Guide To Buying a DSLR on a Budget

Looking to buy a DSLR camera? Look no further! Here’s our detailed guide that’s guaranteed to help you get the best bang for your buck!

Everyone loves to capture special moments and events with photographs. It’s even better when those photos are with a higher-quality camera. With camera manufacturers putting more and more effort into entry-level cameras, it’s easy to say DSLR cameras are constantly gaining popularity. If you’re looking to get a DSLR camera for yourself, here’s our full guide on what to look out for, as well as our top picks!

General Tips

Lenses are more important than the camera body

Lenses over Bodies

A lot of first-time buyers focus on more expensive camera bodies and completely disregard lenses. If you’re fine with just the kit lens for about a few months (supposing that’s how long you’ll need to save up for a better lens) then you’re good to go. But buying a very expensive camera body and then using it with cheap lenses is a bad move. It’s much better to invest in quality lenses and a more basic camera body instead. There are a series of different factors that come into play to determine whether an image is good or not. When it comes to the entirely technical side of these factors, lenses matter most.

Factors determined by the camera lens: Chromatic aberrations, zoom range, depth of field/aperture, sharpness, color reproduction, vignetting, distortion, lens flare (and more, depending on the usage for video or photos)

Factors determined by the camera body: Image size (MP), noise and grain (ISO), shutter speed, dynamic range, shutter lag (and more, depending on the usage for video or photos)

When it comes to the basic factors of photography, lenses clearly have a much bigger impact. Even if we add the additional factors that come into play when recording video, lenses still play a much more important role than the camera body.

TL;DR: Don’t blow all your money on a great camera body and a cheap lens. Focus more on the actual lenses you’ll be buying, not the camera body.

Always keep in mind what you’ll mostly be using your camera for

Types of Photography

Different DSLR setups can be used for different things. If we include all sub-genres, the different types of photography are around 50. If you were to buy lenses and camera bodies to cover all these genres it would cost you an arm and a leg (and maybe a kidney, if you really want the best gear). All jokes aside, photography gear is rather expensive. It’s best to pick a few things you’ll be photographing most often and have your camera set up based on them. Keep in mind that “universal” or “all-in-one” DSLR setups cost the most and while they cover most categories they really aren’t perfect at anything. Simply put – don’t go for the “jack of all trades, master of none” camera setup – it will do more harm than good.

TL;DR: Decide what you’ll be photographing the most with your camera and buy a camera setup based on your main preferences. 

Don’t be afraid to buy second-hand gear

Second Hand Gear

When it comes to buying tech, you can always grab a great deal if you’re willing to buy second-hand or manufacturer-refurbished hardware. The same applies to buying DSLR cameras and any kind of photography equipment and accessories. As an inexperienced photographer, you probably shouldn’t purchase your first DSLR kit second-hand, but tripods, camera bags, and other accessories are usually safe to buy off the web. Better yet – if you have a friend or relative who is into photography you shouldn’t shy away from asking them to help you find a good deal on photo gear. As long as you’re allowed to test the gear before paying for it you’re pretty much safe from scams and rip-offs.

TL;DR: You can save a few hundred bucks by browsing the web for good deals on second-hand gear.

Get to know the theory before you get to practice

We have great articles to get you up and running with the basics of photography. Here are five quick articles by our author Nathan Berry that you should definitely read if you consider your knowledge of photography to be close to none.

Photography articles

Get More Acquainted With Your DSLR Camera Preset Options

The Three Basics of Exposure in Photography

The Three Steps To Better Photography

Depth of Field – The Magic Behind Better Photographs

Take Amazing Photographs Using HDR Photography

Photoshop articles

If you feel you’re well acquainted with the basics of photography, here are some more advanced tutorials and tips on post-production with Photoshop.

Photoshop Basics Guide – Interface and Tools Review

How-To Change the Color in Photos using Photoshop

Use Photoshop to Create a Facebook Timeline Cover

The Ultimate Guide To Making Your Own Time Lapse

How To Add Instagram-like Filters in Photoshop

Guide to HDR Photography with Bridge and Photoshop

Make Photoshop Easier to Use with Presets

How-To Use Camera Raw in Bridge and Photoshop

How-To Get Great Bokeh in Your Shots Without Using Expensive Gear

Photoshop Tip: Remove Backgrounds with Pen and Lasso Tool

Defining your budget

When buying your first DSLR, it’s important to take into account what you’re going to be using it for. If you just want a simple camera to take high-resolution family photos, even the smallest budget should be fine. If you’re looking at more advanced photography techniques and even semi-pro photography, you’ll have to cough up a more serious budget to get started. Keep in mind that no photographer ever starts out with all the gear in the world – smart people save up money for one thing at a time and move on to their next item when they feel they have mastered the previous one.

