Nikon D3400 Review

(From $497.00 Best)

The Nikon D3400 may lack extra features like Wi-Fi and a touchscreen, but this surprisingly compact DSLR takes great-looking photos and has truly remarkable battery life.

Pros: The Nikon D3400 (starting at $497; available on Amazon) is a good beginner's DSLR, according to an expert from Digital Camera HQ. It has a large 24.2-megapixel image sensor and a decent burst mode of 5 frames per second. The most impressive feature, though, is the battery, which can snap up to 1,200 shots on a single charge. This reviewer says the specifications are superior to rival Canon's EOS Rebel T6 link to capsule almost across the board.

A reviewer from TechRadar also likes the incredibly compact D3400. The autofocus is pretty quick and the image quality is very good. The auto white balance feature does an especially solid job, and the vibration reduction system available via the kit lens works just as well as the stabilization systems in similar competing cameras.

Cons: According to the TechRadar reviewer, the Nikon D3400 may be slightly slower to focus in live view, and low-light conditions also present focusing challenges at times. There's said to be some softness in photos shot at the wide-angle end of the included lens' range. However, most photos show high detail and accurate color, and a lens upgrade (there are many to choose from) can produce extraordinary results. Finally, the D3400 lacks a few of the convenience features found on some other cameras: A moveable, touchscreen LCD and Wi-Fi support aren't part of the bargain here.

Features: The Nikon D3400 has an APS-C type CMOS sensor that measures 23.5 x 16 millimeters -- a tiny bit larger than that of most competing budget DSLRs -- and the ISO range is 100 to 25600, about as wide as you'll find on a budget camera. The shutter speeds are the usual 1/4000th of a second to 30 seconds. Naturally, the D3400 has a slew of scene modes and white-balance settings, including landscape, portrait, sports, fluorescent, shade, and so on. The 3-inch LCD on the back is a standard size. The camera shoots video at 1080p, but unlike most budget DSLRs, it can record at up to 60 fps rather than the usual 30 fps. It supports SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards. Although the camera lacks Wi-Fi, it does have Bluetooth and Nikon's SnapBridge feature lets users wirelessly transfer photos to a smartphone or tablet. The camera also has an USB port and an HDMI out port.

Takeaway: The entry-level Nikon D3400 may not have every feature that advanced users might like, but it's a pretty powerful performer that takes very nice-looking photos. And it can take a lot of photos on a single charge; in fact, the stalwart battery may be this cheap camera's strongest selling point.

Where to buy

Pentax K-S2 Review

(From $529.00 Best)

The Pentax K-S2 is a full-featured DSLR that includes built-in image stabilization, Wi-Fi, and NFC support, not to mention a large selection of shooting modes.

Pros: The Pentax K-S2 (starting at $529) offers a lot of bang for the buck, according to reviewers, who praise both its performance and its features. An expert from Photography Blog likes the articulating 3-inch LCD, which users can move into several positions to better take shots from any angle. The photos produced look very nice and are said to be vibrant, with warm colors and sharp detail. There's little noise in images even up to ISO 3200, and the extremely wide range (up to ISO 51200) means that it can capture "can't miss" shots in very poor light conditions. The quality will suffer, of course, but this reviewer suggests that photos come out fairly decent up to ISO 12800.

Trusted Reviews rates the Pentax K-S2 4 out of 5 stars. The reviewer found the image quality to be very good and agrees that the camera performs well in low light. Even greater praise is heaped upon the built-in optical image stabilization, which works no matter what lens is attached. A lauded 100 percent edge-to-edge viewfinder takes some of the guesswork out of image composition and may save a bit of cropping on the backend. The Pentax K-S2 is also one of the few cameras with weatherproofing to be found in the budget category.

Cons: The Photography Blog reviewer noticed a little purple fringing in high-contrast photos, but she also points out that this camera performs decently in natural light and very well under artificial light. On Trusted Reviews, the Pentax K-S2 is dinged slightly for lacking a touchscreen and for its HD video recording, which, at 30 fps, just isn't on par with budget competitors from Nikon.

