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The Best Entry-Level DSLR Today

By Tim Barribeau, Wirecutter

The Nikon D3300 is, simply put, the best low-end DSLR on the market. It combines some of the best image quality we’ve ever seen at this price with excellent battery life, easy to use controls, and a guide mode to help you learn to use it—all for the extremely reasonable price of $650. Mirrorless cameras are still more portable, but if image quality is your focus, you can’t beat the D3300 for the price.

The Nikon D3300 is, simply put, the best low-end DSLR on the market. It combines some of the best image quality we’ve ever seen at this price with excellent battery life, easy to use controls, and a guide mode to help you learn to use it—all for the extremely reasonable price of $650. Mirrorless cameras are still more portable, but if image quality is your focus, you can’t beat the D3300 for the price.

Photo credit: Flickr user hrns via Creative Commons.

Last year, when we put together a previous version of this recommendation, we begrudgingly said the Canon SL1 was the best pick. But honestly, none of them were really worth it as they were all too expensive, lacked image quality, or didn’t have the features we wanted. That has now changed thanks to the D3300. Just look at these comparison photos—it’s not even close.

But, for a lot of people, a mirrorless camera will do just as well as a DSLR.

But, for a lot of people, a mirrorless camera will do just as well as a DSLR. If you’re looking for something smaller, lighter, and more affordable, an entry-level mirrorless camera will provide you with the same sharp, bright images as this camera. You just won’t have an optical viewfinder or quite as many lenses to choose from.

Why you should trust me

I’m the Wirecutter’s camera editor and have been writing professionally about cameras since 2008. My work’s appeared on DPReview, PopPhoto, Imaging Resource, and Reviewed.com—not to mention the dozens of recommendations I’ve written here for the Wirecutter.

How we picked

An entry-level DSLR right now has to do a lot. It has to be affordable enough for someone’s first foray into more advanced photography. It has to have excellent image quality, including low noise and a wide dynamic range. It has to be easy enough to use that someone who has never used one before can learn how to handle it, but at the same time it still has to have the advanced manual controls that they can graduate into.

Recently, these low cost cameras have all been struggling in one or more of these fields, but with the Nikon D3300, enough criteria have been met that we can confidently recommend it as the best option for a low-cost DSLR.

Our Pick

The D3300 has some of the best image quality for its price, excellent battery life, and a guide mode for beginners. The controls are easy to use but include all the manual controls needed to scale with you.

The Nikon D3300 is Nikon’s newest low-cost model, introduced earlier this year, almost two years after the older Nikon D3200. It has some of the best image quality around for its price; has fantastic features like in-camera panorama mode and 5 fps shooting speed; and is designed so that it’s easy enough for a total newbie to use (but with all the manual controls they could need as they get more and more comfortable).

Where the Nikon D3300 excels compared to its primary competition is the fact that right now, Nikon is putting better sensors into its low-end cameras.

Where the Nikon D3300 excels compared to its primary competition (that’s Canon) is the fact that right now, Nikon is putting better sensors into its low-end cameras. Canon essentially hasn’t updated the sensor that it uses in years, leading to mostly unchanged image performance since the T3i. To put it bluntly, the D3300 takes nicer photographs. When you go out and shoot with it, you’ll be able to get a wider array of lights and darks in a single image without the lights getting overexposed and washed out or the shadows underexposed and just becoming black. And if you have to crank the ISO sensitivity up to shoot in low light, you’ll see less of the speckling of digital noise than you would with the competition.

Photo credit: Flickr user hrns via Creative Commons.

To get a feel for just how much better the D3300 is than the competition, have a look at this shootout between the Nikon and the Canon SL1. The comparisons show that the Nikon D3300 is sharper and has less color fringing around areas of high contrast, which is important for getting your images as clean and accurate as possible. A lot of this is thanks to Nikon’s new collapsible 18-55 mm lens, which not only helps keep the camera’s size down when not in use, but seems to offer some pretty fantastic optics. The downside of the new lens is that you can lose precious time extending it before shooting—but if that’s really an issue, you can just leave it extended.

