Your Budget Friendly Guide to Spotting Gear [~$500 USD]

Your Guide to Budget-Friendly Spotting Gear

About 5 months ago, I put out a topic going over all sorts of different camera gear, mostly targeted at people who had a buck (or two (or a thousand)) to spend. Recently, I’ve noticed an uptick in people asking me out cheap cameras, most often with a budget of less than $500. My other guide didn’t really cater to this audience, as I’ve never really looked deeply into beginner cameras as it wasn’t a market I was in for long. However, I will give the people what they want and do my research to make this topic.

Couple things before we start:

  • I’m going to set an artificial budget of about $500.
  • Used equipment only. At the budgets most of you come to me with, you won’t be able to find anything new. If you actually refuse to buy used gear, then either convince yourself to buy used gear or save up way more money. Prices will be from MPB just so I have a standard reference but if there are significant disparities I will mention.
  • Canon and Nikon only. If you want something cheap, there’s not really other options.
  • Only DSLRs, no point and shoots. I strongly believe that point and shoots/superzooms are bad values for spotting because of their tiny sensors.
  • There will be nothing ultra inexpensive on this list. I don’t believe in buying gear that’s so old just to get it for dirt cheap. You can save up the necessary money to get a decent kit.
  • A lot of these cameras are pretty similar, so I will focus on highlighting the differences.
  • A lot of lenses have similar, long names. Make sure you triple check which one you’re looking at because the difference between lenses can be as small as one or two letters or numbers.

Canon Equipment

If you’re really budget constrained, Canons are going to be your go to. They tend to be a little worse quality wise than their Nikon counterparts but can be had on the used market for less.

Canon Lenses

Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM [2013] ($180) [Highly Recommended]

I recommend this lens to everybody who asks. It’s truly a miracle that this only costs $180 on the used market. This is a crop sensor lens only, so I will only be talking about crop sensors in this thread.

Pros and Cons

✅ Sharpness stays consistently high throughout the zoom range.
✅ Silent, relatively fast autofocus.
✅ Image Stabilization.

❌ For the type of person reading this thread, none.


Canon 55-250mm IS II [2011] ($125)

A decent option if you really can’t stretch for the IS STM. However, you should just stretch for an IS STM - even if it means getting a slightly worse camera body.

Pros and Cons

✅ Sharp at the wide end.
✅ Image Stabilization.

❌ Autofocus is showing its age.
❌ Soft at the long end.


Canon Cameras

A quick note: it’s impossible to talk about cheap Canon cameras without mentioning the EOS 7D Mark 1. This is a semi-professional camera that depreciation has hit extremely hard. You can now regularly find them for less than a tenth of what they cost originally. The only issue is that it was released in 2009, so if you’re not comfortable spending a decent sum of money on a camera that old, then that’s that. However, if you are, I would highly recommend looking into it. It is a better camera than a lot of the newer Rebels, even ones that cost twice as much.


Canon EOS Rebel T1i / 500D [2009] ($75)

15.1 MP, 3.4 FPS, 9 AF

What’s changed: Nothing, this is the baseline camera.

Pros and Cons

✅ It is a camera.

❌ It’s old and down on specs from almost everything else.


Canon EOS Rebel T2i / 550D [2010] ($100)

18.0 MP, 3.7 FPS, 9 AF

What’s changed (from T1i): +2.9 MP, +0.3 FPS, new image processor (Gen 4).

Pros and Cons

✅ Remains cheap while adding a bit of performance over the T1i. It is technically an extra 33%, but $25 is not a significant amount.

❌ Still pretty old.


Canon EOS Rebel T3i / 600D [2011] ($130)

18.0 MP, 3.7 FPS, 9 AF

What’s changed (from T2i): Addition of a variable-angle screen.

Pros and Cons

✅ Still cheap (although at this price it’s a little harder to justify).

❌ Is a tilt screen really worth an extra $30?


