Best Budget Camera
Searching for the absolute best budget camera of the year has been something of a goal for me recently. I remember when I first started out with photography, finding the best cheap camera for my budget was a priority.
It’s probably the same for all of us – whenever we start a new hobby, we’re a bit anxious about spending a lot on the tools we need… since after all, who’s to say we’ll stick at it?!
|Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IIDespite fierce competition this compact marvel offers impressive performance at a great price.||View Price|
Obviously, everyone’s budget is different and what’s cheap to one person might be expensive to another. However, one thing’s for sure when shopping for a camera, and most technology in 2020 in general – you get what you pay for.
Also, it’s important that whatever camera you choose is better for photography than your smartphone. It needs to have better image quality and better features, or there’s no point in making the investment.
So without further ado, what is the best cheap camera of the year?
Best Budget Camera in 2020
|Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II||View Price →|
|Sony a5100||View Price →|
|Nikon D3500||View Price →|
|Sony RX100||View Price →|
|Canon EOS M100||View Price →|
Megapixels: 16.1 mp
Sensor Size: Four thirds live MOS sensor
Dimensions: 4.72 x 3.27 x 1.85″ (120 x 83 x 47 mm)
Weight: 0.86 lb (390 g) with battery
5-axis image stabilization
High resolution EVF
4K time lapse recording
Built in WiFi
Wide ISO range
No weather sealing
No mic and headphone jack
No 4K video
Memory card access can be blocked by tripod plate
If you’re on the hunt for a decent camera but don’t want to spend a fortune, the sub US$500 Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II may be just the thing.
Though priced low, this camera is no slouch when it comes to function and form and has great improvements over its predecessor, the Olympus OM-D E-M10.
Its magnesium alloy construction for one gives it a very substantial feel so with a reasonable amount of care, you can count on being able to use it for a long time to come.
Also, the camera isn’t a brute. It’s minimalistic and streamlined and has its controls in just the right places. This makes it easy to bring and use plus, it doesn’t hurt that it looks good, too.
The E-M10 Mark II now comes with a 5-axis stabilization system that trumps the previous version’s 3-axis arrangement. It also has a slightly higher burst shooting rate of 8.5 fps and can shoot better video as well.
Retained are the 3″ tilting 1.04 million-dot touch screen, the pop-up flash, hot shoe and the battery while added are an electronic shutter capable of 1/16000 sec (versus the previous 1/4000) a 2.36M-dot electronic viewfinder (versus the previous 1.44M-dots) as well as an AF targeting pad.
Sharing the same 16.1 megapixel Live MOS four-thirds sensor and the TruePic VII processor with the more upscale Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II, the camera can shoot in JPEG, RAW and even stereoscopic MPO formats. It also provides a number of autofocus options as well as a generous amount of scene modes.
The E-M10 Mark II has been given a substantial boost in video capability as it can shoot full-HD video at anywhere from 24 to 60 frames per second while the previous model is fixed at 30 fps.
Additionally, while it cannot shoot 4K video, it can take time lapse images at user selected intervals and compile them into a 4K video file. This is something exclusive to the model and isn’t available even on the flagship Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II.
As mentioned earlier, the E-M10 Mark II makes use of a five-axis stabilization system to keep things steady. This means that the camera can correct not just for side to side and up and down movements but also for horizontal and vertical shifts as well as rotational motion. This feature gives up to four stops of correction which is only one step down from the Olympus E-M5 Mark II’s system that provides 5 stops.
Given it’s smaller 4/3 sensor, the E-M10 Mark II can be expected to generate more noise in low light than a DSLR but no more than other four-thirds cameras. Also, it’s very generous ISO range of 100 to 25600 means that it is versatile enough to work just about anywhere and in all lighting conditions.
Other interesting features of the camera include wireless connectivity that lets you transfer pictures to your smartphone, HDR exposure blending, and built-in art filters that can be used for both stills and video.
While the E-M10 Mark II comes with an impressive array of bells and whistles, it does have a few things that could use some work:
- The absence of weather sealing means that you need to take extra precautions when shooting outdoors or in damp or dusty areas.
- The storage media slot (SD SDHC SDXC) located at the bottom of the camera can become blocked when a tripod plate is attached.
- There are no external microphone and headphone jacks so you will have to rely on what the camera picks up and listen to the playback on the built-in mono speaker.
- The shallow grip makes the camera awkward to handle for people with larger hands but this issue can be resolved with the purchase of an optional grip that makes it much easier to hold.
To sum things up, the E-M10 Mark II isn’t a superstar but, it is a very capable tool that will allow you to create great work. Yes, there are a lot of higher-spec’d cameras out there but few are as cost effective and as capable.
