguably the most versatile.
The is-it-isn’t-it? replacement for the Nikon D300S, the Nikon D500 is one of the most interesting and important DSLR cameras that we’ve handled. It embodies much of the top-spec ultra-pro Nikon D5 in a smaller format. It’s the “D5 mini” if you will.
Which translates into a whole heap of good things. The new 21-megapixel sensor is backed up with the latest Expeed 5 processing engine and can capture shots up to an extended sensitivity of ISO 1,640,000. Yup, that’s six figures.
It’s so good we think it steps above the Canon EOS 7D Mark II, while the range of Nikon DX optics will see it as the more practical solution compared to the Pentax K-1 for many – even if the Pentax has some standout features like its variable LCD screen.
In short, the Nikon D500 is certainly a contender for the best APS-C camera made to date. There are only some small gaps in its capabilities – such as unnecessary extended “Hi” ISO settings, slight hunting in the live view autofocus – but otherwise its awesome autofocus system and all-round capabilities are second to none.
Read our full review: Nikon D500 review
Canon EOS 7D Mark II
Until we’d seen the Nikon D500 (above) we’d yet to use an APS-C sensor DSLR camera that impressed us more than the Canon EOS 7D Mark II. Despite Nikon’s new entry, this Canon is still a strong contender.
It features a 65-point all-cross-type autofocus system, 150,000-pixel RGB infrared exposure meter, new shutter mechanism (to 200,000 cycles), faster burst mode to 10 frames per second (up from 8fps in the original 7D), and 20.2-megapixel sensor all make it a feature-packed offering. You can see the similarities between this and the D500; it’s all-out war.
There are some feature absences that we would like to have seen on board, such as a tilt-angle screen, touch-sensitive operation, Wi-Fi integration and 4K video capture. But these omissions aren’t a total deal-breaker, even if it does make us lean towards the D500 that much more.
Read our full review: Canon 7D MkII review
Best high-resolution DSLR
Nikon did what we thought was utter madness when it announced the 36-megapixel D800 in 2012 – but after using it extensively we found its super-high resolution full-frame sensor was an utter marvel. Two years after that came the D810, at the same resolution. The D850, however, pushes things yet further with its 45-megapixel sensor (not quite as resolute as the 50MP Canon EOS 5DS (featured below), but still ultra-high resolution).
But the D850 is so far ahead, it could well be the best DSLR ever. In the right hands and with good quality glass, this camera is capable of producing crisp and highly detailed images. The dynamic range is almost unreal, too.
Little changes to the D850’s body compared to its predecessors also transform the user experience. Illuminated buttons, silent shutter mode, deeper grip and class-leading battery life all add up to something quite special.
Its only shortcoming is the live view autofocus speed isn’t as capable as Canon’s equivalent. And the 5DS crams in yet more resolution, if that’s what you’re really looking for.
Read our full review: Nikon D850 review
Canon EOS 5DS
If it’s resolution you want, nothing crams more pixels onto a sensor than Canon. And the 5DS has 50 million of them, making this a DSLR that can rival the medium format market.
And it’s really rather brilliant. Shoot with this camera and you’ll need to be extra tight with shutter speed control to avoid blur, which is why some of the 5DS’s high-flying features – such as the 61-point autofocus system – almost seem mis-matched if you’re the kind of user who expects to pick this camera up and snap away as if it’s the same as the 5D Mark IV.
Even so, when paired with the right lenses and selecting sufficient shutter speeds the Canon holds up well against the Nikon D850. Plus it has better on-screen live view autofocus, should you be shooting still lives in that format.
Read our full review: Canon EOS 5DS review
Best DSLR for movie capture
A contended category as, right now, mirrorless cameras are the more obvious choice for video-based work. Cameras such as the Panasonic Lumix G5S being a prime example of how far things can be pushed.
Sony Alpha A99 Mark II
Ok, so it’s not technically a DSLR, it’s actually an SLT (single lens translucent) camera, but that technology make for exceptional fast and quiet autofocus that’s perfect for video.
