There’s an old saying among photographers that the best camera is the one you have with you. For many of us, that’s increasingly a smartphone. But if someone on your list relies only on a mobile phone for photography, they’re missing out. From blazing-fast shooting speeds to exquisite detail and creative options, nothing can top an interchangeable-lens camera. Thankfully, camera makers have trimmed their cost while adding features to make them approachable for first-time users. So, tell them to pocket that phone and put one of these bad boys around their neck.
This is a perfect stepping stone into the world of advanced photography for someone who’d prefer a sturdy, full-sized d-SLR model. The camera’s “Guide Mode” gives a user on-screen tutorials, suggesting camera settings to help achieve the desired results. If they want to simply “set and forget” the camera, they can choose the Scene Auto Selector mode and the Nikon D3100 ($699) will automatically pick a scene mode optimized for the shooting environment. They’ll be able to frame shots through the viewfinder or 3-inch LCD screen.
It’s possible to capture high definition (1920 x 1080) video on the D3100 with full-time autofocus available while you shoot (many d-SLRs disengage autofocus during movie filming, which often results in a blurred mess). The D3100 includes an 18-55mm lens with Nikon’s Vibration Reduction technology to reduce image blur. The D3100 offers a 14-megapixel sensor and a burst mode of up to 3 frames per second to capture fast-moving action.
Canon EOS T3i
For those with a little more to spend, Canon’s EOS T3i ($899) packs an 18-megapixel CMOS image sensor and can fire off a burst of 3.7fps for up to 34 photos. It also can record high-definition movies. Its high-resolution 3-inch LCD flips out from the camera’s body so photogs can frame hard-to-reach shots. The T3i has most of the manual controls you’d expect in a digital SLR (shutter, aperture, white balance, etc.) with a “Scene Intelligent Auto” mode that analyzes the scene in front of you and selects the optimal settings – just point and shoot. The T3i camera kit includes an 18-55mm image stabilized lens and the camera is compatible with Canon’s full line of EF and EF-S lenses.
Olympus Pen Mini E-PM1
The Olympus Pen series of cameras offer the interchangeable lenses of a digital SLR camera in a body that’s closer in size to a point-and-shoot. The Pen Mini E-PM1 ($499) features a 12-megapixel image sensor and 1080p HD video recording with stereo microphone for high-quality audio capture. They’ll frame shots through a bright, 3-inch display and can apply one of six art filters to give images some creative pop. On-board Shadow Adjustment technology helps compensate for high-contrast environments where light and shadow collide.
The PM1 is among the first high-end digital cameras to include a 3D mode for shooting stills with greater depth. Available in purple, pink, brown, white, silver or black, the Pen Mini is just 1.3 inches thick and includes a 14-42mm lens (3x magnification) and works with a growing family of ZUIKO Digital/Micro 4/3 lenses from Olympus and Panasonic, among others.
Sony’s NEX-3 offers a similar design to the Pen – a slim body that’s still capable of swapping lenses. The NEX-3 delivers slightly lower resolution HD video recording (720p) but packs a few features not found on the Pen, such as a Sweep Panorama mode for easily creating panoramic images. The NEX-3 also delivers a speedier burst mode of up to 7fps and a higher-resolution, 14-megapixel image sensor.
If they’re just learning the ropes of advanced photography, an on-screen guide delivers shooting tips to the camera’s large, 3-inch display. The display itself can tilt up to 45 degrees down and up to 80-degrees northward, providing flexibility to shoot from different angles.