Back in the early 2000, a budget of $500 would hardly get you a camera that delivers image quality no better than today’s smartphone cameras do. Fast forward to 2017, we have quite a few good choices in this price range. Below, you’ll find a list of 10 best entry-level DSLR cameras under $500 that will not only get you better photos to share on Facebook but also allow you to print nice big pictures.
Keep in mind that the strong points of the budget DSLR cameras below are only relevant in this price range and might not please seasoned photographers. If you compare them with those of premium shooters that cost around $2000 or more, they’re hardly of any significance. For example, continuous shooting up to 4 frames per second is considered too slow to capture a fast moving object in sports or wildlife photography, but for camera under $500, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any better.
With that out of the way, here are the top 10 best DSLR cameras that you can buy for less than 500 bucks.
Best DSLR Cameras Under $500
Canon Rebel T6
The Rebel series by Canon is originally created to cater to the needs of beginner photographers, which is an easy-to-use camera that takes incredible pictures. No wonder three of them make it into this list. Canon EOS Rebel T6 is the highest end model that you can have for less than $500, giving you a powerful combination of Canon’s APS-C sensor with DIGIC 4+ image processor. While the chipset is a little outdated, it still helps the camera focus quickly on the subject. High ISO images are also relatively clean, showing only a slight of digital artifacts in some darkened areas in the scene. You’ll hardly notice it until you blow out the pictures larger than poster size. Speaking of ISO, the camera has a native sensitivity range of 100-6400, but you can expand it all the way to 12800. It makes the camera nearly see in the dark, but the resulting photo is less than good.
As with any modern DSLR, this camera is also equipped with Wi-Fi and NFC for more intuitive file sharing. The auto features are as comprehensive as you can expect and they work very well in accommodating the different light situations. Compared to its pricier “i” sibling, Canon Rebel T6 only has a few shortcomings. The rear LCD is fixed instead of tilting, and you’ll only get the standard kit glass as opposed to STM lens. Both hardly matter if you use the camera mostly for taking stills. Still, I think the drop in megapixels shouldn’t be that far. With only 18MP, you might find Nikon D3400 and D3300 a better deal.
Released in 2017, Nikon D3400 is the freshest camera in this list, bringing some minor upgrades to Nikon’s infamous affordable digital SLR, the D3300 (see below). Interestingly, despite being the newer model, it’s listed with lower price tag at Amazon. Including the kit lens, the camera is currently sold for less than $400, which is totally a steal. While both cameras are still equipped with the same 24.2MP APS-C sensor, the D3400 allows for swifter image sharing, thanks to the refined SnapBridge technology, which now supports Bluetooth. Battery is also another aspect that gets a significant bump. With the D3400, you can get approximately 1200 shots in a single charge, as opposed to 700 shots with the D3300. Surprisingly, more juice under its hood doesn’t translate to more weight. Nikon D3400 is, in fact, more lightweight than its predecessor, though not by much.
As for image quality, this budget shooter is easily one of the best. With ISO up to 25600, it captures bright and sharp photos in almost any light conditions. While you can’t compare it to the likes of Nikon D850 and Canon 5D Mark IV – both are full frame camera that costs more than $3000 – it certainly can impress anyone used to taking photos using a handy smartphone or pocket camera. The catch, though, is that it’s deprived of many convenient features. The rear LCD screen, for instance, is not only fixed but also not a touchscreen. The microphone port has also been taken away. Obviously, Nikon wants it to be more “stills-minded” than its predecessor. If you don’t plan to shoot a lot of videos, Nikon D3400 is the best DSLR camera under $500 for you.
