Digital single-lens reflex cameras are the next logical step for those who are tired of sluggish point-and-shoots and want to spread their photographic wings. Yes, they’re bulkier than their mirrorless interchangeable-lens cousins, but in many instances, DSLRs simply provide the best results. For instance, higher-end DSLRs shoot more frames per second and offer more accurate focusing and light-metering systems. Plus, DSLRs give you access to a much broader selection of lenses — both current models and in some cases older lenses dating back decades. Lenses can range from ultrawide fish-eyes to super telephotos. Lower-cost DSLRs are typically sold in a kit with a zoom lens.
Here are the best picks for digital single-lens reflex cameras — from novice to professional levels.
Best DSLR for Beginners: Sony Alpha SLT-A58 ($549)
The Sony Alpha SLT-A58 ($549 with 18-55mm zoom lens) is perfect for someone making the transition from a point-and-shoot. The 20.1-megapixel DSLR not only takes very good photos, it also captures higher-quality videos than the competition at 1080p/60 fps, using the AVCHD Progressive video format.
A variation on your standard DSLR, this camera uses translucent mirror technology. The concept is a mouthful to explain, but the upshot is more accurate and faster focusing than most DSLRs offer. The A58 captures a speedy 5 frames per second (fps) in burst mode. One byproduct of the translucent mirror setup is that you use an electronic instead of an optical viewfinder. A plus of the vivid OLED viewfinder is that you can see the impact of your camera adjustments, such as white balance, before you snap the shutter. The A58 is easy to operate, and the controls are nicely positioned and labeled for fast access. The Sony Alpha mount accepts not only a wide range of Sony lenses, but older Minolta lenses, as well.
Best Intermediate DSLR: Canon EOS Rebel T5i ($899)
If you’re familiar with f/stops, white balance and ISO and want to trade in your years-old DSLR for the latest tech, get the 18-MP Canon EOS Rebel T5i, selling for $899 with an 18-55mm STM zoom lens. That "STM" stands for silent stepping motor. Now, when the camera autofocuses as you’re recording a video, the camera mics won’t pick up the noise of the lens moving. This is very important if you’re capturing a quiet scene.
Other standout features of the T5i include shooting 5 photos per second in burst mode and providing light sensitivity up to ISO 25,600 for shooting in very low light. Video recording is up to 1080p HD at 30 fps with stereo sound from built-in microphones. There are manual audio adjustments and a jack to connect an external mic, as well. Movie quality is quite good at 1080p/30 fps, but it’s not as good as the 1080p/60 fps of some competing cameras, such as Sony’s. One final bonus: Canon offers nearly 100 lens choices.
MORE: Camera Buying Guide 2013
For serious shutterbugs, the Nikon D7100 ($1,299, body only) is a slam-dunk choice. It's a superb camera offering 24-MP resolution. But two features make this DSLR right on the money for enthusiasts: a very fast 51-point autofocus system and a top shutter speed of 1/8,000 a second (versus 1/4,000 for most other DSLRs). Combine all of this with a 6 fps burst mode and you have an excellent camera for shooting sports and other fast action. The recommended ISO (light-sensitivity) range is a conservative 100-6,400, but you can set it as high as 25,600 and still take impressive photos in very low light.
The D7100 has a high-quality 3.2-inch LCD screen with a high resolution of 1.2 million dots, as well as a very bright optical viewfinder. In addition, the D7100 has an LCD readout on the top for quickly checking your settings. Another professional touch, the D7100 has two SD card slots that will let you keep shooting all day. And since it’s a Nikon, you have more than 75 lenses to choose from.
You can spend well north of five grand for pro DSLRs such as the Nikon D3X or Canon EOS-1 Dx, but those behemoths are really for photo studios and professional sports coverage.
The Nikon D800 ($2,999, body only) has the same key feature of higher-priced competitors: a so-called full-frame imaging sensor that's the same size as a frame of 35mm film. The D800's massive sensor allows it to capture wider-angle shots than lower-end DSLRs and affords it a whopping 36.3-MP resolution — the highest for any full-frame DSLR.
The color accuracy is outstanding, and it captures the finest details. The D800 also captures full HD videos at 1080p/30 fps in the high-quality AVC format, which can directly output via HDMI to external recording devices for further editing.
Although quite hefty due to its dust- and moisture-sealed magnesium alloy body, the D800 is not intimidating. All the controls are clearly marked and within easy reach. This is one photographic tool that will take time to completely master, but while you’re “playing,” you’ll capture some of the best images you’ve ever seen from a digital camera.