Cameras have never been better or cheaper than they are today. Additionally, filmmaking is more accessible than ever, and it’s never been easier to get your work out there and seen. So, what’s stopping you? No matter where you are in your career, count yourself lucky to live in 2021–truly a golden era of filmmaking!
Strangely, however, there are some potential downsides to this newfound accessibility. With so many camera options, trying to choose the right model when you’re looking to buy a new one can feel a little overwhelming. YouTube is swamped with reviews of all the new, shiny cameras being released almost daily–each one claiming it’s the ‘perfect DSLR for you.’ So, how do you pick?
To help you out, we’ve put together a quick guide and a list of contenders for the best DSLR camera for 2021.
What is a DSLR camera?
Standing for ‘Digital Single-Lens Reflex’, the DSLR camera uses the same design as the past 35mm film cameras.
Once the light has passed through a DSLR lens, it hits a mirror angled at 45 degrees and bounces straight up into a viewfinder. Looking through the viewfinder, you’ll see exactly what the lens is seeing at that moment. No digital processing involved.
When you click the shutter, the angled mirror swings out of the way and reveals the image sensor behind it, making a satisfying ‘ker-chunk’ noise. The light hits the sensor, and voilà, you have your photo.
Despite the predictions we’ve been hearing for years from certain corners of the industry that ‘mirrorless cameras will kill DSLRs and take over,’ we’re still waiting for that dreaded day to come. In 2021, DSLR options are still going strong for several reasons, including their low-light capabilities, rugged build and pleasing ergonomics, great battery life, autofocus, and variety of lens options.
For more on this great debate, check out our article about DSLR vs. Mirrorless, which discusses the merits of both and which one is best for you.
Things to look out for
Before we get into the list, there are a few things you should look out for when picking out your DSLR:
Price: When on the hunt for the best DSLR camera, remember that the most expensive camera does not equate to the best photos, films, and video. While more money will generally ensure higher quality and more features, there are lots of other factors to consider here. If you do your research, you could walk away with a camera that does everything you need it to do without breaking the bank.
Interface and controls: The best DSLRs are the ones that offer you everything you need but remain relatively simple and easy to come to grips with. You want to make sure your DSLR camera provides all the features you need and ‘feels right.’
Autofocus: While shooting manual is really important (it will improve you as a filmmaker by sharpening your eye), autofocus (AF) in 2021 is a must. Not every DSLR nails AF, so take the time to research and test each system, as well as weighing how important autofocus is for you and the work you’re doing.
Sensor size: Whichever DSLR you opt for, you want it to be great at what it does. Image quality is always going to be important, and sensor size is a huge factor in determining the quality of imagery your camera will deliver. The larger the sensor, the more light it can capture and the more information it can record. The more information that goes to the camera’s image processor, the greater the resulting image’s dynamic range. This means your shadows and highlights capture more details, resulting in better image quality.
Lens options: Knowing you have a broad array of lenses to choose from is a big deal when picking a new DSLR. From wide to telephoto, lenses are almost as important as the DSLR itself! Take the time to research each brand and understand what lenses are available to you with each.
Now that you know what to look for, let’s take a look at our contenders for the very best DSLR camera for 2021.
Megapixels: 24.5 | Resolution: 6000 x 4000 | Sensor: CMOS | Autofocus: 11-point AF | Screen type: 3-inch fixed screen | Video resolution: 1080p full HD | Viewfinder: Pentamirror | User level: Beginner
Image by 昼落ち
The Nikon D3500 is basic, and that’s why it’s perhaps the best DSLR camera for beginners. Think of it as the camera you’re looking for when upgrading from shooting on a smartphone. It offers an excellent combination of image quality, a lightweight body, and advanced menu systems, all packaged at an affordable, accessible price.
|Long battery life||A little basic for some users|
|Very affordable price||No touchscreen or LCD tilt|
|Built-in user guide and menu that’s very user-friendly||No 4K option for video|
Megapixels: 24.2 | Resolution: 8256 x 5504 | Sensor: APS-C CMOS | Autofocus: 39-point AF | Screen type: 3.2 fully articulated tilted touchscreen | Video resolution: 1080p full HD | Viewfinder: Pentaprism | User level: Enthusiast/intermediate</
Image by Michael Kramer
In short, the Nikon D5600 is the big brother of the D3500. It’s right up there as one of the best DSLR cameras in 2021. Despite its polish and high quality, it remains very easy to master and use. Boasting more power than the previous option, additional features such as a fully tilting, articulate touchscreen and impressively fast autofocus, it’s a great choice at the current price point.
