While compact system (mirrorless) cameras have eaten into their market share to an extent, SLRs remain the weapon of choice for many enthusiast photographers. It's not hard to understand why; enthusiast-level SLRs offer near pro-levels of performance at an affordable price, are relatively to easy to use, and give access to a massive range of lenses and accessories. Indeed, some enthusiast SLRs rival pro-spec models, blurring the boundary between the two.
Many photographers prefer the reassuringly chunky feel and build quality of SLRs, as well as the more traditional optical viewfinder and fast, phase-detection autofocusing. Enthusiast-level SLRs include both APS-C and full-frame sensors; to recap, a full frame sensor is the same size as 35mm film negative 'frame.' This means that its light sensitive photosites (pixels) can be larger than those on APS-C format sensors, so more light can enter them – which can mean better dynamic range and less noise in low-light shooting. APS-C sensors are physically smaller and are subject to a focal length multiplication factor (the so-called 'crop factor) in comparison to full-frame cameras.
That said, APS-C sensors in the best enthusiast SLRs still offer high resolution, and lenses for APS-C cameras are cheaper than their full-frame equivalents.
Here are some of our favourite enthusiast-level SLRs.
Sensor size: APS-C | Pixel count: 20.2 Mp | Screen type: 3-inch fully articulated LCD touchscreen, 1,040,000 dots | Maximum continuous shooting rate: 7fps | Maximum video resolution: 1080p
This well-regarded – and well-rounded – enthusiast-level SLR features a 20.2Mp APS-C format sensor, and enables 'Dual Pixel' phase-detection focusing for both Live View and video mode.
Both Live View and movie focusing are fast and decisive, and work well with the touchscreen (a welcome addition). There are also plenty of physical controls for traditionalists.
Other highlights of this enthusiast-friendly SLR include an impressive maximum continuous shooting rate of 7 frames per second (for 65 JPEGs or 16 raw files) and a native sensitivity range of ISO 100-12,800 (expandable to ISO 25,600). Wi-fi is built-in too.
So, is this the perfect enthusiast SLR? It does have some downsides, but not many. There is a good range of Creative Filters, but these can only be used on JPEG images, not raw. Also, the viewfinder level can be difficult to see, and you have to be careful with the otherwise excellent metering system in high contrast scenes. Some photographers might find the 19 point AF system somewhat limited compared to the 51-point system on the Nikon D7100, too. Otherwise this is a great example of a well-priced yet powerful enthusiast SLR.
Read our full Canon 70D review
Canon 7D Mark II
Sensor size: APS-C | Pixel count: 20.2 Mp | Screen type: 3-inch, 1,040,000 dots | Maximum continuous shooting rate: 10fps | Maximum video resolution: 1080p
Enthusiast photographers tend to shoot a bit of everything and they need a versatile camera that can cope with a wide range of subjects and conditions. The EOS 7D Mark II's weatherproofing means that it can be used in harsher conditions than all of Canon's other current SLRs apart from the pro-level EOS-1DX.
Its autofocus system can also get moving subjects sharp quickly, and keep them sharp as they move around the frame or towards/away from the camera. The metering system with its new 150,000-pixel RGB and infrared sensor is also extremely capable and delivers correctly exposed images in a wide range of conditions.
Noise is controlled well, colours are pleasantly rendered and images have an impressive amount of detail for the camera's pixel count.
Canon also seems to have thought quite a bit about how enthusiast photographers like to use their camera, giving them the ability to produce an in-camera HDR image while capturing a sequence of raw files with different exposures for post-capture merging. There's also the Creative Photo Button, Image Comparison capability and the Intervalometer along with the Rate button that makes chimping worthwhile.
All things considered, the 7D Mark II is an excellent camera, it's Canon's best APS-C format model to date. It's not often that we recommend making a direct upgrade from the model immediately proceeds a camera, but this case is an exception. The 7D Mark II makes a great upgrade from the original 7D.
Sensor size: Full frame | Pixel count: 20.2Mp | Screen type: 3-inch LCD, 1,040,000 dot | Maximum continuous shooting rate: 4.5fps | Maximum video resolution: 1080p
The Canon EOS 6D is a great example of a compact full-frame camera, weighing in at almost 200g less than its bulkier big brother, the Canon 5D Mk III. It's built to last though, with front and back sections made from sturdy magnesium alloy. In many ways, the handling and build quality is similar to the APS-C format Canon 60D, but there are some significant differences.
As with the 5D Mk III, the 6D lacks a pop-up flash; while most serious photographers would only use a flashgun anyway, built-in flash can come in handy for wirelessly triggering off-camera flash units or basic fill-in flash in strong sunshine. The 6D also lacks a vari-angle/touchscreen LCD, which is a frustrating omission.
What the 6D lacks in mod cons it makes up for in resolution, and it packs a 20.2Mp full-frame sensor that's almost the match of the one in the 5D Mk III. It's got the same Digic 5+ image processor, too. Compromises have been made with the autofocus, however. The 6D gets by with only 11 AF points, and only the centre point is cross type.
Connectivity is good, with both onboard Wi-Fi and GPS (though the latter quickly drains the battery). High ISO performance is impressive and there's a good range of advanced shooting features, but if the restricted AF options are a worry, you might be better off stumping up for the full-fat 5D Mark III.
Read our full Canon 6D review