How to Choose a DSLR!

(and compact digital cameras, too!)

Updated 11/29/2013

New visitors see all the film articles on this site and may conclude that I'm just some stubborn dinosaur of a film photographer who won't give digital a chance.  (Maybe they think I drive a horse and carriage too.  I would, but horses eat so much hay, and I already have to feed my film camera :-D  )

Actually, I use and enjoy digital quite a bit.  I went through the whole "switch to digital" thing for several years and then went back mostly to film.   Film is great, I use it, and there are a lot of reasons why it's still relevant in 2013, 2014, and onward.  Digital, of course, has its own set of positive qualities.  Because it's such an important theme, I'll risk repeating it too often:  use both, and enjoy them!

Even though I mostly went back to film, some work still demands the instant results of digital.  I also like to have quick pictures from some of my film shoots while I'm waiting for slides to come back.  Because I'm so particular about tones and colors, I've also become pretty well-versed in the fine points of digital photography... and digital cameras.

Now, let's talk about DSLR's and compact digital cameras for a bit.   What features are good?  What's the best camera when you're just starting out?  Do you need a lot of megapixels?  We'll look at these topics and more.

1.  A Bit of Background

2.  Megapixels Are Overrated

3.  Brand Loyalties?

4.  Features You Don't Really Need

5.  Before We Talk About DSLR's

6.  Compact Digicam Buying Guide

7.  What's So Good About a DSLR?

8.  My Favorite DSLR Picks

9.  Parting Thoughts

A Bit of Background

There's a truly bewildering array of digital cameras available today, from iPhones to Micro Four-Thirds to full-frame DSLR's.   It would take a long time just to outline every type here, so I'm not going to do that.  (Against all odds, bridge cameras are still around and deserve their own article, which you can read here.) 

For now we're going to talk about the two most common types of digital camera:  the compact (a.k.a. "point and shoot") and the DSLR.

Which DSLR or compact you should buy depends on what you're going to do with it, and of course what your budget is.    I don't like to pretend to know what camera will work best for you, but for the sake of this article... I'm going to pretend to know what camera will work best for you!!  Obviously, the ultimate decision is up to you.  I'll just provide some pointers and you can decide.

I promise I will try to refrain from saying "just get a film camera" in this article.  Here's a quick look at some sensible recommendations for a digital camera, and why.

Megapixels Are Overrated

The average person doesn't "need" 24 megapixels per se, even though that 24-MP camera might be worth getting because of other improvements (or if you do this much).  There are still a lot of people shooting 6-megapixel Nikon D40's.  Six to ten megapixels will provide great images if you know what you're doing.  If someone lacks basic photography skills, it won't matter what kind of camera they're toting around. 

Digital cameras have improved a lot over the years.  Anything made after 2006 or so is probably not too bad, and anything made since about 2008 should have enough resolution and quality to keep you for a while.   Two examples that come to my mind are the 6-MP Nikon D40 (2006) and the 10-MP Canon EOS 1000D (2008).  

Speaking of older cameras, take a look at these photos (click for full-size):

Or how about this photo...

Click for a bigger version!

Looks pretty good, right?  I mean, there's no massively-pixelated features or anything.  Sure, there's a little noise in the second photo's sky (and the fullsize versions show some limitations), but keep reading. 

Digicams introduced before 2006 are old.  Ones before 2005 are practically ancient.

Would you believe this camera is from 2003??

It's a Finepix S7000, boasting 6.3 MP.  I can think of 12-megapixel cameras from 2010 that don't even yield images this nice.

OK, the Finepix has some noise even at ISO 200, but... 2003!!!   It even shoots in CCD-RAW format if you want!  

I've seen a lot of people pick up a camera, use it for six months, and then declare that the equipment is holding them back.
Many of the greats in photography used the same one or two cameras for ten, twenty, even thirty years or more.  Don't get stuck on the Megapixel Treadmill.  Unless you want to do office-building-sized enlargements,  you don't *need* more megapixels.  Beyond 10 MP, you're better off spending the money on better lenses.   Once you get into 10+ megapixel DSLR's, a cheap lens will "hold you back" more than a cheap camera, but even the lens takes a distant back-seat to the importance of your skill as a photographer. 

