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Best beginner DSLR cameras 2021: the top entry-level choices for new photographers

Included in this guide:

The Nikon D3500, Canon EOS Rebel T8i / 850D and Canon EOS Rebel SL3 / 250D DSLRs
(Image credit: Future)
PRICE
VERDICT
REASONS TO BUY
REASONS TO AVOID
VERDICT
REASONS TO BUY
REASONS TO AVOID

Welcome to our guide to the best beginner DSLRs you can buy. DSLRs may now be pretty old-school, with most brands leaving them behind in favor or mirrorless models, but that doesn't necessarily mean they don't make fine starter cameras or offer great value. In this guide, we'll take you through the best options for beginners – and show you where to find the lowest price, too. (Searching for a more general guide to the best beginner cameras? Check out our separate buying guide on that).

There aren't many new DSLRs hitting the market these days, but that doesn't mean you can't find plenty of classics on the shelves. In fact, the choice is still so broad, that deciding the best one for you can be pretty overwhelming. Fortunately, we've been testing DSLRs for a while now and have ranked our top picks for the best beginner DSLRs here – covering the major manufacturers, namely Canon, Nikon and Pentax – to help you find the right match.

What's the best beginner DSLR you can buy right now? We think that title goes to the Nikon D3500. It has everything a learner photographer needs: a handy Guide Mode to explain key settings, great handling, a huge selection of lenses, and excellent image quality. It's also one of the most affordable ways to buy a camera with a built-in viewfinder.

Why buy a DSLR over a mirrorless camera? DSLRs continue to offer some advantages over their mirrorless counterparts, particularly when it comes to handling and battery life. Plus, they remain the only cameras to feature true optical viewfinders (one that displays the actual scene as viewed through a lens, rather than a digital recreation). If those features are more important to you than the latest autofocus or compact form factors, then an entry-level DSLR is likely the way to go. 

It's worth noting that manufacturers have practically stopped making new DSLRs now – Sony has pretty much phased out its A-mount DSLRs, while Canon has discontinued its 7D line – but that doesn't mean the DSLR format is dead. Both Canon and Nikon continue to offer a wide range of entry-level DSLR models, with extensive lens catalogues to match. 

With fewer fresh models hitting the shelves, beginners will usually find the best value in slightly older options like the Nikon D5600 and Canon EOS 80D. These might not offer cutting-edge technology, but they tick most of the important boxes for beginners, without breaking the bank. For this reason, we've included both current and older models in our guide below.

Lastly, it's worth considering that Black Friday is rapidly approaching, which means we're likely to see some strong Black Friday camera deals throughout November. If you're thinking of buying a DSLR, it might be worth holding fire until mid-November, when the first deals will start appearing.

The best beginner DSLRs in 2021:

Nikon D3500

(Image credit: Future)

1. Nikon D3500

The best all-round option for learner photographers

Specifications
Sensor: APS-C CMOS
Megapixels: 24.2MP
Lens mount: Nikon DX
Screen: 3-inch, 921,000 dots
Continuous shooting speed: 5fps
Max video resolution: 1080p
User level: Beginner
Reasons to buy
+Excellent image quality+Easy to use
Reasons to avoid
-No touchscreen control-Bluetooth but no Wi-Fi

Nikon may not have announced any new entry-level DSLRs for a while, but the D3500 remains an excellent option for those new to photography. It picks up from where the D3400 left off, but with a handful of extra perks. Unlike power-hungry mirrorless models, the major advantage of this camera is battery life. You can keep going for 1,550 images between charges, which is way ahead of most other DSLRs, while the 24MP sensor delivers excellent image quality. Nikon has also revised the body and control layout, not only to make it nicer to handle but easier to use too, while the Guide Mode takes the first-time user's hand and walks them through all the key features in a way that makes everything easy to understand. We love it – and if you're just getting started, we reckon you will too. 

