If you have been relying on your cell phone or a point-and-shoot camera with only automatic or semi-automatic modes, you may have pushed that camera to its picture taking limits. You might be ready for a versatile camera that captures higher quality images of all the sights that you see, the people you know, and the things that you do. You don’t have to invest in an expensive, professional-grade camera. You can find affordable cameras that produce higher quality images and that allow you to expand your photographic skills. With this guide, we want to help you find the best digital camera under 400 for you and help you learn how to use it.
Our Best Digital Cameras Under $400 For 2020:
- Canon EOS Rebel T6 Digital Camera
- Sony RX100 Digital Camera
- Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS70S Digital Camera
- Nikon COOLPIX B500
- Canon PowerShot SX740 Digital Camera
Easy-to-Learn Features That Improve Your Pictures
Affordable digital cameras have several easy-to-learn features that can improve the quality of your photographs, especially in photographic situations that commonly make it difficult for digital cameras to get a good reading on the lighting. Some of these situations include very bright scenes, scenes with lots of shadows, backlit people and objects, and indoor scenes with artificial lighting. Among the settings that you can change to help your camera get a better reading on the lighting are the EV or exposure value, the ISO setting, the shutter speed, the aperture or lens opening, and the white balance.
How Your Camera Takes a Light Reading
Your camera takes a light reading the same way that photographers have been taking light readings for decades. It uses a built-in light meter.
Photographers used to carry light meters with them. To take a reading, they would hold the light meter to a white object that they intended to include with their subject or that was receiving the same type of lighting as their subject. In certain lighting situations, though, digital cameras can have a problem determining what is white.
When the Picture Has Too Much White
When attempting to read the light in a very bright scene, especially when the sun glares off of snow, water, or a sandy beach, digital cameras can have difficulty determining the difference between true white and other very pale colors in the scene. Consequently, it may read them all as white.
The solutions include:
- Changing the EV Setting Even many point-and-shoots will let you change the EV setting when you are using a semi-automatic scene mode. Changing the EV setting often is referred to as lightening or darkening the image. It may seem that you would want to darken an image that contains too much white, but the real problem is that the camera has selected colors to represent white that are darker than white, even though those colors are very pale. So, in order to get the camera closer to using true white for its light meter reading, you actually need to lighten the picture by raising the exposure value by a range from +1 to +3. The camera then automatically adjusts the ISO setting, shutter speed, and aperture or lens opening to the new exposure value.
- Changing the ISO Setting Digital cameras and most point-and-shoots also will let you change the ISO setting. The numbers used for the ISO setting relate the different types of film made for film cameras and how sensitive they are to light. The lower the ISO number, the less sensitive the film is, and the less light it absorbs. The ISO settings for digital cameras also change the amount of light the camera absorbs, so, in very bright settings, you will want to lower the ISO setting. After you change the ISO setting, the camera then chooses an appropriate shutter speed and aperture setting.
- Changing the Shutter Speed and Aperture or Lens Opening Another way to adjust the camera’s light meter reading is to reduce the amount of light that enters through the camera’s lens. Point-and-shoot cameras may not allow you full manual control of these setting, but most offer shutter priority mode and aperture priority mode. Digital cameras also offer these modes, and these may be the least intimidating way of adjusting these settings. When you choose shutter priority mode, you choose how fast you want the shutter to operate, and the camera chooses the appropriate ISO setting and aperture opening to match the shutter speed. The faster the shutter operates, the less light enters the lens. When you choose aperture priority mode, you choose how large the lens opening should be, and the camera then chooses an appropriate ISO setting and shutter speed to match the size of the aperture. Again, the smaller the aperture opening, the less light enters the lens.
- Changing the White Balance for Brightly Lit Scenes Changing the white balance to adjust the camera’s settings for a brightly lit scene is easy using the camera’s white balance presets. Find the white balance setting in the camera’s menu, and set it to full sun or sunny day.
