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 2016. 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 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.
DSLR cameras 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 a little more like point-and-shoot cameras but also have interchangeable lenses (there are exceptions to that, with some models acting as out-and-out DSLR replacements). We've got the best system cameras covered in another feature, linked below:
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, 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 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 or beyond.
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 D3300 is the entry-level model to Nikon's series: an affordable and well-balanced choice to introduce you to the world of DSLR.
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 D3300's 24-megapixel sensor is top quality, and compared to to its D3200 predecessor it's removed a filter between the lens and sensor for optimum sharpness. Competition comes in the form of the Canon EOS 1200D, which would be our other choice option at this level (see below).
PRICE: around £330
FULL REVIEW: Nikon D3300 review
Canon EOS 1200D
The Canon EOS 1200D might be a "safe" replacement of the nearly five-year-old 1100D model, but it holds enough weight to keep the entry-level DSLR market bubbling along.
If you want to use the rear LCD screen to take pictures then you might as well forget about it and look to a compact system camera instead. But if you're after an affordable viewfinder-based option with the latest and greatest image quality at this level then the 1200D has definite plus points.
Just like the Nikon D3300 (above) the Canon 1200D has the same 95 per cent field-of-view viewfinder limitations, but that's to be expected at this price point. Speaking of which, despite being the newest entry-level DSLR model out there, the asking price isn't overly inflated - it's actually less than the older Nikon model.
Between the 1200D and the Nikon D3300 there's not a huge difference in performance, price nor resulting image quality. The Canon's 18-megapixel resolution may sound "inferior" to the Nikon's 24-megapixels - but that's not the case, and is roughly nine times the overall resolution of the Full HD television in your lounge anyway. Both cameras mean large images aid with the ability to crop into the shot.
The Canon has a companion app to help your learning, while Nikon opts for an in-camera Guide Mode. Whichever suits, choose wisely as once you're invested in a lens mount it'll pave the way for any future purchases and camera body progression.
PRICE: around £289
FULL REVIEW: Canon 1200D review
Best small scale 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 700D model thanks to the 18-megapixel sensor on board, which is like its bigger brother. The 100D stands out on its own, but doesn't cost the earth.
PRICE: around £329
FULL REVIEW: Canon EOS 100D 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 it's one of the best pure DSLRs with such a varied and successful feature set. The Canon EOS 760D offers some of the same, but without build quality to such a high standard.
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.
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.
PRICE: around £749 (body only)
FULL REVIEW: Canon EOS 70D
We didn't include the earlier Nikon D7100 in the best DSLR listing due to evidence of banding in shadow areas of its images. Its follow-up, the D7200, complete with a new sensor on board, rights such wrongs. Indeed it's every bit the Canon EOS 70D competitor, delivering comparable image quality.
However, without a vari-angle LCD screen the D7200 might feel as though it's a step behind the curve. It makes up for this by offering a 100 per cent field-of-view optical viewfinder and the inclusion of both Wi-Fi and NFC (near field communication) - used for sharing images with a smart device or remote-controlling the camera - shows off the camera's forward-thinking feature set.
But it's the autofocus systems that really sells it. 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.
Overall the Nikon D7200 is an impressive enthusiast DSLR. We didn't anticipate finding it that much better than the D7100, but with notable improvements to image quality, burst mode capacity, movie capability and autofocus, it's every bit the Canon 70D competitor. Except, that is, for its lack of a vari-angle screen.
PRICE: around £949 (body only)
FULL REVIEW: Nikon D7200 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 £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 D810 (see below) and D7100. As most people won't need the full feature set or 36-megapixel resolution of the D810, 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.
If you're looking for something altogether different then the tilt-angle screen Nikon D750 might suit.
PRICE: around £1,249 (body only)
FULL REVIEW: Nikon D610 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 for some time. Announced at CES 2016, which is the world's largest consumer electronics show, this camera 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.
But, and having not critically been able to test image quality, the most interetsing thing about the D500 is just how fast it is. The new 153-point autofocus system - the same as found in the D5 but pulled into this APS-C format - includes 99 cross-type sensors for maximum portrait/landscape operability (15 of which support sensitivity to f/8), ensuring it's not a watered-down version of the top spec system. It's simply brilliant whether shooting still lives or tracking moving subjects.
A new layout with additional function buttons, tilt-angle LCD touchscreen, a 10fps burst mode that can shoot up to 200 raw files consecutively (wow), and weather-sealed construction add to this camera's impressive feature set. Expect big things from this portable pro.
PRICE: £1,729 (body only)
PREVIEW: Nikon D500 preview
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 new 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.
