Digital photography can be an expensive pursuit, but the sub-$500 category is as competitive as it has ever been. Camera manufacturers know that bargain hunters are looking for cameras that won’t break the bank and there are many affordable cameras on today’s market that can create stellar photographs.
Many people think of basic, rather plasticky compact cameras when they consider cameras at this price range. After all, digital cameras must be expensive if they’re going to take great photographs, right? But even interchangeable lens cameras are affordable now, with older models having been priced down in recent years and newer ones specifically meant for this niche market.
As a result, compact cameras have improved as well and have features to rival even entry level DSLR and mirrorless models. Let’s take a look at what the best cameras for under $500 have to offer.
What Features Do I Need in a Digital Camera Under $500?
DSLR, Mirrorless, or Compact Camera?
This question continues to rage on online forums and in camera clubs alike. Of these three popular camera styles, which one is the best?
When it comes to image quality, there’s little argument that the interchangeable lens cameras (DSLR and mirrorless) are superior to compact cameras. The versatile lens options and larger sensors combined with the features and higher price ranges mean you can get professional level results in even basic level camera bodies.
The size of their sensors often restricts compact cameras. While the Cybershot RX-100 II listed here has a fairly sizable 1” sensor (sized 12.80 x 9.60mm), it still falls short compared to Micro 4/3rds and APS-C sensor cameras. We’ll go into a bit more detail on this below.
Compact cameras are also often constrained by the fixed lens that comes with the body. Again, the Cybershot RX-100 has a particularly nice lens for a compact camera (f/1.8 max aperture). But many other compact cameras have aperture values that are very narrow, in the range of f/3.5 or worse. Combined with a tiny sensor this gives these cameras very poor low light performance and usually means noise is a constant problem in anything less than bright outdoor lighting or close-up with a flash.
DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras are the familiar blocky cameras associated with “professional photography.” Often expensive and always large, they are a familiar sight to most of us.
DSLRs owe their size to an internal system of mirrors that direct light from the aperture of the lens up through a pentaprism to the optical viewfinder. That’s what allows you to look into the eyepiece despite it not being level with the lens where light enters. As a passive imaging system, optical viewfinders use no power and are a significant reason why DSLRs can shoot for so long compared to other cameras.
Mirrorless cameras are the new kids on the block and are a hot commodity right now. The major difference between them and DSLRs is that they forgo the internal mirror design in favor of more advanced sensors. Mirrorless cameras use an electronic viewfinder (or no viewfinder at all) over an optical one. EVFs take more power to run, however, and tax the battery more compared to DSLRs.
Because the compactness of these cameras is another major selling point over DSLRs the batteries are kept smaller to keep the bodies tight, but this also constrains the shooting stamina of the camera. While mirrorless camera battery life continues to improve, it will be a while still before they reach DSLR levels of shooting stamina.
Sensor Size & Megapixel Counts
The size of the sensor your camera comes with is one of the most important considerations you should be making, and something new photographers often overlook. While the race is closer than ever nowadays, there are still significant differences from the 1” or smaller sensors at one end of the spectrum to a full-frame sensor on the other.
Sensor size is a crucial factor in determining the light gathering capacity of your camera, simply because the larger the sensor area, the more light exposure is possible. ISO, pixel size, innovative sensor designs like backside illumination, and other factors will also affect this.
But as a general rule of thumb, we want the largest sensor we can afford. Sensor size also affects the depth of field of your images (how much of a scene is in sharp focus). f/1.4 aperture using a 1” sensor will not have the same depth of field as f/1.4 from a full-frame body. But that’s only important if you actually need razor-thin depth of field.
Users typically accept APS-C as the best compromise in price, body size, light sensitivity, and depth of field. But Micro 4/3rds mirrorless cameras are becoming more and more widely accepted. They tend to come with innovative features to increase their appeal to the sometimes conservative digital photography market.
Megapixel count, on the other hand, is important but not as much as you might think. The general thinking for first-time photographers is often “more is better,” something camera manufacturers encourage to make even basic models more attractive. But you should have some idea of what sort of photography you want to create because it’s far more likely that you’ll get more megapixels than you need.
If you regularly make large prints or want something at a book print or magazine print quality, you’ll be looking to hit around 300ppi (pixels per inch) for a nice, rich image resolution. For 8 x 10 in. images, that’s actually less than 10 megapixels. And a 24 megapixel sensor, which is fairly standard in today’s digital cameras, will give you up to 20 x 13 in. prints at 300 ppi. Sensors of this resolution also give plenty of room for aggressive cropping without the result looking too poor (unless you’re using a high-resolution screen).