Features: The Pentax K-S2 has a long list of specifications, including a 20.12MP APS-C CMOS image sensor, a burst mode that can fire off photos at about 5.5 fps, and shutter speeds from 1/6000 to 30 seconds. The camera also offers various picture modes, scene modes, and white-balance options, including night scene, sunset, landscape, moving object, food, toy camera, retro, shade, fluorescent light, and many more. The K-S2 includes Wi-Fi and NFC support, both of which are a cinch to use, according to reviews. A smartphone app even allows for remote shooting. The camera has an USB port and an HDMI out port, and it takes SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards. The battery stays strong for about 480 shots.

Takeaway: The Pentax K-S2 is a well-rounded camera that takes very good photos and performs admirably even in low light. It has no shortage of features, with a slew of shooting modes to choose from. Its built-in image stabilization is a welcome addition to any camera, as is wireless connectivity.

Where to buy

Canon EOS Rebel T6 Review

(From $449.00 Good)

The Canon EOS Rebel T6 is a solid entry-level DSLR. It's light on extra features, but for the low price, it's easy to use and delivers on the basics.

Pros: Canon's EOS Rebel line has been popular for years, and in general the cameras are good choices for DLSR first-timers. Buyers tend to give the Canon Rebel T6 (starting at $449; available on Amazon) high marks for ease of use. They like its interchangeable lenses and say photos turn out clear and bright even when sticking to the automatic settings. The camera's support for wireless connections and easy photo printing and sharing are also appreciated.

An expert from CNET agrees that, for the price, the Canon EOS Rebel T6 is worthy of praise. It lacks some of the bells and whistles of competitors in the DSLR class, but it's certainly better than a point-and-shoot model. Its photo and video quality are both good, especially when it comes to the camera's white balance, which is spot on. Digital photos in JPEG format are sharp through at least ISO 800, and the autofocus also feels pretty snappy in most cases, according to this reviewer.

Cons: While the Canon EOS Rebel T6 might win the People's Choice award, its specs generally fail to excite experts. The CNET reviewer points out that, with a continuous shooting speed of 3 fps -- the lowest of all the cameras we reviewed -- this camera can struggle when trying to lock on to fast-moving action, which might prove a deal breaker for consumers trying to capture exuberant kids on camera. Switching from picture mode to video mode via the menu can also be a slightly cumbersome process; a reviewer from TechRadar wishes there were a separate button to access the video function. The fixed LCD, which also lacks a touchscreen, is somewhat disappointing to experts as well.

Features: The Canon EOS Rebel T6 doesn't wow on the features front compared to competing DSLRs, or even earlier Rebel models, but it covers the basics. It has an 18MP APS-C CMOS image sensor, ISO settings from 100 to 6400 (expandable to 12800), and shutter speeds from 1/4000 to 30 seconds. It records 1080p video at 30 fps. While it's sparser than some others when it comes to scene modes and creative filters, users can expect to find the standard portrait, landscape, and sports settings, in addition to fisheye, miniature, and toy camera effects. The camera supports Wi-Fi and NFC connections, with remote control by smartphone possible via an app. It has an USB port and an HDMI out port, and uses SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards. The battery can last up to 600 photos.

Takeaway: The Canon EOS Rebel T6 is a decent entry to the budget DSLR market. Its price is attractive, and it's simple to operate even by novices' standards. More ambitious amateur photographers should be aware, however, that while this is a popular camera and a solid performer, it's a no-frills (or at least low-frills) model.

Where to buy

Nikon 1 J5 Review

(From $497.00 Good)

The Nikon 1 J5 mirrorless camera is a speedy performer, with a burst mode of 20 fps and lightning-fast autofocus. It also shoots 4K video, but at just 15 fps, it's a bit underwhelming.

Pros: The Nikon 1 J5 (starting at $497) is a mirrorless camera that's surprisingly powerful considering its small size. It's capable of firing off shots at a rate of 20 fps, the fastest of any camera we reviewed. That feature amazed an expert from Digital Trends, who was also impressed with the very fast autofocus: The camera locks on to images very quickly, so missed shots aren't likely to be an issue. The reviewer found the color accuracy very good, and the tilting 3-inch LCD touchscreen is also an attractive feature. The camera's support for Wi-Fi and NFC connections is appreciated as well.