However, those thinking of upgrading from the original 7D who are hoping for a giant leap in image quality might not find their wishes granted. It's a similar story as it was between 5D second- and third-generations: a minor push forward.
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 even these omissions aren't a deal-breaker for us, even if it does make us lean towards the D500 that much more.
The battery life is great, while the layout, performance and resulting image quality are all exemplary.
PRICE: £1,179 (body only)
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 on from that launch and the D810 maintains the resolution but tweaks performance and image quality. The result is one of our favourite DSLR cameras ever - although it's not the highest resolution on the market, with the Canon EOS 5DS (below) taking that crown.
The Nikon might not have the upper hand when it comes to those low-light shots, due to some image noise at the higher ISO settings, and the sheer volume of pixels means potential blur from movement can be amplified. But get it right and the results are a thing of beauty.
There are top-spec features aplenty too: the 51-point autofocus system is the best out there in our view, image quality even at this super-high resolution is astounding and the solid build, battery life and raft of features are formidable.
PRICE: £2,349 (body only)
FULL REVIEW: Nikon D810 review
Canon EOS 5DS
Not content with allowing Nikon to win the resolution war, Canon came guns-a-blazing with the 5DS - a 50-megapixel full-frame DSLR that's got a pixel count high enough to take on medium format.
And it's really rather brilliant. But absolutely specialist. 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 III.
Even so, when paired with the right lenses and selecting sufficient shutter speeds we've seen no ultra-high-resolution DSLR more capable than the Canon EOD 5DS. It's the one to take down the Nikon D810 if resolution is your be-all and end-all want. It's that simple point that makes it a true five-star product for those pining for a medium-format-matching DSLR camera with added versatility.
PRICE: £2,699 (body only)
FULL REVIEW: Canon EOS 5DS review
Best DSLR for movie capture
Sony Alpha A99
We might have some qualms with the A99 as a standalone stills camera, but 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.
There's rumours of an A99 II showing off 4K capture due early this year, to coincide with CP+ 2016, but we'll have to wait and see just how true that is.
PRICE: £1,479 (body only)
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 D810's or EOS 5DS's ultra-high resolutions don'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.
In short the 5D MkIII is 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 MkII might want to keep their existing gear and wait for the next update. Still, when it comes to all-round versatility this is the camera to go for.
PRICE: £2,179 (body only)
FULL REVIEW: Canon EOS 5D Mk III review
Best specialist full-frame DSLR
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. That means independent control dials for an old skool feel. "Wow" or "meh"? Take your pick - it'll be loved by some and seen as little more than a pricey exercise in nostalgia by others.
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.
The Nikon Df could be called over-ambitious. We can't shun the 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.
PRICE: around £1,999 with 50mm f/1.8 G lens
FULL REVIEW: Nikon Df review
Best professional DSLR (full-frame sensor)
Canon EOS 1D X
The choices at this level are more or less two-fold if you're considering full-frame: Nikon D5 (below) or Canon 1D X.
Both cut it close and there's little to separate the two, but while the Canon was a whisker ahead of the older Nikon D4S, it's even closer with the latest Nikon D5 in terms of speed. The Canon offers equal-fastest-in-class burst mode, at 12fps (14fps with mirror lock), the battery seems to last forever and, importantly, its 18-megapixel full-frame sensor is just about perfect for all manner of jobs.
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 a great professional full-frame DSLR. If you can afford one and don't mind the bulk.
PRICE: £4,199 (body only)
FULL REVIEW: Canon EOS 1D X review
The latest professional DSLR on the market, the Nikon D5 is a heavyweight in all departments. Matching the Canon 1D X in terms of burst speed (12fps; 14fps with mirror lock), it's got an even more substantial buffer to shoot 200 consecutive raw files at that pace, and is the higher-resolution of the two models too, at 21-megapixels.
Not content with that being enough, Nikon has really gone all out to make the D5 the highest sensitivity consumer camera on the market. With an extended ISO 3,280,000 - yep, three million, two hundred and eighty thousand - it's certainly targeting the action and low-light shooter.
But perhaps best of all is the new 153-point autofocus system, which is super-fast whether shooting still lives 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, slipping between subject depths at pace, while locking onto subjects with a subtle depress of the (highly sensitive) shutter.
For the average consumer this is the Ferrari of cameras: out of reach in both price and realistic use. For the pros out there who don't mind the physical bulk (and associated long-lasting battery life) it will be a potentially priceless tool. And, quite possibly, the best consumer camera in the world today, all things considered.
PRICE: £5,199 (body only)
PREVIEW: Nikon D5 preview