Entry-Level DSLR Roundup


Considering the degree of advanced technology contained in the average entry-level DSLR these days, one often feels the urge to add an asterisk to the term “entry-level,” because smaller size and plastic body panels aside, each of these cameras is a real honker in its own right. They all contain APS-C format imaging sensors ranging from 14.2MP to 18MP, have continuous burst rates of up to seven frames per second, impressively accurate and responsive autofocus and metering systems, expanded ISO ranges, and without exception, they each take outstanding photographs in a choice of JPEG and RAW. With the exception of Sony’s Alpha A390, they all capture HD video with sound.

Nikon D3100 and D5100

Nikon has a choice of two entry-level DSLRs; the D3100 and D5100. Both of these equally compact DSLRs can capture JPEG (Fine, Normal, Basic) and/or RAW stills and MPEG-4 video with monaural sound. Other common features include use of the full range of Nikon AF-S, AF-I and G-series optics; an 11-point AF system with 3D Tracking; a pop-up flash; Live View; a shutter-speed range of 30 seconds through 1/4000-second; a top flash sync of 1/200-second; pentamirror viewfinders that display approximately 95% of the viewing area; and SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card compatibility. Both cameras are powered by a Nikon EN-EL14 lithium-ion battery and are compatible with Nikon’s GP-1 GPS units.

The less expensive of the two is the Nikon D3100, which comes bundled with an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S DX VR Nikkor zoom lens; it features a 14.2MP DX (APS-C) CMOS sensor; three frame-per-second burst rates; an ISO range of 100 to 3200 (expandable to ISO 12,800); 1920x1080 @ 24 fps HD video; a fixed-position 3.0" (230,000-dot) LCD; and about 550 exposures per battery charge.

A smidgen larger than the Nikon D3100 (4.9 x 3.8 x 2.9" vs. 5 x 3.8 x 3.1") and a tad heavier (16 oz versus 19.7 oz) is the Nikon D5100, which is available with an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S DX VR Nikkor zoom lens or as a body only.

Nikon’s D5100 features a higher-resolution 16.2MP CMOS sensor, can bang out up to four frames per second; has an ISO range of 100 to 6400 (expandable to 25,600); the option of plugging in a stereo mic for cleaner audio quality when shooting video; a higher definition (921,000-dot), 3.0" Vari-Angle LCD; 16 Scene Modes (versus six in the D3100); AE and WB bracketing (neither of which are available in the D3100); and up to 110 more shots per charge (approximately 660 versus 550 on the D3100).

Canon EOS Rebel T2i and T3i

Rebel series cameras have been Canon’s entry-level models going back to the days of film. In fact, the first non-film Rebel was called the EOS Digital Rebel in order to distinguish Canon’s then newest darling from its old-school brethren. 

The current digital Rebels—the Canon EOS T2i and Canon EOS T3i—are, in fact, more similar than dissimilar. Both contain 18MP APS-C format CMOS sensors; DIGIC 4 image processors; burst rates of up to 3.7 frames per second; JPEG and/or RAW still capture; AE and WB bracketing; 1080p (H.264) video capture with stereo sound; a shutter range of 30 seconds to 1/4000-second; SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card compatibility; HDMI mini; USB 2.0; and EyeFi connectivity.

Weight-wise, the two cameras are less than two ounces different (18.70 oz for the T2i versus 20.11 oz for the T3i), and dimensionally they are equally similar (5.08 x 3.86 x 2.44" versus 5.24 x 3.94 x 3.15" for the T3i). According to the specs, both cameras also share a top flash sync speed of 1/200-second, have an equal ISO range of 100 to 6400 with an expanded ISO 12,800, and get about 440 pops per battery charge.

The few differences between the T2i and T3i include an extended range of JPEG compressions with the T3i (two choices on the T2i and 19 choices on the T3i), and a choice of aspect ratios on the T3i (3:2, 4:3, 16:9, and 1:1) versus one on the T2i (3:2). Both cameras also feature pentamirror viewfinders with approximately 95% viewing area, and 3.0" (1,040,000-dot) LCDs, although the LCD on the T3i is fully articulated, while the LCD is fixed on the T2i.

Canon’s EOS T2i is available as a body only, with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II zoom, or with a longer Canon EF-S 18-135mm IS zoom lens. The Canon EOS T3i is also available as a body only, with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II zoom, or with a Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS zoom. As with all Canon EOS cameras, Canon’s EOS T2i and T3i are compatible with all Canon EF and EF-S optics.

Sony Alpha A390 and Alpha SLT-A33

Sony also offers a choice of two entry-level DSLRs, but unlike the compact, entry-level offerings from Canon and Nikon, the Sony Alpha A390 and Sony Alpha SLT-A33 are birds of differing feathers.