So, if you’re just starting out or trying to see if photography will grow on you, the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II is something that you should definitely check out.
Megapixels: 24 mp
Sensor Size: APS-C
Dimensions: 4.33 x 2.48 x 1.42″ (110 x 63 x 36 mm )
Weight: 0.62 lb (283 g) body only with battery
Class-leading image quality
LCD flips up 180°
Hybrid AF system
50Mbps video recording
No external mic input
Size can makes it awkward to handle
Few quick setting options
Movie button is hard to press
The Sony A5100 is a good contender for people who want a highly capable, yet hassle-free mirrorless camera.
It comes with a 24 MP APS-C sized sensor and makes use of SD (SD/SDHC/SDXC) and Memory Stick Pro cards for storage. It’s charged via a USB port and comes with an HDMI port that allows you to connect it to a TV or monitor. Other features worth noting are its connectivity options (WiFi and NFC), High Dynamic Range (HDR) capability, panorama mode and its selfie countdown timer.
Battery life is decent and a charge gives you around 400 shots or 75 minutes of video. However, while this is plenty for a walk around town, you’d probably thank yourself for bringing a spare, especially if you’re constantly shooting.
Compared to other cameras, there are also relatively few controls on the A5100 so it can be very appealing to those who would much rather keep things simple. Besides, the camera’s impressive automation means that you don’t have to fiddle around with manual controls (although it does have them) because the intelligent and superior auto modes can switch to the appropriate settings.
For instance, if you enable intelligent auto, the camera can tell that you’re planning a portrait shot and sets itself accordingly. It can also adjust on the fly for backlit conditions, macro, landscape and can even tell an adult and an infant apart.
On the other hand, if you prefer manual, you will find a lot of controls available. Everything from aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance, picture style modes and a host of other adjustments are accessible but, you’ll have to become really familiar with the camera.
One feature that will endear the A5100 to many users is its 180° flip up touch screen. Having a monitor built-in allows you to get really creative when it comes to composing your shots, especially if selfies are your thing or if you want to be in the video you are shooting. What’s more is, the screen allows you to focus as you like and even take a shot if you need to.
When it comes to video, the A5100 is able to do a admirable job. While it can’t shoot in ultra-high definition, it can shoot in full HD and supports the X AVC S codec. This allows the camera to record full-HD at higher bitrates (up to 50Mbps) which ultimately results in better video quality.
By the way, it can also simultaneously record in two resolutions (1080p and 720p) so you can share the smaller 720p file on social media much faster.
As far as portability goes, the Sony A5100 is one of the smallest interchangeable-lens cameras available and can be taken just about anywhere. But then again, a smartphone is smaller and lighter so why bother?
Output quality, that’s why.
We know that when it comes to camera sensors, the bigger the better. So, the camera’s 24 megapixel APS-C sensor (which dwarfs that of any smartphone) can be counted on to perform wonderfully. Not only will it take much better low light images, it will also be able to capture more tones, generate less noise and offer image quality that is far beyond something whose primary function is to make and receive phone calls.
One thing to note though, the A5100 is so compact that people with larger hands may experience some awkwardness when handling the camera. But after some time is spent getting used to it, this really shouldn’t be a big deal.
Autofocus is a strength of the camera as it can switch focus very quickly. It has 25 contrast detection points and 179 phase detection points built-in and this means that a lot more of the shots you take, even those taken on the fly, will be useable.
There are also quite a number of other focusing options available such as continuous, manual and direct manual as well as different zone area choices.
At just under $600 with a 16-50mm lens, the Sony A5100 is a priced below its sibling, the A6000 (see Sony a5100 vs a6000). Yet, this doesn’t mean that the camera is less capable. The fact is, performance specs are just about even. It just lags a bit in burst shooting performance (6 vs 11 fps), has a less powerful pop-up flash and lacks an electronic viewfinder and a hot shoe.
The camera makes use of the Sony E-mount system so it isn’t limited to whatever lens the manufacturer puts in. Yes, this certainly adds to the purchase price but you should also consider that different lenses will open up shooting opportunities that you might otherwise not be able to take on.
If you go for the camera + lens package, you will be getting the PZ 16-50mm lens to go with your A5100. For most situations, the 16-50mm lens is adequate as it is wide enough to take in whole scenes yet can be zoomed in to take tighter shots. The PZ 16-50 is also stabilized, has a power zoom switch (hence PZ) and is small enough when switched off as to not be in the way.
If you’re willing to shell out more though, you can opt for the additional 55-210mm lens that complements the 16-50 nicely and significantly extends the camera’s reach.
