It's that time of year again: back to school. And whether you're shopping for a student or yourself, now is an excellent time to land great deals on every kind of digital camera.
With that in mind, we've put together a list of our favorite picks in each category – ultracompacts, compacts, ultrazooms, and DSLRs - for the fall edition of our Digital Camera Buyer's Guide. Whatever you're shopping for, and whatever your budget, you're sure to find something that fits on our list of favorite current camera picks.
Most young people going back to school who are interested in a camera want one that’s ultracompact, slim, and attractive that they can use to take snapshots of their friends and videos at concerts. Picture quality does not have to be ideal. Fortunately, there are attractive, slim cameras that also have good performance and picture quality.
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While the 10 megapixel FS5 has a relatively low price, it's a high quality camera. It's small and sleek but easy to hold with a raised area on the right side and space to put your thumb. It has a metal shell and comes in black, silver and red. It has a Leica branded lens with a relatively wide angle (30mm), 4x optical zoom, optical image stabilization to counteract shaky hands, and the new Venus IV processor that gives acceptable picture quality in low light.
The FS5 also includes many scene modes covering all kinds of picture-taking situations, plus an "intelligent auto" mode that automatically picks a scene mode that the camera determines would best suit the situation. It also has a decent video mode. It's a camera that has a lot of broad appeal.
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For those who want a slim camera but prefer quality to style and don't mind spending more money, the 12 megapixel Fuji F100fd is one of the best ultracompacts you can buy. It has a 5x optical zoom with a wide-angle view (28mm). It has optical image stabilization and the usual complement of scene modes.
However, what makes the F100fd unique among ultracompacts is its large 1/1.6-inch SuperCCD sensor, which makes it possible for the F100fd to shoot good-looking photos at ISO 800 or even ISO 1600 - much better than most ultracompacts. Its low light ability makes it good pick for taking indoor pictures and videos.
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Canon's update of the popular SD1000 is evolutionary and cosmetic - the SD1100 IS gets a resolution boost from 7 to 8 megapixels, adds a new anti-reflection coating to the LCD screen, and, unlike its precursor, offers optical image stabilization. The SD1100 IS also sports Face Detection AiAF (Advanced intelligent Auto Focus), Canon's famous DIGIC III processor, Canon's exclusive iSAPS Scene technology, user-selectable ISO sensitivity settings from ISO 80 to ISO 1600, 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio (for HDTV display), and automatic red-eye correction.
All of this makes the versatile PowerShot SD1100 a favorite pick of DCR forum moderator USAPatriot, who describes the Canon as "a great successor to the SD1000, adding image stabilization to the already great list of features and of course solid image quality."
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Nikon's Coolpix S210 has been a DCR Buyer's Guide pick before, and it's combination of style and value has earned it a spot on the list as well. As DCR Editor David Rasnake notes, "Cameras simply don't get much smaller than the S210, and the fact that it's a powerful little shot maker on top of all of this brings it to the top of my list for style-minded shooters."
The S210 lacks optical image stabilization, but its sharp lens, decent high-sensitivity performance, and hybrid Electronic Vibration Reduction system work hard to make up for it. Although the 8.1 megapixel camera is tiny, a humane control layout doesn't feel especially cramped. Its 3x zoom range is only average for the class, but for $150 there's not much to argue about in the way of styling or image quality with this super-slim, go-anywhere camera.
Compact cameras are good for students who want a camera for more than just taking quick snapshots and videos. Depending on features, these cameras can be more expensive than ultracompacts and offer a higher overall level of image quality, making them ideal for anyone looking for the perfect balance of size and performance.
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Although the Canon A650 IS is heavier than most compacts, due to its use of 4 AA batteries and a twisting LCD, it's a fine camera with many of the elements of the premier Canon G9, but is much less expensive. It has the same sharp 6x optical zoom lens, 12 megapixel 1/1.7-inch sensor (large for a point and shoot camera), and DIGIC III processor used by the G9.
The A650 also has a full complement of manual controls and optical image stabilization. Its adjustable LCD, which the G9 does not have, lets you view the screen even if the camera is held overhead or to either side. The picture quality of the A650 IS is excellent in good light and better than most point and shoots in low light. Unlike many smaller cameras today, it has an optical viewfinder.
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Although some might consider the 10 megapixel Panasonic TZ5 an ultrazoom because of its 10x optical zoom, its pocketable size makes it more of a compact camera. It takes sharp, colorful pictures with its wide angle (28mm) Leica branded lens and the latest Panasonic Venus Engine IV processor. It has optical image stabilization, many scene modes, and an "intelligent auto" mode. It also takes high-resolution 720p video.
Although the TZ5 lacks an optical viewfinder, it has a terrific high resolution LCD with 460,000 pixels. The price of the TZ5 is very reasonable considering its many features and overall quality.
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Sony loves to build cameras incorporating the latest gadgetry and flashy features, and the W150 combines all of the high-tech hype you could ask for with excellent competency as a general purpose picture taker.
After putting Sony's latest mid-priced model through a thorough evaluation, DCR Editor David Rasnake stands by his initial evaluation of the W150 from our last Buyer's Guide: "Packed out with the huge features list we've come to expect from Sony, the all-metal W150 looks great, feels even better in hand, and takes vibrant print-ready shots at lightning speed. An 8.1 megapixel sensor coupled to a 5x wide-angle zoom give the W150 plenty of raw shooting power, and a long-life battery means the photographic fun can carry on all day long."
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If you're looking for a lot of performance at a low price in a compact camera, the Kodak Z1085 IS brings it. With a 10 megapixel sensor, 5x zoom, and optical image stabilization, the Z1085 sports the basic physical tech that serious shooters are seeking.
