Hi there! You know, if you’re looking to buy a digital SLR, you’ll probably know it requires quite a bit of research. There are so many models out there, it can be overwhelming for someone unfamiliar with digital SLR technology and jargon.
By and large, Canon and Nikon are still hold the biggest market share in the digital SLR world, although other brands like Sony and Pentax have traditionally also released some very good cameras.
In this article, I want to introduce to you the top 10 digital SLR cameras under $800. To me, if you can getting a digital SLR at that price point – it’s pretty much a very good bargain.
Also, don’t forget about legacy equipment. If you happen to have an old 35mm Canon EOS digital SLR, or a Nikon SLR from the 1980s – you’ll be glad to know that your old lenses can still work on a modern-age digital SLR.
Oh, the other thing to note is about optical viewfinders – if you prefer to have one in your digital SLR, then Canon and Nikon are probably the ones to go with. Sony doesn’t have optical viewfinders in its digital SLRs, but they do excel in electronic viewfinder technology.
And in case you wonder where Minolta cameras are in my list below, do take note that Sony bought their camera division some time back – so now Minolta digital SLRs are essentially Sony-branded.
By the way, if you need more help on how to buy a digital cameras, do check out my guide over here.
1. Canon EOS Rebel T3i
The Canon EOS Rebel T3i is a solid, 18 megapixel digital SLR that comes with a 3-inch LCD display. It has an EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens and has an ISO range of 100 to 6400.
I think the Rebel T3i series is a fantastic choice for first time upgraders looking to understand digital SLR technology. The camera takes some really good photos and video. It’s burst mode shoots at 3.7 fps – which may not appeal to professionals who want to shoot fast action, but would be fine for those new to digital SLRs. If you need a faster burst mode, the Canon 60D would be a better choice with its 5.3 fps shooting rate.
The Rebel T3i is also very easy to use. In fact, when my son got hold of the camera, I was surprised at the quality of the pictures he took with the intelligent auto mode. In terms of construction, the cameras has pretty good heft and grip, and comes with a scrolling wheel in front to let you make function selections very easily. Also, what’s interesting is that Canon decided to allow you to zoom in while in video recording mode – something which is seldom seen in other cameras I’ve handled.
2. Nikon D5200
Next up, we look at the Nikon D5200 – this is a great SLR with a 24.1 megapixel resolution, 3-inch LCD and a 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S VR Nikkor zoom lens.
The camera provides an ISO range of 100 to 25,600 and shoots great images, with 39 autofcous points (9 of them being cross-type). And if you want to shoot sports or fast moving objects (e.g. like kids), the D5200 does a decent 4 fps in burst mode.
This Nikon also has all the trappings of a modern digital SLR – HD video, face recognition features, as well as the ability to add on Wi-Fi connectivity.
There are some downsides to the Nikon D5200 – for me, the two main ones being the fact that in “Live View”, you cannot change the aperture. This is very inconvenient if you want to do quick exposure setting adjustment. Also, since it doesn’t have a built-in autofocus motor within the camera body – you need to rely on the autofocus in your lenses. Hence, do note that the D5200 will not work with screw-drive lenses, which have no built-in autofocus.
3. Pentax K-50
The Pentax K-50 comes with a 16 megapixel resolution, 3X optical zoom, as well as a 3-inch LCD. It’s decked out with a DAL 18-55mm WR f/3.5-5.6 lens and allows you to go fully creative in your SLR shots.
I think the K-50 is great for fast action shots – with a burst rate of 5.9 fps, you’ll have no problems with snapping dynamic objects zipping by.
What’s also nice about the Pentax K-50 is its large viewfinder and its ability to crank ISO up to 51,200. If you’re shooting low light shots, you’ll know that a high ISO is important, provided the camera doesn’t introduce excessive noise at higher ISOs. The Pentax K-50 does a decent job in the ISO department.
The K-50 also supports Eye-Fi wireless SD cards, has good customizable controls, and is powered by AA sized batteries. One of the best things about it is that it’s weather sealed – so no worries about drops of water getting into your camera.
