Best DSLR for beginners: 6 tested
31st Jan 2012 | 16:35
Entry-level cameras and the best DSLR on a tight budget
Starter DSLRs explained
The entry-level DSLR market has always been one of the most hotly contested, which is great news for all of us on a tight budget. As manufacturers continually try to outdo each other, cheaper DSLRs have improved in specification and advanced features over the last few years.
The latest round of models offer superb image quality and great versatility, but that's not all.
Simplicity is a key factor in entry-level DSLRs. They need to keep things easy so that anybody launching into photography for the first time, or upgrading from a compact camera, can get good results without lots of technical knowledge and experience. As such, you can expect fully automatic shooting options and scene modes aplenty, so you can easily tailor camera settings to the picture opportunity at hand.
Naturally, as you grow in knowledge and expertise, you'll want more creative control. A good entry-level camera should therefore also be able to grow with you, making manual adjustments easy to get at and quick to use.
Better still, they should give you as much help as possible along the way, with intuitive interfaces that guide you towards greater proficiency.
Budget cameras aren't just for beginners, though. If you have a mid-range DSLR that's a few years old, the latest entry-level models may well outstrip it in terms of image quality. Chances are you'll get higher sensor resolution along with lower image noise at high ISO sensitivity settings.
New cameras often fare better at controlling dynamic range too, so you'll get better shadow detail with less risk of blown highlights. Extra features usually include live view for composing shots on the camera's LCD, plus widescreen video capture at either 720p or Full HD 1080p.
If you're upgrading from an old camera, you probably won't need a host of beginner-orientated features. With the possibility you have generous friends and family, or you just owe yourself a treat, we've included a couple of slightly more sophisticated cameras in the group.
If you're buying your first DSLR, it makes sense to go for a 'kit', which generally includes the camera body along with an 18-55mm lens.
But even if you're replacing an older camera, this still makes good sense, as you'll often only pay about £50 extra for the kit with the lens, rather than buying the body on its own. You're therefore usually getting a new lens at a heavily discounted price, so it gives you the option of either having a spare lens or of selling your old body complete with the lens, which makes it more attractive to buyers.
One of the most important things to bear in mind when buying a DSLR is that you're buying into a system rather than just purchasing a camera.
A principle advantage of DSLRs over compact cameras is that you can add to your kit with, for example, wide-angle and telephoto zoom lenses, a flashgun, and other accessories - to make the most of whatever types of photography you're into.
Given that DSLR bodies are updated on a regular basis, it makes sense to stick with one manufacturer, so you don't have to replace your whole collection of lenses and other accessories every time you upgrade.
Canon and Nikon offer the largest collections of DSLR lenses, but Pentax and Sony also offer decent ranges. You're not limited to own-brand lenses either, with the likes of Sigma, Tamron and Tokina selling quality lenses at prices that are often lower than the camera manufacturers' own equivalent lenses.
Naturally, DSLRs aren't the only option. As well as conventional digital compact cameras, compact system cameras (CSCs) are gaining popularity, too. These do away with the mirror assembly of a DSLR, yet still feature interchangeable lenses. For our money though, or more importantly, for yours, you can't beat the immediacy of a DSLR.
The ability to look at your composition through the lens via an optical viewfinder is unbeatable when responding to tricky shooting scenarios, especially when tracking moving objects such as in sports or wildlife photography. Handling is also much more natural, not only increasing your reaction speeds, but also helping to avoid camera shake at slower shutter speeds.
Compared with a digital compact camera, a DSLR's image sensor is physically larger. A key benefit of this for DSLR users is that you can get a smaller depth of field for throwing the background out of focus. It's great in portraits for making the main subject really stand out in a picture.
With larger sensors, you can also expect much lower image noise at high ISO settings, and any time you're shooting under dull lighting. All things considered, the latest range of budget DSLRs have a great deal to offer.
Key starter DSLR features
Look out for these key features when buying your first DSLR:
Scene modes such as portrait, landscape and sports can help you achieve optimum results in most shooting scenarios with the minimum of know-how. They are a good starting point for beginners.
