Q&A: What Is The Best DSLR Camera Under $500?

We researched to find the best DSLR camera under 500 dollars and determined the Sony a5100 is the top choice. Our team came to this decision based on this camera's autofocus system, high portability, and excellent image quality. Keep in mind, the a5100 is a mirrorless camera and not a DSLR (both are similar, we will get more into this later).

Our runner-up and best traditional DSLR goes to the Nikon D3400 an excellent beginner camera. The D3400 offers a classic DSLR design, competitive feature, and reliable performance. Nikon is also one of the most reputable brands in the photography industry.

Those looking to get their first camera on a very tight budget might want to check out the Yi M1. The M1 is an affordable mirrorless model that is half the price of the $500 DSLR cameras listed here. The M1 offers excellent photo and video performance (only model with 4K video) in a small form-factor that won't break the bank.

Editor's Choice

The best mirrorless camera under $500 offering stellar autofocus and 1080P video recording up to 60fps.

While not a traditional DSLR, mirrorless cameras are quickly overtaking the photo and video industry. Sony's A5100 camera offers competitive specs in a small form-factor perfect for travel or “on the go” shooting.

*Pricing as of 6/4/19

Runner-Up

A traditional DSLR from a reputable photography brand offering competitive specs at a low price.

With a true DSLR design, the D3400 is a solid camera for those who don't wish to upgrade to newer mirrorless technology. You'll get plenty of resolution with the 24MP sensor and 1080P video up to 60fps.

*Pricing as of 5/29/19

Most Affordable Option

The cheapest camera on this list and the only one to offer 4K video all while staying well under a $500 price-point.

YI may not be as famous of a brand, but they are most well-known for their innovative action cameras. Their M1 camera packs mirrorless technology into a small form-factor at an ultra cheap price.

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In the rest of this guide, we will share our vast knowledge of the camera industry for your benefit. This includes insight on which DSLRs to consider in your search. We will also cover some basic photography and camera questions to clear up any confusion.

Since this is a guide is catered to beginners, we will going to mention DSLRs that come with a bundled kit lens. We understand most of you don't already have an arsenal of lenses in your gear bag. Due to this, buying a camera under $500 as a body only won't do you any good while staying within your budget.

While we worked hard to cover this topic as in-depth as possible, you may have some additional questions or concerns. If you need further clarification related to entry-level DSLRs, use the comments section below, and we'll do our best to assist.

Photography 101: What Is A DSLR Camera?

If you are looking for a DSLR camera under 500, you are likely new to photography or moving up from shooting on your phone or point-n-shoot. Either reason is acceptable, and you have come to the right place to let us help you on your journey to discover the right camera.

To start things off, it is beneficial to understand what a DSLR camera is. Traditional SLR technology has been around for many years and requires film to function. The more modern DSLR stands for a digital single-lens reflex camera and thus relies on digital data storage on memory cards instead of film.

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The ‘single-lens' terminology utilizes a the reflex design. This allows light travel through the lens, hit a mirror and then reflect the image to the viewfinder or sensor. Due to this design, you can see your subject through the viewfinder without needing a dedicated (and separate) lens for framing your shot.

The Great Debate: DSLR Versus Mirrorless Technology

DSLRs have held their dominance of the consumer and professional photography market over the past few decades. Mirrorless cameras are quickly gaining popularly, often sporting competitive specs at cheaper prices with smaller form-factors.

Sony, Panasonic and Fuji have introduced a lot of innovation via their new mirrorless models. Iconic brands like Nikon and Canon are falling behind resulting in a loss of significant market share.

Among the photography community, the debate between the two systems is much like the Android/iPhone discussion. There isn't a clear winner as everyone's needs and preferences are different.

How does DSLR technology differ from mirrorless? Well as the name kind hints, it doesn't use any form of a mirror system to operate. Instead, the design allows light to pass through the lens directly onto the sensor.

The biggest advantage is that you have an electronic viewfinder that can preview your resulting image as it will look in the final photo. This includes the exact depth of field and exposure before pressing the shutter button.

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For under $500, there isn't a lot of mirrorless cameras as the technology is so new compared to traditional DSLRs. This will change as more manufacturers adopt the concept. Once you rise above a $500 budget, you'll find many competitive mirrorless cameras priced which rival DSLRs more than double the cost.

I started my journey investing in Canon's DSLRs, which ended up being an excellent system for me to learn the photography basics. As I got better and had more money to invest in gear, I upgraded through several DSLRs model.

