The Best Camera for Under $500

Photography is super expensive. There is no getting around that; even $500 is a lot of money, and there is very little at that price point. However, I think I have found the best camera for $500.

Sadly, I paid a lot more than $500 for mine 10 years ago. Nevertheless, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II is an absolute beast of a camera. It was ground-breaking when it was launched, being the first DSLR to be used in TV broadcast filming, a real option for those who wanted medium format film quality (don't, I know it's not the same thing) to jump into digital for, and perhaps the first camera for digital content creators, a DSLR that could do both video and still photography at a high end level. This may seem run of the mill in 2019, but back then, it was groundbreaking. We could shoot the event's video and grab stills on the same ecosystem, changing bodies and lenses around between staff with ease and saving a lot of money. It is also the camera system that I use for all of my YouTube videos and behind the scenes stills in my studio. I will continue to do so until they all die out. 

It has great ISO performance up to 1,200 for print and 6,400 for web use, the sensor is very good, it produces great detail, and a large amount of my portfolio was shot using it. I shot gigs with it for years, and even though it has very sub-par AF, I didn't have any real issues. Again, this may seem very under-specced for today's standards, but how often do most of us need above ISO 1,200? I am pretty sure the shot below was at 640 with a slow shutter, so if I wanted the action frozen, 1,200 would have done the job. 

The biggest reason that this makes my best camera for under $500 requirements though, is the full frame sensor. Having this for both videos and stills at this price point is unbelievable. I recently used the Canon EOS 90D, and although it has video AF and loads of bells and whistles, in terms of sheer image quality, the Canon EOS 5D MARK II beats it hands down. 

What would your $500-or-under camera be?

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26 Comments

Motti Bembaron's picture

True that the Nikon D700 (and the D3) were probably the best cameras Nikon came out with. Their new stuff just does not have the same quality. I would say that the D700, if you can find one (and in good condition), is a great camera to own.

I still use my D3 and love it.

Scott Choucino's picture

Was the D700 the Nikon version of the 5dmk2? I assume they are kicking around at a similar price atm. Lots of good cameras from that era.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I preordered and owned the 5D Mark II the day it was announced and used it for many years. Great camera for its day but after a while the image quality just didn't hold up and the autofocus wasn't great.

I actually replaced it with a Nikon D700 and switched over to the Nikon system in 2012, and the funny thing is, even though the D700 and 5D Mark II were direct competitors (although the D700 was down a video mode and a few megapixels) I still actively use my D700 to this day and find that for most situations, it's autofocus/ISO performance and image quality still hold up. If you don't need video, that's where I'd spend my $500 these days. If you do, Panasonic always makes the G7.

Not to be overlooked, the 6D used is probably around a similar price point if not just a little more and fixed the chief complaint I had with the 5D Mark II, which was the autofocus system (and it improved on ISO performance a bit as well).

Motti Bembaron's picture

The Nikon D700 was introduced in summer 2008, I think they are of a similar generation. You can find a D700 at around that price, yes.

I shot Canon and Nikon at the same time so I have experience with both cameras. The 5DMkII was so frustrating with poor AF that I switched my person equipment to Nikon for four years or more. The D700 was a fantastic still camera and it felt like it could focus in the dark. The 5DMkII is the still the camera I spent the most time using of all the cameras I have used since my Nikon camera was just used for freelance work. I really enjoy using the 6D now.

Blake Aghili's picture

A FILM camera

Scott Choucino's picture

I reckon id go for a Contax G or a RZ67 body with similar money. Depending on what I was going to use it for. I've always wanted both of those but I have never been able to justify them.

Blake Aghili's picture

I just got RZ67 last weekend ... so fun to use and beautiful negatives :) ... I had a Hasselblad H1 film that now I want to sell because this one is better :)

I said this years ago and I will say it in 2019, the Canon 5D Mark II is a $5,000 sensor in a $500 camera body. As long as you are shooting things that do not move too much, it is an awesome camera.

