Entry-Level DSLRs

In this article I’m going to take a look at entry-level DSLRs from each of the main players in the DSLR field: Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony. You might wonder why Olympus isn’t included and the reason is that Olympus seem to have abandoned DSLRs in favor of mirrorless cameras.

While there’s no exact definition of an “entry-level” DSLR, price is an important factor. I’ve used a price of under $900 for the camera body and a kit lens as the cutoff point for this article. In that range the current (09/13) options are the Nikon D3100/D3200 and D5100/5200, the Canon EOS Rebel T3, T3i, SL1 and T5i, the Sony Alpha A65 and A58 and the Pentax K50 and K500

For more advice on choosing a camera, take a look at my article on Factors to Consider when Choosing a Digital SLR Camera.

Just as background, here are a few general comments on the camera features of each manufacturer:

  • Canon – Canon has an extensive system of accessories and lenses and a history of innovation. They had the first lens using an ultrasonic motor, the first lens with built in image stabilization and were the first to use a CMOS sensor. Their crop sensor cameras have a 22.3 × 14.9 mm sensor, giving a “lens multiplication” factor of ~1.6×.
    [View the Photo.net Canon Cameras & Equipment Guide.]
  • Nikon – Like Canon, Nikon has an extensive system of lenses and accessories along with a long history of professional support. They too now have ultrasonic and image stabilized lenses. Current Nikon DSLRs can use many of Nikon’s older manual focus lenses. Nikon crop sensor cameras have a 23.1 × 15.4 mm sensor, with a ~1.5x “lens multiplication” factor.
    [View the Photo.net Nikon Cameras & Equipment Guide.]
  • Sony – Building on the knowledge base of Minolta and Konica-Minolta, Sony has developed an extensive line of cameras. most of which now include image stabilization built into the body of the camera rather than the lens. Sony cameras have the same lens mount as the autofocus Minolta bodies and so can fully use Minolta AF lenses. Their sensors are typically 23.5 × 15.6mm (~1.5x).
    [View the Photo.net Sony Cameras & Equipment Guide.]
  • Pentax – Like Sony, Pentax DSLR bodies now incorporate image stabilization in the body of the camera. Building on their long history, Pentax DSLRs can use any Pentax AF lens, plus earlier manual focus Pentax lenses (an adapter is need for screw mount lenses). Pentax DSLRs typically use 23.7 × 15.7 mm sensors (~1.5x). Note that Pentax is now a part of Ricoh.
    [View the Photo.net Pentax & Equipment Guide.]

Another factor to consider when choosing a DSLR might be 3rd party lens support. The major 3rd party lens makers (Tamron, Tokina and Sigma) pretty much always support the Canon and Nikon systems. Usually they also support Sony and sometimes Pentax. This can be something to consider if you have a need for a particular lens that is only available from a 3rd party lens maker, such as, for example, the tamron_60-nikon, which isn’t currently available in a Pentax mount.

Canon Entry-Level DSLRs

The Canon lineup is the Rebel series which includes the T3, T3i, SL1 and T5i. In each case an 18-55 kit lens is available, but while the T3 and T3i usually come with the EF-S 18-55/3.5-5.6 IS II, the SL1 and T5i come with the later 18-55/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens which is designed to produce better results when shooting video.



Left: Canon EOS T3 Right:Canon EOS T3i

The T3 is the most basic model with a 12 MP sensor and a 230,000 dot 2.7" LCD. The T3i, SL1 and T5i all have 18MP sensors (though not the same sensor) and 3" LCDs with 1,040,000 dots. The T3i and T5i have foldout, tilt and swivel LCD screens.



Left: Canon EOS T5i Right: Canon EOS SL1

The SL1 has the distinction of being (as of 09/13) the smallest and lightest APS-C DSLR available from any camera maker, so if size and weight are important factors to you, then the SL1 is certainly a camera to look at. It’s more similar to the T5i in terms of specifications than it is to the T3i. The SL1 is about 30% smaller than the T5i (in terms of volume). The supplied kit lens is the STM version, which gives better focus and tracking when shooting video.

The T5i is better then the T3i in most respects except for price. It has a higher frame rate (5fps vs 3.7 fps), higher ISO settings (25600 vs 12800), phase detection AF assist in video mode, a touch sensitive LCD, in camera HDR and overall faster operation. As with the SL1, the STM version of the 18-55 lens is supplied for better video performance.

Note that the maximum video frame rate for 1080HD video is still 30fps with the Canon entry-level DSLRs

So looking at the various models, the T3 is the least featured, but also the least expensive. The T3i is a significant upgrade from the T3 and the T5i is a significant upgrade from the T3i. The SL1’s unique feature is its small size and sits close to the T5i in terms of features. It does lack the tilt and swivel LCD of the T5i and it has a slightly slower frame rate (4fps vs 5fps).