Brand Loyalties?

Pentax, Sony, Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic... etc... etc.  Any of the major brands can produce nice cameras, but it's silly to think they will always produce models you like (or dislike) under every circumstance.  On the other hand, I can't think of any major brands I'd dismiss categorically.

Equipment should be evaluated on its own merits.  If I like any brand in general, that's only because it's given me good results.  There is a little bit of brand loyalty there, but if they released a total lemon, I'd do my best to give an unbiased review.

One thing to remember here is that digital cameras are extremely complex pieces of technology.  In theory it doesn't take much to make a digital camera go haywire or even quit in the middle of a shoot.  It's really a wonder they work as well as they do.  What I'm saying here is that you can get an occasional bad unit from any company, but don't let that sour your view.

Features You Don't Really Need

There are some features you shouldn't waste your time on.   Digital zoom is one of them.  It achieves "zoom" by in-camera cropping.  In effect, you're using a smaller portion of an already-dinky sensor.  That means "digital zoom" is going to degrade the image quality.   With the advent of inexpensive Canon superzooms like the SX120, 130, 150 and 160, there's no reason to bother with digital zoom.  These cameras do have the feature (supposed to "augment" the optical zoom), but I just turn it off.

There are a lot of other features that might be nice to have, but they're not really necessary.

GPS:  The only thing it might be good for is if you get lost in the wilderness where you also happen to have your cell phone, and that phone just happens to have reception.  Other than that, it's just another feature to complicate things and cost money. 
Instead of putting GPS in a camera, these companies should fix the highlight range problem (see "Camera vs. Log").  

Special modes such as "portrait", "indoor", "landscape", etc.:   These are meant for beginners.  If you already know how to control the camera manually, you should do that instead.   Don't become too accustomed to letting a camera try to do everything for you.  The camera companies have been trying to dumb-down photography for a hundred years, and in the digital age they've succeeded more than ever.  I'm not saying all special modes are useless, but when they start to crowd out the manual controls, that's when I skip it and go for a different camera.  (And touchscreens?  I still use cameras from the Seventies, and you want me to learn touchscreens??)

I can't predict every feature you don't need, but there's at least one thing any advanced photographer does need... and that's fully manual mode, preferably also with manual focus.  Pay attention to these, because they're major reasons why a camera phone can never fully replace a real camera (except in the minds of amateurs and tech writers...)

Compact Digital Cameras

Or:  "Why This Is Going To Turn Into The Canon SX120 Fan Club"

I've heard this question a lot:  "Why buy a DSLR when my point-and-shoot already does everything I want?"  Or:  "Should I bother with a DSLR?"  The short answer is that if you can't see a difference and don't find yourself running up against the limitations of the point and shoot, then you probably don't need a DSLR right now.    Heck, I know some character who even photographed a wedding with an old 4-megapixel point & shoot.  

We'll see shortly why the DSLR is "better" for many applications, but in the meantime:

Meet My Favorite Compact Digicam Ever!

I actually take many of my digital photos with a 10-megapixel Canon SX120 IS.  That's primarily because I use film for shots that are really important to me.   Notwithstanding the fact that it has a tiny CCD sensor that noises up easily, the SX120 actually has some "pro" features.  When I sat down to write this article I had no intention of making it into a Canon SX fan page, but these little gadgets do almost everything I need in the digital realm (although you might want to take a look at my article on bridge cameras).  

Here were the major reasons for choosing it:

- Small, portable
- 10x Optical zoom (competitors offer 4x if you're lucky)
- Takes AA batteries instead of proprietary lithium (very handy!!)
- Image Stabilization (the "IS" in "120 IS").
- External dials allow manual control of aperture, shutter speed, and exposure compensation.
- Manual focus capability!
- The SX120 in particular can accept a JJC filter adapter that takes standard 52mm filters.  The SX130 (etc.) can't do this as far as I know.

