After a couple of years ruling the roost as the default go-to for photographers wanting a step-up from their point-and-shoot, DSLRs are now facing increased competition from mirrorless cameras. As a result manufacturers are having to up their game and in 2012 we've seen DSLRs gain improved performance and a number of new features. Our 2012 Entry and Mid-Range DSLR Comparison Guide is designed to help you pick the best new DSLR for you.
The cameras which we decided to compare include offerings designed for people just dipping their toe into the DSLR waters, and some aimed at those looking for a more capable camera. The six DSLRs we will be looking at are:
- Nikon D3200
- Canon EOS 650D (Rebel T4i)
- Nikon D5200
- Pentax K30
- Sony A57
- Pentax K-5 II
Admittedly the Sony A57 is not, strictly speaking, a DSLR. It uses translucent mirror technology, so is technically an SLT camera. However, it's clearly aimed at the same market as the other cameras, and has enough in common to be directly compared. While we could have used the same argument to include the Panasonic GH3, including this very capable mirrorless somehow felt a step too far.
It's also worth noting that while the Pentax K-5 II stands out as a more expensive and high-end camera than the others, this is because other manufacturers did not update their top mid-range cameras in 2012. The Nikon D7000 was released in 2010, and the Canon 7D back in 2009. Both firms have spent 2012 giving more love to to their full-frame offerings.
Sensor Size and Megapixel Count
All of the cameras use APS-C sized CMOS sensors, but 2012 was the year Nikon decided to restart the megapixel race. After launching the full frame megapixel monster which was the 36MP D800, Nikon made its DX cameras 24MP, considerably higher than the 16-18MP range covered by the other cameras here.
While some photographers argue that no-one needs more than 12MP, others say that the benefit of the added detail outweighs the increased noise that can be added to images and the processing horsepower needed to edit them. Unless you're planning on heavily cropping or printing out giant posters, any of these cameras will have enough resolution for you.
Size and Weight
There's not too much to call between the size of these cameras, all are of around the same size. However, the few millimeters which has been shaved off the Nikon D3200 does make it feel considerably smaller in the hands. This could be good if you're looking for a camera to carry around with you, but if you've got particularly chunky digits, you may find it a touch on the fiddly side.
Weight-wise the Pentax K-5 II clearly stands out as the heavy-weight at 760 g (with a memory card and battery but no lens) but this is due to its construction (more on that later) rather than it being unnecessarily heavy. The Nikon D3200 is the lightest at 505 g.
There's quite a range of autofocus capabilities across these DSLRs. Potentially the weakest being the Nikon D3200 which, while boasting 11 focus points, only has one cross type point.
The Nikon D5200 has, on paper, the best autofocus potential with its 36 focus points, of which nine are cross-type. The Canon EOS 650D, Pentax K30 and Pentax K-5 II also all have nine cross-type focus points, but only from a total of nine, 11 and 11 respectively.
FPS Burst Rate
Continuous burst shooting is where we really see the difference between the true DSLRs and the Sony A57. Because it doesn't have to flip a mirror between taking images, it's able to achieve a blistering burst rate or 12 fps … something that could turn most professional DSLRs green with envy.
The slowest of the traditionally mirrored cameras is the Nikon D3200 with 4 fps while the Pentax K-5 II again shows its higher end credentials with an impressive 7 fps.
While ISO performance can't be directly compared by looking at the numbers - ISO 6400 could be great on one camera and produce noisy images on another – it can give an idea of how well a manufacturer thinks a camera handles low light situations.
Though most of the DSLRs being compared can have an expanded ISO of up to 25600, the Nikons have the smallest native range of ISO 100-6400 while the Sony A57 has the biggest with ISO 100-16000.
Viewfinder and LCD
The Canon EOS 650D and both Nikons have optical viewfinders with 95 percent coverage, this means the image taken is slightly greater than what you can see. The Pentax cameras meanwhile both feature 100 percent coverage optical viewfinders. The Sony A57 (again showing it's not a typical DSLR) uses a 100 percent electronic viewfinder with 1.4 million dots.
At first glance it might look like the rear LCDs are all much of a muchness, coming in as they do at 3 inches and with 921k to 1.040k resolutions. But closer inspection shows the Canon EOS 650D, Nikon D5200 and Sony A57 all feature vari-angle screens which can be tilted, rotated or flipped depending on your shooting position. The Canon also boasts multi-touch for navigating menus and even taking photos from the screen rather than relying on physical buttons.