Less powerful than a separate flashgun, the pop-up flash unit can still be useful for providing some fill-in illumination - for avoiding facial shadows in sunny outdoor portraits, for example.
Unlike more advanced cameras, DSLRs in this class are fitted with a pentamirror rather than a pentaprism viewfinder. However, they should still feature a fairly bright, sharp and clear display.
All the cameras in the group feature live view. This enables you to compose pictures on the LCD, just as you would with a compact camera. A magnified view is good for checking focus accuracy.
Whereas most advanced and pro DSLRs feature tough magnesium-alloy bodies, budget models tend to have plastic shells over metal chassis. They should still be robust enough for daily use.
An 18-55mm 'kit' lens is the norm on this class of camera. If you'd rather have a different lens, such as an 18-200mm superzoom, it's worth speaking to your retailer and seeing if you can do a deal.
There can be a difference in the physical size and resolution of LCDs in competing cameras. A pivot facility is also worth having, enabling you to shoot from extreme angles.
Direct-access buttons for shooting parameters such as white balance, ISO, drive mode and autofocus mode are useful. They help you to react to different shooting conditions quickly and easily.
Canon EOS 1100D
Canon EOS 1100D - £390
While most of Canon's current range of DSLRs are class-leaders in image resolution, the Canon EOS 1100D has a relatively low-res 12.2MP sensor. It also has a comparatively small 2.7-inch LCD, which is also pretty low-res at 230k pixels. The theme continues with movie capture, which is limited to 720p rather than the Full HD 1080p that's featured on Nikon's similarly priced D3100.
In other areas, there's some serious technology packed into the 1100D's lightweight body. Canon's latest iFCL (intelligent Focus Colour Luminance) exposure metering system puts it on a par with advanced bodies such as the Canon EOS 60D and EOS 7D, while it matches the EOS 600D in its nine-point autofocus system, both of which are accurate and effective. You also get the DIGIC 4 image processor, which enables raw files to be saved as 14-bit files.
Handling is a mixed bag. On the plus side, there are plenty of direct-access controls to important shooting parameters. The Quick Control menu is also well-implemented, enabling you to get at a wider range of shooting options via an intuitive menu on the LCD. The downside is that the body lacks any textured grip areas and feels a bit slippery in the hand.
Canon's range of 'Basic Zone' shooting modes includes portrait, landscape, close-up, sports and night portrait. A new Basic+ system gives you more control over these modes, with 'ambience' adjustments such as Warm, Soft and Intense.
Despite its limited resolution, image quality is very good. It's on a par with the 600D in terms of colour rendition, contrast and dynamic range, while noise is well-controlled.
Outdoor image test
Colour is very natural, and there's plenty of detail in shadows and highlights, but contrast can sometimes be a little lacking.
ISO 200 at 100%
The Canon EOS 1100D can't match some cameras in the group when it came to resolving fine detail, with a noticeable lower resolution.
ISO 200 at 100%
ISO 3200 at 100%
An upside of the Canon EOS 1100D's modest 12.2MP resolution is that image noise is quite minimal, even at high sensitivity settings.
Unlike in the raw files, JPEG colour rendition is accurate, with life-like saturation, especially when shooting in the Standard picture style.
Image test verdict
The Canon EOS 1100D performs very well in most areas of image quality, having natural colour rendition, good dynamic range and low image noise at high ISOs.
Read our full Canon EOS 1100D review
Canon EOS 600D
Canon EOS 600D - £640
Despite looking similar to the Canon EOS 550D, the newer Canon EOS 600D adds a wealth of features. Both cameras share the same 18MP image sensor, DIGIC 4 image processor, Auto Lighting Optimizer, iFCL metering and nine-point autofocus.
The 600D adds a fully articulated LCD, which enables you to shoot from virtually any angle using live view, and is particularly handy for self-portraits, as well as for shooting video. A step up from the EOS 1100D, video modes stretch to Full HD 1080p.
