To the beginner, there's a bewildering array of cameras out there these days. They advertise a multitude of features often wrapped up in technical jargon and sales-speak. How do you sift through it all to find the camera that's right for you? Well, that's what I'm going to discuss today.
Due to their overwhelming dominance in the professional and high-end amateur markets, most people go for Canon or Nikon, even at their higher price points. Is this necessary, or are there other options on the table which may be better suited to your individual needs?
Before we take a look over all the options, let's consider what decisions and requirements need to be considered before researching camera systems.
What Do You Need? Why?
The number one consideration when investing in a camera system should be the lenses. Modern digital bodies are ultimately disposable. You'll likely go through many over the years. On the other hand, time has little effect on well-maintained lenses, and this is where the bulk of your available money should go.
Why should the lenses come first? Well, first of all, image quality among DSLR sensors is fairly comparable these days. Color accuracy, resolutions and noise levels don't significantly differ across manufacturers. The number one factor in the quality of images now is the glass that goes in front of the sensor.
What does it mean when buying into a system? You need to consider what are you intending to do with your camera. The lenses you'll need may dictate the manufacturer options you have available.
If you're aiming to shoot professional sports, sooner or later you're likely to need a range of high quality fast telephotos, which limits you to Canon or Nikon. If you're aiming to shoot portraiture locally as a paying hobby, you don't necessarily need the crazy lenses and have a wider range of options available.
Maybe you're looking to get into video, and your main interest is in older lenses with manual focus and iris, and/or you like the soft, uncoated look of the older glass (me too!). If this is your main use case, your options are wide-open with the range of adaptors available.
Basically, consider your aspirations and decide what lenses you're likely going to need in the end, and if you can afford those prices. It makes sense to invest in the same manufacturer to begin with that you'll end up using, so you're not attempting to relearn controls later on.
Speaking of controls, schemes for button layouts, menu arrangements, zoom and focus ring directions differ between manufacturers. You need to find one that makes sense to you and is comfortable to use.
You may feel more at home in the Canon menus, or your hand may naturally rotate in the same direction as the Nikon lenses. The Sonys may feel the most comfortable in your hand. The only way to find out is by getting hands-on.
Now, on to the manufacturers themselves. Just keep in mind your thoughts from above, and read on. First up, Canon.
The Canon T3i is a good choice for most beginners.
Canon, offering the largest range of lenses of any manufacturer, seems the obvious choice if either you have no idea where you're trying to go, or conversely are looking to go into something fairly specialized.
From the 65mm MP-E Macro to the 800mm f/5.6L monster, you're almost certain to find the lens you need in their range. The L (for "luxury") series lenses are extremely high quality, especially in their latest iterations, and represent the pinnacle of image quality for many users. They're the everyday workhorse for many working professionals out there, complete with weather sealing.
Their ability to offer this huge lens range may stem from their lion's share of the DSLR market, at around 30%. This also means that a vast range of aftermarket accessories and third party lenses are also available.
In the filmmaking sphere, their dominance since the Canon 5D MkII started revolutionising filmmaking at all levels in 2008 has meant that the majority of third-party filmmaking lenses and accessories are designed for compatibility with Canon products.
It's entirely possible to start out relatively cheap with Canon too. A Canon Rebel T3i (EOS 600D) body and a nifty-fifty (50mm f/1.8) lens will set you back somewhere around the $700 mark when new. There are four series of models at varying price points, and a healthy used market.
Nikon are next in line in the market share wars at around 25%, and are Canon's biggest competitor. This allows them to get all the same third-party lenses from companies like Sigma and Tamron, which offer good image quality for around half the price of the high-end first party ones.
Nikon's own lens offerings seem rather complex with a big list of suffixes behind most lenses (the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED II AF-S DX? What?), but realistically are sortable and comparable to other manufacturer's offerings through the focal length, aperture and price point.
Nikon has a long history of optical equipment manufacturing and unlike Canon has used essentially the same lens mount for their cameras since the 1950s. This means that many old Nikon lenses work on new Nikon cameras. If your work allows you to use manual focus, this opens up a huge range of lenses for very affordable prices.
Nikon offers a similar upgrade path and price points on the bodies as Canon, from the entry-level to the professional monsters. Unless you're going to be heavily into video, where for the time being it's best to go Canon, the choice between the two manufacturers is really personal preference.