The Canon SX120 and its newer brethren are great little cameras.
I've even used one to "scan" 4x5 transparencies!

(Yep I have this same photo on Flickr.)

Like most point & shoots, the Canon SX120-160 have no viewfinder and no flash hotshoe.    The lack of a real viewfinder is kind of annoying, especially in bright sunlight, but again that's nothing new for pocket cameras.

Here are some model-specific downsides of the series:

- If you don't use M or Av mode and keep it at low ISO, you might get frustrated.
- Shutter lag (common to point & shoots, but rather severe on this camera)
- Severe noise above ISO 400

Poor performance at high ISO is a problem, but let's don't forget image stabilization.  You can get at least, what, two stops out of that?  Actually, it's even better than that.  Let's take a look.

Image Stabilization!

The following picture was shot at f/3.2, shutter speed of one second, ISO 100, no tripod.  Mouse over to see what Image Stabilization (IS) can do.  Be sure to have Java Script enabled:

Even blurry, the Canon colors look pretty good.

If you figure that the slowest hand-held speed we "should" be able to use here is about 1/30th of a second,  we're looking at five stops improvement on that.  Let's be conservative and say three stops.  So, if you're doing a shot that would normally require ISO 1600 to achieve hand-held, you could easily do the same shot at ISO 200.    You still have to hold the camera as still as you can, obviously.

The rule of thumb for focal length vs. minimum shutter speed is "one over the focal length".  In other words, a 100mm lens would be usable hand-held at 1/100th of a second with no tripod.  Always err on the side of faster speeds (e.g., for a 300mm lens, go to 1/500th of a second). 

Now, The Canon SX120 has a focal length range of 36 to 360mm, so without image stabilization, you'd be needing about 1/500th of a second when zoomed all the way in.  If we figure on a minimum of three stops image stabilization, we can use 1/60th instead.  If you hold the camera really still, you should be able to use 1/30th with no problem. 

The Canon ELPH 320 with its CMOS sensor does much better at high ISO than the SX120-SX160 IS series.  The ELPH 320 also has the "IS" feature, too.  The problem is, ultra-slim digital cameras like the ELPH don't allow you to dial in the aperture or shutter speed.  I can't stand that.  (The SX120/130/150/160 literally has a dial).  On the ELPH you can adjust the EV, which is helpful, but that's about it.   And the camera is tiny!!  

Dynamic Range

Review sites are continually talking about the "great dynamic range" of such-and-such digital camera, but the fact is that digital cameras, even as we go into 2013, have unacceptable highlight clipping.  When you don't have full-manual control over the exposure, odds increase that the pictures will look like they came from... a point & shoot camera. 

Natively, compact digicams such as the Canon SX series have about the same dynamic range as a typical DSLR;  no better, no worse.  (See Camera vs. Log for examples).    The reason why DSLR owners can squeeze more apparent dynamic range out of a scene is that they can shoot in RAW mode, which allows more tweaking without ugly artifacts such as tone-banding.  However, if your original shot blew out the highlights to 255, you ain't gettin' 'em back even if you did shoot RAW. 

Another reason is that DSLR's have features like "highlight tone priority" (Canon) or "active D-lighting" (Nikon) that can in fact squeeze a bit more highlight range out of a scene;  to get that benefit, though, you have to have the feature enabled.

Even though we've been talking about one particular series of cameras (Canon SX) , the basic principles apply when selecting any other one.  My same cranky criteria can be applied.  And so, let's dive right into my opinionated

Compact Camera Buyer's Guide: 

Even cranky film photographers can get a lot of use out of a compact digital camera.  Some have likened it to a "portable sketchbook" for deciding what scenes and compositions are worth having on film. 

Best All-Around / Under-$200:   If high-ISO performance is not required, I'd go for the Canon SX130 IS, the SX150 IS or SX160 IS.   By the way, I really like the looks of the red SX150 IS (currently $129 at Amazon).

