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February 5, 2014

What is the Best Camera for Under $400 Right Now?

Sony Nex-3n - Front with Flash Up

So my brother Dave called me the other day and asked “What is the best camera I can get for under $400?” The conversation was pretty lengthy after that, but it really got me thinking. Many things to consider like low light performance, lens speed, zoom, sensor size, battery type, and on and on.. Plus, I don’t have an honest answer when considering all the camera lines. I really don’t look at the $500 an under range cameras that often, but it’s a perfect time to do so, and I figured I would bring you along for the ride). Β Please keep in mind this is a highly subjective subject with all camera manufactures included in this quick investigation and what I might think is perfect, might not be what is perfect for you, etc..

So what kind of camera does my brother Dave want and/or need?

My brother Dave owns and operates a killer restaurant and catering business in Salado Texas called The Range at the Barton House. Dave has updated his website for the past few months adding photos from various events and catering parties.


The Range at the Barton House


The conversation:


What is the best camera I can get for under $400?


“What happened to your other camera?”


“It got stolen by somebody and it’s unfortunate.”


” How much money do you want to spend?”


“Preferable under $400.”


“Do you require flash?”


“Yes, most of the time the flash fires, because it’s low light and dark.”


“What exactly do you want to capture?”


“Food shots mostly, but I also want to get some behind the scenes action of the team getting ready for large events, and things of that nature.”


“Awesome! Do you want a point and shoot style camera or an interchangeable lens camera?”


“Not really sure. Whatever you think is best I guess.”


“Alright Bro, I’ll see what I can do and get back to ya ASAP.”


Camera Needs Summary

Food photography and behind the scenes HD video of the team in action is what he is looking to capture. Basically, Dave wants low-light abilities with a built in flash, and wants to shoot quality hd video. He’s a chef and businessman, so he is not looking for something overly complicated. He also does not want something so small that it can easily be lifted and put inside somebodies pocket. Image quality is ultimately what he cares about, and he wants the best for the dollar. I really was at a loss for the best camera at this price point, so I needed to do some research starting with what is even available for that amount of money. I know Sony’s line, but what about the competition?

My first thought was the Sony RX100, but it’s still too expensive, and the ultra compact design is not what my brother wants. That leads to looking at all the cameras available for under $400 US. Let’s take a quick look at the options I considered for Dave and his specific needs.


Camera Options Under $400?

In my opinion we have a few cameras to consider, but only one that I ended up recommending to my brother Dave.

Sony Nex-3n

Sony Nex-3n - Back with Screen Out

Sony Nex-3n – Back with Screen Out

– Looks like the best option in my opinion considering the 180 degree flipping rear LCD touchscreen, High Quality HD video, huge APS-C sized sensor, and easy to use Sony Nex menu system that requires little to know photography knowledge. Great for beginners, and the touchscreen is a huge bonus for point to focus and shoot picture taking. Another great thing about the Nex-3n is the inclusion of the 16-50mm powerzoom lens with the kit. This is perfect for smooth zooming while recording HD video, and Dave will be able to capture it with ease. Plus, he can get a macro lens, telephoto zoom, or an all-in-one if he wants to upgrade at some point.

My review of the Sony Nex-3n is Here, and it is currently go for only $320 @ BHPhoto | Amazon | Adorama

Sony A3000

– An option, but the lower quality fixed rear LCD screen turned me off honestly. Plus, the build quality of the A3000 is not up to the normal Sony standards in my opinion. In fact, I didn’t even bother reviewing it. It’s an entry level DSLR, but not for me or my brother in my opinion.

Sony RX100

– Too much money and also too compact, but still a great option in my opinion. My RX100 review is Here

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7

Panasonic_dmc_lx7k_Lumix_LX7_Digital_Camera-A really great camera with a super fast f/1.4 fixed lens and pretty large 1/1.7″ 10.1MP MOS sensor.Β  The build quality also looks good and it has a built-in flash plus hot shoe. I knew Dave was not going to use off camera flash ever, but the hot shoe was nice for a larger on camera flash option. The real limitation of this camera for me, was the smaller sensor and fixed lens. This was my second recommendation to Dave and it goes for as low as $244 US @ BHPhoto | Amazon | Adorama

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF6

– Amazing camera, but a bit too much money and the smaller micro 4/3rds sensor – $485 US

Olympus E-PM2

Olympus-STYLUS-XZ-2-iHS– Another great option but topping the price point at the $400 dollar mark and the rear LCD screen does not articulate. The smaller micro 4/3 sensor is very good, can’t compete with the larger APS-C sensor inside the Nex-3n.

