You might assume that the best camera always commands the highest price – but it’s definitely possible to get yourself a top-quality camera without paying out a fortune. (Especially with all the best cheap camera deals we're seeing at the moment.)
There are two reasons for this. First, cameras are becoming ever more advanced, so features you once saw only on the best DSLR or best mirrorless camera models are now available on more basic bodies. Second, many camera makers keep their older, more advanced models on sale at steadily reducing prices. So if you don't mind choosing one that's a couple of years old, you can get an extremely powerful and capable camera at an extremely affordable price!
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A budget of $500/£500 will typically get you an advanced compact camera, an enthusiast-focused mirrorless model, or an upper-entry-level DSLR. We've set this price as a rough benchmark because prices are changing all the time, so now and again you might find a camera in our list that creeps a little way over that – or plunges way below! – but we will definitely get you in the right ballpark.
Exactly which of these cameras you should go for depends on your needs and intentions, but one thing the following models have in common is that they’re all standout products in their respective categories.
Here's our pick of the best cameras under £500/$500.
1. Nikon D3500
Nikon's newest DSLR is cheap, easy to use and very good
Type: DSLR | Sensor: APS-C CMOS | Megapixels: 24.2MP | Lens mount: Nikon DX | Screen: 3in fixed, 921K dots | Continuous shooting speed: 5fps | Max video resolution: 1080p | User level: Beginner/enthusiast
Not only is this just about the freshest and newest beginner DSLR on the market, it also comes in well under our top budget, leaving you cash left over for accessories. Indeed, we've ranked it number one on our best Nikon camera list. The D3500 is a refreshed and redesigned version of the D3400 before it, with a 24-megapixel sensor and a fast-focussing AF-P 18-55mm kit lens with a retracting mechanism so that it takes up less space when you're carrying it around. The cheapest deal includes a non-VR lens, but we'd recommend paying just a little extra for the VR version.
Read more: Nikon D3500 review
2. Nikon D5300
A great-value and versatile alternative to Nikon’s newer models
Type: DSLR | Sensor: APS-C CMOS | Megapixels: 24.2MP | Lens mount: Nikon DX | Screen: 3.2-inch articulating, 1,037,000 dots | Continuous shooting speed: 5fps | Max video resolution: 1080p | User level: Beginner/enthusiast
The D5300 appears as a fairly conventional entry-level DSLR, but it offers a handful of features not typically seen on other models of its type. These include a generously sized 3.2in LCD screen, a 39-point AF system and even a GPS system, the latter making it particularly strong for travelling photographers. Nikon also chose to drop the anti-aliasing filter from the camera’s 24.2MP APS-C sensor, which gives it an edge in terms of the detail it can capture over rival 24MP bodies. The only real downside is that it doesn’t offer a touchscreen, but you're still getting a highly versatile camera that delivers great results. It's been superseded by the latest Nikon D5600, but don't worry about that – the D5300 has lots of life left in it yet.
3. Canon EOS Rebel SL2 / EOS 200D
A flip-out LCD and Dual Pixel CMOS AF make this a great buy
Type: DSLR | Megapixels: 24.2MP | Lens mount: Canon EF-S | Screen: 3-inch tilting touchscreen, 1,040,000K dots | Viewfinder: Yes, optical | Continuous shooting: 5fps | Movies: Full HD (1080p) | User level: Beginner
The EOS Rebel SL2, also known as the EOS 200D, isn't Canon's most recent DSLR but that means its prices have had time to drop, so it out-specifies the newer EOS 2000D but matches it on price. It also sits right at the top of our best Canon camera list, thanks to its combination of versatility and value. You get Canon's excellent Dual Pixel CMOS AF system, which delivers mirrorless-like autofocus performance in live view and effective adherence in movies, as well as the latest DIGIC 7 processing engine and the full Wi-Fi, NFC and Bluetooth triplet of wireless connectivity options. 5fps burst shooting is decent, and the option to attach a microphone boosts its Full HD video capabilities, while compatibility with decades worth of quality Canon lenses only further enhances its appeal. It is about to be replaced by the newly announced Canon EOS 250D / Rebel SL3, which should drive prices down a bit more.
Read more: Canon EOS 200D / Rebel SL2 review
4. Panasonic Lumix GX80 / 85
A pocket-sized mirrorless camera at a pocket-money price
Type: mirrorless | Sensor: Four Thirds | Megapixels: 16.0MP | Screen: 3.0-inch, 1,040k tilt touch | Viewfinder: Electronic, 2,765k | Lens: Micro Four Thirds | Continuous shooting speed: 8fps (40fps elec shutter) | Max video resolution: 4k | User level: Intermediate
Incredible value for money, with or without its smart little 12-32mm kit zoom lens, the Panasonic Lumix GX80 / G85 shoehorns a host of high-tech features into its diminutive, compact-style build. These include 5-axis image stabilization, Light Speed AF, Post Focus and 4K ultra-high definition for both video and rapid-fire stills, as featured in Panasonic’s top-end cameras. There’s also a high-res electronic viewfinder built into the back of the camera, along with a tilting touchscreen. If you want a camera that goes large on features and performance, but with a small build and price tag, this is amazing value for money that will leave you with cash to spare.