It’s more than just the lens which makes the difference. You can see here a direct comparison between the image quality of the D3300, the Canon SL1, and the Sony a58. These numbers come from DxOMark, who do detailed and in-depth testing of the RAW data from the sensor to compare between cameras. And what they found is that the Nikon can get 1.5 stops of extra dynamic range than the Canon: that means you should have a substantial amount more information in the highlights and shadows without it getting lost. The low light capabilities are likewise significantly better on the Nikon (⅔ of a stop). That means that ISO 1250 on the Nikon D3300 looks as good as ISO 800 on the Canon SL1. And the better color score means that the Nikon is more able to capture subtle variations in coloring for smoother, cleaner looking images.

PCMag’s review commented that the details in the image remain clear at ISO 1600 and that there’s only “a little bit of evidence of smudging at ISO 3200.” It goes on to say “Quality does start to drop off at ISO 6400, but I’d not hesitate to use that sensitivity for Web sharing, even when shooting in JPG. It’s not until you get to ISO 12800 and 25600 that detail is washed away entirely.”

Photo credit: Flickr user hrns via Creative Commons.

If you’re looking at the JPEG images coming out of the Nikon D3300, you might notice that they’re a bit better for image noise than the from the D3200, but this is mostly due to improvements in processing over the years. As CNET explains: “ISO 3200 JPEGs look a lot less noisy than their counterparts from the D3200, but the raw files seem to clean up about the same, pointing mostly to the inevitable improvements in Nikon’s image processing over the past two years.”

The D3300 also has a number of features in both software and hardware that make for an excellent pick. Part of that is that Nikon rolled out a new generation of image processor with the D3300, which boosts the continuous shutter speed to 5 fps. That’s faster than the Canon SL1 and Canon T5 and on par with the more expensive Canon T5i. Nikon has also figured out how to use that high speed to good effect, adding an in-camera Panorama mode. You can see an example shot from it here, and it works as simply as you could imagine. Just pan across a scene while shooting, and the whole thing will be stitched together, just like in your iPhone, but with much higher quality.

Photo credit: Flickr user mworkznet via Creative Commons.

Nikon has also upped the video capabilities of the D3300, pushing it up to 1920×1080 at a number of frame rates: 60p, 50p, 30p, 25p, 24p.

The D3300 is rated for 700 shots on a single charge, where Canon’s options run from 380-600…

The D3300 also packs some of the longest battery life around, significantly surpassing that of its Canon competition. The D3300 is rated for 700 shots on a single charge, where Canon’s options run from 380-600, depending on model and how you shoot with the thing. But an extra 100 shots over the Canon T5? And double the number of shots from the Canon SL1? That’s a huge improvement that means more time out with your camera and less time waiting for the damned battery to charge.

Nikon’s low-end DSLRs also use a special shooting tool called “Guide Mode”, which is used to hold your hands with some of the technical settings rather than dropping you in the deep end of the more traditional PASM modes. And then, once you have a handle on things, you can switch over. TechRadar says the Guide Mode is “excellent”, and CNET explains the implementation:

“Nikon has redesigned the Guide Mode a bit. Guide offers Easy operation, which, like Auto, provides access to a limited number of options, as well as an Advanced mode, which describes the appropriate settings for the chosen scenario and then allows you to change the settings yourself. For instance, in Easy Operation/Distant Subjects it puts you into the Sports scene mode — the camera tells you what it’s doing, which is really nice — then asks if you want to use the viewfinder, Live View or shoot a movie. From there, it optionally allows you to adjust flash, release (drive) mode, and ISO sensitivity. The options are still not specific to the scenarios, however, which would be useful.”

Photo credit: Flickr user mworkznet via Creative Commons.