Olympus Stylus XZ-2

– Similar to the Panasonic LX-7, the Olympus XZ-2 has a relatively large 1/1.7″ sensor and at the current price point of $299 it looks like a nice feature rich option if a fast fixed lens is preferable to you.

Canon EOS-M

-A really nice option at the current price point of $379, but the IQ is not as good as the Sony Nex-3n.

Nikon-1 S1

– small sensor



I recommend the Sony Nex-3n for best IQ and maximum versatility via e-mount lenses. If he would have rather had the point and shoot style camera, I would have recommended the Panasonic Lumix LX-7, or the Olympus Stylus XZ-2.

I know I left out a lot of possible cameras, but I was focused on the largest sensor possible and I wanted my brother to have more versatility than a point and shoot style camera could offer. So that lead into the interchangeable lens camera markets (ILC’s). When it comes to value for the dollar, Sony just can’t be beaten in my opinion. Not only that, the Sony Nex-3n dropped in price to $319 US just in time for my brother Dave to snatch it up! He loves it so far, and is currently learning the camera πŸ˜‰

Surprised at my camera choices and/or recommendations? Please let me know your thoughts on this topic below in the comments..

Thanks for checking in,


My Sony Nex-3n Review is (Click Here), and it is currently go for only $319 US @ BHPhoto | Amazon | Adorama

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  1. john

    Great article – will be helpful for many on a $500 budget –

    I agree with your pics – the NEX3n with the largest sensor for under $500 most likely – and users that are buying a camera for under $500 typically shoot in AUTO so they might not need many manual controls –
    The Fuji X20 is also a great looking camera – no AA filter and a nice fast F2.0-F2.8 aperture and range from 28-110 I believe – and the sensor is larger than most all point and shoots or 2/3rds inch – and of course the nice Fuji Colors and nice Macro mode – However it is not as compact as say the Olympus Xz-2 or the Panasonic LX7 which are also very nice cameras –
    Both the Xz-2 and the LX7 have fast lenses and similar focal range –
    I have now seen few times the Sony RX100 for $399 and few times for $499 so that would be a nice option but one would have to be patient and ready when those offers show up.
    I would say the Fuji X20 has the best looks πŸ™‚
    The focal length of the Sony NEX3n is a bit of a limitation and of course a slower lens and not as pocket-able as the LX7 or the Xz-2

    I really think the Olympus Xz-2 for $299 at BnH now should be on the top of the list –
    It has a fantastic Touch LCD with Touch To Focus and Shoot which is superb for beginners – a nice Tilt-LCD – nice art filters – nice menu system – many nice features – video is fine – although RX100 will have better video –
    Xz-2 is a bit larger then Sony RX100 which I think guys will like as for some that have large hands find the RX100 a bit small and hard to handle –
    The Xz-2 also has an ND filter for those sunny days –
    So although the NEX3n has the larger sensor and given that one can get the Sony RX100 for $499 and both will have a sensor that rates a bit higher than the others – the others have faster lens – and are cheaper –

    Yes RX100 has larger sensor than the Xz-2 so therefore a bit better Image quality – but the RX100 has no Touch LCD or a Tilt-able LCD
    I just think for a family / beginners the ability to point on the LCD where they want to focus and take picture is just such a great thing and the ability to tilt the LCD where they can take pics down low when kids on the floor etc. just outweigh the slightly better IQ –

    So 1) Olympus Xz-2 – $299
    2) Sony RX100 – one should be able to find for $499
    3) LX7 $299 is nice but no Tilt-LCD
    4) Sony NEX3n – size with lens and limited focal range bump it down

    Fuji X20 $499 if you are into retro look πŸ™‚

    • Jay

      Thank you very much John for your input and suggestions as always πŸ˜‰ Highly valued and appreciated! I must agree that the Xz-2 is a better all in one camera for a lot of people. Especially when you factor in the tilting touch and included ND filter. The RX100 is an ultra compact and my brother did not want that, but I also agree it would high on the list. #1 in fact for me personally under for under $500. I did have the Fuji X20 on the original list, but it was clearly over my brothers budget.