When the Picture Is Too Dark
Settings with lots of shadows or little to no light also create a situation in which digital cameras have trouble knowing what is white. In this case, the camera will choose a lighter area to use as white, but instead of white, that area might be a gray or one of the lighter colors in the scene. As you might already be guessing, the changes you need to make to the camera’s settings are the opposite of the ones suggested above. You need to enable the camera to see more of the range of dark colors by lowering the EV setting. You need to use a higher ISO setting to increase the camera’s sensitivity to light. You will need to let more light through the camera’s lens by slowing the shutter speed and choosing a wider aperture setting. When adjusting the white balance setting, choose the setting for a cloudy day or for shade. If the setting is very dark, changing only the white balance setting won’t be sufficient.
When the Colors Are Too Red or Too Blue
The white balance setting not only provides another way to adjust the camera’s settings to the amount of light in the scene but also to the type of lighting present in the setting. When you’re shooting indoors under artificial light, you may notice that the colors in an image look too red or orange or too blue. That’s because, while the camera may have chosen a true white object for its light meter reading, the artificial lighting in the room affected the way the white looked to the camera.
Incandescent lighting from tungsten lightbulbs has a yellow glow. Candlelight and firelight have an even deeper, warmer glow. The camera’s choice of what represents white under those lighting conditions is influenced by that warm red, orange, or yellow glow. The camera then adds that same amount of glow to all of the colors in the scene. The simple way to counteract the glow from incandescent lighting is to change the white balance to the setting for incandescent or tungsten lighting.
Fluorescent lighting, on the other hand, has a cool, blue glow, and again, that glow influences the way true white looks to the camera. Under fluorescent lighting, the camera adds that blue glow to all of the colors in the scene. Changing the white balance to the setting for fluorescent lighting counteracts the influence of that blue glow.
You may find yourself in a situation in which you have multiple light sources. You could have natural light from a window, incandescent light from a ceiling fixture, and fluorescent light from a desk lamp. If you want to compensate for all of these sources of light, then select custom white balance from the camera’s white balance menu. Take a plain white sheet of typing paper and place it somewhere where it receives light from all of the different sources of light. Set the camera to custom white balance, and fill the viewfinder or the display screen with the image of the piece of paper. Depress the shutter, and the camera will store that image in its white balance settings and use it for the custom white balance.
Resetting the custom white balance setting each time you use your camera provides your camera with the most accurate light reading, but if you are in a situation where you need to capture images quickly, rely on the preset white balance modes.
Adjusting the Light Meter With the Camera’s Metering Modes
Another setting that digital cameras and most point-and-shoots will let you adjust is the metering mode. These three modes – matrix, multi, or evaluative mode; center-weighted mode; and spot mode – tell the light meter which area of the image to select when taking its reading.
When the camera is set to matrix, multi, or evaluative mode, the light meter reading evaluates the light from the entire scene when it takes its reading. When you are taking a portrait of a large group, a close-up selfie, an architectural image or a photograph of an iconic landmark building, or a landscape or panorama shot, you will want everything in the scene to be clear and well-lighted. You will want to use matrix modes for these types of images.
When the camera is set to center-weighted mode, it takes a reading of the light from the background, but it gives priority to the readings it takes from the center of the image, or to the area surrounding the focus point if you are composing a shot in which the main subject is off-center. This is the mode to use for portraits and still-life photography.
Spot mode takes light readings only from the area where the camera is focused. The reading is taken directly from the subject and its immediate surroundings and is not influenced by the lighting of the background or foreground. This is the mode to use when you focus in tightly on a distant or fast moving subject. When using a telephoto lens with spot mode and focusing in tightly on your subject, keep in mind that, as your camera focuses into the right and left of your subject it also focuses into the front and back. Always check your subject to be certain that the areas closest and farthest away from the camera are in focus. If they aren’t, enlarge the aperture setting or adjust the telephoto lens to focus on a slightly wider area.