|Great image quality||No 4K|
|Touchscreen, tilting LCD||More expensive than the D3500|
|Very fast, accurate autofocus||No dust or weather sealing|
Megapixels: 45.7 | Resolution: 6000 x 4000 | Sensor: Full-frame CMOS | Autofocus: 153-point AF | Screen type: 3.2-inch diagonal tilted touchscreen | Video resolution: 4K | Viewfinder: Pentaprism | User level: Professional/expert
Image by Gdonpadlan
The Nikon D850 is the ‘big daddy’ of the DSLR world, sitting on top of the pile. It comes packed with a tonne of versatile features, including incredibly fast autofocus, a rugged weather-sealed build, 4K video (the first of the Nikon DSLRs to offer this), and brilliant battery life. In summary, the D850 has often been described as the best DSLR ever produced. Unsurprisingly then, the price tag fits the bill.
|High ISO performance||Very expensive|
|Wide dynamic range||Live view AF speed is a little slow|
|Incredibly fast AF speed||30 minute video clip limit and no 4K @60fps|
Megapixels: 24.2 | Resolution: 6000 x 4000 | Sensor: Full-frame CMOS | Autofocus: 153-point AF | Screen type: 3.2-inch diagonal tilted touchscreen | Video resolution: 4K | Viewfinder: Pentaprism | User level: Professional/expert
Image by joergens.mi
The Pentax K-70 is a left-field option when compared with the usual mainstream suspects of Canon and Nikon. However, we think it is a fantastic DSLR. Pentax is well known for introducing high-end features (typically seen in more expensive, premium models) to the lower entry-level. What we love most is the weather-sealing and really strong, rugged build quality–features often missing when it comes to other DSLRs at this price point. If you’re shooting outdoors in the elements a lot, this could be perfect.
|Competitive price||Video specs not quite as good as other competitors|
|Solid, rugged build that’s perfect for shooting outdoors||Continuous autofocus in video is pretty poor|
|Anti-shake capabilities||Lens options are not mainstream like Canon or Nikon, etc.|
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Canon EOS Rebel T8i/EOS 850D
Megapixels: 24.1 | Resolution: 6000 x 4000 | Sensor: CMOS | Autofocus: 45-point AF | Screen type: 3.0-inch fully articulated tilted touchscreen | Video resolution: 4K (cropped) | Viewfinder: Optical Pentaprism | User level: Enthusiast/intermediate
The Japanese model of the EOS 850D. Image by 昼落ち
The dizzying number of DSLR options on offer from Canon can be overwhelming. However, the Canon 850D really stands out as one of the best DSLR cameras going into 2021. As expected from Canon, the image quality is fantastic–really sharp and clear. Additionally, you’ve got the option of shooting in 4K, which is always useful (although it’s heavily cropped on the sensor). There are some interesting additional features such as Face Detection tracking in viewfinder shooting–a new addition that’s quite rare for DSLRs. In general, the autofocus on this model is brilliantly fast.
|Touchscreen, tilting LCD||Plastic build can feel a little cheap|
|Quick and reliable autofocus with face and eye detection||Certain 4K limitations with frame crop|
Canon EOS 90D
Megapixels: 32.5 | Resolution: 6960 x 4640 | Sensor: CMOS | Autofocus: 45-point AF | Screen type: 3.0-inch fully articulated tilted touchscreen | Video resolution: 4K (3840 x 2160) | Viewfinder: Pentaprism | User level: Enthusiast/intermediate
Image by TPatSS
|4K resolution (uncropped, up to 30p)||Very pricey|
|Touchscreen, tilting LCD||A little bulky and heavier compared to other options|
|Good, solid build and weather sealing||No image stabilisation|
Although a little pricey, the Canon EOS 90D is a prime competitor for the best DSLR camera for 2021. Along with compatibility with Canon glass (especially useful for improving on low-light shooting), it’s packed full of features such as the high-resolution sensor, tilting touchscreen, and smooth, speedy performance. Moreover, it punches heavier than the Canon EOS 850D in its ability to shoot 4K completely uncropped, making full use of that nice, big sensor.