Canon Rebel SL1
For a DSLR camera, Canon Rebel SL1 is relatively lightweight, which makes it a great choice if you’re looking for a shooter kit to take for travelling. Image-wise, you’ll hardly find anything to complain about the quality of the photo it captures. The SL1 is hands-down a spectacular camera in an affordable package. Not to say that the touchscreen interface on its real LCD display also makes it very easy to navigate the menus. After an hour or two, I’m sure you will have grasped all the options the camera offer; it’s pleasantly newbie-friendly. There are a few preset shooting modes that you can use to change the camera settings quickly to suite your scene, such as Portrait, Landscape, and Night mode.
Speaking of Night mode, Canon Rebel SL1 doesn’t disappoint in low-light photography. All photos captured even above ISO 6400 are still very much usable. There’s a slight of muddiness to be seen, of course, but it’s nowhere near marring the clarity of the image. In Burst mode, you can have the camera take up to seven RAW files consecutively. If you’re content with JPEG though, you can get even more of that up to 28 photos. Not much of a deep buffer, you say? Well, true! But being a DSLR camera, all those 28 photos will be of high quality. You will unlikely find one where the subject is blurred. As for the shutter speed, the fastest you can set is 1/4000 second. It’s fast enough to freeze a motion and allow for handheld shooting.
Canon Rebel T5
Even more affordable than the T6 above is Canon EOS Rebel T5. It’s so underpriced, you might think it’s one of those cheap Chinese cameras. The T5 is the lowest end DSLR in Canon’s lineup that’s still in production, offering the most basic spec you need from an interchangeable-lens camera. The rear LCD display is not only made without tilting and swiveling hinges, but it’s also not touch-sensitive. You will easily forgive that, because when you’re shooting stills, it’s much easier to use the viewfinder. Besides, the physical buttons and dials are also well laid out. Navigating the menus with them is not as tedious as you’d think. Even better, the absence of a touchscreen display makes it longer-lasting than the T5i, which nearly costs $700.
Canon EOS Rebel T5 comes with DIGIC 4 processor, an even older chipset than that equipped in the T6. With such a humble core, the camera focuses slower and it doesn’t impress at all in Burst mode with only three frames per second. Still, as far as the result is concerned, it does the job well enough. The APS-C 18MP CMOS sensor captures the scene wonderfully. Compared to a point-and-shoot camera of the same price, you’ll notice big difference in image quality. Now, if you also do video in addition to taking still shots, I don’t think it’s the right camera for you. Although the T5 is capable of recording Full HD video at acceptable frame rate, its rear LCD screen is simply not cut for the work. Not only is it not a touchscreen, but also it has moderate-to-low pixels (only 460,000 dots; not bright enough for Live View mode).
Canon Rebel T3
Canon EOS Rebel T3 had been drawing major attention on itself when its younger siblings like the T5 and T6 barely saw the bright of day. It has been discontinued today, but you still ought to find it sold on some camera stores. As a matter of fact, at the time of this writing, it’s still listed on Amazon for an obviously attractive price. So what can you get from a DSLR camera that’s even older than a basic model like the T5? Well, not much really. For a lower price than the T5, you get a lightweight DSLR with a humble 12MP APS-C CMOS sensor with 9-point AF system. The back screen is less than 3-inch wide and only has 230,000 pixels. Don’t even ask about it being a touchscreen or not.
Anyhow, as modest as the specs are, Canon EOS Rebel T3 can still easily outperform any pocket-size camera, let alone smartphone camera, in terms of image quality. The low megapixels mean only a little when it has an APS-C sensor and chipset exactly the same as one used in the T5 (read more about sensor size and megapixels below). While the 9-point autofocus might get you worked up a little more as you frame the scene, at least you’ll get wonderful photos at the end of the day, especially if you’re willing to buy a couple of lenses. Video is where this camera falls really short. When the competition offers 1080p footage, it’s still stuck with 720p recording. Well, you can’t expect any better considering it’s released nearly a decade ago.
