We’ve noticed that digital camera manufacturers are making fewer modestly priced cameras. Why produce models at the lower end of the market when the explosion in smartphones has made it easier than ever to take pics? But if you’re serious about your photography, you will need a proper camera – our tough lab tests have identified the very best lower-priced models.
For decades, cheap digital cameras have stopped photography from becoming a prohibitively expensive hobby, giving novice photographers a chance to buy their first digital camera without breaking the bank.
But manufacturers have been feeling the squeeze. Now that people have cameras in their pockets most of the time, it’s harder to sell standalone cameras, and harder yet to make a budget-friendly argument for why someone should buy a camera at the lower end of the market.
Because of this, we’re seeing a lot of expensive cameras come into our test lab that appeal to experienced photographers, but fewer modestly priced cameras.
There are still good reasons for buying a standalone camera, and there are still models that you can pick up for a relatively low price. We’ve looked at what sort of high-end camera you can get on a budget of £500 or less, and we’ve picked out a few examples to get you started.
- We reveal the best cheap DSLR and mirrorless cameras for 2021
- Need more info about cameras? Find out more about which type of digital camera you should choose
Why should I buy a digital camera?
Even though the camera on your phone probably does a good job at snapping pics, there are still things a standalone camera can do that phone cameras simply aren’t capable of.
- High-quality pictures. Sensor size is the single biggest factor in a camera’s ability to take high-quality pictures, and digital cameras have larger sensors than smartphones. Smartphone manufacturers can’t pack in big sensors without your phone becoming unreasonably expensive and cumbersome.
- Photography-friendly design. Digital cameras are made for the sole purpose of taking photos, so the way they sit in your hands, and their display hardware (monitors and viewfinders) are designed to help you take photos and videos. Phones are multipurpose gadgets and they’re more awkward for photography.
- Exclusive features. Interchangeable lens options, flash mounts, viewfinders to give you a large preview, or even extreme durability with an action camera – different cameras offer unique features that go beyond smartphones. These features allow you to experiment with more advanced photography, which is a struggle to do with a smartphone.
- More suitability for certain environments. Some types of photography have unique challenges. Wildlife photography can require a potent zoom lens, a lightning-fast shutter speed and a sensor that can capture a good dynamic range. Night photography needs a large sensor to take in scant light and large ISO values to boost brightness. High-end cameras thrive in these more difficult situations that go beyond taking pictures of static subjects in broad daylight.
Can I get a good DSLR or mirrorless camera for under £500?
Our tests have discovered that you can buy a good-quality DSLR or mirrorless camera for less than £500, but you have to be realistic and willing to accept that the choice is rather narrow.
On Which.co.uk at the moment we have full lab-test reviews of eight cameras that are currently under £500.
- Two of the DSLR and mirrorless cameras under £500 that we’ve tested have scored above 70%, which makes them high-quality cameras capable across several key tests
- Four cameras scored between 66% and 69%. These are modest scores, but they aren’t bad at all, and you can count on these cameras to take a good-quality image in this bracket
- Only two cameras scored less than 65%. Below this score, we’d hesitate to recommend a model, because there are better choices available.
Of course, this doesn’t include the possibility of snagging a more expensive camera on sale, or in buying second-hand. What is important is that you’re spending your money on a decent camera – so make sure you read our reviews before you buy.
See our independent, expert DSLR and mirrorless camera reviews.
What features don’t budget DSLR and mirrorless cameras have?
Many of the mirrorless cameras in the budget price bracket don’t have viewfinders, so you’ll rely on the monitor to preview your image before shooting.
The DSLRs do have viewfinders, though. This is because DSLRs use optical viewfinders that show a mirror reflection of the scene in front of the camera, while mirrorless cameras use electronic viewfinders that show you an image generated directly by the sensor.
Electronic viewfinders tend to be cut by manufacturers to keep prices down. But do look for a budget DSLR if a viewfinder is vital to help you compose your shots.