A reviewer from PCMag is likewise impressed with the camera's fast focusing and blistering continuous shooting speed. This model is also said to be a cinch to use, making it ideal for those stepping up from a point-and-shoot or a smartphone. This expert vouches for the image quality of photos through ISO 800, though users should expect to see a little smudging at higher ISOs.

Cons: The biggest complaint the Digital Trends reviewer has against this camera concerns its paltry battery power. The J5 needs to be recharged after about 250 shots, which gives it the shortest battery life of any of our picks. Also, while the camera records nice, crisp 1080p video at 60ps, it can record its advertised 4K footage at only 15 fps, which results in choppy video that simply isn't that impressive, according to this expert. Finally, there's no hot shoe, so no option for adding an external flash, addition mic, or electronic viewfinder. The PCMag reviewer found that, occasionally, some pictures were just a little out of focus, although it's not that noticeable.

Features: The Nikon 1 J5 has a 1-inch back-illuminated 20.8MP CMOS image sensor. Alongside its super-fast continuous shooting mode, it has a wider range of shutter speeds than most cameras, from 1/16000 to 30 seconds. The ISO range is from 160 to 12800. The 3-inch LCD is a touchscreen with a robust 1,037,000-dot resolution, and it tilts up to 180 degrees. The camera has many familiar shooting and creative modes, including night portrait, landscape, retro, sepia, toy camera, and portrait. The white-balance settings address light variations such as cloudy, shade, and incandescent, among others. The camera has a USB port and an HDMI out port, and supports SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards.

Takeaway: Considering its low price, features and performance of this speedy little mirrorless model don't fail to impress. The Nikon 1 J5 should appeal to users who often shoot fast-moving action and want a camera with connectivity that makes printing and sharing shots just as quick. If overall image quality or 4K video capability is the primary draw, it might be better to look elsewhere.

Where to buy

Pentax Q-S1 Review

(From $205.00 Think Twice)

The Pentax Q-S1 is a cheap mirrorless camera with an attractive design. But its image quality isn't on par with the competition, it lacks features like Wi-Fi, and the battery life is lackluster.

Pros: The Pentax Q-S1 mirrorless camera (starting at $205, body only) is a bit of a mixed bag, according to reviewers. There's plenty to like about this little camera, but there are certainly caveats, as well. An expert from PCMag points out that the Q-S1 is cheaper than many competing models, and the camera does have built-in optical image stabilization, which means any lens attached will benefit from it. A reviewer at EPhotozine likes the compact, stylish design and notes that the camera body manages to fit quite a number of controls and buttons. This reviewer is also fairly satisfied with photos taken with the Pentax Q-S1, noting that images had nice detail with bright, highly saturated colors using the default settings. There is said to be little noise in photos up to ISO 800, and the auto white balance supposedly performs well too.

Cons: According to the PCMag expert, the image quality is below average -- more characteristic of a basic point-and-shoot than a mirrorless model. The camera is a little slow to focus on subjects, says this reviewer. Also, the LCD's resolution is only 460k dots, whereas the LCDs on most budget DSLRs have around 920k dots. Even the more positive assessment from EPhotozine has its share of gripes: The reviewer agrees that the camera's focus is slow and notes that the menu can be a bit much to scroll through, as it has five sections and numerous subsections. The 250-shot battery life is dinged for being on the low end compared with competitors, and a lack of Wi-Fi support is another drawback.

Features: The Pentax Q-S1 is a 12.4MP mirrorless camera with a 1/1.7-inch back-illuminated CMOS sensor. The continuous shooting mode is 5 fps, and the camera captures 1080p video at 30 fps. The ISO range of 100 to 12800 is pretty typical for a budget mirrorless camera. Shutter speeds range from 1/8000 to 30 secs. The Pentax Q-S1 has quite a few shooting and scene modes, such as night scene, forest, sunset, food, pet, and so on. It can accept Q-mount lenses as well as K-mount lenses if an adapter is used. The LCD on the back measures 3 inches. Although the camera has no Wi-Fi support, it can connect to a PC or TV via an HDMI out port or a USB 2.0 port. It takes SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards.