Although the D3400 has been around for some time, Nikon D3300 is still in production and you can fetch one home for no more than 500 bucks. On paper, the D3300 may look inferior. The absence of Bluetooth connectivity – which you can quickly overcome it with a cheap wireless adapter – and shorter-lived battery might be a game changer for some people. But as far as quality goes, it captures superb images. Landscape and nature photos may not look as vivid as those taken by the D3400, due to its lower color depth and dynamic range. However, you can expect to get crystal clear pictures, regardless what scene you’re trying to capture. In fact, many think that Nikon D3300 has an upper hand in indoor photography where there’s not much ambient light, despite having lower max ISO.
I’d also recommend Nikon D3300 over its successor if you shoot videos as often as capture stills. Although it has no touchscreen and the display itself is fixed on its back panel, at least it offers a microphone port. So, while it shoots the same Full HD video, you can get better audio by attaching an external mic. Included with the camera is 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Nikkor lens. It doesn’t offer much zoom and it’s not the best glass for taking photos in low light. However, it’s equipped with VR (Vibration Reduction) technology, which is great if you shoot handheld frequently. It’ll neutralize your hand motion, giving you blur-free photos. In short, Nikon D3300 is a great starter camera for those who enjoys taking stills as well as recording videos.
Prior to the release of the D3300, Nikon had the D3200 to attract budget-minded photography newbies. It was sensational to say the least, being a true digital SLR that can tap to the power of a 24.2MP APS-C sensor, blowing away any point-and-shoot camera of the same prize. The said image sensor works so well at capturing sharp images that it’s been retained in the latest iteration, the D3400. If a new camera that launched just this year uses the same image sensor equipped in an old model released more than five years ago, it speaks volume of its prowess. So, if you’re looking for your firs DSLR Camera, Nikon D3200 is as good as any in this list to start with.
Now, being an entry-level camera, Nikon D3200 is certainly not perfect. One major disadvantage is it still uses EXPEED 3 image sensor, which is old and hence affects its performance in many ways. For starter, you may notice that there’s a noticeable jump in overall image quality between this camera and its two successors. Furthermore, it can’t handle low light scene as well as the other two. You’ll see that as you crank up the ISO, the frame will be more occupied with noise / digital grain. Last but not least, its AF system is pretty slow. While it has little to nothing to do with image quality, the fact that the camera needs more time to focus may cost you some best moments to capture. Also, it has no Bluetooth, let alone Wi-Fi.
Pentax might not be the first brand that pops up in your mind when it comes to camera, especially if you’re new to this gizmo. However, for the last few years, Pentax has made some really incredible DSLR that can give even those manufactured by Canon and Nikon a run for their money. Pentax K-50, in particular, is a model that plays in the entry-level market, giving some competition to the already well known shooters like Canon Rebel series and Nikon D3400. Despite having lower megapixels (only 16MP), the photos it takes are simply amazing; sharp details, vibrant colors, balanced tone – it’s just spectacular. You’ll very likely need to arm yourself with some good lenses, though, which is where it shows some shortcoming. Being from a lesser brand, Pentax K-50 is only compatible with select few lenses, unlike Canon’s and Nikon’s cameras.
Compared to the competition, Pentax K-50 establishes itself well in the market, making a good proposal through a couple of strong selling points that others do not offer. First, the camera has built-in image stabilization. Shooting handheld or using slower shutter speed won’t prove to be much of an issue, though in certain situations it’s still best that you use a tripod. Second, the camera body is weather-sealed. For all of its plastic construction, Pentax K-50 feels rugged and right in hands. Now if you ask me where this camera falls short, it’s in its JPEG mode. The camera’s chipset doesn’t seem to that great in processing the image. If you do choose to buy Pentax K-50, you’ll get much better result if you shoot in RAW and do some post-production editing afterward.
Of all the D5XXX series by Nikon, only the D5300 is still being manufactured. It sits right next after the D3400 above and below the more expensive D7XXX models which are geared toward enthusiasts. It was sold around $900 in the first few months after its release, but today you can find it listed at a bargain price of $500 more or less. Being a more advanced shooter, it comes with better specs than the D3300 – though on its core, the same powerful EXPEED 4 chipset is still used. One obvious difference is it has a vari-angle screen. If on the D3XXX series you have to adapt your shooting position to its fixed type display, with the D5300 you can set the screen at any angle you want. It’s also considerably brighter.