In short, anything more than 24 megapixels is not something you’ll likely need unless you plan on making wall prints or posters. High megapixel counts can even be detrimental, because 24 megapixels on a 1” sensor is the same number as on an APS-C sensor. This means the individual pixels themselves are smaller on the 1” sensor.
Smaller pixels, like small sensors, are less efficient at gathering light than larger ones. They also suffer from increased noise interference and compound the issues small sensors already possess. Like everything else, megapixel counts are a balance.
With so many brands on the market, it’s difficult to decide which one will be right for you. And owners of interchangeable lens cameras need to give special attention to the brand because it’s a commitment. Once you’ve built up a pre-existing lens collection shopping across different brands becomes very unattractive due to the expense of your gear.
Lens adapters exist, but you sometimes suffer from reduced autofocus performance or even lose AF functionality entirely with non-electronic adapters. So it’s best to make the most informed choice you can right off the bat. This is less important if you prefer a fixed lens camera, like the Sony Cybershot RX-100 II.
Best Cameras for Under $500
Sony a6000 (Body Only)
At its release, the Sony a6000 was the absolute king of the beginner-intermediate mirrorless camera world. A budget-priced model with professional level autofocus and a generously large APS-C sensor, the Sony a6000 gives great results for the money. While newer models, including the a6300, are on the market, the a6000 is still an extremely competitive camera with exceptional autofocus and imaging capabilities.
Sony Brand Backing
Sony cameras are known for blazing fast autofocus functionality. The Sony Alpha series, in particular, makes good use out of the hybrid phase, and contrast detection-based systems mirrorless cameras are known to achieve high-speed autofocus and top of the line subject tracking ability.
Sony sensors are large and very high quality; even other brands sometimes default to Sony-manufactured camera sensors. The main criticisms of Sony’s systems include the lack of in-body image stabilizing elements, complex, non-intuitive menu designs, and fairly expensive lenses as the system is new compared to the likes of Nikon and Canon.
Advanced Hybrid Autofocus
Most digital cameras on the market make use of either phase or contrast detection-based systems to automatically focus on subjects. Phase detection is the more complex of the two, but essentially it uses paired focus points to sense the differences in the light coming from a specific source. Contrast detection attempts to generate the image with the most image contrast, which is essentially sharpness. The lens will usually pan in and out, comparing the results in real-time to find the sharpest setting.
Phase detection is faster and works well in low lighting. Contrast detection struggles when the lighting gets rough and is sometimes slower but is the more accurate AF system. But hybrid autofocus systems combine the best of both worlds. They use phase detection to lock onto focus and then contrast detection to fine-tune it without nearly as much panning.
With 179 phase and 25 contrast detection points that cover just over 90% of the height and width of the sensor, subjects stay in focus no matter how much they move across the scene. Combined with the high-speed BIONZ X processor of the a6000 and intelligent AF selections like Eye and Continuous AF, subject tracking has never been easier.
More autofocus points also means more creative composition options. The burst rate is an impressive 11 frames per second, making the a6000 the fastest camera here. But this frame rate slows down considerably while using Continuous AF, settings and light levels depending.
Great Added Features
As expected of a modern camera, the Sony a6000 includes Wi-Fi and NFC (Near Field Connectivity) support to allow you to sync with smart devices for remote shooting and instant uploads using the PlayMemories app. The tilting LCD screen is perfect for shooting over obstacles like a crowd or wall and getting good angles on subjects low to the ground. The resolution is an acceptable 921,600 pixels, but falls short of other cameras in this lineup like the Cybershot RX-100 II.
- 24 MP APS-C CMOS sensor and Focus Sensitivity Range :EV 0 to EV 20 (at ISO 100 equivalent)
- ISO 100-25600 (expandable to 51200). Lens compatibility- Sony E-mount lenses
- Hybrid AF with 179-point focal plane phase-detection and 25 contrast detect points
- Up to 11 FPS continious shooting - 3-inch tilting LCD with 921,000 dots.Viewfinder Type:0.39 in-type electronic viewfinder (color)
- In the box: Rechargeable Battery NP-FW50; Shoulder strap; Eyepiece cup; Micro USB cable
Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II (Body Only)
The Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II recently fell below $500 as a result of the Mark III’s release, making it a great choice for the budget oriented. Olympus isn’t nearly as well known as Canon or Nikon but as we’ll see below the Mark II is as good if not better than the budget options of the DSLR world.
Olympus Brand Features
Olympus and Panasonic are the two major Micro 4/3rds mirrorless camera manufacturers. Both cater to the beginner and intermediate markets by offering features usually found on professional camera bodies to all users. In-body image stabilization is a big plus, as are focus bracketing and stacking for creative image composition.
