Last updated on 12/06/2013
Counting the user feedback, internet reviews, and doing our own grade based evaluation and extensive tests on many of the year's models, we created definitive list for the best digital cameras of the year. Some of our choices are carry-overs from 2012, 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 some enthusiasts out there probably won't agree with all our choices (if any), so feel free to let us know what your best choices are.
Best Point and Shoot Digital Camera
Nikon's high-end point and shoot now features Wi-Fi® compatibility for those users who just can't wait to share their newest shots--and before you share, you can now hide those bags under your eyes and whiten those teeth with the glamor retouch effects. We reviewed this camera earlier in the year and loved the image quality and solid build.
Looking for an exceptional point and shoot camera under $200? Go with previous model, the Nikon Coolpix S6300.
The Sony WX50 is a great ultra-compact alternative to the S6500 camera 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 The Canon 500 HS is an older 2011 model that has since been replaced by the 530 HS, yet thankfully that means you can get that great f2 lens and image quality at a bargain.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 All Weather Digital CameraAs the only waterproof interchangeable lens camera on the market, the Nikon 1 AW1 holds a clear advantage over other all-weather options. The AW1 is waterproof up to 49 feet and shockproof up to 6.6 feet. But, as an interchangeable lens camera, the AW1 offers more options than waterproof point-and-shoots, including manual modes, RAW capture and a 1" sensor. While the exterior is tough and rugged, the performance should be very similar to the 1 J3 (which we reviewed in-depth here), including a fun 15 fps burst mode.
Best Compact Zoom Digital Camera
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 PowerShot SX280 HS stands apart in this regard as its impeccably well-rounded. The successor to last year's wildly popular SX260 HS, the SX280'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.
Best Extended Zoom Digital Camera
Sony's RX10 is designed to be the luxury super zoom. It has the capability of a much larger camera, yet is as compact as a small DSLR. The bright, f2.8 lens is excellent, and certainly this camera's best feature, but the RX10 also utilizes a 1" sensor and a tough magnesium alloy body. And while the RX10 sits in our superzoom category, it also has close-up capabilities too. While the RX10 is certainly the best option, the price, at around $1,300, is not.
While not quite as robust as the RX10, the Olympus Stylus 1 offers the same excellent f2.8 aperture throughout the zoom range. With a 1/1.7" sensor, manual modes and RAW, the Stylus 1 is an advanced compact with added zoom, up to 10.7 times. It has a lot of the features of the QX10, but comes in at nearly half the price.
Not looking at spending $600+ on a camera? Nikon's Coolpix P520 is a top performer in the extended zoom category, with 42x zoom, improved low light performance and a nice price. The P520 is also compatible with the wi-fi add on. Nikon didn't make too many updates from the P510, though added a few more megapixels and used a bit faster lens, so those looking for a bargain may still find the P510 a good option.
Best Advanced Compact Digital Camera
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 II stands apart due entirely to its oversized, 1-inch 20.9 megapixel sensor, which is now also backlit. 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 Pentax MX-1, Canon S100 or Panasonic LX7 are all worth a look as well.
Runners-up: Pentax MX-1, Canon PowerShot S100, Panasonic Lumix LX7
Best Budget Advanced Compact
The Pentax MX-1 is surprisingly capable for the price and really an excellent camera. The sensor is larger than most basic compacts at 1/1.7", though smaller than some other advanced compacts. The image quality is excellent, and the MX-1 includes a super macro mode that takes some of the best close-ups we've seen from a compact camera this year. The f1.8 to 2.5 lens results in superior low light images. And since it's an advanced camera, it includes manual modes.
Best Mid-Level Mirrorless Digital Camera
The large, APS-C size sensor with no optical low pass filter on the Fujifilm X-M1 results in excellently detailed images. But this classic-looking beauty is about more than just high quality images, it's also designed with a fast processor and records even large RAW files with ease. There's very little lag time, even when using burst mode and recording in RAW. A tilting LCD and dual control wheels goes quite a ways in upping the ante on usability. And while the perk of getting a mirrorless camera at this level is the manual control options, Fujifilm's Advanced Auto resulted in above average shots coming from a preset mode.
