The Absolute Best Camera and Lens combination for under $750
posted Monday, December 30, 2013 at 11:58 AM EST
Here at the Imaging Resource we’re bombarded daily by questions from friends, family and readers: What camera should I buy to photograph my daughter’s indoor gymnastics? My son’s ski trip? How should I spend $500 to document my honeymoon in Turkey? What is the best camera system to buy for my girlfriend if I’ve got $2,000? (Lucky girlfriend!)
We decided to take one of these questions and – rather than generate the One True Opinion from Mount Cameradesk – throw it to our talented staff instead. Think of it as the IR staff pulling back the collective kimono to reveal the sometimes-fiery debate that informs our review process. And in keeping the conversation "debate-style" we’re leaving it as a chronological narrative so that you can see the opinions, rebuttals and counter-arguments as they actually unfolded.
Please note that these are our own personal opinions, and how we ourselves would actually spend $750 if that is all we had to spend on a primary shooting rig. There is no "correct" answer to this question, and is largely guided by how an individual likes to shoot and based on their own personal preferences, so we hope you find at least one entry that fits your personal style. Lastly, there's a comments section below the article and we'd love to hear your take on the conversation as well.
Without further ado… we present to you the Absolute Best Camera and Lens Rig for under $750.
- Olympus E-PM2 kit with…
- Olympus M.Zuiko ED 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II ($399 from Adorama)
- + Olympus 45mm f/1.8 prime ($349 from Adorama or B&H)
= $748 total
Many of my esteemed colleagues will undoubtedly try to persuade you that shooting with a sensor smaller than APS-C is not a wise choice...and to this I say Poppycock! It's just plain nonsense. If you’re only concerned about low light performance then you might be advised to listen, but if overall image quality, lens quality and shallow depth of field are more your style, then please read on.
The Olympus E-PM2 has the same sensor as the highly regarded E-M5, which won many awards in 2012, including from us here at IR. The Olympus 45mm f/1.8 prime (90mm equivalent) is one of the sharpest lenses we've ever tested and is, quite franky, sublime (to see the results please click here). This combination is an ultra-serious, super-professional pairing. There are very few choices for less than $750 that will approach the overall image quality and gorgeous background blur potential of this combination.
And the best part is you won't even lose your zoom range. Olympus makes great kit lenses, and their 14-42mm M. Zuiko is one of the best we’ve seen. My solution gives you the best of both worlds, in an incredibly small and lightweight package. Much smaller and lighter than anything in the APS-C world with any zoom functionality, and smaller than anything in the Micro Four Thirds world that still leaves room in the budget for a fabulous prime lens. (note that for just $50 more you can buy a kit that gets you a really good longer zoom lens as well (Olympus M.Zuiko ED 40-150mm f/3.5-5.6 II -- $450 from Amazon Merchants) but I didn't want to stray that far over budget in keeping with the spirit of this piece).
- Pentax K-500 kit with...
- Pentax 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 and
- Pentax 50-200mm f/4-5.6 ($579 from Cameta Camera or $599 from Adorama)
- + Pentax 35mm f/2.4 AL lens ($181.95 from Adorama or $184.95 from Amazon sellers)
= $760.95 total (what’s a few bucks between friends, eh?)
Nice choices, Dave, but you were right. I'm going to vote for APS-C -- and here's why. You can pick up the Pentax K-500 twin-lens kit right now from Cameta for a steal at $580. Those two lenses might be consumer-grade, but they leave you with $170 to play with.
And I’m going to be a little bit controversial with the rest of the money -- I'm going to be the first to go over budget, if only by $11, because the Pentax 35mm f/2.4 AL lens is a stupendous deal at $181.95. (Or if you prefer, there's the 50mm f/1.8, but we found it wasn't great until stopped down, so I went for the 35mm.)
What do you get for that? Zoom reach. Oodles of it. Everything from a 27mm wide angle to a 300mm telephoto (equivalent) is covered. That just inches out the E-PM2 at wide angle, and trounces it on the telephoto end. It doesn't matter how great your lens and sensor are if you have to crop the image to within an inch of its life to get the right framing. In my 35mm f/2.4 you've also got a great, affordable prime lens with a bright maximum aperture, just what you want for isolating your subject from the background with beautiful depth-of-field blur. Maybe a little wider than I’d like for portraits, but at 53mm equivalent it’s workable.
Not to mention that you've got a lot of the guts of the Pentax K-5 II -- including the same image sensor -- and we all know how well-received that camera was. Bags of dynamic range and good high ISO performance, comfy handling with a proper grip, a great pentaprism optical viewfinder (no worrying about whether you can see your subject under harsh sunlight), six frames-per-second burst shooting with plenty of buffer. Even better, Pentax gives you in-body stabilization, so every lens gets image stabilization meaning you get a stop or two more headroom than you would otherwise. You're using standard AA batteries, too, so you can share batteries and charger with your other gear, and if it comes down to it and there’s nothing left charged in your camera bag, you can buy some disposables. No more getting stuck without a charge, and missing that crucial shot!
