Looking for a first camera for your kid? You don't want to risk your expensive camera or cellphone. Instead, you need a camera that's cheap enough but which still takes decent pictures. We've tested and rated more than a dozen cheap cameras costing less than $150 to see which one best fits that bill.
After testing and evaluating these cameras based on image-quality features and ease of use, our favorite cheap camera is the Sony DSC-W800; it costs less than $90 yet turns out good-quality images and has a 5x optical zoom.
You also might want to check out our roundup of instant cameras, many of which also cost less than $150.
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- Fujifilm's new Instax Mini LiPlay instant camera ($159) can not only take photos, but record a sound clip at the same time. It will then add a QR code on the printed photo. When you scan that QR code, you'll be brought to a site where you can listen to the audio the camera captured. However, in our review of the Instax Mini LiPlay, we found its controls to be convoluted, and the audio capture gimmicky.
- Canon has come out with its own instant cameras: The IVY Cliq ($99) and IVY Cliq+ ($159) have built-in Zink printers, so you can see your finished photos in seconds. The Cliq+ has a microSD card slot, so you can store digital copies of your photos, and can connect to Canon's mobile app, which lets you control the camera remotely and print photos from your smartphone. It also has an 8-LED ring light, to better illuminate subjects.
Best cheap camera overall
The Sony DSC-W800 is our top budget camera because it delivers good image quality in a compact package, measures just 2.1 x 2 x 0.9 inches when turned off, and weighs 3.5 ounces. However, it’s easy to inadvertently put your fingers over the flash.
When you turn it on, the lens telescopes out of the front, offering a 5x zoom that’s good enough to capture photos of a friend from a distance. It shoots 20.1-megapixel images that are saved to a (not included) SD card that fits alongside the slim battery. The 2.7-inch liquid-crystal display screen is a decent size, but looks blocky and is very hard to see in direct sunlight.
Images captured by the W800 have strong color and detail when you are shooting in bright light. In our sample photo, you can see lots of detail in my dog's coat and even a reflection of me in his eye. The quality quickly falls off as the light level drops, though; nighttime and indoor shots with no flash have dull color and show grain.
Still, $90 gets you a very portable camera that can shoot attractive images. For those looking for a wallet-friendly step up from a cellphone camera, it's the one to get.
Great step-up model
If you have a few more bucks to spend, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W830 packs a surprising amount of features into a small package, including high-definition video, panoramic images and a long 8x zoom lens. When you turn it on, the lens telescopes out from the front into three sections, but the assembly feels rather fragile. The DSC-W830 also has gaps that could collect grains of sand or dirt, jamming the camera. In fact, our review model had a bit of dust stuck in the lens mechanism that showed up as a black shadow on zoomed-in images.
The 2.7-inch screen on the back is clear and fairly sharp, but is rather hard to see in direct sunlight and lacks a touch screen. Instead, you get a selection of buttons and sliding switches, such as a three-position slider for camera, panorama or video-shooting mode. The zoom control at the top of the camera back is small but well-placed for one-handed shooting – you can zoom using your thumb and still reach the shutter with your index finger to take a photo.
The W830 captured excellent images (apart from the dust), with strong color and good detail. The images did get a little soft at the end of the zoom range, though. In our sample shot of a whale diving, you can see that some of the waves at the edge of the frame are a little fuzzy, while the whale's tail itself is nice and sharp.
Best budget zoom
The Elph 190 IS has a telescoping lens that offers an impressive 10x zoom range, from a 24mm-equivalent wide angle to a very long, 240mm-equivalent telephoto. That's long enough to capture the dimples on a celebrity's face before the security guards drag you away. The zoom control is a ring around the shutter button, so it's easy to frame your shot, then quickly take it without moving your hand.
This camera is one of the cheapest we have seen that includes Wi-Fi, which can be used to send images to a smartphone, as well as to Facebook, Twitter and cloud services such as Google Drive. It's a neat way to back up your images without using a laptop.
Image stabilization works quite well on the wider zoom settings, but not at the longer zoom ones. We did find that the smooth plastic case of the 190 IS was rather slippery. Its 2.7-inch LCD screen is crisp, but difficult to see in direct sunlight.