There is one other feature that changed from the D3200 to the D3300, but the jury’s still out on if it made much of a difference. There’s a trend in cameras right now to remove the optical low pass filter (OPLF), also known as an anti aliasing (AA) filter. What this filter does is make the image a tiny bit softer to prevent moiré when photographing fine patterns. A number of cameras have now removed the filter to boost image sharpness by a small degree.

But it’s up for debate if it makes a notable improvement or not. What Digital Camera’sreview claimed that it made a difference, saying “The fact that the D3300′s sensor features a resolution of 24MP – and is missing an anti-alias filter – means that the model delivers a level of detail that far exceeds a lot of rival models both in the DSLR class and competing [mirrorless cameras].” TechRadar claims “with its AA filter-less design, is capable of producing more detail than the previous version of the camera,” and PhotographyBlog said the improvement is minor, saying it “resulted in very slightly improved rendition of fine details without introducing unwanted moire effects, while the extended ISO range makes the camera a little more adaptable in low-light.” While if it does make a difference, it’s probably not huge, the choice certainly doesn’t seem to hurt.

Photo credit: Flickr user hrns via Creative Commons.

Who else liked it

CNet said the D3300 has “Very good photo quality for its class plus decent performance make the Nikon D3300 A solid choice for a first dSLR.” ePhotoZine says that it“delivers impressive image quality with a more compact kit lens that delivers great results” and “is, without doubt, capable of producing impressive images, with excellent noise performance.”

What Digital Camera said “the model delivers a level of detail that far exceeds a lot of rival models both in the DSLR class and competing [mirrorless cameras]…On the whole, if you’re looking for an entry-level DSLR with a high resolution yet don’t want to break the bank then the D3300 surely has to be worthy of consideration.”

”..we can continue to highly recommend the new Nikon D3300 as a great camera for beginners who want a little more oomph from their DLSR…”

DxOMark commented: “Signal quality of the Nikon D3300 sensor compares well against other APS-C models in the line-up and it outshines that of rival entry-level models. Although the results are similar to its predecessor, the removal of the AA filter promises improved sensor resolution. Combine that with the revised features and capability and the new Nikon D3300 looks better value than ever.” And PhotographyBlog added, “we can continue to highly recommend the new Nikon D3300 as a great camera for beginners who want a little more oomph from their DLSR, and who are prepared to spend a little extra to get it.”

PCMag said “The Nikon D3300 is a solid entry-level SLR. It’s geared towards photographic neophytes, and its Guide setting is a good way for folks who don’t have the desire to learn the ins and outs of camera jargon to capture life’s moments in high quality. Its image quality is very good, even in low light, and even though the bundled zoom has some issues with distortion and doesn’t capture as much light as others, it’s a good starter lens.”

Trusted Reviews called it an “[e]xcellent value” and said it had “[g]reat performance for [an] entry-level camera;” TechRadar said it’s “[a]n excellent buy for those who want to purchase their first DSLR.”

CameraLabs maybe did the best job of laying out the D3300’s strengths, saying “It’s unlikely that’ll be enough to tempt existing D3200 owners to upgrade, but that’s not really the issue. For Nikon the question is can they outrun the competition not just from Canon’s entry level EOS SL1 / 100D, but the onslaught from mirrorless system cameras, an increasingly popular choice for improving photographers looking to move up from a compact or phone.”

Flaws (but not dealbreakers)

There are still a couple of things that are a bit less than fantastic than the D3300, but none of them are enough to outweigh its strengths. One oddball exclusion that’s found in a lot of low-end DSLRs is the lack of Wi-Fi. It’s something that’s found in even some of the cheapest point-and-shoot cameras on the market, but the Nikon D3300requires a bulky adapter (or something like an Eye-Fi card) to make it happen. But for what it’s worth, Nikon’s hardly the only culprit here: neither the Canon SL1 or the T5i pack Wi-Fi either.

