Here's your guide to finding a DSLR camera that's right for you

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Tue July 2, 2019

Searching for a camera online can be intimidating. There are countless models, from digital point-and-shoot to DSLR and even the newer mirrorless cameras. However, we're here to cut through some of the confusion and help you purchase the right DSLR camera.

Digital single-lens reflex cameras are popular with photographers from beginners to experts. They come in many sizes, with interchangeable lenses to help you get the perfect shot. Plus with an optical viewfinder, you can see in real time what you'll be capturing.

These are a substantial upgrade from that camera you have in your pocket -- yes, I'm talking about the camera on your phone. You can control more aspects of the shot, feel and hear a physical shutter, and get a dedicated device for photography.

Generally, the kits we're recommending will come with the frame and a lens, along with a strap, a battery and of course a manual. You'll be able to use them right out of the box.

Let's go through a few more basics -- but if you can't wait that long to score a DSLR, these are our go-to models:

What makes a DSLR a DSLR?

Simply put, a digital single-lens reflex camera is a professional camera. Journalists and sports photographers trust them for catching crucial shots -- but they're also perfect for capturing family memories in high quality photos.

In the simplest terms, a DSLR has a mirror that reflects the image that comes through the lens into a viewfinder, allowing you to see it. This lets you see what you're shooting in real time and will let you frame a shot in real time. As the light passes from the mirror to the viewfinder, it goes through a prism or another set of mirrors that creates the image.

If you find that the image you're seeing doesn't capture the whole picture, there are several modes built into DSLRs. You can easily twist the lens to zoom in or out. And DSLRs have interchangeable lenses so you can swap out a standard for a wide-angle or one that has an advanced zoom. You can also customize the sensitivity of the image sensor, white balance, focus methods and even the core shooting mode.

The mirrors inside the DSLR cameras allow you to really see what you're going to get for the most part, even when you play around with the settings. Since it's not broadcasting a live viewfinder on the screen on the back (by default), you can save battery by using the optical viewfinder. And in most cases, you can preview the shot on the back of the camera if you choose to.

One other important aspect is where the images or videos are saved. While point-and-shoots and smartphones have internal storage, many DSLRs do not have storage built in. Instead, you will need to use an SD card or a microSD card in an SD card adapter to save images and videos. Within the settings on the DSLR, you can choose what type of file to create and the quality.

Two big names: Canon vs. Nikon

In the world of DSLR cameras, and photography as a whole, the two big names are Canon and Nikon. Both of these companies have a long history in this sector and offer DSLR cameras for beginners, those with some experience, advanced and professional users.

As they compete, in recent years both have added new features that offer additional value for the price. Both base models pack in several shooting modes, with Wi-Fi built in and the ability to also record video.

Here are our top picks:

For beginners who want a basic model: Nikon D3500 ($449.95, originally $499.95; nikon.com)

Nikon's D3500 is our choice for the beginner who's been hurting for a DSLR. For $449.95, you score the D3500 bundle and an 18-55mm lens that features vibration reduction. It's a basic DSLR with a relatively compact design that can do a lot and be taken almost anywhere. With Bluetooth built in, it can make your transition from a smartphone to a full-on camera a bit easier, since you can control portions of the DSLR with a companion iOS or Android app. It also allows for easy image and video transfer, although that content will also be saved to the SD card.

With 24.2 megapixels and auto mode, you can capture a good image with ease. You can also record video with the tap of a button at 1080p HD at 60p (60 frames per second). And while the 18-55mm lens is a trooper for beginners, you can also swap it out for other lenses. Just make sure it's a Nikon model that is compatible.

With a list price of just under $500, and regularly going on sale, the D3500 offers a great value for the price.

An excellent user interface paired with solid hardware: Canon EOS Rebel T7i ($699.99, originally $899.99; shop.usa.canon.com)

If you're willing to spend a bit more, the Canon EOS Rebel T7i is a good model to consider. Like the D3500 from Nikon, it has an 18-55mm lens. In our testing, we found that the T7i offered a bit more for the value and that the user interface is a bit easier to navigate. It still packs in 24.2 megapixels and the ability to record 1080p video at 60p. But this solid shooter feels sturdy in hand and has more pro features built in.

The most significant improvement is a 45-point autofocus system that does a great job of quickly focusing in on what you want. It's great for action shots like a sports game, a wriggling puppy or a fast-moving car. You also get several other shooting modes and plenty more customizations. It has a 3-inch touchscreen on the back so you can navigate the entire interface with a finger.

Enhanced autofocus and 4K recording: Nikon D7500 ($1,196.95, originally $1,496.95; bhphotovideo.com)

You might be noticing a trend with pricing -- it can go up quickly with DSLRs. However, Nikon's D7500 is closer to a pro model, and certainly at the intermediate level, including all the features from the base 3500 along with many new ones. It makes use of a 20.9-megapixel DX image sensor with a faster processor. And while this is fewer megapixels than the previous, it's a more enhanced sensor. It produces images that are crisp and clear, with less noise than entry-level DSLRs. It uses a 51-point autofocus system, which comes in handy.

It can also record full 4K with a resolution of 3840 x 2160. Plus it has plenty of connectivity, with the ability to transfer photos through Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. It's also a relatively compact model that gives you easy access for control.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailers' listed prices at the time of publication.