Other features that some of these cheaper cameras lack include:
- 4K Ultra HD video (although they’re 1080p Full HD capable). But we found one 4K-capable DSLR, which we’ve shared below.
- High fps rate (frames per second) in continuous shooting – cheaper cameras can take fewer photos when you use burst mode.
- Articulated screens which let you pull the monitor out and flip it. Cheap cameras have their monitors embedded into the body. Sometimes there is a degree of flexibility, but monitors are rarely vari-angle and easily manoeuvered.
- Fast autofocus. Our test lab has shown us that autofocus on budget cameras is less reliable. This is partly because they have more basic artificial intelligence features that struggle to identify faces and eyes to create an optimal focus.
Read our guide to optical vs electronic viewfinders to find out more about the two types of hardware on offer.
DSLR and mirrorless cameras under £500
We’ve picked out a couple of examples that are currently in stock. Budget DSLRs are especially popular, primarily because they have optical viewfinders, but stock levels are good at the moment.
Make sure that any model you’re interested in is right for you and scores highly in our lab tests – use the links below to read our full expert reviews.
We last checked these prices in May 2021.
Canon EOS 2000D, £470
Despite its price, this DSLR still has an APS-C sensor. The APS-C sensor is only one step down in size from a premium full-frame sensor, and most DSLR and mirrorless cameras use it. APS-C sensors provide high quality in low-light environments and good image quality and dynamic range, which are vital for photography.
The EOS 2000D is a little rudimentary in many areas, capable of a disappointing 3fps in burst mode and lacking Bluetooth or touchscreen control. But you can use any compatible lens with it to customise shooting – including macro and telephoto lenses for specialist shots.
Read our expert Canon EOS 2000D review to see if this DSLR from 2018 punches above its price.
Nikon D3500, £449
The Nikon D3500 comes bundled with a generous 18-55mm lens and an APS-C sensor. It’s pretty bulky, weighing half a kilo even without a lens attached.
You do get some high-end features for your money. These include a maximum selectable ISO number of 25,600 (higher numbers help to boost the brightness of dimly lit photos), and a built-in image stabiliser, if purchased with the AF-P DX Nikkor 18-55mm lens, which mitigates the blurring effects of camera shake.
Read our independent Nikon D3500 review to see if this brand managed to make a better budget DSLR than Canon.
Consider a bridge camera
Bridge cameras don’t have interchangeable lenses like DSLR and mirrorless cameras do. They usually have a fixed lens with an impressive zoom range, so they’re a good way to graduate from smartphones without paying DSLR or mirrorless prices.
Nikon Coolpix B600, £299
This bridge camera is pretty basic, but it has a zoom magnification of 60x, which means you can get up close and personal with your subject from afar. This is particularly useful if you’re trying to capture details from a distance, or if your subject is skittish, such as a small mammal or bird.
It’s a prime example of an entry-level camera that bridges the gap between phones and DSLR and mirrorless cameras.
Read our Coolpix B600 expert review to see how it fared in our test lab.
Tips for buying cheap cameras
- Shopping second-hand can net you a good camera at a hefty price reduction, provided you check our DSLR and mirrorless camera reviews to make sure it’s a decent model. Even slightly older cameras will exceed what a phone is capable of – just don’t go so retro that you’re buying a collector’s item. We’ve found that cameras are pretty reliable products that ought to last at least seven years, so if you buy a camera in good condition then you should expect your money’s worth.
- Be willing to get an unfashionable camera. You might not find a mirrorless camera with a hybrid autofocus system, 4K video and a full-frame sensor. But actually, the older DSLR that shoots at 1080p and sports an APS-C sensor is good enough for most beginner – and even intermediate – photography requirements.
- Like most tech products, camera prices decline slowly but consistently after launch, until the product finally get phased out, usually for a newer model of the same series. Try to net an earlier-series model and you’ll grab a bargain. We often see cameras that are the fourth, fifth or even sixth iteration of the same series.
Find out how to shop for a great high-end camera with our guide on how to buy the best DSLR or mirrorless camera.