A few years ago, I sold all my Canon bodies and purchased a Sony a7RII for my photography and Panasonic GH5 for video shooting. The great part about mirrorless cameras is you can use DSLR lenses on them with a compatible adapter. This allowed me to make the switch while still keeping all my Canon glass, which avoided a massive headache.

Can A $500 DSLR Camera Shoot Video Too?

Many people consider DSLRs to be still cameras only, but the truth of the matter is that DSLRs are being used for video often. Similar to photos, mirrorless models are also invading the videography space. These cameras tend to more video-centric functionality due to benefits of an electronic viewfinder and lack of a mirror.

The quality of video that you'll have at your disposal from $500 and under DSLR or mirrorless will be mediocre at best. Due to this, you might be better off using your phone or mobile device. The latest iPhones or Android devices pack innovative features like 4K video or slow-motion HD recording that will often look better than a $500 DSLR camera.

Things To Consider When Buying A DSLR Or Mirrorless Camera

Cameras on the market today have a lot of variables to consider before purchasing. Fortunately, under $500 there are fewer variables although there are still a few worth mentioning so you are more familiar:

  • Sensor size – there are three primary sizes which differ in cost and performance: full frame, crop sensor, micro four thirds (MFT).
  • Megapixels – higher count means larger image sizes and the ability to crop further without pixelation. This does not equate directly to image sharpness as that is more dependent on the quality of the lens.
  • Lens mount – each manufacturer relies on a proprietary lens mounting system in the exception of Micro Four Thirds which does offer a native mounting solution among brands.
  • Video resolution –  when shooting video, you'll want to know whether the camera is capable of capturing a maximum resolution of HD (720P), FHD (1080P) or UHD (4K) as this helps to determine overall video clarity (combined with a sharp lens). Additionally, the frames per second or fps will tell you whether there is potential for slow-motion recording.
  • Autofocus points – in most cases the more, the better although not all autofocus is the same as different types of AF points can perform greater than others.
  • Wi-Fi – not a complete necessity, but a beneficial perk that allows remote control and image transfer via a compatible mobile device.

Comparing The Top DSLR & Mirrorless Cameras Under $500

CompanySonyNikonCanonNikonYi
Modela5100D34007D3300M1
Pricefrom $348.00from $417.00from $399.00from $396.95from $249.00
TypeMirrorlessDSLRDSLRDSLRMirrorless
Sensor SizeAPS-C (crop)DX format (crop)APS-C (crop)APS-C (crop)Micro-Four Thirds (MFT)
Megapixels24.324.224.124.212.2
Autofocus Points1791191181
Lens MountSony E-MountNikon FCanon EFNikon FMicro-Four-Thirds (MFT)
Included Lens16-50mm F/3.5-5.618-55mm F/3.5-5.618-55mm F/3.5-5.6 IS II18-55mm F/3.5-5.616-40mm F/3.5-5.6
Video Resolution1080p (60fps)1080p (60fps)1080p (30fps), 720P (60fps)1080p (60fps)4K (30fps), 1080P (60fps)
Wi-Fi

Best DSLR Camera Under 500 Dollars (2019)

A front look at the Sony a5100 Mirrorless Camera Kit.

Pros

  • Suitable for both photography and video capture
  • Small, portable form-factor
  • Harnesses an excellent autofocus system
  • 6 fps burst shooting is great for sports photography
  • Wi-Fi support allows smartphone connectivity
  • Convenient flip-up LCD screen for selfies or vlogging
  • Can use DSLR lenses with a compatible adapter

Cons

  • Doesn't look as "professional" as a traditional DSLR
  • Only offers 1080P video shooting (unlike the Yi M1's 4K)

When mirrorless technology took off in the mass market, Sony was one of the companies who's imaging department reaped the benefits. While Sony did produce DSLRs, they struggled to live up to their Canon or Nikon competition. Their mirrorless lines are surpassing them with ease.

The a5100 is the cheapest camera you can get in their Alpha mirrorless line-up, but that doesn't mean it is a bad. In fact, when you compare the specifications from the a5100 to any of the other DSLRs listed in this guide, it is the clear winner.

The most notable attributes beyond the a5100's portability is the stellar 179-point phase-detection AF system. If you couple this with the 6 fps burst photo mode, it makes an affordable option for shooting sports or high-action subjects.

Front view of Nikon's D3400 DSLR Camera.

