$500 Camera Budget

We are back to that recurring question: what camera should I buy? I am often asked, but having recently put some work into finding the best options for a coworker who was buying a first camera setup for her son, I thought it might be helpful to share what I found and suggested. I worked quite hard to stay within a $500 budget, though some of the options below rely on used gear, and availability certainly can change quickly.

My chief aim was to avoid the kit lens which comes with all of the entry level digital SLRs. Not that they are rubbish, necessarily, but you will constantly be fighting their limited aperture, your photos will have the same feel as everybody else’s, and more than likely you will be more satisfied with a cheap, fixed-length lens with wider aperture. So, here we go…

Quoting from my e-mail, “After looking, with a $500 budget in mind, I figure option one is the option you would probably want. That is to skip the cheap kit lens (usually bundled with these cameras) and instead find a very versatile, much higher quality lens…it just will not be a zoom, but rather a “fixed focal length”. I would highly suggest this route, but if you want the kit lens instead, those packaged kits are easy to find, new or used.”

As a quick aside about the cheap prime (fixed focal length) lens instead of the kit lens, I have this to share from a friend of mine (so you do not have to just rely on my personal opinion). He is a amateur photographer with an entry level SLR. He had the 18-55mm kit lens as well as some kind of similarly limited telephoto zoom. He told me that after he bought a 50mm f/1.8, it rarely left his camera. It was just to frustrating to move from that nice open f/1.8 aperture to a f/3.5 or worse.

Now is when I use my Jedi mind trick and with a wave of the hand convince you to try a cheap prime for yourself. Now that you are decided on that, on we go to the gear options.


I personally prefer the Nikons’ user interface, especially for beginners. Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Sony, and others make wonderful cameras, and you could hardly go wrong these days. However, the lens I would suggest is not available for Canon anywhere near the same price, and that along pushes me toward a Nikon choice.

I suggested a Nikon D3000 used from KEH. That way, I could get him a “like new minus” condition D3000 (body only, without that kit lens I am attempting to avoid) for $300. The LN- camera my coworker bought was actually a refurbished camera, and when it arrived, it was indistinguishable from a new camera. Then, with the remaining $200, I could find them a Nikon 35mm f/1.8. To my surprise, the big boys of online photo gear all had it for close to $300, but Google Shopping told me that our local Best Buy had it for $200. In fact, the only one they had turned out to be an open box item, so my coworker nabbed it for $20 off, bringing them in that much under budget!

ALTERNATIVES TO OPTION ONE (if above not available):

If they could not find a D3000 in LN- condition or not at all, I also suggested buying any Nikon D40, D40X, or D60 which was in an acceptable condition and within budget. I would have said D3100, D5000, or D5100 too, but practically there were none or the price was too high, though that could easily change depending on when you end up reading this post.


Thought this option would be slightly over budget, it is worth mentioning for the excellent quality Pentax provides for the money invested. That is Pentax’s forte, after all. They build tough, excellent quality cameras, specifically aimed at amateurs for less than the market dominiers offer.

I suggest any Pentax K10D from KEH.com. Buying “excellent plus” would save you $50 under the LN-, and it is still in very good condition. My own camera was EX+ from KEH and had only one small scratch when I received it…though I have now put many more of my own custom scratches on it. Buying a K10D would give you a considerably tougher camera than the D3000 or similar entry-level SLR. It might be older, but I personally would much rather have it than the D3000. That choice hinges mostly on your personal shooting needs, and I tend to need something that can take a bit of banging around.

Then, for a lens, I found a couple of very interesting options. One would be a new Pentax 35mm f/2.4. Since you are buying new, you can find it at any of the reputable dealers online, like Pentax itself, B&H, or Adorama. That adds up (at time of writing) to a K10D (in EX+ condition) from KEH for $350, plus the 35mm for about $175 (B&H had some kind of a mark down, it was $220 from the others). That would be my choice. Just saying.

When researching the Pentax option, I found another choice: a great quality zoom lens for the Pentax on KEH. It was a Sigma 18-50mm f/2.8 for only $275. That is quite a bit outside of the $500 budget, but I mention it because some of you might not have the exact same budget. For about $650 total, that package would give you a tough camera with a versatile, high-quality, yet inexpensive zoom lens. I have not shot it myself, but I have a strong feeling that lens would run circles around any kit lens.


Personally, I am not a huge fan of the entry-level cameras from any company. To their credit, they are lightweight and for the most part produce better quality images than those most professionals had from their first camera. I like a tough camera though, able to take a little dust and rain, and certainly to sustain the occasional (inevitable) bump. If I were buying, I would go for the Pentax option, myself, with the 35mm lens. They seem to still be making tough, quality, yet cheap digital cameras in the lineage of the K1000 of yesteryear.

My first option was Nikon simply because I figure most folks out there are going to want a newer camera, not an aged camera which technically does not meet the expected specs of today. Good photographs are much more about the photographer than the camera anyway, so specs really do not impress me much, especially megapixels.
Cooper Strange Written by:


  1. Arend

    Thanks for this blog post. Marissa will be looking for an SLR + lens in the next few weeks, so I’ll pass a link to you post to her. She definitely wants a zoom though, plus video capability. The Canon EOS Rebel T3 seems to be her top choice at the moment …

  2. 2011-06-15

    I certainly understand the desire to have video. The trick with the zooms is what people unknowingly sacrifice to have a zoom. Those little fixed length lenses can gather so much more light, giving you more flexibility on the shutter speed and the ability to choose a lower grain ISO. Just a thought.

  3. 2012-02-21

    Ok, I have completely changed my mind. There truly is a game changing camera out for this segment of the market: the Fujifilm X10. The lens alone completely squashes all competition at a similar price point. I will write more another time, but the X10 is a super winner!

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