I can't think of a better digicam in the under-$200 price bracket.  Once again, understand that these are really best at low ISO (80 or 100) in Manual or Aperture-Priority mode.  Don't buy one of these thinking it's a low-light wonder.  It is, after all, under 200 bucks and made to fit in your pocket (sort of ).

Grab a couple packs of the newer Sanyo Eneloop AA rechargeables.   These things rock.  They have a much longer charge retention than typical NiMH batteries.  Don't forget to pick up a good AA charger.  The best AA battery charger I have used thus far is the LaCrosse BC series (you can get the BC-700 through this link or the BC-1000 through this link.)  The BC-700 is about 40 bucks.  I researched this a lot, bought one, and love it.

High ISO / Low-Priced:   Those little Canon ELPH cameras are tiny and lack full-manual mode, but the 320 has pretty good high ISO capability.  If you insist on getting a dinky camera with a touch-screen and no real "manual" mode, then at least get the ELPH 320.  Don't get the ELPH 110, which is no good at high ISO.  That's probably why everybody is discounting the 110 so much.  You can pick up an ELPH 320 for about $250 (update:  $135)  through this link, but don't say I didn't warn you about the lack of fully-manual mode.  (You also know I'm not a big fan of touchscreens.)   If high ISO performance is really important, it's worth it to save the money and get a DSLR.

High ISO / Mid-Priced:   If it had to be an ultra-compact camera, I'd get the Fuji XF-1 (currently $399 at Amazon).  Aside from that, if I could know for sure it wouldn't have the "white orb" defect, I'd much rather get a Fuji X10 or X20
The Olympus E-PL1 with the 14-42mm Zuiko lens is on sale right now at Amazon, but note that it doesn't come standard with a viewfinder.  Micro 4/3 cameras are kind of fascinating, though, and that Olympus is pretty good at high ISO.  That's partly because the sensor is bigger than in the typical compact.   The Micro 4/3 system also has nice, interchangeable lenses. 

"Real Camera"-Style Compact:  If I want a compact digicam that handles like a "real" camera, and I could be sure to get one with a new sensor that doesn't "orb", I'd get a Fuji X10 / X20.  Fuji X10 serial numbers that begin with 22 (and up) are supposed to have fixed the "orb" problem, although nobody seems willing to guarantee that.  As I may have mentioned before, the X10 uses a proprietary RAW format (RAF).  Its version of RAF may or may not open in the free program "rawtherapee".   Whatever you do, call the seller to make sure you're getting an X10 in the good serial number range.   If not, skip it.  (Just to make sure you're aware, the X10 / X20 have smaller sensors compared to the X100 anyway.)

I want to mention that some people won't even bother with small-sensor cameras anymore.  I'm not one of them, because really it's a question of "what are you going to do with the camera, anyway?"  For daylight shooting of landscapes, a small-sensor camera can do most of what I'd want it to do (which is primarily to use it as a "sketchbook" for film shots...).  Low-light conditions are where a bigger sensor becomes more important.  That said, I'd rather spend $400-$600 for an inexpensive DSLR than $1,200 for an X100S.  If I want the rangefinder aesthetic, I'd buy the X20 and use a $400 DSLR for my low-light or bokeh shots... and I'd still be in it for less than that $1,200 Fuji X-100S.  That's just my own choice, and I'm not saying the other way is invalid.

"Real Camera"-Style Compact ($1,000+):  If it were in the budget and I really wanted a rangefinder-style digital, I'd probably get a Fuji X100.   Thing is, though, I prefer real (film) rangefinders like the Yashica Electro 35 or the Konica C35 (or better yet, ones with full-manual mode).  In my opinion, the price of an X-10 / X-20 is already pushing the limits for a compact digital anyway.  Dollar for dollar, a DSLR makes more sense anyway.  But if it had to be a rangefinder-style camera, and I wanted the best performance... yeah, I'd get the X100 / X100S.

What's So Good About a DSLR?

