After scouring the user feedback, internet reviews, and doing our own extensive tests on many of the year's models, this is our definitive list for the best digital cameras of the year. We've included secondary and even tertiary choices here, too, in case our favorite doesn't strike your fancy. Some of our choices are carry-overs from 2011, either because the update wasn't worth the money or they haven't been replaced yet, but we'll continue to update this list as the year goes on. And we acknowledge you camera geeks out there probably wont agree with all our choices (if any), so feel free to let us know what your best bets are. Updated 12/21/2012.
Best Point and Shoot Under $200
It's time to finally give the nod to Nikon for the impressive ground they've covered in the past couple years. Nikon long struggled to come up with a compelling blend of features, performance and image quality in a compact camera, yet now they've really done it. The S6300 pairs some of the best image quality money can buy at this price point with a compelling 10x optical zoom. This zoom range does come with a size penalty, of course, so those looking for something truly svelte should check out the runners-up. Still, you're getting fantastic image quality from a backlit 16 megapixel CMOS sensor, full 1080p HD video, and that all-important zoom. You've seen us rave about the Panasonic FH25 in the past for its great feature-set; the S6300 checks all the same boxes but does so with better image quality. What's not to like?
The Sony WX50 is a great ultra-compact alternative to the S6300 that includes even more features, but be warned image details are smudgy even in good light. The Canon 500 HS is an older 2011 model that has since been replaced by the 530 HS, yet thankfully that means you can get that great f2 lens and image quality at a bargain. Be warned about that touchscreen, though.
Runners-up: Sony WX50, Canon ELPH 500 HS
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. 2012 has seen the zoom ranges on these GPS-enabled cameras balloon to 16x and even 20x zoom, yet few do it all without a hitch. The Canon SX260 HS stands apart in this regard as its impeccably well-rounded. The successor to last year's wildly popular SX230 HS, the SX260's 20x zoom, fantastic image quality, and manual modes make it the camera to beat in the travel zoom segment. Other cameras may have more features or faster operation, yet none produce the same crisp images the Canon outputs.
Fujifilm's F770EXR deserves a mention for its similarly great image quality, especially when used in the Dynamic Range mode. If not for some quirky operation issues this would the winner. Also noteworthy is Panasonic's ZS20, which we reviewed in April and boasts great image quality in the smallest form factor. If you really don't need manual modes, check out Sony's HX30v.Runners-up: Fujifilm F770EXR, Panasonic ZS20, Sony HX30v
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. The SX50 HS is the newest model on the market and, with its 50x zoom and 2.8-inch swivel touchscreen, trumps the previous champion Nikon's 42x P510. While the camera's image quality definitely suffers at 1200mm, it could be nice to have despite the slow f6.5 aperture and chromatic aberrations. Canon has also improved a number of features on the SX50 to make it more competitive in the high-end market. They've added RAW capture, better image stabilization, WiFi and a flash hot shoe. There's still an electronic viewfinder to use in bright light (and extra stability), although it's a rather pitiful 220,000 dots.
The SX50 HS is undoubtedly the best blend of functionality and image quality without spending an arm and a leg, but Panasonic's FZ200 is sitting pretty at the top of the extended zoom heap. Although only boasting 24x zoom, the FZ200 has a constant f2.8 zoom lens that actually allows the zoom range to be useful in less-than-great light. Nikon's P510 is also a very good performer and has a long 42x zoom, although it lacks some of the high-end features of these other two. If you need something that costs less than these, take a look at the Nikon L810, which offers a 26x optical zoom and uses AA batteries.
Best Advanced Compact
The advanced or "pro-sumer" compact market is now beginning to even further blend the lines between mirrorless and point and shoot. 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 Sony RX100 stands apart due entirely to its oversized, 1-inch 20.9 megapixel sensor. Sensor size is generally a clear indicator of resulting image quality and is crucial to achieving that dreamy out-of-focus effect called bokeh. The RX100's sensor is the same size as that in the Nikon 1 series, and is therefore much better in low light than the rest of the advanced compact field. It is also much more expensive than the rest, however, and the Olympus XZ-1, Canon S100 or new Panasonic LX7 are all worth a look as well.
Runners-up: Olympus XZ-1, Canon PowerShot S100, Panasonic Lumix LX7
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 there are higher-end mirrorless cameras available, Sony's NEX-5R strikes the perfect balance between fantastic image quality and a reasonable sticker price.
