14 Best Budget Cameras for Every Skill Level

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POINT, SHOOT, AND SAVE

Smartphones are good enough at snapping selfies for sharing on social media. But for images worthy of preserving for posterity, a dedicated camera remains a smart purchase. Not only can most take better pictures than the average phone, some can go places your phone can't, or really shouldn't -- like anywhere near water, or in kids' hands.

Point-and-shoot cameras appeal to casual photographers who want to take nice-looking photos without a lot of fuss. They have optical zoom -- not found on phones -- and automatic settings. Even waterproof and "rugged" models are affordable now. For those who want to experiment and take their photography skills to the next level, DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) and mirrorless cameras are bulkier and more expensive but much more capable than point-and-shoots, with larger image sensors, interchangeable lenses, and the option of manual adjustment.

These 14 digital camera picks include point-and-shoots under $200 and DSLR and mirrorless cameras under $500, plus a couple of models that might be worth a little extra for some users. Generally these cameras also shoot video, and many come with wireless connectivity options that make uploading and sharing photos a snap.

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CHEAP AND COMPACT: SONY DSC-W830

Features: 20.1MP; 8x optical zoom; 720p video (60 fps); no Wi-Fi
Sony's DSC-W830 (starting at $118) is one of the cheapest "brand-name" digital cameras available, and it packs its fair share of competitive features. The compact design is considered a plus by many users, although the small size and flush-mounted buttons can make this point-and-shoot a little trickier to use than competitors. It's also been around a while, so it lacks the Wi-Fi connectivity that's become a staple on newer cameras.

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BEST UNDER $150: NIKON COOLPIX A300

Features: 20.1MP; 8x optical zoom; 720p video (30 fps); Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC
The Nikon Coolpix A300 includes some surprising features considering how cheap it is (starting at $137), including a robust 20.1-megapixel image sensor and support for a host of wireless connection options. The camera is also easy to use, and reviewers say it consistently delivers photos with accurate exposure and nice contrast. However, the continuous shooting speed is pretty slow, at 1.1 frames per second, and the smallish 2.7-inch LCD has a relatively low resolution. But, all things considered, this camera is a bargain given its performance for the price.

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BEST ON A $200 BUDGET: CANON POWERSHOT ELPH 360 HS

Features: 20.2MP; 12x optical zoom; 1080p video (30 fps); Wi-Fi, PictBridge, NFC
Cheapism's choice for the best budget compact digital camera, the Canon PowerShot Elph 360 HS (starting at $205), is a good all-around performer that delivers solid pictures and a pretty impressive list of specs at a price just over $200. Expert testers say this camera has almost no shutter lag -- users needn't worry about missing that perfect shot -- and the various connection options make printing and sharing a breeze. The PowerShot Elph 360 HS even has a dedicated Wi-Fi button that can be activated in playback or shooting modes for instant, real-time uploads. The only real drawback is a fairly short battery life -- about 180 photos -- so it may be best to keep the charger nearby.

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BEST POINT-AND-SHOOT FOR POWERFUL ZOOM: NIKON COOLPIX S7000

Features: 16MP; 20x optical zoom; 1080p video (30 fps); Wi-Fi, NFC
Even the most frugal amateur photographer might be willing to shell out a little more for the Nikon Coolpix S7000 (starting at $230). Online reviews praise the incredibly generous zoom, fast responsiveness, and peppy 9.2-frames-per-second continuous shooting speed. This well-regarded point-and-shoot is said to produce very good photos, with vibrant, accurate color, good exposure, and nice detail -- with the proper light. As with most cheap cameras, pictures start to get a bit grainy in low light. At times, experts say, the camera seems to overcompensate and produces images that feel rather "processed."

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BEST FAMILY CAMERA: NIKON COOLPIX W100

Features: 13.2MP; 3x optical zoom; 1080p video (30 fps); Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC
The Nikon Coolpix W100 (starting at $157) is a tough little waterproof camera (up to 33 feet) that snaps decent, colorful photos. It's also very easy to operate, with large buttons and a simple menu that make it suitable for kids as well as adults. It can shoot a burst of photos at 4.7 frames per second, which is pretty good for a camera this cheap, and the ability to record video in full HD is not very common in this price range. While this model works best in bright light, and indoor photos tend to be a little noisy, it's a good vacation camera that the whole family can use -- both on the beach and under the water.

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BEST FOR NOT MISSING A SHOT: PANASONIC LUMIX DMC-TS30

Features: 16.1MP; 4x optical zoom; 720p video (30 fps); no Wi-Fi
Another cheap waterproof option from a well-respected brand, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS30 (starting at $148) delivers the basics and not much more. But that may be enough for many. Users say it takes good enough pictures -- even while snorkeling -- and it's easy to use, with a simple interface. A lack of Wi-Fi may be an issue for some, but an uncommonly large onboard memory cache (220 MB) helps ensure that users can capture memories of an underwater adventure even if they run out of space on a memory card.

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BEST FOR UNDERWATER ADVENTURES: FUJIFILM FINEPIX XP90

Features: 16.4MP; 5x optical zoom; 1080p video (60 fps); Wi-Fi, GPS
The Fujifilm FinePix XP90 (starting at $156) is waterproof (to 50 feet) and shockproof, so it's a good fit for more adventurous vacationers. A 3-inch, high-resolution LCD makes it easier to frame the ideal shot, even underwater, and the ability to record 1080p video at a fast 60 frames per second comes in handy when swishing down the ski slope. Built-in GPS lets users geotag photos with the locations where they were shot. This model may have a few drawbacks on the image-quality front -- fine details tend to be a little soft -- but for shoppers looking for a sturdy budget camera, this one is hard to beat, or beat up.