We already saw that compact digicams can do a lot.  Why would you even want a DSLR, then?
A few reasons:

1.)  Point and shoots have small sensors and wide-angle lenses.  That means very high depth of field, which is great for landscapes.  However, pro photographers often require "bokeh", which refers to the out-of-focus area of a photo.  Although landscapes look good with everything in focus, bokeh is what helps separate a "real" portrait from a snapshot.  Portraits don't look right when everything is sharp from one meter to infinity (like an Ansel Adams landscape). 

You can sometimes get a slight amount of background blur by zooming in with a point-and-shoot (or using macro mode), but it can't compete with a real SLR or DSLR camera.   That's because, here again, the DSLR has a bigger sensor and therefore a shallower depth of field. My 4x5 camera uses an even bigger area (the "sensor" being a big ol' sheet of film), and thus the depth of field is even shallower yet.  With 4x5 you can get "bokeh" at f/11....

2.)  Another huge reason to get a DSLR is low shutter lag.  When you take pictures with a point-and-shoot, the camera takes a while to get ready for the next shot.  You can miss critical moments by relying on a point-and-shoot.  DSLR's are made to give a fast follow-up shot, and another, and another.

3.)   DSLR's offer better performance at high ISO.  Point-and-shoot cameras have dinky little sensors with the pixels crowded together.  This decreases light-gathering power and increases noise.  The same number of megapixels on a larger sensor will translate to much lower noise.  Point and shoots tend to have really awful chroma noise in low light conditions (although the ELPH 300 is quite good). Keep in mind that there are two main choices in DSLR sensors:  APS-C and 35mm.  (These refer to the size and have nothing else to do with film.)  To avoid confusion, some people refer to these as "DX" and "FX" sensors, which is how Nikon designates them.  The DX sensor is smaller, but the cameras are more affordable.  FX sensors give the better image quality and allow for cropped images without much quality loss, but FX cameras are considerably more expensive.  Unless you're making gigantic enlargements, the smaller DX sensor is passable for most anything you'd want to do.  The only people who would notice a difference are the guys who peer through brass magnifying glasses and talk about line pairs.  Most of your photographic audience won't scrutinize the pictures like that.  (I'd like to think I can "usually" tell the difference between APS-C and full-frame shots, but it's not a very big difference in small prints or screen JPGs.)

4.)  Yet another reason to get a DSLR is interchangeable lenses.  As you progress, you will start to see the value of this more and more.  

Quick digression:  some people buy Nikon DSLR's so they can use older Nikkor lenses from the film days, but you're really better off using the modern aspherics.  (Same thing with Canon, etc.)  That 18-55 kit lens will cover most situations, and if you need more powerful zoom, then get the 55-200 also.  In the higher price range, Nikon and Canon both make a bunch of great DSLR lenses.  Save the film lenses for film cameras.  I've used the old 50mm 1.8 series E on a D7000, and I've found the metering is quirky.  Besides, on a DX sensor that 50mm lens acts like a 75 or 80mm lens, making it not-so-great for landscapes or photojournalistic wedding photography.  And forget the 85mm Nikkor prime, which will act more like a 130mm lens when fitted to a DX camera.  That's OK for portraits, but not the kind you would take at events where you have only a moment's notice and not much space to back up!  Once again, that 18-55 kit lens will cover most of your everday shooting.

5.)  DSLR's allow for the use of external flash, which is an absolute must for professional work.  With any DSLR, you can get set up with a wireless flash trigger that makes it even handier.  Of course, with your point & shoot you could always use an external light-triggered flash unit, but everyone else's flash will trigger it, too.  That equals missed shots.  A few of the better compacts can take external flash, but (A.) this is uncommon, and (B.) these cameras cost as much as an entry-level DSLR.

6.)  DSLR's offer an optical TTL viewfinder.  TTL means "through-the-lens".  Whatever view you see, that's the view that will be photographed at that very instant.  Point-and-shoots have a slight delay in showing the image on the LCD screen.  Even bridge cameras have "EVF's", which electronically transmit the image to your viewfinder.  This delay hinders the smooth, natural flow of seeing and taking pictures (although bridge cameras have gotten a lot better.  Read about them here.)  Having a real TTL viewfinder is just as important as having low shutter lag.