Takeaway: Design-wise, the Pentax Q-S1 delivers. It's a nice-looking camera that puts a lot of controls at users' fingertips. Its performance is a little lacking, however, and it's light on features. Experts agree there are many better choices in the budget category, especially for those willing to spend a little more.

Where to buy

Canon EOS M10 Review

(From $450.00 Think Twice)

The Canon EOS M10 packs in the features, but this mirrorless model fails to impress experts, mostly due to mediocre autofocus and just-good-enough image quality.

Pros: Canon is one of the top manufacturers of DSLR cameras, but most of its products are rather expensive. The Canon EOS M10 (starting at $450) is an affordable mirrorless model that's easy to operate and has some pretty decent features given its low price. It supports NFC as well as Wi-Fi, and the touchscreen display on the back of the camera flips up 180 degrees, which is good for taking selfies. The included lens has a slightly wider than usual range and is suitable for most situations, from portraits to landscapes. Built-in optical image stabilization is also a boon. An expert from Trusted Reviews says the focus is fairly fast in most conditions, though it does struggle somewhat in lower light.

Cons: The Canon EOS M10 is somewhat lacking in terms of what reviewers expect from Canon products. A reviewer from PCMag describes the quality of images taken with this camera as okay but hardly great. Although the kit lens produces pictures that are pretty sharp in the middle of the range, they show distortion at the telephoto and wide-angle ends of the lens. Also, while this reviewer says there's not a lot of noise in photos up to ISO 3200, which is pretty good, there is said to be some noticeable blurring even at ISO 400. The autofocus is on the slow side, as well, according to this expert.

Features: The Canon EOS M10 is a mirrorless camera that has an 18MP APS-C CMOS sensor with an ISO range from 100 to 12800 (expandable to 25600). In continuous shooting mode, it can snap photos at 4.6 fps. Shutter speeds range from 1/4000th of a second to 30 seconds. The Canon EOS M10 can capture video at 1080p, but at only 30 fps. The LCD measures 3 inches. The battery is good for about 255 shots, which is on the low side, but mileage varies depending on how the camera is used. The Canon EOS M10 has the usual filters and shooting modes, such as portrait, landscape, and monochrome, as well as a number of white-balance settings such as daylight, tungsten, shade, and fluorescent. The camera is compatible with SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards. It has a USB port and an HDMI output. Note: There is no hot shoe on this model for mounting external flashes or other accessories.

Takeaway: Canon cameras, even budget models, usually excel in image quality, but the EOS M10 doesn't quite live up to that standard. The photos aren't terrible, but they could be sharper, and the so-so autofocus performance in lower light is a drawback. Experts suggest that advanced users will find this mirrorless model fairly lackluster, although it may be a passable option for beginners.

Where to buy

Buying Guide

Compact point-and-shoot cameras and even smartphones are capable of taking fine pictures, but cheap DSLR cameras attract shutterbugs who crave something more. With a DSLR (which stands for digital single-lens reflex), you get a larger sensor for capturing higher-quality images. DSLRs also have removable, interchangeable lenses and generally boast more features and settings than point-and-shoot cameras. While these models tend to be more expensive, we researched expert reviews and considered consumer feedback to find top-quality cameras at relatively cheap prices.

Choosing a Cheap DSLR or Mirrorless Camera

DSLR vs. Mirrorless.

For this buying guide, we looked not only at cheap digital SLR cameras but also at compact system or mirrorless cameras, which have become popular in the past several years. These models have interchangeable lenses and are capable of shooting SLR-quality photos, but they're smaller and lighter than most DSLRs and operate a little differently. Basically, as you prepare to snap a picture with a DSLR, the image coming through the lens bounces off a mirror to an optical viewfinder, so you can see what you'll be shooting. When the shutter button is pressed, the mirror flips out of the way, and the image is captured on the sensor. (This design can be traced back to film SLRs.) Compact system cameras do away with the mirror and optical viewfinder in favor of an electronic viewfinder and/or LCD on the back of the camera. There are advantages and disadvantages to mirrorless cameras, as an expert at Photography Life explains in some detail, but many suspect that in the future they will largely replace DSLRs -- at least for the average consumer.

