Dirt-cheap dSLRs (roundup)
If all you can spend is $500 for a body and lens, you don't have many options, but you do have a few.
If you're looking for a cheap dSLR, about $500 or less including the usual 18-55mm kit lens, you don't have a lot of choice. If you're really vigilant and are willing to leave your comfort zone you can find a few more options.
What does leaving your comfort zone entail? First, ensure that the price you're looking at is for a new, not used or refurbished model. Second, if the seller insists that you have to speak to a salesperson in order to complete the order, that's a red flag -- they usually do that to deliver a high-pressure sales pitch for accessories. While you may be able to resist the pitch, outlets like that have a habit of messing up the order or delivering gray-market merchandise. (Note that gray-market products aren't bad as long as you're aware of what to expect, such as no warranty.)
I selected the products below because they are fairly widely available for less than $500, but with some work you can also find older recommended models like the Pentax K-x, Canon EOS Rebel T2i, and Rebel T1i for under $600 or with the occasional discount for less than $500. As always, though, my rule of thumb stands: a cheap body with a good lens is usually better than a slightly more expensive body with a cheap lens.
If I had to pick one camera to recommend from this group, it'd be the Nikon D3100. The T3 is generally faster, but I think the D3100 is probably a bit better overall. But as long as you're not trying to shoot sports, any of these cameras will deliver photos that should satisfy. And if you want video your choice narrows to just the T3 and the D3100. (Tip: don't limit your price search to our site.)
A solid choice for a first-time dSLR buyer. Its biggest strengths are nice, natural color and exposure and the overall best performance of this group.
Canon EOS Rebel XS
This camera has hung around longer than a lot of its classmates -- it's almost four years old -- and entry-level dSLRs have changed a lot in the interim. It lacks video support, and even when it was new its only standout was its photo quality, but newer models do a little better in low light.
Read the full review.
The D3100's performance lags if you shoot raw or flash, but otherwise it keeps pace pretty well with the rest of the class. In addition to excellent photo quality for the money, it also has a guided interface for those who want to learn a bit more about photography.
Read the full review.
Looking for specs and pricing? Compare these cameras head-to-head.