If you're serious about photography you're going to want a camera with interchangeable lenses. Compact system cameras are catching up fast, but most keen photographers still choose a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex).
The pros go for full-frame DSLRs with a sensor the same size as the 35mm film format, but DSLRs with smaller APS-C sensors (around half the size) can produce results almost as good at a fraction of the price.
With the DSLR design an internal mirror reflects the scene up into an optical viewfinder for maximum clarity, and the moment you press the shutter release the mirror flips up and out of the way and the shutter opens to expose the sensor at the back of the camera. It's a tried and trusted camera design that goes back decades.
Our favourite DSLRs aren't just the ones with the best features and the most power – we also rate cameras that are beginner-friendly, give you value for money and punch well above their weight. So whatever your level of expertise, and budget, we reckon you'll find the perfect DSLR right here.
1. Canon EOS 5DS
Proof that more can mean better: the 5DS sets a new standard for DSLR photography
Sensor: 36 x 24mm CMOS | Megapixels: 50.6 | Autofocus: 61-point AF, 41 cross-type | Screen type:3.2-inch, 1,040,000 dots | Maximum continuous shooting speed: 5fps | Maximum video resolution:1080p | User level: Expert
With 50.6 million effective pixels, the 5DS is by far the highest resolution full-frame DSLR on the market. The same goes for the 5DS R, which is identical to the 5DS, but features an anti-aliasing cancelation filter over the sensor to help resolve a little more detail. Pixel-packed sensors can be compromised, but not here. Image quality is superb, with fantastic detail, well controlled noise and good dynamic range. The 5DS is now the benchmark for full-frame image quality, but it's not quite perfect. There's no Wi-Fi or Ultra HD video recording, and huge image file sizes necessitate decent memory cards and a fast computer. The 5DS out-resolves any other full-frame camera on the market in our lab tests, including our previous number one DSLR, the Nikon D810.
Read the full review: Canon EOS 5DS
2. Nikon D810
Nikon's full-frame favorite combines sky-high resolution with solid build and value
Sensor: full frame, 36.3Mp | Lenses: Nikon FX, DX (in crop mode) | Monitor: 3.2-inch, 1,229K dots | Viewfinder: Optical | Continuous shooting: 5fps | Movies: 1080p | User level: Expert
The full frame Nikon D810 has been knocked back into second place by the mighty Canon EOS 5Ds, but the Nikon is still a great buy. It's built like a tank, it handles beautifully and it doesn't cost the earth. It's expensive compared to APS-C DSLRs, but for a pro camera it's actually quite cheap, and Nikon has ditched the anti-aliasing filter usually placed in front of DSLR sensors in order to maximise its formidable resolution. If you're into sports, action and wildlife photography, the Canon EOS-1D X and Nikon D4s have faster continuous shooting speeds, but neither can match the D810's outright image quality and value for money.
Read: Nikon D810 review
3. Canon EOS 7D Mark II
As fast as pro DSLRs but priced for amateurs, the 7D Mark II ticks all the boxes
Sensor: APS-C, 20.2Mp | Lenses: Canon EF-S, EF | Monitor: 3-inch, 1,040K dots | Viewfinder: Optical | Continuous shooting: 10fps | Movies: 1080p | User level: Expert
We've mentioned the formidable Canon 1D X and Nikon D4s because they have very high continuous shooting speeds – that's why they cost thousands. But then Canon launched the EOS 7D Mark II, a camera that brings 10fps shooting and a professional autofocus system to the amateur market. Now you can shoot action and sports like the pros, but at a price within the reach of enthusiasts. The 7D Mark II isn't just a high-speed specialists, it's a terrific all-round camera. It's tough, with an alloy body and weather-sealed controls, it has a great sensor with an advanced dual-pixel hybrid autofocus system, and it's powerful video camera too.
Read: Canon 7D Mark II review
4. Nikon D7200
Versatile, powerful and capable of excellent results – perfect for enthusiasts
Sensor: APS-C, 24.2Mp | Lenses: Nikon DX, FX | Monitor: 3.2-inch, 1,229K dots | Viewfinder: Optical | Continuous shooting: 6fps | Movies: 1080p | User level: Intermediate
Or if you want the quality but you don't need the speed, take a look at the Nikon D7200. It's a lot cheaper than Canon EOS 7D Mark II and uses Nikon's latest 24-megapixel APS-C format sensor with no anti-aliasing filter to produce some of the sharpest images you'll see outside of professional full-frame cameras. The D7200 doesn't match the Canon's sheer speed, but it can still shoot at 6 frames per second for up to 100 JPEG photos or 27 raw files, and it uses a 51-point autofocus system taken straight from Nikon's pro DSLR range.
