An observer from childhood, I always wanted to capture the little moments. What started with trying to hold fleeting images in my short-time memory turned into a marathon-snapshots fest with my camera.
Anyways, as a long-time mirrored camera user, I didn't let myself get swept in the new-and-coming mirrorless wave.
I remember my skepticism pouring in all directions when I heard about the technology at first. Similar to most professional photographers, I wasn't willing to believe that the new kid on the block has got what it takes.
Well, as you can see, mirrorless cameras took the industry by storm, and now, they're going nowhere. Still, mirrorless cameras can bite off a massive chunk from your wallet if you're not sure about what you want.
If you're a budding photographer who wants to walk down the budget-aisle, you can always go for an inexpensive camera. However, knowing what separates the best mirrorless camera under $500 from a cheap knockoff is a tall hill to climb.
So, I would like to shed some light on this matter and show you where to direct your lens when you're going to buy a mirrorless camera.
Top Mirrorless Cameras Under $500
As I've mentioned earlier, I had an off-and-on relationship with many mirrorless cameras over the years. However, not all of them made this list. When I was scratching out names, many deserving cameras had to go because the ones who came out on top made it by an inch.
Hence, it's time I explain my rationale behind choosing these particular cameras and how it can help you as well.
1. Sony Alpha a5100
Sensor: APS-C | Megapixels: 24MP | Lens mount: Sony E | Display: 3" tilting, 922k dots | Viewfinder: EVF | Wi-Fi: Yes | Touch Screen: Yes | Maximum continuous shooting: 6fps | 4K Video: No
I've already told you about my bulging skepticism against mirrorless technology. When I didn't want to let the mirrorless wave take me in, I tried to resist it with everything I have. However, my first defeat came in the hands of Sony a5100. I could say- the Sony a5100 is what made me jump into the mirrorless bandwagon.
As a hardened DSLR user, I was extremely critical of this camera when I first got it. I was shooting complaints from all sides until I let myself cool down to understand the camera's true potential. For starters, the picture quality is de facto way crispier than I expected. The work of the 24mp APS-C sensor is a sight to behold.
If you take pictures under good lighting conditions, this little device can give even the big-shot cameras a run for their money. I've clicked around 500 shots in optimal lighting conditions. The results? I was impressed with more than 85% of the snaps. Also, the 175 AF points is a boon for beginners.
For those who are not familiar with the jargon here, AF points mean auto-focus points. It determines the amount of time it takes to focus on an object in front of the screen. Just remember the rule of thumb- the greater the AF numbers, the better and quicker the focus.
Even in low light, I found the picture quality more than satisfactory. The ISO range of 100-25000 is massive and helped me capture the details of a scenario even in poor lighting conditions.
Also, the weight of the a5100 is what truly made me fall in love with it. After taking this less-than-1lbs little device, I understood why people- especially casual-to-intermediate photographers- were aborting the DSLR ship.
So, the Sony a5100 is as light as a camera can get until technology takes another momentous leap. This camera can be your perfect travel buddy if you're into hiking and want to take a couple of mesmerizing shots during the trip.
There is another nifty file-transfer feature. After taking a few snaps, I could connect the camera to my cellphone via Wi-Fi and post my pictures on Instagram or Facebook. Although this on-the-go picture posting is not everyone's cup of tea, it's an incredible addition for vloggers and influencers.
Now that we're into vlogging. There's a plus and a huge minus here. The good news is the flip-screen option. Whenever I wanted to record myself with the camera and wanted to see if I look alright, I could simply flip the LCD screen 180-degrees.
However, there's only the screen but no viewfinders at all. As a professional, I would've preferred at least an optical viewfinder. The no-viewfinder issue makes it a sort of point-and-shoot camera.
The biggest dent in the otherwise impeccable armor of the Sony a5100 is video shooting. It's not about the quality. There are two different resolutions- 1080 x 720 and 1920 x 1080. While the former allows a 60 fps fast-paced video recording, the latter is for a more cinematic 24fps.
So, the issue here is- the camera begins overheating after a recording for around 35 to 40 minutes. Although the label says it can hold up to 75 minutes, that's not the case. So, if you're into creating elaborate YouTube videos, the a5100 won't be much of a help.
However, this camera is an excellent grab for beginners when it comes to taking beautiful snaps and short videos.
2. Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III
Sensor: Micro Four Thirds(MFT) | Megapixels: 16MP | Lens mount: MFT | Display: 3" tilting, 1,040k dots | Viewfinder: EVF | Wi-Fi: Yes | Touch Screen: Yes | Maximum continuous shooting: 8.6 fps | 4K Video: Yes
Once the Sony a5100 took away my undue paranoia of mirrorless cameras, I began testing other cameras as well. However, for a long time, I couldn't find anything I liked better than the a5100 until I got a hold of the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III.
Before I let you in on all the details, let me highlight the stand-out feature of this camera. I enjoyed using the E-M10 Mark III more than the Sony a5100 because of the image stabilization. At first, I thought it was just a cash-grab stunt to rake in more customers. However, as I kept taking one shot after another, I realized the image stabilization really kicks in and enhances the picture quality.
So, I'd say this camera can make even complete beginners feel like award-winning photographers thanks to the image stabilization. Most cameras struggle to keep the picture distortion-free in lowlight conditions. However, the E-M10 Mark III can blow most of its competitors out of the water by capturing some incredible snaps even in terrible lighting.
I've traveled with this camera for a while, and the weight didn't bother me at all. Although it's a little heavier (0.28 to be exact) than the Sony a5100, it's manageable, and most people don't even notice the difference. You can get a strap for the camera to make your life easier.
However, the resolution of E-M10 Mark III is 16 megapixels compared to a5100's 24.3. I know what you're thinking because I had the same thought as well. If the resolution is low, the pictures are destined to be crappy, right? No! With a max ISO range of 25600 combined with image stabilization, a built-in flash, and 121 auto-focus points- this camera can take 330 amazing snaps in one go.
Also, unlike the a5100, this camera actually has an electronic viewfinder. People who simply shoot indoors don't feel the impact of an electronic viewfinder.
But once you're outside and the sun's acting all mighty, it becomes nearly impossible to look at the LCD screen. So, the viewfinder helps you during an outdoor photoshoot.
What truly sets the E-M10 Mark III apart is the excellent video quality and battery backup. I could go on for 1.5 hours or more before the camera ran out of battery.
Also, the auto-focus is precise, which made the transition from one point to another look seamless. You can either try the 4k or 1080HD. While the former records at 30fps, the latter has an incredible speed of 120 fps.
However, the E-M10 Mark III is not free from its faults. The camera body doesn't support an external microphone. So, you're stuck with the internal mic. Also, the LCD screen tilts a bit but doesn't flip. So, vlogging can seem a bit difficult. Still, the unbelievable battery life makes up for all the little quality-of-life shortcomings.
So, apart from a few ignorable blemishes, the Olympus E-M10 Mark III is definitely a forerunner for wearing the title of the best mirrorless camera under $500.
3. Canon EOS M100
Sensor: APS-C | Megapixels: 24MP | Lens mount: Canon EF-M | Display: 3" tilting, 1,040k | Viewfinder: None | Wi-Fi: Yes | Touch Screen: Yes | Maximum continuous shooting: 6.1fps | 4K Video: No
Whenever I wanted to scout for a budget mirrorless camera, the best deal I could squeeze out after hours of searching is just the camera body for $400-$450 without any lens. If you do some research yourself, you'll see that only camera bodies are priced around $500. That's why when I saw the Canon EOS M100 sporting a free 15-45mm kit lens, I immediately got my hands on it.
While most of Canon's signature cameras are way out of a budget hunter's league, Canon took a different route with the EOS M100. I must tell you I was a bit skeptical because of this supposed new approach of a reputed manufacturer. So, the moment I got the camera, I took it for a quick ride.
The quick shooting session was done in auto-mode just to see whether beginners can take advantage of this device. I was surprised with the performance, to be honest. While there were a few background noises and distortions, you could overcome them with either basic editing skills or a steady hand.
It has a 24.2-megapixel sensor, which is more than enough for taking beautiful pictures. However, the lack of AF points (49 to be precise) makes it a little uncomfortable for newbies. You can work around the auto-focus point issue by taking more time to prepare before taking a snap.
Another feature to look out for when a deal seems too good to be true is the build quality. Again, an average kit lens costs around $150, so I had to make sure that while Canon was giving one away for free, they didn't beat the performance out of the camera body.
My verdict here is that the build-quality is moderate. It's not on par with the rugged DSLRs or the high-end mirrorless cameras, but the body will last for a long time under steady and caring hands.
So, the picture quality is excellent- the build is reasonable- where's the poop? The letdown of the EOS M100 is video quality and duration similar to the Sony a5100. This camera can hold up to 15 minutes of continuous recording before dying out. So, if your target is videography, you should steer clear from this camera.
