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We've updated this guide for 2012 here. Check out the Affordable System Cameras for Aspiring Photographers!
When photography starts to become a real hobby, sometimes a point-and-shoot just isn't good enough. Thankfully, stepping up to a serious camera is easy and affordable these days. Most of the big camera brands make interchangeable-lens cameras designed for entry-level or step-up users, so serious photography doesn’t need to feel intimidating.
We’ve picked a handful of budget-friendly and user-friendly DSLRs and compact system cameras, all of which capture top-notch photos and offer the hands-on control that photography enthusiasts need—at a price that’s easier on the wallet.
The Nikon D3100 is an excellent, no-nonsense starter DSLR. It’s small by DSLR standards, but the handling is still fantastic. It has fewer dials and a smaller viewfinder than some of its more expensive peers, but it’s everything that a step-up photographer needs in a camera. It can be found for about $550, including a kit lens. The Canon Rebel T2i is another great entry-level DSLR with similar features and similar performance, despite being over a year old.
Mirrorless compact system cameras have been around for a few years, and the genre is starting to mature. Don't let the newfangled technology intimidate you—all that means is that manufacturers are developing methods of squeezing quality out of a more compact size. These cameras have as much in common with point-and-shoots as they do with serious cameras. Budding enthusiasts who want to experiment with manual control and interchangeable lenses without the bulk of a DSLR should look at the Panasonic Lumix GF3 or Olympus PEN E-PM1. Both retail for around $500, including kit lenses.
For just a few hundred dollars more than a bottom-end DSLR, you can get higher-end features and more serious performance. These mid-range cameras are a great deal and are just as user-friendly to the entry-level user. The Nikon D5100 is a notch up from the D3100, offering better image quality, autofocus, and handling than its little brother, all for about $750, including a lens. We even called it our Camera of the Year in 2011. Sony’s fixed-mirror SLT-A55 model is one of the fastest cameras out there, great for shooting action.