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Best Entry Level DSLR Camera for Beginners for Early 2012

Finally decided to buy your first ‘serious’ digital camera?

That big decision that you’re finally tired of a small and limiting pocket camera and you want one that you can mount lenses and flashes to.

The big question now is which one to choose.

Truth be told, all the entry level DSLR cameras in the market today are spectacular and highly capable of producing stellar quality images. The purpose of this article is to narrow down your options and give you a handy guide to compare key features and benefits of these cheap but capable DSLR cameras.

The Beginner’s DSLR Lineup

I’ve narrowed down the options to only the cheapest offerings of each of the four brands to make a meaningful comparison. By ‘four big brands’, I meant Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Pentax who still have actively-marketed DSLR products, granted, Pentax is borderline on the radar but they do have good DSLRs so let’s include it as well. All four options will include the standard 18-55mm kit lens as well.

Also, since Sony seemed to have put all their efforts away from the entry-level, traditional DSLR and concentrate on their proprietary Single Lens Translucent (SLT) cameras, I’ll use their current SLT lineup instead.

The contenders are the following:

Nikon D3100 Camera Comparison

Canon T3 Rebel 1100 DSLR Comparison

Sony A35 Camera Comparison

Check Pentax K-R DSLR Camera Comparison Price
Nikon D3100 Canon EOS 1100D / Rebel T3 Sony Alpha A35 Pentax K-R
AveragekRetail Price US$549.00 US$499.00 US$649US$629
Resolution 14.2 Megapixel 12.2 Megapixel 16.2 Megapixel 12 Megapixel
Auto-Focus 11-point 9-point 15-point 11-point
LCD Size 3″ 230K 2.7″ 230K 3″ 920K 3″
Lens Mount Nikon F Canon EF Sony A Mount Pentax K-, KA-, KAF-, KAF2- and KAF3 mount
Burst Capture 3 fps 3 fps 5.5 fps 6 fps
Weight and Size
(Body Only)
124 x 96 x 75 mm 505 grams 130 x 100 x 78 mm 495 grams 124 x 92 x 85 mm 415 grams 125 x 97 x 68mm 598 grams
Anti-Shake Compensation Lens Only Lens Only Yes Yes
ISO Range 100-12,800 100-6400 100-25,600 100 – 25600
Video  1920 x 1080 24p 1280 x 720 (29.97, 25 fps) 1920 x 1080, 59.94i 1280 x 720 (720p) at 24 fps
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Those are our line-up, all under $650 with the kit lens, all capable of shooting video, and all over 10 megapixel. Those specifications should be more than sufficient for most enthusiasts even with intermediate skills.

Buy the System

Investing on a DSLR entails investing on the whole system, not just the camera itself.  The whole point of buying a DSLR is the ability to change lenses, add accessories and stuff, so always take a look at how much and how easy it is to buy the accessories. Without mentioning what I’ve already discussed in my 5 Tips in Choosing the Best DSLR for Beginners articlee2C let’s go straight to the contenders.

Which Entry Level Camera?

The low price point and small size of these cameras clearly show some of the features being left out and sacrificing ergonomics from a bigger camera, but seriously, you can’t have it all.

Among the four options, the Sony Alpha SLT A35 offers the most brow-raising amount of features and high-tech gizmos. It’s clearly the newest camera in the group and it shows inside and out. The resolution, video quality, additional newbie-friendly feat5res could make this camera the de-facto winner.

However, the Sony suffers from several things such as price (most expensive), the proprietary hotshoe adopted from the deceased Konica-Minolta system, and the relatively high-cost and lack of options for the Alpha lens mount.

The Pentax K-R is a very capable camera, mixed with high-value features packaged in a tight and no-nonsense package. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the K-R since Pentax finally have caught-up with the ISO noise control department and offers features that are absent from entry-level cameras such as micro-AF adjustment, ISO 25,600, 6fps shooting, good viewfinder.

However, the camera feels dated and it’s hard to convince all but the die-hard Pentax fan to invest in a non-Canon/Nikon/Sony system based on future development commitment of the company. If you do have access to older Pentax lenses and don’t really plan to keep up with the new camera offerings year-after-year, then the Pentax may be the right system for you.

The base model of Canon’s EOS line has always made me feel like there’s just too many corporate suit-and-tie guys making decision in big companies without thinking and respecting the intelligence of customers. The Canon EOS T3 / 1100D is nothing more than a stripped down EOS T3i / 600D, it’s like serving you a burger with stale bread with left-over meat scraps while charging you close to full price.

The EOS 1100D clearly acts like a stepping stone for those first-time buyers who are scared to commit to a more robust 600D (and $300 more expensive), since comparing the specification on paper may not reveal the huge amount of difference between the two models.

The EOS 1100D feels cheap and less capable than the older EOS 550D (T2i), and with that in mind, I’d strongly recommend folks to just buy a slightly used EOS 550D than recommend the EOS 1100D.

That leaves us with the Nikon D3100, and what I have to say about it is pretty identical to the Canon EOS 1100D. Get the D5100 and you won’t regret it. While the D3100 isn’t as blatantly cheap in features and construction as the Canon, it’s still not a good investment with only $200 separating between the two models, at least the price difference between the two Canon Rebels is big enough to make you think twice.

Nikon D3100

Pros:
  • Good price
  • Huge amount of lenses and accessories
  • Superb image quality
  • Articulating LCD screen
  • Great build quality for an entry level camera
Cons:
  • Will not focus on all Nikon lenses
  • Poor access to secondary controls
  • Low resolution LCD
  • Beginners may outgrow the camera quickly due to ergonomic quirks

Canon EOS T3 / 1100D

Pros:
  • Very predictable exposure and image quality
  • Affordable
  • Huge amount of lens and accessories
Cons:
  • Cheap body construction and feel
  • Small LCD with low resolution
  • Very limited video mode
  • Poor viewfinder
  • ISO 3200 and higher are mediocre

Sony Alpha SLT A35

Pros:
  • Excellent LCD
  • Video quality is excellent
  • Great resolution and image quality (at lower ISOs)
  • Innovative and reliable AF system
  • Small size
Cons:
  • Higher ISO has limited noise control adjustment
  • User interface not easy to get used to
  • Expensive lens system and limited options compared to Canon and Nikon
  • Unable to shoot live-view + off-camera flash without complex hacking and/or purchase of expensive Sony flash units
  • More expensive

Pentax K-R

Pros:
  • Class-leading burst speed
  • Great looking JPEGs out-of-the-box
  • Very compact dimensions
  • AF micro-adjustment
  • Built-in image shake reduction system
  • Good high-ISO performance
Cons:
  • RAW doesn’t offer much improvement or headroom
  • Really large movie files with dated format
  • Unreliable metering
  • Relatively old, hand-me-down technology


My verdict, if you can accept the relatively expensive and limited options in aftermarket items, then the Sony SLT A35 is the clear winner. Frankly, most interchangeable camera owners won’t buy more than 2-3 lenses anyway, so you might want to check out the possible pricing of the splendid Carl Zeiss lenses made for the Sony Alphas. This is a mighty good camera.

If you want a no-nonsense camera system with relatively cheap aftermarket system that offers the most bang-for-the-buck features, then the Pentax K-R is an easy choice.

Finally, if you want to play safe and think that you’ll use the entry-level camera for 8-12 months only and upgrade to a higher model while stockpiling on lenses and accessories in the future, than by all means, pick the Canon and Nikon options, with preference towards the D3100. Besides, these two models are easy to sell with a much lower depreciation value anyway.

If it was my money, I’d pick the Nikon D3100 to get started, particularly if you want a small, light camera that still feels like a quality product.

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