If you’re looking for a camera that’s an upgrade over your phone and doesn’t cost thousands of dollars, the originalis the best cheap camera you can buy. Cheap, of course, is relative, but the first-generation RX100 offers great image quality in a compact size that rivals the best compact cameras of today. Sony’s unique practice of keeping older models around and selling them for less saves you a lot of money without taking a risk on a piece of pre-owned gear.
There are two strategies for buying the best cheap camera — to look at an entry-level new model, or to go with a higher-end, but older model which may not have the latest technology, but will offer more control or other features that matter to you. If you don’t find what you’re looking for here, read up on the best DSLR cameras and the best point-and-shoot cameras for more options.
At a glance
- Best cheap camera overall: Sony RX100
- Best cheap DSLR camera: Nikon D3500
- Best cheap mirrorless camera: Panasonic Lumix GX85
- Best cheap point-and-shoot camera: Canon PowerShot G9 X Mark II
- Best cheap action camera: GoPro Hero7 White
- Best cheap film camera: Fujifilm Instax Mini 9
Why should you buy this: Excellent image quality for the size, and now at a good price.
Who’s it for: Casual shooters, pros on the go, and anyone looking for a step-up from a phone.
Why we picked the Sony Cyber-Shot RX100:
Released all the way back in 2012, the still-available RX100 singlehandedly started the 1-inch-type sensor revolution. Okay, maybe it wasn’t exactly a revolution, but the then-new format has gone on to be featured in many compact cameras from other manufacturers. The very same sensor even found its way into a smartphone at one point, the somewhat experimental Panasonic CM1.
Perhaps the best part, from the consumer perspective, is that even the latest, sixth-generation RX100 still uses a very similar sensor, so the 7-year-old RX100 is hardly built on outmoded technology. It would seem that once you hit max level, you can no longer level up.
While a brand-new RX100 Mark VI will cost you more than a grand, the original is less than half that. What’s more, it features a brighter lens than the new model which trades a bit of that wide aperture for a longer zoom. You won’t get 4K video like you do on the Mark VI, but the Full HD that you do get should be sufficient for the casual user. You also won’t get the Mark VI’s blazing 24 frames per second continuous burst shooting speed, but the original still puts up an impressive 10 fps — we’re certainly not complaining.
This is a camera that’s easy to grab and go, or just keep it stowed in your purse, backpack, or jacket pocket so you’re ready whenever the moment strikes. It features image quality that can only be beat by stepping up to larger-sensor, interchangeable lens cameras. With the RX100, you may technically be buying into almost seven-year-old technology, but there’s no reason it won’t feel like the latest and greatest. Unless, of course, you’ve already used a newer RX100.
Read our Sony Cyber-Shot RX100 review
Why should you buy this: Five-axis image stabilization, 4K video, built-in viewfinder
Who’s it for: Amateurs and enthusiasts alike, or anyone who wants a good balance of power and portability.
Why we picked the Panasonic Lumix GX85:
Portable cameras tend to sit at a higher price point than larger models, but it’s not too difficult to find a solid mirrorless camera for a fair price. Released three years ago, the GX85 is not really that old of a camera. Still, it warrants being on this list because of its unique attributes in this price bracket (it’s a lot cheaper than when it was brand new, and nothing else offers this much value for the price).
The GX85 has a compact design, made possible by the smaller Micro Four Thirds format, yet doesn’t leave out the advanced features of a larger camera. There’s a built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF) and a three-inch, tilting LCD screen. There are two command dials and a standard mode dial, so there’s plenty of control, as well.
Inside, the camera features a 16-megapixel Micro Four Thirds sensor with five-axis sensor-shift stabilization for sharp still photos and smooth video. Speaking of video, it shoots 4K at 24 or 30 frames per second — the only 4K camera on this list. With a stabilized lens attached, the camera makes use of both lens stabilization and sensor stabilization for even better results. In 2016, the GX85 was well ahead of its time.