Another shortcoming of this camera hits the professionals harder than the casuals. Canon decided to put the shutter speed priority and aperture priority controls on the virtual menu instead of keeping it on the circular control dial outside. While you can get over this by custom control adjustments, it's just not something a pro wants to see.
Still, the Canon EOS M100 is what beginners should try out when they're going for a mirrorless camera. A camera body + kit lens costs around $650-$700. But this camera puts them both together under $500, which is too good of a deal to look past.
4. Sony RX100
Sensor: 1-inch | Megapixels: 20MP | Lens mount: fixed lens | Display: 3" fixed, 1,229k dots
| Viewfinder: None | Wi-Fi: No | Touch Screen: No | Maximum continuous shooting: 10fps | 4K Video: No
Although I am a professional, sometimes it's a breath of fresh air to try the amateur cameras once in a while. I tried to find a casual mirrorless camera that wouldn't have pro-features, but the picture quality and performance would still be worthwhile for weekend photographers. After some digging, I came across the Sony RX100, and I don't think you can beat this camera when it comes to point-and-shoot.
So, I thought the 20.2 MP sensor wouldn't take crisp pictures, and I was prepared to witness the horror. However, I was pleasantly surprised with the results. There are some distortions and noise in the picture, though. If you put the images of this camera next to the images taken by a big-shot camera, you'll probably see the difference. Still, I can't hold it against the Sony RX100 because it's inexpensive.
The other boon of this camera is the pop-up flash. I know a lot of pros would sneer at the thought of a pop-up flash because of the terrible light it gives. But for a casual person who wants the pictures as a reminder of good times, would love to have a portable flash.
I know I labeled it as a casual camera, but it doesn't mean the manufacturer stripped out all the professional features. For instance, I could control the ISO, adjust the shutter priority and aperture priority. It does have a professional touch, even though it's little.
There's a built-in styling feature that helps beginners to edit the pictures. It's almost similar to an Instagram or Snapchat filter, where you can adjust the image according to your liking. I mostly used the B&W option. Not because it's better than the other settings, it's just in my nature to prioritize black.
The video quality of RX100 is something to write home about. While it can keep recording for a long time, unlike the a5100 or EOS M100, it doesn't go beyond the 1080p resolution benchmark. The recording is not truly 60 fps as there are some minor hiccups when quick transitions happen from one frame to another.
The RX100 does a lot of things right, but Sony can do so much when they're tied to a budget pole. For starters, the lens is stationary. Once you get this camera, you can't change the lens. It's a one-time deal. Although the lens is extendable, it's not changeable.
Another drawback is the absence of a viewfinder. I know casual photographers don't need a viewfinder. But it's still nice to have one at hand. Most LCDs reflect sunlight, blinding you momentarily and making it hard to look at the screen.
However, the RX100 is an excellent camera for people who want to walk the casual lane instead of taking the professional highway. It's cheap, portable, sturdy, and takes 330 shots before running out of juice- a stellar mirrorless camera for the price.
5. PANASONIC LUMIX GX85
Sensor: Micro Four Thirds(MFT) | Megapixels: 16MP | Lens mount: MFT | Display: 3" tilting, 1,040k dots | Viewfinder: EVF | Wi-Fi: Yes | Touch Screen: Yes | Maximum continuous shooting: 8fps | 4K Video: Yes
Before I get into the meat of this, I should mention that a completely new version of this camera will cost you around $650. Hear me out. I know I'm supposed to stick to under-$500 mirrorless cameras.
But the PANASONIC LUMIX GX85 is an incredible camera to look past. So, to overcome the budget issue here- either choose a renewed or barely used camera. Even if it's not new, trust me- it's worth every penny.
If you've paid a little attention to the reviews above, you probably saw a pattern. Apart from the Olympus E-M10 Mark III, no other mirrorless cameras on this list are able to take snaps or record in 4K resolution. Well, the Panasonic LUMIX GX85 stands proud, next to the Olympus Mark III, as another 4K-enabled mirrorless camera.
It's not just the 4K resolution that has me rooting for this camera. As you can see, I've kept it in my list though the camera is not a true under-$500. There's got to be a better reason than the 4K, right? Yes, there is- what complements the GX85's high-resolution shots are the IBIS or in-body image stabilization.
When you take a 4K video or snap in a not-so-satisfactory camera, you'll see that a bit of shake can ruin the entire picture. However, this doesn't happen to the GX85. The focus of this camera is an absolute beauty. Even if you don't have a surgeon's steady hand, you can click crispy clear pictures with it.