7.)   Many technology improvements hit the market first in the DSLR's, then filter into the pocket cameras later.  Furthermore, unlike pocket cameras that have a lot of useless fluff, DSLR cameras tend to have more nuts-and-bolts technical features that are actually useful to pros... and you can access them with real buttons that don't require a magnifying glass to see.  There are fewer things more annoying to a pro than a gadget that tries to auto-guess everything and won't let you override it manually. 

There are certainly other reasons to get a DSLR, too, but those are some key ones.

The D5100 is one of the most popular choices right now. 
Some users have reported shutter malfunctions (the "black image" problem). 
This requires sending the camera back to Nikon for repairs.
The majority seem to be OK, though.  My own experience with this camera has been very pleasant. 
You can get one with 18-55mm lens here.
 (The price has changed a couple times;  as of 11/29/13 it's currently about $697.  UPDATE:  12/16/13 it's $429 here and at that price I'd grab one ASAP.)

Dynamic Range

DSLR's allow shooting in RAW mode.  This can let you recover some highlights, but only if they weren't maxed out to 255.  Another feature of DSLR's made today is that they have special processing algorithms such as Active D-Lighting (Nikon) and Highlight Tone Priority (Canon).  Actually, all four big DSLR makers (Sony, Pentax, Canon, Nikon) have these kinds of algorithms now.  They're good, but not perfect.

Every year I see the same claims:  some new DSLR has "the best dyamic range ever" and is "better than film".  People have been saying this since like 2001.  So far, it's bogus.  None of these cameras is "better" than film, just different.  Only recently (2011 into 2012) have they come out with cameras that have 5 stops of highlight range, thanks to in-camera processing algorithms.  Meanwhile, color negative film still gives 7+ stops of highlight range with gentle roll-off.  And it has nicer tonality.  I won't belabor that point here, because right now we're talking about DSLR's.  Somewhere back there I promised not to tell you to "just get a film camera"....

A big thing this year is the Nikon D800.  Sure it's a great camera-- excellent, in fact-- but guess what:  the highlight response is about the same as the much lower-cost Nikon D5100.  What you're really getting when you buy a D800 is the bigger viewfinder, the bigger sensor with higher resolution, and some more "pro" features such as faster continuous shooting.   Worth it?  Sure, if you need those things in your work.   If you need a big viewfinder but not the expense of the D800, consider the D7000.  Great camera.  Right now I'd go for the 24-105mm rig... extremely versatile lens, unless you're doing a lot of wildlife photography.

Sony and Pentax

Sony has come out with a fixed-mirror design that isn't technically a DSLR anymore (it's a DSLT).  These require an electronic viewfinder (EVF).  The older EVF cameras had "viewfinder lag".  Sony has worked very hard to surmount this problem, and in their newer Alpha series cameras, it looks like they have fixed it. 

Sony DSLR's (or DSLT's) have great color rendition.   I like the way the Sony Alphas render blue skies.  The only reason more pros don't get into them is because most pros are already heavily into Nikon, Canon, or sometimes both.  Another brand or "system" means more time and expense.  Even just re-learning all the quirks of a particular system can be daunting.  Pro photographers tend to demand a wider array of lenses, and Canon and Nikon have the widest selection.  (Pentax also has a pretty good selection).  Sony DSLR's, no matter how great they are, don't yet have that kind of selection.  Maybe that doesn't matter, though.  Sony does have the mainstay kinds of lenses that you'd probably want (such as 50 and 85mm 1.4 primes...)  Remember that Henri Cartier-Bresson used a 50mm lens for practically his whole life.