The still image quality won’t match up with the larger and higher-resolution sensors of some of the other cameras, but for general use, especially as a travel or vacation camera, the GX85 is hard to beat. Perhaps the best part is how affordable it is, with two-lens bundles being a steal right now. You’d be hard-pressed to find this much tech in any other camera at this price.
Read more about the Panasonic Lumix GX85
Why should you buy this: Easy to use, great image quality.
Who’s it for: Beginners, students, and first-time DSLR buyers
Why we picked the Nikon D3500:
The Nikon D3500 may not be pocketable like the RX100 or slim like the GX85, but the trade-off is a larger sensor without drastic changes in the price. Intended for first-time DSLR buyers, the D3500 is available only as a kit (there’s no body-only option). It includes the new, retractable version of Nikon’s 18-55mm stabilized lens. In case you’re keeping track, that means you get a DSLR with a lens for close to the same price as the Sony RX100 that took the top spot in this list. That’s not too shabby.
Inside, the D3500 features an excellent 24-megapixel APS-C sensor that produces some of the best images in its class. It shoots Full HD video at 60 fps and has a maximum continuous shooting speed of 5 fps. While none of these numbers are exciting by today’s standards — and haven’t drastically changed from the older models — they nevertheless signal a huge bang for the buck. What’s more, pair the D3500 with a good lens and things will get even better.
Image quality specs haven’t changed much in the D3000 series lately — though Nikon says the sensor is a bit sharper and more colorful — but the latest model has an even smaller body and more streamlined controls and this is one camera where the older version is sometimes inexplicably more expensive. The battery life improved and Bluetooth is also included.
Most entry-level consumers today are probably leaning toward one of the best mirrorless cameras, which tend to be more compact, but DSLRs still have some benefits, like much longer battery life — and sometimes a lower price.
Why should you buy this: The ideal blend between image quality, portability, and price
Who’s it for: Beginners, enthusiasts, and anyone who wants better photos from a compact camera
Why we picked the Canon Powershot G9 X Mark II:
If the Sony RX100 is too old for your taste, the Canon Powershot G9 X Mark II is a current-model point-and-shoot with advanced features that won’t put too huge of a dent in your wallet. While “cheap” is relative, trust us — the $100 point-and-shoots are no longer any better than your average smartphone. But with the G9 X Mark II’s 20-megapixel 1-inch sensor and f/2-f/4.9 lens, you’ll get better image quality than you can from the tiny sensor inside your smartphone or a cheaper point-and-shoot.
A 3x optical zoom lens also gives the G9X Mark II a little more flexibility than a basic smartphone camera. The 5.3-frames-per-second continuous shooting is nowhere near the 24 fps of the Sony RX100 VI, but the price is also only a third of that camera. Video is only 1080p, but for most users that’s a non-issue, particularly if your focus is on still photography.
That tech is wrapped up in a body that’s easy to tuck in a bag or coat pocket to take anywhere. Weighing less than eight ounces, the G9 X Mark II is deserving of the compact category. There’s no viewfinder and the LCD screen is fixed, but there’s still plenty to love considering the price point.
Due to price fluctuations, the G9 X Mark II may not always be the least expensive point-and-shoot on this list — the original RX100 is often cheaper, but the Canon is newer.
Read more on the Canon Powershot G9 X Mark II
Why should you buy this: GoPro quality, without the GoPro price
Who’s it for: Adrenaline junkies on a budget
Why we picked the GoPro Hero7 White:
After doing away with the budget-friendly Hero Session, GoPro isn’t ignoring budget-minded consumers. The White version of the GoPro Hero7 series is a stripped down version of the more expensive Black model, but still offers most of the image quality and ease of use, along with all the mounting accessories the action camera giant is known for.