Like the 1100D, this camera boasts new Basic+ shooting modes and a beginner-friendly features guide via the LCD. Better still, there's a new Scene Intelligent Auto mode, which compares the image you see through the viewfinder with a built-in data bank, and then optimises the camera settings to get the optimum results. In-camera editing is also new, with creative filters such as grainy black and white, soft focus and fisheye. You can also rate your photos out of five stars for easy organisation.
Handling feels more assured than with the cheaper 1100D, thanks to the addition of textured grip surfaces. The higher-resolution 18MP sensor provides greater detail and enables more scope for creative cropping. In other respects, image quality is extremely similar in the 600D and 1100D, with near-identical colour rendition and contrast.
As with the EOS 1100D, EOS 60D and EOS 7D cameras, the iFCL metering system is very accurate, but it needs to be used with care. The overall exposure setting is heavily biased to the active focus point, so if this falls on a very light or dark part of the scene, results can vary even when using evaluative metering.
Outdoor image test
Treatment of colour and contrast is near-identical to the Canon EOS 1100D, with results that tend towards faithful rather than punchy.
Fine detail is retained very well in JPEGs, and in this respect, the Canon EOS 600D is a close match to both Nikon cameras in the group.
Considering its class-leading 18MP resolution, image noise is remarkably well-contained at high ISO settings, along with good levels of detail.
Colour rendition is similar to the Canon EOS 1100D. It's true to life in the Standard setting, while the Landscape picture style boosts saturation.
Image test verdict
Images from the Canon EOS 600D are true to life and deliver plenty of shadow and highlight detail. However, shots can lack a little punch and contrast.
Read our full Canon EOS 600D review
Nikon D3100 - £400
Setting the standard for entry-level cameras, the Nikon D3100 is a major revamp of the older and enormously popular Nikon D3000. Live View comes with face-priority autofocus options as well as a Scene Auto Selector for automatically setting optimum shooting parameters. Unlike other similarly priced DSLRs, video is Full HD 1080p, although the camera lacks a microphone socket.
Beginner-friendly features include an interactive guided shooting mode. Divided into Shoot, View/delete and Set up sections, the guided shooting mode is packed with information and thumbnail images to illustrate all the salient points. For example, in Shoot, there are easy and advanced operation options, with interactive screens for softening backgrounds, freezing action, bringing more of a scene into focus, and much more.
Based on a 14.2MP sensor and the EXPEED 2 image processor, there's no shortage of resolution or power. Handling feels natural despite the camera's small yet solid-feeling build. The live view and video-recording facilities are particularly well-implemented, and easy to get at.
Our only reservation is that direct-access buttons are sparse, so you have to go through the menu for most shooting controls. At least you can set the Fn button for quick access to either Quality, ISO, White balance or Active D-Lighting.
Active D-Lighting makes an excellent job of controlling dynamic range and revealing plenty of detail in highlights and shadows. The 11-point autofocus system is also effective, and the 3D Colour Matrix II metering system provides highly accurate exposures practically every time.
Outdoor image test
Sunny shots from the Nikon D3100 can sometimes be a bit on the bright side, but there's still plenty of detail and vibrancy.
The Nikon D3100 makes the most of its 14.2MP sensor, and delivers very crisp images with plenty of fine detail throughout.
Even at the highest standard sensitivity setting of ISO 3200, images are nice and clean, with very little image noise.
Raw and JPEG colour rendition are accurate, and the saturation is slightly increased, which gives a pleasing and lively look to pictures.
Image test verdict
Straight off the camera, images are punchy and vibrant with plenty of detail. There's usually little - if anything - to be done at the editing stage.
Read our full Nikon D3100 review
Nikon D5100 - £600
Weighing in at £200 more than the Nikon D3100, the Nikon D5100 builds on the latter's features with a feast of advanced extras. A 16.2MP CMOS sensor is backed up by Nikon's EXPEED 2 image processor, and the standard sensitivity range of ISO 100-6400 is expandable right up to ISO 25600.
As well as full auto, PASM and basic shooting modes such as Portrait, Landscape and Sports, the mode dial also offers Scene and Effects options. The Scene setting is like an extension of basic shooting modes, and includes Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Candlelight, Autumn colours and various other options. These tailor shooting parameters for optimum results in tricky conditions.
