Expert Recommendation

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Best Digital Camera Overall Under $500
Expert (97 Recommendations and 21 Compliments)
Send a ComplimentComplimented (Change)
January 31, 2009 Updated: March 11, 2009
Overview

At the $500 range, we enter into the territory of DSLRs - compacts and ultrazooms in this range aren’t much better than the ones in the $300 range, and DSLRs, while offering some challenges and limitations, offer a wealth of capabilities and image quality that simply can’t be matched by any non-DSLR camera. Of the entry-level DSLRs, Canon’s Rebel XS is far and away the best product on the market - it comes feature-packed with all the capabilities a novice or even advanced photographer might need, and its image quality is far superior to other entry-level DSLRs, especially shooting in low-light situations.

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My Best In Class Pick
Canon EOS Digital Rebel XS (with 18-55mm IS Lens)

Canon’s Rebel series has long been the leader in image quality in the budget DSLR, and Canon’s entry-level Rebel XS is no different. Though its list of features is somewhat stripped down from the higher-end Rebel XSi model, the Rebel XS still features all the basics needed for most situations.

The Rebel XS bundle comes with an 18-55mm IS lens, which provides an equivalent 29-88mm view. This provides a decent standard working range, with good wide-angle capability and a somewhat short telephoto, which works great for travel photography and many everyday photographic situations. Its telephoto end isn’t quite ideal for portraits, and definitely isn’t long enough for action photography, however.

In terms of low-light ability, the Rebel XS is as good as they come - the bundled 18-55 lens features an image stabilization system to correct for camera shake, and the Rebel XS’s high-ISO ability is best-in-class - even at the highest motion-freezing ISOs, images are clean and barely exhibit any noise at all.

As with almost all DSLRs, the Rebel XS is quick and responsive, with virtually no shutter lag and a good autofocus system that should be able to lock onto still subjects in low-light conditions easily. With a somewhat outdated 7-point AF system, however, autofocus tracking for fast action is only about average. The Rebel XS can shoot continuously for 3 frames per second - about average for a DSLR, and extremely helpful for fast action sequences or unpredictable moments.

Comparison with Nikon D40 (with 18-55mm Lens)

While Nikon’s D40 is a bare-bones camera heavily marketed towards beginners, Canon’s entry-level Rebel XS is a full-featured DSLR, providing best-in-class image quality and other useful features like a decent autofocus system and an image-stabilized kit lens that the D40 simply lacks. The D40 is slightly less expensive, but if you’re interested in fast action or general photography beyond taking simple snapshots, the Rebel XS is a much more capable camera that can do more and allow you to grow more as a photographer.

Comparison with Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 (with 18-70mm Lens)

Most of the specifications between the Rebel XS and A200 are similar, with the biggest difference being the Rebel XS’s vastly superior image quality to the A200.

Pros
  • +
    Best-in-class high-ISO
  • +
    Image-stabilized lens
  • +
    29mm wide-angle
  • +
    3fps continuous shooting
Cons
  • -
    Only 88mm telephoto
Canon EOS Digital Rebel XS (with 18-55mm IS Lens) is the Best Digital Camera Overall Under $500
Where to buy
Canon EOS Digital Rebel XS (with 18-55mm IS Lens)
  • Best Price: $448
    Amazon See It »
Specifications
  • Zoom: 3.0x
  • Wide-Angle Lens: 29mm (21% wider)
  • Resolution: 10.1MP
More
Want More Opinions? See:
Website Reviews (2 reviews)
  • Highly Recommended at DPReview.com
  • Dave's Pick at Imaging-Resource.com

Comparing My Best In Class Pick with Other Good Choices

Product
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Canon EOS Digital Rebel XS (with 18-55mm IS Lens)
2
Nikon D40 (with 18-55mm Lens)
3
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 (with 18-70mm Lens)
Customer Rating
Price $448.99 $619.00
Size (W x H x D) 5.1 x 3.9 x 2.4 in. 5.0 x 3.7 x 2.5 in. 5.2 x 3.7 x 2.8 in.
Weight (without batteries) 15.9 oz 16.6 oz 19.2 oz
Max Shooting Speed (burst) 3.0 frames/sec 2.5 frames/sec 3.0 frames/sec
Max Consecutive Burst Frames Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
?
Min Focal Length (35 mm equivalent)
29 mm 27 mm 27 mm
?
Max Focal Length (35 mm equivalent)
88 mm 83 mm 105 mm
Optical Zoom 3.0x 3.0x 3.9x
?
Image Stabilization Available
Yes No Yes
?
Max Aperture (wide-angle)
f/3.5 f/3.5 f/3.5
?
Max Aperture (tele-photo)
f/5.6 f/5.6 f/5.6
Battery Life 500 shots 470 shots 750 shots
High ISO quality Superb Average Poor
Shutter lag Good Good Good
Travel Rating Good Average Average
Fast Action Rating Poor Unusable Poor
People/Pets Portrait Rating Average Average Average
Low-light Rating Superb Average Poor
2
Nikon D40 (with 18-55mm Lens)

Nikon’s D40 is essentially the epitome of the budget camera: it’s a no-frills DSLR that’s light on features and performance, but provides the basic DSLR functionality and quality that is all many beginners are looking for.