Megapixels, Photoreceptors, Image Sensor Sizes, and Image Quality
The number of megapixels does make a contribution to image quality, but it is only one factor. The size of the camera’s image sensor is another important factor.
Size matters because the image produced by a digital camera is actually captured by the photoreceptors that cover the surface of the image sensor. Each photoreceptor equals one pixel, so if you have two image sensors of the same size, then the image sensor with the most photoreceptors will be the one that captures the most details and produce the better photo. However, a larger image sensor will have larger photoreceptors.
Larger photoreceptors are important for CMOS images sensors, which is the type of image sensor found in most cameras because each photoreceptor on a CMOS image sensor has its own connection to the camera’s image processor. This connection takes up space on the image sensor, and when you have smaller photoreceptors, some parts of the image can fall on the spaces occupied by the connections instead of on a photoreceptor.
The image processors of cameras that use smaller image sensors compensate for the missing parts of the image by comparing all of the adjacent photoreceptors and filling in the space in the same way that Adobe Photoshop fills in pixels when you increase the resolution of an image beyond the resolution of the original.
By contrast, the larger photoreceptors on larger image sensors cover these connections and capture the parts of the image that fall on those parts of the image sensors. So, cameras with larger image sensors may have fewer megapixels but produce higher quality images because the larger photoreceptors capture more of the details from the actual image rather than relying on the camera’s image processor to fill in the gaps.
The Best Digital Camera Under $400
The Canon EOS Rebel T6 allows you to purchase interchangeable Canon lenses so that you can purchase exactly the lenses you need for the type of photography you prefer. The EOS Rebel comes with a wide angle lens with a range of from 18mm to 55mm that is perfect for selfies, group selfies, portraits, landscapes, panoramas, and architecture, but it’s compatible with Canon’s entire line of EF and EF-S lenses. It also is compatible with a Canon external flash unit. The Rebel includes an optical viewfinder, an LED display panel, and an 18 MP APS-C CMOS image sensor that is larger than the image sensors that you will find in many cameras, including the Sony RX100. The Rebel T6 captures still images in both RAW or JPEG, and it captures full HD movies with sound at a resolution of 1080p. The camera’s ISO sensitivities range from 100 to 6400, and the Rebel T6 offers the standard white balance settings for sun, shade, clouds, incandescent, fluorescent, and a custom white balance setting as well as a setting for sunset. The metering modes also are the standard ones – multi, center-weighted, and spot metering. You also can correct the image to compensate for the temperature of the light source or use the ambient settings to change the color temperature, brightness, and color saturation to adjust the mood and emotional impact of the image. The Rebel T6 also offers face recognition, and it tracks moving subjects. It lacks smile recognition, however. You can shoot in fully automatic scene intelligent mode, shutter priority or Tv mode, aperture priority or Av mode, Program AE mode, or full manual mode. The Rebel T6 has built in Wi-Fi and NFC capabilities so that you can upload your movies and images directly to the internet from wherever you have a connection, control your camera remotely from your smartphone or tablet, and share your movies and photographs directly with other NFC devices.
- Includes an 18 MP APS-C CMOS image sensor
- Allows you to purchase interchangeable Canon lenses
- Compatible with Canon’s entire line of EF and EF-S lenses
- Compatible with a Canon external flash unit
- Built in Wi-Fi and NFC capabilities
- Offers face recognition
- Lacks smile recognition
- Requires purchasing lenses separately, which adds expenses
- May require carrying extra lenses with the camera, which adds weight and bulk
The Sony RX100 comes with a high quality wide angle Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T lens with an optical zoom range of 28mm to 100mm and a 1” CMOS image sensor that is larger than the 1/2.3 image sensor commonly used in cameras. It captures still images in RAW or JPEG at a resolution of 20.2 MP and movies in full HD with sound and wind noise reduction at a resolution of 1080p. The ISO sensitivity settings range from 80 to 6400. The RX100 includes smile and face recognition, and you can register the faces of up to eight people in the camera’s memory. The RX100 tracks your main subject to keep that person in focus. Sony refers to matrix metering mode as a multi mode. Center-weighted and spot metering also are available. The preset white balance settings include automatic, daylight, shade, clouds, incandescent, four settings for fluorescent lighting, two custom white balance settings, and a setting that adjusts the temperature of the image to correct for both light sources with a warm, yellow glow and light sources with a cool, blue glow. You can choose to shoot in fully automatic intelligent auto mode, shutter priority mode, aperture priority mode, program mode, or full manual mode. The RX100 also automatically captures HDR images. In fact, it has two options for capturing scenes with areas of high contrast between bright lighting and shadow. If you have camera settings that you use frequently, you can store three of your favorite settings combinations in this camera’s memory.