Also, unlike the a5100 or the EOS M100, this mirrorless camera can record 4K videos for longer than an hour. Although many people want more oomph from the battery, that's a lot for a camera held back by a budget leash. Besides, the transitions don't affect the quality much- so moving-and-shooting is on the menu.
The GX85 has a ton of pro features to play with as well. While most mirrorless cameras like the RX100 lack advanced features, this camera has enough to keep an expert photographer occupied. I took it along with me in three different wedding programs, and it held its own against my other high-end cameras.
However, every superman has a kryptonite, and it's not any different with the GX85 too. One annoying little drawback is the absence of an external microphone port. Having 4K resolution for videography without an external mic-port seems a bit counter-intuitive. Still, the internal mic is not too shabby.
The viewfinder doesn't help the cause either. I didn't notice it initially. But after going at it for a few hours, I realized my eyes weren't having it anymore. So, the EVF on this camera is not as comfortable as one would want it to be.
Still, when all is said and done, the GX85 deserves the title of being the best mirrorless camera under $500. I know a new Panasonic GX85 costs around $650-$700, but you can get a renewed or barely-used version for $450-ish. Doesn't matter if it's new or old; until it's not broken, it's a kickass camera.
A Buying Guide For My Readers Who Want to Research
I have a process before buying anything with a budget constraint. I ask myself- am I getting close to what I want or at least close to it? When it comes to budget hunting, you're not going to get a ton of features, and there's always going to a problem.
The target is to assess your wants from the get-go before commencing the hunt. For that, I've put down a list of features I like to keep an eye on before I decide on a budget camera.
Resolution (Obvious but Important)
I know it is kind of a no-brainer, but I would like to get this out of the way before looking into the more intricate features. The resolution everybody wants to party with in the 21st century is 4K. However, it's not always possible when money is in short supply.
So, realistically speaking, the best option you have is 1980 x 1080p or Full HD. You'll find some cameras with lower resolution ratings like 1280 x 720p or 640 x 480, but they're ancient. So, there's no point in getting a low-res camera because most cellphones can do a better job.
The minimum resolution threshold for a quality mirrorless camera should be 1080p or Full HD. If you see anything lower, do yourself a favor and move on.
Build Quality is Top Priority
Let me get this off my chest. No matter how many hours you spend searching, it's nearly impossible to get top-notch build when there's a budget leash. Even the best budget mirrorless camera can't match up to a high-end camera in this department.
That doesn't mean you have to settle for some plastic trash. You can still get a decent and sturdy mirrorless camera if you know where to look. However, most budget cameras are going to have a little bit of plastic either at the bottom or around the viewfinder area. I know it's a bummer, but it's something we budget hunters have got to live with.
So, the goal here is to find a compact mirrorless camera that's comfortable to hold. All the camera's I've talked about are ergonomic, and I used them for hours on end without any hiccups.
AF Points (The More the Merrier)
AF points or auto-focus points should be on every beginner's radar. Although people who are used to photography don't need to worry about it, it's still nice to have because it takes the load off.
AF points become visible in the LCD screen or the viewfinder once you gently press the shutter. Depending on the brand you're using, you'll see dots, circles, or boxes hovering over the image.
The hovering pointers are AF points. AF points help the camera find and concentrate on a subject and keep it free from distortion or noise. Usually, the camera AI takes the decision for you, and the AF points hover around an area, mostly the center. However, you can play with it and steer the camera your way.
Besides, more AF points will help you take sudden snaps. Excessive movement is difficult to capture because the camera can't focus properly on moving subjects. However, if your camera has a lot of AF points, it takes less time to laser down on a subject, ergo clicks a crispy clear picture even when the subject is moving.
Professional Features Can Help You Up Your Game
If you're a casual memory bagger, chances are, you don't even give a dime about pro features in a camera. That's alright. I have a lot of friends who don a camera just for fun. However, it's still good to have a camera with professional features. You may not use them, but a camera with pro features is always a cut above the camera without them.
So, the first thing to look out for is a viewfinder. The viewfinder is located above the LCD screen and is the tiny mirror a photographer uses to look at the subjects of his/her photo. Although an LCD seems more convenient, nothing beats the detail of a viewfinder.
Most budget mirrorless cameras don't have a viewfinder, though. Don't worry. You can work without it too. However, if you ever feel like stepping into the expert-zone, get a camera with a viewfinder.
