Best DSLR Cameras under $1000

Dick De Jong, Updated July 17, 2012

The Mid-range DSLR Camera Shootout

We have already posted an Entry-level DSLR shootout. And you may be wondering how we are differentiating those cameras from the ones included in this Mid-range DSLR shootout. The simple answer is price.

To delineate the two categories on any other factors gets fuzzy because often entry-level and mid-range DSLRs share similar specifications and features.

And occasionally when a manufacturer introduces a new entry-level (according to price) model, like the Nikon D3200, it starts to leapfrog over earlier mid-range cameras - at least as far as some specs go. Ain't the perpetual march of technology grand.

That is the reason why we decided to include the D3200 in both our Entry-level shootout and this Mid-range DSLR one that includes the Sony a65, the Canon T4i, the Canon T3i, and the Nikon D5100.

You can see a side-by-side comparison of the specs and features of four of these cameras here.

In many aspects, these DSLRs are similar, which is not surprising. Manufacturers try to match and then outdo each other in a game of one-upmanship, "Your camera shoots 1080p video at 30fps. Well, my camera shoots 1080p video at 60fps."

Though occasionally, one model stands out from the crowd, which is true in this shootout. The winner of our 2 Camera Guys Award for Best Mid-range DSLR Camera goes to the Sony a65, hands-down.

But the most recent entry in this updated shootout, the newly released Canon T4i offers one feature that no other current DSLR - at any price - offers, a true touchscreen. As unique as that is, the Sony a65 still retains the crown.

With that said, the other three contestants offer performance and features that will entice and satisfy those who aren't ready to commit to an almost $1000 camera (with kit lens) like the Sony a65 or the Canon T4i.

Sony a65

$949 with 18-55mm lens, 24.3 MP - (More Specs)
Sony a65 Best Mid-range DSLR

For a mid-range (under $1000) DSLR in 2012, the Sony a65 provides the whole package.

One or another of the cameras in the shootout may offer a comparable feature - the Nikon D3200 shares the same sized 24MP image sensor and the Canon T4i, Canon T3i and Nikon D5100 all supply an articulating screen with even more positions - but the a65 trumps the rest with items like a bright two million dot OLED viewfinder and a continuous shooting speed of 10fps in the RAW format.

Technical specifications aside, the Sony a65 produces excellent picture quality with a camera that is fun to use. If you are a first time DSLR buyer, the a65 might be more camera than you need, but as you become more experienced, it might be exactly the camera that you want.

(Editor's note: to represent Sony's Alpha class of cameras, this SLT-A65V model is properly shortened with the alpha symbol. Though on the Sony website, they also use the more web friendly a65, which is what we will employ.) Write it as you will, the Sony a65 earns our Best Mid-range DSLR award.

More about the Sony Alpha SLT-A65V.

Choosing a runner-up in this shootout was straightforward when the new Canon T4i was added to the mix. But when it came to ordering the other three cameras the task was more difficult. Though similar in many respects, all three cameras possess certain advantages that may appeal to you and push one model or another to the top of your list.

If you are new to this DSLR rodeo, you'll soon discover that camera bodies will come and go, but quality lenses can last for decades. And primo prime lenses can often cost more than the camera body.

The point is, if you have legacy lenses from either Canon or Nikon, then the decision between the Canon T3i and either the Nikon D5100 or the D3200 becomes elementary. Stick with the home team. But if you are a rookie, read on.

2nd Place
Canon EOS Rebel T4i/650D

$949 with 18-55mm Zoom Lens, 18 MP - (More Specs)
Canon T4i Best Mid-range DSLR

If you are looking for a DSLR with a touchscreen, then the Canon T4i jumps ahead of the Sony a65. But if a touchscreen is the prime factor in your decision, then this $950 T4i catapults over every DSLR currently on the market including the $3500 Canon 5D Mark III. But for most photographers choosing a camera is about much more than a touchscreen or any one feature.

The T4i is a fine camera and its touchscreen adds to its usability, but overall the Sony a65 with its translucent mirror technology offers better performance at a comparable price.

