Best Cheap DSLR Cameras
- 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. As you'd expect, they are also more expensive, but we found some top digital SLR cameras at relatively cheap prices.
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. 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.
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.
Mirrorless Camera and DSLR Reviews
Digital SLR cameras are far more complicated than most consumer electronics, so for our research, we focused on DSLR reviews from experts. Unlike most consumers, experts have the advantage of reviewing and using 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 the abilities of a camera, but none is more important than the quality of the pictures it takes. In DSLR reviews, both experts and users are adamant that color accuracy and sharp, clear images are essential. Of course, users also want a camera that's easy to use and performs well, with fast autofocusing and a robust continuous-shooting mode.
Image Quality.A manufacturer can load a digital SLR with all kinds of features, make it compatible with an array of lenses, and drop the price through the basement, but if it can't take good photos, no one's going to want it. We were somewhat surprised to discover that nearly all the models we looked at earn high marks from users and experts alike. The cameras we recommend consistently take sharp photos with good color. One DSLR review raises questions about the Pentax K-50 (starting at $597). An editor at CNET warns that the camera's default settings lead to heavily saturated colors and too much contrast. Changing the settings helps improve the color accuracy, but this may not be the best DSLR camera for beginners, who won't know -- or know how -- to make the necessary adjustments. Cameras such as the Canon EOS Rebel SL1 (starting at $599) don't suffer from such anomalies.
In fact, the EOS Rebel SL1 showed pretty good sharpness even when taking photos in low light at high ISOs. If you remember shopping for film for those good ol' non-digital cameras, you probably remember 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. One big advantage of a digital SLR camera is that you can simply change the ISO setting to whatever best suits your needs at the time (or set the camera to auto). Most cheap DSLRs offer ISOs ranging from 100 and 25,600.
Low-light/high-ISO shooting is often a weak point of budget cameras. Although the Canon EOS Rebel SL1 and the Nikon D3300 (starting at $597) perform well at higher ISOs, that's not the case with all cheap DSLRs. Photos taken with the Pentax K-50 and the mirrorless Canon EOS M (starting at $329) look clean through ISO 800 but start to get noisy beyond that setting, according to DSLR reviews.
Snappy Response Time.The digital SLR camera 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). DSLR cameras tend to meet this expectation better than compact system cameras -- the Canon EOS M in particular. CNET reports that the camera takes 2.9 seconds to fire off its first shot from startup and shows shutter lag of 0.9 second or more. The Canon EOS Rebel SL1 and Nikon D3300 DSLRs are faster performers, although using live view instead of the viewfinder slows them down a lot. CNET timed the Nikon D3300 at nearly 2 seconds to focus and shoot with live view, up from about 0.4 second using the viewfinder. All that said, the mirrorless Panasonic Lumix GF6 (starting at $449) may be the fastest of the bunch. It can be turned on a take a picture in just 0.8 second and recorded a time of 0.1 second to focus in PC Mag testing.
Sometimes you may want to shoot several photos in a very short period of time -- for example, when photographing a fast-moving sporting event. To do this, you need 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 let you hold down the shutter button and keep snapping photos until you run out of memory. The speed at which a camera can capture all those images in succession is called the burst rate. It's rendered in frames per second and can vary considerably from one model to the next. Our picks range from 3.5 fps for the Sony A3000 (starting at $348) to 5 fps for the Nikon D3300. The Sony A58 (starting at $448) claims a top speed of 8 fps, which is way faster than most cheap DSLRs.
Easy-to-Use 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.
Some cameras have touchscreen LCDs for accessing and changing settings. The touch panel on the Canon EOS Rebel SL1 is particularly responsive and easy to use, according to a DSLR review at Camera Labs. Oddly, the Canon EOS M camera seems to be more awkward to use. An expert from Photography Blog pans the EOS M for burying common settings such as shutter priority deep in the interface, so you have to hunt through several menus to access them. A reviewer at Tech Radar points out that users can customize some of the buttons on the Sony A3000 and set them to features they access frequently -- a nice extra indeed.