The downsides to the K-50? Well, I found it doesn’t have a mic input, and its video function is a bit outdated. Those of you looking to shoot good video with a digital SLR may want to look elsewhere. Also, unlike the Nikon D5200 above, the Pentax K-50’s LCD doesn’t tilt – which makes it slightly awkward to shoot subjects from special perspectives.
The camera provides an ISO range of 100 to 25,6000 and shoots great images, with 39 autofcous points (9 of them being cross-type). And if you want to shoot sports or fast moving objects (e.g. like kids), the D5200 does a decent 4 fps in burst mode.
4. Sony Alpha 65
The Sony Alpha 65 is a 24 megapixel digital SLR that comes with a 3-inch LCD. It comes with a 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens and has a solid EVF viewfinder. Sony has built in an OLED EVF viewfinders that is top-class and would sway even fans of more traditional optical viewfinders (see my view on “EVF” and “optical” viewfinders below).
The Alpha 65 takes some fabulous pictures and is very comfortable with action shots – with a burst mode running at 9 fps. You can also shoot at ISO levels of 100 to 16,000, and there’s a 15 point auto focus system and auto HDR features built in.
The downsides to the Sony Alpha 65? Well, for one thing, the kit lens that comes with the SLR cannot match up with the quality of the camera sensor – which is a slight disappointment. Also, if your camera memory card is slow, this can affect performance on the whole (although some would argue this is a problem with all cameras).
Tip. In case you’re not sure what an “EVF” and “optical” viewfinder is, let me try to explain. Traditionally, camera manufacturers have built optical viewfinders into their camera bodies – these are brighter, clearer and better in tonal reproduction.
However, some manufacturers – Sony, in particular – have created what are “EVF” viewfinders which use organic light emitting diode (OLED) technology. These viewfinders are less bright and clear, and have tonal reproduction issues – but the gap is closing with better OLED technology.
And remember that EVF viewfinders can embed a LOT of digital information on the viewfinder compared to optical ones. This means you can practically operate and access camera menus while looking into the viewfinder.
5. Nikon D3300
The Nikon D3300 is a 24.2 megapixel camera that comes with a DX Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR II kit lens. It has a 3-inch LCD display, and you can shoot at ISO levels of 100 to 12,800 (extendable up to 25,600).
The camera can shoot full HD video, and can do very decent fast moving action shots – with a burst mode of 5 fps. The camera design also incorporates a retractable lens kit, which is attractive to those concerned by their camera’s bulk.
One interesting fact about the Nikon D3300 – and we see this in many modern digital SLRs – is the absence of a low-pass filter. The low-pass filter, also known as an “anti-aliasing” or “blur” filter – is used to remove the problem of “moire” before the photo is captured on the camera sensor. It does this by anti-aliasing the image and results in some loss of detail.
Moire is a phenomenon that occurs when you try to photograph things like fabric, everyday objects and it manifests itself as some wavy lines (look here for an example) – really ugly. Under these conditions, using a low-pass filter makes sense for photographers.
The problem is this – moire is not found in nature or landscape photography. A landscape photographer using a low-pass filter will end up with loss of details in his or her photos – something not desired. As a result, many camera manufacturers have started to leave out the low-pass filter in their camera builds to appease this group of photographers.
The D3300 also comes with a great “Guide Mode” (also found in the Nikon D3200) to teach beginners what exposure settings should be used for specific photography scenarios Nikon even included some sample pictures to illustrate each type of exposure setting. Very nice indeed.
The camera also has an outstanding Night Vision mode which allows you to shoot at ISO levels up to 102,400, along with 11 autofocus sensors for quick AF capability.
There are some downsides to the Nikon D3300 though. For one thing, just like the Nikon D3200, there is a lack of an autofocus motor built into the camera body. As a result, you can only use the autofocus in your lenses – screw-drive lenses (with no built-in autofocus) will not work with the Nikon D3300.