While the system itself is a little unwieldy (those NEX lenses are hilariously large for the camera), the 5R's 16 megapixel sensor outputs image quality rivaling the best consumer DSLRs. The sensor is actually a newly designed CMOS that includes a 99-point phase detection array for even faster autofocus. Reviews have noted a real improvement here, so something's working right. It also shoots 1080p video at 60fps, 10 fps continuous burst, and features a tilting touchscreen that rotates a full 180 degrees up for self-portraits. 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. One specialty mode that deserves a mention is Sony's "Peaking", which highlights in-focus edges while you're manually focusing. It's just brilliant and should be standard in all mirrorless cameras.
If you really want something pocketable, check out the Nikon J2. The sensor is quite a bit smaller than that on the Sony NEXs or Micro 4/3, but this allows for much smaller lenses. Olympus' PEN E-PL5 is also worth a good hard luck as is Panasonic's GX1.
Best Entry-Level DSLR
Sony continues to reign supreme in the entry-level market, despite the big two's efforts to create their own competitive offerings. The A37 uses Sony's translucent mirror technology to autofocus full-time, something even the highest-end DSLRs can't do. The camera is able to autofocus while shooting 1080p video, while using live view, or even while shooting 7fps (at 8 megapixels) continuous bursts. For many new users coming from point and shoots, the ability to use the back screen as they did on their compact will help them feel at home with the new camera. The 16 megapixel sensor is also fantastic, up there with the best on the market. The caveat is that the camera relies on an electronic viewfinder (and a rather low resolution one at that) and doesn't last long on a battery charge. A remarkable package for the price.
Those wishing to try a more conventional DSLR should check out Nikon's D3200, which is easy to use and has a 24 megapixel sensor.
Runners-up: Nikon D3200
Best Mid-Range DSLR
There’s simply nothing else that comes close to the Sony A57. If you’re willing to drop the conventional optical viewfinder of a dSLR and use a very good electronic viewfinder, the A57 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, shooting 1080p video and operating in live view. Compare that to the 5fps and 4fps bursts found on Canon’s T4i and Nikon D5200, respectively. Many of the models in this category have articulating screens but the A57 is the only one, due to the electronic viewfinder, to feature 100 percent viewfinder coverage. The A57’s 16 megapixel sensor is up there with the best: resolution and noise characteristics are competitive throughout the range. Oh yeah, the A57 can also use that 10fps to automatically overlay photos for HDR, reducing noise, or crafting in-camera panoramas.
Those looking for another competitor should check out the Pentax K-30, too, which offers weather sealing and a plethora of external controls. Nikon's D5200 was also just announced and, with a 24 megapixel sensor and the D7000's autofocus system, should be a real winner when it hits the shelves.
Runners-up: Canon T4i, Pentax K-30, Nikon D5200
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 II are 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 II’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 II 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 pretty well up to ISO 6400 and even beyond. Though it costs a bit more than the D7000, the K-5 II 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 II, and we feel it’s the one to beat next round.
Runners-up: Nikon D7000, Canon 60D
Best Full-Frame DSLRWe know this is a contentious choice, but the $2200 D600 offers the best blend of image quality and price in the full frame market. Our previous winner was the D800, yes, but the D600's 24 megapixel sensor actually does a little better than the D800's in low light. While the 39-point autofocus on the D600 isn't Nikon's top-of-the-line CAM-3500FX, it's nearly as good and certainly better than that found on the Canon 5D Mark II. The D600's half-plastic build isn't as comfortable as the Canon 5Ds or the D800, but it's serviceable. Yes we know Canon has announced their own answer in the 20 megapixel 6D, but so far it's been vaporware. If you're invested in Canon go with the forthcoming 6D, if invested in Nikon the D600 is a great choice.
If you absolutely need resolution the D800's 36 megapixels rival that of medium format. And tests have shown that Canon's 5D Mark III has the best autofocus system of the bunch. Also of interest is Sony's A99, which uses a translucent mirror for full-time autofocus and live view. There are some huge benefits to this, such as seeing exposure in real time, but you do need to give up the optical viewfinder.
Runner-up: Sony A99, Canon 5D Mark III, Nikon D800