But before we begin, a brief note about Mirrorless and DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex).
DSLR is the type of camera you will see most professional photographers using. They are characterised by their high image quality, speed in focusing, and flexibility with lens. They also work very well in low light. However, they are also very heavy in comparison to most cameras, some weighing as much as 3lb, WITHOUT the attached lens. Still, they are considered the standard for enthusiast and professional photography.
Mirrorless cameras, on the other hand, are going through a sort of revolution. In recent years, the picture quality and focusing on these cameras have gotten much better. The main difference between DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras is the relative lack of moving parts. This means that you can shoot continuously and get more shots on a mirrorless camera. This is not a universal rule, but getting above 10 shots a second is much cheaper on a mirrorless camera. In addition, mirrorless cameras are better for shooting video. There are options for getting to the burgeoning new 4k resolution standard in mirrorless cameras, while no DSLRs currently offer 4k video. The major downfalls of mirrorless (which are becoming less prominent each year) are battery life, focus speed, viewfinder accuracy, and lens variety. But if you plan to shoot a lot of video, or even sports that feature players that move more predictably (like baseball or football), you might want to look at mirrorless camera options.
That said, let’s talk about budget cameras.
Nikon D3300 - Amazon / eBay
The Nikon D3300, released in 2014, is the best option for raw power and quality for under $500. It image quality and low light performance are second to none for cameras at it’s price mark. In addition it has access to Nikons wide range of lenses making it easy to upgrade from the 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 kit lens that comes with the camera. Like most Nikons, it may take a moments to get used to the customizable controls, but after a day or two of playing with functions, you can start experimenting and using your camera like a pro. Some notable features that come with the camera are 1080p video at 60 frames a second(fps), an external microphone port, continuous focus while in movie mode, and in-camera panoramic photos. It’s difficult to justify any other camera over the Nikon D3300 based on sheer photo taking quality.
Buying guide: Do NOT be tempted by the kit purchases you find, especially the ones on eBay. While they are a good value, the retailer selling these items justify the cost by selling low quality lens, tripods, bags and memory cards. With higher end photography, it is better to spend once and spend well: buy quality items and do your research. Don’t invest in a $30 tripod, for example, if you a.) don’t need a tripod, and b.) because $30 tripods are made of cheap plastic and are prone to breaking months after purchase. Save money, and either buy the camera with just the body (note that body only means no lens; the camera will not function without a lens) or with the 18-55mm kit lens. More options are available, but those will bring you above the $500 price mark in this guide. Just be sure that the lens that comes with the camera is made by Nikkor. Happy hunting!
Canon SL1 (Amazon / eBay)
If the Nikon offers the best pure image taking, the Canon SL1 is a class above in convenience. Canon boasts that the camera is the world’s smallest DSLR, and it difficult to challenge that brag. The camera weighs less than a pound, and is just about the size of an orange. Despite it’s small size, it is compatible with Canon’s 220 EF lenses and comes loaded with features, including continuous focus during movie taking, a touch screen for direct interaction with your image, 1080p recording at 30fps, built-in HDR, and external microphone jacks. It does suffer a bit in low light situations and it’s image quality is not quite up to par with the Nikon D3300, but generally these are only issues when seeing the two operate side by side. Many pros have purchased an SL1 as an easy to carry secondary camera, and it’s powerful feature set and compact size have opened the world of SLRs to those who didn’t like the bulk before. An excellent camera.
Buying guide: The same rules apply as before: be wary of lenses and other accessories without brand names. While the bargain hunter in you may cry out for bargain priced bundles, non-brand names can often be counterfeit or not what they are advertised to be (for example, a memory card that reads as a 16GB but is actually no more than 2GB in capacity.)
Of particular note for the SL1, there are two solid options for your first lens: the camera comes bundled with either the 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 or the 40mm f2.8. The 18-55mm is a great starting lens, and is better suited for general use because of its ability to zoom, but the 40mm is an interesting choice. While the 40mm lacks zoom (you will have to physically walk forward and backward to frame your shot) the f2.8 is a key feature. It will allow for better low light performance, and give your shots the glamour feel that is synonymous with wide aperture settings. Also, because the lens has no zoom, shots will tend to come out sharper and crisper. This is simply a happy reality of prime lenses (lenses that have no zoom feature.)