The Sony A57 offers many features only found in much more expensive models from other brands.
Sony are a relatively new player in the SLR game, but they've made professional camcorders and cinema cameras for quite some time. They know their stuff when it comes to imaging. This relative newness to the market is an advantage, however, because it allows them to take risks and add features that the bigger players are unwilling to do.
For example, due to their translucent mirror technology where the mirror stays fixed in place during shooting, the $700 Sony A57 can shoot 10fps stills at full resolution. The equally-priced current-generation Canon, the Rebel T4i/EOS 650D, manages only 5fps, a moderate boost from the Rebel norm of just 3.7fps.
Because Sony make Nikon's sensors, resolution and image quality in-camera is on par with the top two as well. Image stabilisation is achieved at the sensor too, as it floats on gyroscopically stabilised mounts. Since lenses then don't need IS in them, they can be made smaller and lighter than their competition.
Quality of the lenses is very good too; not quite up there with the high-end Nikkors and L glass, but comfortably above the equivalent Sigmas and Tamrons. If you don't feel that you're going to need the uncompromising quality of the expensive Nikon/Canon glass, Sony are a strong contender for those who want feature-laden cameras on a budget.
There is a potential issue with using Sony cameras for strobist photography, however. Sony are big fans of keeping everything as proprietory as possible, and so their hotshoes aren't always compatible with other brands of flashgun. Something to look into of if you're heading in that direction. Check the compatibility with strobes and PocketWizards when you're testing cameras in the store.
The Pentax K30 offers excellent value for the cost.
Pentax seemed to disappear for a while after the switchover to digital SLRs, but have been steadily working under the rader, putting out excellent bodies at reasonable prices. The Pentax K5 puts out beautiful images from its Sony sensor, and now there's a Pentax K5 II and a Pentax K5 IIs without a low-pass filter.
They have a strong feature set including 7fps burst rate and accurate low-light autofocus and still retail for only around $1100. The Pentax K-30 is even more impressive, with the same sensor as the K5, on-sensor image stabilisation and 6fps burst at only around $650, less than half the price of an equivalent Canon or Nikon camera.
Value isn't even the biggest strength of the Pentax DSLRs. That's reserved for, well, strength. Built like tanks, with full steel and magnesium-alloy bodies and total weather sealing across the entire price range, it's no surprise that Pentax is the preferred brand of many combat and military photographers.
Not only this, but like Nikon, Pentax didn't change their "K" lens mount with the introduction of autofocus, meaning a huge array of lenses and adaptors are available for the system. This is great if you're an old-lens enthusiast.
The Sigma SD15, like all Sigma SLRs, using the interesting Foveon sensor.
Last up is Sigma, who make a solid third-party lens range for the above manufacturers, but their DSLRs are something of a wildcard. Using a three-layer "Foveon" sensor, they dispense with the need for a Bayer filter altogether.
While this should make for extremely high colour accuracy since there's no algorithmic averaging involved, no tests I've seen have noticed a particularly overwhelming difference between the Foveon sensors and standard Bayer-type ones.
At 12-14 megapixels, they're also have oddly low resolution for modern SLRs. Sigma have an unfortunate tendency to triple the real resolution of the sensor in their spec sheets and advertising by pretending that the three-layer sensor has three pixels for each actual pixel.
Perhaps to their undoing, they currently use a proprietory "SA" lens mount which restricts the choices of lenses to only Sigma. This is unfortunately as Sigma has made DSLRs for a long time that use a Nikon lens mount.
With such a small market share, third-party equipment is minimal.
It seems to me that there's an option for everyone out there. Canon and Nikon make up the top of the field with the features and accessories available, but due to the names these come at a higher price.
Sony puts out an impressive performance and novel features at a competitive price if you're willing to sacrifice some compatibility. Pentax offers extreme durability and excellent value with the native fit of cheap K mount lenses stretching back decades. Unfortunately, while Sigma is interesting, it doesn't seem to be a wise system to start a long-term investment in.
I hope this round-up helped those of you looking to make your first DSLR purchase or even those wondering what other options are out there.
Comments? Questions? Hit up the comments below!