Canon EOS Rebel T8i / 850D

(Image credit: Future)

2. Canon EOS Rebel T8i / Canon EOS 850D

A modest upgrade from its predecessor, but a fine choice

Specifications
Sensor: APS-C CMOS
Megapixels: 24.1MP
Lens mount: Canon EF-S
Screen: 3-inch articulating touchscreen, 1,040,000 dots
Continuous shooting speed: 7fps
Max video resolution: 4K
User level: Beginner/enthusiast
Reasons to buy
+Good image quality+Speedy, reliable autofocus
Reasons to avoid
-Plasticky build-4K video limitations

The Canon EOS Rebel T8i (know as the EOS 850D outside the US) has now officially taken the baton from its Rebel T7i / EOS 800D predecessor, with stock of the latter tricky to find. This new model isn't a huge upgrade, with the most notable addition being a 4K video mode that's somewhat hampered by frame-rate restrictions. Still, the Rebel T8i / EOS 850D remains one of our favorite all-round DSLRs for beginners. You get a Dual Pixel phase-detection AF system, which is fast, reliable and works just as well for video as it does stills. Its button layout is also very considered, while the vari-angle LCD screen handles really well. As long you ignore that headline of 4K video, which involves a crop and the loss of phase-detection autofocus, it remains a fantastic option for anyone who is starting a photography hobby and prizes DSLR advantages like battery life and handling. 

Canon EOS Rebel SL3 / EOS 250D

(Image credit: Future)

3. Canon EOS Rebel SL3 / 250D / 200D Mark II

The world's smallest and lightest DSLR with an articulating screen

Specifications
Sensor: APS-C CMOS
Megapixels: 24.1MP
Lens mount: Canon EF-S
Screen: 3-inch, 1,040,000 dots
Continuous shooting speed: 5fps
Max video resolution: 4K
User level: Beginner
Reasons to buy
+Nice JPEGs straight from the camera+Cheapest DSLR with 4K video
Reasons to avoid
-9-point AF system is dated-Heavy rolling shutter in 4K

The EOS Rebel SL3 – also known as the Canon EOS 250D and EOS 200D Mark II – is one of the more recent additions to this list. In fact, it's one of only a handful of beginner models announced in recent years. As its name suggests, it picks up from where the Rebel SL2 (EOS 200D) left off, adding a fresh processing engine and 4K video recording on top of a collection of smaller extras. There may be lots of competition from entry-level mirrorless cameras right now, but if you like the traditional handling of a DSLR – including an optical viewfinder – and the flexibility of that articulating screen, the 250D remains one of the most attractive and affordable models available right now.

Nikon D5600

4. Nikon D5600

Need a bit more power? The D5600 could be what you're after

Specifications
Sensor: APS-C CMOS
Megapixels: 24.2MP
Lens mount: Nikon DX
Screen: 3.2-inch articulating touchscreen, 1,040,000 dots
Continuous shooting speed: 5fps
Max video resolution: 1080p
User level: Beginner/enthusiast
Reasons to buy
+Excellent image quality+Articulating touchscreen
Reasons to avoid
-Slow Live View focusing-SnapBridge needs work

Here's another beginner DSLR that is holding its own against the rise of mirrorless cameras. The D5600 is a step up from the D3000-series models, with a stronger set of specs to rival the likes of the Canon EOS Rebel T8i / EOS 850D (see above). Key advantages over the D3500 include a larger LCD screen, which not only flips out and swivels all the way around to face the front for vlogging, but also responds to touch, together with a more advanced autofocus system, Wi-Fi and a healthy range of additional control on the inside. Sure, you pay a little bit more for the privilege, but if you need a little more growing space, it makes sense to go for the D5600 – it'll be a reliable companion for years to come.

Canon EOS 80D

(Image credit: Future)

5. Canon EOS 80D

A classic that never grows old

Specifications
Sensor: APS-C CMOS
Megapixels: 24MP
Lens mount: Canon EF-S
Screen: 3-inch, 1,040K dots
Continuous shooting speed: 7fps
Max video resolution: 1080p
User level: Beginner
Reasons to buy
+Fast and reliable AF system+Excellent results
Reasons to avoid
-No 4K video-No PC sync

There's no doubt that the newer Canon EOS 90D (below), which is the EOS 80D's successor, is the superior all-round DSLR in terms of power and features. But the EOS 80D currently sits higher in this list due to the impressive value it offers – right now, you can find it for almost half the price of its newer sibling. And despite coming out in 2016, it's still a very capable camera for beginners. For a start, the combination of a 24.2MP sensor and 45-point autofocus system ensure you get reliably good photos and focusing. There's a guided menu system that's easy to navigate, and on-board Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to transfer images wirelessly if needed. The only downside is that the 80D's kit lens is a tad soft around the edges, so we'd recommend buying the body on its own and a better lens separately.