The other issue with the Nikon D3300 is that it can be rather small for those photographers with big hands – although this “small camera body” issue is something I see across many camera models these days.
6. Pentax K-5 IIs
The Pentax K-5 IIs is a 16.3 megapixel camera with a 3- inch LCD display, and a stock DA 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 WR lens. It has an ISO range of 80 to 51,200 and has a fast burst mode – shooting 7 fps.
The K-5 IIs shoots nice pictures and is a versatile camera. Like the Pentax K-50, it’s also weather-sealed and comes with in-body shake reduction. It also omits a low-pass filter, like we saw for the Nikon D3300.
Now, what’s interesting also about the K-5 IIs is its “Select-Area Expansion” feature, built into its autofocus sensor. This allows the camera to track automatically track subjects as it moves across your frame of composition. It does this by assessing data from neighboring sensors. This is a nice feature, and it worked well when I tried it out on e.g. kids moving around.
In my opinion, the K-5 IIs has some downsides too. For example, it has disappointing video – the HD video mode is only capable of 25 fps. Compare this with the Sony Alpha 65 or the Nikon D3300 which can shoot HD video at 60 fps.
I also find the K-5 IIs a bit big for large hands – though this may not be a problem for some photographers. The camera is also slightly expensive given its feature set. However, those who can just want a solid digital SLR and can overlook HD video shooting as well as the slightly elevated price, should find the K-5 IIs a lovely camera to use.
7. Canon EOS Rebel SL1
I think that Canon has been a bit late to combat the mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera onslaught from the likes of Olympus, Panasonic, Nikon and Sony. As a result, their response is the Canon EOS Rebel SL1, which Canon touts as the “world’s smallest APS-C camera”, offering a 18 megapixel resolution and a 3-inch LCD display, an EF-S 18-55 mm/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens, as well as an ISO range of 100 to 12,800, extendable up to 25,600.
The EOS Rebel SL1 is a great everyday digital SLR which you can use to shoot some amazing pictures. It has a 9 point autofocus system, allow you to track and focus on subjects very quickly, though its burst mode of 4 fps may be a bit slow for some. There’also very good HD video capability built-in, so no worries in the video recording department.
I find the autofocus system in Canon cameras very good – and the EOS Rebel SL1 is no exception. When I track a subject in the optical viewfinder, the switch focus almost instantaneously while my subject moves. However, the focusing does slow down when I switch over to the Live View mode.
The best thing about the Rebel SL1 has to be its size. Canon has managed to squeeze a lot of electronics into a very small package – to the extent that you get a digital SLR in a point-and-shoot body. Of course, with the kit lens, the bulk will increase a lot, but in terms of body design – the Rebel SL1 is on par with many of small mirrorless offerings out there.
I also found the chromatic aberration correction in the Rebel SL1 to work very well. In case you need to know, chromatic aberration is the result of camera lenses having different refractive indices for different wavelengths of light. This results in fringes of color appearing along the boundaries of highlights or dark regions of your pictures. The Rebel SL1 can correct this kind of aberration but I found that it does reduce your JPEG buffer to just four frames. So you shoot disable chromatic aberration correction if you’re shooting in burst mode.
8. Sony Alpha 3000
Our list here has focused on digital SLRs – but the Sony Alpha 3000 is sort of a hybrid. It’s a actually a mirrorless camera which is styled like a digital SLR – possibly the first of many to come from Sony.
The Alpha 3000 is a 20 megapixel camera which comes with a 18-55mm/f3.5-56 kit lens. It has a 3-inch LCD screen and is capable of recording HD video and does burst shots of 3.5 fps. It’s ISO range is 100 to 16,000.
The camera itself has a deep, comfortable hand grip, and it’s auto object framing capability is a standout feature, which helps to improve composition of pictures.
The user control joystick is also quite interesting. Its bottom button brings up a camera guide that’s very helpful for beginners – something like the Guide Mode in the Nikon D3300.
The downsides to the camera? Well, the Alpha 3000’s burst mode is clearly a bit slow – 3.5 fps is going to give some problems when you try to shoot fast cars or children.
