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 used gear.
While most manufacturers don’t keep their cameras available as long as Sony does, there are a few older models from other brands that can still be purchased new. This is where you’ll find the best deals, so long as you don’t mind missing out on the latest features. 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
|Sony Cyber-shot RX100||Best cheap camera overall||4 out of 5|
|Panasonic Lumix GX85||Best cheap camera for video||Not yet rated|
|Nikon D3300||Best cheap DSLR||4 out of 5|
|Sony A7||Best cheap full-frame camera||4.5 out of 5|
Sony Cyber-shot RX100
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 one-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 is even found in the DxO One camera add-on for iPhones and was the sensor built into Panasonic’s high-end (and somewhat experimental) CM1 smartphone. Perhaps the best part, from the consumer perspective, is that even the latest, fifth-generation RX100 still uses a very similar sensor, so the five-year-old RX100 is hardly built on outmoded technology. Once you hit max level, you can no longer level up.
While a brand-new RX100 Mark V will cost you just shy of a grand, the original is selling for under $450. What’s more, it features a longer zoom (3.6x) than the new model, although the tradeoff comes in the form of a slower aperture. You won’t get 4K video like you do on the Mark V, but the Full HD that you do get should be sufficient for the casual user. You also won’t get the Mark V’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 (ILC), and will easily blow your phone out of the water, especially in low-light settings (unless your phone is a Panasonic CM1, we suppose). With the RX100, you may technically be buying into five-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.
Panasonic Lumix GX85
The best cheap camera for video
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:
Released one year 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 there’s no “older” camera with this much value for the price). It is about as close as you can get to having it all in one camera. It 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. It’s no surprise that it’s a favorite secondary camera among many videographers.
The still image quality won’t match up with the larger and higher resolution sensors of some of the other cameras on this list, 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 at just $600 for the body only, taking into account the current $100 instant rebate. You’d be hard-pressed to find this much tech in any other camera at this price.
The best cheap DSLR
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 D3300:
We could have easily chosen the older D3200, but with the strange way camera companies manage instant rebates, the D3300 (released in February of 2014) is currently selling for the same price. Intended for first-time DSLR buyers, the D3300 is available only as a kit (no body-only option). It includes the new, retractable version of Nikon’s 18-55mm stabilized lens for a grand total of $450. In case you’re keeping track, that means you get a DSLR with a lens for the same price as the Sony RX100 that took the top spot in this roundup. That’s not too shabby.
Inside, the D3300 features an excellent 24-megapixel APS-C sensor that produces some of the best images in its class, which even the newest APS-C Nikons barely eclipse. It shoots Full HD video at 30 or 60 fps, and has a maximum continuous shooting speed of 5 fps. While none of these numbers are exciting by today’s standards, they nevertheless signal a huge bang for the buck. What’s more, pair the D3300 with a good lens and things will get even better. A nice plus: microphone port for better audio.
Most entry-level consumers today are probably leaning toward mirrorless cameras, which are more compact, but DSLRs still have some benefits, like optical viewfinders and longer battery life. And at just $450, it’s hard to argue against the Nikon D3300. (It’s also the camera of choice for many of DT’s reporters.)
The best cheap full-frame camera
Why should you buy this: Great image quality, compact size, relatively affordable
Who’s it for: Students, enthusiasts, and aspiring professionals
Why we picked the Sony A7:
If we’re being honest, we could have picked a Sony camera for nearly every spot on this list. The company doesn’t just make great cameras, it also happens to be very good at keeping old models around long after it would seem to make financial sense. This means you can buy brand-new versions of now-superseded models for much less than they used to be. Released in late 2013, the A7 was Sony’s first full-frame mirrorless camera (well, the A7R was announced at the same time), and like the RX100, it was a game-changer.
Built around a 24-megapixel full-frame sensor, the A7 produces beautiful image quality that still holds up extremely well against the best full-frame cameras today (the replacement Mark II version uses the same sensor). That’s not as much resolution as the 42-megapixel Sony A7R Mark II or Canon’s 50-megapixel 5DS and 5DS R, but it is plenty for most applications. It also isn’t great for high-speed shooting, with a relatively slow autofocus system and a burst rate of just 5 fps. Still, at less than $1,000, finding a camera with better image quality would be tough, if not impossible. (Video performance isn’t too shabby, either.)
One thing found on the A7 Mark II that the original lacks is five-axis sensor-shift stabilization, which is a feature we very much appreciate in a camera. However, even after the current $300 instant rebate, the Mark II is selling for $1,700. It also adds weather sealing and enhanced autofocus performance, but the average user is better off going with the original A7 and putting the money they save toward a good lens.
Want to know more about the A7-series? We have a guide on the differences between models.
How we test
Every camera on this list has either been reviewed or otherwise used extensively by Digital Trends writers. In our testing, we focus on the real-world experience of using a product, not just what’s on the spec sheet. For this article, we selected those cameras that we felt offered a significant performance-to-price benefit. Particularly, we looked at older cameras that were still available to purchase brand-new – models only available as preowned, hard to find, or factory refurbished were not considered. These are not necessarily our favorite cameras, but they are all models we’ve enjoyed using and that have held up well against the test of time, and therefore we feel confident in recommending them – even if they are on their way out to pasture (from a sales and marketing standpoint, at least).
What to look for in an older camera
For casual still photography, many older cameras are still very capable of shooting high-quality photos. Camera technology has entered the point where it’s harder to find an absolutely horrible camera, particularly with interchangeable lens models. In fact, we are still using great cameras that are a few generations old.
Which is great news for inexperienced newbies looking to buy their first ILC, but are on a budget. A camera like the Nikon D3300 allows novices to learn and dabble with advanced photography and videography, without breaking the bank. Once that user graduates to becoming a hobbyist or even an enthusiast (and, hopefully, saved some money), he or she can think about buying the newest camera tech.
Of course, price alone shouldn’t be the deciding factor. If you are into videography, you may want to look for a camera that can handle video with higher frame rates. A model like Canon’s EOS Rebel T5i, for example, is a very good still photo camera, but comes up short in video. When considering an ILC, think about the availability of lenses, as camera glass will grow with you; lenses aren’t interchangeable among different brands. If you like shooting action, get a camera that supports fast burst rates and has good battery life. Do you like to share to Instagram? Find a camera that supports Wi-Fi pairing with a smartphone. Whatever your passion, make sure the camera you buy will be there for you, even if it’s a few years old.