Finding a $500 camera setup that can deliver stunning portraits as well as a wide range of other types of photography was a challenge, to say the least! First and foremost I had to put together some bare minimum requirements/standards.
1. The Camera Needs to Be Brand New
It’s hard to recommend used camera gear. You don’t know how well it’s been taken care of, and the prices aren’t always consistent. Also, brand new gear generally comes with a warranty, which can be a big bonus.
2. Interchangeable Lenses
Being able to use different lenses for different types of photography is essential in photography. You automatically lose-out on a huge range of possibilities if you spend money on a camera with a fixed lens.
3. From a Reputable Brand
There are many camera companies that want to sell you pure junk, but only a handful that can be consistently trusted to deliver a solid product that will last you for years. In this post, we are going to be completely ignoring cameras from companies like “Vivitar” (a popular garbage Walmart brand) and focus on systems from Nikon, Canon, Sony, Fuji, Panasonic, Olympus, Sigma, etc… Brands that are respected and trusted.
4. It Needs a Good Starter Lens
You might find some people who love their kit lenses, but let’s be real, they are generally pure garbage. Kit lenses are almost always zoom lenses with an aperture between f/3.5–5.6 The images are not sharp, they don’t take in enough light to expose without a mountain of noise, and paired with a crop-sensor camera, it’s nearly impossible to get good bokeh with them in anything but perfect conditions.
5. It Needs a Memory Card
Turns out you need an SD card to capture photos! For some reason, camera companies still are not putting any kind of built-in memory into their camera bodies. So in order to actually take photos, we are going to need a memory card too.
With all of that being said, I spent hours searching and comparing and, believe it or not, I found only two camera/lens/card combinations that met all of the requirements above:
Camera: Nikon D3400 or Canon Rebel T7
These are both solid deals! 24MP with 1080p HD video on both. The Nikon will let you record video at frame-rates of up to 60fps. While the Nikon does come with a kit lens, we are going to ignore that and get you into some glass that will give you amazing results right out of the box. The Canon comes with a memory card, but I would strongly recommend picking up the one mentioned below.
Lens: Nikon 35mm f/1.8 DX or Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM
For the Nikon, we are going with the tried and true 35mm f/1.8, and for Canon, the 50mm f/1.8. Both are often referred to as one of the “Plastic Fantastics” and have long been among the absolute best bang-for-your-buck lenses ever made.
With these prime lenses, it will be easier to get your images looking “professional.” They are sharp, let in a ton of light, and won’t cost you an arm and a leg. You will be able to take a wide range of photos and even get that creamy bokeh if you want it.
Card: 32GB Sandisk Extreme PRO SD
The SanDisk Extreme PRO 32GB SD memory card costs $14.
This is a fast card that has a great reputation and performs far better than what your camera will be able to handle!
Your Total Cost: Less than $500
You may have noticed the total cost of the recommendations above are under $500. That was on purpose! Remember the most important thing: the camera means absolutely nothing if you don’t know how to use it!
The last thing you want to do as a beginner photographer is to spend hours pouring through half-baked advice and absurdly stupid YouTube tutorials. Don’t get me wrong, there is amazing stuff on YouTube, but it’s often hard to find it among the garbage.
To solve this problem you will need to make 1 last purchase (for now at least… welcome to the addiction). I recommend the book How to Create Stunning Digital Photography by Tony and Chelsea Northrup. It comes with hundreds of hours of video tutorials and it costs a whopping $10.
That’s it! You’re still under $500 and you officially know what you need to get a good head-start in your photography hobby or career!
About the author: Jonathan Edwards is the photographer and filmmaker behind Contention Media. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Edwards’ work and connect with him on his website and Twitter. This article was also published here.