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What is a DSLR camera and which are the best?

DSLR cameras offer versatility for beginners and pros alike. ZDNET analyzed the best DSLRs that feature interoperability with different lenses and both image and video capabilities.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer and  Josh Slate, Contributor
Reviewed by Emery Wright
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV | Best DSLR camera overall
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV review | Best DSLR camera
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
Best DSLR camera overall
View now View at Best Buy
Nikon D850 | Best DSLR camera for video capture
Nikon D850 review | Best DSLR camera
Nikon D850
Best DSLR camera for video capture
View now View at Amazon
Nikon D6 | Best DSLR camera for stills
Nikon D6 review | Best DSLR camera
Nikon D6
Best DSLR camera for stills
View now View at Crutchfield
Canon EOS 5DS R | Best mid-range DSLR camera
Canon EOS 5DS R review | Best DSLR camera
Canon EOS 5DS R
Best mid-range DSLR camera
View now View at B&H
Canon EOS Rebel T7 | Best DSLR camera for beginners
Canon EOS Rebel T7 review | Best DSLR camera
Canon EOS Rebel T7
Best DSLR camera for beginners
View now View at Amazon

A digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR) is considered a key part of a professional photographer's kit. 

There is a huge range of cameras on the market today for experienced hobbyists and professionals alike. Mobile cameras are improving year by year, mirrorless products are increasing in popularity, and you can buy everything from entry-level DSLRs to the cameras used in industries including fashion and sports. 

DSLRs are a step up from compact and bridge models. These cameras usually come as body-only or with one lens, so when you decide to invest in a DSLR, you need to keep in mind that most of the ongoing costs will be purchasing quality lenses that are compatible with your model. 

Also: 

Below you will find ZDNET's top picks for DSLR cameras in 2022. 

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Versatile
  • Lens interoperability
Cons
  • Expensive
  • Body-only
  • Some users complain of autofocus issues
More Details

Features: 30.4-megapixel full-frame sensor | 4K video capture | 61-point AF system | Dual Pixel CMOS AF

While there are many exciting developments, new designs, and different form factors for photography, the Canon 5D Mark range remains a heavyweight and well-respected option for professional photographers. 

For many years, my old Mark iii was a fantastic workhorse for weddings and other events. I was tempted to try a mirrorless camera when it came for a replacement, but I decided -- keeping in mind my L-series lenses -- to upgrade to the Mark IV.

While it has been on the market for years, the Mark IV remains an excellent choice for your next DSLR, considering its superb image capture functionality, versatility, and robust design. 

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Touchscreen display
  • 4K UHD video capture at 30fps
  • 8K time-lapse functions
  • Improved viewfinder on past models
Cons
  • Steep learning curve to use to its full potential
  • Expensive body investment
More Details

Features: 45.7MP FX-Format BSI CMOS sensor | 180k-pixel RGB Sensor, Focus Shift mode | 7fps shooting | EXPEED 5 image processor | ISO: 64-25600, extended: 32-102400 

The Nikon D850 is a solid choice for photographers who want to focus on extremely detailed shoots and high-quality video capture. This DSLR has been described as a 'tank' of a camera able to handle extensive shoots and video. 

Pros should consider this camera, which includes a 45.7-megapixel CMOS sensor, EXPEED 5 image processor, along with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. Plus, it's capable of 7fps shooting, and RAW files can also be downsized if space is an issue. 

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Rapid AF system with 105 all-cross-type focus points
  • Built for low-light conditions
  • 16:9 4K Ultra HD video capture
Cons
  • Clunky design
  • Expensive
More Details

Features: 20.8MP CMOS sensor | EXPEED 6 image processor | ISO up to 102,400, expandable to 3,280,000 | Wi-Fi connectivity

The Nikon D6 is a powerhouse DSLR for professional photographers. Built with high-speed action photography, sports, and wildlife in mind, Nikon's previous flagship is still an excellent choice, sporting a 20.8MP CMOS sensor and EXPEED 6 image processor. Plus, it's capable of continuous shooting at 14fps.

This model can also capture video in a 16:9 4K Ultra HD format.

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • 61-point autofocus
  • Large sensor for a mid-tier model
  • Low-pass filter cancellation
Cons
  • Limited frame rate
  • Limited ISO range
More Details

Features: 50.6MP CMOS sensor | Full HD 1080p video capture | Dual DIGIC 6 image processors | ISO 100 - 6400, extendable to 12,800

The Canon EOS 5DS R is a mid-range option for DSLR enthusiasts. This DSLR camera is capable of 5fps continuous shooting and makes use of a 50.6MP CMOS sensor, with Full HD 1080p video capture at 30fps.

