by Dave Etchells

posted Monday, November 24, 2014 at 8:58 PM EDT



In all our years of covering the camera market (16+ and counting now), there’s never been a time like this! Competition between manufacturers and ever-advancing technology have brought combinations of price, quality and capability never before seen in the history of photography. It’s a great time to be a photographer!

But what to buy? Not everything is universally wonderful; sometimes the pressure of competition leads to products pushed out the door a bit too quickly, or where just a few too many corners have been cut to meet a price point. That’s where we come in, with our unique, in-depth testing and hands-on shooter’s reports. We put cameras through the wringer, both in the lab and out in the real world, so you can buy with confidence, and know you’re getting the best out there.

Sometimes though (especially at the holidays), you may not have time to read through and digest all the information we’ve assembled. Sometimes you just want to know what’s best in a given category, where you can plunk down your hard-earned cash and know you’ll be happy with what you get. Here in the US, the $1,000 price point is a bit of a magic number for a lot of people; it’s a natural budget limit a lot of us set when considering a major purchase like a new camera system, and is a number we often hear from people when asking advice on what to buy.

So with all that in mind, here’s a bit of a buyer’s guide, highlighting some of the really spectacular systems that fit within that budget. All the editors here at IR scanned the market, put our heads together, and came up with a list of an even dozen camera and lens setups that we believe represent the best values in the under-$1,000 category. On this first page you'll find our recommendations for the best DSLR package, then on page two we'll delve into a variety of intriguing options for best mirrorless cameras, and lastly on page three we'll explore the best options available for fixed lens models, including the best premium compacts and enthusiast zoom "bridge" models.

There’s something here for everyone, and there’s never been a time like the present, with such incredible photographic tools available for such affordable prices! Read on for all of our recommendations, and remember that buying through our affiliate links directly supports our efforts, and helps keep all our tests, reviews, and recommendations coming.

Happy holidays to everyone!

(Also, don't hesitate on these deals; some of them are tied to Black Friday/Cyber Monday holiday promotions, so may not last!)

Options by William Brawley and Mike Tomkins

Best DSLR camera and lens combination

Canon T5i + EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens

The best Canon DSLR and lens combo for under $1000 is going to revolve around the Rebel T5i, which is Canon's most advanced entry-level model in their Rebel lineup. With an 18MP APS-C CMOS sensor and a DIGIC 5 image processor, the T5i is capable of high quality images with excellent color and hue accuracy and decent burst shooting speeds. While another choice would be to save $100 and opt for the more compact SL1, the T5i's tiltable LCD, nine cross-type AF points (the SL1 has just one) and increased battery life, plus deeper grip with heavily-textured rubber make it a more attractive option.

If you're interested in a camera and a single lens combo that's capable of letting you capture a wide variety of subjects, from wide landscapes and travel shots to portraits and telephoto subjects, the Canon T5i and EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM kit is a solid choice. The lens is sharp and overall image quality is above average for a kit lens, plus the IS works very well and the whisper-quiet STM focusing motor is fast. Ringing up at $849 with holiday discounts, this kit almost tops out the $1000 budget, but with the extra $100 or so left over, some small accessories or a camera bag would go nicely. (Note: With current holiday promotions and discounts, this combination is under $1000. The MSRP for the 18-135mm Kit is $1,049, though.)

On the other hand, if you want to explore and experiment with multiple lenses, save $200 right off the bat and go with the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens kit version of the T5i for $649. You do have less versatility with the shorter range of the 18-55mm lens, but it still offers above-average image quality for a kit lens, plus a great IS system and fast, quiet STM focusing. With the extra $300, one of the best new EF-S lenses is the Canon 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM. Go super-wide with a lightweight, compact and very sharp ultra-wide angle zoom. At a mere $299, it's an excellent lens at a great value that fits perfectly within this budget, and your camera bag. (Note: With current holiday promotions and discounts, this combination is under $1000. The MSRP for the 18-55mm Kit is $849, thus putting the additional 10-18mm lens over budget.)

Either one of these combinations will give you a really solid camera/lens setup, and a great introduction to the huge and ever-growing Canon ecosystem of cameras, lenses, flashes and other accessories. If you’re looking for a traditional DSLR with a great starter set of optics and a huge system to grow into, the Canon T5i is a great purchase!



Canon T5 + 18-55mm kit lens - sample gallery image

[Click here for our full Canon T5 sample gallery!]


Nikon D5300 + NIKKOR 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens

Similar to the Canon recommendations, the Nikon counterpart focuses on the D5300, their high-end entry-level DSLR. The pricing is a little different than with Canon, though. The Nikon D5300 with 18-140mm Kit, the equivalent to the T5i + 18-135, is for sale at $996.95, which is hits just under the limit of over budget. Normally, these kit goes for an MSRP of $1,296.95, so the big holiday discount is a great deal. This is a really excellent combo of body and lens, and gains you entry into Nikon’s amazingly broad system, one that includes arguably the best wireless flash system in the industry.

