It used to be that if you wanted more professional looking photographs and increasingly video than your pocket snapshot could provide, you turned to an SLR, or rather digital SLR (DSLR). For the past five years however there has been an alternative pitched at the masses. The mirror-less compact system camera (or ‘CSC’), which you might like to think of as a halfway point between that plain old point and shoot and a full blown DSLR, has offered a more portable (if not quite as razor sharp) alternative. Whilst adoption of these more approachable and portable interchangeable lens cameras soared, DSLRs sales stayed flat. However it now appears the (hot)shoe is on the other foot. Everybody who wanted to buy a CSC apparently has, so now it’s DSLR sales that are on the rise again.

So, as we head into 2014, why would you choose a full blown DSLR (or in the case of several Sony Aplha cameras, an ‘SLT’ – Single Lens Translucent) as your next camera? Well, for starters they still offer the winning combination of the largest imaging sensors around at consumer level – APS-C for entry to mid range models, and ‘full frame’ (being the size equivalent of a full frame of 35mm film) for semi pro to pro models – twinned with the biggest pieces of glass in terms of actual lenses. This combo delivers what we’d refer to as images that are professional in appearance, and thus the pinnacle for any keen amateur.

The latest DSLRs, as well as their high-end CSC equivalents, also often feature the very useful likes of an angle adjustable LCD screens that, in Live View mode, can be used to compose stills and video as an alternative to using the eye-level optical or electronic viewfinder supplied. Increasingly such cameras are also coming with the likes of GPS and Wi-Fi among the latest must haves, as well as a range of on-board digital effects filters. With it being taken as read that we get all the manual controls that one would expect of a DSLR, along with the ability to just point and shoot should we wish, what this type of camera offers is maximum versatility and most importantly the best in image quality, if not quite the portability of a smaller form factor such as the Olympus OM-D E-M1 which we’ve squeezed in here.    

So if you’re considering updating that interchangeable lens camera at the start of 2014, we’ve a sextet of options for you to choose from – four DSLRs, one ‘SLT’ and one DSLR-like compact system camera. But all of them crammed to the gunnels with the latest performance enhancing features.

Cameras featured

Canon EOS 70D

You’d be mad not to snap up this all-singing, all-dancing consumer DSLR that feels like a professional model that’s been engineered to fit a value-added budget

read review: Canon EOS 70D review

Nikon D5300

Anyone looking for their first DSLR yet one that is sophisticated enough to keep them interested for years to come is directed at the D5300

read review: Nikon D5300 review

Nikon D610

What you see is what you get with Nikon’s full frame D610, and though we don’t get Wi-Fi built into the body we do get a weather sealed chassis

read review: Nikon D610 review

Olympus OM-D E-M1

Coming after 2012’s EM-5 model, the even higher end E-M1 provides a more professional finish as well as a dust and splash proofed body

read review: Olympus OM-D E-M1 review

Pentax K-3

Pentax’s premium DSLR doesn’t offer a full frame chip or wireless compatibility built in, but the latter is instead available via an optional extra

read review: Pentax K-3 review

Sony A3000

The bargain on test, the unfussy A3000 suggests a good entry point for anyone considering their first ever DSLR – or rather ‘SLT’ – interchangeable lens camera

Read review: Sony A3000 review

SLR camera buying advice

When most everyone appears quite content to whip out their iPhone to take a picture, owning a digital SLR feels like an statement of sorts, a pledging of allegiance to the craft of photography rather than just pure convenience. However as our chosen examples here testify, for those who do want to achieve more professional results straight out of their chosen tool, there is an interchangeable lens camera – whether DSLR, ‘SLT’ or ‘CSC’ – to suit all skill sets and budgets, from the absolute bargain Sony A3000 through to the full frame D610; affordable for its ilk, even though it comes with a price tag well above the £1000 mark. But of course it depends what you are looking for from the camera.

For anyone looking to get started then the Sony A3000 is a good entry point, followed in our present company by the Nikon D5300. If we’re talking pure value for money the A3000 from Sony takes the crown by a country mile, but when you start to drill a little deeper it does start to come across as a little basic for anyone who is more enthusiastic about their photography. Though we liked the D5300 the glossy appearance puts us off more than the performance. The same is true to an extent of the Pentax K-3. We weren’t that keen on its blocky, squared edge design and big foolproof buttons, but couldn’t fault its perforamnce. Thus it provides a good alternative to the Canon EOS 70D or Nikon’s D7100, a step up again from the D5300.

In terms of response times and performance, the Canon 70D and Nikon D610 are hard to beat. If you don’t need a full frame DSLR then the Canon is obviously the one to go for, but if you do covert that bigger sensor, and don’t mind a bulkier and chunkier camera to go with it, then the Nikon is the obvious choice. A much more portable alternative to both is provided in the Olympus OM-D E-M1, though in contrast some may find its control layout just that bit too cramped because of its smaller overall form and so accessing everything they want a little fiddly. Though neither of these examples are inexpensive, they are near the pinnacle of their respective ranges, and the best never came cheap. Basically you are getting what you pay for, but if we had to choose one above all others then we would opt for the Canon EOS 70D as our current jack of all trades. Whether you want to shoot stills or video – or both – it’s an able companion, which is at the end of the day all we could ask for, and therefore a worthy test winner in present company.