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4 August 2021

How to buy the best DSLR or mirrorless camera

The best DSLR and mirrorless cameras let you take exceptional photos and videos beyond the capabilities of a smartphone or compact camera. We help you pick a first-class model.
JM
Jake Massey
How to buy the best DSLR

DSLR and mirrorless cameras come packed with impressive-sounding features that promise to take your photography to the next level – but not every camera comes good on these promises. 

The best DSLR and mirrorless cameras will give you quality and control in spades, but we've also found DSLR and mirrorless cameras that are fiddly to use and deliver disappointing photos. Many models aren't cheap, so it's a decision you don't want to get wrong. 

Whether you're an experienced photographer looking to upgrade from a much-loved but outdated camera, or a beginner looking to buy your first DSLR or mirrorless camera, we explain the features to look out for, how much you need to spend, and which brands you can pick from. 


Already know the kind of camera you're looking for? Discover the best DSLR and mirrorless cameras to suit your budget.


DSLR vs mirrorless cameras: what's the difference?

Child taking a photo of their family with a DSLR

Both DSLR and mirrorless cameras are sophisticated cameras with interchangeable lenses, but while DSLRs have been around for years, mirrorless cameras are relatively new to the photography scene. 

While there were some differences worth considering a few years ago, these have diminished. These days, despite using different technology to take photos (DSLRs use mirrors while mirrorless camera, as the name suggests, don't), the practical differences are minimal. 

So, if you're buying a high-end camera for the first time, you don't need to agonise about which 'type' is better. You should simply pick a high-quality camera that suits your budget.

One caveat: interchangeable lenses are either compatible with DSLRs or mirrorless cameras. This means that once you've bought one style of camera, you'll probably get more value from buying the same style next time. 

For new photographers this isn't a big deal, but experienced ones will likely be swayed by their lens library. 

Key differences

  • Mirrorless cameras use electronic viewfinders (EVFs) and display previews of images on LCD screens. DSLRs give you a live view of the image in the viewfinder through a series of mirrors in the camera. 
  • A DSLR with an optical viewfinder will enjoy a longer battery life than a mirrorless camera with an EVF.
  • DSLRs produce a classic clicking noise when their shutters snap, while mirrorless cameras are nearly silent.
  • There are more new mirrorless models being released than DSLRs. 

Some differences that used to exist are no longer such an issue. For example, mirrorless cameras were historically smaller and lighter, but we've seen some heavyweight releases lately. And while some may think that DSLRs tend to have larger sensors, in fact you'll find a similar range of sensors available in both types of camera.

Another key point of difference used to be the quality of the autofocus. DSLRs used to use a system called 'phase detection', which was faster and better at tracking than that used in mirrorless cameras. However, most new cameras now use 'hybrid' autofocus systems, which have increased the speed and reliability of mirrorless cameras' autofocus systems.

You can find out more about the differences, and how much they matter, in our guide: mirrorless vs DSLR cameras – what's the difference?

How much do I need to pay for a good DSLR or mirrorless camera?

DSLR and mirrorless cameras range in price from less than £400 to more than £4,000 – but our tests have found that cost doesn't guarantee quality. 

We've found reasonably priced Best Buy cameras that produce exceptional photos, and we've also tested premium cameras that we didn't think were anything special. That said, if you want cutting-edge features, the largest sensors and a wealth of controls, then you will need to splash out. 

The high-end nature of DSLR and mirrorless cameras means that we'd describe very few as 'cheap', but some are certainly more affordable than others. Below, we outline what you can expect to get for your money in different price ranges; between 20 and 40 of the cameras we've tested fall within each range. 

Budget cameras: up to £750

  • The cheapest Best Buy we've found costs less than £750.
  • We've found two sub-£500 cameras that scored over 70%; they didn't quite reach our 76% Best Buy cut off, but for the price are well worth a look.
  • The best budget DSLR and mirrorless cameras offer decent photo and video performance, plus a wealth of manual settings suitable for those looking to expand their photography skills. They typically come with APS-C or Micro Four-Thirds sensors, which are as largest sizes other than a Full-Frame.
  • You'll probably have to do without snazzy features, such as maneuverable screens, powerful zoom lenses coming bundled, and autofocus and face detection systems that use the latest technology to improve performance.

For quality on a budget, head to our pick of the best cheap DSLR and mirrorless cameras

Mid-range cameras: £750-£1,500

  • More than ten cameras costing between £750 and £1,500 are Best Buys. 
  • Most of the cameras we've tested fall within this price range, so you'll have plenty of choice.
  • Good models in this price range offer glorious still photos and video, though some may struggle with tougher tasks such as dim-light photography and capturing fast-moving objects. 

Premium cameras: £1,500 plus

  • For those that can afford it, there's a healthy serving of Best Buys in this price range; our most expensive Best Buy tops £4,000. 
  • Not every expensive camera hits the mark; we've tested some premium cameras that scored worse in our tests than models less than half their price. 
  • Features you can expect in premium cameras include fully-articulating screens, powerful hybrid autofocus systems, electronic viewfinders that have virtually no lag, and Full Frame sensors – the biggest you can buy commercially. 
  • For the most challenging tasks, such as nighttime photography or capturing fast-moving subjects, these cameras have the high-end features to deliver where cheaper models may struggle.

Best DSLR and mirrorless camera features to look for

Some camera features matter more than others. Here are some of the most important. 

