Plugged In: Camera on your gift list? Shop smart for value

By Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter

Although the Black Friday shopping frenzy has passed, some excellent digital cameras remain available for less than $500.

These are typically older models introduced within the past two years being cleared out to make way for new products in 2016. That shouldn’t deter you. All the cameras discussed this week are capable of professional-quality results and would work well for beginning and intermediate photographers, particularly students.

Cameras and lenses should be purchased as new, in-box items with at least a basic, 18- to 55-mm kit zoom lens. Avoid refurbished cameras and “international version” gray market items without a U.S. warranty.

We’ve used the prices posted at Amazon and BH Photo, ignoring “bargains” dependent on mail-in rebates. Stock goes fast, though, so there’s no guarantee these will remain available for long.

We’ll start with digital SLR cameras using moving mirrors — the larger, more traditional choice. All of these include APS-C sensors, whose size is intermediate between full-frame sensors and smaller, Micro Four-Third sensors.

  • Nikon’s D3300 is Nikon’s current entry-level dSLR, but it’s no slouch. Both BH and Amazon have it with a decent kit lens for $397. A two-lens kit that includes a 55- to 200-mm telephoto zoom lens goes for $497. Nikon’s D5200 camera body is a definite step up from the D3300 and a good buy if it fits your budget. BH lists the D5200 plus kit lens for $500. Later D5300 and D5500 models are only incremental improvements. All incorporate a 24-megapixel sensor.
  • Pentax’s K-50 is ostensibly an entry-level camera available in several colors, but its image quality, weather-sealing and general features set it apart from the pack as a semipro camera body at an entry-level price. It’s basically a prograde K-5 in a partially plastic body. The K-50’s 16-megapixel Sony sensor is considered one of the best APS-C sensors ever made. Amazon sells a black K-50 with a weather-sealed kit zoom lens for $350. BH has a two-lens K-50 kit that also includes a consumer-grade Pentax 50- to 200-mm telephoto zoom for an extra $100. The later K-S2 includes a 20-megapixel sensor, weather-sealing and many advanced features. As Pentax’s current intermediate-level model, a K-S2 kit sells for about $150 more than comparable K-50 outfits. All Pentax dSLR cameras include effective in-body image stabilization hardware that stabilizes any lens that can be physically mounted — a real plus.
  • Canon’s T5 and SL1 are consumer-grade cameras build around an 18-megapixel sensor. Both have been quite popular among consumers and I’ve seen many excellent photos made with both. The SL1 is one of the smallest APS-C dSLRs. Amazon sells the basic T5 with kit zoom lens for about $400, and a comparable SL1 kit for $450. Two-lens outfits usually cost about $100 more.
  • Mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras are becoming increasingly popular because they provide similar quality and features in a more compact body. The best bargains are found among Micro Four-Third cameras made by Olympus and Panasonic, whose 16-megapixel sensors provide ample resolution and detail.
  • Micro Four-Thirds owners can choose from a wide range of sharp yet affordable lenses— a definite advantage. Panasonic’s fast new 25-mm f/1.7 “normal” lens is currently the best deal of all. It’s very sharp and compact, with a $99 introductory price at BH and Amazon. If you decide to buy a M 3/4 camera now, it makes sense to buy this premium lens while its price remains so low.
  • Olympus’ nearly identical E-PL5 and E-PL6 models are value leaders. Amazon sells the E-PL6, including Olympus’ sharp 14- to 42-mm kit zoom lens, for a mere $250 after the listed $50 promotional code is applied. A two-lens E-PL5 kit with standard and telephoto zoom lenses retails for $400. Both lack an eyelevel viewfinder, relying solely on the rear LCD screen for composition, but otherwise includes the same sensor and features as more expensive models.

Olympus’ E-M5 (not the current Mark II model) is a prograde model that’s one of my favorite cameras. It includes weather-sealing, robust yet compact construction, excellent, five-axis image stabilization and an eyelevel viewfinder. BH recently advertised this first model of the E-M5 for $419 with kit lens. If you can find a new E-M5 with any Olympus kit lens for under $500, grab it.

The E-M10 is a similar consumer-grade camera that provides the same image quality and some newer features, but it’s not weather-sealed, nor as robustly built. It sells for about $450 with standard kit lens. All Olympus cameras include in-body hardware that stabilizes any lens that can be physically mounted.

  • Panasonic’s GM5 is one of the smallest M 4/3 cameras, includes a usable eyelevel viewfinder and fits in a large coat pocket. Its 12- to 32-mm kit zoom is well regarded and very compact when retracted. Many professional camera reviewers claim that they carry a GM5 for daily use.
  • Sony’s A6000 uses a larger, 24-megapixel APS-C sensor and includes excellent rear LCD and eyelevel viewfinders. At $548 including Sony’s 16- to 50-mm kit zoom lens, the A6000 exceeds our arbitrary $500 cap, but it’s an advanced, capable, compact and affordable mirrorless camera that deserves serious consideration. But lens selection is more limited compared to M 4/3 cameras.
  • My personal choices would the Nikon D5200, Pentax K-50 and K-S2, Olympus E-M5 and Panasonic GM5. I particularly prefer the compact Olympus and Panasonic cameras because of their strong metal bodies and broad selection of good M 4/3 lenses.

Buy spare batteries, a UV protective filter that fits your lens, some SDHC or faster SDXC memory cards, and a protective case. We’ll discuss these needed accessories in the near future.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his articles can be accessed through his website,


1 Comment

Filed under photography, Plugged in

One response to “Plugged In: Camera on your gift list? Shop smart for value

  1. jack

    please, to have a fun inspired holidays…….and thanks for all the excellent write ups..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s