The Sony Alpha series would be a good choice if you don't feel invested in a system already and don't foresee any need to have a big collection of lenses.  Consider the low-cost A37 or, in the next higher price bracket, the A57.  It's no surprise that Sony should have good digital color;  to a lot of us old geezers from the picture tube era, there was nothing like Sony televisions.   If I weren't already satisfied with Canon & Nikon I might consider a Sony.

Pentax has some nice offerings, but as I said before, a lot of pros are already into the Canon or Nikon systems.  One thing I like about Pentax is the use of Pentax K-mount lenses.  There are a lot of those around.  Some photographers will tell you that Pentax has the best image quality of any DSLR, and some of the Pentax features are actually a lot better than what you get with Nikon.  Just as an example, Pentax K5 bodies have built-in shake reduction, whereas with Canon and Nikon you need to buy a lens that includes anti-vibration features.  All other things held equal, I would consider getting a K5 on that basis alone.   The image quality is superb.   The K-5 II also has probably the best low-light autofocus around. 

By the way:  the Nikon D5100, like the D7000, actually has a sensor made by Sony.  The color processing is just different.

Why Pay More?

Although I wouldn't mind having a 5d Mark III or a D800, I see no point in investing huge amounts of money in digital.  A few years from now the technology will be better.  That's why I like the entry-level DSLR's so much.  In 2013, the image quality is so good on these that anything more seems a waste of money unless (A.) your work demands the extra features, or (B.) you make gigantic enlargements.   Some people do both.  Obviously they would benefit from that 5d MkIII or D800.

Now that sensors are all pretty good (yes, there's still room for improvement!), you're actually much better off investing in good lenses.  That's the hard part.  Who likes spending $400-$1,200 on something that can't take pictures on its own?  Then again, even lens upgrades are debatable, given that today's kit lenses have such good optical quality.   There again, if you're a pro and need it for your work, the better lenses make sense.  There are indeed some differences that go beyond just the price.

My Favorite DSLR Picks

As we've seen, there are some worthwhile reasons to choose a DSLR over a pocket camera.  As I've mentioned before, you're better off concentrating on good lenses and operator skill than on expensive cameras. 

Unlike the camera mags, which will usually tell you to buy the very latest gear, I prefer to help you get the best value.  Emphasizing lower cost (and in no particular order), here are some sensible choices for 2013, even as we head into 2014. 

Best Value:   

Sony:  though it has an electronic viewfinder and is thus not a "true" DSLR, I would give the Alpha A37 a look;  it's part of Sony's new fixed-mirror DSLR lineup (technically they're DSLT's).  The A37 is available through this link.  Just remember that Sony doesn't have nearly the lens selection of Canon or Nikon.

If you like Nikon and want low-cost, it's hard to go too far wrong with a D3100 (buy here, or for about $100 less, get a Nikon refurb here) or better yet, a D5100 (you can get one through this link).   A few people are reporting stuck shutters on the D5100.  If the percentage of one-star comments on Amazon are any indicator, the D5100 could have as high as a 10% failure rate. 

I like the Canon Rebel T3 / 1100D or the Rebel T3i / 600D (see "Best Color", below).   The T3 / 1100D is their lowest-priced DSLR.

Pentax doesn't have a sub-$600 DSLR in the arena for 2012/'13.

Best $1,000-to-$1,200 DSLR:  I like the Nikon D7000 a lot, but I'd actually get a Pentax K-5 II or a Canon 60D.  Even though the 650D has the newer Digic5 processor, the 60D has better overall features (including longer battery life...).
If you need autofocus in low-light, the Pentax K-5 II is better than anything out there.  (The original K-5 was like it in every other way, except the autofocus was crummy).

Canon 60D with 18-135 IS is available here.  For $100 more you can get it with the 18-200

Pentax K-5 II with 18-55 is here.  (Moving into the $1,300+ bracket, the K-5 II with 18-135 is here, and it's a weather-resistant lens, too.)