Still, our favorite cameras in this category are traditional DSLRs, led by the Nikon D3400 (starting at $497). It's a reliable performer with incredible battery life. We also like the Pentax K-S2 (starting at $529), a camera with lots of convenient features at a good price. The Canon EOS Rebel T6 (starting at $449) is another respectable DSLR but lacks some of the functionality found in competitors.

The best cheap mirrorless camera we found is the Nikon 1 J5 (starting at $497). The battery life is fairly short, but the overall performance is impressive. Reviewers are underwhelmed by the Canon EOS M10 (starting at $450) due to its so-so image quality. Reviewers also find the performance of the Pentax Q-S1 (starting at $205) to be lacking. The low price is for the body only; each of the other cameras includes a basic "kit" lens.

Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table

(from $497.00)
Type DSLR
Resolution 24.2MP
Sensor DX-format (APS-C type) CMOS 23.5 x 15.6 mm
Burst Rate 5 fps
ISO Range 100-25600
Image Stabilization In lens only
HD Video 1080p/60fps
Battery Life 1,200 photos
(from $529.00)
Type DSLR
Resolution 20.12MP
Sensor APS-C CMOS 23.5 x 15.6 mm
Burst Rate 5.5 fps
ISO Range 100-51200
Image Stabilization Built-in
HD Video 1080p/30fps
Battery Life 480 photos
(from $449.00)
Type DSLR
Resolution 18MP
Sensor APS-C CMOS 22.3 x 14.9 mm
Burst Rate 3 fps
ISO Range 100-6400 (expandable to 12800)
Image Stabilization In lens only
HD Video 1080p/30fps
Battery Life 500-600 photos
(from $497.00)
Type Mirrorless
Resolution 20.8MP
Sensor CX-format (1-inch type) BSI CMOS 13.2 x 8.8 mm
Burst Rate 20 fps
ISO Range 160-12800
Image Stabilization In lens only
HD Video 1080p/60fps 4K/15fps
Battery Life 250 photos
(from $450.00)
Type Mirrorless
Resolution 18MP
Sensor APS-C CMOS 22.3 x 14.9 mm
Burst Rate 4.6 fps
ISO Range 100-12800 (expandable to 25600)
Image Stabilization In lens only
HD Video 1080p/30fps
Battery Life 255 photos
(from $205.00)
Type Mirrorless
Resolution 12.4MP
Sensor BSI CMOS 1/1.7-inch (approx. 7.6 x 5.7 mm)
Burst Rate 5 fps
ISO Range 100-12800
Image Stabilization Built-in
HD Video 1080p/30fps
Battery Life 250 photos
(from $449.00)
Type Mirrorless
Resolution 16MP
Sensor Micro 4/3 Live MOS 17.3 x 13 mm
Burst Rate 8 fps
ISO Range 200 (100 extended) - 25600
Image Stabilization In lens only
HD Video 1080p/60fps 4K/30fps
Battery Life 360 photos

DSLR Camera Reviews: What We Considered

Digital SLR cameras are far more complicated than most consumer electronics, so we focused our research on reviews from expert sources. Unlike most consumers, experts have the advantage of reviewing and often conducting hands-on testing of a number of different cameras, so they know how one camera's performance compares to similar models.

There are several criteria by which one can judge a camera's abilities, but none is more important than the quality of the pictures it takes. In DSLR and mirrorless camera reviews, experts are adamant, not surprisingly, that color accuracy and sharp, clear images are essential. A manufacturer can load a digital SLR with all kinds of features and drop the price through the basement, but if it can't take good photos, no one's going to want it. The budget cameras we recommend consistently take sharp photos and deliver solid performance on the color front, with the Nikon 3400 and the Pentax K-S2 faring particularly well compared to the competition.