Pros

  • Offers a traditional DSLR form-factor
  • Capable of shooting video up to 1080P at 60fps
  • Decent menu system & user experience
  • Can shoot burst photography up to 5fps
  • SnapBridge Bluetooth connectivity allows for easy smartphone transfer

Cons

  • AF system isn't as advanced as some competitors
  • Not as easy to learn photography on compared to a mirrorless model with a digital viewfinder
  • Not as much versatility in lens selection

Nikon's D3400 is the fourth iteration in their entry-level line. This means they have had plenty of time to work out all the bells and whistles. This DSLR offers some competitive specifications like a 24.2MP crop sensor, an EXPEED 4 image processor and lacks an optical low-pass filter which helps capture fine detail.

Nikon's F mount is versatile with plenty of the brand's NIKKOR lenses available for achieving all types of shots. The 11 autofocus points offer decent focus on your subject and tracking as they move about the frame.

This camera is capable of 1080P video recording up to 60 frames per second. Instead of Wi-Fi connectivity, the D3400 harnesses SnapBridge Bluetooth connectivity. This uses a low-power Bluetooth connection to transfer images between your DSLR camera and smartphone. Battery life is solid, and there are plenty of cheap aftermarket D3400 batteries available.

Canon T7 DSLR Camera

Pros

  • Traditional DSLR form-factor
  • Lots of sharp lens options to upgrade to down the road
  • Wi-Fi support and excellent mobile app design

Cons

  • Can only shoot up to 3fps for burst photography
  • Can only shoot 1080P video up to 30fps
  • Only offers 9 AF points
  • Doesn't offer Canon's stellar Dual-Pixel AF for video

The Rebel line has been highly successful for Canon as an affordable and easy way to learn DSLR photography. In fact, my first ever DSLR was Canon's Rebel T3i and some of my favorite that I've ever taken photos were with that camera.

Their T7 DSLR follows the Rebel line with a focus on performance without getting too inundated with unnecessary features. Canon coupled their 18MP sensor with a DIGIC 4+ processor which allows the capture of quality photos in an efficient manner.

Nine points of AF isn't great by most standards, yet it is more than enough for beginners especially for shooting stationary subjects. Lastly, the T7 offers built-in Wi-Fi and NFC support for mobile connectivity of which Canon makes one of the most user-friendly camera apps.

A front view of the Nikon D3300 Camera Kit

Pros

  • Similar build to the D3400
  • Similar specifications to the D3400
  • Does offer a microphone jack for adding an external microphone for video shooting

Cons

  • No Snapbridge Bluetooth and only offers Wi-Fi support with the aftermarket adapter
  • Cannot shoot 4K video in APS-C mode due to the small amount pixels in the sensor.
  • Is heavier, worse on battery and has worst low-light options than the D3400

The D3300 is still a great option to consider as it shares much of the same design and features as its updated D3400 sibling. From a cosmetic perspective, it looks almost identical with a slight increase in weight (only 35g).

Aspects such as the sensor, AF system, rear LCD screen, and viewfinder remain the same between the two models. The D3300 still offers a microphone input for video shooting whereas unfortunately, Nikon removed it in the D3400.

The battery life, max sensitivity (ISO) and Wi-Fi support are better on the D3400. The D3300 supports Wi-Fi although you need to buy a separate USB adapter and deal with the added bulk.

A front look at the Ti M1 mirrorless camera with lens.

Pros

  • Can be bought with a kit lens for under $250
  • Utilizes a Sony sensor (notably regarded as the best in the industry)
  • Offers 4K video shooting up to 30fps and 1080P video up to 60fps
  • Small, manageable form-factor that is easy to travel with

Cons

  • Not as professional looking as a traditional DSLR
  • Build quality is cheap (but its $250 so you can't be picky)
  • Most of the UI is touchscreen based which some people may get confused with
  • No internal flash component
  • AF is not reliable without solid lighting

Most of this list consists of brands that have been involved in the photography industry for decades. Yi breaks this mold as newer electronics manufacturer breaking ground in the digital imaging market. The company is most known for their affordable action cams that rival GoPros at a fraction of the cost.

The M1 is a mirrorless camera that utilizes Sony's latest IMX269 sensor with an MFT mount. The body is compact and simplistic with only two physical buttons and a 3-inch touchscreen on the rear. The AF system uses contrast-detect with 81 focus points to provide excellent tracking.