Primarily aimed at still photography rather than videography, this camera provides excellent image resolution and has an easy-to-use interface. 

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Creative filter modes
  • Affordable
Cons
  • Basic LCD display
  • Limited ISO and fps rate
More Details

Features: 24.1MP APS-C CMOS sensor | DIGIC 4+ image processor | ISO 100-6400 | up to 3fps shooting 
| WI-FI and NFC | Comes with an 18-55mm lens

The Canon EOS Rebel T7 is an affordable camera suitable for entering the world of DSLRs. This DSLR is a lightweight, compact option complete with a 24.1-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor, DIGIC 4+ image processor, and a nine-point autofocus system. The Rebel T7 is capable of 3fps shooting -- while limited, still acceptable for a DSLR and burst shot modes -- as well as Full HD video capture.

The Canon EOS Rebel T7 also comes with an 18-55mm lens.

What is the best DSLR?

When you're shopping for a DSLR, you need to consider whether you want a full frame -- which is better in low-light conditions -- and whether you just need the camera for stills or video capture, too. Most DSLRs have some form of autofocus but they vary in performance. 

DSLR camera

Full frame?

High quality video capture?

Auto focus?

Price

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

$2699

Nikon D850

$2496

Nikon D6

X

$5546

Canon EOS 5DS R

Reasonable

Reasonable

$1499

Canon EOS Rebel T7

X

Reasonable

$479

Which is the right DSLR for you?

When you decide to upgrade to a new DSLR, or take the plunge for the first time, you should consider what your intentions are. While many DSLRs have the same attractive features -- like a large sensor, connectivity, and lens interoperability -- some are more suitable for stills, whereas others have advanced video capabilities. 

Choose this DSLR camera...

If you want…

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

A DSLR workhorse for different kinds of photography

Nikon D850

A multifunctional DSLR with a focus on videography

Nikon D6

A powerhouse for still photography

Canon EOS 5DS R

A mid-range, high-res model

Canon EOS Rebel T7

A beginner to intermediate camera

How did we choose these DSLRs?

Canon and Nikon are the top dogs when it comes to DSLR cameras. Both vendors have enjoyed a long and respected reputation for solid builds, reliability, and good image quality -- all of which are crucial if you're going to spend thousands of dollars to upgrade your kit. 

We chose these DSLR cameras based on their versatility for beginners and pros alike, interoperability with different lenses, and both image and video capability. We have also selected options to suit a range of budgets. 

What does DSLR mean?

A DSLR is also known as a digital single-lens reflex camera. A mirror inside the body of the camera reflects an image into a viewfinder, and if the user is happy, they can take the shot and save the image to a memory card. 

What sets DSLRs apart from point-and-shoot and most compact cameras is their full frame sensors, that can capture far more information at a higher quality. Many photographers using DSLRs opt to save their files in a .RAW format for further processing. 

Another feature of DSLRs -- and the reason you often buy them as "body only" -- is that they are interchangeable with different lenses. You can mix and match lenses with cameras from vendors although in some cases, you might need an adapter. 

What should I consider when I buy a new DSLR?

A DSLR can be an expensive investment. I've only recently upgraded from a Canon Mark iii to a Mark IV, and I expect this to last me a while. My Mark iii was more than capable of managing wedding shoots for the best part of eight years. 

Future-proofing, especially with an expensive build, should be at the forefront of your mind when you make a big purchase. You should consider the camera's compatibility with lenses on the market, the type of sensor it uses, the speed, internet functions if you require it, and video if you want to try out videography, too. 

DSLR or mirrorless -- which wins?

The capabilities of mirrorless cameras are incredible. Many mirrorless models can achieve nearly the same quality of RAW images that DSLRs produce in a smaller form factor, and often at a lower price point. 

However, think about why you want the camera. If you'll use it professionally in a setting where using different lenses will boost photo quality, you might want to opt for a DSLR due to the number of lens options already available on the market.

Are there alternative DSLRs worth considering?

Some are beginning to replace DSLRs with mirrorless designs. However, there is no shortage of vendors refining well-respected, solid DSLR ranges, of which there are too many to mention on one list. 

Other DSLRs worth considering are below.

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