That said, there are a variety of features that should be considered when determining the best model for your individual needs. Experts point potential buyers to sensor type and size, as well as lens variations, as some of the most important variables affecting image quality. Everyday buyers also want a camera that's easy to use and performs reliably, with fast autofocusing and a robust continuous-shooting mode. The ability to capture high-definition video is also a boon.

Resolution.

Believe it or not, this is a feature that doesn't deserve much attention. Once upon a time, cameras with resolutions of more than 6MP were pretty pricey. Today, 16MP is merely the starting point for an entry-level DSLR. A sharp-looking 8x10 photo requires only about 5MP. At a resolution as high as 10MP, users can dramatically increase a photo's size while retaining sharp detail. All the cameras we researched have ample resolution for almost any photo task, ranging from about 12.4MP on the Pentax Q-S1 to about 24MP with the Nikon D3400. But again, the number of megapixels means very little in terms of performance. In fact, a camera with a higher resolution can easily produce lower-quality images.

Sensor.

As an expert at Gizmag explains, the conversation surrounding megapixels has distracted consumers from the real issue: sensor size. In general, the larger the image sensor, the better the picture quality. Expensive DSLR cameras very often have full-frame sensors, so-called because they are the same size as a 35-millimeter film frame. Cheap DSLRs use smaller APS-C image sensors. Many mirrorless cameras use another type of sensor known as Micro Four Thirds, which was developed specifically for digital systems and is the smallest of the three. Still, it dwarfs the sensors on point-and-shoot and smartphone cameras, is said to offer better performance, and can get quite expensive.

Sensor technology also tends to make a difference. Most of the cheap cameras reviewed here use CMOS technology. The backside illumination (BSI) the Nikon 1 J5 and Pentax Q-S1 employ is said to help their sensors capture more light and improve low-light shooting. Some mirrorless cameras from Olympus and Panasonic tout proprietary Live MOS sensors, which can be thought of as hybrids that harness the benefits of the CCD sensors generally found in budget compact cameras -- which produce less grainy images -- while delivering the speed typical of CMOS sensors. (EPhotozine offers a helpful and comprehensive guide to the different types of sensors; What Digital Camera provides a simpler, more bite-size briefing.)

ISO Range.

Consumers who remember shopping for film probably recall seeing a number on the box. That was the ISO, a fancy way to describe how sensitive film is to light. ISO 100 film produces very sharp, detailed photos but requires a lot of light, which may make it difficult to use indoors or at dusk. Film with a higher ISO, such as 800, is good for shooting indoors or in low light conditions but may produce grainy photos (an effect often called noise). Digital SLRs mimic those film speeds internally, with similar results: Higher ISO settings produce grainier photos, while lower ISOs need a lot of light.

Today's digital cameras offer wide ISO ranges, with the Pentax K-S2 touting the largest range among our picks, at 100-51200. While this model (on paper, at least) offers the most options for capturing those difficult action shots or after-dark images, the reality is that users should still expect grainy images at higher ISO settings: 3200 is the practical high-end limit in most shooting situations, and even that's a stretch. Low-light/high-ISO shooting is often a weak point of budget cameras, with their smaller sensors, and many of our other picks don't make it above ISO 800 before showing signs of image degradation. (Image processor performance, as well as stabilization features and built-in noise-reduction functions in some cameras, may help here.)

Interchangeable Lenses.

Whether DSLR or mirrorless, all the cameras we researched can be used with a variety of lenses, from telephoto lenses for zooming in on faraway subjects to wide-angle lenses for taking in beautiful landscapes. In many cases, a photographer can use the same lens on a $500 camera as on a $1,500 camera.

If you already own a lens or two -- even from an old film camera -- you may be able to save money by purchasing the body only. Regardless, you probably want to stick with the same brand when buying a new camera, because each company makes proprietary lenses and mounts. In other words, you can't take a Nikon lens and just pop it onto a Pentax camera -- it simply won't click into place.