For my money, this combo is going to get you the photos you were after in more shooting environments and with more subjects than anything else I can think of at US$750(ish).
Project Manager & Editor
- Canon EOS M kit with…
- Canon EF-M 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM ($349 from B&H)
- + Canon EF-M 22mm f/2 STM ($99 from B&H)
- + $300 for photo safari to Canadian Rockies
= $450 Total
Mike is a Pentax guy to the core, but his solution is pretty tough to top, so I found a solution that gives you much of the Pentax’s benefits for way less money. You might be surprised to see the much-maligned Canon EOS M in the running here, but it’s a compelling choice now that Canon has marked it down to less than half its original list.
The EOS M’s focusing was abysmal at launch, but is now entirely acceptable after the firmware update. With the EOS M solution, you save $300 over the Pentax and actually best it in a few areas. The EOS M gives you an external mic jack and a touchscreen, both of which the K-500 lacks. You also get a 60s max exposure versus the 30s max of the K-500. My solution loses some telephoto reach, but bests the 35mm prime’s aperture by a half stop and gives you in-lens stabilization on the zoom lens, both of which help to offset the K-500’s advantage of in-body IS.
The EOS M’s build quality is more reflective of its original $800 list than its current price, so you’ll see much better build quality than the Pentax solution. And you’ll get that great build quality in a dramatically smaller package at less than half the weight.
If you shoot action, this isn’t the choice for you, but for my primary use of mountain and landscape photography, this is a great choice under $750 and the very best choice out there under $500. $300 is money enough for provisions and roundtrip gas money to the Canadian Rockies from Portland, OR. That means I'll be taking photos like these, which means I'm pretty sure my solution wins as the best photographic experience :)
Senior Lens Technician
- Canon EOS M kit with…
- Canon EF-M 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM and ...
- Canon Speedlight 90EX ($428 from B&H)
- + Canon EF-M 22mm f/2 ($99 from B&H)
- + Canon EF-M to EF/EF-S Adapter ($99 when purchased with EOS-M from B&H)
- + Spare battery ($46 from B&H)
= $672 Total
I have to agree with Arthur on the choice of the Canon EOS M. I didn’t really care for the Speedlight 90EX, but a flash can be a great asset so I’ll opt for the 18-55 and Speedlight 90EX kit. I’ll also go with the 22mm f/2. I tested both lenses extensively and they are excellent -- positively incredible for the price. I took hundreds of photos and the camera was easy to use, exposed perfectly and the screen was visible in bright sunlight. Since I’m still way under budget, I’ll add the adapter to use other EOS lenses ($40 cheaper when purchased with the EOS-M), add a spare battery and I’m still only at $672!
- Pentax K-500 kit with...
- Pentax 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 and
- Pentax 50-200mm f/4-5.6 ($579 from Cameta Camera or $599 from Adorama)
- + Pentax AF200FG flash ($129 from Amazon, Adorama or B&H)
= $709.95 shipped
Well played, Arthur & Rob, well played. I'm a Pentax guy because that's the mount I've committed to, and I can't afford to change every time something else catches my eye -- but I do love a good camera (and a great deal) whenever I see one. In that sense, I’m really brand-agnostic. It’s features and value that I love, not brands! And I can't deny that the EOS M is one heck of a steal at that price. If I were a Canon shooter already, I'd certainly pick one up as a second camera body.
But I'm putting myself in the shoes of a newcomer here, and I can't help but think the lack of telephoto reach both yourself and Dave have in your selections will come back and bite you when you see a great shot -- if only you could get closer. I'm a belt-and-suspenders guy in my camera gear choices. (Thankfully, not in the wardrobe department though -- wouldn't look right alongside my awesome pocket protector!) I see zoom reach, and I want zoom reach.
I'd likely win in low-light autofocus, as well, not to mention burst performance where the EOS M trails. And the limited battery life of the Canon means more swapping batteries, where I can save power by just shooting with the optical viewfinder. While you're fumbling to get that new cell in, I'll still be shooting. (OK, I'll give you that changing my four batteries is more of a hassle than your single cell, though. Saw that argument coming!)
But you did give me a great idea. I'm now back under budget, by swapping that 35mm prime lens for an external flash strobe, instead. You can pick up the Pentax AF200FG for just $130, and while it won't tilt or swivel, it will throw more light on your subject than the built-in flash can. (It’s got a guide number of 20m at ISO 100, instead of 12m for the built-in strobe.)