Sporting an excellent 24.2MP APS-C sensor, Nikon D5300 is easily one of the best cameras money can buy. Its image quality is spectacular and in low ISO setting, you can compare it head-to-head with a semi premium camera on $1000 price range. The aforementioned EXPEED 4 processing engine helps control the noise in high ISO, which should give you more confidence when shooting with limited daylight. Auto mode allows you to use it like a simple point-and-shoot camera without sacrificing quality. There are plenty of options too, to enhance your pictures: nine different effects and 16 scene modes. Wi-Fi is also on-board for easier file sharing and upload. Overall, Nikon D5300 is an incredible camera at $500 price range, though beginners may take some time learning to make the most of it.
Nikon D5100 is a step-down from the D5300 above and as the time of this writing, it’s already been discontinued. So, if you’re not a fan of buying a secondhand gadget, you might as well look the other best cameras under $500 in this list. Nevertheless, if you can look beyond the fact that it’s an outdated machine, the combination of 16MP APS-C sensor and EXPEED 2 image processor still works brilliantly in delivering crystal clear and crisp images. A continuous speed rate of 3 frames per second might be too slow to help with action scenes, but at least it allows you to capture high quality 14-bit RAW files. These unprocessed photos will stand out impressively after a bit of time in post-editing. Build quality is still inferior to Pentax K-50 above, but then asking for a weather-sealed body in a camera of this price point is simply asking too much (Pentax K-50 is an exception).
The rear LCD screen of Nikon D5100 is brighter than the D3XXX series, but still has lower resolution that that of Nikon D5300. Good news is it has a flip-out hinge too, so you can take a shot from an awkward angle with more ease. There’s also a 3.5mm microphone jack that’s worth mentioning if you plan to do some filming with it. The max video resolution is Full HD 1080p, and while the display is not touch-sensitive, the Live View AF works pretty well at tracking moving object. Low light photography is where its strongest selling point lies. Its ISO range from 100-25,600 (extended) and if that’s still not enough, you can activate the “Night Vision” mode. The camera will let you see in the dark literally, though you’ll be left with monochromatic scene and very grainy too at that.
Why Choose DSLR Camera
So what is a DSLR camera, you ask? Well, I can use a few more pages than necessary explaining it to you with all of its details, but at the end of the day, you’ll hardly think it matters. The point you need to remember is that a DSLR camera has a built-in mirror that reflects the light to the viewfinder. This helps for more accurate color reproduction as opposed to the EVF in mirrorless cameras. Such internal reflecting mechanism, however, makes DSLR considerably bulkier and heavier, which makes them a poor choice for travel. That said, they do offer some advantages that I’m sure you’ll appreciate, such as:
- Better image quality in low light and indoor: All budget DSLR cameras incorporate APS-C sensor which is larger than its Micro Four Third counterpart widely used in mirrorless cameras. Such large image sensor leads to better image quality in low light situations.
- Compatibility with wider range of lenses: Thanks to their bigger form-factor, DSLR cameras are compatible with more lenses. Be it a zoom lens, fast lens (you need this to get that eye-catching blurred background effect), or wide-angle lens (best for landscape photography), it’s unlikely that you’ll get a difficulty finding one suitable for your camera. It will not be the case if you use a mirrorless camera. Although it sports an interchangeable-lens design, its smaller body can only be paired with few select lenses.
- Longer battery life: The bigger body on DSLR camera is not without its advantage. It allows for bigger battery that can last up to over a thousand pictures in a SINGLE charge! Also, since its viewfinder works entirely on the built-in flip-up mirror and pentaprism, it requires no power at all.
