Photography is more accessible than ever before, with a plethora of cameras and lenses available and affordable. So, I decided to figure out what the best setup I could build with a maximum budget of $500 was.
Taking the first step into photography can be daunting for so many reasons. There are numerous paths to go, tomes of information you don't yet know, and gear expensive enough to bankrupt you. The truth is, however, we're in a state at the moment where you can buy a lot of camera and a lot of lenses for reasonable prices. This is in part due to the usual rise in technology and the fall in the cost of older versions, but also due to the shift towards mirrorless cameras over DSLR.
Anyone looking at getting their first camera could look at this one of two ways: DSLRs are outdated and you need to get a mirrorless, or the second-hand DSLR market is a brilliant hunting ground for value. I implore you to take the latter stance. Your first camera doesn't need to be mirrorless, and there are far more DSLRs available, spanning a far longer period of time. So, picking up a good deal is much easier. That said, some companies are many models deep into mirrorless and some bargains can already be had.
I've decided to see about creating some interesting combinations for under $500 on the used market. But, I ought to point out I've gone a different route than how many do when they tackle similar questions of beginner setups. Firstly, I'm not looking for a ton of features in camera and then a walkabout lens with mammoth range. In my experience, new photographers don't want to capture everything; they want to capture a few easier things, but like they have seen and admired. Whether you like it or not, that tends to be a shallow depth of field with lots of bokeh and good sharpness. So, that's what I'm heading towards. And that means lovely, lovely prime lenses.
Option 1: Canon 550D and Sigma 30mm f/1.4 Art (APS-C DSLR)
This is a very tight fit for $500, but it's possible and I managed it (albeit in theory) from used vendors in the U.K. and eBay (with buy now options, not just low bids.) The Canon 550D is a camera I've owned, and it flew a little under the radar of good Canon bodies. It has a crop sensor — which ought not to put you off — that boasts 18 megapixels, which is more than enough. It has a max shooting speed of 3.7 fps, a strong LCD, and good ISO performance. It was a very comfortable camera to use, and I thoroughly enjoyed it for a couple of years. It has aged very well indeed.
The lens is a gem and a little trickier to get for a good price, but possible. The Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM Art is $499 brand new, but second-hand, I found one for $300 in good condition. The Art series of lenses by Sigma has a stellar reputation and for good reason — they're superb lenses. This 30mm f/1.4 is nearing as quick as you can get for Canon APS-C bodies, and 30mm is the 35mm (full-frame) equivalent of 45.9mm, nearing that magical nifty-fifty range. This combination is guaranteed to be a lot of fun and create some beautiful results.
Option 2: Fujifilm X-T100 and 27mm f/2.8 (APS-C Mirrorless)
Next, we have a mirrorless and one of the prettiest cameras you ever did see. The Fujifilm X-T100 might be small in form (and did I mention very pretty?) but it has an impressive 24 megapixel, APS-C CMOS sensor, a 3-inch, flip-out LCD monitor, and a deep ISO range. It also has WiFi, Bluetooth, and my personal favorite addition to cameras in recent years: an OLED electronic viewfinder. It has its limitations, but if you want to take some family portraits and landscapes to get started, this body with this lens is an unbelievable place to start.
The XF 27mm f/2.8 Fuji lens on the front is close to 40mm on a full frame, which puts it in a versatile spot. It's tack sharp, doesn't suffer from distortion, and is as light and compact as you're likely to find. The two together will be close to the maximum $500, but after some searching, I was able to make it happen, so you can too.
Option 3: Nikon D700 and Nikon 50mm f/1.8 G (Full Frame DSLR)
I've not owned a digital Nikon camera, though I have used several and have spent over a decade looking at images from them. If someone asked me for legendary cameras from each manufacturer, this would be my knee-jerk answer for Nikon. So, when I started researching this article, I didn't expect it to be within the price range. Yes, it isn't as high resolution as competitors at only 12 megapixels, but I promise you it won't matter. The D700 was a revelation upon release and had aged tremendously well. It's famed for its incredible ISO performance, its 14-bit raw files with a lot of flex, its weather-sealing, its stellar autofocus, brilliant processor, and so on. I was frankly stunned to see that I could pick up a well-looked-after copy for around $400.
With only $100 left to play with, I had a couple of options. Firstly, I could have gone for something obscure, like adapted vintage glass or a lesser-known manufacturer. Or, the second option, you grab a second-hand nifty-fifty by Nikon which is guaranteed results, and I went for the latter. The Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G is a staple of most Nikon shooters' bags, and for good reason. This combination of body and lens is guaranteed to have a results ceiling so high that it will be able to grow with you for a long time to come.
What Is Your $500 Budget Body and Lens Combination?
It was difficult to narrow it down to just three options. There is now such a selection around this mark that you can really get creative. So, let's see what you can come up with. I would prefer options that would yield the maximum enjoyment to new photographers as opposed to a lens and body combination that tries to be the jack of all trades, but it's up to you which way you take the money. Share your ideas in the comments below.