Nikon Entry-Level DSLRs



Left: Nikon D3100 Right: Nikon D5100

The current Nikon entry-level DSLRs are the D3100/D5100 and the D3200/D5200. The D3100 (2010) and D5100 (2011) are earlier models which are still available, while the D3200 and D5200 are the latest models (both introduced in 2012). The D3100 has a 14MP sensor, the D5100 a 16MP sensor, while the two latest models, the D3200 and D5200 both have 24MP sensors.

While the D3100/D5100 have fixed LCDs, the D3200/D5200 both have articulated (hinged and/or rotating) LCD screens.

The D3100, D5100 and D3200 all have 11 AF zones, but the D5200 has 39 AF zones.


Left: Nikon D3200 Right: Nikon D5200

All four models have 1080 HD video, but the D3100 only offers 24fps, while the D3200 and D5100 offer a choise of 24, 25 or 30fps and the D5200 offers 24, 24, 30, 50 and 60fps. The D5200 records sound in stereo, while the other three models only offer mono audio recording.

So looking at the four options, the newer D3200 and D5200 offer a clear advantage in terms of sensor resolution (24MP) and of the two models the D5200 has more features – at a higher price of course. The D3100 is the “bargain basement” option with the lowest pixel count, a lower resolution LCD and least features – but also has the lowest cost.

Pentax Entry-Level DSLRs


Br>Left: Pentax K500 Right: Pentax K50 (in yellow/black)

Pentax have the K50 and K500 DSLRs, which are very similar in many respects. They both have the same 16MP CMOS sensors. They both have pentaprisms rather than the pentamirrors which are common on entry-level DSLRs, they both have a maximum shutter speed of 1/6000s (many entry-level DSLRs are 1/4000s). They have the same ISO range of 100-51200, the same number of AF zones (11), the same 3" fixed LCD screen and the same 1080 HD video capability (24, 25 or 30fps with mono sound).

One way in which these cameras differ is in the batteries they use. The K50 uses a rechargeable Li-ion battery (though it can use 4xAA cells with an adapter). The K500 uses 4xAA cells (though it can use a Li-ion battery with an adapter). This allows the K50 to shoot at 6fps with its Li-ion battery, while the K500 can only shoot at 5fps when using AA cells (but can do 6fps with the Li-ion battery adapter).

The K500 also lacks the weathersealing of the K50 and unlike the K50, it has no built in electronic level, making the K500 slightly cheaper.

On a non-technical note, the K500 is available only in black, while the K50 is theoretically available in about 120 different “two tone” color combinations!

Choosing between the K50 and K500 is pretty easy. If you want the weathersealing, electronic level and Li-ion battery, then you want the K50. If those factors aren’t important and you want to save a few dollars, the you want the K500. Otherwise, in terms of performance and image quality, the two cameras are essentially the same.

Sony Entry-Level DSLRs



Left: Sony SLT-A65 Right: Sony SLT-A58

The Sony entry-level DSLRs are somewhat different to those from Canon, Nikon and Pentax in that they use a fixed mirror (Sony’s “translucent mirror technology”) and have an electronic viewfinder rather than a true optical viewfinder. The advantage of the fixed mirror is that it allows a very fast frame rate. The A65 can do up to 10 frames/sec while the A58 can do 5 frames/sec. Most other entry-level DSLRs have maximum shooting rates in the 3-5 frames/sec range. so the A65 is much faster while the A58 ranks among the fastest of the rest. The disadvantage of a fixed mirror is that there is about a 1/3 to 1/2 stop light loss since some light is always directed up onto the viewfinder rather than hitting the sensor.

The A65 has additional features than make it superior to the A58. For example the A65 has a 24MP sensor vs. 20MP for the A58. The LCD on the A65 is 3" and 921,000 dots, while that on the A598 is smaller (2.7") and lower resolution (460,000 dots). The EVF on the A65 has a resolution of 2,359,000 dots, while that of the A58 is only 1,440,000 dots. The A65 also has GPS built in, while the A58 doesn’t.

Both the A65 and A58 can shoot 1080 HD video at either 60 fps or 24fps (but not at any intermediate speeds).

Brief Specifications

Note that the prices listed are approximately correct “street” prices from major vendors as of 9/25/13 and include any discounts or rebates current on that date. Each camera is priced with the 18-55 kit lens supplied by the manufacturer. Prices change and rebates come a

The ISO range listed includes any boosted or extended range settings. While they tell you what speeds are available, they don’t tell you how much noise is present at any given speed and normally image quality is significantly degraded at the highest settings.

  MP Price AF zones ISO (inc boost) fps LCD
Canon T3 12 $450 9 100-6400 3 Fixed
Canon T3i 18 $600 9 100-12800 3.7 Articulated
Canon SL1 18 $700 9 100-25600 4 Fixed
Canon T5i 18 $850 9 100-25600 5 Articulated
Nikon D3100 14 $450 11 100-12800 3 Fixed
Nikon D3200 24 $550 11 100-12800 4 Fixed
Nikon D5100 16 $600 11 100-25600 4 Articulated
Nikon D5200 24 $800 39 100-25600 5 or 3 Articulated
Pentax K50 16 $775 11 100-51200 6 or 3 Fixed
Pentax K500 16 $600 11 100-51200 5 or 3 Fixed
Sony A58 20 $550 15 100-25600 5 Articulated
Sony A65 24 $800 15 100-25600 10 Articulated

Which is the best?

