Best Point and Shoot Under $200
Canon ELPHs (formerly known as the SD series) have always been great point-and-shoots for reasonable prices. This year, the Canon ELPH 100 HS absolutely blows everything else in its price range out of the water. The image quality is great for the price, even in low light. It’s small, attractive, and well-built. Performance is quite nimble and it manages to squeeze out a true burst mode -- 3.6 frames per second, about the same as entry-level dSLRs. Then there’s the 1080p video mode, strong enough to render a pocket camcorder obsolete. It also holds on to all of Canon’s fun filters and effects, which continue to be big selling points for the Powershot series. No other cheap camera comes close to the ELPH 100 HS this year. There are a few other cameras worth looking at: The Panasonic FH25, following up last year’s incredibly popular FH20, plays it safe and sticks with an 8x-zooming, 720p-shooting formula, though the pixel count is bumped to a bloated 16 megapixels. The Nikon S6100 is a similar model, with a 7x zoom, 720p HD video, 16 megapixels, and a 3-inch touchscreen LCD.
Runners-up: Panasonic FH25, Nikon S6100
Best Point and Shoot Over $200
The Canon ELPH 500 HS is basically a 'Lite' version of an advanced compact like the Canon S95 or Olympus XZ-1. The sensor is smaller -- 1/2.3”, like most point-and-shoots -- but it's a backside illuminated CMOS sensor (like the ELPH 100 above), capable of relatively clear low-light shots. More importantly, it's paired with an f/2.0 lens, which makes low-light shooting even easier. All the other trappings are here too -- speedy performance and continuous shooting, 1080p video, and all of Canon's fun filters and effects. The interface is entirely touch-based, and a mediocre one at that, which is sure to deter some prospective buyers. If that’s the case, the Nikon P300 is another worthwhile option. It’s also a CMOS/bright-lens combo, though the $329 price tag is a little bit steep. And for the sleekest, most affordable (though photographically least impressive) of the bunch, check out the Sony WX10. It sports a somewhat bloated 16 megapixel CMOS sensor, which has taken some flack for its performance in other new cameras, but the f/2.4 lens should mitigate some of those issues. Like most Sony cameras, it’s packed to the gills with “extra” features too.
Runners-up: Nikon P300, Sony WX10
Best Compact Zoom
Compact zooms (also known as travel zooms) are as close to an all-in-one camera as you can get: Feature-packed, pocketable shooters with huge zoom ranges that can shoot wide-open landscapes as well as candid close-ups from across a plaza. It's tough to choose a “best” compact zoom because so many different groups of photographers use them and each groups prizes different qualities. But, the compact zoom that promises to make the most people happy this year is the Canon SX230 HS, a 14x zoomer with 1080p video, a sharp widescreen LCD, GPS capability, PASM manual modes and, yes, the same 12.1 megapixel CMOS sensor as our favorite ELPH models above. There are travel zooms with longer zooms, more features, and better image quality, but each one seems to have a critical flaw. Despite a few irritating design quirks (the same that hurt its predecessors), the SX230 wins this category mainly by not messing up. There are other options sure to appeal to subsets of users: Enthusiasts will gravitate toward the Fujifilm F550EXR, which has the best still-image quality and most manual control (including RAW capture) in the class, though the video mode and interface are hampered with usability issues. The Nikon S9100 will enjoy some attention thanks to its class-leading 18x zoom and low-light images that pop, though it takes a few liberties in color reproduction. And for a more budget-oriented option, the Panasonic ZS8 offers an impressive 16x zoom, intuitive interface, and consistent image quality, though its performance is not quite as speedy. Since a wide swath of camera buyers are interested in the compact zoom class, expect to hear tons of conflicting opinions; that said, we're confident that a large number of folks will side with the consistency of the Canon SX230.