The D40’s 18-55 lens provides the equivalent of a 27-83mm view - a somewhat small range that covers the wide end well and should work fine for everyday photography and most travel situations, but lacks the ability for anything on the telephoto end (fast action photography and portraits will be limited, for instance).

In terms of low-light ability, the D40 is an average DSLR - images at the highest ISOs are somewhat blotchy, but definitely usable and far better than any non-DSLR camera available.

Speed and autofocus isn’t one of the D40’s strong points. While shutter lag is quick and a non-issue with the D40, its extremely limited 3-point AF system makes it difficult to track fast action subjects. Its 2.5fps burst mode is a tad slower than other SLRs, but is still useful for shooting sequences of shots to capture all the action and choose the best shot later.

Comparison with Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 (with 18-70mm Lens)

Though its images aren’t quite as clean as the Canon cameras, the D40 still runs circles around the A200’s sensor, especially in low-light situations. Those interested in learning photography might want to consider the A200, however, for its greater control and more capable featureset, which will allow you to grow as a photographer, even if image quality is subpar..

Pros
  • +
    27mm wide-angle
  • +
    2.5fps continuous shooting
Cons
  • -
    Only 83mm telephoto
  • -
    Limited 3-point autofocus
Nikon D40 (with 18-55mm Lens) is one of the Best Digital Cameras Overall Under $500
Where to buy
Nikon D40 (with 18-55mm Lens)
  • Best Price: $619
    Amazon See It »
Specifications
  • Zoom: 3.0x
  • Wide-Angle Lens: 27mm (30% wider)
  • Resolution: 6.1MP
More
Want More Opinions? See:
Website Reviews (6 reviews)
  • Highly Recommended at DPReview.com
  • Dave's Pick at Imaging-Resource.com
  • Rated Very Good by CNET.com
3
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 (with 18-70mm Lens)

A relatively newcomer to the DSLR market, the key feature of Sony’s Alpha series DSLRs are their in-body image stabilization system, which uses a sensor-shift method to help reduce camera shake, no matter what lens is attached. While this helps to minimize blur in low-light situations, the A200 performs poorly overall, producing very blotchy images devoid of detail in those same low-light, high-ISO situations.

The A200 kit comes with an 18-70 lens which provides a 27-105mm equivalent view - a wider range than most entry-level SLR kits that will serve well for travel and other general photography, but still isn’t long enough to shoot telephoto subjects, like sports for instance.

Shutter lag is quick on the A200. It also uses a 9-point AF system that is slightly above average in terms of tracking fast-action subject. The A200 also features a good 3fps continuous shooting mode for taking bursts of shots and choosing the best one afterwards.

Comparison with Olympus E-520 (with 14-42mm Lens)

The A200 and E-520 both feature image-stabilized sensors, and both cameras also suffer a bit with blotchy low-light performance (although the E-520 still edges out the abysmal A200, despite a smaller sensor). The A200 is a more capable camera in several areas, however, with a more comprehensive 9-point autofocus system and a larger sensor that gives greater depth of field control.

Pros
  • +
    Image-stabilized sensor
  • +
    27mm wide-angle
  • +
    9-point autofocus
  • +
    3fps continuous shooting
Cons
  • -
    Terrible high-ISO quality
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 (with 18-70mm Lens) is one of the Best Digital Cameras Overall Under $500
Where to buy
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 (with 18-70mm Lens)
Specifications
  • Zoom: 3.9x
  • Wide-Angle Lens: 27mm (30% wider)
  • Resolution: 10.2MP
More
Want More Opinions? See:
Website Reviews (3 reviews)
  • Highly Recommended at DPReview.com
  • Dave's Pick at Imaging-Resource.com
  • Rated Very Good by CNET.com
4
Olympus E-520 (with 14-42mm Lens)

The Olympus E-520 is Olympus’ midrange SLR. Using a smaller sensor than other SLR makers like Canon, Nikon, and Sony, the E-520’s image quality is a little below average, producing blotchier images in low-light situations at the highest-ISOs (though they’re still far more usable than any non-DSLR). The E-520 does feature an in-body image stabilization system, however, which reduces camera shake blur and partially makes up for its poor high-ISO performance.

The Olympus 14-42 lens provides a 28-84mm equivalent view, which is plenty wide and will cover many general shooting situations and most travel photography, but isn’t suited for anything that might require a telephoto range (fast action and traditional portraits, for instance).

The E-520 is fast and responsive, with minimal shutter lag. The E-520’s limited 3-point AF, however, will make it difficult to track fast action subjects, although its above-average 3.5fps continuous shooting rate will be a big help in taking bursts of shots and simply choosing the best afterwards.

Olympus E-520 (with 14-42mm Lens) is one of the Best Digital Cameras Overall Under $500
Where to buy
Olympus E-520 (with 14-42mm Lens)
Specifications
  • Zoom: 3.0x
  • Wide-Angle Lens: 28mm (25% wider)
  • Resolution: 10.0MP
More
Want More Opinions? See:
Website Reviews (2 reviews)
  • Highly Recommended at DPReview.com
  • Dave's Pick at Imaging-Resource.com

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