Canon EOS Rebel T7 / Canon EOS 2000D

6. Canon EOS Rebel T7 / EOS 2000D / EOS 1500D

A no-frills entry-level DSLR at a bargain price

Specifications
Sensor: APS-C CMOS
Megapixels: 24.1MP
Lens mount: Canon EF-S
Screen: 3-inch, 920,000 dots
Continuous shooting speed: 3fps
Max video resolution: 1080p
User level: Beginner
Reasons to buy
+Easy to use+Logically laid out controls
Reasons to avoid
-Dated AF system-No touchscreen

This is one of the cheapest DSLRs in Canon's current line-up, which also makes it a very cost-effective way to get access to an endless assortment of lenses, flashguns and other accessories. Its low price tag means it understandably lacks some of the fancy tricks of its bigger brothers – like a flip-out LCD, 4K video and so on – but there's still a very good level of physical control on offer. And, most importantly, image quality from the 24MP sensor is sound. It's designed very much with its target audience in mind, with a Feature Guide to help you understand everything, and battery life is also better than many mirrorless models at this price point – still a key advantage of DSLRs. Wi-Fi, NFC and Full HD video recording round off the specs, making it a well-rounded first-time option.

(Image credit: Future)

7. Canon EOS 90D

A feature-packed all-rounder that gives you lots of room to grow

Specifications
Sensor: APS-C CMOS
Megapixels: 32.5MP
Lens mount: EF/EF-S
Screen: 3-inch vars-angle touchscreen, 1,040,000 dots
Continuous shooting speed: 11fps
Max video resolution: 4K/30p
User level: Beginner/enthusiast
Reasons to buy
+High-resolution sensor+4K video at 30fps
Reasons to avoid
-No image stabilization-Not the cheapest option for beginners

The Canon 90D might be the last enthusiast-level DSLR the company ever makes – and if so, it’s going out with a bang. The versatile 90D packs a high-resolution sensor which, paired with Canon’s Digic 8 imaging engine, offers the enticing prospect of uncropped 4K video at 30fps. Color reproduction is superb and there’s plenty of detail in both stills and video, aided by a new 216-zone metering system (even if noise can be an issue above ISO 8000). A deeper grip means the 90D is also really comfortable in the hand, while a joystick makes selecting from the Dual Pixel CMOS AF points a cinch. Battery life is a boon, too, with 1,500 shots possible on a single charge. It's possibly a bit too much camera for an absolute beginner (both in price and features), but there's no doubt it offers a lot of room to grow into. Either way, the 90D proves that DSLRs still very much have a place in the mirrorless world.

Canon EOS 4000D

(Image credit: Future)

8. Canon EOS Rebel T100 / EOS 4000D / EOS 3000D

A basic but very affordable option for beginners

Specifications
Sensor: APS-C CMOS
Megapixels: 18MP
Lens mount: Canon EF/EF-S
Screen: 2.7-inch, 230,000 dots
Continuous shooting speed: 3fps
Max video resolution: 1080p
User level: Beginner
Reasons to buy
+Easy to use+Logical control layout
Reasons to avoid
-Small, low-res sensor-Dated 9-point autofocus

If you’re making your first foray into DSLR ownership, you don’t necessarily need a camera that can do everything. And if you’re looking for something very basic but very affordable, Canon’s 4000D (also called the 3000D in some markets) is a decent first choice. There’s a lot about the 4000D that seems dated alongside the latest entry-level models. The 18MP sensor and DIGIC 4+ processor are both aging, as is the modest 9-point autofocus system, which has been in Canon’s catalogue since 2009. The LCD display likewise feels long in the tooth, with a 2.7-inch diagonal and 230k-dot resolution, while Live View performance is a little sluggish. Finally, the polycarbonate shell feels understandably cheap.

But it’s not all bad: the button layout is easy to navigate for new users, battery life is strong at 500 shots and image quality is solid, with noise handled fairly well. Those upgrading from a smartphone or compact should find results decent, with a fair amount of detail and a good level of saturation, while Picture Style presets enable easy tonal tweaks. To more experienced buyers, the 4000D will feel like a step back in time, with older components and unremarkable performance. But if affordability is your key criterion, you might be able to look past the limited feature set and see some wallet-friendly potential.

