2015 Mid-Range and Enthusiast DSLR Comparison Guide
We've already looked at some of the best full frame DSLRs available this year, and now it's time to turn our attention to some very capable cameras, but with slightly smaller sensors. Here Gizmag compares the key specs and features of some of the best mid-range and enthusiast DSLRs with APS-C sensors.
While there are numerous DSLRs which fall in the mid-range and enthusiast category, we've chosen to focus on six which have impressed us. We've also limited ourselves to those with APS-C sensors, though a couple of the full frame DSLRs we recently compared could also be described as enthusiast-focused.
The cameras we'll be looking at are:
On a point of technicality, it's worth noting that the Sony A77 II isn't a true DSLR, but a DSLR-like camera. It looks and acts like a DSLR, but uses a fixed translucent mirror rather than the traditional moving sort.
If these cameras are a bit beyond your budget, or you are looking for your first DSLR, you might want to keep an eye out for our upcoming guide to entry-level DSLRs. If you're after something more compact, we've also got a comparison of the best mirrorless cameras coming up.
If you're looking for a mid-range or enthusiast-focused DSLR, you need to brace yourself for the fact it's going to be bigger than entry-level models, or comparably specified mirrorless shooters.
All of the cameras in our selection have roughly the same dimensions, and take a tried-and-tested form which many photographers would argue offers good ergonomics. That said the Nikon D5500 is noticeably the smallest, while the higher-end 7D II is that bit bigger than the rest.
In addition to being bigger than their mirrorless or compact rivals, these DSLRs are also generally heavier, and by wide enough a margin for you to feel it in your neck or shoulder when carrying it around. The weights given here are with battery and a memory card, but without a lens mounted.
The most neck-friendly shooter here is the Nikon D5500, while the Canon 7D II sits at the other end of the weight spectrum weighing almost double. The others are so close in weight you'd struggle to tell the difference in a blind test.
When looking at the build quality of these cameras, you can begin to see why they vary in weight. Yes, that Nikon D5500 is lighter than the others, but that's because it's the only camera in our lineup not to feature metal construction, though it does at least employ a carbon fiber reinforced plastic body.
The higher-end cameras like the Pentax K-3 II, Nikon D7200 and Canon 7D II, feature more magnesium alloy in their sturdy construction, and also benefit from better weather sealing meaning you don't have to worry about shooting in the rain.
We're looking at APS-C CMOS sensors across the board here, with only slight differences of a millimeter here and there between them. As such, this physical variation isn't going to make any real difference in terms of image quality.
If you think a crop sensor isn't going to cut it for you, then you might want to head on over to our 2015 Full Frame DSLR Comparison Guide. There the Canon EOS 6D and Nikon D750 are waiting to fulfil the desires of full frame sensor craving enthusiasts.
There's not much difference in the megapixel count of these DSLRs, with them all coming in between 20.2 and 24.3-megapixels. At the moment this resolution is going to offer plenty detail for the majority of users, though when 250 megapixels are the norm we'll no doubt wonder how anyone was ever pleased with this level of detail.
The Pentax K-3 II also has a resolution-based trick up its sleeve with a feature called Pixel Shift Resolution. This mode, which impressed when we reviewed the camera, takes a series of images which are then combined to produce one with better detail and definition.
With camera manufacturers providing precious little information about an image processor other than its name, it can be hard to compare them across brands.
However, it is interesting to look at variations in cameras from the same manufacturer. For example, the Nikon D5500 and D7200 both use the same EXPEED 4 processor, while the Canon 70D and 7D II use a DIGIC 5+ and dual DIGIC 6 processors respectively, showing that the latter has far more power under the hood.
There are no great surprises when it comes to lens mount, with each manufacturer opting for the mount that you would expect. The one factor to note here is that the Sony A77 II uses the A mount, and even with the announcement of the upcoming A68, there are constant rumors about the future of the mount, given the success of the Sony E-mount cameras like the mirrorless A7 cameras.
While the Sony A77 has the greater number of focus points, it's the Canon 7D II which is the undeniable speed demon of the pack when it comes to autofocus. In our experience, it is fast and its 65 point AF offers great subject tracking. If you are shooting sports, this is the one for you.
Of our selection, only the Nikon D7200 with its 51 phase detection points can come anywhere close to competing with the high-end Canon. However, the other Canon in the pack, the 70D, is left lacking with its 19 AF points, though all of them are cross-type.
Sometimes the best way of capturing a fleeting moment can be by rattling off a series of images in quick succession. Of our selection the Sony A77 II and Canon 7D II are going to be the best in this regard as they can fire off bursts of 12 and 10 fps (frames per second).
While they might not be up there with some higher-end or mirrorless cameras, even the other DSLRs in our line-up can shoot at between 5 and 8 fps, which not too long ago was the preserve of professional devices.