Best Resolution for the Money:  If for some reason you need 24 megapixels, get the D3200 (available here) or the D5200.  Just so you know, high ISO performance on the D3200 / D5200 is not as good as on the D3100 / D5100, due to the higher number of pixels crammed onto the sensor.  If you need even more resolution (but much more expensive!), get the Nikon D800 (with 24-85 lens here).  It has a full-frame sensor and won't be as noisy at high ISO.  It's still a lot cheaper than medium format digital.

Best Color:   I prefer Canon color to Nikon, right out-of-the-box.   Maybe that's because Canon gives more life-like golden tones (tan, yellow, orange, etc.).   If the D3100 and 5100 weren't so nice in every other respect, I'd actually pick the Rebel T2i, T3, or T3i.   This article didn't concentrate on higher-end cameras, but if it's in your budget, the Canon 5D MkII or MkIII are superb.  I know how nice the Nikon D800 is, but I still want one of these more.

For the best color and best value, I like the Canon Rebel T3 (a.k.a. EOS 1100D), available through this link.   (I have an-depth review here.)
For slightly more money, the Rebel T3i is even better;   it has a self-cleaning sensor, higher resolution, and flip-out LCD screen (though remember that above 10-12 MP, extra resolution is kind of an "iffy" benefit... unless you're doing posters or macro capture of slides).  The T3i can also trigger multiple remote flashes, which is a pretty significant pro feature.  The "pro on a budget" could do quite well with the T3i.

Best Dynamic Range:  As I've noted before, the D800 still doesn't beat film in terms of highlight range, and in fact the D800 doesn't really have any more range than the D5100.  Both Nikons do have good highlight range with Active D-Lighting on the highest setting;   choose one camera or the other depending on your budget and what features you need.  The D800 has the large viewfinder, the full-size sensor ("FX"), and other pro features which of course the entry-level D5100 isn't going to have.

The D800 is currently just under $2,800, body only, through this link.  The 800E is just like it, except the antialiasing filter is removed to give a slightly sharper image.  (Higher chance of unwanted moiré patterns;  extra res useful only in specialized lines of work.)  I like film and would rather have a fully-loaded Pentax 67 II kit, but that D800 is sure nice.  Depending on lens bundle, the D800 can go anywhere from $3,300 to $4,500.   I know a portrait-only pro who uses the 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 almost exclusively (get the lens here), but if I were in the market I'd get the D800 with 24-85 lens because I shoot a lot of landscapes.   

Parting Thoughts

This time around I didn't concentrate on the higher-end DSLR's or the X100, Leica, etc.   I'm all about getting the most performance from the available gear, and I know that many readers are looking for entry-level and mid-range cameras.  In another article I might explore the higher-end cameras, but for now, there's no reason you can't get out there and take great pictures with an inexpensive DSLR or even a compact.  

Basically any of the big-name DSLR's are going to be very good:  Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax.  One brand might edge out another ever-so-slightly in some category, but in the end it really comes down to "which brand has the features you want at the price you can afford".  Me, I like inexpensive Canon and Nikon DSLR's, but that's only because long-time photographers tend to have these two brands in mind, simply out of habit.  (Maybe that's because of the great Canon AE-1 and the Nikon F series...)  Sony doesn't have nearly the lens selection of Nikon, Canon, or even Pentax, but their image quality and most other features are competitive.

Whatever you choose, remember that operator skill is a lot more important than camera brand or even camera model.  That's why I really like the little Canon SX120/130/150/160 series of cameras, and why a non-DSLR can still be a good choice.   I love that red SX150, and to have a camera with 12x optical zoom capability for $129 is almost unheard-of!  (If you want the most incredible optical zoom, be sure to read the Bridge Cameras article.)

The importance of operator skill also explains why my two favorite DSLR picks in 2013 are the Canon Rebel T3 (for color rendition and value) and the Nikon D5100 (for value and dynamic range).  Even though these are entry-level (or near it) and both are "last year's models", they offer great performance for the money.   I like the Rebel T3 so much that it now has its own page on this website.

(One more time:  a few D5100's have a stuck shutter issue.  Nobody knows how many it affects, but it could be around 10%.  I wouldn't be put off by it, though. )


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