      IQ wise the Sony Nex-3n is the clear winner. Features, Ease of Use, and Versatility can be debated for sure and is highly subjective based on individual wants/ needs. I like the fact my brother can upgrade to a different lens at any time. I was thinking the 50mm f/1.8 OSS would be a great lens for him at some point, and of course the 30mm macro for killer close-ups of the delicious food. He has excellent lighting in the restaurant and with a tri-pod can get some seriously killer shots. I’m looking forward to helping him learn to get the most out of his investment.

      Quick question John, which camera would you recommend if video was the #1 priority with photos being secondary? Under $400 US of course πŸ˜‰

      Thanks again,

      • john

        Jay you are right – your brothers restaurant is awesome – very classy

        Best video camera under $400 ? Sony is king in video πŸ™‚ in that price range – if RX100 is to small then the NEX3n is a clear choice – neither the Panasonic or the Olympus are as good in video or IQ – in comparison with the the RX100 and NEX3n – (but have some practical sides)

        Another option is the Olympus E-PM2 for $399 now with 2 lenses – the 14-42 and the 40-150mm ( so 28-84mm and 80-300mm ) (at B&H) – The E-PM2 has the same sensor as the OMD-EM5 so a very nice sensor – DXO has the NEX3n and the E-PM2 basically at the same rating – 74/72 –
        For a faster lens the Panasonic 20mm F1.7 v2 is $386 or the
        Olympus 17mm F2.8 at $299 –
        The Sony F1.8 50mm is at $298 – which is a nice price – the only thing with the 50mm Sony lens is it is a 50mm not including crop factor so basically 75mm which might not be a practical focal length for indoors – but no doubt the Sony 50mm F1.8 will give nicer bokeh – the Olympus (17mm) F2.8 is 35mm which is much better indoors and the Panasonic (20mm) F1.7 is 40mm – one can also find the v1 of the Panasonic F1.7 20mm for around $250 –

        So for $400 and under the

        Sony will offer a bit better video and video zoom on lens and a bit more bokeh and one way tilt-LCD –
        (for extra bokeh and low light ability $298 for the 50mm F1.8 – but focal length not so practical indoors – the preferred choice would be the $448 Sony 35mm F1.8 = total of $767 )

        With the Olympus E-PM2 he would get an extra lens the 40-150mm (x2 crop 80-300) – with a Touch LCD – Touch to Focus and Touch to Shoot ( which I think is fantastic especially for non-experts )
        (for extra bokeh and low light ability $250 for the Panasonic 20mm F1.7 v1 or $386 for the 20mm F1.7 v2 = total of $649 with V1 or $767 with V2 )

        Of course the Sony NEX3n is a bit cheaper at $319 now with kit lens – over the $399 Olympus E-PM2 but he would get the extra lens –
        Both have very nice image quality for that price range –
        Both options are very similar in price – but with the E-PM2 he would get the extra lens –

        At the price tag of $767 then I would be tempted to suggest the Olympus Stylus 1 – it is larger than the RX100/m2 or about the same size as the NEX3n and E-PM2 – it has a fast F2.8 constant aperture lens and focal length is great 28-300mm –
        Awesome viewfinder – fully tilt-able LCD – Touch LCD and Touch To Shoot – nice menu system – loaded with features – and for non-pros no lens changes to worry about –
        Yes a smaller sensor but it is back lit like the Sony RX100m2 – and one can get good bokeh with it due to the focal range –

        To me the Olympus Stylus 1 is a superb family and beginner camera – as there are not lenses to worry about – no lens cap to loose – great image quality – nice Touch to Shoot – great focal range for the trips to the zoom etc etc. πŸ™‚

        So for $400 and under – I think it is a matter of him trying both the NEX3n and the E-PM2 and see which one feels better in his hand and which menu system he feels better with –

        However if we move budget up to $750-$800 I recommend the Olympus Stylus 1 – as I imagine your brother very busy with his business and not having much time to study photography much and not being patient in changing lenses – worrying about lens caps etc. πŸ™‚ and the Stylus 1 is just a killer all in one – ( of course the Sony RX10 is a bit better but double the price also ) – The Stylus also has a nice Macro mode – something that neither the NEX3n or E-Pm2 have – which might be practical in food potography.

