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When I look around the questions on this site, I feel everyone can clearly tell what makes a DSLR camera "entry-level". But I have no clue on how to tell.

What makes a camera model "entry" level or "mid-level enthusiast" level or something else?
Do they come with an "entry-level" sticker on them somewhere? :-)
Or is it the price range (what range?), or the features (what features?), or something else?

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Entry level = lower quality sensors and electronics making the camera a lot cheaper. I have a low quality SLT camera and I can take excellent pictures with it, but it takes a lot more effort. The autofocus isn't good enough for the 20 megapixel resolution, so I often use the manual focus. This takes time so you can forget about taking fast shots with perfect resolution. Shooting at high ISO leads to poor results due to noise, so I have to use longer exposure times, which means that for many shots I have to use the tripod. –  Count Iblis Aug 10 at 21:22
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@CountIblis Please post answers as answers, not as comments. –  Philip Kendall Aug 10 at 21:23
    
@CountIblis: Instead of just saying entry-level is "low"-quality or "low"-price is there some way to quantify it (dollars, pixels, shutter speed, whatever)? What's considered low? –  Mehrdad Aug 10 at 21:24
    
There are a lot of data points that would work to quantify it, but the most significant factor would be sensor size (it's often the first thing listed in specs). If you're not looking at a full frame sensor, it's unlikely to be considered professional grade. Other considerations may be auto-focus points, burst photos per second/maximum continuous burst, etc. –  Mitch Goshorn Aug 10 at 21:32
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@CountIblis This is no longer the case today. Often, the sensors and electronics are exactly the same for everything below the professional-level, due to cost cutting measures. However, a lot of features are intentionally disabled on the entry-level cameras to differentiate them from the "better" ones, or making them easier to use. The Nikon D3200 (2012) and D7100 (2013) both have the exact same sensor, but the D3200 is about half the price. Also, the D7100 has many more knobs/dials/settings/AF-points and an extra top-LCD, but the pictures using the same settings will look exactly the same. –  jmiserez Aug 11 at 8:15

4 Answers 4

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Pragamatically speaking, entry-level means the cheapest camera any manufacturer currently offers. It can also mean the category of all such cameras — and as such, it would be theoretically possible for a company to make all or no entry-level cameras, even if they had different options. I don't know of anyone who has decided to leave the higher models off the table, but some of the niche brands like Sigma or Leica arguably have no entry level models, while one could say that both of Nikon's D3xxx and D5xxx series are entry-level. On the other hand, the Hasselblad H5D-40 is the company's "entry-level" medium format DSLR -- at $13,000.

So, overall, there is no fixed list of features, or even price category. The common factor is that entry-level models are cameras marketed at uncertain first purchasers, either first in a certain category (like first DSLR, or first medium format, or first interchangeable-lens camera), or first camera entirely. As such, the key points tend to be:

Priced as low as can be gotten away with

This in turn has two aspects: first, features are eliminated to cut costs. Second, cameras are often priced aggressively with lower margins in order to get people in the door.

Instant ease-of-use a design priority

A camera with many buttons and dials is much easier and faster to use once you've mastered the fundamentals of photography and once you know what and where the controls are on that particular camera. But this can have a steep learning curve, scaring away new users. So, entry-level cameras often have simplified user interfaces, with a high focus on automation.

Because this is a marketing construct, I'd argue that if you are really planning to enter photography, "entry-level" is not really for you. Aand, in fact I do argue this in another question on this site -- see Are there disadvantages to a prosumer camera for a beginner, aside from cost?.

Feature selection relative to market position

Cost-cutting isn't the only reason for feature selection, though. Some features are very low cost but withheld from "entry-level" models simply to avoid competing with the same brand's higher models. For Canon and Nikon, their own lines are bigger competition than Pentax, Sony, Olympus, Sigma, or etc., which means that in general, the big two tend to intentionally withhold features from the entry-level models, whereas the smaller companies actually push higher-end features "down the stack" in hopes of drawing attention and discerning buyers.