While the Z1085 wasn't the best compact DCR has reviewed this year, it's one of Kodak's best efforts to date and certainly more than worth its low price. As David Rasnake noted in revieiwing the camera, "everything on the Z1085 feels intentional – this isn't a cobbled together budget cam, but a generally well thought out device."
"The newest EasyShare does a lot of things right."
Students and others who are serious about photography but are not quite ready to move up to a DSLR will appreciate an SLR-like ultrazoom, especially if they will need a very long zoom lens. Especially suited to nature, sports, and general-purpose photography, ultrazoom cameras are fairly expensive - with some high-spec models approaching the price of an entry-level DSLR.
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This 9 megapixel camera has a relatively modest (for an ultrazoom) 15x optical zoom Carl Zeiss lens, which is nonetheless sharp with little distortion. The H50's relatively large for an ultrazoom, though light in weight. It has good ergonomics, with a nicely shaped handgrip and a high resolution LCD screen that tilts, making it possible to take overhead shots.
The H50 has a useful electronic viewfinder with diopter adjustment (so users can remove their glasses). It has full manual controls, optical image stabilization, and numerous scene modes. What makes the H50 special, though, is the quality of its images, which are sharp and colorful. Its low light ability is among the best of the ultrazooms in its price range.
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The S8100fd is a fine 10 megapixel ultrazoom. It's small (for an ultrazoom) and lightweight. It has excellent ergonomics and a good electronic viewfinder with manual diopter adjustment, full manual controls, and optical image stabilization.
The FinePix's key spec is its very good 18x zoom lens, with a wide angle (27mm) view. It takes sharp, well saturated photos and does adequately in low light. The S8100fd uses 4 AA batteries, rather than a rechargeable lithium ion battery, making it convenient to find power just about anywhere. Overall, it's a solid camera with no serious weaknesses and was DCR's Editor's Choice selection for July 2008.
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The P80 features a current-generation EXPEED processor and 10 megapixel sensor, but the star of the show has to be the 18X optically stabilized zoom lens that covers the 35mm equivalent focal range of 27 to 486mm. A 2.7-inch LCD and Nikon's D-Lighting technology also top the list of specs of this exciting new Coolpix model.
In the words of DCR forum moderator USAPatriot, "Nikon's first major entry in the ultrazoom camera market is a sure hit. The camera's great image quality, long reach telephoto lens, and top Nikon quality make this a solid competitor to ultrazooms from Olympus and Panasonic and their well known dominance in the market."
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The SP-570 UZ features a 20x optical zoom, a 1/2.33-inch CCD imager, 10 megapixels of resolution, a 2.7-inch HyperCrystal LCD screen, a large, bright electronic viewfinder, a hotshoe, shutter speeds from eight minutes to 1/2000th of a second, plus Olympus's TruePic III processor and BrightCapture Technology.
A near-miss for DCR's May 2008 Editor's Choice award, the SP-570 UZ still earns high praise from DCR Editor David Rasnake: "The SP-570 makes some nice, streamlining improvements on previous Olympus ultrazooms. With its phenomenal zoom range and loads of features, it upholds Olympus's tradition of building very good long-zoom cameras."
DSLRs, which permit you to change lenses, are not for your typical student: they are larger, heavier, and more expensive than point-and-shoot cameras and don’t have video capabilities. However, when it comes to the speed of camera operations, the amount of control that can be exercised, and picture quality - especially in low light - DSLRs are unmatched. While it’s possible to spend thousands on DSLR bodies and lenses, students who need the capabilities of a DSLR will probably opt for an entry-level camera/kit lens combination like the excellent options listed below.
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This excellent, entry-level DSLR is a smallish, lightweight 10 megapixel camera with optical image stabilization built into the body, a dust reduction system, and Sony's latest BIONZ processor. It has a large 2.7-inch, high resolution LCD and an acceptable optical viewfinder. It's a quick performer and takes excellent photos in good light and good looking photos in lower light, through ISO 1600. It also has a powerful built-in flash.
The A200 is sold in kit form with a Sony 18-70mm lens, which is not a bad starter lens. The price for the combination is very low considering the quality of the components. It was DCR's Editor's Choice for June 2008.
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The Pentax K200D is a 10.2 megapixel DSLR using sensor technology borrowed from the company's previous-generation advanced camera. Packaged as a kit with Pentax's redesigned 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 II lens, the K200D - with its AA power and SD memory - is aimed at entry-level shooters looking for an accessible, moderately priced interchangeable-lens camera.
The K200D is a favorite option of DCR forum moderator USAPatriot, who notes, "Priced at around $600 the K200D is an excellent beginners or novice's DSLR camera."
"The K200D is feature laden, one of which is most notably weather and dust sealing which is a true rarity at this price point. The camera also produces spectacular images and offers users plenty of room to grow."
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The Canon Rebel XSi (a.k.a. the Canon EOS 450D) is Canon's latest mass-consumer DSLR, moving into the company's lineup one step above the current Rebel XTi. Continuing in the tradition of the Digital Rebel cameras, the XSi features a proprietary CMOS sensor with an effective 12.2 megapixels of resolution, making it Canon's most high-res entry-level offering to date. The XTi's nine-point auto focus system returns with some slight tweaks, and the new Rebel gets an enormous 3-inch LCD.
"The latest upper-tier Canon Rebel isn't a revolutionary camera," notes DCR Editor David Rasnake, "but the XSi has evolved nicely, offering performance once reserved for advanced amateur cameras in a lower-priced package."
With contributions from DCR forum moderator USAPatriot, and site editor David Rasnake.