- Uses a 1” CMOS image sensor
- Captures still images in RAW or JPEG
- Offers wind noise reduction for capturing movies with sound
- Can register the faces of up to eight people
- Includes smile and face recognition
- Can store three of your favorite settings combinations in the camera’s memory
- ISO sensitivity settings range from 80 to 6400
- Lens has an optical zoom range of only 28mm to 100mm
- Lacks built-in Wi-Fi
The Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS70S comes equipped with an electronic viewfinder, a Leica DC Vario-Elmar lens with a range of from 24mm to 720mm, and a 20.3 MP 1/2.3” MOS image sensor that is smaller than the image sensors in either of the two cameras above. The wide range of the zoom lens allows you to use this camera for any type of photography from selfies, portraits, group portraits, landscapes, and architecture to telephoto shots of distant birds and animals or action shots of fast moving subjects. When taking still shots of videos of yourself, such as of a demonstration for your YouTube vlog, the display panel flips up so that you can see the image as you capture it. The display also functions as a touchscreen that allows you to control the camera. The Lumix DC-ZS70S captures still images in both JPEG and RAW, and it captures movies in full HD 4K. The ISO sensitivity ranges from 80 to 6400, and white balance settings include daylight, clouds, shade, incandescent, four custom white balance settings and adjustments for the temperature of the lighting source. The camera does lack a preset for fluorescent lighting, however. The camera allows you to register up to six faces for improved face recognition, and you can categorize your registered faces as adult, infant, or pet faces. You can choose to shoot in intelligent auto mode, aperture priority mode, shutter priority mode, program mode, and full manual mode. The Lumix DC-ZS70S comes with built-in Wi-Fi so that you can stream live video, upload images and videos from wherever you have a Wi-Fi connection, and control your camera remotely from your smartphone or tablet.
- Equipped with a Leica DC Vario-Elmar lens with a range of from 24mm to 720mm
- The LED display panel flips up
- The display also functions as a touchscreen
- Captures still images in both JPEG and RAW
- Captures movies in full HD 4K
- ISO sensitivity ranges from 80 to 6400
- Allows you to register up to six faces
- Comes with built-in Wi-Fi
- Uses a smaller 1/2.3” MOS image sensor
- Lacks a white balance preset for fluorescent lighting
The Nikon COOLPIX B500 uses a 16 MP 1/2.3 CMOS image sensor, which is the same size as the one found in the Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS70S and in many other cameras. The Zoom-NIKKOR lens ranges from 22.5mm to 900mm, which should enable you to capture almost any subject. On the COOLPIX B500, the display screen doubles as the viewfinder, and it tilts, allowing you to capture still and movie shots from new, interesting angles. The B500 captures still images in JPEG format only, but you can preserve the details by saving your photos on your computer in PNG format before editing them to prevent them from losing details due to being repeatedly condensed each time they are saved in JPEG format. The camera captures movies in full HD at a resolution of 1080p in stereo sound. ISO sensitivity ranges from 125 to 1600 in the camera’s fully automatic and scene modes with ISOs of 3200 and 6400 available in aperture priority, shutter priority, program, and manual mode. The COOLPIX B500 offers face recognition, smile recognition, and also warns you if someone has blinked as you were shooting your image. You can use smile recognition to trigger the shutter. The preset white balance settings include sunlight, clouds, incandescent, fluorescent, and custom. You can shoot in fully automatic mode, aperture priority mode, shutter priority mode, program mode, or full manual mode. The Nikon COOLPIX B500 includes built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so you can upload your images and movies to the internet from wherever you find an internet connection, stream your videos live, pair other devices to your camera, share photos and movies with other devices, and control your camera remotely from your smartphone or tablet.
