Best Cameras under $400
Canon PowerShot A570 IS
The PowerShot A570 offers more bang for the buck than virtually any entry-level camera on the market. It features a 7 Megapixel CCD, 4X optical zoom lens, optical image stabilization, 2.5" LCD display, full manual controls, conversion lens support, and more. The biggest downside is the relatively low LCD resolution. Otherwise, it’s a great choice.
Canon PowerShot SD850 IS Digital ELPH
The SD850 is one of the best ultra-compact cameras on the market. It features an 8 Megapixel CCD, a 4X zoom lens, optical image stabilization, and a very nice 2.5" LCD display. Like all Digital ELPHs, the SD850 is point-and-shoot, with very limited manual controls. The camera has a high quality VGA movie mode, plus a redeye removal tool that actually works.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 is one of the best ultra zoom cameras on the market. It certainly doesn’t skimp on features: you get a 12X Leica lens with optical image stabilization, full manual controls, widescreen movie recording, snappy performance, and conversion lens support. Not bad for under $300, eh?
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3
The DMC-TZ3 may look like an ordinary compact camera, but it packs a whollop. It has a 10X, 28 - 280 mm zoom lens, optical image stabilization, and an enormous 3-inch LCD. It doesn’t have any manual controls, but there are plenty of scene modes to choose from. Photo quality is decent, though noise reduction is heavy at higher ISOs. Overall though, it’s a fun to use camera that lets you take any kind of photo, whether wide-angle or super telephoto.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W55
While not much of an upgrade over its predecessor, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W55 remains a good choice in the compact camera field. It offers a 3X optical zoom lens, a 2.5" LCD display, point-and-shoot operation, and great photo quality. It comes in a compact, stylish metal body, available in four colors.
Best Cameras: $400 - $650
Canon PowerShot S5 IS
While its image quality isn’t as good as its predecessor, the PowerShot S5 remains one of my favorite ultra zoom cameras. It offers almost every conceivable feature, including a 12X zoom lens with image stabilization, full manual controls, a hot shoe, and a rotating LCD display. Like taking movies? The S5 can record VGA quality video with stereo sound -- and you can use the zoom while recording.
The D40 is Nikon’s latest entry-level digital SLR. It’s compact, without being too small like the Canon Digital Rebel XTi. The build quality is also better than that camera. The D40 features a 6 Megapixel CCD, full manual controls, robust performance, and an elaborate in-camera help system that makes it the easiest to use SLR on the market. The main downside is that only AF-S lenses will support autofocus, so that 50 mm prime you have sitting around will be manual focus only.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50
Though it has its share of flaws, the Lumix DMC-FZ50 is still one of the top ultra zoom cameras on the market. Offering a SLR style body (it’s a big camera) with a 12X Leica lens, manual zoom and focus rings, a rotating LCD display, full manual controls, a hot shoe, and much much more. Its big flaw is the overaggressive noise reduction system, which really smudges details at higher ISO settings. Still, the FZ50 is worth a look.
The K100D’s biggest claim to fame is its value for the money. For $600 you get a 6 Megapixel digital SLR with image stabilization that works on every Pentax lens ever made. Despite its low price, the K100D doesn’t feel cheap at all. It features a large 2.5" LCD and a bright optical viewfinder. Being a D-SLR, the camera has full manual controls and snappy performance, though the buffer memory fills up too quickly.
Best Cameras: $650 - $1000
Canon Digital Rebel XTi
The Rebel XTi is a top-notch entry-level D-SLR. You get a 10 Megapixel CMOS sensor, great performance, a 2.5" LCD display, support for Canon EF and EF-S lenses, and all the expandability you’d expect from a digital SLR. You definitely want to try this camera before you buy it, though, as its small size can be off-putting.
Olympus EVOLT E-510
The E-510 is a solid digital SLR capable of producing excellent quality photos -- after you adjust some settings. It’s well built, with a solid grip. With built-in image stabilization, every lens you attach to the camera will be stabilized. The E-510 is also somewhat unique in that it has "live view" on its LCD display -- just like your compact camera, though not as good. There’s also a dust reduction system, which eliminates this common (and frustrating) issue. Other features are fairly standard on a D-SLR: manual controls, expandability, and super-fast performance.
The K10D is a camera offering features typically found on cameras twice its price. You get a 10 Megapixel CCD, image stabilization, a 2.5" LCD display, full manual controls, and a dust reduction system. The body is built like a tank, and weather sealed. The camera’s downside is the straight-out-of-the box JPEG quality is poor -- but workarounds can make things look a lot nicer.
Best Cameras: Over $1000
The EOS-40D is a significant upgrade to the 30D before it. It features a 10 Megapixel CMOS sensor, live view on a 3-inch LCD display, full manual controls, dust reduction, and the kind of performance and photo quality that you’d expect from a D-SLR. Build quality is top-notch, and the doors and covers on the camera are now weather-sealed. The 40D supports both EF and EF-S mount lenses, with a 1.6X focal length conversion ratio.
The D200 is a most impressive 10 Megapixel digital SLR. This camera offers full manual controls, near-instant startup, fast performance, a dedicated AF-assist lamp, and a gorgeous 2.5" LCD display. Build quality was exceptional. Like other Nikon SLRs, the D200 supports nearly all F-mount lenses.