Also, although Sony managed to squeeze in a electronic viewfinder (EVF) within the price of the Alpha 3000, you can tell it is not top quality. The EVF resolution trails those found in the NEX 6 and NEX 7 range of cameras.
9. Canon EOS 60D
Next up, let’s look at the Canon 60D digital SLR. The 60D is an 18 megapixel SLR that comes with a 3-inch LCD screen. It has a kit 18-55mm/f3.5-56 lens and has an ISO range of 100 to 12,800.
The 60D is capable of shooting 5.3 fps in burst mode – which is decent for capturing fast action (it’s a little slower than its cousin, the Canon EOS 50D though). The camera also has a 9 point, all cross-type autofocus system and can track subjects pretty well.
What’s also interesting about the 60D is that it has two control wheels for the user to quickly access settings – one at the top of the camera hand grip, and the other at the back of the camera.
There’s also a “Creative Auto Mode” which can be thought of as “Full Auto Plus”. You simply take a shot just like in full auto mode, but you can adjust some exposure settings in your next shot, if you don’t like how the photo turns out. Nice feature, but I’m not sure in reality how many people will use it – as it still doesn’t give you the full control of advanced exposure modes.
Another great factoid about the Canon EOS 60D is its video mode. The camera can allow you to focus during video shoots – which is a great thing. You do have to be careful about sound though – I found that if the autofocus motor is emitting a sound, sometimes that gets picked up in the video shot as well.
10. Nikon D3100
The final camera in my list is the Nikon D3100 – a 14.2 megapixel digital SLR that comes with a 18-55mm/f3.5-56 kit lens (a AF-S DX VR Nikkor Zoom lens, to be exact). The camera has a 3-inch LCD screen, as well as support for full HD video.
The camera has an ISO range of 100 to 3,200, extendable to 12,800. It also comes with a nice design, with the grip encased in a classy rubber coat. The controls on the camera are pretty well conceived too – with a spring-loaded lever at the back to active Live View by your thumb. There’s also a drive-mode lever at the top of the camera.
I think what stands out about the Nikon D3100 is its ease of use. There’s a Guide Mode for beginners, just like in the Nikon D3300. In addition, it has an “Info” button that allows you to see all of the camera’s main settings on the rear screen. The autofocus system of the D3100 is also very good, with 11 autofocus sensors, just like the Nikon D3300.
One thing I also like about the D3100 is the “Electronic Rangefinder” function – which displays a graphic to help you see how far your picture is from perfect focus. You can then rotate the focus ring to get it just right.
The downsides of the D3100? Well, for one thing – it doesn’t have a live histogram to help the photographer get exposure right within Live View. Just like the Nikon D3300 and D3200 we reviewed above, the D3100 doesn’t have an in-built autofocus motor in the camera body are some downsides to the Nikon D3300 though. For one thing, just like the Nikon D3200, there is a lack of an autofocus motor built into the camera body. As a result, you can only use the autofocus in your lenses – screw-drive lenses will not work with the Nikon D3100.
And that’s it! A full list of the top 10 digital SLR cameras in the market. You know, choosing a digital SLR is no easy task – most of the models out there have tons of features which you may not even need.
I think the key is to make sure you understand what you want in your digital SLR. Are you jus starting out in the digital SLR community and trying to learn the rope? Then perhaps digital SLR that’s a bit more suited to beginners would be good for you, e.g. the Canon Rebel T3i, Nikon D3300 or Sony Alpha 3000.
Also, are you shooting landscape, wildlife, portraiture? Do you expect to go fully creative in the future and buy all sorts of lenses and accessories? Then you may want to choose a digital SLR that accommodates a full range of lenses and accessories for your future needs – Canon and Nikon cameras tend to dominate in the accessories department.
A final point is to always do your research before you commit to buying a camera. Take your time, check out buying guides and try out the a few models in the camera store before shelling out your cash.
That’s all I have for now. Until next time, have fun shopping for your digital SLR!