It’s important to keep in mind that the Sony A5100 is marketed towards entry-level users and therefore isn’t a flagship model. However, as far as shortcomings go, the camera has very few. Chief complaints include the lack of an external microphone jack and the need to dig deep into the menus to change many settings.
Megapixels: 24 mp
Sensor Size: APS-C
Dimensions: 4.8 x 3.82 x 2.76 in. (124 x 97 x 70 mm)
Weight: .80 lbs (365 g) with battery
Very good image quality
5 fps continuous shooting
Easy to handle
Screen is fixed
No 4K video
No external mic and headphone jacks
No touch screen
DSLRs are thought of by many to be professional cameras. While this is partly true, there is a wide range of these cameras available that cater to every skill level and more importantly, every budget.
The Nikon D3500 for instance, is a good choice if you want to give DSLR photography a try. Though aimed squarely at the entry-level market, it is a very capable camera that should be more than sufficient for someone who wants the hands-on feel of a more manual instrument.
At just under $450, the D3500 provides the performance you expect from a DSLR without the high cost normally associated with these types of cameras. It features a 24 megapixel sensor which compared to the much smaller sensors of other camera formats and smartphones, puts it a long way ahead in terms of output quality.
The D3500 comes with Nikon’s APS-C sensor and the Exceed 4 processor that allows it to take cleaner, higher-resolution images with better color saturation. It also shoots at up 5 frames per second, offers 11 autofocus points and has a generous ISO spread of 100 – 25,600 that enables the camera to function effectively in just about any lighting condition.
It makes use of SD cards for storage (SD/SDHC/SDXC )and can be linked to a smartphone via Bluetooth. This lets users control the camera with their device wirelessly as well as transfer files.
Like any other DSLR, the D3500 can be more finicky to operate than say, a mirrorless or a point-and-shoot camera. But, this applies only to manual mode so you should still be able to take great images using auto settings. It would be a good idea, though, to take the time to learn the controls of the camera so you can maximize its capabilities.
Though bulkier than many mirrorless cameras, the D3500 doesn’t have the heft of more upmarket DSLRs and can easily be carried around. You can’t however, expect to be able to stuff it in a purse or a smaller bag so that would be something to consider.
On the other hand, its size does lend a bit of stability to it and makes it easy to handle and manipulate even by people with larger hands.
As far as features go, there are a few things that could have been better. Its screen for one, isn’t a touch screen and doesn’t articulate. It also lacks WiFi, GPS and external mic and headphone jacks.
While it is very capable, there’s one thing that the D3500 can’t do: shoot 4K video. But then again, entry-level cameras don’t usually offer this feature anyway so this isn’t really surprising. It can however record in full HD at up to 60 frames per second.
The Nikon D3500 comes with an 18-55mm kit lens that is more than adequate for the casual user. It’s wide enough to take in whole scenes but, can also bring things into tighter focus if needed. It even comes with VR (vibration reduction) so you can take steadier shots even in low light.
Of course, it’s important to understand that this lens is part of an entry-level kit so quality is somewhat limited. It’s plasticky and its optical elements will not be able to produce the kind of results that more advanced users demand.
The D3500 however, is a DX body and can therefore make use of a sizeable array of Nikon and third-party lenses and accessories. Telephotos, wide-angles, primes, macros, external flashes and remotes are just some of the things available for it.
The D3500 is a great gateway instrument into DSLR photography. Yes, it lacks certain things that other cameras may offer but, it does have capabilities that non-DSLRs cannot match. Besides, if the right accessories are invested in, this camera can serve you well into the future and may lead you to become more than just a casual photographer.
4. Sony RX100
Megapixels: 20 mp
Sensor Size: 1″ Exmor CMOS
Dimensions: 4 x 2.29 x 1.41″ (102 x 58 x 36 mm)
Weight: 0.53 lb (240 g)
Good battery life
Excellent build quality
Generous amount of features
Control dial doesn’t click
No ND filter
Playback is confusing
Hit-or-miss flash metering
Lags when zooming during playback
Compact cameras are geared towards consumers who want something that’s easy to use and carry around. But, there are a few cameras in this category that are a bit more capable than others. The Sony RX100 is one of them.
At the core of the RX100 is a 20 megapixel 1″ Exmor sensor that’s larger than what’s typically found on compacts. This means that images taken with the camera will be cleaner and have more dynamic range. The larger sensor also allows it to be used in low light situations where other compacts can’t work effectively.
As far as complexity goes, the camera sports an interface that’s a bit more enthusiast-oriented. This isn’t to say however, that the controls are complex. The fact is, the camera is very easy to use thanks to its intuitive controls. It also is very customizable and allows users to assign a generous number of settings to the function button and to the control ring that’s built around the lens.