Both images and video (720p max) are excellent, with fine details accurately captured and bright, but not overly vivid, color.
If your adventures include the outdoors, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS30 might be for you. It's a tough little camera that can handle up to 26 feet of water and drops from up to 5 feet onto hard surfaces. It will also keep shooting in the cold: Panasonic claims it will keep working in temperatures as low as to 14 degrees Fahrenheit, so it can handle all but the most hard-core skiing and snowing adventures. The screen isn't great, though: It looks blocky and pale compared with more expensive cameras.
The DMC-TS30 shoots 16.1-MP images and includes a 4x optical zoom, good enough for group shots or picking out a pine marten on a branch. The pictures it captures are good, but not great: The color was rather flat and became rather noisy in low light. Still, that's an acceptable compromise for a camera that can survive your adventures and won't bankrupt you if you drop it in raging rapids. The device doesn't float, so make sure you use the included wrist strap, or it could end up sleeping with the fishes.
FZ stands for Friendly Zoom, and it's a good name for Kodak's well-priced, simple camera. This small device (3.6 x 2.2 x 0.9 inches) has a great selection of features for the price, including a 5x zoom lens, 16-MP sensor and 720p video. Its 2.7-inch LCD screen isn't overly bright, but is good enough to use at the beach with a shading hand. One irritation is that the camera switches to a slow-speed preview mode in low light, so you get an updated image only every half second or so.
The FZ53 offers a good range of shooting modes, including several scene modes, a burst mode (albeit at just one frame per second) and a time-lapse mode that automatically takes photos at 30-second or 10-minute intervals. There's also a manual mode, which lets you change the exposure by adding exposure compensation. It's not as powerful as the full manual mode of more sophisticated cameras, but it does allow more control than most cheap cameras.
The images the PixPro FZ53 captures have clean, accurate color and good detail, especially macro shots. With the zoom on the longer settings, the images become somewhat soft and fuzzy, though, especially at the edges of the frame.
If you are looking for a cheap camera that can handle most tasks but you don't want to spend too much, the FZ43 is a good value. Just don't expect cutting-edge technology; it takes 16-MP images, has a 4x zoom and features a clean, bright 2.7-inch LCD screen. The FZ43 is powered by two AA batteries, which don't last long; ours ran out after a day's worth of moderate use.
Photos taken with the FZ43 were good, with sharp details and bright but not overwhelming color. We did find that, like many cheap cameras, the image quality dropped at the longer end of the zoom range, with fine details getting a little lost in a soft haze at the edge of the frame. Still, it's a great bargain for those who want a simple camera to take snaps of the kids (or to let the kids take snaps) at the beach without worrying too much if the device falls in the sea.
Good instant camera
As you might expect with the Polaroid name, the Snap is all about immediate gratification. Built into the Snap is a printer: After you've taken a photo, a copy pops out of the side of the camera in about a minute. A pack of 30 pieces of the special photo paper it uses will cost you about $15, so each print costs less than 50 cents. The Zink print paper it uses is also available in a variety of colors, so it's great for scrapbooking or as a pass-around camera at a party.
Apart from printing, it's a very basic camera. You get a fixed focus and focal length lens (no zoom), nor do you get an LCD screen or any way to view the 10-MP images it captures. Images are stored on a micro-SD card and can be transferred to PC over the included USB cable.
The only buttons on the camera are the shutter, a 10-second delay shutter, the print button and a mode button that switches between normal color, vivid color and black and white. You frame the photos through a pop-up optical viewfinder, which also turns the camera on.
The digital images captured by the Snap had reasonable levels of detail, but colors were rather flat.
The Elph 180 is the predecessor to the Elph 190 and costs less, but has a shorter 8x zoom lens, no Wi-Fi and no optical image stabilization. You still get a pretty good camera that shoots 20-MP images and 720p video, plus a digital-image-stabilization system that compensates for small hand movements.
Images taken by the Elph 180 have attractive color and a good amount of detail. But, like most cheap cameras, images suffer at night; they become grainy and bleached out.
The choice of this model or the Elph 190 depends on how much you want the extra features: the wider zoom is a definite plus of the more expensive camera, and the Wi-Fi is a handy feature to have. But, if you don't want or need those features, the Elph 180 is a good, lower-cost pick.