The more traditional of the two is the Sony Alpha A390, which is as bread-and-butter as DSLRs get these days. The Alpha A390 features the obligatory JPEG and/or RAW still capture, but no video whatsoever, making it the last holdout from the old school. What it does have is a 14.2MP CCD sensor; an ISO range of 100 through 3200; sensor-shift image stabilization; an articulated 2.7" (230,400-dot) LCD; a pentamirror viewfinder offering approximately 95% of the viewing area; Live View; a shutter range of 1/30th-second to 1/4000-second; a pop-up flash; and burst rates up to 2.5 frames per second.

Sony’s Alpha A390 comes with an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens and is compatible with all Sony/Minolta AF mount optics.

The snazzier of the two Sony entry-level cameras is undoubtedly the Sony Alpha SLT-A33, which was the first of Sony’s growing family of DSLRs featuring a fixed, translucent mirror system that allows for blackout-free image capture for stills and video, full AF and manual control when shooting video, and up to seven-frame-per-second JPEG and/or RAW still capture.

To complement the fixed-mirror viewing system, the SLT-A33 features an extremely sharp and bright electronic viewfinder that closely rivals the brightness and clarity levels one would expect from a traditional glass or pentamirror viewing system. Being an electronic finder, you have the option of viewing the scene without data on the screen, or with full data along the image parameters—with or without a superimposed grid or digital horizon indicator. Being an electronic finder, you can also zoom in tight for critical focusing or image reviewing before and after each shot, and you also get to see any and all exposure and WB adjustments in real time, which greatly eliminates the guesswork when shooting under trickier lighting conditions.

The Sony Alpha SLT-A33 is available as a body only or with an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens. The SLT-A33 is also compatible with all Sony/Minolta AF optics.

Looking for more cameras? For more information on other DSLRs, please see the articles, Professional DSLR Roundup and Mid-Level DSLR Roundup.

  Nikon D3100 Nikon D5100 Canon Rebel T2i Canon Rebel T3i Sony Alpha A390 Sony Alpha A33
Lens Mount Nikon F Nikon F Canon EF Canon EF Sony A Mount Sony A Mount
Resolution  14.8 MP APS-C 16.2 MP APS-C 18 MP APS-C 18 MP APS-C 14.2 MP APS-C 14.2 MP APS-C
Video Recording 1920 x 1080 (24p) 1920 x 1080 (30p) 1920 x 1080 (30p) 1920 x 1080 (30p) none 1920 x 1080 (60p)
LCD Screen 3" (230,000 - dot) 3" (921,000 - dot) Swivel Screen 3.0" (1,040,000 - dot) 3.0" (1,040,000 - dot) Vari-angle 2.7" (230,000 - dot) 3" (921,000 - dot) Swivel - mount
ISO 100 - 12800 100 - 25600 100 - 12800 100 - 6400 100 - 3200 100 - 12800
Max Burst Rate 3 frames per second 4 frames per second 3.7  frames per second 3.7  frames per second 2.5 frames per second 7 frames per second
Dimensions (WxHxD)  4.9 x 3.8 x 3.0" 5 x 3.8 x 3.1"  5.1 x 3.8 x 3.0" 5.1 x 3.8 x 3.1" 5.0 x 3.8 x 3.29" 4.87 x 3.62 x 3.33" 
Weight 1.0 lb
body only 
1.12 lb body only 1.27 lb
body only
1.22 lb
body only
1.09 lb
body only
15.27 oz body only
Memory Card Type SD, SDHC, SDXC SD, SDHC, SDXC SD, SDHC, SDXC SD, SDHC, SDXC Memory Stick Pro Duo, SD, SDHC Memory Stick Duo, Memory Stick PRO HG-Duo, SD, SDHC, SDXC

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The Sony SLT-A33 has been phased out in favor of the Similar Sony SLT-A35 since August. The SLT-A35 is a tad cheaper if you purchase the lens kit, and has a better battery life. You lose the articulating screen and the uncropped 7fps though.

It might be important to some people were your charts to indicate whether a camera is compatible with the Apple iPad Camera Comnection Kit. As of last Spring the Canons have notbeen, per an email from Canon Support. It turned out that the Nikon 5100 was compatible so I had to switch.

The apple camera kit has a USB DEvice to use with all camera and its usb cord, and a SD Card reader, to use with any SD card. I have the canon T3i and i just take the memory card out of the camera and put into the SD reader connected to my ipad, and simple upload my pictures. I also have a sony compaq camera with Memory Stick, and just connect the usb cable to the second device, and work fine, and this camera arrived before the ipad or iphone, and the camera kit. Most camera are compatible with the kit, maybe your camera has any kind of problem with the kit.