Sony's mid-level NEX 5TL is also worth a look, mainly for it's 10 fps burst speed. Samsung's NX300 is also a top contender.
Best Enthusiast Mirrorless Digital Camera
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. Olympus topped our list last year with the OM-D E-M5 and they continue to impress in 2013 with the introduction of the PEN E-P5, the first Olympus mirrorless model to offer wi-fi. Speed is one of the PEN E-P5's best assets, with shutter speeds up to 1/8000, a 9 fps burst and a fast autofocus. Plus, it's one of few mirrorless models that includes a viewfinder (and of course it keeps the large Micro Four Thirds sensor we've liked in the past). It's pricey at nearly $1500 with the 14-42 kit lens, but initial reviews promise a lot of features for the price.
Best Professional Mirrorless Camera
Professional level mirrorless? It's happening this year, thanks to Sony's full frame mirrorless options, the a7 and a7R. We had a chance to test them both out this year, and while some of the features like battery life and overall performance aren't quite up to DSLR standards, their size negates that for many photographers. Both cameras are excellent, but we chose the a7 as the best because of its faster performance and better price. The a7 will meet the needs of most professionals, particularly those who need to shoot quickly, though the a7R would be the better option for photographers who print billboard sized images for the step up in resolution.
Best Entry-Level DSLR
This year, Canon introduced the smallest DSLR to hit the market yet, the EOS Rebel SL1. And while the SL1 comes in a small package, it still offers features you can't find with most mirrorless models, like a viewfinder and a fast autofocus (that also functions in video mode). The SL1 also features a touchscreen, unusual for the entry-level category. This entry-level also has a fast start-up and snaps images at 4 fps and up to 1/4000. Low light performance is also a plus, with reduced noise even at high ISOs.
Nikon's D3200 is also an excellent option in this category as well, and it really comes down to personal preference and shooting scenarios. The D3200 features more megapixels and wi-fi compatibility, but the SL1 is more compact and offers better video quality.
Best Mid-Range DSLR
The Pentax K-50's price is hard to beat for the performance level, not to mention the fact that it's one of few weather-sealed models available. The K-50 is a very comfortable camera to hold and the dual control wheels make using the K-50 fun and easy. Image quality is excellent as well. The Pentax K-50 is also compatible with AAs if you pick up the extra adapter, which makes it an excellent option for traveling or long shoots where it's handy to have back-up batteries. You can find a quieter performance in a Nikon and better video quality in a Canon, but you'd also end up dropping another $200 or so.
Best Enthusiast dSLR
There are a lot of quality DSLRs out on the market, particularly in the more advanced enthusiast category. But, there's just something about the Nikon D7100. It's comfortable to hold; there's a control for literately everything. But, most of all, the 7100 makes it easy to take great pictures. Nikon has hit the right combination with the large sensor and fast 51-point focus system. While the sheer amount of controls may be overwhelming for beginners, the control scheme makes it easy to adjust settings quickly to get the shot right. The D7100 shoots up to 6 fps--even in RAW mode--and quickly processes the large files. At this level, Nikon has included advanced features like depth of field preview, wireless tethering with the optional adapter. The D7100 is Nikon's first DSLR to eliminate the optical low pass filter, which results in sharper, more detailed images and better low light performance, though the trade off is that the camera is more likely to distort fine patterns.
Best Full-Frame DSLRThere were quite a few full frame announcements at the end of the year and the available options make this title the toughest choice. But for the price and design, the Nikon Df is unlike any other option out there. It has the innards of the D4, which is twice the price, yet weighs the same as the APS-C D7100. You'll get more with the Canon EOS-1D X, but you'll also pay much more and carry around a whole lot more weight. The Df is a smaller full frame camera that doesn't sacrifice manual controls or battery life, like the Sony a7 mirrorless.
The retro design certainly isn't for everyone, though, particularly those who like to shoot video since the Df doesn't include that. The Nikon D610 is the better option for those who shoot video or prefer the design that's more of the norm. The D600 was our top choice for last year, but after some sensor oil issues popped up, Nikon released an upgrade early that keeps all of the features but eliminates that sensor issue.
Runner-up: Canon EOS-1D X, Nikon D610, Canon 5D Mark III, Nikon D800