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 2014. We'll guide you through the hottest cameras available - and only models that we've reviewed in full - to save you time when it comes to working out what the best options are.
DSLR - which stands for digital single lens reflex - cameras have removable lenses so that different optics can be attached in order to give a different view on the world. This variety allows you to start small and build-up to the more varied, sharper and desirable featured lenses as you go along. It also adds hands-on control for zoom and focus precision unlike that of most compact cameras.
DSLRs aren't to be confused with the newer compact system cameras that are also infiltrating camera shops up and down the land. They are the ones that typically look like point-and-shoot cameras but also have interchangeable lenses. We'll be covering the best of the best of those in another feature due shortly.
Whether you're new to the DSLR concept, are looking to upgrade, already 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.
We’ll be regularly updating this feature with the latest and greatest DSLR cameras as and when we review them, so you can see where your money is best spent as the best models float to the surface.
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, 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 the larger dimensions. In each case the mount size remains the same, 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 like around the 50mm or 75mm mark. If you are trying to snap that lion on the Savanna and don't want to get eaten then you'll want something with a long zoom closer to 300mm.
Best entry-level DSLR
You've decided that a DSLR is the one for you, but you don't want to fork out masses of cash and don't want overbearing or complex controls to get in your way. The Nikon D3200 isn't the most recent in the series, but it's affordable and a well-balanced choice to introduce you to the world of DSLR. Recently replaced by the D3300, which is a relatively subtle upgrade, the price of the D3200 continues to drop, thus making it an affordable offering in the market.
Complete with a Guide mode on its main mode dial, the camera can assist you in a visual way to generate the types of photographs you want. These visual cues will help in expanding your understanding of exposure, aperture values, depth of field and all those things that - quite probably - you don't know about just yet. But at the same time if that that sounds too daunting then just stick the camera in auto mode and press the shutter button - it'll do all the autofocus and exposure metering for you and, more often than not, do it well.
If there's a drawback it's that the optical viewfinder has a 95 per cent field-of-view, meaning that the outermost five per cent of the shot will be captured, but won't show up in the preview. It's typical of DSLR cameras at this level without exception.
Image quality from the D3200's 24-megapixel sensor is top quality, and at the time of writing it's possible to pick up a model for a fair price too. Competition comes in the form of the years-old Canon EOS 1100D, and that model's imminent replacement, the EOS 1200D. An alternative may be the Sony Alpha A58, but we've not tested it in full.
PRICE: £349 (at time of writing)
QUICK VERDICT: The D3200 has produces great images at high resolution and the accessible street price makes it well worth the investment. It's the camera to usher in a new level of image quality to the entry-level DSLR market without over-complicating things to ensure it's suitable for its target audience.
FULL REVIEW: Nikon D3200 review
Best small DSLR
Canon EOS 100D (Canon EOS SL1)
The Canon EOS 100D sits in a world of its own. It's as small as DSLR cameras come and that in itself is the single biggest reason for buying it. It's a technological mini marvel with a suitably affordable price tag to boot.
This is the DSLR to take up less bag space while delivering quality akin to the EOS 650D and EOS 700D models. One that stands out on its own.
PRICE: £399 (at time of writing)
QUICK VERDICT: The EOS 100D is an engineering marvel and while we doff our hats to Canon for showing off in making such a small DSLR, it doesn't match up to head nor heart: the 700D is better in every way on paper and while this, in part, puts the brakes on the 100D it still has its small size trump card. That's the one standout feature here: if you want small then this is the one to go for.
FULL REVIEW: Canon EOS 100D review
Best all-round DSLR bargain
Pentax is often the unsung brand outside of its strong Japanese following. But that's not the way to view this company, which makes excellent DSLR cameras.
If anything, the image quality that we've come to see from Pentax models tends to better its nearest competitors and the K-30 - which comes in at a very fair price but delivers beefier features than entry-level models - is no exception.
If you're not tied to any one brand by lens mount then we'd thoroughly recommend the K-30: it's weather-sealed, has a sturdy build, 100 per cent viewfinder, but such features never come at the cost of overall quality. This one's a cracker.
PRICE: £409 (body only, at time of writing)
QUICK VERDICT: The Pentax K-30 is a true return to form. The tough, rugged DSLR produces great images and is affordable too. Its only shortcoming is a relatively slow autofocus system that won't match up to similar competitors. Apart from that we struggle to find downsides to this DSLR.
FULL REVIEW: Pentax K-30 review
Best mid-level DSLR
Canon EOS 70D
The 70D represents the DSLR in the post-mirror age. If you're looking for an all-rounder when it comes to both still images and movie capture then there's no other pure DSLR out there that can offer such a varied and successful feature set.
It's the camera's autofocus systems that wins out though. The Dual Pixel AF system - on-sensor phase-detection via live view and a different phase-detection system via 19-point AF system through the viewfinder - truly closes the gap on the compact system camera market. We've been genuinely impressed how each system works independently depending on how you use the camera - and there's no compromise for one or the other. A revelation when considering how poorly the Canon EOS M functioned.
It's a shame that the 70D's viewfinder doesn't offer a 100 per cent field-of-view, but otherwise a strong feature set - including a 3.2-inch, tilt-angle touchscreen - counters at almost every other avenue.
PRICE: £859 (body only, at time of writing)
QUICK VERDICT: Great new technology, great image quality, and great in use - there are only a few nitpick shortcomings to the Canon EOS 70D. Otherwise it's as close to redefining the mid-level DSLR sector as we've seen in recent years.
FULL REVIEW: Canon EOS 70D
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 around £1,500 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.
That might disappoint if you were hoping for a truly next-level experience, as the D610 only really adds Wi-Fi accessory compatibility and an ever so slightly faster burst rate to its predecessor. But the other side of the coin is that it retains all the good stuff of its predecessor.
