This is a question I get quite often from people, especially when they find out I am a photo educator. I have been a classroom photo teacher for 15 years and in that time I have gone through lots of cameras with my students. The abuse is real. New photographers tend to make a lot of mistakes and because of this they have a penchant for ruining perfectly good cameras. I have a really sad photo somewhere of the time my classroom intern had to pick through the old broken cameras for parts and we had to just throw everything else out. It was a very sad day. But if you are in the market for an entry level DSLR camera, or for your first DSLR camera, then I have a very short and concise list for you. These are the best of the best. I promise.
What To Consider For Entry Level DSLR
Alright, the first question becomes: what do you want the camera to do? The first and most important thing is that it has manual control capabilities. You want to control your camera and get it working for you. You should not be letting the camera make choices for you. So this means you should be able to easily change your shutter speed and aperture. There should probably be a manual setting and this will make those pieces much easier. Generally you don’t want or need a manual focus lens. The new DSLR cameras usually come with a lens that can easily switch to manual focus (just make sure you know where the heck that button is). A DSLR camera will have a body and a detachable lens, not a lens that is inside the body of the camera. So I’m not even going to discuss those point and shoot style cameras. They are good, but again the manual controls are very difficult to find in that type of camera.
As an aside, 2 weeks ago I took my students on an annual field trip to photograph in Boston and one of my students had no idea how she got on manual focus. Her camera was a Canon and I just don’t know the Canon bodies as well as Nikon. It took my 5 minutes in the cold fiddling with her menu before I realized the lens was just slightly off and wasn’t attached (or really just wasn’t talking) to the camera. So moral of the story is to KNOW YOUR CAMERA!
Last thing to note here is that a DSLR is not the same thing as Mirrorless. And although I talk a bit about the differences between the two camera types in this blog post, I think there is a space for entry level mirrorless cameras too. But right now I am still purchasing DSLR camera bodies for my students. When we make the switch over to mirrorless it will probably be a slow process. The main thing holding us back right now is price point. A DSLR is cheaper and is still a good investment. So let’s talk about camera companies.
The Nikon or Canon Debate
DSLR’s mostly fall into these two camps—Nikon or Canon. Although I am going to list the reasons I choose Nikon for my entry level DSLR you truly cannot go wrong with either camera company. They are both fantastic and always in competition—meaning if one company comes out with something awesome I assure you the other will follow suit. And fast! So what’s the difference? Not much…but I’ll list them regardless.
Focus. Nikon is arguable better with focus. Has been this way for years, especially in low light, and today seems to still win the focus test between the two camera companies. I don’t really know why but the glass is fast and catches focus quicker than it’s Canon counterparts.
Lenses. Also called glass. Canon has L series lenses (albeit not for entry level as the price point is very high) that go all the way down to f/1.2. That’s crazy shallow! Nikon’s professional lenses only go to f/1.4 (except with mirrorless Z lenses which do indeed go lower).
Weather Sealing. Nikon has been known to have better weather sealing, and although I’m not positive this is true I have had to photograph many a rainy wedding and—fingers crossed—my Nikon camera bodies have always done their job. And well. But I think my Canon friends might tell you the same about their cameras.
Color Space. Canon’s color space is just more beautiful. I know this is maybe a skewed opinion but I think Canon’s color space is just nicer overall, particularly for portraits. The Canon color space tends to be a little less contrasty and gives more beautiful skin tones. Nikon, on the other hand, has great contrast and bright greens and reds. So possibly better for landscapes? Both use a CMOS processor chip so there should be that great of a difference, but I still see it even though I am an avid Nikon user.
Usability. Eeeek this one is tough. Honestly the usability of both cameras is great but they are very different so it just depends on what you have gotten used to. Canon’s menu is across the top and then drops down. Nikon keeps its sections to the left side and then top down, so really they are just different. When looking at images on the back of the camera though Canon definitely wins with its fantastic command wheel. Nikon has 4 buttons you have to press and it is not as user friendly or as fast to find a photo.
So which one should you choose? This is very much a personal decision, but I will list a few options below. All cameras here are listed with the regular kit lens. A better lens will give you better results but to keep everything even these are listed and priced with the kit lens (something like an 18-55mm lens).
This is my choice, because this is what I buy for my students to use. The camera takes amazing photos, is great for everyday use and allows high ISO capabilities without getting too noisy. It can likely take a pretty good beating as well. My original cameras were purchased in 2011, they were the Nikon D3000, and we still have a few in the mix. Still…in 2022! Just think of how many brand new photographers who horribly misuse a camera have come through this classroom and we still have working D3000’s. That, to me, tells the whole story I need to know.
This is basically the exact same capabilities as the Nikon D3500. They are peas in a pod if you ask me. Many of my students also have this camera and the images they are able to get are just as good with this camera. The only thing I cannot comment on is the longevity since I don’t have personal experience with this cameras as I do with the Nikons. But, this one is also currently about $150 cheaper (under $500 at time of publishing) so if price is a main factor this camera is great!
This is slightly more expensive than the D3500 and from what I can tell the only differences are really in the touchscreen and moveable screen. Otherwise the specs are very similar, but if you want to do video or lots of self portraits or something where you need the screen maneuverability then it might be worth the extra couple hundred dollars.
Much like the above Nikon this is the slightly more expensive (read: newer) camera from Canon and this one even comes in white. Color may not matter to you but I know that teenagers love the different color cameras.
Alright, that is the best list I can give for entry level DSLR cameras under $1000 (one even under $500). Decide first on the camera company and then really figure out which one you like best. If you want to compare the camera specs (and I definitely suggest you do) then check out Ken Rockwell or DPReview (not sponsored) and you can find much more in-depth specifications as well as comparison charts. I use both of these companies when I am researching for a new camera body for my own business. Hope this is helpful in finding your entry level DSLR!