Best Cheap DSLR Cameras
$400 - $600Cheapism
$600 - $800Mid-Range
$800 and upHigh End
Published on By Michael Sweet
Compact point-and-shoot cameras and even smartphones are capable of taking fine pictures, but cheap DSLR cameras attract shutterbugs who crave something more. With a DSLR (which stands for digital single-lens reflex), you get a larger sensor for capturing higher-quality images. DSLRs also have removable, interchangeable lenses and generally boast more features and settings than point-and-shoot cameras. While these models tend to be more expensive, we researched expert reviews and considered consumer feedback to find top-quality cameras at relatively cheap prices.
Nikon D3400 Review
The Nikon D3400 may lack extra features like Wi-Fi and a touchscreen, but this surprisingly compact DSLR takes great-looking photos and has truly remarkable battery life.
Pentax K-S2 Review
The Pentax K-S2 is a full-featured DSLR that includes built-in image stabilization, Wi-Fi, and NFC support, not to mention a large selection of shooting modes.
Canon EOS Rebel T6 Review
The Canon EOS Rebel T6 is a solid entry-level DSLR. It's light on extra features, but for the low price, it's easy to use and delivers on the basics.
Nikon 1 J5 Review
The Nikon 1 J5 mirrorless camera is a speedy performer, with a burst mode of 20 fps and lightning-fast autofocus. It also shoots 4K video, but at just 15 fps, it's a bit underwhelming.
Pentax Q-S1 Review
The Pentax Q-S1 is a cheap mirrorless camera with an attractive design. But its image quality isn't on par with the competition, it lacks features like Wi-Fi, and the battery life is lackluster.
Canon EOS M10 Review
The Canon EOS M10 packs in the features, but this mirrorless model fails to impress experts, mostly due to mediocre autofocus and just-good-enough image quality.
Choosing a Cheap DSLR or Mirrorless Camera
DSLR vs. Mirrorless.For this buying guide, we looked not only at cheap digital SLR cameras but also at compact system or mirrorless cameras, which have become popular in the past several years. These models have interchangeable lenses and are capable of shooting SLR-quality photos, but they're smaller and lighter than most DSLRs and operate a little differently. 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 the shutter button is pressed, 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, but many suspect that in the future they will largely replace DSLRs -- at least for the average consumer.
Still, our favorite cameras in this category are traditional DSLRs, led by the Nikon D3400 (starting at $497). It's a reliable performer with incredible battery life. We also like the Pentax K-S2 (starting at $529), a camera with lots of convenient features at a good price. The Canon EOS Rebel T6 (starting at $449) is another respectable DSLR but lacks some of the functionality found in competitors.
The best cheap mirrorless camera we found is the Nikon 1 J5 (starting at $497). The battery life is fairly short, but the overall performance is impressive. Reviewers are underwhelmed by the Canon EOS M10 (starting at $450) due to its so-so image quality. Reviewers also find the performance of the Pentax Q-S1 (starting at $205) to be lacking. The low price is for the body only; each of the other cameras includes a basic "kit" lens.
DSLR Camera Reviews: What We Considered
Digital SLR cameras are far more complicated than most consumer electronics, so we focused our research on reviews from expert sources. Unlike most consumers, experts have the advantage of reviewing and often conducting hands-on testing of a number of different cameras, so they know how one camera's performance compares to similar models.
There are several criteria by which one can judge a camera's abilities, but none is more important than the quality of the pictures it takes. In DSLR and mirrorless camera reviews, experts are adamant, not surprisingly, that color accuracy and sharp, clear images are essential. A manufacturer can load a digital SLR with all kinds of features and drop the price through the basement, but if it can't take good photos, no one's going to want it. The budget cameras we recommend consistently take sharp photos and deliver solid performance on the color front, with the Nikon 3400 and the Pentax K-S2 faring particularly well compared to the competition.
That said, there are a variety of features that should be considered when determining the best model for your individual needs. Experts point potential buyers to sensor type and size, as well as lens variations, as some of the most important variables affecting image quality. Everyday buyers also want a camera that's easy to use and performs reliably, with fast autofocusing and a robust continuous-shooting mode. The ability to capture high-definition video is also a boon.
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 as high as 10MP, users can dramatically increase a photo's size while retaining sharp detail. All the cameras we researched have ample resolution for almost any photo task, ranging from about 12.4MP on the Pentax Q-S1 to about 24MP with the Nikon D3400. But again, the number of megapixels means very little in terms of performance. In fact, a camera with a higher resolution can easily produce lower-quality images.
Sensor.As an expert at 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 very often 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 specifically for digital systems and is the smallest of the three. Still, it dwarfs the sensors on point-and-shoot and smartphone cameras, is said to offer better performance, and can get quite expensive.
Sensor technology also tends to make a difference. Most of the cheap cameras reviewed here use CMOS technology. The backside illumination (BSI) the Nikon 1 J5 and Pentax Q-S1 employ is said to help their sensors capture more light and improve low-light shooting. Some mirrorless cameras from Olympus and Panasonic tout proprietary Live MOS sensors, which can be thought of as hybrids that harness the benefits of the CCD sensors generally found in budget compact cameras -- which produce less grainy images -- while delivering the speed typical of CMOS sensors. (EPhotozine offers a helpful and comprehensive guide to the different types of sensors; What Digital Camera provides a simpler, more bite-size briefing.)