This camera is like the lovechild of the high-resolution D800 (see below) and D7000. As most people won't need the full feature set or 36-megapixel resolution of the D800, the 24-megapixel D610 opens up the full-frame door to a wider audience. Top image quality for a great price. Slick stuff - and not an oil slick this time around.
PRICE: £1,500 (body only, at the time of writing)
QUICK VERDICT: The D610 opens the full-frame door to many that would otherwise never be able to afford such a DSLR. It’s not exactly cheap, but it’s great value for money when considering both the build and image quality. The feature set is much like a D800 mashed up with a D7000 - an excellent blend of pro and consumer features kit out this full-framer. It definitely gets our seal of approval.
FULL REVIEW: Nikon D610 review
Best high-resolution DSLR
Nikon did what we thought was utter madness when it announced the D800. But after using it extensively we found its 36-megapixel full-frame sensor was actually an utter marvel. It might not have the upper hand when it comes to those low-light shots, due to some image noise at the higher ISO settings, but it's still got the guts to hold up relatively well.
But pair this beast up with a super-sharp G lens, shoot at a low ISO sensitivity and, well, shots are pushing into medium format kind of territory. It's a stunner of a DSLR if huge-scale work is at the top of your priorities list.
It also works a treat in crop mode. The 1.5x crop factor still delivers 15.3-megapixels of glory and will provide longer equivalent focal lengths from your lenses while relying on the centre - i.e. sharpest - portion of the lens circle for excellent results.
PRICE: £1,770 (body only, at the time of writing)
QUICK VERDICT: A week was all the time it took for us to fall in love with the D800. And we were starting to get butterflies when we first took it out of the box. This is the camera we'd get if money were no object. While the Nikon D4 has a lot to offer in terms of speed, the resolution of the D800 is its main selling point, and it really is a game-changer in our view. In short, the D800 is probably the most-important DSLR out there: it gets video spot on and still photos have more detail than almost anything else on the market, with few of the downsides otherwise typical of high-resolution sensors.
FULL REVIEW: Nikon D800 review
Best DSLR for movie capture
Sony Alpha A99
Even if we've got some qualms with the A99 as a standalone stills camera, when it comes to movie capture it's Sony's single lens translucent (SLT) technology - which, we confess, means this isn't technically a DSLR - that make for exceptional fast and quiet autofocus.
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 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.
Other cameras throw plenty at the movie front too - there's rarely a DSLR model that doesn't have plenty to offer in this department - but the Sony's got stacks of good stuff on offer. A sure winner.
PRICE: £1,798 (body only, at time of writing)
QUICK VERDICT: The first full-frame SLT has plenty of strengths such as a fast burst mode, great movie mode and quality pictures, but comes up a little short elsewhere. The battery life isn't good enough, the burst mode is hindered by the buffer's limitations, picture quality is outperformed by more-budget competitors and the dual-AF system hypes itself up but, again, comes up behind competitors' systems in terms of speed, accuracy and AF point arrangement. If movie is your focus, however, then it's well worth investigating.
FULL REVIEW: Sony Alpha A99 review
Best enthusiast full-frame DSLR
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
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 the 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. If the Nikon D800's high resolution doesn't suit your work then the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is the camera for you.
Now it's not cheap by any means - an end-of-line Mark II might do you justice instead - but it's got every base covered and that 22-megapixel sensor is not only awesome in good light, it aces low-light too. Add Canon's vast array of lenses and there's not another choice out there as we see it.
PRICE: £2,250 (body only, at time of writing)
QUICK VERDICT: A brilliant camera that offers both superb stills and fantastic video. It's ideal for people looking to get a video-capable SLR, but owners of the 5D II might want to keep their existing gear and wait for the next update. Still, when it comes to all-round versatility it's the camera to go for.
FULL REVIEW: Canon EOS 5D Mk III review
Looking for an entirely alternative approach? The Nikon Df could be exactly what you're looking for. It's wrapped the top-spec D4's full-frame sensor into a retro body similar to the FM2 from decades gone by.
This could be the camera to reinvigorate where those photographic passions started. Classic manual control dials give the camera a distinct look and way of operation. But it all comes at a price: this niche camera is kitted out with the 50mm f/1.8 G lens only and has a recommended retail price of £2,749. Ouch. Wow. Meh? Take your pick - it'll be loved by some and seen as little more than a pricey exercise in nostalgia by others.
PRICE: £2,749 (with 50mm f/1.8 G lens, at time of writing)
QUICK VERDICT: The Nikon Df could be called over-ambitious. We can’t shun that feeling that Nikon needs to learn some lessons from this release. But as much as we thought we’d made up our mind about the Df based on its "almost there" aspects, we just kept on taking photos, looking at the pictures and being impressed. And that’s what pulls it back from the brink of obscurity because everything that comes out of this camera looks so great.
FULL REVIEW: Nikon Df review
Best professional DSLR
Canon EOS 1D X
The choices here are more or less twofold if you're considering full-frame: Nikon D4 or Canon 1D X.
Both cut it close and there's little to separate the two, but when it comes to being just a whisker ahead we think the Canon has it in the speed department.
It's one super-fast DSLR, the battery seems to last forever and, importantly, its 18-megapixel full-frame sensor is just about perfect for all manner of jobs.
PRICE: £4,845 (body only, at time of writing)
QUICK VERDICT: Fast, tough, long-lasting and able to produce exceptional images. Some other full-frame models outperform in the resolution stakes, and it's questionable as to whether Canon lost its "movie king" hat, but otherwise the 1D X is as good as professional a full-frame DSLR as cameras get.
FULL REVIEW: Canon EOS 1D X review