Runners-up: Fujifilm F550EXR, Nikon S9100, Panasonic ZS8
Best Extended Zoom
Extended zooms, commonly known as superzooms, are the closest to all-in-one cameras you can get. With enormous zoom ranges and stacked feature sets, they offer an out-of-the-box versatility that not even DSLRs can match. Despite stiff competition from Nikon's P510 and Sony's HX200V, Panasonic's FZ150 gets the nod from us. It sports an ample 25-600mm (24x) lens with a handy 3-inch articulating LCD, hi-res electronic viewfinder, solid 1080p video mode, and speedy all-around performance including an 12fps burst mode. Image quality is among the best and the FZ150 is also one of the few superzooms to support RAW capture, so any blemishes can be worked out in post-processing. It isn't a perfect package, for one we do wish the zoom range was a little larger, but the FZ150 really does strike the best balance of image quality and functionality. The Nikon P510 is impressive mostly for its lens, sporting a class-leading 42x zoom range. And for the best possible image quality, there's no better option than the Fujifilm XS-1, although at its ridiculous price the HS30EXR is probably a better choice.
Best Advanced Compact
The advanced or "pro-sumer" compact market really heated up this year, and it seems every manufacturer wants a piece of the action. Larger sensors, bright lenses, RAW capture, and a wide array of external manual controls define these cameras and set them apart from their cheaper brethren. Enthusiasts love them, and pros are known to tuck one away in their dSLR bags. While the competition is stiff, the Olympus XZ-1 stands apart due to its exceptionally bright f1/8-2.5 lens. We should be clear here, the XZ-1 isn’t far and away the best camera out of the bunch: Almost all the prosumer compacts (Nikon P7000 excluded) are about equal in image quality, but Olympus has managed to include just about every feature a photographer could want, all in a relatively compact package. The lens on the Samsung TL500 is actually just as fast as that on the XZ-1, but it can’t keep up with the XZ-1’s versatile 28-112mm range, doesn’t shoot HD video, and is a much heavier camera. The XZ-1 not as small as the Canon S95, but makes up for that by being 4x brighter at the long end of the zoom. The Canon G12 offers extra zoom range and an optical viewfinder, but the lens is slower and the body much bulkier. The LX5 is the closest competitor here, it’s only 1/3 of a stop slower throughout the lens range, boasts a bit wider range, and costs less, but the XZ-1’s control ring and high-resolution OLED screen make up for the price difference. Any of these cameras will do the trick, but the XZ-1 is arguably the most well-rounded, and should work well for just about any photographer in just about any situation.
Runners-up: Panasonic LX5, Canon S95, Samsung TL500
Best Compact Mirrorless
The mirrorless or “interchangeable lens camera” class is coming into its own as a worthy alternative to traditional entry-level and mid-range DSLRs. Brands have developed identities and the camera-buying public is finally showing some interest in these compact DSLR alternatives. Sony’s NEX series seems to get the most attention thanks to an aggressive advertising campaign and prominent in-store placement, yet they are also high-quality cameras. While the NEX-7 is the highest-end mirrorless camera yet released, we have to give the nod to the cheaper NEX-5N for it's exceptional feature set for the price.
While the system itself is a little unwieldy (those NEX lenses are hilariously large for the camera), the 5N's 16 megapixel sensor outputs image quality rivaling the best consumer DSLRs. It also shoots 1080p video, 10 fps burst, and features a tilting touchscreen in place of typical controls. This simplified layout probably isn't for everyone, but the camera's quick operation and best-in-class image quality make it a pleasure to use and has garnered a well-deserved following. All of the mirrorless options out there right now are great choices, but right now the 5N sits on top.