- Faster autofocus: Many DSLR cameras feature an AF system that uses a technology called phase detection. It’s faster than contrast-detection AF common in mirrorless cameras.
- Professional looking: Let’s admit it. Most of those who are new to photography choose a DSLR camera only because it makes them look like a pro. Everything else comes second after that.
Sensor Size Vs. Megapixels
Due to the widely misleading marketing campaign, the majority of people seem to believe that more megapixels mean better image quality. Well, now that you’re here, you should know better than that. It is the size of the image sensor that largely determines the quality of the photos a camera can capture. The larger the sensor, the more light it can collect; and more digital data too, which will then be processed by the camera’s chipset. Meanwhile, higher megapixels only mean that more details – often more than necessary – are captured in the photo. The resolution will be bigger and the file size increased. You may not mind the large size of the image files because memory cards have become much cheaper these days, but as you realize it takes longer time to transfer the pictures to your computer – for some editing, perhaps – you’ll wish your camera had lower megapixels.
Now, don’t get it wrong. The amount of pixels still helps in certain situations – like when you want to print the image in poster size – but it means very little compared to the surface area of the camera’s sensor. Such is the reason why a picture taken by a 18MP DSLR camera looks much better than that captured by a smartphone camera coming with 20-something megapixels. DSLRs have a far larger sensor than smartphone camera. If you want to know more about sensor size and megapixels, read the guide to buying digital camera I recently wrote. There, I point out three features of a digital camera that actually matter.
All of DSLR cameras under $500 above are APS-C type, though Nikon prefers to call it DX-format camera. They’re all the same in a way that they feature a cropped sensor. It’s considerably smaller than that of a full frame camera, but still capable of producing breathtaking photos.
Other Useful Features
Next to the camera’s sensor, you might want to look at a few other features that the camera offers. They may not be essential in determining the end result of your shot, but they can come in handy in certain situations. At the very least, you will want to check for the followings:
- Burst Rate: All cheap DSLR cameras above have a particular shooting mode called Burst. In this mode, the camera will capture multiple frames continuously so that you won’t likely miss that one single best moment. The higher the burst rate, the better. Unfortunately, in this price range, the highest you can expect is around 5 frames per second. That is hardly sufficient for real action/ sports photography. Still, if it’s just to capture the moment where you jump in the air, I don’t think why it couldn’t work.
- Video: You may already have a camcorder to handle video recording when the moment calls for it, but wouldn’t it be nice if you can get that from your still camera too? All budget DSLR cameras above come with a Movie mode where you can capture footage in Full HD 1080p resolution. None offers 4K recording, but that’s to be expected. You will need at least $1,000 to get a camera capable of filming true UHD 4K video, though there are a few action cameras that do it for less. Anyway, the video quality is as good as you can get in this price point, with Canon EOS Rebel T5 and T6 standing out from the rest.
- LCD Screen: With DSLR, many prefer to use its optical viewfinder to compose the shot, myself included. However, its rear LCD screen is not without any advantage. For that matter, this feature is often designed with different spec from one camera to another. In some models, the LCD display may have a touch functionality, but in some others it may not. More recent camera may have more pixels on its display, allowing it to remain bright under sun light and to provide more accurate preview of the scene you want to capture. And finally, some camera may have a screen that flips out which can be very helpful when you take a shot from a particular angle.
Consider Buying a Lens or Two
As you buy one of DSLR cameras under $500 above, you may find that it’s bundled with the standard 18-55mm kit lens. In most cases, it should be usable. You can still get some amazing photos using the said kit lens. However, once you step out of your comfort zone, shooting a more challenging subject in more challenging situation, you’re going to need a different lens. For indoor photography, for instance, you will need either a zoom lens with wide aperture or a fixed prime lens to get the desired results. Now these lenses are not cheap. Heck, a good lens can cost more than 500 bucks, but if you’re looking to improve your photography skill, some upfront investment is indeed required.