A question we often get asked here at Digital Camera Beginner is what’s the best budget digital SLR is for beginners? These days there is more choice than ever at the entry-level end of the market, but which camera cuts above the crowd when it comes to offering a strong feature-set, great value, and excellent usability?
We’ve included the most affordable current models from each of the main digital SLR manufacturers – the Canon EOS 1000D, Nikon D3000, Sony A290, and Olympus E-450. All of these are true digital SLRs (rather than compact system cameras like the Olympus PEN series and Panasonic G Micro System lines), and all cost under £350 for a basic kit including a standard zoom lens.
Here’s a quick look at the key specs of each:
As we would expect at this end of the market, each model here has some compromises. Only two of the four models featured here have Live View for example, and none will offer you HD movie recording. What they should all offer though is a big improvement in image quality over a compact, and a great introduction to DSLR photography at a very modest price.
We’ve rounded up the pros and cons of each camera below, and assessed the value of each manufacturers overall system by comparing the cost and performance of a standard 50mm (or equivalent) prime lens.
Canon EOS 1000D/Rebel XS
The Canon is the ageing rocker of this group test, having been around since August 2008. The price has dropped rapidly since it first hit the shelves at £580, but at around the £345 price point it’s still just about the priciest model here. Don’t underestimate the value of the Canon system though – lenses and accessories are probably the most widely available of all the manufacturers (only Nikon can really challenge in this area), and once you’ve got your head around the 1000D you’ll find using any other Canon digital SLR intuitive.
- The most affordable way into the Canon EOS system.
- Great image quality
- Low noise at high ISOs
- Live View mode
- Not as user friendly as some other models on test
- No Image Stabilisation on the included kit lens
- Ageing design and feature-set
A 50mm fixed “prime” lens is one of the most popular upgrades for any digital SLR owner looking to move on from the kit lens. Canons offering, the EF 50 mm f/1.8 II comes in very favourably, offering truly excellent performance for around £80.
The Canon may be the oldest camera here, but it still offers a decent feature-set and represents an affordable first rung on the Canon ladder. Above all, the 1000D has proven itself over the past two and half years by providing consistently good images in a variety of situations.
Whilst the newer D3100 has been grabbing the headlines of late, the still-current D3000 has quietly become more affordable than ever. As with the Canon, the Nikon system is a big part of the sell for this camera – the price and availability (both new and used) of lenses, flash guns etc is definitely a major plus point for the D3000. Again, the Nikon family share a certain “feel” and the basic operation of any digital SLR in the range won’t catch out a D3000 user.
- The most affordable way into the Nikon system to date
- Vibration Reduction (VR) image stabilised lens included
- In-camera Guide Mode to help beginners get the most from the camera
- High-resolution 14Mp sensor gives consistently good results
- No Live View mode
- Processing times can be slow in some modes
The Nikon portrait lens of choice, the 50mm F1.8D AF Nikkor, is so similar in price and performance to the Canon offering that there’s nothing to choose between them. Excellent performance and value for around £85.
Aimed at those moving from a compact to a digital SLR for the first time, the Nikon D3000 excels in making more advanced modes very accessible and easy to use with the built in Guide Mode. The included Vibration Reduction (VR) lens offers image stabilisation right out of the box, and the 14Mp sensor will ensure your prints are good well past A3 size. The lack of Live View is the weak link in this cameras chain, and for that it loses a star, but if you’re happy to use the viewfinder then this is a great choice.
The A290 is the newest model on test here, and whilst the Canon and Nikon have both become more affordable over time, the Sony has launched at an attractive £300 price point. This makes it the cheapest camera on test here by around £40, which sounds appealing.
- Built-in SteadyShot image stabilisation
- Easy to use Help Guide to help beginners get the most from the camera
- High resolution 14.2 Mp image sensor
- Physically small body is more portable than the Canon or Nikon
- No Live View mode
- Low resolution rear screen
- Lacks many advanced features found on higher-end Sony models
The Sony digital SLR range utilises the Minolta lens mount (Sony acquired the Minolta digital SLR range in 2006) so there is potential to pick up some a few used bargains, but for a new portrait lens the Sony DT 50mm AF f/1.8 SAM will set you back around £125 – that’s around £40 more than either the Canon or Nikon equivalent.