Read more: The best Panasonic camera
5. Sony A68
Action shooters will love Sony's unusual 'SLT' model
Type: SLT | Sensor: APS-C | Megapixels: 24.2MP | Screen: 2.7in, 461k dots | Viewfinder: Electronic | Continuous shooting speed: 8fps | Max video resolution: Full HD | User level: Beginner
Very much a Marmite camera, but one that definitely deserves a nod here. With its less conventional SLT construction, the camera is able to offer 79 phase-detect points, which is considerably more than DSLR-type cameras at the same level. Add to that 8fps burst shooting with focus tracking and Sony's 4D Focus technology, and what you have is a camera that's far better suited to shooting action than many others. With the further benefit of a tilting screen and an OLED viewfinder, the camera is arguably more flexible when you're shooting in low light or at awkward angles than the average DSLR, although the screen isn't the best of its kind, and the future of the SLT system isn't entirely clear now that Sony is focusing its attention on the likes of the A6000 (below).
Read more: The best Sony camera
6. Sony A6000
A powerful mirrorless all-rounder that's now available at silly prices
Type: Mirrorless | Sensor size: APS-C | Resolution: 24.3MP | Viewfinder: EVF | Monitor: 3-inch tilting screen, 921,600 dots | Maximum continuous shooting rate: 11fps | Maximum video resolution: 1080p | User level: Beginner/enthusiast
Sony’s excellent A6300 and A6500 might be out of budget, but the A6000 is a highly capable alternative. In fact, the company claims it's its best-selling mirrorless camera to date. While it might lack its elder siblings’ 4K video option, you get plenty of features you’d never expect to see on a similarly priced DSLR. These include a mammoth 179 phase-detect AF points that make subject tracking a doddle, together with 11fps burst shooting. That combination alone should make the camera appeal strongly to sports and action shooters, while the tilting LCD screen, 2.36million-dot OLED viewfinder, built-in Wi-Fi and NFC only sweeten the deal further.
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7. Olympus OM-D E-M10 II
A high-tech mirrorless camera that's perfect for travel
Type: Mirrorless | Sensor size: Micro Four Thirds | Resolution: 16.1MP | Lens: Micro Four Thirds | Screen: 3.0-inch tilt-angle touchscreen, 1,370,000 dots | Viewfinder: EVF | Maximum continuous shooting rate: 8.5fps | Movies: 1080p | User level: Beginner/enthusiast
Olympus’ digital revival of its analogue OM line has been hugely popular among enthusiast photographers, and with the OM-D E-M10 II the company has provided those on a tighter budget with a solid entry point to the series. What’s surprising is just how much the model has in common with the more senior OM-D E-M5 II. Both, for example, sport 16MP sensors, TruePic VII processors, 2.36million-dot electronic viewfinders and five-axis image stabilisation systems. Sure, not everything is equal, but when you consider the huge price difference between the two, the OM-D E-M10 II ends up being the better-value model by some margin – and is the best Olympus camera for those looking for their first "proper" system.
8. Panasonic Lumix LX100
This big-sensor compact handles like a classic film camera
Type: Compact | Sensor size: Micro Four Thirds | Resolution: 12.8MP | Lens: 24-75mm, f/1.7-2.8 | Monitor: 3.0-inch, 921,000 dots | Viewfinder: EVF | Continuous shooting: 11fps | Movies: 4K | User level: Intermediate/expert
While most enthusiast compacts are happy enough with a 1in-type sensor, the Panasonic LX100 shoehorns in a larger Micro Four Thirds sensor into a body that's only slightly larger than the average enthusiast compact. In fact, it’s the only compact camera to have such a sensor, and this helps it to deliver excellent image quality. You might find the focal range of the 24-75mm lens to be a little limiting, but with a maximum aperture of f/1.7-2.8 it’s nice and bright. Add to that 4K video, an integrated viewfinder and Wi-Fi with NFC, and it still stacks up well against more recent offerings.
9. Sony Cyber-shot RX100 III
Sony’s third-generation RX100 model is a miniature powerhouse
Type: Compact | Sensor: 1in type | Megapixels: 20.1MP | Lens: 24-70mm f/1.8-2.8 | Screen: 3in tilting screen, 1.228million dots | Viewfinder: EVF | Max burst speed: 5fps | Max video resolution: Full HD (1080p) | User level: Enthusiast
The original Cyber-shot RX100 was a landmark release, with its large 1in sensor, masses of functionality and tiny body upping the standard for a compact that you can still get into your pocket. This third iteration has a 20.1-megapixel sensor and a fast f/1.8-2.8 3x zoom lens equivalent to 24-70mm in full frame terms. It even packs in a pop-up electronic viewfinder. Sony has recently announced the RX100 VI which has a long zoom range but a much bigger price tag, so we reckon the RX100 III still hits the sweet spot for power versus price.
Read more: Sony RX100 III vs RX100 IV vs RX100 V
10. Panasonic Lumix TZ100 / ZS100
The TZ100 belies its small size with a huge sensor and all-encompassing optic
Type: Compact | Sensor: 1-inch type CMOS | Resolution: 20.1MP | Lens: 25-250mm f/2.8-5.9 | Viewfinder: EVF | Monitor: 3.0-inch, 1,040,000 dots | Maximum continuous shooting speed: 10fps | Movies: 4K | User level: Beginner/enthusiast
Pocketable compact camera with 1in sensors are desirable for the quality of their images, but these rarely offer lenses that exceed 100mm or so. The only exception to this is Panasonic’s Lumix TZ100, which partners its 20MP 1in sensor with a surprisingly long 25-250mm f/2.8-5.9 optic. True, in order to accommodate this it’s a little bulkier than the average compact, and not all that bright at its telephoto end, but if size and telephoto reach are your priorities then you’ll be hard pushed finding something more suitable. And that’s only the start; with a small electronic viewfinder, 4K video recording, Raw shooting and a five-axis OIS system to help keep images sharp and videos stable, it’s got masses going for it aside from its headline specs.