So thanks for that thought. You'll excuse me if I steal it so that I can put my got-to-get-it sub-$750 camera kit back under $750, where it belongs. I feel better about myself when I don't have to cheat, even if it was by less than $20. :-)
Well, as a resident "Canon guy," my first thought went directly to the Canon EOS M, but I see that Arthur and Rob beat me to the punch. I, in fact, own a Canon EOS M with the 22mm f/2 STM lens, and it's a great secondary camera to use alongside my bigger Canon DSLRs. The 22mm lens is excellent, with almost no distortion and insanely sharp images, even wide open. Yes, the slow AF on the M is noticeable (even with the new firmware), but I'm not going to use it to to shoot a football game or birds in flight. For macro, landscape and street photography the EOS M is a great choice with excellent image quality from the large APS-C sensor. It's a solid little camera. And at only $350 for that camera and lens combo is a steal, leaving you with plenty of budget for a second lens like the EF-M 18-55mm or the EF-M to EF/EF-S Lens Adapter to use your existing Canon glass.
Now, since my first choice for this little "Under $750" article has been taken, I think it's only fair to give another option.
Here’s what I came up with:
- Canon SL1 bundle with…
- Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM and …
- Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 IS and …
- 16GB SD card and …
- Canon camera bag and …
- $150 Target gift card ($649 from Target)
- + Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II ($49 from Target -- $199 less $150 gift card)
If I was just starting out and had only $750 to spend, I think I would go the DSLR route, like Mike suggested, primarily for the flexibility in the lens options down the road. I like to shoot everything, from landscapes to wildlife -- I need ultra-wide and ultra-tele! My choice is this incredible SL1 bundle available from Target through the 25th of January. My solution covers the same focal length range as Mike, but my portrait prime gives you a ¾ stop advantage to Mike’s K-500 solution! To rub salt in the wound (and I quote Mike himself):
“In many ways, the Canon SL1 DSLR provides the best of both worlds, pairing the compact, lightweight body of a mirrorless camera and the performance and image quality of a DSLR.”
“... the SL1 does have one important advantage over its bigger siblings [the K-500 included] -- its new Hybrid CMOS II AF system for shooting in Live View and Movie modes … we were relatively impressed with the … AF speed of the Rebel SL1. What's more, the Hybrid CMOS II AF of the SL1 uses a whopping 80% of both the width and height of the LCD monitor, offering a lot more framing and shooting flexibility …”
The in-body image stabilization of the K-500 is tough to beat… except that both lenses in my rig are stabilized! And my option gives you the killer hybrid AF system of the SL1, which just might beat every other competitor in this shootout. But the best part is you’re buying into the expansive world of the Canon EF glass, giving you great options from Canon and third-party lens manufacturers like Sigma. My system lets folks move up to full-frame when the time comes. Sadly, Mike will always be stuck with Pentax in APS-C world.
Editor's note: It looks like the Target gift card offer just expired, pushing this solution with the prime lens $100 out of budget. The Canon SL1 is still a great camera, but you'll have to give up one of the zoom lenses if you want a prime lens.
Senior Lab Technician
= $748 Total
We all know the absolute best camera is the one you have with you.
And no, a Telephone cannot take a terrific Photograph.
There is one actual camera and lens combination that is small enough that you just might have it with you, but which delivers far better picture quality than anything smaller: the Panasonic GM1. We finally have a Micro 4/3 camera that lives up to the name "micro".
At just under the $750 limit, it’s not a raving deal, but it is completely unique. The budget doesn’t allow for a pile of extra lenses, but it is certainly capable of using them. By holiday season next year, it may have some competition and will surely drop in price, but for now, there’s just nothing like it.
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher
- Sony NEX-5T kit with…
- 16GB Memory Card and...
- Camera Bag ($448 from Adorama or B&H)
- + Sigma 30mm f/2.8 DN “A” lens($199 from Adorama or B&H)
= $647 Total
(If I could wheedle $47 slack in the budget, I’d go with the NEX-5T kit with the 16-50mm collapsible Power Zoom lens, at $598 from Adorama or B&H, both of which include a 16GB SD card, the Adorama deal also including a spare battery)
Most of the systems listed thus far have been mirrorless. As a big fan of mirrorless cameras I won’t be straying from that trend. For my personal photography, the incredibly small size, great image quality and big selection of high-quality Micro Four Thirds lenses would make the Panasonic GM1 my first choice for a new camera system. It's a close call for me, though, as there are some features in Sony's NEX line that I really (really) like, namely Handheld Twilight mode and Sweep Panorama. Sony pioneered both of these multi-shot features, and while other manufacturers have followed in their footsteps, to my eye, Sony still has by the best implementations I've seen. For those of you not familiar with these, in Handheld Twilight mode, the camera rapidly captures a number of shots using a shorter shutter speed than would produce a proper exposure, then micro-aligns and adds the results from all the exposures together. The end result is shake-induced blur maybe 1/5 that of what you'd get at the normal shutter speed, but with the noise levels of a much lower-ISO exposure. It's incredibly handy for handheld shooting after dark, the results still amaze me. Sweep Panorama is pretty much what it sounds like; you hold down the shutter button while you "sweep" the camera in a semicircle. The camera grabs a lot of individual images (20 or more), again micro-aligns them, and stitches them into a surprisingly good panorama. I use it for panoramas, but also for capturing vertical objects like buildings and waterfalls. The Sony NEX-5T also offers focus peaking to help with manual focusing, and its overall image quality is excellent, to boot.