There is also a less expensive D5300 + 18-55mm VR II Kit. However, we’ve seen some image-quality issues around the 35mm focal length with the less-expensive 18-55mm kit lens, so aren’t comfortable recommending it as a mainstream option. (It did fine at other focal lengths, but two of three samples we tested showed significant softness on the left side of the frame at 35mm.)

On the other hand, if you want more optical versatility right out of the gate, the Nikon D3300 is a way to shift the balance and allow more budget with which to purchases lenses. Using the same filterless 24.3MP sensor and fast EXPEED 4 processor as the D5300, the D3300 is capable of capturing very high quality images, though it lacks some of the amenities of its higher-end cousin, such as tiltable LCD, built-in Wi-Fi/GPS and a big array of AF points (only 11 vs. 39; that’s still more AF points than the Canon T5i, but only the center point is cross-type on the D3300). Starting a $496.95 for the D3300 and 18-55mm VR II kit, with the left over cash, we'd opt for the AF-S 35mm f/1.8G DX and then also grab the AF-S 50mm f/1.8G lens. While the 35mm prime is designed for an APS-C sensor, the 50mm is for a full-frame, thus when mounted to a DX camera, provides a 75mm-equivalent field of view -- a great portrait focal length. So, with this setup, not only do you have a versatile wide-angle to tele zoom lens, but also a "nifty-fifty" equivalent in the 35mm f/1.8 and a short tele lens in the 50mm that will be great for general shooting, portraits and low-light photography.



Nikon D5300 + 18-140mm kit lens - sample gallery image

[Click here for our full Nikon D5300 sample gallery!]


Pentax K-50 + 18-135mm F/3.5-5.6 ED WR lens

It’s a great time to be a Pentaxian: Even the company’s flagship APS-C DSLR, the Pentax K-3, can now be picked up on a sub-$1,000 budget over at Adorama, complete with 18-55mm WR lens and D-BG5 battery grip, providing a truly spectacular enthusiast-grade APS-C camera in a completely weather-sealed system. We’re here to tell you, though, that unless you’re planning on blowing your $1,000 budget fairly soon by buying some more lenses, that’s actually not your best bet.

As great as the Pentax K-3 is -- and we’re head over heels in love with that camera -- its more affordable sibling, the Pentax K-50, strikes us as an even better deal. It’s now readily available for just around $800 complete with a weather-sealed 18-135mm lens and 4GB Eye-Fi card to get your photos onto your smartphone or tablet. Better still, at the same pricetag, IR affiliate Adorama will even throw in an AF-200FG flash strobe, camera bag, and a fast 16GB Class 10 SDHC card for when you need more capacity. It’s a spectacular deal, and it leaves another US$200 on the table to pick up an extra lens.

Despite it’s seriously affordable price, though, the Pentax K-50 offers features still completely unique at its pricepoint, inherited direct from its enthusiast-grade flagship siblings. These include a bright, accurate pentaprism viewfinder that betters the pentamirror finders of all its rivals, twin control dials that allow fast, intuitive exposure control, and comprehensive weather-sealing / freezeproofing throughout both camera body and lens. And at the heart of the K-50 sits the same excellent image sensor featured in the Pentax K-5 II.

Our recommendation for that left-over cash: Pick up the 50mm f/1.8 if you want a great portrait prime, or the 50-200mm WR lens for a weather-sealed optic with extra reach. The latter will put you $50 over budget, but it’s nice having that extra reach. As an alternative to the 18-135mm kit lens bundle, you can save even a little more while getting a lot more zoom reach if you opt for a kit including the 18-55mm WR and 55-300mm lenses, and then buy the flash strobe separately. It’s important to note that of the two lenses in that bundle, though only the 18-55mm optic is weather-sealed; the 55-300mm in the bundle is the unsealed, more affordable DA-L version. For our money, that makes the 18-135mm kit the more versatile choice.

Pentax has always offered some of the best bang for the buck in the business, but the K-50 and its available bundles take that to a whole other level. We’ve also always been impressed with Pentax’s lineup of optics; these K-50 bundles buy you admission to a great system of bodies and optics, with much broader weather-proofing at more affordable prices than any of the competition. Looking for a DSLR that can stand up to your lifestyle, in any weather? The K-50 could be just the ticket!



Pentax K-50 + 18-55mm kit lens - sample gallery image

[Click here for our full Pentax K-50 sample gallery!]


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This page is one of three detailing our picks for the best camera packages under $1,000 in the 2014 holiday season. Click below, for our choices in the other two categories!

The best camera setups under $1,000; Holiday 2014 edition
Best DSLR cameras for Holiday 2014 (this page)
Best Mirrorless cameras for Holiday 2014
Best Compact cameras for Holiday 2014
Shopping for a Superzoom?
The best Superzoom camera: Our 2014 Superzoom shootout
Shopping for Black Friday & Holiday Deals?
Imaging Resource Black Friday Photo Deals