Switch to Effects and you can choose options such as Night Vision, Colour Sketch and Selective Colour. The effects work well in live view mode, where you can preview how the image will look before shooting. Other advanced shooting options include an HDR setting for merging dual exposures of high-contrast scenes.
Autofocus, metering and Active D-Lighting give excellent and remarkably consistent results in all sorts of shooting scenarios, both indoors and outdoors in wide-ranging lighting conditions. Image quality is punchy without being artificially vibrant. Video recording is also high-quality, and benefits from an external mic socket.
Handling is good overall, and versatility for live view and video recording gets a boost from the fully articulated LCD, similar to that fitted to the Canon EOS 600D. The 3-inch screen has a high 921k pixel resolution. Raw processing and a wealth of retouching options round off the attractions.
Outdoor image test
Punchy image quality is the hallmark of the Nikon D5100. This shot has plenty of contrast and saturation straight from the camera.
Retention of fine detail is on a par with the Nikon D3100 throughout most of the sensitivity range, but it's a little better at ISO 400-800.
ISO 3200 is perfectly usable on the Nikon D5100, with impressive rendition of fine detail, along with very low image noise.
Typical of Nikon DSLRs, raw and JPEG colour rendition on the Nikon D5100 is accurate, yet with a vibrant quality even in the Standard picture mode.
Image test verdict
With accurate metering, excellent Active D-Lighting and great performance even at high ISOs, the Nikon D5100 delivers superb image quality.
Read our full Nikon D5100 review
Pentax K-r - £400
Small but with a robust and rugged feel, the Pentax K-r packs in plenty of impressive features. Shooting modes include all the usual basic settings such as Portrait, Landscape and Sports, plus an auto scene-sensing full auto mode.
In advanced modes, the Pentax K-r adds a Sensitivity setting to the usual PASM, so you can set the ISO to your preferred value, and the camera works out an appropriate balance of aperture and shutter speed. Video recording is less impressive, with a maximum resolution of 720p.
To improve image quality, there's a neat range of auto corrections available from the menu system, including independent dynamic-range controls for highlights and shadows, and lens corrections for distortion and lateral chromatic aberrations.
Multiple exposure and interval shooting are also on the menu, and the body features sensor-shift image stabilisation. Furthermore, the maximum shutter speed is an above-average 1/6000 sec, and the Pentax camera has the fastest continuous shooting rate in its class, at 6fps. All in all, the K-r is an extremely versatile camera.
The 11-point autofocus system proved very accurate in our tests. The only disappointment is that in selectable, single AF point mode, the four-way pad loses its ability to control white balance, ISO, flash and the self-timer, which is rather awkward.
Metering is quite accurate in most outdoor conditions, but in dull lighting, and for indoor shots without flash, we found the Pentax K-r often severely under-exposed pictures. The shadow-correction feature works quite well, but highlight correction often fails to avoid blown highlights.
Outdoor image test
In regular 'Natural' colour mode, images can be a little muted, as above. Switching to Landscape or Vibrant gives more impact.
The Pentax K-r proved a little disappointing in resolution, with a noticeable drop in fine detail compared with other cameras in the test.
Image noise at high ISO settings is much reduced compared with the older Pentax K-x, but under-exposure is a problem in dull lighting.
Colours from the Pentax K-r can sometimes look a little insipid, and we often saw a slightly cool colour cast in test images.
Image test verdict
Saturation is slightly muted, and the colour balance is cool. There's a lack of fine detail along with under-exposure in dull lighting conditions.
Read our full Pentax K-r review
Sony Alpha A390
Sony Alpha A390 - £370
The cheapest camera in the group is a step up from the Sony A290, which has similar specifications, but lacks a live view shooting mode. Even so, while the Sony Alpha A390 does feature live view, there's no magnified preview facility, which precludes precise manual focusing. More disappointingly, the Sony A390 has no video-recording capability.
Resolution is respectable at 14.2MP, although Sony again bucks the trend by featuring a CCD rather than a CMOS image sensor. The maximum sensitivity is ISO 3200, which is fairly pedestrian nowadays, and there's no expanded ISO range.