Where Nikon is a bit behind is in screen technology. Most of the competition has either slightly higher resolution LCDs (1,044,000 dots to the 921,000 on the D3300), hinged screens, or touchscreens (or any combination of the above). Again, its screen is not a dealbreaker, but the screen could have been done better, and if a touchscreen is done right, it can be a handy tool, especially for choosing focus points.

While the Nikon D3300 has a new sensor from the D3200, there’s been almost no discernable improvement in image quality between the two—which isn’t a big deal, since they’re both still better than the competition.

The D3300’s autofocus system isn’t quite as nice as that on the $50 more expensive Canon T5i, which features 9 AF points, all of which are cross-type (cross-type AF points are faster and more accurate). The D3300 has 11 AF points overall, but only one of them is a cross-type.

There’s also the matter of size. The Nikon D3300 is about average size for an entry-level DSLR, but compared to a mirrorless camera you can get for the same price, it’s much bigger and much heavier. It’s solely down to a matter of preference if you’ll take one over the other, and we delve more into the differences below.

The Competition

Nikon’s biggest competition in this section of the market comes from Canon, whose Rebel line has long been the first port of call for low-end DSLRs. Previously, we recommended the pint sized Canon SL1, which, as far as DSLRs go, is absolutely tiny. However, the tiny size is just about only thing that gains it points over the D3300. Its photos are markedly worse, its kit lens is lower quality, it has a lower resolution sensor, it takes images slower, it has fewer video modes, and it gets approximately half the battery life of the D3300. In its favor, it has a higher-resolution touchscreen, faster AF in Live View mode, and a slightly larger viewfinder.

The Canon T5i is more of a direct comparison model to the D3300 in size and price. It has an MSRP of $850, but will generally set you back $700, slightly above the $650 that Nikon asks for the D3300. It shares the same crummy image sensor as the SL1, which the D3300 handily beats, as well as the fewer shots per battery charge. But it does have a hinged touchscreen and more cross type AF points. But once the D3300 starts to drop below MSRP, it’ll get even cheaper, and the Nikon really does take substantially better photos.

The Canon T5 is just dreadful…the same mediocre image sensor its been using since 2011’s T3i.

The Canon T5 is just dreadful. Canon has taken the same mediocre image sensor its been using since 2011’s T3i or thereabouts, slapped it into a case with a processor that’s a couple of years old, a super low-res 460,000 dot LCD display, a mediocre AF system, a max burst rate of 3 fps, and a top ISO of 6400. Yeah, the MSRP of $550 is low, but that’s the same street price as the Canon SL1, which is a much better Canon camera, and definitely not worth the $100 savings over the D3300. But you know what? We bet this thing is going to be in every Black Friday sale this year, and will probably move like gangbusters. If you really want, you can still pick up a Canon T3i for a song if you look around, and it’s actually got better specs than the T5 thanks to a higher-res screen and faster burst. If you want a cheap Canon SLR with years old systems, just buy that and save your money.

The Sony a58 takes good photos, but doesn’t have a true optical viewfinder, relying on electronic instead. And you know what? The optical viewfinder is one of the few compelling arguments for a DSLR over a mirrorless camera. If you don’t have that, just get mirrorless.

Ricoh/Pentax options are another interesting alternative. The K-50 and K-500 are all but identical, except the K-50 is weather-sealed and the K-500 can use AA batteries if needed. Pentax is famed for putting high-end features into low-end models, so these guys both feature really high-quality viewfinders, built-in AF motors, built-in image stabilization, fast shutter speeds, and more. But neither has many of the features new users seem to want, like a really good guide mode or plentiful video controls. More broadly speaking, we’re also a little worried about Pentax as a DSLR company. All the imaging companies have been suffering from poor sales over the last few years, and Pentax has been hit worse than most. It was bought up by Ricoh not too long ago. Hopefully the venerable company keeps itself going, but we’re just saying to keep an eye on it.

Why not just buy a mirrorless camera?