  • Sensor size. The bigger the sensor, the more light is absorbed, and the better quality the photo. Check out our camera sensor sizes explained guide for more.
  • 4K video. This is the best bet for good-quality video. 1080p is lower quality, while the less common 8K offers no discernible improvements for most displays so isn't worth spending more on.
  • Articulated screens. A screen which pops out and flips and twists helps you take selfies, video blogs, and pictures at tricky angles.
  • Zoom lenses. A camera that comes bundled with a good zoom lens can adjust its focal length freely, letting you take excellent distance shots and close ups – though remember part of the point of these cameras is that you can change lenses if you need to.
  • Autofocus. You need a good autofocus system so your camera can find subjects and make them clear, even when they're in motion. Look for 'face detection' and 'focusing' star ratings in our reviews to measure a camera's autofocus performance.
  • Large ISO ranges. If the setting of a scene is dim, a high ISO number can artificially brighten the image to make it clearer.
  • Shutter speed. If you want to capture subjects in movement without risking a blurry photo, you need a high shutter speed. Whether it's 1/1000, 1/4000, 1/8000, the bigger the number, the faster the shutter will snap closed.

Which DSLR or mirrorless camera brand is best?

Because lenses are usually only compatible with cameras made from certain brands, you can easily become a captive consumer who needs to stick with the same brand, or small range of brands, to get value from your lens library. This makes it important to get it right the first time.

Some experienced users will swear by a particular brand, but we test every product on its own merits. Read our camera reviews to find out which models are the best. 

Which brands release mirrorless cameras?

  • Nikon's mirrorless line-up is represented by its premium Z series of full-frame cameras. You might also come across the 1 series, which is a discontinued line but cameras may still be available second-hand.
  • Canon has released the EOS M series of budget and mid-range mirrorless cameras, which have APS-C sensors, as well as the premium EOS R series of full-frame cameras.
  • Panasonic's line-up of Lumix DC cameras is exclusively mirrorless. They span the whole price range, from cameras costing a few hundred pounds to multi-thousand-pound models. 
  • Sony's mirrorless cameras are found in its Alpha range. APS-C cameras make up the more affordable 'a' series, while expensive full-frame sensors sit in the a7 series. 
  • Olympus mirrorless cameras come with micro four-thirds (sometimes abbreviated to 'MFT') sensors. Its two ranges are the OM-D E-M and the PEN. They're generally entry-level and mid-range, although its most premium camera costs around £3,000.
  • Fujifilm's X series of APS-C cameras makes up most of its mirrorless line-up. The cameras available focus on the budget and mid-range areas, occasionally edging into premium but rarely breaking the £2,000 mark.

Which brands release DSLR cameras?

The DSLR market is in decline, since most new releases are mirrorless cameras. DSLR market leaders are Nikon and Canon, both of which have long legacies. Pentax also offers a selection.

  • Nikon's D series covers its whole DSLR offering, from entry level models (with a '3' prefix) to mid-range ('7' prefix) to premium ('8' prefix). 
  • Canon has a heavy presence in the DSLR market, although its range names can be flummoxing. Its several EOS D cameras are entry-level, apart from the 7D which is mid-range and the 5D which is premium. 
  • Pentax is the brand name for electronics brand Ricoh's DSLRs. The K series features a couple of mid-range cameras.

Average test scores for DSLR and mirrorless camera brands

We've crunched the numbers to find out which brands stand out from the competition based on our test scores. 

Which? members can log in to reveal the average scores that brands receive for DSLR and mirrorless cameras, as well as the highest and lowest scores they have earned from our testing. If you're not yet a Which? member, sign up today.

Brand (models online)
Test score range
Average score
Canon (20)
Fujifilm (10)
Nikon (12)
Olympus (9)
Panasonic (13)
Sony (14)

Table notes: This table was last updated in February 2021. 


Which DSLR or mirrorless camera brand to buy in 2021 – find out how DLSR and mirrorless camera owners rated their camera brand for reliability and overall satisfaction.


Are DSLR and mirrorless cameras reliable?

DSLR and mirrorless cameras are fantastic pieces of kit, made up of electronics and optics. But they have lots of moving parts, which can increase the risk of something going wrong with your camera.

That said, when we surveyed more than 1,000 camera owners in 2019, we found that the large majority of cameras remained fault-free after five years of ownership.

The three most commonly reported faults were:

  • Focus issues: this accounted for up to 14% of the faults reported. Focusing problems wouldn't completely break the camera, but it makes it very difficult to properly compose your shot.
  • The flash breaking: this was the second most commonly reported issue. If you have a model with a 'hotshoe' – the bracket on top of a camera's body that can mount accessories – then you can replace a flash attachment. 
  • Battery or charger failure: this was the third most commonly reported fault. Fortunately these components can be replaced, although not without cost. 

You should expect to own your digital camera for at least half a decade, so it's a long-term investment. 

What type of photos do you want to take?

Buying a high-end camera can be an expensive business, particularly if you invest in multiple lenses. If you're still undecided about whether the rewards justify the investment, consider whether a less complicated camera might suit your needs: 

  • Smartphone cameras have eaten into the digital camera market for a reason: modern smartphones take rather good photos. They don't offer professional quality or much manual control, but are unrivalled for capturing unexpected moments. Check our smartphone reviews to identify those that have excellent cameras. 
  • Compact cameras are still popular, and they can be surprisingly powerful. Some even have sensors usually found in high-end cameras. Use our compact camera reviews to find the small, fixed-lens cameras that can pack a punch.
  • Bridge cameras offer much of the functionality of DSLR and mirrorless cameras, but without the interchangeable lenses. They're usually fairly inexpensive and can be a great way to try out a DSLR-style camera. See our bridge camera reviews to find a good model.

We've put together a guide for beginners to improve their camera skills, whatever the device they're using. Read how to shoot and edit photos like a pro to find out more.