And the A99 II is really built for video. Sure, it’s great with stills too – although the mirrorless A9 might appeal yet more – but when you want to shoot moving images it’s approaching unbeatable.
There’s a silent control wheel to the front of the camera for live adjustment during recording, while the full-frame sensor is spot on for blurred-background effects and creating those pro-looking 1080p/4K shots.
All this can be witnessed in real time on the rear LCD screen without any cost to autofocus ability which, because of the SLT design, is just as fast as when using the camera through its electronic viewfinder – and that’s also possible when capturing video.
It doesn’t come cheap, though, which is its one major drawback.
Read our full review: Sony Alpha A99 II review
Best enthusiast full-frame DSLR
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
You already know your stuff. You want to take the full-frame sensor plunge or perhaps upgrade from an earlier model but don’t have the cash for a crazy-fast pro-spec camera. Yet you still want just enough power in a feature set that’s rounded enough to cover sports, portraits, landscapes – the works. Say hello to the 5D Mark IV, Pocket-lint’s official Camera of the Year for 2016.
The 5D IV is a deft balance between resolution, image quality, autofocus ability and control, seeing it stand head and shoulders above its predecessor and, right now, the competition too. With Nikon’s current absence in this market, perhaps only the near-priced Sony A99 II will be an alternative option – but probably not if you’re already invested in Canon optics. And there’s not a mirrorless model to compete at this level just yet, even if Panasonic is knocking on the door with its G9.
Now the latest 5D is not cheap by any means – an end-of-line Mark III might do you justice instead – but it’s got every base covered and that 30-megapixel sensor is not only awesome in good light, it aces low-light too.
Read our full review: Canon EOS 5D Mk IV review
Best professional DSLR (full-frame sensor)
The choices at this level are more or less two-fold if you’re considering full-frame: Canon 1D X Mark II or Nikon D5 (further below).
Canon EOS 1D X Mark II
It’s Canon that succeeds in the speed stakes, delivering 14fps burst shooting that can’t be touched by the competition – the Nikon D5 can only manage that pace with the mirror locked (otherwise it’s 12fps). Controversially you could look to the Sony A9 instead as an option – which can muster 20fps – despite that being a full-frame mirrorless competitor.
The 1D X II’s battery life seems to last forever and, importantly, its 20.2-megapixel full-frame sensor is just about perfect for all manner of jobs. An updated autofocus system – and there’s not enough space here to explain its full complexities (take a look at our full review) – hits home with 61 ultra-sensitive AF points and works a treat too.
Some other full-frame models outperform in the resolution stakes, it’s questionable as to whether Canon has lost its “movie king” hat (the Mark II questionably replaces the 1D C too), and the Nikon D5 shouts a lot with its new 153-point autofocus system and low-light capabilities.
With all that said, having used the camera over a number of days we were struggling to try and find fault. When it comes to creative professional tools the 1D X Mark II is not just a worthy successor to the original, it’s an astounding high-speed DSLR in its own right.
Read our full review: Canon EOS 1D X II review
Ok, so Nikon can’t quite match the 1D X II in the speed stakes (or buffer capacity from our tests), but it’s got more than enough pop for most pros.
Where it really excels is with its nuanced 153-point autofocus system, which is super-fast whether shooting stills or tracking moving subjects. We tested out the camera’s continuous autofocus (AF-C) mode with 3D, 153- and 72-point arrangements and it’s lightning fast, even in dim conditions.
The D5 also has the upper hand when it comes to low-light and high ISO performance. Sure, the 3-million-odd ISO sensitivity is numbers for numbers’ sake, but its six-figure sensitivities are genuinely excellent.
For the average consumer this is the Ferrari of cameras: out of reach in both price and realistic use (and not as fast as the Lambo; i.e. Canon). For the pros out there it’s a priceless tool.
Read our full review: Nikon D5 review