The cameras which we decided to compare include offerings designed for people just dipping their toe into the DSLR waters, and some aimed at those looking for a more capable camera. The six DSLRs we will be looking at are:
- Nikon D3200
- Canon EOS 650D (Rebel T4i)
- Nikon D5200
- Pentax K30
- Sony A57
- Pentax K-5 II
It's also worth noting that while the Pentax K-5 II stands out as a more expensive and high-end camera than the others, this is because other manufacturers did not update their top mid-range cameras in 2012. The Nikon D7000 was released in 2010, and the Canon 7D back in 2009. Both firms have spent 2012 giving more love to to their full-frame offerings.
Cameras which didn't make our comparison include the Sony A37 (the little brother to the A57) and the Canon 60Da which, being aimed at astrophotography, was a little to niche to compare.
Sensor Size and Megapixel Count
While some photographers argue that no-one needs more than 12MP, others say that the benefit of the added detail outweighs the increased noise that can be added to images and the processing horsepower needed to edit them. Unless you're planning on heavily cropping or printing out giant posters, any of these cameras will have enough resolution for you.
Size and Weight
Weight-wise the Pentax K-5 II clearly stands out as the heavy-weight at 760 g (with a memory card and battery but no lens) but this is due to its construction (more on that later) rather than it being unnecessarily heavy. The Nikon D3200 is the lightest at 505 g.
There's quite a range of autofocus capabilities across these DSLRs. Potentially the weakest being the Nikon D3200 which, while boasting 11 focus points, only has one cross type point.
FPS Burst Rate
Continuous burst shooting is where we really see the difference between the true DSLRs and the Sony A57. Because it doesn't have to flip a mirror between taking images, it's able to achieve a blistering burst rate or 12 fps … something that could turn most professional DSLRs green with envy.
The slowest of the traditionally mirrored cameras is the Nikon D3200 with 4 fps while the Pentax K-5 II again shows its higher end credentials with an impressive 7 fps.
Though most of the DSLRs being compared can have an expanded ISO of up to 25600, the Nikons have the smallest native range of ISO 100-6400 while the Sony A57 has the biggest with ISO 100-16000.
Viewfinder and LCD
The Canon EOS 650D and both Nikons have optical viewfinders with 95 percent coverage, this means the image taken is slightly greater than what you can see. The Pentax cameras meanwhile both feature 100 percent coverage optical viewfinders. The Sony A57 (again showing it's not a typical DSLR) uses a 100 percent electronic viewfinder with 1.4 million dots.
Construction and Weather Sealing
The Pentax cameras really show their quality when looking at their construction and sealing. The K30 is constructed from polycarbonate over a stainless steel chassis, while the K-5 II has a magnesium alloy chassis. Both cameras are weather-sealed with 81 and 77 seals respectively, meaning you could happily use them in a downpour … if you don't mind getting wet yourself.
Storage Media and File Types
All of the DSLRs in our comparison offer the ability to shoot RAW or JPEG images. The Canon EOS 650D, Nikon D5200 and Pentax K-5 II boast 14 bit RAW files, which some argue gives you more options over 12 bit RAW when editing files.
Even entry-level DSLRs shoot Full HD video nowadays, something that would have been almost unimaginable a couple of years ago. While 1080/30p seems to be the standard, there are a couple of discrepancies. The Sony A57 is capable of 1080/60p, while the Pentax K-5 II maxes out at 25p. All of the other cameras are capable of 60p recording once the resolution is dropped to 720.
Most of the cameras feature the same level of standard wired connections including mini HDMI, USB and a microphone input. The only one which lacks in this department is the Pentax K30 which omits HDMI and microphone.
Obviously, one of the main selling points of a DSLR system is that you can change lenses. That said, these kit lenses can offer fantastic value and are a great starting point if you are getting into photography.
18-55mm zoom lenses appear to have become the standard kit offering with entry and mid-range DSLRs. On these crop sensor bodies that gives a 35mm equivalent of around 27mm to 82mm which is a very useful range for general photography.
Each of the DSLRs here uses a mount designed specifically for its manufacturer's range, and all have plenty of lenses available to keep users happy. It is, however, worth remembering that while you can mount older legacy lenses, you might not have all features such as metering and autofocus available to you.
The Nikon D3200 is the cheapest and comes in at $550 … if you happen live somewhere it's available body-only. The Pentax K-5 II is the most expensive, but in it you're getting a camera at the top end of the mid-range market. Last year's Sony A77 came in at a similar price, as will likely be the case with replacements to the Nikon D7000 or Canon 7D.