All of these cameras will produce excellent images under typical shooting conditions. With sensors much larger than any P&S camera they will capture images that can be used to make larger prints with lower noise. If you just want good images shooting in good light, they will all do a good job.

All of them allow the photographer lots of control over exposure modes and focus modes and they all will shoot and focus much faster than most, if not all, P&S digicams.

The differences among them (apart from price) come down more to what features they leave out than what features they include, and that may be where the decision lies as to which one is “best” for a given photographer.

Factors to consider might be that Nikon and Canon probably have the largest line of available lenses and accessories, plus all the 3rd party lens makers make their lenses in Nikon and Canon mounts. Both Nikon and Canon put image stabilization in their lenses rather than in the body and the best IS lenses probably offer a little better stabilization than you can get with the stabilization in the body (which Sony and Pentax use).

If you want the fastest frame rate then the Sony A65 is by far the fastest (10 frames/sec), However you do lose the optical viewfinder which is one feature that attracts many photographers to DSLRs in the first place. No electronic viewfinder can really rival the clarity of an optical viewfinder.

The Pentax DSLRs offer the fastest shutter speed (1/6000s vs 1/4000s for the others) and the K-50 offers better weathersealing than the other entry-level DSLRs. They both use a pentaprism rather than the cheaper pentamirror found in the other entry-level DSLRs, plus they offer a 100% coverage viewfinder.

The Nikon D3200 and D5200 offer very good 24MP sensors with excellent dynamic range.

In the Canon line, the EOS SL1 is the smallest and lightest APS-C DSLR available from any manufacturer.

Which one would I recommend? That would greatly depend on who I was recommending it to and what their needs were. There’s no “best” camera in this group. Some have more features than others, some are cheaper, some are smaller – it all depends on what features are most important to the buyer. There’s no camera here that I would “stay away from” or which would not be capable of recording high quality images.

The bottom line is that, given their price point of under $850 with a lens, none of these cameras offers everything you could possibly want (though I’d say all of them offer what you really need) and your decision would have to be based on what is important to you. Note that all these manufacturers make DSLRs with even more features – but at a higher cost of course.

Where to Buy

Photo.net’s partners have these camera kits available. Their prices are fair and you help to support photo.net.

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Original text ©2013 Bob Atkins.

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    • Very informative, Bob. I'll have to take a closer look at the Sony A65 for its frame rate advantage, articulated display and presumably better reliability.

       

      The EVF hasn't been an issue for me using other Sony cameras. Its "boost" feature under extremely low light also comes in handy for framing which I imagine the A65 does as well. 

       

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    • Another nicety on the Pentax K-50 or K-500 that other entry-level models generally lack is dual e-dials.  Most entry-level models offer just one in front or back, but like on the predecessor K30, Pentax offers two, just like the up-market models.  This is particularly useful for manual mode (separate dials for shutter speed & aperture without the need to press or hold a button to switch between), and can also be useful in other modes, where the second dial might be configured for exposure comp or ISO control.

       

      I would say that a bigger advantage of the EVF than high framerate on the Sony models would be the ability to shoot video with the eye-level viewfinder.  It would also allow other typical EVF niceties like instant review without lowering the camera, and maybe full information including live histogram, possibly brighter (but slower/noisier) view in low light, or increasing magnification for critical focus?

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    • One advantage of the SONY sensors typically used by Nikon and Pentax, as well as SONY of course, is the fact images can be underexposed several stops and pushed in Light Room or other software, to a remarkable degree while maintaining excellent shadow detail without noise or banding.

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    • I like that you do not recommend one particular brand/model of camera, because what people need or want depends on many factors. My advice is always to go to friends or a shop and pick the cameras up, use them. There is a lot of personal preference, personal shooting style etc etc.

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    • The Sony sensors (as used by Sony, Nikon and maybe some others) do have a wider dynamic range than some others, but typically at the low ISO settings, not high ISO settings. You also have to be shooting in RAW mode to take advantage of it. You can "push" the RAW files to give you good images from underexposed RAW files, but generally they are only better than, say, the Canon sensors at the lowest ISO settings (maybe 100-400). That means they aren't better when the light gets really low and you have to dial up the ISO setting. It doesn't give you any extra speed at the high ISO end of the range, but it can be useful, for example, when creating an HDR image from a single RAW file shot at low ISO.

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    • Hi, I think this page needs updating (unless there is a 2014/2015 version of it already that I missed).

      With Nikon upgrading all their entry-level models to 24MP and removing OLPF on D3300/5300, there is an implication on lens costs. These hi-res cameras exaggerate any small nuances of the lens. Only expensive lenses perform well on them. It has an implication to overall cost.

      Thanks.

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