I have and still use a 5DII for stills. Every time I think of upgrading, I look at some of the older photos I've taken with it and forgotten about, and I just love them. I don't want a different look. However, I can't say the same about the video. I'm not a videographer, and mostly shoot b-roll kind of stuff, but I use another cheap but great camera for that: a Lumix G7. I like the video from it (and there are certainly many others like it) a lot better than the 5Dii, when not doing much post.

Scott Choucino's picture

yeah they are great cameras. I am only just getting into video and I am certainly starting to find the limitations of the 5dmk2. Although they are not big enough for me to spend any more money at this stage.

The 5D was quite incredible as well. It just took too long to handle writing the images to the CF card. If I were photographing weddings, it would be fantastic body for use as a remote camera.

Spy Black's picture

https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1238281-REG/olympus_v207051bu000_...

Lovely thing. My only criticism was slow startup and low light AF, but otherwise a photographer's camera.

Scott Choucino's picture

I've never used an olympus. Love the way they look though

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I bought this camera on your recommendation Spy Black and it's still wonderful!

Rob Mitchell's picture

I bought a box full of cheapass Canons with kit lenses. I think I paid €280 each. I used them for a year on a long term timelapse in a factory. After that I used them in various other ‘sacrificial’ situations. They are still working in other timelapse boxes stuck on buildings.
So those were by far the best sub 500 cameras I have bought. And I’m not even a Canon user.

Scott Choucino's picture

haha, I have a few 'sacrificial' cameras and lenses. Strange thing is, they are still worth a few £££ and I would never throw that much money out of the window, but with the cameras I am really lax with them.

Everytime I see this kind of titles I always hope for camera's that are REALLY under €500 not another second-hand camera review!
Sorry Fstoppers but these kind of articles have been done about 1000x times, after the first 10 I never learned anything new, next time do a real cheap camera review for chance!

Scott Choucino's picture

I don't think there is anything brand new as good as a second hand full frame camera at under £1000.

I didn't say that, did I? The thing about second hand is that u can't get every camera everywhere and in alot of countries the prices even second hand remain high.
What I also said is that I've seen articles exactly like this to many times, so maybe they should try with real cheap camera's (the release price)! For around u can buy great camera's by the way, Nikon D5600, Canon 800D, Panasonic G7, Sony A6000, Canon EOS M50, Fujifilm X-T100, Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II,... See, alot of great camera's some even with lenses!

Nicolas Thulliez's picture

5D mkII is a really good choice... as a nikon shooter, I bought a year and a half ago a D600 for 500€ and I don't regret it, the picture quality is very good...

Mark Wyatt's picture

I ended up with a "full frame" Contax iia w/Zeiss Otpon 50mm f2 Sonnar for a bit under $500 (including the CLA that brought it back to life). It competes with my much more costly Fujifilm XT-2 with 18-55mm zoom as my favorite camera. There are tons of absolutely amazing film cameras available for under $500, and I would not overlook them if the budget is truly $500.

Second to last sentence - 5D Mark II beats the newer 90D hands down.

What is it about the image quality that is better with an older FF-sensor, than a newer cropped? I own a 80D, and a range of L-lenses - but seriously considered a 2-hand FF-camera when purchasing a couple of years ago. Had serious doubts during those past years, whether I made the right choice - but comparing images online in various tests didn't convince me to miss out on the updated features on the newer camera (other than the sensor).

Scott Choucino's picture

I have no idea what it is that makes them better. I assume it is just the physical sensor size. I am really disappointed with my new crop sensor camera compared to the 5dmk2. But it has far better video features with AF etc.

Bill Lawson's picture

Funny, I just sold my Nikon D700 for $504 on eBay and bought a 5D Mark II for $440. I did not plan it that way, it just happened. If I had kept my Nikon, I could have done a comparison video for YouTube and then wrote about it here on fstoppers. Whoop woop!! lol

Still learning how to use the Canon. So far it seems pretty good.

Motti Bembaron's picture

They are both great cameras of course.