Buying with a kit lens is often a no-brainer, especially if this is your first DSLR. Covering the wide to standard telephoto zoom range the kit lenses often add just $50-100 to the price of a new camera.
Summing up...It's amazing to see how far DSLR cameras have come in recent years. Not too long ago the specifications in these entry and mid-level cameras were only available on professional cameras … and they cost thousands of dollars. All of the cameras here are more than capable of shooting great images, and if you're in the market for one, it's really just a matter of seeing which best meets your requirements.
If you already have lenses lying around, picking a new camera suddenly gets a lot easier. You probably won't want to switch between manufacturers unless there is a specific feature you can't live without. But even if you don't already have lenses it's still worth considering the full range available, because once you start buying additional lenses you are less likely to switch between manufacturers in the future.
While the A57 doesn't have an optical viewfinder, which I normally prefer, its EVF works well. The fact it's automatically activated when the camera is lifted to your eye, is also a nice touch. Its vari-angle LCD also makes shooting in awkward positions considerably easier.
After a couple of years ruling the roost as the default go-to for photographers wanting a step-up from their point-and-shoot, DSLRs are now facing increased competition from mirrorless cameras. As a result manufacturers are having to up their game and in 2012 we've seen DSLRs gain improved performance and a number of new features. Our 2012 Entry and Mid-Range DSLR Comparison Guide is designed to help you pick the best new DSLR for you.
Admittedly the Sony A57 is not, strictly speaking, a DSLR. It uses translucent mirror technology, so is technically an SLT camera. However, it's clearly aimed at the same market as the other cameras, and has enough in common to be directly compared. While we could have used the same argument to include the Panasonic GH3, including this very capable mirrorless somehow felt a step too far.
All of the cameras use APS-C sized CMOS sensors, but 2012 was the year Nikon decided to restart the megapixel race. After launching the full frame megapixel monster which was the 36MP D800, Nikon made its DX cameras 24MP, considerably higher than the 16-18MP range covered by the other cameras here.
There's not too much to call between the size of these cameras, all are of around the same size. However, the few millimeters which has been shaved off the Nikon D3200 does make it feel considerably smaller in the hands. This could be good if you're looking for a camera to carry around with you, but if you've got particularly chunky digits, you may find it a touch on the fiddly side.
The Nikon D5200 has, on paper, the best autofocus potential with its 36 focus points, of which nine are cross-type. The Canon EOS 650D, Pentax K30 and Pentax K-5 II also all have nine cross-type focus points, but only from a total of nine, 11 and 11 respectively.
While ISO performance can't be directly compared by looking at the numbers - ISO 6400 could be great on one camera and produce noisy images on another – it can give an idea of how well a manufacturer thinks a camera handles low light situations.
At first glance it might look like the rear LCDs are all much of a muchness, coming in as they do at 3 inches and with 921k to 1.040k resolutions. But closer inspection shows the Canon EOS 650D, Nikon D5200 and Sony A57 all feature vari-angle screens which can be tilted, rotated or flipped depending on your shooting position. The Canon also boasts multi-touch for navigating menus and even taking photos from the screen rather than relying on physical buttons.
SD/SDHC/SDXC compatibility is standard across the entry to mid range DSLRs. The Sony A57 adds the ability to use Memory Stick PRO Duo if you've still got them lying in a drawer somewhere.
The Nikon D3200 and D5200 are both compatible with the WU-1a wireless adapter which can be used for image upload and remote viewing/shutter release via an Android or iOS app.
While kit lenses have a tendency to be a bit slow at the telephoto end, they are increasingly useful for shooting video. Ones like those bundled with these Nikon and Canon DSLRs have built-in vibration reduction which can help smooth out wobbly hand-held video … a bit.
There's some great value to be had in the entry and mid-range DSLR market; features which would have cost you a small fortune just a couple of years ago are standard on these cameras which range from US$550 to $1,200 for body only options.
Personally, I think the Sony A57 stands out as the most intriguing proposition here. The use of translucent mirror technology means it's capable of taking a burst of images considerably faster than equally specified DSLRs. A resolution of 16MP is also, in my opinion, plenty for a APS-C camera.
Click here to see all of the above specifications in one chart.