Practical consequences

Also because this is a marketing construct, it it's often the case that such cameras basically do come with a sticker which says "entry level", although it will be couched in other phrases. For example, here are the headlines on the product pages of the three main manufacturers still invested in DSLRs:

  • Nikon D3200: "Simply Effortless. Simply Stunning"
  • Canon EOS Rebel T3: "The Beauty of Simplicity"
  • Pentax K-500: "Beyond Basics" (but note that the first line of copy after that is "Jump right into digital photography with a comfortable, approachable DSLR, paired with high quality specifications that go above and beyond entry level...")

The theme here is Entry-level cameras are marketed as able to produce beautiful, stunning images with little effort. Everything else, from the features available to the construction to the price point is really in service of that message. The fundamental goal is to hook you into photography and into that specific brand, so you buy accessories, lenses, and eventually, hopefully, a more expensive body with higher profit margins.

As a rough generalization in the current market, entry level DSLR models:

  • are made less tough (cheaper materials, lower shutter count rating, no weather sealing)
  • come with a low-cost, versatile zoom lens (usually 18-55mm), because buying lenses is intimidating and the targeted buyer won't have any to begin with
  • pentamirror instead of more expensive pentaprism, and generally a lower-cost viewfinder
  • have less sophisticated autofocus — slower, fewer points to select from
  • have no top LCD or dual control wheels — not just added expense, but they look hard
  • emphasize "scene modes" and other hand-holding features, and other more advanced software-based features like auto-bracketing may be missing

The overall category of entry-level DSLRs usually have APS-C or smaller sensors, but, as in this review, one can consider cameras like the Canon EOS 6D or the Nikon D610 entry level within their category. Additionally, not all cameras with smaller-than-35mm-film sensors are entry level, with some nice "mid-tier", "intermediate", or "prosumer" APS-C models in the $1000-$2000 price range. Or, consider Nikon's 1 line, which features a smaller-than-APS C sensor. There, the "S" models like the Nikon 1 S2 are designed to be "entry level" and the "V" models like the Nikon 1 V3 are the "flagship" models — all with the same sensor size.

Another particular quirk of DSLR Nikon's lineup is that the lower models do not contain a motor to drive autofocus on lenses without a built-in motor. There's a general trend towards lens-based AF motors (and in fact, all Canon cameras have no motor in the body), so this may or may not be an issue, but if you want wide lens compatibility it's worth considering -- to Nikon, this was something reasonably left out of the entry-level.

Pentax's current "entry-level" model, the K-500, demonstrates the "smaller maker" effect here, as that model has dual control dials and a 100%-view pentaprism finder. In fact, on that page, the marketing copy includes the phrase "beyond entry level" -- but this clearly is an "entry level" model. (This isn't meant to be a pitch for Pentax, although I do use a higher-model Pentax myself; there are other balancing considerations which clearly make the entry-level models from other makers appealing, although as I previously noted I think that anyone serious about getting into photography should look at a higher segment anyway.)

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Entry-level is relative to current competition.

A few years back, semipro/professional level cameras were lacking many features that even entrylevel cameras have now; for example auto-ISO, sensor cleaning mechanisms etc.

Here's a list of classic entry-level features that's remained more or less true for since around 2003 - when the worlds arguably first entry-level DSLR, the Canon EOS 300D was introduced:

  • APS-C sized sensor (smaller than full frame)
  • Small, lightweight plastic camera body (as opposed to magnesium alloy, for example)
  • Very rarely has weather sealing
  • Relatively slow and limited burst capabilites
  • Inability to use some advanced functions such as mirror lock-up, setting of second or firstcurtatin flash sync etc (if you don't know what it is, you'll probably not miss it)
  • Slower to operate; more need to go into menus instead of direct-access buttons. Compare for example the dual wheel design of Canon's 10D-70D lineup, whereas their entry-level has buttons, making it much more tedious to scroll through photos
  • Shutter not rated; prolevel cameras often have shutters rated to be able to snap 150,000+ photos
  • Low price

It's interesting to note though, that entry-level or semi-pro cameras actually deliver many functions before they make their way into the semipro/pro level cameras. That's probably because they may seem superficial, or toy-like at first, or just not be necessary/appealing at the semipro/pro level, like swivel screen, GPS or WiFi. Eventually though, they seem to make their way into the semipro/pro cameras as well (less likely the more 'pro' the camera is rated)

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So which pro level body has a swivel screen, GPS, or Wi-Fi built in? –  Michael Clark Aug 10 at 21:55
    