Pentax K-70

(Image credit: Pentax)

9. Pentax K-70

Rugged and great value – an impressive alternative to the big two

Specifications
Sensor: APS-C CMOS
Megapixels: 24.2MP
Lens mount: Pentax K
Screen: 3-inch, 921,000 dots
Continuous shooting speed: 6fps
Max video resolution: Full HD
User level: Beginner
Reasons to buy
+Compact and rugged+Anti-shake tech +Great value
Reasons to avoid
-Few autofocus points-Slightly soft kit lens 

Although it's a few years old now, the Pentax K-70 remains a good value option for those who want something different from the 'big two' DSLR manufacturers. It's a particularly good choice if you have a stash of old Pentax lenses gathering dust in a basement. The K-70 has a very useful articulating screen, while the hybrid live view autofocus system makes it an actual practical alternative to using the viewfinder. Possibly our favorite thing about the K-70 is its tough credentials, which is typically lacking from entry-level models. If you're keen to take lots of pictures outdoors – such as landscape shooting – being able to rely on it not being destroyed by inclement weather is a big bonus. One slight disappointment is the kit lens which is often bundled with the camera – while it offers a much longer focal length than most others here, it can be a little soft in places.

Canon EOS 800D

(Image credit: Future)

10. Canon EOS Rebel T7i / 800D

Difficult to find, but still a great entry-level DSLR for beginners

Specifications
Sensor: APS-C CMOS
Megapixels: 24.2MP
Lens mount: Canon EF/EF-S
Screen: 3-inch vari-angle touchscreen, 1,040,000 dots
Continuous shooting speed: 6fps
Max video resolution: 1080p
User level: Beginner
Reasons to buy
+User-friendly interface+Impressive images overall
Reasons to avoid
-No 4K video-Plastic finish

If you don't need the 4K video mode of the newer EOS Rebel T8i / EOS 850D, then this predecessor offers potentially better value – if you can find somewhere that has it in stock. If not, then it's still worth considering second-hand versions, because the Rebel T7i (or EOS 800D outside the US) is a still a very fine beginner DSLR. Of course, this camera is four years old, so some of its specs (like 6fps burst shooting) look a little dated, but the Dual Pixel autofocus performs excellently for Live View snapping, while image quality remains impressive. The finish is a little plasticky, but the EOS Rebel T7i / EOS 800D has all the handling benefits of a DSLR and the battery life to match, with a quoted stamina of 600 shots per charge.

Also consider...

None of the above take your fancy? Here's another option to consider.

(Image credit: Future)

Canon EOS 77D

A little more control with mid-range features on board

Specifications
Sensor: APS-C CMOS
Megapixels: 24.2MP
Autofocus: 45-point AF, (all cross-type)
Screen type: 3-inch articulating touchscreen, 1,040,000 dots
Continuous shooting speed: 6fps
Movies: 1080p
User level: Beginner/enthusiast
Reasons to buy
+Dual Pixel CMOS AF is great+Huge lens range
Reasons to avoid
-Body a bit plasticky-No 4K video

The EOS 77D is a slightly more advanced beginner DSLR, and it provides a few extra treats for those who feel they may outgrow more basic models before long. While we weren't too excited about it at the time of its release, the fact that it's spent some time on the market now means it can be bought for a much more agreeable price tag. On top of the EOS Rebel T7i / EOS 800D's foundation, there's a top-plate LCD screen that gives you shooting options at a glance, as well as two control dials to make adjusting options faster. You also get some extras on the inside such as bulb and interval timers. If you can stretch to the EOS 80D (see no.4) that sits just above it,  that's likely the better choice – otherwise, this would be a slightly more capable option than its more basic siblings.

What should you look for when buying a beginner DSLR?

There are three main factors to consider when buying a beginner-friendly DSLR: the camera's size, screen and kit lens options.

If you're trying to learn your way around manual settings like aperture and shutter speed, which is one of the main benefits of a DSLR, then you'll ideally need a model that's small and light. This means you'll be more likely to take it out regularly and master those controls. The most beginner-friendly cameras, like the Nikon D3500 and Canon 250D, tend to be particularly small for DSLRs, so take a close look at those.

Looking to shoot lots of video along with your stills? DSLRs can be a cheap way to get into vlogging too, so make sure you look out for models with a vari-angle screen (like the ones on most Canon models) if you need this. These can help you shoot from different angles and also flip round to the front so you can check your framing while recording to camera.