Canon EOS 7D Mark 1 [2009] ($140)

18.0 MP, 8.0 FPS, 19 AF

What’s changed: The 7D is completely different to every other camera on this list. If you can justify spending this much money on a 15 year old camera, it delivers way more than any Rebel anywhere near this price. It’s not till the T6i that I would say the Rebels have a decent argument against this, but a T6i is more than double the price of this.

Pros and Cons

✅ 8.0 FPS outpaces pretty much everything anywhere near this price.
✅ Magnesium (not plastic like Rebels) and weather sealed.
✅ 19 cross type autofocus points.

❌ It’s old, and as a semi-pro camera it’s less likely to find nice examples since many of them were actually used.


Canon EOS Rebel T4i / 650D [2012] ($200)

18.0 MP, 5.0 FPS, 9 AF

What’s changed (from T3i): +1.5 FPS, AF points have more accuracy (cross type), new image processor (Gen 5), touchscreen.

Pros and Cons

✅ High burst rate.
✅ Cross-type autofocus points help with focusing accuracy.

❌ A 7D is a better camera if you can justify its age.


Canon EOS Rebel T6i / 750D [2015] ($300)

24.2 MP, 5.0 FPS, 19 AF

What’s changed (from T4i): +6.2 MP, +10 AF points (still all cross type), new image processor (Gen 6).

Note: you can also get a T6s / 760D for an extra ~$10. It comes with a top-mounted LCD screen which displays your settings. I didn’t think it deserved its own mention but it is an option,

Pros and Cons

✅ Large improvements over the T4i with genuinely good resolution.
✅ More cross type AF points.

❌ Getting a little bit pricey, once again refer back to the 7D for half the price (this does, however, have a some key advantages over that).


Canon EOS Rebel SL2 / 200D [2017] ($320)

24.2 MP, 5.0 FPS, 9 AF

What’s changed: The SL2 isn’t directly related to any camera listed here, but think of it as an ultra-light T6i with a newer image processor (Gen 7) but less AF points (-10). It’s a great option if traveling light is important to you.

Pros and Cons

✅ Featherweight, with a 55-250 IS STM mounted it still doesn’t even weigh 1 kilogram.
✅ New processor drastically improves photo quality.

❌ A T6i has better autofocus.


Canon EOS 70D [2013] ($330)

20.2 MP, 7.0 FPS, 19 AF

What’s changed: The 70D isn’t directly related to any camera listed here. The closest comparison is probably to call it an updated (and newer) version of the 7D Mark 1, or a better built version of the Rebel T6i with slightly different specs.

Pros and Cons

✅ Good blend of resolution and burst rate.
✅ Built well, partially weather sealed.

❌ If you’re okay with buying the original 7D just save yourself the money.
❌ Loses some image quality to the T6i and SL2.


Nikon Equipment

Nikon tends to be the less affordable option, but their beginner cameras also tend to be superior when it comes to raw photo quality. You can get really cheap Nikons as easily as you can get really cheap Canons, but it’s hard to find lenses that are both compatible with them and not optical soup.

Nikon Lenses

Nikon AF-P DX 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3 G ED VR [2016] ($240*) [Highly Recommended - WITH CAVEAT]

*MPB price because I had to standardize it. It can often be found for around ~$200 on other sites like Adorama.

For Nikon, this is a pretty obvious choice. However, it only works on certain cameras so depending on what you have/plan on buying it may not work (you can find a compatibility chart at the bottom of this page. Some of them will need a firmware update to work. I don’t know how these work because I’ve never done one and obviously you can’t guarantee a used copy will come with it. I will denote cameras that will need updates with an asterisk. I would also not use this lens with any full frame.

If you’re looking for a whole different/new setup and you want Nikon, I would base your purchases around this lens. There also does exist a version of this without VR (image stabilizer), but it’s only $20 less so I would suggest getting the VR version.

Pros and Cons

✅ Great sharpness for the price.
✅ More zoom than the Canon option.
✅ Extremely light and portable.
✅ Image stabilization.

❌ Not compatible with some cameras (see link above).

