A mid-range DSLR is most people's first 'serious' camera. It's the logical next step for photographers who've outgrown an entry-level DSLR and need a camera with more power, more robustness and more hands-on control.
They're not just for second-time buyers, though. Mid-range DSLRs have a foot in both camps – they can all be used in a full-auto mode where the camera takes care of every setting. Novices could use any of these cameras perfectly easily – it's just that they have a little more power than most novices would need.
Indeed, mid-range DSLRs have many of the options of full-on professional cameras, so they're the ideal tool for starting a career in photography, and they make a perfect second or backup camera for those who already earn their living from photography – or who just need a lighter, less valuable camera for casual outings.
All the cameras in our list use APS-C sensors. Canon, Nikon, Sony and (soon) Pentax make both APS-C and full-frame DSLRs. APS-C cameras are lighter and a lot cheaper, and sometimes approach the full-frame models for image quality. This makes them ideal for advanced amateurs.
There are some entry-level full-frame cameras that could appeal to the same audience, such as the Canon 6D or Nikon D610, but for the sake of simplicity we'll keep those for our Best full-frame DSLR list.
What to look for in a mid-range DSLR
Megapixels: Surprisingly, perhaps, there's often no difference in resolution between entry-level DSLRs and more advanced models like these. The Nikon D3300, for example, has a 24-megapixel APS-C sensor with the anti-aliasing filter removed for extra sharpness, and this is as good as it gets for an APS-C DSLR. 20 megapixels is probably a working minimum in this category, and all of the cameras in this list match or exceed that.
Autofocus: You will see a difference in autofocus capabilities between these cameras and entry-level model, though. The number of AF points affects the camera's ability to track moving subjects and is also a good general indicator of the system's speed and sophistication. And look out for hybrid AF systems which have phase-detection pixels on the sensor itself. This means much faster autofocus in live view and movie modes, and Canon has a clear lead here with the Dual-pixel CMOS AF in the EOS 70D and 7D Mark II.
Continuous shooting: Mid-range DSLRs are much better at sports and action photography, and not just because of the better autofocus systems. Most can shoot at 6 frames per second – a practical minimum for this kind of photography – and some a lot faster.
Construction: Mid-range DSLRs are built tougher than entry-level models. Some have metal panels fixed to a plastic chassis, but it's even better to have a metal chassis. Look out for weatherproofing too – the makers add seals around key seams and buttons to stop the ingress of water or dust.
Controls: Entry-level DSLRs are designed to be easy and unintimidating, which means that although manual controls are available, they're often buried in menus or an interactive display. More advanced mid-range DSLRs use external buttons and dials, so that when you know the settings you want to use, it's much easier to apply them. In particularly, look for twin control dials (entry-level DSLRs usually have just one), because this makes shutter speed and aperture control much simpler.
Best buy: Canon EOS 7D Mark II
Price: about £1499/US$1699 body only, £1878/US$2049 with 18-135mm lens | Sensor: APS-C CMOS | Megapixels: 20.2 | Lens mount: Canon EF-S | Screen: 3-inch, 1,040,000 dots | Continuous shooting speed: 10fps | Max video resolution: 1080p
Canon fans had to wait a long time for a replacement for the EOS 7D, the company's top APS-C format digital SLR. The original 7D was ahead of its time, with a powerful AF system (for the time), high-speed continuous shooting and full HD movie capability.
But the 7D Mark II is a big step forward in every way. It's designed for enthusiast photographers who want to shoot a bit of everything and need a versatile camera that can cope with a wide range of subjects and conditions – and the EOS 7D Mark II's weatherproofing means that it can be used in harsher conditions than all of Canon's other current DSLRs apart from the pro-level EOS-1DX.
Its state-of-the-art 65-point autofocus system (all cross type) copes well with moving subjects 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 good and images have an impressive amount of detail for the camera's pixel count.
The 7D Mark II is an excellent camera, indeed it's Canon's best APS-C format model to date. It's not often that we recommend making a direct upgrade from a previous model, but the 7D Mark II is such an improvement over the 7D that it's worth it.
Unfortunately, it's also the most expensive enthusiasts camera, though this may change when it's been out for a little longer and prices start to fall.
Cheaper mid-range alternatives...
Price: about £549/US$697 body only, £649/US$797 with 18-50mm f/4-5.6 | Sensor: APS-C CMOS | Megapixels: 20 | Lens mount: Pentax K | Screen: 3-inch articulating, 921,000 dots | Continuous shooting speed: 5.4fps | Max video resolution: 1080p
We haven't had the chance to test Pentax's brand new mid-range DSLR yet, but it looks a tempting option for cost-conscious enthusiasts. The K-S2 is water-resistant, has a twin-dial control layout and fully-articulating display. Wi-Fi and NFC are built in, as is Pentax's effective Shake Reduction image stabilisation system, which works with any lens. Canon and Nikon are the big names in DSLRs and Pentax is something of an outsider, but Pentax cameras do tend to have a rugged, straightforward charm and lots of photographic controls, filters and effects.