Yes, the RX100 can be operated manually but for those who would rather not fiddle around, the iAuto+ mode is the way to go. This mode, which is present on many of Sony’s more advanced cameras, frees the user from thinking about what settings to use and instead lets them concentrate on taking pictures.
As far as portability goes this camera isn’t the smallest compact available. But, at just four inches long, it’s definitely very handy. It fits easily in most pockets and purses and can be carried around all day without much inconvenience.
Like all compacts, the lens of the RX100 is built-in. But, the stabilized 28-100mm equivalent Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* lens that it’s fitted with is more than adequate for most situations. Plus, being stabilized, you can significantly cut down on camera shake even in low light.
Performance wise, the lens is quite versatile, opening up to a fast 1.8 at its widest and slowing to 4.9 as you zoom in. However, the sensor doesn’t lend itself to good bokeh so don’t expect too much.
One thing worth noting about the RX100‘s lens is the T*coating used by Zeiss. This component adds to the camera’s image quality as it cuts down on internal reflections. As such, you can expect the images you take to be more vivid.
The RX100 is small as far cameras go, but it does come with a large 1.2 million dot LCD screen. This makes viewing pictures and reading menus as easy as viewing the screens of much larger cameras. To add to that, the screen Sony uses is their White Magic LCD which is brighter and uses less power. This helps the camera achieve a respectable battery life.
One gripe though, the screen is fixed so those trying to shoot selfies or take hand-held videos of themselves will have to apply quite a bit of trial and error to be able to get the shot they’re after.
Battery wise, the RX100 charges via USB and full charge gets you around 330 shots. This should be enough for a walk around town but, if you plan on taking a lot of pictures, you’d probably need an extra battery and a third party external charger.
Like almost any other camera, the RX100 has video capability but cannot shoot in 4K. It does shoot at full-HD at up to 60 frames per second though, which is more than what’s necessary to post to sites like YouTube. It also has an HDMI port, a stereo microphone and a mono speaker. Understandably, the camera doesn’t have external mic or headphone jacks.
The RX100 makes use of SD, SDHC and SDXC cards for storage. Also, because it’s a Sony product, it can take the Memory Stick Pro, Pro Duo and Pro HG-Duo.
Other features of this camera include a pop-up flash, 10 fps burst mode, plus a number of scene modes including macro, landscape and gourmet. You can even upload your files wirelessly if you put in a WiFi SD card from the (now defunct) EyeFi company.
As capable as this camera is, there are a few things to note if you are considering getting one. Playback for instance, can be a bit confusing as it separates stills, MP4s and AVCHD formats. It also could do with an ND filter especially when shooting at the maximum aperture and flash metering can be iffy at times.
The RX100 does take good pictures but it isn’t meant to replace mirrorless cameras and DSLRs. Instead, the main reason for getting one of these cameras, is to be able to take quality pictures without having to be encumbered by bulky gear. It’s also excellent value for money, hence the inclusion here on our best budget cameras list.
Megapixels: 24 mp
Sensor Size: APS-C
Dimensions:4.25 x 2.64 x 1.38″ (108 x 67 x 35 mm)
Weight: 0.67 lb (302 g )
Large APS-C sensor
Impressive image quality
Extensive lens options
Good for beginners
Sparse physical controls
No 4k video
Unimpressive battery life
If you’re planning on moving up from smartphone photography but would rather not deal with the bulk of bigger systems, then Canon’s EOS M100 interchangeable lens camera would be a good choice.
About as small as a typical compact camera, the M100 makes use of an 24 megapixel APS-C sized sensor which puts it over any compact camera or smartphone. This larger sensor (which is the same size as the one used in Canon’s 7D mark II DSLR) allows for significantly better low-light performance, more dynamic range and a lot less noise.
One thing you will note about the EOS M100 is the scarcity of physical controls. Aside from a few buttons, it only has a single adjustment dial and a simple mode dial. This is because the touch screen serves both as the camera’s viewfinder and as its main interface where you can change modes and settings, control focus and of course, view playback.
While fewer controls makes the camera less intimidating to new users and casual shooters, more experienced enthusiasts may find this a bit disappointing. Then again, the M100 was designed for those moving up from smartphones and compacts so this camera will probably not be in the “must-have” list of more advanced users.
Typically, the camera comes with the 15-45 mm EF-M kit lens, but it can utilize Canon’s entire lineup of eight EF-M lenses. There’s also an EF adaptor offered that will allow the M100 to make use of the extensive Canon EF lens range that Canon’s DSLRs use.
