Best entry-level DSLR Cameras

Bill Livolsi, Updated May 23, 2012

This article is outdated. For the most recent version, please read our Cheapest DSLR Cameras article.

If you've read our article about snapshot cameras and serious cameras, you know that the difference between the two is the presence or absence of a viewfinder. When it comes to serious cameras with viewfinders, digital single lens reflex cameras, or DSLRs, are as good as it gets. DSLR cameras are the choice of professionals and serious amateurs around the world. DSLRs combine large sensors and interchangeable lenses with the responsive operation and extensive controls needed to take full control over the picture-making process. But not all DSLRs are created equal.

Today we'll look at five entry-level DSLRs that are perfect for someone looking to take that next step into serious photography, either as a hobby or as a potential career: the Canon Rebel T2i, Canon Rebel T3, Nikon D3100, Nikon D3200, and Pentax K-r. Each has its distinct strengths, while some share common weaknesses. Read on to find out which is right for you.

First Place: Canon Rebel T2i

$649 w/ lens, 18 MP (more specs)

The Canon Rebel T2i
Canon's T2i is, at $650, one of the more expensive DSLRs in today's shootout, but that price comes with a great feature set and good overall functionality. Perfect for movie shooters, it includes full 1080p HD video and an external microphone port, making on-camera sound capture higher in quality and less arduous. Even if you don't care about video, the T2i's 18 megapixel sensor and intuitive control layout make it a great stills camera, too. With no real weak points to speak of, the only downside to the T2i is its higher price. Read more about the Canon Rebel T2i

Second Place: Nikon D3200

$699 w/ lens, 24 MP (more specs)

The Nikon D3200 with 18-55mm lens
Hot on the heels of the T2i is Nikon's new D3200. This 24-megapixel monster wins the resolution battle handily, but more pixels does not make it a better camera. It retains the intuitive controls and easy-to-use layout of the D3100, and adds an external microphone input that brings its video abilities up to par with the Canon T2i. Like the T2i, it can shoot full 1080p resolution HD video at a variety of frame rates. But the D3200 costs more than the T2i, and that extra money doesn't buy much. Read more about the Nikon D3200

Third Place: Nikon D3100

$549 w/ lens, 14 MP (more specs)

The Nikon D3100 with 18-55mm lens
The Nikon D3100 takes second place by virtue of its easy to use control layout, newbie-friendly features, and overall ease of use. Like the T2i, it can shoot full 1080p resolution HD video, but lacks the external microphone port that makes the T2i our winner for video. When it comes to stills, both cameras produce striking results, and the D3100 is arguably easier to use. A wide variety of physical controls keep menu diving to a minimum, while solid construction and rubber grip panels make the D3100 feel more expensive than it really is. Read more about the Nikon D3100

Also Ran: Pentax K-r

$600 w/ lens, 12 MP (more specs)

The Pentax K-r with 18-55mm lens
The Pentax K-r's 6 frames per second continuous mode can't be beat, so aspiring sports shooters will love it. It also boasts the best extended low-light performance (25600 max ISO) and the fastest shutter speed (1/6000). On the other hand, the K-r tends to clip highlights, the extended ISO options are full of digital noise, its image stabilization is not as robust as that of other vendors, and it records 720p video in the clunky Motion JPG format. On top of that, serious photographers will soon run into a wall, as Pentax's high-end lens lineup is practically nonexistent. Read more about the Pentax K-r

Also Ran: Canon T3

$500 w/ lens, 12 MP (more specs)

The Canon Rebel T3 with 18-55mm lens
The Canon T3 is the cheapest entry-level DSLR we could find, and in some ways it shows. Build quality comes up seriously short compared to the burlier D3100 and T2i, with a plasticky, cheap-feeling finish, while some features are missing. ISO range is the worst of the group. The flash is less powerful. Important video features like an external microphone port and 1080p resolution are completely absent, and the camera offers no exposure control while shooting video. On the other hand, the control layout is logical and the T3 does take still pictures very well -- which is the main purpose of owning a DSLR in the first place. And since it is the least expensive camera of the bunch, it will definitely have an allure for first-time buyers. Still, with so many additional useful features available for such a small increase in price, we'd recommend one of the other cameras in today's shootout if at all possible. Read more about the Canon Rebel T3

In This Shootout:


Canon Rebel T2i

Find out why the Canon Rebel T2i is the Best Entry-Level DSLR Camera

Nikon D3200

The Nikon D3200 is a close second for stills and video

Nikon D3100

The Nikon D3100 comes in third place

Pentax K-r

The K-r's fast continuous shooting make it a good option for sports and wildlife

Canon T3

The T3 is the most budget-friendly option, but comes up short on features

Advice and Conclusion

Some advice to first-time buyers of DSLR Cameras