Nikon D3500

(Image credit: Nikon)

Lastly, you'll want to consider lenses. As a beginner, you'll most likely be starting from scratch, which means it makes more sense to buy your DSLR with a kit lens. A word of warning here, though – most manufacturers offer two types of kits lens, one with image stabilization and one without. It's best to go with the image-stabilized kit lens, as you'll be able to shoot sharper images at slower shutter speeds.

While an 18-55mm kit lens will be more than enough to get you started, one of the big benefits of DSLRs is being able to add extra lenses for different kinds of photography. For example, wide-angle and telephoto zoom lenses, as well as high-quality macro options. You can also add a flashgun and other accessories, which help you to make the most of whatever types of photography you're into.  

Still not entirely sure whether you need a DSLR or a mirrorless camera? Don't forget to check out our Mirrorless vs DSLR cameras guide. Alternatively, if don't quite know what kind of camera you need at all, then read our easy-to-follow guide to camera types: What camera should I buy?

Canon vs Nikon: which is better for beginners?

Even though Pentax still makes DSLRs, Canon and Nikon rule the market with the most DSLR models under their individual belts. And they both compete in terms of feature set, image quality and price. So which brand's entry-level DSRLs is best for you?

That will be a personal choice. Both manufacturers have several excellent choices as you can see from our list above. Both have beginner DSLRs that are compact, easy to use and come with a plethora of lenses to support your growing passion for photography. A lot of them are also wallet-friendly, in case you're looking for a budget DSLR. 

The only points of difference between the two are the external button layout and internal menu setup – they're different on Canon and Nikon. That said, both are user-friendly, so the ultimate choice will come down to which one suits you best.

How we test DSLRs

Buying a camera these days is a big investment, so every camera in this guide has been tested extensively by us. These days, real-world tests are the most revealing way to understand a camera's performance and character, so we focus heavily on those, along with standardized tests for factors like ISO performance.

To start with, we look at the camera's design, handling and controls to get a sense of what kind of photographer it's aimed at and who would most enjoy shooting with it. When we take it out on a shoot, we'll use it both handheld and on a tripod to get a sense of where its strengths lie, and test its startup speed.

When it comes to performance, we use a formatted SD card and shoot in both raw and JPEG (if available). For burst shooting tests, we dial in our regular test settings (1/250 sec, ISO 200, continuous AF) and shoot a series of frames in front of a stopwatch to see if it lives up to its claimed speeds. We'll also look at how quickly the buffers clears and repeat the test for both raw and JPEG files.

Where applicable, we also test the camera's different autofocus modes in different lighting conditions (including Face and Eye AF) in single point, area and continuous modes. We also shoot a range of photos of different styles (portrait, landscape, low light, macro/close-up) in raw and JPEG to get a sense of metering and its sensor's ability to handle noise and resolve fine detail.

If the camera's raw files are supported by Adobe Camera Raw, we'll also process some test images to see how we can push areas like shadow recovery. And we'll also test its ISO performance across the whole range to get a sense of the levels we'd be happy to push the camera to.

Battery life is tested in a real-world fashion, as we use the camera over the course of the day with the screen set to the default settings. Once the battery has reached zero, we'll then count the number of shots to see how it compares to the camera's CIPA rating. Finally, we test the camera's video skills (where necessary) by shooting some test footage at different frame rates and resolutions, along with its companion app.

We then take everything we've learned about the camera and factor in its price to get a sense of the value-for-money it offers, before reaching our final verdict.

Should you buy a mirrorless camera over a DSLR? Watch our guide video below to learn more: 

  • Turn your snaps into a beautiful photo book – we've picked out the best

Sharmishta Sarkar

Sharmishta is TechRadar's APAC Managing Editor and loves all things photography, something she discovered while chasing monkeys in the wilds of India (yes, she studied to be a primatologist but has since left monkey business behind). While she's happiest with a camera in her hand, she's also an avid reader and has become a passionate proponent of ereaders, having appeared on Singaporean radio to talk about the convenience of these underrated devices. When she's not testing cameras and lenses, she's discovering the joys and foibles of smart home gizmos. She also contributes to Digital Camera World and T3, and helps produce two of Future's photography print magazines in Australia.