In this article, we’re going to be covering three different budgets – from $250 to $500, from $500 to $1000 and from $1000 to $1500. You might say “Hey, my budget goes way beyond that!”. That’s great, but this isn’t so much about how much money you could spend, whereas it’s about how much you should spend. A creative mind can come up with a great photo idea and execute it even with the cheapest gear. Don’t try to assume that better gear means you’ll be more creative – take your time and practice with what you have.

Camera and lens manufacturers

When it comes to building a computer, your main choice revolves around the CPU and GPU combination. In most cases that would be AMD + ATI or Intel + nVidia. When it comes to buying cameras, however, things are far more complicated. There are four major camera manufacturers and about twice as many lens manufacturers. Picking the right combination can sometimes be just as difficult as buying a car. Here’s what I know about each brand based on my personal experience, friend recommendations, and web reviews.

Nikon Cameras / Nikkor Lenses

Nikon and Nikkor

This is my personal camera and lens choice. I’ll try to be as non-biased as possible, but please disregard any sentences or statements that seem like they came out of the mouth of a die-hard fanboy.

Nikon bodies are fairly nice. Compared to competitor products, they are slightly lacking in the build quality department, but never fail to impress with an easy-to-use UI and well-placed buttons. Nikon has a great array of entry-level DSLR cameras that have a built-in “GUIDE” mode which contains a few beginner-friendly tutorials. Lots of people chose Nikon as their first camera simply because of this GUIDE feature, but if you’re a fast learner this shouldn’t be a leading factor for you. Semi-pro cameras like the D5000 series feature other extras such as built-in GPS and Wi-Fi, which can come in handy if you like experimenting and fancier features overall.

Most Nikon bodies focus on taking photos and perform rather poorly when it comes to video. Compared to Canon, the video capabilities feel rather limited and basic. You’ll probably be fine shooting family videos, but I would advise you to get a Canon if you’ll be shooting more videos than photos with your DSLR.

Nikkor lenses also don’t disappoint. While a lot of them are labeled as “very overpriced”, few fail to deliver their promised image quality and build quality. Vibration Reduction (VR) is also a great addition to most telephoto lenses, minimizing the chances of a blurry shot. The lenses are, again, a better fit for photography instead of cinematography. In terms of performance, they don’t feel too far behind Canon’s lenses, but you’ll probably feel jealous of Canon’s insanely silent STM motors anyway.

If you’re looking for a safe bet to start your photography, Nikon is a great choice that won’t put a hole in your wallet.

Canon Cameras / Canon Lenses


Canon cameras are fairly balanced. Their build quality is superb, but they often feel underwhelming when it comes to UI and extra features. The only exception would probably be the Canon touchscreen DSLR cameras, which are, however, more useful for video than photos. Speaking of video – if video is what you’ll focus on after getting a DSLR – Canon is the right choice. With a wide array of inputs, outputs, high recording bitrate, and great body + lens combos you’ll really get all the freedom you need. On the photo side, however, things are a bit different. Cheaper Canon models offer poor dynamic range and rather bad low-light performance. Their mid-range and high-end models are infinitely better, but perhaps their biggest mistake is the lack of variety in the entry-level range, which often leaves a bad impression on new users who choose one of the brand’s cheaper cameras.

Canon lenses can be either really bad or really good. Most of the company’s cheaper lenses offer poor image quality, and average build, and very high noise levels when focusing. The brand’s more expensive products, however, don’t mess around. Fast focusing, amazing build quality, and good Image Stabilization (IS) make for a pleasant shooting experience. Their lenses are also more suitable for video, unlike their Nikon counterpart.

Canon cameras and lenses are a rather tricky first buy. In order to really get a feel of the good things the company can offer you, you’ll need to be ready to spend a bit more cash.

Pentax Cameras / Pentax Lenses


Pentax cameras are the jewel that just can’t seem to shine bright enough. Head to head with Canon and Nikon, their cameras really offer a great bang for the buck. The only problem is – the UI feels kind of dull and clunky and the variety of lenses manufactured for Pentax isn’t really that great. While Pentax cameras are pretty good at taking photos, when it comes to video, much like Nikon cameras, they are rather feature-poor and disappointing.

