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Cheap DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras Buying Guide

For this buying guide, we considered not only cheap DSLR cameras but also the new crop of compact system or mirrorless cameras, which have become popular in the past few years. These models have interchangeable lenses and are capable of shooting SLR-quality photos but are smaller than most DSLRs and operate a little differently.

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Basically, as you prepare to snap a picture with a DSLR, the image coming through the lens bounces off a mirror to an optical viewfinder, so you can see what you'll be shooting. When you press the shutter button, the mirror flips out of the way, and the image is captured on the sensor. (This design can be traced back to film SLRs.) Compact system cameras do away with the mirror and optical viewfinder in favor of an electronic viewfinder and/or LCD on the back of the camera. There are advantages and disadvantages to mirrorless cameras, as an expert at Photography Life explains in some detail.

Whether you're looking for a cheap DSLR or a compact system camera, you'll find plenty of familiar names, including Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and Sony. Our favorite DSLR camera is the Canon EOS Rebel SL1 (starting at $599), followed by the Nikon D3300 (starting at $597). Among mirrorless cameras, we like the Sony A3000 (starting at $348) and Panasonic Lumix GF6 (starting at $449). We found that Canon's mirrorless EOS M (starting at $329) and the Pentax K-50 DSLR (starting at $597) don't measure up to competitors.

The prices listed above include a basic "kit" lens. If you already own a lens or two -- even from an old film camera -- you can save money by purchasing the body only. Regardless, you probably want to stick with the same brand when buying a new camera, because each company makes proprietary lenses and mounts. In other words, you can't take a Nikon lens and pop it onto a Canon camera -- it simply won't click into place.

A critical bit of information about lenses (and this is non-negotiable): Before using a new camera or lens, you should immediately buy a UV filter, screw it onto the lens, and leave it there. It won't affect your photos and costs only about $7 to $15, whereas a replacement for a scratched lens can easily cost more than a cheap DSLR camera.

What We Looked for in the Specs

Interchangeable Lenses.

Whether they are cheap DSLRs or mirrorless cameras, all the models we recommend can be used with a variety of lenses, from telephoto lenses for zooming in on faraway subjects to wide-angle lenses for taking in beautiful landscapes. In many cases, you can use the same lens on a $500 DSLR as on a $1,500 DSLR. Note that even cameras with the same brand name may have different lens mounts and different sets of compatible lenses. For example, the Sony A3000 uses Sony E-mount lenses, whereas the Sony A58 (starting at $448) takes A-mount lenses. The Canon EOS M is compatible with only two Canon lenses unless you buy an adapter.

Large Sensor.

As Gizmag explains, the conversation surrounding megapixels has distracted consumers from the real issue: sensor size. In general, the larger the image sensor, the better the picture quality. Expensive DSLR cameras have full-frame sensors, so-called because they are the same size as a 35-millimeter film frame. Cheap DSLRs use smaller APS-C image sensors. Many mirrorless cameras use another type of sensor known as Micro Four Thirds, which was developed by Olympus and Panasonic specifically for digital systems and is the smallest of the three. Still, it dwarfs the sensors on point-and-shoot and smartphone cameras and can get quite expensive. The Olympus OM-D E-M10 is a Four Thirds camera that starts at $699.

Image Stabilization.

Here's a simple fact that any photographer must understand: If you shoot a photo with a slow shutter speed, it will suffer the effects of camera shake. (No matter how steady you think you're holding the camera, it's still shaking a little.) Image stabilization corrects for this, helping prevent blurry images. Unlike some point-and-shoots, most DSLRs don't have optical image stabilization built into the body of the camera. Rather, that functionality lies in the lens, so be sure to look for it in any additional lenses you buy. Mirrorless cameras are more likely to include optical image stabilization in the body, as the Sony A3000 and Panasonic Lumix GF6 do.

Viewfinder and LCD With Live View.

Point-and-shoot users are used to composing photos with the LCD on the back of the camera. On a digital SLR, this capability is known as "live view," and not all cheap DSLRs have it. Instead, users must look through a viewfinder to compose a photo. The best DSLR cameras for beginners, including the Nikon D3300, Canon EOS Rebel SL1, and Sony A58, have live view in addition to an optical viewfinder. Conversely, most mirrorless models forgo a viewfinder, for the sake of keeping the camera small and lightweight, and rely exclusively on an LCD. The Sony A3000 does include an electronic viewfinder, or EVF. This is like a mini LCD that mimics an optical viewfinder and isn't especially common in budget cameras.

Although live view is an easy way to compose a picture, it can be difficult to see in bright light and drain the battery faster than using a viewfinder. The image can also lag while you're setting up the photo -- a problem that optical viewfinders don't have, as they simply show the scene as it bounces off the camera's mirror. If you plan to take a lot of action photos, you will probably prefer a camera with an optical viewfinder.

HD Video.

Most cameras these days shoot video as well as photos. The ones recommended here can record in full 1080p HD. The Nikon D3300 captures full HD video at frame rates up to 60 frames per second, which is pretty impressive. Video quality is generally good across the board, according to online reviews, although it can be challenging for budget cameras to maintain focus while recording video. Still, with a good budget DSLR in hand, there's little need for a separate camcorder.

Long Battery Life.

Manufacturers measure battery life by the approximate number of pictures a camera can shoot before the battery needs recharging. Testing is based on a standard procedure set by the Camera & Imaging Products Association. Compact system cameras tend to have shorter battery lives than DSLRs. For example, the Nikon D3300 digital SLR can shoot about 700 photos between charges, while the mirrorless Panasonic Lumix GF6 is good for about 340 photos. Remember that battery life also depends on how you use the camera. If you record a lot of video or use live view (the only option on the Lumix GF6, which doesn't have a viewfinder), the batteries will drain much faster. The Canon EOS Rebel SL1 can crank out about 480 shots through the viewfinder but only about 160 with live view.

Review continues below

What We Ignored in the Specs

Resolution.

Believe it or not, this is a feature that doesn't deserve much attention. Once upon a time, cameras with resolutions of more than 6MP were pretty pricey. Today, 16MP is merely the starting point for an entry-level DSLR. A sharp-looking 8x10 photo requires only about 5MP. At a resolution even as high as 10MP, you can dramatically increase the photo's size while retaining sharp detail. All the cameras we researched have ample resolution for almost any photo task, ranging from about 16MP on the Panasonic Lumix GF6 to about 24MP on the Nikon D3300.

by Michael Sweet (Google+ Profile)

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