Best cheap DSLR and system cameras for under £500
If you’re looking to take top notch pictures you need to get your hands on a DSLR or compact system camera. These cameras have the best sensors for taking the best looking pictures.
You don’t have to spend a fortune to get great shots – decent models start from around £300 as you can see from our rundown here of interchangeable lens cameras.
And don’t be put off of trading up if this’ll be your first system camera. You’re not expected to be a camera expert the first time you pick one up and they have auto modes, so you can still point-and-shoot while you get used to experimenting with the manual settings.
Get tips on buying with our guide to choosing the best digital SLR.
Canon EOS 1100D – £313 with 18-55mm IS II kit lens
Weight with lens: 740g
Optical zoom range: 28.8-88mm
Launched in 2011, this DSLR is a great entry level model. It’s bulky – as all DSLRs are – but it’s easy to grip and the mode dial on top of the camera makes it simple to select your shooting mode. Dedicated buttons on the back of the camera can be used to adjust ISO and white balance quickly and simply.
It has a ‘guide mode’ which explains the cameras features on the screen to help you if you’re new to SLRs. The screen doesn’t tilt – which would be handy if you’re shooting at awkward angles or overhead – but there’s optical viewfinder for a clearer view than you’ll get on the screen – holding the camera to your face can help to support it if you’re shooting without a tripod too.
PCphototech commented on our review of the 1100D:
On paper this camera doesn’t quite have the high tech specification of some more expensive cameras. In practice you won’t notice, because this camera is brilliant.
Canon 1100D review – Read the full review of the Canon 1100D
Nikon D3100 – £362 with 18-55mm VR kit lens
Weight with lens: 817g
Optical zoom range: 27-82.5mm
Another older DSLR, the D3100 launched in 2010. It has a 14.1Mp CMOS sensor and as with the Canon you have a non-tilting screen, optical viewfinder and built-in pop-up flash.
It too has a programme dial for quick mode selection and a thumb wheel on the back to change settings and adds 1080p full HD movie to its bag of tricks compared with just 720p on the Canon. And there’s guide mode to help you get to grips with settings if you’re new to DSLRs.
This year, Nikon launched the D3200, which builds on the features of the D3100. It costs around £100 more and has a 24Mp resolution – useful if you plan to enlarge photos greatly – and much improved image stabilisation – worth considering if you’re happy to spend more.
John544 said of his D3100:
I took the plunge and moved up a level from my more than capable Panasonic FS10 and purchased the D3100. It’s now 6 months down the line and this camera still impresses. Take the time to learn to experiment with the shutter/aperture settings…you will not be disappointed.
Nikon D3100 review – see the full review and test results for the Nikon D3100
Olympus PEN E-PL3 – £299 with 14-42mm kit lens
Weight with lens: 484g
Optical zoom range: 28-84mm
A compact system camera like this micro four thirds model is worth considering if you want a powerful camera in a lighter, more pocket-sized package.
The E-PL3 is 40% lighter than the Canon DSLR – made lighter because largely because it’s mirrorless. It lacks a viewfinder – common with the smaller system cameras – so you’re reliant on the screen to line up shots. However, the screen doesn’t suffer too badly from reflections in bright light and you can tilt it to shoot at different angles or to make it easier to view.
The image stabilisation works well – it’s built into the camera so you’ll still get the benefit of it when you change lenses. It’s not particularly quick to start up, but once turned on, the E-PL3 holds it’s own and produces good shots.
The flash isn’t built-in, but it’s included in the box and fits onto the hotshoe mount on top of the camera.
Olympus PEN E-PL3 review – read the full review of the E-PL3
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF5 – £419 with 14-42mm power zoom lens
Weight with lens: 386g
Optical zoom range: 28-84mm
The most recent GF model, the GF5, hit stores this year. This is Panasonic’s entry-level range, aimed at newcomers to the interchangeable lens camera market rather than enthusiasts.
It has touchscreen control and when you access the dedicated scene settings there’s a guide to explain what the setting does and how to get the best effects from it.
There’s no viewfinder and no option to attach one, so you’re reliant on the screen to line up shots. It doesn’t just rely on touch control though – there are buttons and dials you can use to select settings, but no dedicated mode dial.
It’s incredibly light and compact with the power zoom lens attached – which collapses inside itself – making it a good option if you’re looking for a camera you can easily carry around.
Panasonic GF5 review – see the full review of the recently tested GF5
Sony alpha a37 – £414 with the 18-55mm kit lens.
Weight with lens: 760g
Optical zoom range: 27-82.5mm
If you’re looking for an entry-level DSLR, the a37 is an attractive option. It’s not technically an SLR – it’s actually from Sony’s range of SLT (Single lens translucent) cameras. These have a mirror inside, but the mirror doesn’t have to flip out of the way when you take a shot – as on an SLR – so shot times tend to be quicker.
You also get the benefit of an electronic viewfinder in addition to being able to use the screen to frame shots. The a37 takes solid shots in auto mode and the face detection works extremely well, but you can also make the most of using manual modes.
There’s the familiar mode selection dial on top of the camera and a thumb wheel on front of the camera just above the grip and easily within reach for you to make adjustments to settings while using the viewfinder.
Sony alpha a37 review – read the full review of the Sony a37
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