Even cameras with the same brand name may have different lens mounts and different sets of compatible lenses. For example, the Canon EOS Rebel T6 uses Canon's venerable EF mounting system, whereas the Canon EOS M10 uses the EF-M mount, which is designed exclusively for mirrorless cameras. Canon offers an adapter that allows the EOS M10 to use EF lenses, but it runs about $160 or more (third-party adapters are significantly cheaper). In general, there may be focusing and communication issues with a non-native lens.

A final critical bit of information about lenses (and this is non-negotiable): Before using a new camera or lens, consumers should immediately buy a UV filter, screw it onto the lens, and leave it there. This simple added layer of protection costs as little as $6, whereas a replacement for a scratched lens can easily cost more than a cheap DSLR camera.

Response Time.

The DSLR reviews we read indicate that users want a camera with a fast autofocus. The last thing a photographer wants is to press the shutter button and wait a full second or more before the camera snaps the picture (a phenomenon called shutter lag). When it comes to autofocusing speed, the Nikon 1 J5 is the hands-down winner, according to experts from Digital Trends and PCMag.

Sometimes users may want to shoot several photos in a very short period of time -- for example, when photographing a fast-moving sporting event. This requires a camera capable of continuous shooting. Older digital SLRs could take only three or four photos in succession before they had to wait for their memory to catch up and process the images. Today's entry-level DSLRs are more robust when it comes to continuous shooting. Some even keep snapping photos the entire time the shutter button is held down, until the memory runs out.

The speed at which a camera captures all those images in succession is called the burst rate. It's rendered in frames per second (fps) and can vary considerably from one model to the next. Here, again, the Nikon 1 J5 is the most capable, with a burst rate of 20 fps. Most of the other cameras we looked at manage only around 5 fps.

Image Stabilization.

Here's a simple fact that any photographer must understand: A photo shot at a slow shutter speed will suffer the effects of camera shake. No matter how steady you think you're holding the camera, it's still shaking a little. Image stabilization corrects for this, helping prevent blurry images. Unlike some point-and-shoots, most DSLRs don't have optical image stabilization built into the body of the camera. Rather, that functionality often lies in the lens, so be sure to look for this feature in any additional lenses purchased. The Pentax K-S2 is a recommended DSLR that does include built-in optical image stabilization.

Viewfinder vs. LCD.

Point-and-shoot owners are used to composing photos with an LCD on the back of the camera. On a digital SLR this capability is known as "live view," and not all cheap DSLRs have it. Instead, users must look through a viewfinder to compose a photo. The best DSLR cameras for beginners, including the Nikon D3400 and Canon EOS Rebel T6, have live view in addition to an optical viewfinder. Conversely, most mirrorless models forgo a viewfinder, for the sake of keeping the camera small and lightweight, and rely exclusively on an LCD.

Although live view is an easy way to compose a picture, it can be difficult to see in bright light and drain the battery faster than using a viewfinder. The LCD image can also lag while a photo is being set up -- a problem that optical viewfinders don't have, as they simply show the scene as it bounces off the camera's mirror. Consumers who plan to take a lot of action photos will probably prefer a camera with an optical viewfinder. (There are more expensive mirrorless models that come with an electronic viewfinder built in. An EVF is like an additional mini LCD that mimics the function of an optical viewfinder on a DSLR. Some models also allow an EVF to be mounted via a hot shoe -- typically used for adding an external flash -- on the top of the camera body.)

Video.

Today's DSLRs and mirrorless cameras shoot HD video as well as photos. With a decent budget DSLR in hand, there's little need for a separate camcorder. Video quality is generally good across the board, according to online reviews, although it can be challenging for budget cameras to maintain focus while recording video. The ones recommended here can record in full 1080p HD, and the Nikon D3400 captures full HD video at frame rates up to 60 fps, which is pretty impressive. The Nikon 1 J5 boasts the same 1080p frame rate and is also 4K capable, though a 15 fps rate makes for fairly disappointing ultra-HD footage. Consumers willing to pay a bit more for high-quality 4K video might consider the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G7 (starting sat $598). For about $100 more than the Nikon 1 J5, this features-packed mirrorless model has a 4K frame rate of 30 fps, and it rivals even our top DSLR picks in terms of overall video performance.