Read: Nikon D7200 review
5. Sony A77 II
Super-fast AF and shooting speeds show the true potential of Sony's SLT design
Sensor: APS-C, 24.3Mp | Lenses: Sony A-mount | Monitor: 3-inch articulating, 1,228K dots | Viewfinder: Electronic | Continuous shooting: 12fps | Movies: 1080p | User level: Expert
And don't overlook Sony's Alpha DSLTs, or 'Digital Single Lens Translucents'. These look and handle like regular DSLRs but use a fixed mirror and an electronic viewfinder instead. This means the camera's phase-detection autofocus system is available all the time and you don't have to swap to a slower sensor-based AF system in live view mode. The range has been re-invigorated with A77 II update that brings super-fast autofocus, a swivelling screen and stunning 12 frame per second continuous shooting capability – though it's still not clear how much longer Sony is going to be supporting the SLT camera range when it's investing so heavily in its mirrorless cameras.
Read: Sony A77 II review
6. Canon EOS 6D
Full-frame on a budget – the 6D's straightforward design has old-school appeal
Sensor: full frame, 20.2Mp | Lenses: Canon EF (not EF-S) | Monitor: 3-inch, 1,040K dots | Viewfinder: Optical | Continuous shooting: 4.5fps | Movies: 1080p | User level: Expert
But don't assume you need the latest tech to get a good camera. It's tempting to chase the biggest numbers and newest gadgets when choosing a camera, but sometimes the simple things count for more. The EOS 6D is Canon's cheapest full-frame DSLR, and compared to some of the other cameras around it, it's a simple-minded old-school relic. But that full-frame sensor delivers a subtle quality and a sense of depth that you only get from a big sensor, and the no-fuss specs will appeal to quality-conscious photographers who like to keep things simple.
Read: Canon 6D review
7. Nikon D750
A full-frame DSLR with performance, versatility and value
Sensor: full frame, 24.3Mp | Lenses: Nikon FX, DX (in crop mode) | Monitor: 3.2-inch tilting, 1,229K dots | Viewfinder: Optical | Continuous shooting: 6.5fps | Movies: 1080p | User level: Expert
Still in full-frame territory, if the price of the D810 at the top of our list is too rich for your blood, consider the Nikon D750 instead. It doesn't have that magnificent 36-megapixel sensor, but its 24-megapixel alternative still delivers top quality, especially at high ISO settings. The D750 is also a bit more versatile than the D810, with a faster 6.5fps continuous shooting speed, a handy tilting screen and a lower price – and you still get the enhanced autofocus system and Picture Control 2.0 options of the D810.
Read: Nikon D750 review
8. Nikon D3300
Cheap cameras don't always bring compromise – the D3300 is basic but brilliant
Sensor: APS-C, 24.2Mp | Lenses: Nikon DX, FX | Monitor: 3-inch, 921K dots | Viewfinder: Optical | Continuous shooting: 5fps | Movies: 1080p | User level: Beginner
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the D3300 is cheap as chips, has one of the sharpest APS-C sensors there is and a neat retracting kit lens. It's proof that you don't have to pay a fortune to get a great camera, and we say its sheer value for money makes it just as impressive as much more advanced (and much more expensive) alternatives. It has the same 24-megapixel non-antialiased sensor as the best of Nikon's APS-C format DSLRs, and although the controls are designed to be simple for novices, in the right hands the little D3300 is a match for cameras costing far more.
Read: Nikon D3300 review
9. Sony A58
Sony's bargain basement DSLR offers great value, especially with lens bundles
Sensor: APS-C, 20.1Mp | Lenses: Sony A-mount | Monitor: 2.7-inch tilting, 460K dots | Viewfinder: Electronic | Continuous shooting: 8fps | Movies: 1080p | User level: Beginner
Meanwhile, for sheer value you can't do better than the Sony A58. It's the company's cheapest DSLT and it's been around for a little while, but the specs are still quite impressive, including a 20-megapixel APS-C sensor, 8fps continuous shooting and in-built SteadyShot image stabilization. Look out especially for twin-lens kits at a bargain price, and even triple-lens kits. It's a great way to get kitted out with a starter camera system for the least possible money.
Read: Sony A58 review
10. Pentax K-S2
A rugged and powerful alternative to Canon and Nikon DSLRs
Sensor: APS-C, 20.1Mp | Lenses: Pentax KA | Monitor: 3-inch articulating, 921K dots | Viewfinder: Optical | Continuous shooting: 5.4fps | Movies: 1080p | User level: Intermediate
And let's not forget Pentax. The DSLR market may be dominated by Canon and Nikon, but Pentax is still turning out innovative and rugged DSLRs which are serious alternatives. The Pentax K-S1 and its novelty lamps is a bit odd, but the newer K-S2 is a proper, rugged DSLR for enthusiasts. Its weatherproof design makes it ideal for challenging outdoor photography, and even though Pentax bills it as a 'family' camera, its twin control dials, fully articulated LCD display and 20-megapixel non-antialiased sensor will appeal to more advanced shooters.
Read: Pentax K-S2 review