That’s a very, very good question. It’s a tough choice between a mirrorless camera and a DSLR, as each of them provides a very different set of strengths and weaknesses—but all of them take excellent photos.

Generally speaking, a mirrorless camera will be significantly smaller and lighter than a DSLR, but with equivalent image quality.

Generally speaking, a mirrorless camera will be significantly smaller and lighter than a DSLR, but with equivalent image quality. Mirrorless cameras tend to have more modern feature sets that include touchscreens, Wi-Fi integration, and focus peaking, and they generally run on the more affordable side. You can get a solid, entry-level mirrorless camera around the $500 mark, where usually the DSLRs are worth checking out for more than $650. But: they tend to focus more slowly than DSLRs, the small size means shooting for long periods can be uncomfortable for your hands, there are fewer lenses to choose from, and you’re limited to either no, or electronic, viewfinders, which are generally seen as inferior to optical ones.

If you’ve come of age shooting digital cameras where you’re more used to holding your camera out from your body and looking at the screen, rather than up against your eye, you might not even miss not having a viewfinder on a low end model. And a portable, light camera that you’re likely to take with you everywhere might be a better match than a bulkier DSLR that you might end up leaving sitting on the shelf. Honestly, for a beginner user, a smaller, lighter mirrorless camera makes a lot of sense over a DSLR. If you’re interested in what your options are, have a look over our Which Camera Should I Get guide.

What about lenses?

The Nikon D3300 comes with a collapsible 18-55 mm lens, which is a great start to your photography. But when you want to invest more heavily in lenses for different situations, or for better optical quality, here’s a guide to some really good beginner’s glass for Nikon.

What makes a good low end DSLR?

A good, low-end DSLR needs to be appropriately affordable, it has to have excellent image quality and it has to have the features and interface to make it attractive to a newbie user. So: images need to be clean and noise free even when shooting high ISOs in low light; there needs to be a wide range of lights to darks in a single image; and the included kit lens needs to take sharp images free from excessive color fringing.

It also needs to be approachable by new users, it needs to show them how to use the camera, and then introduce them to more manual features so that they can move into more advanced settings. It also needs to have bells and whistles that will draw in point-and-shoot users, like panoramas, HDR, and retro filters. We’d like to see wider use of touchscreens and Wi-Fi, too. And it has to get all of that into a camera that’ll set you back less than $700.

Care and maintenance

Luckily, DSLRs don’t require a lot of looking after. They’re designed to live through some pretty heavy use.

Luckily, DSLRs don’t require a lot of looking after. They’re designed to live through some pretty heavy use. Don’t go drop-kicking it off a cliff or anything, but a quick wipe down if splattered should do it well enough, as long as the front of the lens is kept clean. Just be very careful when changing lenses, as that’s when the real damage can happen, with grime getting inside your camera.

For a more detailed look at how to clean your camera, have a read of our article that focuses specifically on that.

The D3300 comes with a one-year limited warranty for defects, which can be extended by another two years. This is on par with other cameras, and if you’re worried about damage from the aforementioned drop-kicking, we’d recommend going with a third-party insurance option.

What to look forward to

Canon and Nikon are bound to keep battling it out over low-end DSLR supremacy. While Nikon’s probably going to go quiet for a year or two with the D3300 being released so recently, we’ll probably see something new from Canon in the not-too-distant future—potentially either at Photokina in September or next year’s CES. We’ll probably also see more offerings from Pentax, and maybe from Sony—we’re not as sure on them, though, as they seem to be focusing more on the mirrorless market.

Photo credit: Flickr user hrns via Creative Commons.

Wrapping it up

The Nikon D3300 is currently the best budget DSLR around. It has a list price of $650, but will hopefully be soon dropping below that margin. It combines some of the best image quality you’ll see at this price with handy features like in-camera panoramas and a guide mode to help new users. And at the end of the day, it just takes fantastic photos.

This guide originally appeared on The Wirecutter on 4/13/14 and is republished here with permission.