It gets tougher if you already own a camera not compatible with this lens. Depending on what you have, you may be able to snag a Tamron or Sigma 100-400, but I’m not convinced I would buy the AF-S options at this point. They tend to be pretty old and still pricey for some reason.


Nikon Cameras


Nikon D3300* [2014] ($190)

24.2 MP, 5.0 FPS, 11 AF

*Needs firmware update to run with AF-P lenses.

What’s changed: Nothing, this is the baseline camera.

Pros and Cons

✅ Impressive resolution, especially for the cost.

❌ Needs a firmware update.


Nikon D3400 [2016] ($230)

24.2 MP, 5.0 FPS, 11 AF

What’s changed (from D3300): Full AF-P compatibility, addition of bluetooth.

Pros and Cons

✅ Fully compatible with AF-P lenses.

❌ More or less the same camera (mechanically) as the D3300 for more money.


Notable Omissions

There are a lot of camera / lenses that you might think should be present but are missing, here’s a short rationale why.

Canon EOS Rebel T3 / 1100D: It’s the same price as a T2i, but worse.

Canon EOS Rebel T100 / 4000D: It’s a T6 underneath but generally more expensive.

Canon EOS Rebel T5i / 700D: It’s just a T4i for more money.

Canon EOS Rebel T7 / 2000D: It’s the same price as a T6i, but worse.

Nikon D5500: Too similar to the D3400 to warrant a $100 price hike.

Nikon D610: Not really a beginner camera as it’s full frame and you’d have to buy a (more expensive) full frame lens for it. It is, however, an extremely compelling option if you plan to do a lot of night work.

Canon 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III: It sucks. That is all.

Nikon AF-S 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR: Too soft towards the long end.

Nikon AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED VR: Unless you already have a non AF-P compatible Nikon DSLR, just get the AF-P version.

Conclusions

Adapt to your budget! I’ve given a wide variety of options here from $200 to $500. I’d say the sweet spot is around $350, any lower and you should probably just keep saving. If you want more expensive stuff, check out my other guide.

Overall, on the Canon side I’d recommend a T4i with a 55-250mm IS STM, but you should absolutely get a 7D if you’re comfortable with it. On the Nikon side I’d recommend a D3400 with an AF-P 70-300 DX VR.

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You should be named the (Un)Official IFC Guide Creator


Jokes apart, Canon is great ;)

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Wow! Very in-depth!

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What’s your opinion on the D3500, not sure what range that fits in exactly.

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It’s still a ridiculous price in the states, just get a D3400 it’s more or less the same camera

Ahhh alright, already have it lol, just wondering how good of a purchase that was.

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Un(Official) Niche Topic that exactly 3 people will be interested in IFC Guide Creator

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Not worth it if you want to do night work. It is infamous for its horrible autofocus in low light. @Deck_Crew would know and complains about it all the time. If you really want a bang for buck Nikon full frame without spending too much money you would have to look at a D750 or maybe even the D810 which are both roughly 100-200$ above the 500$ budget

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Oh really? I didn’t know that. It won’t even lock on to like a landing light or anything?

Maybe night work at low cost is just not a thing to do. D750’s are an entirely different cost league, in the states they’re almost double.

Something like the D3500 has the high iso capability to handle most low light situations but its autofocus also sucks in low light. I personally know someone with a D3500 and it didn’t even lock onto a static target on the ramp lit up by floodlights

Yeah don’t get this. It sucks. Speaking from 4 years of experience owning one.

great thread

The Nikon crop sensors are surprisingly good at night. My old D7500 locks on no problem to most things at night and it’s not horrifically grainy (it does have the more advanced 51 pt AF system not the 11 of the 3xxx series though). Honestly if night work is a huge priority, maybe just getting a mirrorless is better bc EVF and whole sensor AF is a massive help.

Agreed. My even older D7200 has never failed me when it comes to autofocus but going beyond iso 10000 is practically impossible

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I second this camera for beginners. This is what I started out with and was a great camera

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Canon EOS 4000D

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sobbing rn so hard.


might have the wrong one there… those go for around 1k still lol

No not really lol, I’m seeing many examples for ~$600

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