There's plenty of help on hand for beginners, however, as the on-screen guide provides information on all the various shooting modes. Once you're familiar with camera settings, you can switch the guide off to have a more streamlined interface.
Another nice touch is the tilting LCD screen. Unlike the Canon EOS 1100D and the Nikon D5100, there isn't full articulation, but the tilting action still makes for convenient live view shooting from high or low angles. The LCD itself is only 2.7 inches in size, and it has a fairly low resolution of 230k pixels.
The Sony A390 has the slowest continuous shooting rate in the group, at just 2.5fps, although the Canon EOS 1100D slows from 3fps to 2fps if you shoot in raw mode rather than JPEG.
In our tests, the Sony Alpha A390 had a habit of over-exposing images in bright lighting conditions, making sunny outdoor scenes look washed out. The D-Range Optimiser helped, but even so, most shots were too bright. In dull lighting or shooting in the shadows, exposures were more accurate, but white balance errors crept in and images often had colour casts.
Outdoor image test
We found over-exposure to be a frequent problem in sunny conditions. This shot is out by about 1/3 of a stop.
The Sony A390 resolves fine detail throughout most of its sensitivity range. It only really drops off at ISO 3200.
ISO 3200 is the maximum available sensitivity, and at this setting, the Sony A390 has much more image noise in JPEGs than the competition.
Colour rendition on the Sony A390 is a mixed bag, with white balance being a hit and miss affair, especially in dull lighting conditions.
Image test verdict
With frequent over-exposure in bright conditions, inconsistent white balance and image noise at ISO 3200, the Sony A390 had the poorest image quality.
Read our full Sony Alpha A390 review
Under lab conditions, we shoot three charts with each camera to assess sensor performance with visual and computer analysis. Dynamic range and noise are measured with the DxO transmission chart.
Images of this chart are processed in DxO Analyzer. Colour error is measured using the X-Rite ColorChecker chart. We also shoot a resolution chart, indicating the detail each camera is able to record in LW/PH.
Verdict: best starter DSLR
The Nikon D3100 offers a wealth of features, including advanced live view modes and 1080p video recording. Moreover, its excellent guided shooting mode is particularly informative and intuitive, helping beginners to bridge the gap between basic and advanced shooting modes.
For an extra £200, the Nikon D5100 is our top choice of camera in the group, adding a fully articulated and higher-res LCD, extra scene modes and shooting effects, plus a smart range of in-camera editing facilities. The one you choose is entirely a budgetary decision - we wouldn't hesitate to recommend either.
Canon comes very close to both Nikon cameras in terms of features and performance, making the EOS 600D and EOS 1100D the next best DSLRs on the list. Indeed, for more experienced photographers, the Canon cameras offer better direct access to important shooting parameters such as white balance and ISO, whereas these are hidden away in the 'information edit' menu on the two Nikon DSLRs.
Ultimately, however, the versatility and vibrant image quality of the Nikons earns them the top honours.
Next up is the Pentax K-r. On paper, this camera looks an absolute steal at the price, with an excellent range of advanced features and specifications. Sadly though, they don't quite translate into great image quality, and our review sample suffered with muted, cool colour rendition and a tendency to under-expose images in dull lighting.
The Sony A390 is quite a basic camera with no live view magnification or video capture. What's more, it usually over-exposed sunny shots, was often inaccurate in its white balance, and produced noisy images at high ISO settings.
The Nikon D5100 is our top starter DSLR. Superb image quality is all but guaranteed in practically any conditions, thanks to the camera's highly accurate metering, excellent performance at high ISO settings, wide-ranging scene mode enhancements and cool trick special effects. It's a creative powerhouse.
The Nikon D5100 is simply one of the best digital SLRs for beginners ever made.
Liked this? Then check our Best Compact System Camera 2012: 18 reviewed and rated
Sign up for TechRadar's free Week in Tech newsletter
Get the best tech stories of the week, plus the most popular news and reviews delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up at http://www.techradar.com/register