Most of their bodies also offer 4K video recording (3840 x 2160p) which has four times the resolution of Full HD recording (1920 x 1080p). While the featured OM-D E-M10 Mark II does not lovers of 4K can instead look to the newer E-M10 Mark III for only $150 more.
Despite being a newer system, Olympus cameras tend to have very intuitively designed bodies. Olympus menus are not nearly as convoluted as Sony’s but not as straightforward and logical as Panasonic’s either. Being mirrorless, they tend to suffer from low battery life compared to DSLR cameras that sometimes have as much as three times the shooting stamina. At 320 shots per charge, the OM-D E-M10 Mark II has the lowest stamina of any camera here.
One last brand advantage that Olympus offers is that the Micro 4/3rds mounts are cross-compatible with Panasonic lenses. You can use Olympus lenses on Panasonic camera bodies and vice versa. This effectively doubles the number of lenses available for users of Micro 4/3rds systems, making them somewhat more competitive with the dizzying array of lenses available for Nikon and Canon DSLRs.
5-Axis Sensor Stabilization
In-body image stabilization is a huge advantage and almost unheard of below $500. While most digital camera manufacturers offer lenses with stabilization (including the kit lens of the D3400), in-body elements are usually reserved for higher-end models. In-body stabilization means that every lens you shoot with will be somewhat shielded from unwanted blur due to unintentional hand movements.
Tripods are still the best image stabilizers around, but it’s not always comfortable or feasible to shoot with one. Stabilized sensors like the one used by the E-M10 II keep the image sensor suspended and moving to counteract hand shake. This sort of motion blur can reduce image quality and usually has to be counteracted with higher shutter speed settings, especially in low light environments. The sensor stabilization also helps counter the size of Micro 4/3rds (sized 17.00×13.00mm) relative to APS-C and full frame sensors.
Are you having trouble understanding the practical benefit? Say you have a scene where you need a shutter speed of 1/1000ths of a second to keep the image sharp. Any slower and you might see some blur in your images due to micro movements from your body. The sensor stabilization of the Mark II offers roughly four stops of stabilization. As a result, I can shoot the same scene at 1/60ths of a second and have the same chance of motion blur affecting my image.
Good Autofocus Point Coverage
While the focus system isn’t as fast or accurate as the Sony a6000, the Olympus E-M10 Mark II is no slouch. With a contrast detection-based 81 point AF system and 8.5 frames per second burst rate, the Mark II proves contrast detection is still in the game.
Without wider aperture lenses, the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II will struggle somewhat in low light settings. Contrast detection is still slower than phase detection and the smallish Micro 4/3rds sensor is a slight limitation. But the “low” 16-megapixel resolution helps offset this by keeping the individual sensor pixels relatively large.
- Built-in 5-Axis image stabilization for sharper images
- 2.3 million dot OLED electronic viewfinder with 0.62X magnification
- Silent mode (disables all shutter sounds)
- 8.5 frames per second burst shooting
- Fast touch auto focus from camera or phone
Nikon D3400 with NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR lens
As the successor to the already hugely popular D3300, the Nikon D3400 has a lot to offer as an inexpensive DSLR. With a generously sized APS-C sensor and 24 megapixels of resolution, the basic statistics are excellent for the majority of photographers. 5.0 fps continuous drive allows you to get burst photography of children at play and other moderate speed events.
Nikon Brand Advantages
Nikon shares all of the advantages that Canon provides. It’s a very well established manufacturer which shows in the quality of every product they make. Entry level Nikon gear tends to be great at taking pictures as simple as possible but offer little in the way of additional features that would appeal to advanced beginner or intermediate level photographers.
Simplistic yet Highly Functional
One of the most attractive features of the D3400 is its battery life. At 1200 shots per charge it’s even more impressive than equivalent DSLRs like the Canon T6 (440 shots per charge). If you don’t like carrying around loads of extra accessories, like extra batteries, the D3400 is a safe way to be sure you’ll make it through even a heavy day of shooting.
Nikon’s menus are easy to navigate, but if you’re an absolute beginner or just not good with navigation, the My Menu system is worth looking at. Up to 20 frequently used selections can be pre programmed into the My Menu option, keyed to an Fn (programmable Function) button.
Kit Lens Included
First-time interchangeable lens camera owners may find it hard to get started with these cameras because the lenses are sometimes separate purchases. But the D3400 is one of the few cameras at this price range you can get with a kit lens included. The 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 is a basic generalist lens but still great for the price. The 18mm focal range takes you into the wide-angle spectrum, making it suitable for landscape and architecture photography.
