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Best cameras for Christmas 2012

Modern photography has always been popular, but never more so when the transition from film to digital started to gather momentum in the consumer space from the mid-90s.

Since then, the digital camera market has grown into one of the biggest and most active, further fuelled by the social media boom and the continued development of the camera smartphone.

It therefore comes as no surprise that a new digital camera is a prime candidate for a wonderful Christmas gift this year, so from digital SLR to budget compact we’ve rounded up some of our favourites to help you narrow down the options.

Pentax K-30 - Digital SLR

After a turbulent couple of years, that has seen the company bought first by Hoya and then by Ricoh, Pentax seems to have finally settled down at last to do what it does best; making brilliant cameras like the new K-30.

The first thing you notice about the K-30 is the aggressive, angular style of the body, something of a departure for the normally discrete and restrained Pentax. Constructed of tough polycarbonate plastic over an alloy chassis, the K-30 is light but strong, and like all of Pentax’s current DSLRs it is fully weather sealed.

The K-30 shares many features with the widely acclaimed and multi-award-winning K-5, including the superb 0.92x full-frame viewfinder and dual-wheel control system. New features include the 11-point SAFOX IXi+ autofocus system, an improvement over the K-5’s AF with faster subject tracking. For speed freaks it can shoot at a continuous 6fps, only a little shy of the new K-5 II.

The best part about the K-30 though is the price; at just £370 body only it offers semi-pro features, performance and image quality for the price of an entry-level model, and with access to 40 years of Pentax lenses it’s the ideal way to start a system. It’s even available in three different colours.

Sony NEX-7 - Compact System Camera

Compact System Cameras, or CSCs as they are generally known, have come a long way in four years, but even now there aren’t many that can really compete with a top-shelf digital SLR when it comes to performance and picture quality. One of the few that most definitely can, however, is the fantastic Sony NEX-7.

Now at around £850, body only, it’s undeniably expensive, but you do get a hell of a lot of camera for your money. At its core lies Sony’s own 24-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor, giving it a maximum resolution of 6,000 x 4,000 pixels, backed by a sophisticated processing engine that can shoot those huge pictures at a rate of 10 a second. Add to that a strong all-metal body, a 3in 921k dot articulated monitor, a high resolution AMOLED viewfinder, a clever and extremely versatile control system and the obligatory full HD video with stereo audio, and you have one of the best all-round cameras currently on the market.

It’s so good in fact that even the legendary Hassleblad has licensed the NEX-7 as its new “Lunar” camera. If you’re looking for a more portable alternative to a full-size digital SLR then the Sony NEX-7 is one of the few that are really up to the job. For more, read our full Sony NEX-7 review.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 - Premium Compact Camera

Photography enthusiasts are a fussy bunch, and not easily pleased, so it says a lot for Panasonic’s Lumix LX-series of advanced compacts that every one of them has come to be regarded as a minor classic. This is because Panasonic has correctly identified just what those enthusiasts are looking for; a top-quality lens, traditional controls and superb image quality.

The latest in the line is the LX7, and it’s a fantastic camera by any standard. It features a very high quality Leica Vario-Summilux f/1.4-2.3 lens, with 3.8x optical zoom equivalent to 24-90mm, full manual exposure control with an actual aperture ring on the lens barrel and shutter speeds up to 1/4,000th of a second, plus raw mode shooting. Panasonic is one of the few camera manufacturers to have realised that more megapixels doesn’t automatically mean better pictures, and the the LX7 retains the 10.1-megapixel resolution of its predecessors the LX5 and LX3, provided by a 1/1.7in MOS sensor.

Additional features include Power OIS image stabilisation, full 1080p HD video recording at 50fps for up to 90 minutes in AVCHD format, and an optional clip-on optical viewfinder for the real purists. Advanced compacts don’t come any classier than this, although you’ll have to pay for the privilege; the Lumix LX7 is currently selling for around £370.

Canon PowerShot A810 - Budget Compact Camera

In this era of recession, austerity and all-round financial hardship we all need to save money wherever we can, so you might be looking for something a little cheaper than the other expensive cameras in our Christmas list. Well, look no further than the Canon PowerShot A810, which can be bought for around £55 from many online retailers.

Of course for that kind of money you can’t expect miracles, but the A810 delivers reliable performance, decent build quality and surprisingly good pictures for less than the price of a good Christmas dinner. Considering the price, it’s not too short on useful features either. It has a 1/2.3in 16-megapixel CCD sensor with a DIGIC 4 processor, a 5x zoom lens equivalent to 28-140mm with a maximum aperture of f/2.8-6.9, and a 6.8cm (2.7in) 230k-dot monitor.

It offers a number of creative modes including Fish-eye effect, Super Vivid, Poster, Toy Camera, Miniature and Monochrome, with the effects previewed on the screen so you can see what you’re getting. It also has face detection AF for up to 35 faces, digital image stabilisation and automatic red-eye correction for flash shots. The video recording mode is only 720p HD, but it can record for just under 30 minutes.

It’s powered by two AA batteries, and with decent alkalines you can expect to take 300 shots before you need to replace them. If you’re on a tight budget this Christmas you won’t find much better value for your money.

Nikon Coolpix P510 - 'Bridge' Camera

Super-zoom or “bridge” cameras aren’t as popular as they used to be. With more and more compact cameras featuring very powerful zoom lenses, and compact system cameras taking over their role as stepping-stones between compacts and DSLRs, nobody seems that interested in the traditional “SLR-style” super-zoom camera anymore.

Nonetheless there are still quite a few of them available, and they don’t come much better than the excellent Nikon Coolpix P510. Its main selling point is its astonishingly powerful zoom lens, a 42x monster with a focal length range equivalent to 24-1,000mm. You’d be hard put to find an SLR lens that can match that kind of magnification.

With a lens that powerful the main concern is obviously going to be camera shake, but the P510 has an amazingly effective image stabilisation system which means that it’s actually possible, in decent light, to use that amazing lens at full zoom without a tripod. The lens isn’t just powerful either, it’s also very sharp and almost distortion-free at all focal lengths, and can focus down to 1cm. It’s hard to imagine how a lens could be more versatile.

As well as the lens, the P510 offers a 16-megapixel resolution, a tilting 3in 921k-dot monitor and of course full HD video recording with stereo audio. Despite all that it’s not a particularly expensive camera, and is currently available for around £275. For more, read our full Nikon Coolpix P510 review.

For more on the best tech products to buy this Christmas, check out our guides on:

The best tablets for Christmas 2012

The best smartphones for Christmas 2012

The best eBook readers for Christmas 2012

The best laptops for Christmas 2012