And actually, if you are more price than touch sensitive, then you should take a long look at the less expensive Canon T3i. At a quick glance, you may be hard pressed to see the differences between the two models side by side. Rest assured, the T4i is a worthy upgrade but most of the changes are below the surface.

(Editor's note: Canon brands this camera outside of the U.S. market as the 650D. For ease of reading, rather than constantly writing Canon T4i/650D, we'll use the shorter T4i.)

More about the Canon T4i .

3rd Place (Tie)
Canon EOS Rebel T3i

$749 with 18-55mm Zoom Lens, 18 MP - (More Specs)
Canon T3i Best Mid-range DSLR

The Canon T3i is an incremental upgrade to the T2i, which we reviewed in the Entry level DSLR shootout. And their new sibling, the T4i continues Canon's tradition of evolutionary - not revolutionary - upgrades.

In this current shootout, the most comparable camera to the T3i is the Nikon D5100. They both were released in the Spring of 2011 with similar specifications and at first glance, they look alike. But if you dig a little deeper, you'll discover differences, which I will detail in the individual reviews.

Once you weigh all the pros and cons, the bottom line is that both cameras are worthy representatives of this mid-range DSLR category.

If you are batting for Team Canon and don't need an articulating screen and are not a serious video shooter, you might take a look at the aging but still capable T2i. With the release of the T4i, the T2i is retiring and you may be able to find it at a great price.

More about the Canon T3i.

3rd Place (Tie)
Nikon D5100

$646 with 18-55mm Zoom Lens, 16 MP - (More Specs)
Nikon D5100 Best Mid-range DSLR

As this review is being written, Nikon is offering a $200 discount on the D5100 with or without the kit lens. That low price drops it into the entry level DSLR range and makes the camera a compelling choice.

The 16MP sensor, which was top notch last year, seems a little antiquated compared to those 24MP sensors on this year's Sony a65 and the Nikon D3200.

But don't become too star struck by the ever larger megapixel counts, 16 is more than enough for almost every application. And Nikon has tweaked it to produce high quality images with low noise even at ISOs as high as 1600 and still quite acceptable and manageable noise at 6400.

In fact, with sensors of this resolution and quality, you will be doing them a disservice by using the kit lens. Oh, that lens is more than fine for everyday snapshots. But if you want to squeeze the best performance out of all these cameras in the shootout, then buy the body only and treat you and your camera to a higher quality lens.

More about the Nikon D5100.

4th Place
Nikon D3200

$696 with 18-55mm Zoom Lens, 24.2 MP - (More Specs)
Nikon D3200 Best Mid-range DSLR

24.2 - that number just jumps out at you when you read the specifications for the Nikon D3200. And though many may think that 24.2 megapixels is simply overkill, this Nikon sensor system has garnered superior ratings for image quality, some of the best for any APS-C sized sensor.

But to really wring stellar photos from the D3200, you should be shooting RAW files and not JPEGs, which means wrangling with RAW files in a program like Photoshop, Aperture or Nikon's Capture NX. Though daunting for the newbies, the effort is worth it.

And as mentioned above, buy a good prime lens instead of the kit lens.

Even with the sensor, the D3200 just does not rise above the competition because of some basic usability issues beginning with the lack of an articulating screen.

Granted, many of you are buying a DSLR because it comes with an integrated viewfinder. But many folks who are upgrading from a camera without a viewfinder will often rely on the D3200's 3" screen.

If bright sunlight makes it difficult to see the screen well enough to properly frame and focus, then all you often will end up with is a poor picture in glorious 24.2 megapixels.

With that said, with a good lens, the D3200 can produce some lovely high-high resolution RAW files. And if you are not ready to step up to a RAW workflow, you can always set your camera to capture medium-sized JPEGs.

