The best cheap cameras still offer features that make them worth owning for specific uses, even now that the best camera phones can compete on picture quality.
For instance, they can be a great option for kids or those learning about photography and they're also a great choice if you need rugged or underwater capabilities. And of course they're a great option if you're going somewhere where you don't want to risk your pricy smartphone — or at least not risk taking it out of your pocket often. After all, dropping a $70 camera down the side of a mountain won't bother you as much as losing a $700 phone.
Our picks for the best cheap cameras include both digital cameras and instant cameras, the latter of which will print out a photo just seconds after you take it, and all cost less than $160.
What are the best cheap cameras?
After testing and evaluating a number of models, the Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-W800 is our pick of the best cheap cameras; it costs around $100 yet turns out good-quality images, and has a 5X optical zoom (the equivalent of a 35-130mm zoom lens), which should help you get closer to the action. If you want to spend a few more bucks, the Sony DSC-W830 has an 8X optical zoom.
The W800 has a 20.1MP image sensor, which performed well in most situations, and a fairly large 2.7-inch LCD display on the rear. However, there's no viewfinder, so you'll have to rely on the screen to frame your shots.
We also liked the compactness of the W800; at 2.1 x 2 x 0.9 inches, and weighing a mere 3.5 ounces, this camera easily slid into our pocket, making it a great travel companion.
If you want a camera that can survive a few bumps and spills, we suggest you check out the $127 Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS30. This rugged shooter can handle being submerged in up to 26 feet of water and can withstand drops from up to 5 feet onto hard surfaces. It also has a 4X optical zoom, and is slim enough for almost any pocket. And, it's available in one of three colors: blue, black, or red.
Most instant cameras also cost less than $160, which qualifies them for the best cheap cameras list; we have a couple here, but you should also check out our roundup of the best instant cameras.
The Sony DSC-W800 sits atop our best cheap cameras list 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.
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. It’s also easy to inadvertently put your fingers over the flash.
Images captured by the W800 have strong color and detail when you're shooting in bright light. The quality quickly falls off as the light level drops, though; night time and indoor shots with no flash have dull color and show grain.
Still, $100 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. Just be aware that Sony appears to be gradually phasing it out, so buy now before it's too late.
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 touchscreen. 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.
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. It's certainly the toughest option among our best cheap cameras picks.
The DMC-TS30 shoots 16.1MP 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. The screen isn't great, either: it looks blocky and pale compared with more expensive cameras. Still, they're acceptable compromises 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. Be sure to check out all of our picks for the best rugged and waterproof cameras.
If you want to get close — really, really close — to a subject for less, then the Kodak PixPro AZ421 could be the ticket. This budget camera has a 42X zoom lens, the equivalent of a 24-1008mm lens for a 35mm camera, which means you should be about to see the Moon in all its glory, or capture wildlife from afar.
The PixPro AZ421 has a 3.0-inch 460k-dot rear LCD display (but no touchscreen), optical image stabilization (though you'll still want a tripod), and an ISO range of 80-3200. There are some compromises: its f/stop range is limited, from f/3 to f/6.8, and it can record video at a max of 720p.
The Kodak Smile is one of the best cheap cameras, and one of the better instant cameras, too. Simple but effective, the Kodak Smile prints out your images on Zink paper; we didn't like the quality as much as other instant cameras, but the Smile's were good for the price.
We liked the Smile's simple slide-to-open mechanism, though it takes a few seconds longer than most other instant cameras to ready itself for the first shot. However, the Kodak Smile also lets you store images on a microSD card, and unlike other instant cameras, the Smile doesn't force you to print out every photo you take. Considering photo paper isn't the cheapest, this will save you a lot of money in printing costs if you have a happy trigger finger.
Read our full Kodak Smile review.(opens in new tab)
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 for using 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 10MP 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.
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 16MP 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.
How to choose the best cheap camera
When shopping for a cheap camera, you need to consider your needs. There are a lot of cheap cameras, but a cheap camera isn't always the same as a good value camera.
For starters, cameras that cost less than $150 aren't going to provide the same quality images as those that cost even $50 to $100 more. In fact, many of the newest smartphones will be able to take better photos. However, for kids and those who just want a cheap camera to knock around, image quality should be just fine. In our tests, cheap cameras from Canon and Sony have produced the best photos.
While many cheap cameras have rear displays, often times they're not touchscreens, so you'll have to use the camera's physical buttons. It's a minor inconvenience for those used to large smartphone touchscreens.
If you're planning to take the camera on outdoor adventures, you'll want a camera that can survive getting wet, as well as a few drops onto rocks or some other hard surface.