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BEST 'RUGGED' CAMERA: OLYMPUS TOUGH TG-870

Features: 16MP; 5x optical zoom; 1080p video (60 fps); Wi-Fi, PictBridge, GPS
The Olympus Tough TG-870 (starting at $279) is waterproof to 50 feet, shockproof to 7 feet, freezeproof to 14 degrees Fahrenheit, and crushproof up to 220 pounds of force. A good choice for sporty shutterbugs willing to pay a bit more for a durable device that can survive the most rugged adventure, the TG-870 is a fairly speedy camera that's quick to start up and takes sharp, detailed outdoor shots with good color at a burst rate of 7 frames per second. Other notable features include geotagging images and a high-resolution display that flips 180 degrees, ideal for selfies.

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BEST INSTANT DIGITAL CAMERA: POLAROID SNAP

Features: 10 MP
Can't shake a love for Polaroids? The Polaroid Snap link to capsule (starting at $90) offers a modern twist on a classic by adding digital capability. With this camera, users can instantly print out images or save them to a memory card for later. A pricier upgrade, the Polaroid Snap Touch, can also record 1080p video. Just don't expect the same image quality you'd get from a standard digital point-and-shoot, reviewers say; the fun factor is the main draw.

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BEST DSLR FOR BEGINNERS: CANON EOS REBEL T6

Features: 18MP; 22.3 x 14.9 mm CMOS sensor; 1080p video (30 fps); Wi-Fi, NFC
Canon's venerable Rebel line of cameras has impressed users for years. The Canon EOS Rebel T6 (starting at $449) is priced for budget-conscious beginners and designed to be easy to use. The performance is solid and photos are generally sharp, although this model doesn't have quite as many fancy features as some competitors, such as an adjustable LCD. Also, the continuous shooting speed is pretty slow, at just 3 frames per second, and the autofocus sometimes struggles to lock on quickly in lower light, which means fast-moving objects may be harder to shoot. Nevertheless, consumers tend to be quite happy with this entry-level model.

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BEST MIRRORLESS CAMERA: NIKON 1 J5

Features: 20.8MP; 13.2 x 8.8 mm BSI CMOS sensor; 1080p and 4K video (60 fps/15 fps); Wi-Fi, NFC
The Nikon 1 J5 (starting at $497) is a mirrorless camera that packs a punch. It can fire off photos at 20 frames per second in continuous shooting mode, far faster than any other budget camera we researched, and the autofocus is lightning fast as well. Photos look sharp up to ISO 800, although after that, expert reviewers noticed some smudging. This camera has a high-resolution touchscreen LCD that tilts up 180 degrees. The most noteworthy drawback is the battery life, which is rated for only about 250 photos, and 4K video is said to be choppy (1080p video looks good). Apart from that, the Nikon 1 J5 is an excellent camera for its small size, which many prefer to a bulkier DSLR.

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BEST DSLR FOR OUTDOOR SHOOTING: PENTAX K-S2

Features: 20.12MP; 23.5 x 15.6 mm CMOS sensor; 1080p video (30 fps); Wi-Fi, NFC
The Pentax K-S2 (starting at $529) offers almost all the bells and whistles a power user could want, and very good photo quality on top of that. It features built-in optical image stabilization, a tilting LCD for shooting from odd angles, and a range of wireless connections. Images are vibrant, with warm colors, and the detail is quite good even at higher ISO settings, like ISO 3200. A rare and unexpected perk in this price range: weatherproofing. This makes the Pentax K-S2 particularly suited for outdoor shooters willing to stretch their budget beyond $500.

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BEST UNDER $500: NIKON D3400

Features: 24.2MP; 23.5 x 15.6 mm CMOS sensor; 1080p video (60 fps); Bluetooth, no Wi-Fi
The Nikon D3400 (starting at $497) lacks some features found in competing cameras, such as a touchscreen LCD and Wi-Fi support, but what it lacks in features it more than makes up for in performance. Its slightly-larger-than-average, 24.2-megapixel sensor produces great-looking photos, with accurate color and sharp detail. What really sets the Nikon D3400 apart from the competition, though, is outstanding battery life. This DSLR can shoot up to 1,200 photos on a single charge. No other budget camera we looked at even comes close to that mark.

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BEST FOR 4K VIDEO: PANASONIC LUMIX G7

Features: 16MP; 17.3 x 13 mm Micro 4/3 Live MOS sensor; 1080p and 4K video (60 fps/30 fps); Wi-Fi, PictBridge
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-G7 (starting at $598) is one of the best mirrorless cameras for the price, which is somewhat higher than the rest on this list. According to experts, the superiority of its 4K "ultra-HD" video over the standard 1080p really shows. This model is fast, with colors that are dead on and photos that display fine detail even in low light. The camera doesn't lag on the features front, either. It's got an adjustable touchscreen LCD in addition to an electronic viewfinder. Plastic construction belies an otherwise upscale presentation, and the camera is a bit on the bulky side for a mirrorless model, but its strengths far outweigh any weaknesses. Budget-minded aficionados should find the Lumix G7 well worth the extra outlay.