YI designed the M1 to offer integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support for mobile connectivity. Video shooting is the best on this list with capture at 4K (up to 30 fps) as well as 1080P (up to 60 fps).

The YI is one to consider for budget seekers due to the affordable price-point. The M1 with a kit 12-40mm f/3.5-5.6 lens most often sells for under $250!

Things To Consider When Buying A DSLR Or Mirrorless Camera

If you are buying a gift for a friend, girlfriend, or family member, then you will most likely be purchasing a new camera. However, if you are purchasing one for yourself to learn photography, then you might as well consider the option of buying a used DSLR model.

Here are a few reasons why I would consider buying a used model:

  1. You can find higher-end models that retail for much higher as pre-owned for under $500.
  2. Entry level DSLR/mirrorless models sell more units due to their low price so there are more of them in existence and thus more of them on the used market.
  3. Many times you can find a used model that is in excellent condition with little use or wear at a significant discount since it is ‘open box' or pre-owned.
  4. Most people who purchase a beginner DSLR or mirrorless body will know that their lenses should long outlive the camera body especially for an entry-level model which often gets upgraded sooner than later as your photography skills further develop.

For reference, I have purchased used DSLR/mirrorless cameras, lenses, and accessories in the past and haven't had a bad experience yet. However, it does require further research on the product, seller, and condition to make sure you don't get burned by a scammer or buy a broken item.

SEE ALSO: DSLR Camera Showdown – Canon 70D vs 80D

Now comes the next question when considering a used model, where can I find the best deals on used cameras?

  • B&H Photo Video – one of the most well-known camera retailers who is headquartered in NYC while maintaining a massive online store of both new and used camera gear
  • eBay – an online auction service that you've likely already heard of that, allowing individual sellers the ability to sell their used goods in return for a small fee
  • Amazon (used) – you probably assume Amazon is only selling new cameras, but it is possible to buy a pre-owned, open box or refurbished DSLR/mirrorless cameras through their third-party sellers.
  • BorrowLenses – a trusted online camera gear rental house which sells off rental units that have been retired from circulation at discounted prices
  • Adorama (Used) – similar to B&H, Adorama is also an NYC-based retailer that sells a good portion of used gear online
  • Craigslist – the riskiest resource of the bunch, but an option to score a great deal on a camera locally (especially if you live in a highly populated area)

You now know where to find used cameras, but what models should you consider buying used for under $500?

There is always a more considerable risk for buying used as you have no return period or warranty to fall back on. However, if you choose the right used camera, then you'll be able to score enough savings to make it worth the risk.

Final Thoughts

Buying your first DSLR camera doesn't have to be stressful or confusing. If you made it this far, you should have learned much of the basics of an entry-level camera. This includes what features to look for, whether to buy new or used or which DSLR models to consider. I hope that this article helps to make your search for the best DSLR camera under $500 more successful.

While we think Sony's a5100 is the ideal choice in this budget for most people, you can't go wrong with Nikon's D3400 DSLR or Yi's M1 4K mirrorless camera if you are on a tight budget. 

We wrote this article for your benefit, so feel free to comment below if you have any further questions, comments, or concerns.

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We hope you enjoyed this guide on the dollars!
  • Hey i’m wondering if i should grab the d3400 or canon t6 for daily vlogs? I’m quite new with dslr so i’m quite confused after reading an article from Sleeq Tech. The writer is talking too much about the similarities among both. The title and context is contradicting.

    Since im here what’s your advice if i’m planning to use it for daily vlogging? Anyone?

    • Save up for a new or used Canon 70D. The 80D is the newer version, but the 70D has been the standard for vloggers over the past few years and you can get a used one for under $700 with a lens included on eBay or Craigslist.

  • Was doing sem-pro photog 30 years ago. My neat OM1-D settup with several lenses and motor drive, now down the toilet… looked at a new DSLR body & old Olympus lenses lenses but there would be no AF and a number of other problems. Thanks for a GREAT article! Looking at the Rebel and maybe the Nikon 3400.

  • Hi TechReviewer,
    I love this review. Been trying to check other articles on the “Best DSLR camer under 500” and I think I’ll settle with this review. I love Sony cameras, simply because, it’s mirrorless, and after having to experienced Canon, Nikon and Sony cameras, somehow Son exceeds all other camera in terms of result. Thanks for this detailed review.

    • Thanks Bethzy, glad you found this article helpful! We do think Sony’s mirrorless models are the way to go in the current market and their a5100 is an excellent DSLR alternative for under $500.

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