I'd really hate giving up the great Sony features in a new system camera, so it was an awfully tough choice for me between the Panasonic GM1 and the Sony NEX-5T. As it turns out, Production Editor Dave Pardue was also really torn between his ultimate choice of the Olympus E-PM2 and the NEX-5T as well. Given that we were both so drawn to the Sony NEX-5T, I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt here, and write it up as my primary choice. (Truth be told, I couldn't give up the Sony features, I'd find some way to own it and the GM1 both, so this really is one of my choices. I'd find something else in my life to give up to get the funds.)
The NEX-5T is Sony's current mid-priced model in that highly successful line, available for a street price of roughly $450, body-only - an amazing deal for such a capable APS-C camera. This leaves enough room for the fantastic Sigma 30mm f/2.8 DN A lens, which can be had for a paltry $199, and I’ll still have $103 of budget left to go towards an external flash and/or an extra battery. I have to admit, though, that I do love the convenience of zoom lenses, so I might plead with my significant other for $50 more budget so I could get the kit version of the NEX-5T with the collapsible 16-50mm power zoom lens. It’s a bit better than average optically for a kit zoom, no great shakes but quite serviceable. And I’d have a fantastically sharp “normal” lens (45mm focal length equivalent) for times I felt I really needed the ultimate in image quality.
My choice doesn’t touch Mike's zoom range, but I’ll tie or beat anyone’s choices in image quality, and best Dave and Luke in low-light situations, thanks to my larger sensor. Plus, I'll get all those tasty Sony special features that nobody else does as well which I find myself using over and over again in real-world shooting.
While it would be hard to forego a zoom lens altogether to get the NEX-5T, the camera itself is worth it, for the reasons mentioned above. And if I could beg, borrow or steal that extra $47, I’d be a happy camper indeed. (But honey, the kids are growing like weeds, surely we don’t need to feed them next week? ;-)
So there you have it: no fewer than eight camera systems for $750ish or less. This isn’t trivial advice, it is how we ourselves would spend our money if we had $750 to assemble the best camera rig. As such, the decisions are informed by our own shooting styles and preferences for how a camera operates and the output quality it can deliver.
Though seven different individuals have offered eight options that span mirrorless and SLR models from no fewer than five manufacturers, there are some striking similarities. All but two entries included a fast prime lens. In fact, Imaging Resource founder Dave Etchells would even forego a zoom lens, opting instead for the superior optical quality of Sigma’s 30mm f/2.8 DN “A” lens. That’s probably because a fast, sharp prime can give beginning photographers great results, helping isolate subjects and achieve the results beginners imagine when they think of buying a ‘real’ camera. If you’re just starting out, make it a priority to pick up a fast prime lens: you’ll be thrilled with the results.
No fewer than 3 of us chose the Canon EOS M (though William provided an excellent alternative). The value in this camera is undeniable, allowing Arthur $300 of travel money after picking up a pair of great lenses and letting Rob pile on the extras.
Nikon’s D3200 was conspicuous in its absence, perhaps because the SL1 and K-500 offer a few more unique features, whereas the D3200 is a highly competent camera albeit with a few less features to ring our bells. In truth it would be a really excellent choice, bundled with the 18-55 and the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8. Two other cameras worth mentioning are the Sony RX100 II and the Olympus Stylus 1, as both of these fixed lens cameras garnered placement in our 2013 Camera of the Year awards. You don't get interchangeable lens capability, but each of these cameras packs quite a punch for retailing below $750.
Finally, while there are some great used cameras out there that are outstanding bargains, they really deserve an article of their own, so we’ve kept the focus on current models.
We hope these opinions from the Imaging Resource collective help guide your own decisions, and we'd love to hear your thoughts on this debate in the comment section below. Is there any opinion above that you agree with more than others? Any you disagree with? Are there other options in this price range you'd like to share? ...Comment away!