Renewed/Barely Used Paradigm (Use it to Your Advantage)
If you're up to speed by now, you know I've listed a camera that goes beyond the $500 threshold. Yes- I'm talking about the Panasonic GX85. There is a twofold reason I decided to keep the GX85. Firstly, it's an incredible camera, and even getting a used version is often worth the investment. Secondly, I wanted to introduce you to this "renewed/barely used" scenario.
Honestly, mirrorless cameras are pretty expensive. And the cheap ones can't even match up to most high-end cellphones. So, the wise practice is to look for used high-end cameras. You can get them for nearly half the price. Plus, if it's in good condition, you've hit the jackpot.
So, be on the prowl for used mirrorless cameras. If you take this into account, you'll see that an entirely new world of opportunities has just opened its doors for you. I know there's a certain degree of risk to it. That's why you look for deals where you can get your money back if you find a critical flaw.
Keep an Eye Out for Accessories
When you get a camera, you just get the body, not the lenses. Sometimes, you won't even get the batteries as well. So, any and every accessory you get is a massive bonus. Remember- the investment required for camera accessories (especially lenses) can leave your wallet high and dry.
Canon EOS M100 is the only camera on this list that comes along with a kit lens. Although the kit lens resides in the bottom rung of the lens-ladder, it's still expensive. So, if there's an attached kit lens, my advice would be to look past a few quality issues of the camera body and get the package. Why? Because you probably won't get another combo-pack.
Vloggers Should Keep Battery Power on Their Checklist
In most cases, I am not really fussy about how long the camera battery lasts. However, this can become a serious headache for videographers. For instance, the Sony a5100 and Canon EOS M100 can only hold out for 15-20 minutes tops. That's a low bar even for a budget mirrorless camera. However, both these cameras are top contenders when it comes to clicking stills.
So, if you want to start a YouTube channel or already have one but want a better camera for recording, battery life should be a consideration second to none. The Panasonic GX85 or Olympus Mark III can be your weapon of choice when it comes to video recording.
Besides, you can look out for cameras with an external mic-outlet for better audio quality. While you can work with an internal mic, battery power is not something to overlook for videographers.
Are Mirrorless Cameras Under $500 Worth it?
Let me start with a hard-to-swallow truth pill. High-end equipment that requires big bucks is always going to be better than the budget alternative. It's not just limited to cameras. Think about a washing machine, a car, a bike, a laptop. The core principle always remains the same.
However, it doesn't mean you can't, with your own skills, outperform another person with superior gear. So, before you assess the potential of a mirrorless camera, you should create a list of what you want from it. Put that list next to the promises made by the camera, and the answer will become clear as day.
Still, I would like to point out that newbies will have a lovely time with a budget-friendly mirrorless camera. Why? Well, for starters, most beginners won't know the difference.
The untrained eye can't differentiate between the budget and the high-end camera. You can get a feel for it by looking at its build-quality and lens. But there would be so many intricate features a beginner won't be able to understand.
So, if you're someone who wants to enter into the enigmatic world of photography, a mirrorless camera under $500 should be right up your alley. Besides, mirrorless technology has come so far that even budget cameras can work magic.
If you're worried about winning a local photography competition or getting noticed by a gallery-owner, don't sweat it. Trust me- an inexpensive mirrorless camera can get you there as well. Also, these cameras are perfect for people who don't want to go the professional route but capture priceless family moments.
So, what's the catch behind a budget mirrorless camera? For me, it would be build-quality. There are other issues as well, but build-quality tops the chart. A high-end camera can hold the line against adverse weather or even moderate drops. However, a budget mirrorless camera can't withstand rough thrashings.
I know what you're thinking. But know this- it's unfair to expect a plate full of features when there's a budget-leash holding the manufacturer back.
If you're still wondering whether an under-$500 mirrorless camera is worth it, chew on this- even the Excalibur would fail if one doesn't know how to wield it. So, my advice is- get your game up with a budget-camera, and if you see more opportunity, you can always bag the high-end camera with some investment.
Done and Dusted
I've already explained how hard it is to get a top-notch mirrorless camera when money is tight. However, if you're open to getting a used camera, there is a whole range of opportunities.
Still, the smart thing to do is not to let your expectations get out of hand. Keep your feet grounded, be realistic, and you'll be good to go. Don't let this warning get to your head, though. With the best mirrorless camera under $500 under your belt, you can still do semi-professional photography or win local competitions provided that you have the lenses.
And before you drown in despair, remember this- a picture's worth a thousand words. A camera is just another tool for assistance. It's YOU who has the power to bring an image to life, cheers!