And 35-50mm images are usually considered closest to the human eye. This range is a generalist one and appropriate for everything from events to portraits and more. f/3.5 is not especially wide and does not create the dramatic depth of field that’s associated with professional portraits. But thanks to Nikon’s immense lens selection, inexpensive options like the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D give even budget-constrained owners access to gorgeous imagery.
Changes over Nikon D3300
The D3300 is an immensely successful camera, yet the D3400 is an improvement in several ways. Not only has the battery life gone up over the 700 shots per charge of the D3300, but the max ISO is doubled to 25,600 to improve the low light performance of the D3400. At 395 g it’s also lighter by 35 g than the D3300.
The Nikon D3400 also has Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity to allow photographers to control the unit via a smart device using Nikon’s Wireless Mobile Utility app for Android or iOS. Mobile Utility also enables you to download images to your smart device for instant uploading or sharing online without first sending them to your computer.
- SnapBridge Bluetooth Connectivity
- 24.2MP DX-Format CMOS Sensor
- EXPEED 4 Image Processor
- No Optical Low-Pass Filter. Bluetooth Specification Version 4.1. Wi-Fi Functionality-Eye-Fi Compatible
- Native ISO 100-25600; 5 fps Shooting. Compatability information: C firmware v. 1.10 and later ( released August 31, 2016 )
Canon EOS Rebel T6 with EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II Kit Lens
Canon’s Rebel series is where many a professional photographer has started. Each model in this lineup offers a solid APS-C sensor (sized 22.20×14.80mm) for excdellent low light and depth of field performance. Resolution varies from 18 megapixels (including the Rebel T6) up to 24 MP. And with an included flash, kit lens, and respectable 500 shots per charge battery life, the T6 is a great camera for someone looking to hit the ground running a reasonable price!
Canon Brand Advantages
Canon and Nikon are the two most popular DSLR camera brands in the world currently, and for very good reason. Canon is very well known for quality manufacturing, great customer support, intuitive products, and superb image quality. And in terms of the number of accessories, native and third-party lenses available, there’s no doubt you’ll never suffer from lack of choice.
The Canon Rebel T6 is compatible with an incredible 306 native Canon lenses. The Sony a6000, still one of the best cameras on the market at this price point, only has 83 native lenses available.
While the lower end cameras can create fine images with the right lens attached, few will argue that lower end Canon cameras tend to have very basic functionality. Features like focus stacking and composite imagery that can be found in mirrorless cameras under $500 are not going to be found on a Canon under $1000. But many people prefer a body that’s quickly and easily understood and will give great results with few complex features, buttons, and menus. In that case, Canon may be your best bet.
Included Kit Lens
Along with the Nikon D3400, the Canon T6 is an incredibly budget-friendly DSLR, and the included kit lens makes it very easy to hit the ground running at a reasonable price. The maximum 18mm focal length is usable on wide-angle subject matter. If you love landscapes and other scenes where you need a wide field of view the included kit lens will get the job done.
The f/3.5 max aperture is less important in wide-angle shots because we want the extra depth of field to get everything in focus. f/5.6 may not be as attractive if you’re trying to capture portrait style photographs with shallow depths of field, but for bringing far subjects into clear focus, the 55mm maximum focal length is acceptable if not telephoto range.
Easily Operated Body
The T6 is undeniably bland compared to the other cameras on offer here as far as additional features are concerned. The ISO maxes out at an unimpressive 6,400 with an ISO boost up to 12,800 that provides inferior results to true 12,800. The continuous burst rate is 3.0 frames per second, the slowest of all of the cameras here, and the LCD is fixed, like that of the D3400.
Its strongest attraction may be its blandness, however, because it’s very beginner-oriented. A single Mode dial dominates the top of the body along with the shutter control, and 13 back buttons are all easily learned and understood. While it does not offer any programmable Fn buttons like the Olympus Mark II anyone looking for a simple and effective shooting experience will love the Canon Rebel T6.
- 18.0 Megapixel CMOS (APS-C) image sensor and high-performance DIGIC 4+ Image Processor for excellent speed and quality
- ISO 100-6400 (expandable to H: 12800) for shooting from bright light to low light. Compatible with Eye-Fi Cards. Multimedia cards (MMC) cannot be used
- Built-in Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity provide easy sharing to compatible smart devices, select social media sites and the Canon Connect Station CS100 device
- 9 point AF system (including one center cross-type AF point) and AI Servo AF provide impressive autofocus performance with accurate results. AF Assist Beam - Effective range : Approx. 13.1 ft. / 4.0m. Periphery: Approx. 11.5 ft. / 3.5m
- High-performance Optical Viewfinder helps facilitate quick and accurate focusing by firmly framing and capturing the subject at hand
Sony Cybershot RX-100 II
It’s a rare that a compact camera can compete with the likes of these interchangeable lens versions, but the Sony Cybershot RX-100 II undoubtedly does so. While interchangeable lenses are nice to have sometimes photographers are looking for a far less complicated shooting experience. Having a single lens attached that can capture just about any image in any scene is what the RX-100 II has to offer, and at a very affordable price.