One thing to note, while an expansive lens selection makes the Canon M100 a lot more versatile, bigger ones, especially EFs, will effectively increase the size of the camera. So, anyone who’s considering the M100 should take this into account.
Currently, the best fit as far as keeping the M100 compact is the low-profile EF-M 22mm pancake lens. This prime, lets the camera retain the portability that makes it attractive, while providing much better low-light performance because of its wide aperture.
A word about the M100’s size though. Being the small camera that it is, Canon’s designers did not bother with building in a grip. As such, the camera can be challenging to handle for those with larger hands. Fortunately, there is a workaround in the form of the face jacket accessory which incorporates a grip and incidentally, comes in different colors.
The EOS M100 is able to shoot high-quality full HD video at up to 60 frames per second but, like most others in its class, it cannot shoot in 4K and does not come with external mic and headphone jacks. This shouldn’t be an issue however, because those needing 4k capability generally choose more advanced equipment. Besides, 1080p is more than adequate for video uploading sites and social media.
For storage SD, SDHC and SDXC can be used. These go in through a slot on the side of the camera, not the bottom. This is an important detail for tripod users because this means that the camera will not have to be removed from the tripod to switch cards.
Battery-wise, the Canon EOS M100 provides a run-of-the-mill 295 shots per charge so it would be a good idea to carry a spare. Also, batteries cannot be charged via USB but instead require an external charger. While this adds to what you have to bring along, you can see this as a good thing because you can cycle the batteries and always have one ready to use.
As far as functionality goes, the M100 isn’t at par with DSLRs, but it isn’t supposed to be. After all, this camera targets a different niche. It does hold up nicely though. Among others, it comes with dual pixel AF for superb autofocus tracking, WiFi and NFC which allows for hassle-free wireless connections and file transfers, a pop-up flash to light up dark scenes and even has a 3″ flip up LCD screen that will be appreciated by selfie lovers and vloggers who need to stay in the scene.
While the Canon EOS M 100 isn’t a professional model camera, it is a surprisingly powerful tool. The sensor size, the interchangeable lenses, performance and ease of use makes this camera a very attractive proposition for anyone wanting to move up to something that’s far more capable yet still simple to use.
How to Choose the Right Camera for Your Budget
You’ll see that there’s not a great deal of price difference between the most and the least expensive cameras in this guide.
Sure, there are camera out there under $200, but I wouldn’t recommend to anyone who has a modern smartphone.
Why? Well, because even a mid-range iPhone or Android device can usually take just as good a photo as a really cheap (sub $300) camera. There’s no point in having two devices in your pocket which essentially produce the same image.
So my advice for choosing the best camera if you’re on a budget is to first work out the maximum you want to spend (obviously), then decide using these 4 factors:
- Size – check the dimensions of the cameras below. You may prefer to have something you can fit in a jeans pocket or small handbag. If it’s not a priority, a larger camera body usually means better ergonomics and battery life.
- Battery Life – this may or may not be important to you. If you travel and won’t have access to a charger, or won’t be able to carry spares, a larger camera usually has better battery life. For most people though, we charge our devices everyday, so this isn’t an issue.
- Brand – Sony, Nikon, Canon, Fujifilm… they’re all pretty similar. What I mean here is whether you expect to be buying lenses for your camera later down the track. Take a peek at the prices of lenses from each brand, or see if the focal length you need is available.
- Autofocus Speed – will you be shooting sports or fast moving action? (Kids, pets, etc.?) If so, fast AF should be a priority. Some cameras below fare better than others in this department.
Bonus Tip: Don’t worry so much about when the camera was released. You can get a great bargain on a camera that’s a few years old, that stills takes great photos and has excellent features. Some of the ones I recommend below are around 5 years old, but can still out-perform even the latest smartphones.
Best Cheap Camera | Final Words
As I mentioned at the start of this guide, everyone’s idea of a budget camera is different. However, I hope that by including the various price ranges, I’ve helped you in some way towards picking a camera that’s right for you.
Remember that you’ll need to spend around this amount to end up with a camera that not only takes better photos than your smartphone, but also that allows you to grow with it.
Whether you intend to pursue photography as a hobby, or just need a camera for documenting precious moments every now and again, it’s wise to choose a camera that won’t limit your vision.
All the products reviewed here are great in this regard – simple to use, but with enough manual control for when you’re ready to experiment.
Leave any questions in the comments below, and happy shopping ;-)
Disclaimer: All recommendations are impartial and based on user experience, with no bias to the products or the brand. The products in this post may contain affiliate links.
Don Machuca is a writer and professional photographer/videographer from Manila, Philippines who specializes in landscapes, events and product photography.