The Nikon D3100 offers a wealth of features, including advanced live view modes and 1080p video recording. Moreover, its excellent guided shooting mode is particularly informative and intuitive, helping beginners to bridge the gap between basic and advanced shooting modes.
For an extra £200, the Nikon D5100 is our top choice of camera in the group, adding a fully articulated and higher-res LCD, extra scene modes and shooting effects, plus a smart range of in-camera editing facilities. The one you choose is entirely a budgetary decision - we wouldn't hesitate to recommend either.
Canon comes very close to both Nikon cameras in terms of features and performance, making the EOS 600D and EOS 1100D the next best DSLRs on the list. Indeed, for more experienced photographers, the Canon cameras offer better direct access to important shooting parameters such as white balance and ISO, whereas these are hidden away in the 'information edit' menu on the two Nikon DSLRs.
Ultimately, however, the versatility and vibrant image quality of the Nikons earns them the top honours.
Next up is the Pentax K-r. On paper, this camera looks an absolute steal at the price, with an excellent range of advanced features and specifications. Sadly though, they don't quite translate into great image quality, and our review sample suffered with muted, cool colour rendition and a tendency to under-expose images in dull lighting.
The Sony A390 is quite a basic camera with no live view magnification or video capture. What's more, it usually over-exposed sunny shots, was often inaccurate in its white balance, and produced noisy images at high ISO settings.
The Nikon D5100 is our top starter DSLR. Superb image quality is all but guaranteed in practically any conditions, thanks to the camera's highly accurate metering, excellent performance at high ISO settings, wide-ranging scene mode enhancements and cool trick special effects. It's a creative powerhouse.
The Nikon D5100 is simply one of the best digital SLRs for beginners ever made.