The Hero7 White skips out on the 4K video — but if you don’t have a 4K screen anyways, you won’t really be missing out much. Still photos are 10 megapixels. The biggest missing feature is GoPro’s image stabilization — so if you plan on shooting mounted action on a ride that’s less than smooth, saving up for the Black model may be worth the little bit of extra cash. But, for getting solid shots on a tiny camera that can go anywhere but won’t cost more than two Benjamins, the Hero7 White still has a lot to offer.
While the image stabilization and 4K is gone, the budget version still includes voice control, a helpful feature when the camera is mounted out of reach. The touchscreen at the back makes the camera simple to use, even for first-time GoPro users. And with a body that’s waterproof down to 33 feet without any housing, you can pretty much take it anywhere.
Sometimes, while GoPro itself doesn’t have a listing for it, the GoPro Hero Session can still be found brand new for less, but the price difference is often minimal, and you lose some photo resolution along with the ease-of-use that comes with actually having a screen.
Why should you buy this: Instant film prints for little cash
Who’s it for: Anyone looking for instant film photos on a mini-budget
Why we picked the Fujfilm Instax Mini 9:
Instant film still has a place in the digital world thanks to its classic and timeless aesthetic, as well as the pure fun of the process. And since the film is largely what determines image quality, the cameras spitting out Instax Mini film will all have very similar quality. (Polaroid film is a bit pricier, so opting with a Polaroid model can cost more in the long run). The Fujifilm Instax Mini 9 is a rather affordable camera that doesn’t have a lot of frills and features, but gets the job done on a budget while still spitting out some decent photos.
The instant camera uses automatic exposure modes and a built-in flash, along with a manual brightness adjustment. That allows for simplicity while still offering some flexibility on getting those exposure levels right. A high-key mode is also included for even brighter shots. A small optical viewfinder helps compose the shot while a selfie mirror makes the camera good for party shots (and no, not the kind that come in a shot glass).
While the Fujifilm Instax Mini 90 has more features and a design that doesn’t make it look like a party favor, the retro-looking camera will cost twice as much. If you want the cheapest film camera that will still capture some decent results, the Fujifilm Instax Mini 9 is worth a look.
How do I get a good camera for cheap?
The easiest way to get a good deal on a camera is to be patient. Don’t put your order in the minute a new model is released. Instead, wait to see if the manufacturer lowers the price — sometimes this happens in as little as a few months, depending on how the camera sells compared to competing models. If you don’t mind buying an older model, you can also save a lot of money by buying a previous generation camera, such as with the Sony RX100.
How long should a digital camera last?
A digital camera can last for many years, but it depends on how it’s used and cared for. Professional cameras are built to handle the elements, from rain and snow to dust and sand, but cheaper models are not made with the same level of environmental sealing. The more you use a camera, the sooner any mechanical elements like the shutter or lens aperture will wear out, too. However, those components are often tested to survive through hundreds of thousands of actuations.
What is a DSLR camera?
A DSLR is a type of interchangeable lens camera (ILC) that uses a mirror to direct light from the lens up to an optical viewfinder (OVF), allowing the photographer to see directly through the lens as if looking through a window. DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex and is the modern version of the film-era SLR; before the arrival of digital photography, this was the only way to see directly through the lens. Now, with digital sensors, this is no longer true and the DSLR has lost ground to mirrorless cameras (see below), although the optical viewfinder still has some benefits such as better battery life.
Modern DSLRs can also be shot in live view mode, where the image is previewed on the LCD screen straight from the sensor. However, performs is typically better when using the viewfinder.
What is a mirrorless camera?
A mirrorless camera is a type of interchangeable lens camera (ILC) that eliminates the bulky mirror and optical viewfinder system of a DSLR in favor a fully electronic preview system. A mirrorless camera is always in live view and may use either an electronic viewfinder (EVF) or simply no viewfinder at all, relying entirely on the LCD screen. Because of this, mirrorless cameras will drain their batteries much faster than a DSLR. In addition to weight and size savings, a mirrorless camera’s electronic preview allows for exposure and white balance simulation, so you can see exactly what you’re going to get before you take a photo.