Interface.

Digital SLR cameras are pretty complex devices, with manual controls for everything from shutter speed to ISO, along with automatic settings and quick presets for specific situations. That being the case, reviewers look for cameras with intuitive controls. The automatic exposure modes are pretty similar across the board. They generally include settings for portraits, sports, nighttime photography, and landscapes, which are identified by simple pictograms on the camera's controls.

Shoppers posting reviews on BestBuy.com compliment the Canon EOS Rebel T6 for being very easy to use, saying it's ideal for beginning DSLR photographers. It earns a solid 4.7 rating from nearly 1,000 consumers. In addition to the other strikes against it, the Pentax Q-S1 is a bit more complicated to manage due to a morass of menus and submenus, says a reviewer from EPhotozine.

Battery Life.

Manufacturers measure battery life by the approximate number of pictures a camera can shoot before the battery needs recharging. Testing is based on a standard procedure initially set by the Camera & Imaging Products Association. Compact system cameras tend to have shorter battery life than DSLRs. For example, the Nikon D3400 digital SLR can shoot more than 1,000 photos between charges, which is extraordinary. The Nikon 1 J5 mirrorless camera is rated for only about 250 shots, as are most of the other mirrorless cameras on our list. Remember that battery life also depends on how the camera is used: Expect the battery to drain more quickly when recording a lot of video or employing live view.

Additional Products We Considered

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G7 Review

(From $598.00 )

Pros: The Panasonic Lumix DMC-G7 (starting at $598) proves that a mirrorless model can rival the big-boy DSLRs. A CNET reviewer says colors captured with this camera are dead on, and the detail is fine even in images shot in low light. The autofocus is quick and holds up during continuous shooting. Another laudable feature is the camera's ability to record video in 4K, rather than the typical 1080p. The 4K "ultra-HD" footage (which can be recorded at 30 fps) looks noticeably sharper than 1080p, this expert says, and 4K photo stills can be extracted. Also, while the battery reportedly manages only about 360 photos per charge -- not bad for a mirrorless model but behind a typical DSLR -- this reviewer insists that the camera had plenty of power left after 750 shots.

A reviewer at U.K.-based gadget news and review site Pocket-lint also heaped praise on the Lumix G7, calling its autofocus fast and incredibly accurate -- Panasonic's exclusive "Pinpoint" AF mode gets especially high marks. Photos have rich deep black levels and excellent detail; even shots taken as high as ISO 6400, though not super-crisp, are judged to be of decent quality. Other high points: The camera has lots of controls to play with, and a moveable touchscreen LCD as well as an electronic viewfinder.

Cons: The CNET expert points out two shortcomings with the Panasonic Lumix G7: It has a proprietary USB-out design, and the SD card slot is awkwardly placed. Also, according to the Pocket-lint reviewer, the camera's plastic construction makes it feel a little cheap, and it's a bit bulky for a mirrorless model. Both experts agree, however, that there's nothing shoddy about the Lumix G7 as a whole.

Features: The Panasonic Lumix G7 has a staggeringly long list of features. It's a single-lens mirrorless camera, with a 16MP Micro Four Thirds image sensor. It has a fairly robust maximum burst rate of 8 fps and shutter speeds as fast as 1/16000th of a second using the electronic shutter function. The ISO range runs from 200 to 25600. Both the LCD and the high-resolution OLED viewfinder panel provide a 100 percent edge-to-edge view. The shooting modes are far too numerous to print here; suffice it to say that photographers who have preferred modes will almost certainly find them on this camera. It has Wi-Fi support and is PictBridge compatible. A proprietary app allows for remote control via mobile devices and easy image sharing. In addition to the USB port, the camera has a micro HDMI out connector and takes SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards.

Takeaway: Consumers searching for a mirrorless alternative to a full-fledged DSLR should take a good look at the Panasonic Lumix G7. This camera is overflowing with shooting modes and other features, and its performance is truly top-notch considering its relatively affordable price. The 4K video capability just sweetens the deal.

Where to buy