Everytime I revisit this post I have a harder time recomending one model/brand over another – at this point all of the cameras on this list are excellent and will produce superb images under normal conditions.  It is important that you read over the pros and cons of each and decide what is right for you.  I encourage you to ask questions via twitter(@camerarec), leaving a comment or using the chat window to the right.  I am here to help and guide you toward the best camera for YOU!  Prices can and do fluctuate a good bit. If your budget is very tight check with me, I am happy to try and hunt down a deal or make alternate recommendations based on your needs.

Keeping it short and sweet. . .

The very short & sweet guide:

My Recs [<$500 = Buy a used XSi,  Budget($650) = Nikon D3100,  $800-$1000 = Canon T3i,  $1000-$1500 = Nikon D7000,  Above $1500 = Canon 7D]

Slightly longer  guide:

Budget (~ $600)

Best of the bunch: Nikon D3100

Buy a Nikon D3100 14MP, 1080P video @ 24 FPS, very user friendly with guide mode, full time auto focus in video mode*,  Good low light performance at this price point (~$650)

Cheaper but without video functions-
Buy a used Canon XSi 10 MP megapixels, Live View, 3″ LCD with 230K resolution (~$400)

*The Autofocus used during video is slow and somewhat noisy, meaning the on camera mic will record the sound of the camera focusing.  If you want to capture your child in a play or a predictable sporting event the AF is fine.  If you are trying to capture someone or something moving in unpredictable patterns you may find yourself frustrated as the AF “hunts” for focus lock.   If you are planning on doing more serious video you should consider the Canon T3i(below) and learn to manual focus. Another benefit of the T3i and D5100 is the addition of a mic port, letting you connect an external microphone and getting much better audio quality.

$700 – $1000

Best of the bunch: Canon T3i (But . . .)

Canon T3i (600D) Nikon D5100 Panasonic GH2
18MP – Auto, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, (12800 with boost) ISO 16MP – Auto, 100- 6400 (plus 12800, 25600 with boost) ISO 16MP – Auto, Intelligent ISO, 160, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, 12800 ISO
Video: 1920 x 1080 (30, 25, 24 fps), 1280 x 720 (60, 50 fps), 640 x 480 (60, 50 fps) 1920 x 1080 (30, 25, 24 fps), 1280 x 720 (30, 25, 24 fps), 640 x 424 (30, 25 fps) 1920 x 1080 (24, 60fps) 1280 x 720 (30 fps), 848 x 480 (30 fps), 640 x 480 (30fps), 320 x 240 (30fps)
LCD: Articulated 3″ 1,040,000 dots Articulated 3″ 921,000 dots Articulated 3″ 460,000 dots
The T3i builds on a very succesful and popular T2i that feels like it was released just yesterday. The obvious change is the articulaed LCD screen, a gorgeous 1 million dot articulating LCD appeals to both the photographer reviewing their shots, you can really tell if the focus is sharp and the videographer that wants to shoot at odd angles. Inside the camera is using the same sensor as the 7D, performance and quality is excellent though at low light the D5100 outperforms. An internal change from the T2i is the ability to wireleslsy control multiple flashes (or just one) giving the budding photographer a great way to get creative lighting shots without resorting to expensive radio triggers. Final note the ergonomics have been tweaked and getting excellent reviews from both a how it feels when you hold it and ease of adjustments. 

Bottom line – Lots of features are packed into this camera that provides the beginner photographer/videographer plenty of room to grow.

Shares a sensor with the excellent D7000 so you know you will get excellent still images and at this price point superb low light performance though the difference isn’t THAT great when compared against the T3i. Video performance is capable if you are serious about video the additional frame rates of the T3i provide greater flexibility in shooting. Some complaints about the redesign layout, not as friendly, especially when adjusting settings in manual mode as the T3i. Camera also lacks an inbody focus motor, this means some lenses will not AF on the camera, though as I write this Nikon is announcing a 50mm f/1.8 that makes this less of an issue. 

Bottom line – There is lots of camera to love here but if you are serious about photography the T3i gives you more room to grow, and if you’re not serious about photography you should consider the D3100 and save a few dollars.

The GH2 is not a true DSLR, no mirror that directs what the lens sees to the viewfinder. And the sensor is a smaller 4/3 sensor, smaller than the APS-C size of the T3i and the D5100. Smaller sensor usually means poor low light performance but the GH2 is really impressive and in a smaller body you get performance nearly on par with the two other cameras in this class especially up to ISO 3200. Where the GH2 really shines is in video control and performance. 

Bottom line – Fantastic controls, features and options make this an excellent video machine that also happens to take solid still photos and all in a slightly smaller package. You do pay for this performance in a smaller package.

Wireless flash control, Auto focus capabilities with cheap 50mm prime lens, 60,50 fps at 720, very good build and button placement, video clip mode (stiches multiple short video clips into one longer video), video zoom 3x-10x Beginner friendly, full time autofocus during video*see note about D3100 above, better lowlight performance, built in HDR Micro 4/3 camera (means smaller sensor and no mirror) uses an electronic viewfinder and touch screen LCD for controls. 60fps at 1080p and excellent autofocus with built in stereo mic.
Canon EOS Rebel T3i Nikon D5100 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2


$1000 – $1500

Best of the bunch:  Nikon D7000

Buy a Nikon D7000 ($1499 w/ 18-105 lens)
16MP, Excellent low-light performance, HD video, 920k LCD , 100% viewfinder, built in wireless flash capabilities, dual SD card slots

Buy a Canon 60D ($1399 w/ 18-135 lens)
Same sensor as t2i and 7D = same image and video options/quality. What sets 60D apart is articulating LCD, manual audio controls for shooting video and a build that is still plastic and similar to the rebel line but w/ top LCD and a more solid(good) feel.

> $1500

Canon’s 7D 18MP, 100% viewfinder, Dual DIGIC 4 and new AutoFocus are great.  Stellar HD video. Excellent build quality (weather sealed & ergonomics). More here (~$1499)

Buy a D300s12MP w/ 18-200mm VR II Lens – Not full frame but excellent quality, low-light performance and video in a much more affordable package (~$2500 w/ very nice 18-200 lens) (~$1800 body only)

> $2500

Buy a 5D Mark II 21.1MP Full Frame 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM Lens – Gorgeous giant images and jaw dropping HD video (~$3000)

If you buy a Canon take a moment to look at my recommended lens list.

This list covers the basics, if you are considering any of these cameras find me on twitter(@camerarec) and let’s talk about which is best for you

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 Box Canyon Tunnel on the descent from Paradise, Mt Ranier National Park Captured with the #GH5 and 12-35 f/2.8
 My niece giving me that look. From early morning family adventures in Saguaro National Park, Arizona
 Friday we head to Glacier National Park for a week of photography - I am excited to teach in this beautiful park. The park is packed with towering peaks, glacial carved valleys, and loads of gorgeous streams and waterfalls. I will be using this travel to test some gear. What in the box are you most interested in? What piece of gear would you love to see reviewed at Photorec.tv?

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