Best Entry-Level dSLR
The Nikon D3100 is aimed squarely at first-time and casual dSLR users, and is a perfect match. It's still a strong camera, upping the ante with 1080p video with relatively fast autofocus. The live view autofocus doesn’t compete with the likes of Sony’s A33 (or any mirrorless cameras, for that matter), but it trounces the Canon 1100D, Pentax K-r, and Sony A290. The 14 megapixel sensor ekes out a little more detail than the 12 megapixel sensors found in the Pentax and Canon models, though noise performance isn’t quite as good. While the Pentax K-r has faster continuous shooting, a higher resolution LCD screen, and in-body stabilization for every lens, the D3100 just feels like a more beginner-friendly dSLR, in no small part thanks to its in-camera Guide Mode. For those new to photography and moving up from a compact camera, this mode simplifies photography by allowing the user to choose shooting settings based on intent without photographic technical knowledge. We know that this sounds like a standard scene mode, yet guiding menus are far more specific and malleable than a single scene mode can be. Frankly, all the cameras in this segment will take great photos; the K-r is in many ways the better choice for more experienced photographers (and it just happens to cost a similar amount), but the D3100 comes out ahead for appealing to the target market and making the picture-taking process a breeze. The Nikon system is also more universal than Pentax’s and offers more room for future growth.
Runners-up: Pentax K-r, Sony A33
Best Mid-Range dSLR
There’s simply nothing else that comes close to the Sony A55. If you’re willing to drop the conventional optical viewfinder of a dSLR and use a very good electronic viewfinder, the A55 provides performance far beyond its price bracket. The SLT design means that the camera doesn’t direct light away from the autofocus sensor at any time, resulting in continuous autofocus while firing 10 frames per second bursts and shooting 1080p video. Compare that to the 3.7fps and 4fps bursts found on Canon’s T3i and Nikon D5100, respectively. All the models in this category have articulating screens but the A55 is the only one, due to the electronic viewfinder, to feature 100 percent viewfinder coverage. The A55’s 16 megapixel sensor is up there with the best: Resolution and noise characteristics are competitive throughout the range. The closest competition comes from Sony’s own A580, a dSLR that trades the SLT and resulting autofocus tricks for a much better battery life and true optical viewfinder. Oh yeah, the A55 can also use that 10fps to automatically overlay photos for HDR, reducing noise, or crafting in-camera panoramas. Beast mode.
Runners-up: Canon T3i, Nikon D5100
Best Enthusiast dSLR
This is a tough one to pick, and a ton of readers will complain about this choice, no doubt. The truth is, the Nikon D7000 and Pentax K-5 are ridiculously evenly matched in just about every aspect. The D7000 has slightly better autofocus but resides in a bigger and less-refined body. The K-5’s control layout is impeccable and, while this is subjective, feels wonderful. Thankfully, Nikon has added Easy ISO to map ISO to a control wheel, so that major annoyance has been put to rest. The K-5 shoots at a slightly faster 7 frames per second and is the better performer at ISO’s above 3200. Yes that’s right, these cameras perform admirably up to ISO 6400 and even beyond. Though it costs $200 more than the D7000, the K-5 has in-body stabilization, which will save you a lot of money in the long run if you decide to invest further in the system (with Nikon, you pay for stabilization every time you pay for a lens). We haven’t really mentioned Canon’s 60D, and that’s not a knock against it. The 18 megapixel sensor is really great at low ISOs but can’t keep up at higher settings. It does have a great design, though; its articulating LCD complements its excellent video mode quite well. The prosumer dSLR market is a tight race, and all these cameras offer fantastic value. Pentax has just done something right with the K-5, and we feel it’s the one to beat next round.
Runners-up: Nikon D7000, Canon 60D
Best Full-Frame dSLRNow three years old (and with the Mark III already announced), the Canon 5D Mark II is still at the top of the heap when it comes to “affordable” full-frame dSLRs. Sure, the Nikon D700 and Sony A850 are worthy adversaries, but the Canon strikes a pleasant balance of resolution to low-light image quality. It bests the 24 megapixel Sony at high ISOs and captures far more detail than the D700's 12 megapixels do. This is also the DSLR that began the indie filmmaker obsession with DSLR video for cheap, and in fact was used to film last season's House finale. Finally, in addition to its vast first-party lens ecosystem, the Canon mount allows a larger number of exotic lenses to be paired with the Mk II than with any other full-frame dSLR, making it an ideal tool for legacy glass enthusiasts. The new lineup of full frame DSLRs is currently on its way, but don't write the 5D Mark II off.