No camera can do absolutely everything; there are still plenty of interchangeable lenses that offer apertures and focal lengths better suited to particular types of photography. But the RX-100 II is perfect if you want the convenience of a compact camera but want your images to shine just a little bit more than what most compact cameras have to offer.
Full Manual Controls
Many compact cameras offer somewhat limited functionality as a result of their reduced price and capabilities. They often shoot in only fully automatic modes with no manual or partially manual control at all, including Tv (Shutter Priority) and Av (Aperture Priority) mode. But the RX-100 II offers all of the handlings you’d expect of an entry-level DSLR. The Exposure Mode dial includes shutter and aperture priority as well as full manual, giving you control over all exposure functions.
Excellent Fixed Lens and Large Sensor
The lenses on compact cameras are intended to be as generalist as possible. Therefore they usually have extremely wide focal ranges, some going as far as an effective 20-200mm in order to capture wide-angle fields of view, close up subjects, and distant ones as well.
This level of optical versatility does come at a price. Any zoom lens has to make optical compromises as it adjusts throughout its focal range; compromises in sharpness, chromatic aberrations, and clarity, usually. And the cheaper the compact camera, the more compromises you’ll see.
While these aren’t significant or noticeable to people just looking to ensure they get a capture cheaply, the Sony Cybershot RX-100 II is meant for compact photographers looking for a cleaner imaging experience. The German-manufactured Zeiss lens has an excellent f/1.8 maximum aperture, giving you some of the best depth of field and light exposure you’ll find on a fixed lens camera.
The effective focal range of 28-100mm is not as large as other compacts but helps constrain the optical compromises that would be required to extend the zoom range. The 1” sensor (sized 12.80×9.60mm) is small compared to an interchangeable lens sensor. But that’s still quite a bit larger than those of other compact cameras, some as small as 1/3.2” (sized 4.54 x 3.42mm).
- 20.2 MP 1"-type Exmor R CMOS sensor. 28-100mm equivalent F/1.8-4.9 lens.
- Continuous shooting up to 10 FPS. ISO 160-12800, expandable ISO 100, 125, and 25,600.
- . 1080 60p/24p HD video with full exposure control (MPEG-4/AVCHD)3.0 inch tiltable TFT LCD with 1,229,000 dots
- Raw/JPEG/ Raw+JPEG. Optical zoom : 3.6x (Optical Zoom during movie recording), Digital Zoom : Still images: 20M approx. 14x, 10M approx. 20x, 5M approx. 28x, VGA approx. 54x, Movie: 14x*1.
- Steady-Shot image stabilization. Rear control dial and customizable front control ring.
The $500 and below range of cameras has absolutely come a long way in recent years with several competitive options available. The most important consideration here is whether you’re looking for a compact, mirrorless, or DSLR camera experience. If you don’t want to swap lenses around and would rather stick to a single lens without sacrificing much in image quality the Sony Cybershot RX-100 II is the best camera you’ll find under $500.
Interchangeable lens bodies exist at this range, but the cost of added lenses will drive the price of your kit beyond $500. The Nikon D3400 and Canon Rebel T6 are the best cameras to hit the ground running if you don’t want to invest in lenses right away. The kit lenses of these cameras are versatile and generalist in range, though the apertures are somewhat constrained and don’t allow you to explore the full creative potential of interchangeable lens usage.
Both DSLR cameras offer low numbers of autofocus points, and additional features are few and far between. But either camera is an excellent starting point for growing into the Nikon and Canon lens collection and eventually upgrading to a more expensive body.
Photographers looking for camera bodies with a bit more zest will do well with either the Sony a6000 or Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II . Both of these newer mirrorless cameras offer speedy autofocus systems (especially the Sony a6000), high autofocus point coverage and come in compact mirrorless bodies.
If you decide to grab a model with a lens kit you’ll be slightly over the $500 budget, but not by much. Sony and Olympus lenses are also extremely high quality. Sony lenses are some of the sharpest on the market, and Olympus lenses usually have additional O.I.S. (optical image stabilization) that combos with the innate sensor stabilizing elements of the body. There are choices here for every sort of photographer and you’ll not be disappointed, no matter which camera you choose!