Pentax lenses are, if not anything else, really cheap. Cheap things come at a price, however, since most Pentax lenses are rated very poorly in terms of image quality. Their collection of glass features a few very unconventional lenses that cover strange focal lengths at strange apertures. This is probably one of the main reasons why the lenses perform poorly. As for build quality – I’ve only had the opportunity to use a Pentax setup once. It was right in the middle in terms of sturdiness, but that’s of no use to the poor image quality.

If you’re extremely desperate and want to get a very cheap DSLR, Pentax is probably an okay choice. Get ready to make a lot of compromises, though – it’s not a secret that Pentax is a slowly dying brand.

Sony Cameras / Carl Zeiss Lenses

Sony and Carl Zeiss

It’s a bit weird to hear Sony’s name among all these other manufacturers, but having in mind they are so successful at making TVs, audio systems, phones, consoles, and more, they probably deserve a shot at this market as well.

Sony cameras are quite different from the rest – they are the only cameras that offer Translucent Mirror Technology – a patented semi-translucent mirror that significantly improves autofocus speed when recording video or using Live View. This is great if you’re going to shoot a video, but not so exciting if you’re planning on only taking photos. All Sony DSLR cameras also feature electronic viewfinders instead of optical ones. This can be a major setback for some photographers since it makes shooting in low-light situations rather difficult. Regardless, Sony DSLR cameras have great build quality, dynamic range, and a variety of other extra features.

Zeiss lenses are exquisite works of art. With a very high price tag, it’s no wonder most people shy away from Sony when it comes to photography. Similar to Pentax lenses, you will find some unusual focal lengths and apertures, but unlike Pentax, Carl Zeiss knows what they’re doing. Perfect sharpness, color reproduction, and little to no chromatic aberrations make these lenses highly valued in the photography community.

While Sony isn’t exactly perfect for a first DSLR, it’s a good idea if you’re serious about optics and plan on making a big investment in photography.

Third-Party Lens Manufacturers

Third Party Lens Manufacturers

Buying a camera from a certain brand doesn’t necessarily restrict you to first-party lenses only. There are a lot of third-party lenses available, as well as adapters for using legacy lenses on DSLR cameras. Generally, third-party lenses are cheaper than their first-party counterpart. But again, cheapness comes at a price. The significantly cheaper lenses suffer from poor image quality and bad performance overall. Lenses with a smaller price difference usually cut back only on build quality.

For basic lenses similar to the ones offered by first-party manufacturers, Tamron and Tokina offer lots of variety at slightly lower prices. If you’re looking for something more unusual Sigma or Samyang will likely have what you need. A lens like the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art is sure to satisfy your every photographic need.

Although there is no perfect all-in-one lens you should keep in mind just one thing when buying third-party lenses – make sure to read plenty of reviews and tests before you decide to buy. If you can try out the lens for yourself that’s even better. Never spend money on a lens you aren’t fully satisfied with.

Example DSLR kits

From $250 to $500 dollars

Option 1:
Nikon D3100 + 18-55mm Kit Lens (Refurbished) [~$280 USD]
Lens 1: Nikkor 18-55mm (f/3.5-5.6G) DX VR (Refurbished) [incl. in kit price] Lens 2: Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX (Refurbished) [~$180 USD]

For about 300 quid you can grab some great refurbished gear. The Nikon D3100 has all the basic features to get you started, and bundled with the kit lens (18-55mm) you’ll get decent image quality at a very low price. Throw in another 200 dollars and you can also get one of Nikon’s most popular prime lenses – the 35mm f/1.8G. Small, lightweight, and rather sharp, this lens is an absolute steal if you can find it second-hand or refurbished.

Option 2:
Nikon D3200 + 18-55mm Kit Lens (New) [~$450 USD]
Lens 1: Nikkor AF-S 18-55mm (f/3.5-5.6G) DX VR (New) [incl. in kit price] Accessories: Manfrotto Amica 50 Shoulder Black (New) [~$50 USD]

If you’re skeptical about buying used or refurbished gear, you can get a brand new D3200 + kit lens for just under 500 USD. This isn’t a very bad option since the D3200 does have some improvements over the D3100 and you can get plenty of practice with the 18-55mm lens before you save enough money to buy a second lens. And if you feel like spending your leftover $50, you can buy the Manfrotto Amica 50 Shoulder Bag. With enough space for a DSLR and two lenses, this bag is perfect for the beginner photographer.