Sony Alpha A5100 (Amazon / eBay)
The Sony Alpha A5100 is a bit of a middleman when it comes to higher end cameras. It’s aimed at an audience that enjoys the point and click experience and comes equipped with a flip out screen for selfies and wifi functionality for quick uploads. But it also features full manual control and a high end image sensor for those that wish to take the more serious route to photography.
While it is an odd entry because of the aforementioned, it’s a great camera that can take you from hobbyist to enthusiast without spending more than $500. It has all the features of a high end SLR, like 6 frames per second burst shooting (for sports), access to Sony’s range of E-Mount lenses, and a sensor that performs decently in low light.
Still, if you can see past the somewhat labyrinthine menu, you will find a solid point and shoot camera that fits easily into your pocket and has the potential to capture very high quality shots.
Buying guide: While with the SLR’s it is important to be wary of fake items and cheap lenses, mirrorless cameras are still relatively new to this world, and because of that lenses for these cameras will almost always be of decent to good quality. For a safe bet, stick with the lenses Sony lists on their website.
In terms of the all-too-frequent bundle you find on Amazon and eBay, be careful when buying memory cards (a memory card that reads as a 16GB may actually be no more than 2GB in capacity if it is not from a reliable brand) and tripods. Cheap tripods are common, but they are cheap for a reason. This kind of equipment is designed to hold your new camera, and while these are on the cheaper end for high end cameras, you still do not want $500 of fragile hardware tipping over or falling suddenly. A general rule, if the tripod is less than $100, use caution. With that out of the way, bundles can offer a lot of gear for a budget price. Generally, you don’t have to worry too much about a carrying case’s quality, as, unless you plan on kicking the bag from site to site, you can probably manage it gingerly enough to make the purchase worth it. Filters are usually just tinted glass, and lense wipes are generally cheap.
In short: Stick to lenses Sony endorses, when buying bundles do NOT expect much from the tripods and memory cards, and when looking at these items separately, make sure the memory cards are name brand, and read reviews about the tripod BEFORE purchase.
Panasonic Lumix GF7 (Amazon / eBay)
Just like the comparison between the two SLR cameras, the Panasonic entry to this list is a great camera, but not quite as good as the previous model (Sony Alpha A5100.) It falls short on almost every category, but only by a very small margin. It shares nearly every feature, has a slightly easier to use menu system, is a little lighter, but in terms of battery life, lens selection, image quality and burst fps, the GF7 is just a little behind.
However, all of this is made up for by (at the time of writing) a significantly smaller price point. Most entries for this camera place it close to $100 cheaper than the A5100. This means you can focus more on getting a lens you like, getting a bigger memory card, or investing in an accessory. It’s important to note that the differences between the GF7 are mostly negligible. The Sony is a superior camera, but it’s up to the buyer to decide if the small bump in specs is worth the relatively large price increase.
Also of note, though this is subject to personal taste, the GF7 is a very nice looking camera with a vintage feel. In hand, it feels a little cheaper than the A5100 due to plastic buttons on the back, but for it’s price point, it still reaches that premium sheen of much more expensive cameras.
Buying guide: The buying guide for this is largely the same as the Sony A5100. Lean towards Lumix lenses, be wary of off brand memory cards, and do not trust cheap tripods.
So to recap: In terms of the all-too-frequent bundle you find on Amazon and eBay, be careful when buying memory cards (a memory card that reads as a 16GB may actually be no more than 2GB in capacity if it is not from a reliable brand) and tripods. Cheap tripods are common, but they are cheap for a reason. This kind of equipment is designed to hold your new camera, and while these are on the cheaper end for high end cameras, you still do not want $500 of fragile hardware tipping over or falling suddenly. A general rule, if the tripod is less than $100, use caution. With that out of the way, bundles can offer a lot of gear for a budget price. Generally, you don’t have to worry too much about a carrying case’s quality, as, unless you plan on kicking the bag from site to site, you can probably manage it gingerly enough to make the purchase worth it. Filters are usually just tinted glass, and lense wipes are generally cheap.
So there you have it. Getting into enthusiast photography does not have to break the bank. There are plenty more options out there, and every year there will be a new budget camera that challenges the old. This guide is just to wet your feet: don’t be hesitant to do your own research. Models and prices are changing all the time.
But whatever you do, remember to share your photography. There are plenty of social media and photography websites out there to help you do this, and some even let you put an additional creative spin on it by showcasing your photos in a professional quality slideshow.
Be enthusiastic, make mistakes, practice, learn and above all else, never stop shooting. Happy hunting, and happy holidays.