It’s disappointing to see Sony not include Live View in a 2010 model camera, even if it is the cheapest here. Sadly this isn’t the only area in which the A290 is feels built to a price – the lack of many advanced features and a low resolution rear screen could leave you wishing you’d saved a bit more and gone for a better model. That said, the compact little Sony produces good results and the built-in sensor-based SteadyShot image stabilisation is a very welcome addition, as is the easy to use Help Guide.
Sadly the relatively small range of accessories for the Sony Alpha system, along with higher costs than equivalent Nikon and Canon lenses, somewhat erode the initial savings if you plan on using anything other than the standard kit lens.
The Olympus is a bit of an outsider in this group, pitching up to the party with a physically smaller image sensor (it uses a Four Thirds sized sensor, whereas all the others on test are the larger APS-C size), but in return offers the smallest and lightest body of the four models here. Whilst the included 14-42mm kit lens sounds a bit at odds with the normal 18-55mm offering on the Canon, Nikon and Sony, the smaller sensor means that it’s actually equivalent to a more reasonable 28-84mm lens.
- Excellent Live View Mode
- Compact body size
- Built-in sensor-based image stabilisation
- Art Filters make creative effects easy, without the need for Photoshop
- Inconvenient use of xD or Compact Flash media
- Poor autofocus compared to other models
- No Image Stabilisation on the included kit lens
The Four Thirds system is used by both Olympus and Panasonic, though between them they still don’t have nearly the market share of Nikon or Canon, so lenses and accessories for these cameras are harder to come by. You can use an adapter to make use of older Olympus lenses (see Marks Secondhand Olympus Lenses and eBay article), but this brings with it other issues.
Poor availability of lenses and accessories plagues the Four Thirds system, and a good standard prime lens for portrait work will be costly. The best fit for a portrait lens we could find is the ZUIKO DIGITAL 35mm 1:3.5 Macro Lens, which isn’t really directly comparable with the other lenses on offer but the most appropriate for the Four Thirds system. The cost? A whopping £200.
The Olympus is an interesting proposition, being the smallest and lightest DSLR on test here. For some that in itself is enough of a deal-breaker if the extra bulk of a digital SLR is worrying you. Sadly the list of oddities is longer than we’d like to see – Four Thirds lenses are hard to come by and pricey when you do, the choice of xD card and Compact Flash support over SD/SDHC is baffling, and the three-point autofocus system is dated at best.
The Olympus is not a bad camera, in fact it’s far from it, but could we recommend it as the best option for learning the digital SLR ropes? Sadly not.
All of the cameras here offer more than you could ever hope for from your typical compact, and all have their own strengths and weaknesses. Whilst we love the small form-factor of the Sony and Olympus models, the limited range and high price of lenses and accessories make the respective overall systems an expensive route to embark on.
Of the models on test here, it’s the Nikon D3000 that we think is the best overall budget beginner digital SLR package. The innovative Guide Mode makes it the easiest to start exploring quickly and easily, building your confidence as you get used to digital SLR photography. If there’s a downside then it’s that once you’ve mastered the guides you’ll find yourself wanting more, but this is certainly preferable to tentatively putting your camera into Auto and never moving the dial!
If you do want to progress to a more advanced model at a later date, the benefit of choosing a very established manufacturer and lens system will become apparent as you’ll be able to use your existing Nikon lenses with any other Nikon model. It might not have Live View, which is a real shame, but if you can live with life looking through a viewfinder then you won’t regret buying this camera.
Not for you?
The absence of Live View from the Nikon D3000 could be a deal-breaker for some, and just so happens to be something that the Canon EOS 1000D does very well. It might have been around for a while, and it won’t hold your hand to guide you through the menus and choose the best settings for each shot, but it remains the most affordable way to enter the Canon EOS system and has a proven track record in taking excellent photos in all kinds of conditions.
Got a bit more cash?
All of the models in this test come in at under £350 in the real world for a basic kit, and as we already conceded at the start each of them is a compromise in some way.
We’ll be checking out each manufacturers higher-end models in detail soon, but for now you might want to check out our review of the excellent Nikon D3100.