ISO Range.Consumers who remember shopping for film probably recall seeing a number on the box. That was the ISO, a fancy way to describe how sensitive film is to light. ISO 100 film produces very sharp, detailed photos but requires a lot of light, which may make it difficult to use indoors or at dusk. Film with a higher ISO, such as 800, is good for shooting indoors or in low light conditions but may produce grainy photos (an effect often called noise). Digital SLRs mimic those film speeds internally, with similar results: Higher ISO settings produce grainier photos, while lower ISOs need a lot of light.
Today's digital cameras offer wide ISO ranges, with the Pentax K-S2 touting the largest range among our picks, at 100-51200. While this model (on paper, at least) offers the most options for capturing those difficult action shots or after-dark images, the reality is that users should still expect grainy images at higher ISO settings: 3200 is the practical high-end limit in most shooting situations, and even that's a stretch. Low-light/high-ISO shooting is often a weak point of budget cameras, with their smaller sensors, and many of our other picks don't make it above ISO 800 before showing signs of image degradation. (Image processor performance, as well as stabilization features and built-in noise-reduction functions in some cameras, may help here.)
Interchangeable Lenses.Whether DSLR or mirrorless, all the cameras we researched 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, a photographer can use the same lens on a $500 camera as on a $1,500 camera.
If you already own a lens or two -- even from an old film camera -- you may be able to 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 just pop it onto a Pentax camera -- it simply won't click into place.
Even cameras with the same brand name may have different lens mounts and different sets of compatible lenses. For example, the Canon EOS Rebel T6 uses Canon's venerable EF mounting system, whereas the Canon EOS M10 uses the EF-M mount, which is designed exclusively for mirrorless cameras. Canon offers an adapter that allows the EOS M10 to use EF lenses, but it runs about $160 or more (third-party adapters are significantly cheaper). In general, there may be focusing and communication issues with a non-native lens.
A final critical bit of information about lenses (and this is non-negotiable): Before using a new camera or lens, consumers should immediately buy a UV filter, screw it onto the lens, and leave it there. This simple added layer of protection costs as little as $6, whereas a replacement for a scratched lens can easily cost more than a cheap DSLR camera.
Response Time.The DSLR reviews we read indicate that users want a camera with a fast autofocus. The last thing a photographer wants is to press the shutter button and wait a full second or more before the camera snaps the picture (a phenomenon called shutter lag). When it comes to autofocusing speed, the Nikon 1 J5 is the hands-down winner, according to experts from Digital Trends and PCMag.
Sometimes users may want to shoot several photos in a very short period of time -- for example, when photographing a fast-moving sporting event. This requires a camera capable of continuous shooting. Older digital SLRs could take only three or four photos in succession before they had to wait for their memory to catch up and process the images. Today's entry-level DSLRs are more robust when it comes to continuous shooting. Some even keep snapping photos the entire time the shutter button is held down, until the memory runs out.
The speed at which a camera captures all those images in succession is called the burst rate. It's rendered in frames per second (fps) and can vary considerably from one model to the next. Here, again, the Nikon 1 J5 is the most capable, with a burst rate of 20 fps. Most of the other cameras we looked at manage only around 5 fps.
Image Stabilization.Here's a simple fact that any photographer must understand: A photo shot at a slow shutter speed 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 often lies in the lens, so be sure to look for this feature in any additional lenses purchased. The Pentax K-S2 is a recommended DSLR that does include built-in optical image stabilization.
Viewfinder vs. LCD.Point-and-shoot owners are used to composing photos with an 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 D3400 and Canon EOS Rebel T6, 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.
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 LCD image can also lag while a photo is being set up -- a problem that optical viewfinders don't have, as they simply show the scene as it bounces off the camera's mirror. Consumers who plan to take a lot of action photos will probably prefer a camera with an optical viewfinder. (There are more expensive mirrorless models that come with an electronic viewfinder built in. An EVF is like an additional mini LCD that mimics the function of an optical viewfinder on a DSLR. Some models also allow an EVF to be mounted via a hot shoe -- typically used for adding an external flash -- on the top of the camera body.)
Video.Today's DSLRs and mirrorless cameras shoot HD video as well as photos. With a decent budget DSLR in hand, there's little need for a separate camcorder. 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. The ones recommended here can record in full 1080p HD, and the Nikon D3400 captures full HD video at frame rates up to 60 fps, which is pretty impressive. The Nikon 1 J5 boasts the same 1080p frame rate and is also 4K capable, though a 15 fps rate makes for fairly disappointing ultra-HD footage. Consumers willing to pay a bit more for high-quality 4K video might consider the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G7 (starting sat $598). For about $100 more than the Nikon 1 J5, this features-packed mirrorless model has a 4K frame rate of 30 fps, and it rivals even our top DSLR picks in terms of overall video performance.
Interface.Digital SLR cameras are pretty complex devices, with manual controls for everything from shutter speed to ISO, along with automatic settings and quick presets for specific situations. That being the case, reviewers look for cameras with intuitive controls. The automatic exposure modes are pretty similar across the board. They generally include settings for portraits, sports, nighttime photography, and landscapes, which are identified by simple pictograms on the camera's controls.
Shoppers posting reviews on BestBuy.com compliment the Canon EOS Rebel T6 for being very easy to use, saying it's ideal for beginning DSLR photographers. It earns a solid 4.7 rating from nearly 1,000 consumers. In addition to the other strikes against it, the Pentax Q-S1 is a bit more complicated to manage due to a morass of menus and submenus, says a reviewer from EPhotozine.