Construction and Weather Sealing
The Pentax cameras really show their quality when looking at their construction and sealing. The K30 is constructed from polycarbonate over a stainless steel chassis, while the K-5 II has a magnesium alloy chassis. Both cameras are weather-sealed with 81 and 77 seals respectively, meaning you could happily use them in a downpour … if you don't mind getting wet yourself.
Storage Media and File Types
SD/SDHC/SDXC compatibility is standard across the entry to mid range DSLRs. The Sony A57 adds the ability to use Memory Stick PRO Duo if you've still got them lying in a drawer somewhere.
All of the DSLRs in our comparison offer the ability to shoot RAW or JPEG images. The Canon EOS 650D, Nikon D5200 and Pentax K-5 II boast 14 bit RAW files, which some argue gives you more options over 12 bit RAW when editing files.
Even entry-level DSLRs shoot Full HD video nowadays, something that would have been almost unimaginable a couple of years ago. While 1080/30p seems to be the standard, there are a couple of discrepancies. The Sony A57 is capable of 1080/60p, while the Pentax K-5 II maxes out at 25p. All of the other cameras are capable of 60p recording once the resolution is dropped to 720.
Most of the cameras feature the same level of standard wired connections including mini HDMI, USB and a microphone input. The only one which lacks in this department is the Pentax K30 which omits HDMI and microphone.
The Nikon D3200 and D5200 are both compatible with the WU-1a wireless adapter which can be used for image upload and remote viewing/shutter release via an Android or iOS app.
Obviously, one of the main selling points of a DSLR system is that you can change lenses. That said, these kit lenses can offer fantastic value and are a great starting point if you are getting into photography.
18-55mm zoom lenses appear to have become the standard kit offering with entry and mid-range DSLRs. On these crop sensor bodies that gives a 35mm equivalent of around 27mm to 82mm which is a very useful range for general photography.
While kit lenses have a tendency to be a bit slow at the telephoto end, they are increasingly useful for shooting video. Ones like those bundled with these Nikon and Canon DSLRs have built-in vibration reduction which can help smooth out wobbly hand-held video … a bit.
Each of the DSLRs here uses a mount designed specifically for its manufacturer's range, and all have plenty of lenses available to keep users happy. It is, however, worth remembering that while you can mount older legacy lenses, you might not have all features such as metering and autofocus available to you.
There's some great value to be had in the entry and mid-range DSLR market; features which would have cost you a small fortune just a couple of years ago are standard on these cameras which range from US$550 to $1,200 for body only options.
The Nikon D3200 is the cheapest and comes in at $550 … if you happen live somewhere it's available body-only. The Pentax K-5 II is the most expensive, but in it you're getting a camera at the top end of the mid-range market. Last year's Sony A77 came in at a similar price, as will likely be the case with replacements to the Nikon D7000 or Canon 7D.
Buying with a kit lens is often a no-brainer, especially if this is your first DSLR. Covering the wide to standard telephoto zoom range the kit lenses often add just $50-100 to the price of a new camera.
Summing up...It's amazing to see how far DSLR cameras have come in recent years. Not too long ago the specifications in these entry and mid-level cameras were only available on professional cameras … and they cost thousands of dollars. All of the cameras here are more than capable of shooting great images, and if you're in the market for one, it's really just a matter of seeing which best meets your requirements.
If you already have lenses lying around, picking a new camera suddenly gets a lot easier. You probably won't want to switch between manufacturers unless there is a specific feature you can't live without. But even if you don't already have lenses it's still worth considering the full range available, because once you start buying additional lenses you are less likely to switch between manufacturers in the future.
Personally, I think the Sony A57 stands out as the most intriguing proposition here. The use of translucent mirror technology means it's capable of taking a burst of images considerably faster than equally specified DSLRs. A resolution of 16MP is also, in my opinion, plenty for a APS-C camera.
While the A57 doesn't have an optical viewfinder, which I normally prefer, its EVF works well. The fact it's automatically activated when the camera is lifted to your eye, is also a nice touch. Its vari-angle LCD also makes shooting in awkward positions considerably easier.
Click here to see all of the above specifications in one chart.