The APS-C size sensors in these cameras allow wide ISO ranges and the ability to shoot in a variety of lighting conditions. All of our selection have advertised ISO ranges which reach beyond ISO 16000, and can often be extended even further, though you probably won't want to use those settings unless you really need to.
In our experience any current APS-C camera is going to start suffering noticeable image noise and poorer colors once you reach ISO 6400 and beyond.
With Full HD 1080p video recording across the board, any of these mid-range DSLRs will be capable of shooting quality video. However, it's worth noting that the Canon 70D and the Pentax K-3 II can only shoot Full HD up to 30 fps, while the others can do it at 60 fps. If dropping the resolution to 720p, those cameras can also record at 60 fps.
While most DSLR cameras rely on lens-based image stabilization, the Sony A77 II and Pentax K-3 II both used sensor-shift stabilization. This moves the sensor to counter camera movement and produce sharp images even at slower shutter speeds or longer telephoto focal lengths. The big benefit of this is that it can work with all lenses, not just ones which are more expensive because they boast optical stabilization.
Optical viewfinders are the norm for DSLRs, with the Sony A77 II showing that it's actually a SLT (it uses translucent mirror technology) by also featuring an electronic viewfinder with 2,359K dots for composing shots.
Of the optical viewfinders, the higher-end offerings give a 100 percent view of what you are shooting, while the Canon 70D and Nikon D5500 display a slightly cropped 98 percent or 95 percent view.
When looking at the rear monitors of these cameras, you might notice something strange, that it's the lower-end models which offer the best specs. And with the Canon 70D and Nikon D5500 boasting moving touch-screens which are of comparable size and resolution as those on the more expensive cameras (and a moving screen on the Sony A77 II) you'd be right.
We've yet to see a flagship or high-end DSLR with a touch screen moving monitor. This is probably due to the fact they would not be as durable as their fixed alternatives, though it is a shame given the benefits they can offer when shooting in awkward positions, or shooting video.
With the exception of the Pentax K-3 II, all of the other DSLRs here feature both a pop-up flash and a hot-shoe for attaching an external one. A built-in flash can be handy for basic illumination needs, or triggering other external flashes.
Being aimed at experienced photographers, all of these cameras are able to shoot both JPEG and RAW stills.
SD cards are the storage media of choice, with the differences between these cameras being how many they take, and whether they also accept another card format. The Canon 70D, Nikon D5500 and Sony A77 II each take one SD card, with the slot on the Sony A77 II also able to accept Sony MS Duo cards.
The Pentax K-3 II, Nikon D7200, and Canon 7D II all take two cards, which is handy if you want to automatically back-up files, or shoot different city types onto different cards. The Pentax and Nikon have two SD slots, while the Canon has one SD and one CompactFlash.
While DSLRs have traditionally lagged behind their mirrorless rivals when it come to gaining wireless features, we're glad to say they are beginning to catch up. Most of these cameras now have built-in Wi-Fi which can be used for easily sharing images, or sometimes remotely controlling the camera. The Sony A77 II and Nikon D7200 also feature NFC for easier pairing with compatible devices.
The Pentax K-3 II and Canon 7D II both lack built-in Wi-Fi. However, the Pentax can be used with affordable Flu-card SD cards to gain wireless skills, while the Canon 7D II can work with the powerful WFT-E7A wireless file transmitter, but this adds $850 to the cost. If you want to log where your photos were taken, the Pentax K-3 II and Canon 7D II also have built-in GPS.
One of the great things about DSLRs is that they can boast the sort of battery life that mirrorless cameras can only dream of. As such, it's no great surprise that the Sony A77 II, with its electronic viewfinder, has the weakest battery life and will deliver around 670 shots on a single charge.
If you plan on long shooting sessions and dislike carrying a spare battery, the Nikon D7200 offers the best battery life and can produce around 1,100 shots on a full battery.
With current prices ranging from US$700 to $1,300 body-only, this level of camera does not come cheap, especially when you consider you'll also want to invest in a selection of lenses to use on it.
Without doubt we can say that all of these DSLRs are great quality cameras. When paired with the right lenses, even the more affordable offerings will be capable of delivering enough image quality to keep almost anyone happy. If you are looking to step up from an entry-level DSLR, or a compact camera, you are not going to be disappointed and these cameras will give you plenty of room to grow.
For those who demand a bit more, whether that's having a camera they can use in any conditions, one which will keep up with fast sports, or that has dual memory card slots, the cameras at the enthusiast end of our line-up will be able to deliver, and are perfectly capable of being used professionally.
For us, the stand out cameras are the Nikon D5500 which offers mid-range power on a budget, the Pentax K-3 II which punches well above its price tag in terms of features and build quality, and also the Canon 7D II which is arguably the best camera available in this category.