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Cheap DSLRs Buying Guide
Most consumers looking for a cheap digital camera stick with compact, user-friendly point-and-shoot cameras. Point-and-shoots are certainly capable of taking fine pictures, but serious and frugal shutterbugs crave something more than point-and-shoots can deliver.
You'll find plenty of familiar names when looking to buy a cheap DSLR. Most point-and-shoot-camera makers, including Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, and even Sony, also offer DSLR lines. As you'd expect, digital SLRs are more expensive than point-and-shoots, but we found several top digital SLR cameras at cheap prices. If you're interested in taking the leap from a point-and-shoot camera to a DSLR, you can do so without making a huge financial commitment.
Most cheap DSLRs have quite a bit in common with high-end DSLRs. You can use the same lens in a $500 DSLR or a $1,500 DSLR, for instance. High-end DSLRs typically are designed for professional users, though, so they include the best of everything -- for example, the best digital image sensors available. (A digital image sensor is a chip that captures an image when you take a photo.) Aside from the quality difference, sensors on upscale cameras may be larger than what's included in cheap DSLRs. You won't find a budget camera with a full-size image sensor (i.e., the same size as a 35 mm film frame), which is more expensive than the smaller sensors found in most cheap DSLRs. So if professional-level features are a priority, know that high-end DSLRs are real wallet-breakers: A Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, with its full-size image sensor, for example, will set you back about $2,500.
You don't need to buy a professional-quality DSLR camera to take great photos, however. Most DSLRs fall into the "prosumer" category, meaning that they have plenty of features for professional photographers but are still priced well within a consumer's range. A few years ago, even the cheapest, most basic DSLR camera would have cost at least $800. Today's entry-level DSLRs are better than ever, and our picks for the best cheap DSLR cameras cost less than $500. They have higher resolutions than those older, pricier models, which means you can take very sharp, detailed photos. You can also enlarge high-resolution photos to 8x10 or larger without losing picture quality.
While all the cheap DSLRs we found take high-quality photos, the Canon EOS Rebel T3 (starting at $479) stands out for its excellent image quality. The A390 from Sony's Alpha series (starting at $499) is one of the best cheap DSLR cameras for first-time users, as it's easy to use and snaps pretty decent photos. The Nikon D3000 (starting at $459) also takes sharp photos using a CCD image sensor and earns praise for its user interface. However, it lacks features found on the best cheap DSLR cameras. The Olympus PEN E-PL1 (starting at $418) keeps up with our favorites when it comes to features and photo quality, but its slow speed is a real drag on performance.
DSLR cameras do have one notable limitation: Not all DSLR lenses work in all DSLRs. Digital camera makers use their own proprietary lenses and proprietary connections for those lenses. So, you can't take a Nikon D3000 DSLR lens and pop it into a Canon EOS Rebel camera -- it simply won't click into place. Bear in mind that when you choose a cheap digital SLR camera, you're also buying into that brand's lens system. This isn't a major issue because top digital SLR camera makers usually make good lenses as well as good cameras, but it is something to be aware of. If you already have lenses for a particular brand of camera, you may want to stick with that brand when buying a new cheap digital SLR. One more thing to note: A handful of aftermarket DSLR lens makers make lenses for several brands of cameras. Sigma and Tamron, for example, make DSLR lenses for Canon, Nikon, Sony and others. Usually, these aftermarket lenses are a bit cheaper than the name-brand lenses made by the manufacturers.
Best Cheap DSLRs
Good Cheap DSLRs
Nikon makes some of the very best cameras in the world, but it doesn't seem to have figured out how to deliver a top budget DSLR at the right price. The D3000 takes good photos but lacks quite a few features found in other cameras, and its performance is average at best.Read Full Review and Compare Prices »
Olympus PEN E-PL1
Whether you think the Olympus PEN E-PL1 is a good camera or not may turn on whether you consider it a shoestring-budget DSLR or an upscale point-and-shoot that happens to have interchangeable lenses. It takes good pictures, but its performance lags far behind that of other cheap DSLRs. Users don't want a slow camera, especially when taking action shots.Read more »
Nikon D5000 Review
Canon EOS Rebel XS Review
Olympus PEN E-PL1 Review
Nikon D3000 Review
Canon EOS Rebel T3 Review
Sony A390 Review
Take a shot with one of our top picks for budget digital cameras this holiday season.
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