More about the Nikon D3200

Reader Comments(8 comments)

Posted Oct 10, 2013 8:31:16 PM
By Big Mike
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I wasn't aware that the Sony was unable to autofocus in manual mode. The superior video autofocusing was the only reason why I was considering the a65, but what's the point if I have no control over depth of field? It's also my understanding that you can't control the aperture while in live view on the Nikons. Both shortcomings are reasons enough for me to go with the Canon T4i; the autofocusing (in live view and video) could be better, but you have full manual control.
Posted Nov 2, 2012 8:54:18 PM
By Kuro
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Hey how 'bout the Pentax K-30 which is as good or better than the T4i but $100 less.
Posted Oct 31, 2012 11:52:07 AM
By Peteralex
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I was planning to buy the a65. Read everything about it. Fine. Went to the store and my, not too tall, not to wide, very healthy born fingers were automatically cramped into position at the grip. Not so good. It felt very uncomfortable. The body is a normal size, only the grip is truly disappointing. Especially the rubber thingy that places itself between the fingers at the front makes that you can't move your fingers elsewhere.. so totally forced bent fingertips were the result of trying to just hold the camera and make a picture, or just grab it. Or for example, to get it out of a bag. Too bad sony. This I noticed ofcourse also with the a57 (which had a horrible viewfinder). I now have the a390 and the a580. Those grips vary just a little but have more grab comfort and room. The a77 is bigger, lets put my hope on that one (havent tried it yet).
Posted Sep 2, 2012 7:49:54 PM
By krazi311
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ok so im really confused on which to buy now... The a65 or Rebel t4i?? Reading these reviews have made it even more difficult due to the great research put into them. I'm new to photography and this will be my first dslr. Having the touchscreen is cool but not vital. If they both had it then this might be a little easier. I wouldnt be shooting videos, mostly still shots. Action shots? do you really need the 10 fps or is 5 good enough? Can some one please help me?! I dont mind spending the money on the a65 but in the long run whats better for me.
Posted Aug 28, 2012 3:30:02 PM
By Dick De Jong
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Suggesting lenses for others is always a tough call for reasons too long to list.

If you are interested in high quality and are ready to make the commitment, then Zeiss lenses are great choices, but they come at a premium price tag.

For example, the Sony 85mm F1.4 ZA Carl Zeiss Planar T* is a wonderful portrait prime lens. Of course, at $1600, it's almost twice the price of the a65 body alone. But good lenses can last through multiple generations of cameras.
Posted Aug 28, 2012 2:55:55 PM
By Dick De Jong
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I've been shooting video for decades and I'm still not convinced that any of these DSLRs are the perfect solution for capturing video. (I listed many of those reasons in my article, Making Home Movies:

With that said, I do not discount your preference of the T4i over the a65 when shooting video. I will say that if you plan to use autofocus with any of these cameras, then expect to capture segments of out of focus searching, which you will need to edit.

And if you want higher quality audio, then you will need to use an external microphone and ideally a good audio recorder.

I'll admit that I am still rating these cameras more for their still image abilities and less on their video. Accordingly, the Sony a65 is on the top of my list. But as I've said, the T4i is a very good camera, which you should enjoy.
Posted Aug 14, 2012 12:06:07 PM
By frazzywig
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I've been planning on getting the t4i for a while now, but after reading this review and then taking a couple more looks at the a65, I have to admit I was blown away by the Sony offering. I wanted to do a little more research but was almost certain that I'd be going for the a65 rather than that t4i. I'm glad I ended up taking the extra time to search out bad aspects of the a65 because I found some fairly important omissions to this review. I should note that I'm primarily interested in using the camera for video. Most of the omitted drawbacks that I'm referring to pertain to video: There is an additional sensor crop beyond the native APS-C (1.6x) size when shooting video, making the crop somewhere around 1.85x (that's no small amount when you want to be able to get your money's worth from wide glass), the a65 is unable to shoot video beyond 1600 ISO, it's also unable to shoot with full time auto focus in manual mode (so you can't specify an aperture while using AF in video), audio has no level control at all - the gain is controlled automatically. None the less, I appreciate your efforts in putting up a good review. I have not put in the work and I appreciate that you have. I’d just like to let you know that I think these issues really should have knocked the a65 down to 2nd place, below the t4i. Just my opinion.
Posted Aug 9, 2012 6:53:25 PM
By Art
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You mention the suggestion of buying only the body and buying a separate Sony Prime lens. Any specific suggestions (with links)?