Canon EOS 760D
Price: about £649/US$849 body only, £988/US$1199 with 18-135mm STM | Sensor: APS-C CMOS | Megapixels: 24.2 | Lens mount: Canon EF-S | Screen: 3-inch articulating touch-screen, 1,040,000 dots | Continuous shooting speed: 5fps | Max video resolution: 1080p
This is another newcomer we haven't been able to test yet, and one that could really set the cat amongst the pigeons. The EOS 760D doesn't match the specs of the best cameras in this group, but it is a lot cheaper. It was launched alongside the beginner-orientated EOS 750D. Both use a brand new 24-megapixel sensor which finally replaces the long-running 18-megapixel CMOS sensor in Canon's APS-C cameras – but the 760D is designed more for enthusiasts, with a second status LCD on the top plate and twin control dials.
Canon EOS 70D
Price: about £739/US$999 body only, £947/US$1349 with 18-135mm STM | Sensor: APS-C CMOS | Megapixels: 20.2 | Lens mount: Canon EF-S | Screen: 3-inch articulating, 1,040,000 dots | Continuous shooting speed: 7fps | Max video resolution: 1080p
Canon's do-it-all enthusiasts camera is getting a little long in the tooth now, but it still ticks just about every box. It uses Canon's highly-sophisticated Dual-pixel CMOS AF autofocus system for faster focus in live view and movie modes, together with a full-articulating touch-screen display and a better than average continuous shooting speed of 7 frames per second. It also has Wi-Fi built in, which you don't get on the mighty EOS 7D Mark II (because of the metal body, apparently). This isn't the highest-specced camera in our list, but if you rate sheer versatility and value as equally important, then it's a bargain not to be missed.
Read: Canon EOS 70D review
Price: about £749/US$997 body only, £899/US$1297 with 18-105mm VR | Sensor: APS-C CMOS | Megapixels: 24.1 | Lens mount: Nikon DX | Screen: 3.2-inch, 1,229,000 dots | Continuous shooting speed: 6fps | Max video resolution: 1080p
When it was launched, the D7100 brought the promise of exceptional image quality from an APS-C format enthusiasts DSLR. It uses a non-anti-aliased 24-megapixel sensor to deliver some of the sharpest results you're likely to see outside of a full-frame camera. On the downside, its limited buffer capacity means you can only shot half a dozen raw files in a burst (fixed with the new D7200), the rear screen is fixed not articulating, and you have to buy a plug-in adaptor if you want Wi-Fi.
Read: Nikon D7100 review
Sony A77 Mark II
Price: about £764/US$948 body only, £1199/US$1548 with 16-50mm f/2.8 lens | Sensor: APS-C CMOS | Megapixels: 24.3 | Lens mount: Sony A | Screen: 3-inch tilting, 1,229,000 dots | Continuous shooting speed: 12fps | Max video resolution: 1080p
Strictly speaking, the Sony A77 II is an 'SLT' (single lens translucent) camera rather than a DSLR. The mirror is fixed in place and does not flip up at the moment of exposure. This means that the A77 II's fast and highly sophisticated phase-detection autofocus system stays fully operational in the camera's live view and movie modes. There are some usability niggles with the screen articulation and some controls, but the A77 II does delivery high-quality 24-megapixel image with near-professional autofocus performance – and the 12fps continuous shooting speed is outstanding in this sector.
Read: Sony Alpha A77 II review
Price: about £769/US$841 body only, £1029/US$1079 with 18-135mm WR lens | Sensor: APS-C CMOS | Megapixels: 24.4 | Lens mount: Pentax K | Screen: 3.2-inch, 1,037,000 dots | Continuous shooting speed: 8.3fps | Max video resolution: 1080p
The K-3 is a robust, powerful camera for photographers looking for a more traditional camera experience – the screen doesn't articulate, and if you want Wi-Fi you need to use a special 'flu-card' – though the K-3 does have dual memory card slots. The 24-megapixel sensor has no anti-aliasing filter and can produce very sharp images – though we had issues with chromatic aberration which appeared to be connected with the camera rather than the lenses used. The continuous shooting speed of 8.3fps is extremely good for an enthusiasts DSLR, but the Pentax lens range is narrower than those of Canon and Nikon.
Read: Pentax K-3 review
Price: about £939/US$1197 body only, £1119 with 18-105mm VR/US£1497 with 18-140mm VR | Sensor: APS-C CMOS | Megapixels: 24.2 | Lens mount: Nikon DX | Screen: 3.2-inch, 1,229,000 dots | Continuous shooting speed: 6fps | Max video resolution: 1080p
The Nikon D7200 is brand new, so we have not had a chance to test it properly yet. But it's more of a mid-term upgrade to the D7100 than a new camera, and the changes are relatively slight. The sensor has the same resolution but looks to have gone through a slight redesign, and the D7200 has a newer Expeed 4 processor to extend the ISO range – though the continuous shooting speeds sticks at 6fps. Autofocus sensitivity has been improved slightly, as as the battery life.