From $500 to $1000 dollars

Option 1:
Canon EOS Rebel T5 / 1200D + Kit Lens + 75-300mm (New) [~$450 USD]
Lens 1: Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II (New) [incl. in kit price]
Lens 2: Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III (New) [incl. in kit price] Lens 3: Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II (New) [~$120 USD]
Accessories: Tripod or Camera Bag (New or Used) [anywhere from $50 to $200]

Although the Canon 1200D is a rather old camera, it still does it’s job well when bundled with some good lenses. That’s exactly why for a total of about $600 USD you can the DSLR along with three lenses: the 18-55 kit lens, the 75-300 telephoto lens and Canon’s cheapest prime – the 50mm f/1.8 II. Depending on your needs and your leftover budget, you can also complete this wonderful DSLR kit with some nice accessories. About $200 will get you a nice high-quality tripod from Manfrotto or Velbon and $100 can get you a big and comfortable bag so you can fit all your gear in one place.

Option 2:
Nikon D5200 + Kit Lens (New) [$550.00 USD]
Lens 1: Nikkor AF-S 18-55mm DX VR (f/3.5-5.6G) (New) [incl. in kit price]
Lens 2: Nikkor AF-S 55-300mm ED DX VR (f/4.5-5.6G) (New) [~$300 USD]
Accessories: Tripod or Camera Bag (New or Used) [anywhere from $50 to $200]

If you want to get a slightly newer camera body instead of more lenses there’s the Nikon D5200 along with the 18-55mm kit lens. A great and feature-rich camera that’s perfect for beginners and advanced photographers alike. You’ll also have plenty of money left to get a second lens like the 55-300mm ED DX VR – a good quality zoom lens that will fill in the telephoto range gap left by the kit lens. If you’re aiming to hit the $1000 USD cap of this budget, you’ll have $150 left to spend even after these purchases – a decent amount of money to get a camera bag or tripod.

From $1000 to $1500 dollars

Option 1:
Nikon D7100 + 18-140mm Lens (New) [~$1200 USD]
Lens 1: Nikkor AF-S 18-140mm ED DX VR (f/3.5-5.6) (New) [incl in kit price] Lens 2: Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX (Refurbished) [~$180 USD] Accessories: Tripod or Camera Bag (New or Used) [anywhere from $50 to $200]

While some people would argue that $1500 USD is enough to get you into the world of full-frame cameras it’s probably not a good idea to make your first camera a full-frame DSLR. Lenses are really expensive, full-frame cameras are significantly heavier and let’s not forget that these cameras are meant for professionals. The closest you can get to the full-frame camera feel without actually getting there is the Nikon D7100. An incredibly well-built camera packed with all the features you’ll ever need and more. Bundled with the 18-140mm lens you’ll have wide angle and telephoto reach in one lens, along with VR image stabilization. With your leftover $300 USD you can buy a refurbished 35mm lens if you’re really desperate for a prime lens and you’ll probably still have some leftover cash for a tripod or a camera bag.
Option 2:
Body: Canon T6s / 760D + 18-135mm Lens (New) [~$1200 USD]
Lens 1: Canon EF-S 18-135mm IS (f/3.5-5.6) (New) [incl in kit price] Lens 2: Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II (New) [~$120 USD]
Accessories: Tripod or Camera Bag (New or Used) [anywhere from $50 to $200]

Even if you’d rather go with a Canon camera within this price range you’ll get pretty much the same amount of gear. For $1200 you can get the well-equipped 760D in a bundle with the 18-135mm IS Lens. With your leftover cash, you can get Canon’s famous (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) 50mm f/1.8 prime lens – great for capturing low-light scenes and portraits. Even after all these purchases you should have about $200 USD left so there’s no reason to shy away from buying a good tripod. If you manage to get your hands on some good second-hand gear you might just be able to squeeze in both a tripod and a camera bag within your leftover money.

Grand finale

After all this intense reading and researching there’s only one thing left for you to do – grab your gear, go out and shoot! The best way to learn photography is through practical experience. Whether you want to become a professional photographer or you just want to learn how to take better photos, it won’t happen with your camera sitting on your desk and gathering dust.


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