- Zoom-NIKKOR lens ranges from 22.5mm to 900mm
- Display screen tilts allowing you to capture still and movie shots from interesting angles
- Captures movies in stereo sound
- Offers face recognition, smile recognition, and warns if someone blinks
- Can use smile recognition to trigger the shutter
- Includes built-in Wi-Fi
- Uses a 1/2.3 CMOS image sensor
- Display screen doubles as the viewfinder can be hard to view in sunlight
- Captures still images in JPEG format only
The Canon PowerShot SX740 includes a 20.3 MP 1/2.3 CMOS image sensor, a zoom lens with a range from 24mm to 960mm, and a display screen that doubles as a viewfinder. The display screen flips up so that, if you are shooting yourself as you present a how-to demonstration for your vlog, you can see yourself as you record. ISO sensitivities range from 100 to 1600 in automatic mode and up to 3200 in program mode. The white balance settings include clouds, daylight, shade, fluorescent, tungsten or incandescent, and custom. You can shoot in the fully automatic modem, hybrid mode, Tv or shutter priority mode, Av or aperture priority mode, program mode, or full manual mode. In hybrid mode, you set the camera to record a short clip of the action just before you depress the shutter to capture a still photograph. The camera saves the short movie clip together with the still photo, and then, at the end of the day, the camera combines all the images taken in hybrid mode into a short highlight movie of the day’s events. The PowerShot SX740 captures still images in JPEG and movies in full HD at 4K resolution with stereo sound. The camera has built in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth that allows you to upload your movies and images wherever you have a Wi-Fi connection, share your photos and movies with other Bluetooth devices, and control your camera remotely from your smartphone or tablet.
- Zoom lens ranges from 24mm to 960mm
- Display screen flips up
- In hybrid mode, camera saves short movie clips with still photos to create a highlight movie of events
- Captures movies in full HD at 4K resolution with stereo sound
- Has built in Wi-Fi
- Uses a 1/2.3 CMOS image sensor
- Display screen doubles as the viewfinder, can be hard to view in sunlight
- Captures still images in JPEG format only
Our Winner for the Best Digital Camera Under 400
The choice was difficult because all of these cameras are worthy contenders. Our choice, though, is the Canon EOS Rebel T6 Digital Camera. It wins because you can pair its larger image sensor with any of Canon’s EF and EF-S lenses. So, you can purchase a zoom lens with a range comparable to the cameras above while having the larger image sensor. Because LED displays can be hard to see in bright sunlight, we like cameras like this Canon Rebel that have viewfinders. We also favor cameras that allow you to capture still images in both RAW and JPEG formats. The camera operates more quickly in JPEG, so JPEG is a good option for shooting fast action or when you are attempting to capture shots of kids, pets, wildlife, and other subjects that could move at any second or when you, yourself, are on the move while trying to capture an image. However, shooting in RAW format allows you to capture and preserve all of the color and details present in the scene. As you develop as a photographer, you will appreciate the control the Rebel T6 gives you over color temperature and the variation in moods that you can create with the ambiance settings. Finally, we are partial to cameras with built-in Wi-Fi because we like the idea of being able to stream live videos, immediately uploading photos and videos to the internet, and using a smartphone or tablet to control the camera remotely. Remote control not only eliminates almost all sources of camera shake but also allows you to film yourself at some distance from the camera and to see the image you are capturing even if the camera lacks a tilting or flip up LED display. For these reasons, we think that the Canon EOS Rebel T6 is a versatile camera that will serve you well.