+1 great answer so far, thanks! –  Mehrdad Aug 10 at 22:10
    
@MichaelClark The Canon EOS 6D has WiFi and GPS built in, not swiwel though. –  Jan 'Saffi' Stekelgunsson Aug 10 at 22:25
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@MichaelClark Agreed. Well, I guess it solidifies my argument, that some features start in entry/enthusiast cameras, and then eventually only may end up in pro cameras. Which may be counter-intuitive at first. –  Jan 'Saffi' Stekelgunsson Aug 10 at 23:06
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At some point, Pentax's entry-level model has had weather sealing. –  mattdm Aug 11 at 2:07

I consider the cheapest DSLR from a particular manufacturer during a point in time to be their entry-level model.

It is as easy as that. I don't agree with any further detailed description. The same logic can be applied to just about anything, such as an entry-level car in the Ford Motor Company's lineup which is currently the Ford Fiesta in North America. But you could also apply it to an entry-level SUV in Fords lineup, or an entry-level Truck. Similarly Canon has entry level point and shoot cameras but also entry level DSLR cameras.

With the dictionary definition, the grouping includes any basic camera or any camera for a beginner, but clearly what is a basic camera or who a beginner is open to interpretation.

From Oxford Dictionaries:

(Of a product) suitable for a beginner or first-time user; basic

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I disagree. The Canon EOS 1D was at one point Canon's cheapest DSLR, but it was hardly called entry-level. It was a pro camera even though it was the relatively cheapest. Entry-level assumes some kind of tranistional possibilites in the product line up. There are also several features that's been consistent of entrylevel DSLRs for as long as they've existed, which I'd say is useful information to the OP. –  Jan 'Saffi' Stekelgunsson Aug 10 at 22:31
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@jan that's fine that you disagree. I believe the answer is much more simple than you have made it. No need for a book to be written on this question. –  dpollitt Aug 10 at 22:47
    
@Jan'Saffi'Stekelgunsson You could also argue what a "pro camera" is all day and night. Sure when a brand new product category appears(or the first for Canon) the model may be the only one that exists, so it is both the entry level model and the high end model. You can poke holes through my answer but it is as simple and straight forward as I made it for every case unless we want to argue unimportant details and or examples. –  dpollitt Aug 11 at 0:25
    
I basically agree, although I think it's possible that some smaller makers do not really have an entry-level model at all. Additionally, one could reasonably argue that Nikon has two entry-level lines in the D3xxx and D5xxx series. –  mattdm Aug 11 at 7:56
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Another reason to disagree with the letter (if not the spirit) of this, taking Canon as an example: the 1000D series (1100, 1200...) is undoubtedly entry-level. The 300D series was by your definition when introduced - and still really is by both other answers and your ODO quote (similar to @mattdm's Nikon answer, and in fact the 1000D has similar specs to my old 350D with the bigger sensor and digic III from the 400D). Some would even count the later models in the 10D series as entry level by the non-full-frame definition - and the 7D is a bit of an oddity being rather like an APS-C 5DMkII. –  Chris H Aug 11 at 13:36

The practical answer to this one is "has the same set of features as the cheapest models from Canon and Nikon" - Canon and Nikon because between those two companies they own the overwhelming majority of the DSLR market, and also because their cheapest models tend to be very similar in terms of features.

The actual set of features will vary a bit with time, but as of mid-2014 some of the biggest differences between "entry level" and "enthusiast" models are:

These differences have been pretty consistent for the past few years, but I make no predictions about the future.

It is worth noting at this point that Pentax, the "3rd player" in the SLR space (ignoring Sony for the minute as they haven't released a low-end SLR/SLT model for a few years), have had a tendency to release low-end models which are competitively priced with those from Canon and Nikon, but which do have dual control dials and pentaprism viewfinders, if not top LCDs. However, their cheapest models also tend to end up being classified as "entry level" as they're competing with the cheapest models from Canon and Nikon.

One other thing perhaps worth mentioning is that the cheapest mirrorless cameras will tend to have a feature set below that of SLRs, almost certainly due to the marketing of those models as "point and shoot upgrades", so if you're comparing between a mirrorless camera and an SLR, you may need to look at the second or third model up in the mirrorless range to get an equivalent feature set to the cheapest SLRs.

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