        I do own the NEX5n and NEX7 and love the IQ (dislike the menu system) – I also own the OMD-Em5 and know that the sensor in it is superb – I also own the Fuji X20 and love it but it is $499 as well I own the RX100 and your brother thinks is to small – but I just recently bought the Olympus Stylus 1 and got it for it’s practicality – small, long focal range, viewfinder, shoot to focus and shoot – constant aperture of F2.8 – no lens changing and lens cap to worry about πŸ™‚ – of course keeping the other once –

        To bad you are not living in Texas as you then could take care of his photography πŸ™‚ –

      • Jay

        Thanks John for all the excellent info! I will reply in more detail later on today πŸ˜‰


  2. FlavioRoss

    Looks like the A5000 have a new price, its $498 now, $100 less than the expected.
    The best camera for less than $500, hands down! πŸ˜€

  3. The Sony Camera Jason recommended has worked out fabulously from my end thus far. I must confess that I am a novice. The photo’s we have taken thus far have been free hand (no tripod) and in low light conditions here at the restaurant. One of our initiatives this year is to make a better on line presence through Facebook and other social media outlets.

    Our original goal is to capture shots of some of popular items and some of our featured items. Our guests and friends have responded well to these upgraded shots, as a matter of fact they have driven traffic to our restaurant. I have posted a few shots on our Facebook Page (click Here) and I certainly welcome any feedback on how to improve the quality.

    As for the cameras overall performance, again I am a mere novice and out of the box it was intuitively easy to charge, turn on, focus and zoom. I am sure that I haven’t even scratched the surface of this cameras potential. But I can honestly tell you that I have been amazed at the quality considering the level of aptitude of the user. I look forward to improving and β€œlearning the ropes” so that we may share more with our guests and friends.

    I love the fact that this article has provoked discussion. I know going into this it would be difficult to make a recommendation and put it out there as with anything subjective. I am grateful for the insight, thanks Jay!

    • Jay

      Thanks for the comments and feedback so far Dave πŸ˜‰ I must say, your shots look awesome! I’m seriously impressed with the results your getting already! You are way to hard on yourself Bro. The images look excellent and I can totally see how that will drive business in like crazy. Fresh shots on a regular bases is a really god idea. Even if it’s the same dish, re-shoot it or use another angle so your images never re-peat. You know how people love to scroll down, and it doesn’t take long to see the same old shots. I’m not saying your doing that, just trying to offer anything that comes to my mind.

      I’m really glad you like the camera and I truly believe your results will continue to get better and better as you study the art of Photography over time. It’s really not rocket science and as you take more and more photos you will learn what works and what doesn’t work etc.. Obviously the light is always #1 on my list, and the next thing is composition. You already know all about that with your amazing dish’s that are arranged in the most eye pleasing/ balanced fashion. It’s all about balance, and you already have a great eye, so just go with what looks good in the frame. It’s digital, so take a few shots at different angles. You will be very surprised what actually looks best once you see them all later on the computer.

      I think you would really enjoy trying another lens at some point, but for now I would stick with the kit lens until you actually feel like you need something more.

      Thanks again for the comments Dave and the food is looking killer as always πŸ˜‰ Especially the The Dr. Bakers Grass fed Beef Osso-Bucco, creamy parmesan risotto, julienne veggies and natural jus!


  4. I recently faced almost the exact same budget and criteria and ended buying the NEX-3N and my second choice was the LX7 … glad to see we came up with the exact same shortlist! Having used it for a while now I think the body is almost ideal (for my needs) but the lens can be better. When I swap in a Minolta old school 50/1.4 lens the images are superb. It’s not just the speed and the sharpness but a quality that the photos are more ‘alive’ compared to the kit lens. It’s too bad that the focal length of 50 is too long for most indoor situations.

    Probably my ideal day to day combo would be the 3N body with Sony/Zeiss 24/1.8. It’s too bad the Zeiss is so far out of reach in price and there’s nothing similar at a lower price. The used Minolta 24/2.8 still goes for some $200+! May be the Sigma 19/2.8? Haven’t tried that.

    The 3N doesn’t get much love from enthusiasts as they tend to prefer the 5 and the 6, RX100, as well as other Fuji, Olympus, Pani, etc. They don’t seem to realize all those other ones are 1.5x to 3x the price of the 3N. Within $350-450, I only found the 3N and LX7 to be suitable.

    • Jay

      Hi Derek and thanks for the comments πŸ˜‰ It is nice to see that we both came up with the same short list! I feel pretty good about my choices and even better after the comments from you all. The lens can certainly be better, but for the average user coming from a point and shoot, it’s still a huge upgrade we need to remember. I personally like the 18-55mm better, but that is not very good for video. The 16-50 PZ is great for video and when turned off, closes down to almost pancake size. It’s a compromise for sure, but a pretty reasonable one in my opinion. Especially for the cost!

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