Best Digital Cameras and DSLRs for Christmas 2011

Shopping for a digital camera shouldn’t be hard, but it is. There are hundreds and hundreds of digital camera models to choose from and it can be time consuming to wade through review after review trying to find the best camera for the money this Christmas. I’ll do some of that work for you and give you my recommendations for a few different price points and categories.

Compact Point and Shoot Under $200

This is the most crowded camera category and there’s been a lot of convergence over the years with cheaper cameras. Good cameras in this price range are going to be more alike than they are different. The biggest change here has been the inclusion of wider angle lenses. In the past most compact point and shoots started at 35mm, but now 24mm and 28mm is much more common. These wider angles are very useful and arguably more important than a really long zoom in most situations.

Canon PowerShot ELPH 300 HS | Amazon – $174

The Canon 300 HS is a nice little camera with a good set of features. It’s small, has one of the newer CMOS sensors, 24mm wide angle and fairly quick f/2.7 aperture at the wide end. All of my point and shoots have been Canon PowerShots (S400 about 8 years ago and S700 4 years ago) and they are just solid cameras for the money.

Canon PowerShot ELPH 100 HS | Amazon – $130

The 100 HS is very similar to its 300 HS sibling if price is really an issue. You lose a few bells and whistles like a smaller zoom range and being able to optically zoom during video. There might be cheaper cameras, but quality really starts to drop off if you go too much cheaper than this.

Compact Point and Shoot Over $200

The under $200 crowd are fairly similar. As you look at cameras over $200 you start to see more variation and better features. Along with the wider angles being offered really fast f/1.8 apertures are becoming the new must have feature. These faster lenses let in more light resulting in faster shutter speeds and less reliance on high ISO. Anything that keeps the ISO lower on a point and shoot is a very good thing.

Nikon Coolpix P300 | Amazon – $277

This is the main camera I’m going to recommend in this category. For normal day to day use there really isn’t anything like it. It starts at 24mm wide and has a very fast f/1.8 lens at that widest focal length. I recommended this camera for my sister after quite a bit of research and it has turned out to be fantastic. If I was in the market for a new point and shoot (I shoot my Nikon D90 almost exclusively) this is the camera I would get. That f/1.8 aperture is something only us DSLR shooters got to enjoy, but Nikon has pushed it down to point and shoot cameras at a reasonable price. This is just about the only P&S camera I can get excited about and it is reasonably priced.

Nikon Coolpix S9100 | Amazon – $239

If you need more zoom and are willing to trade it for the fast f/1.8 of the P300 then the Nikon S9100 offers a good set of features for the money. It packs a big zoom range in a small package compared to the “superzoom” point and shoots that are roughly the size of a small DSLR (and not much cheaper).

DSLR Recommendations

Point and shoots are great for pocketability, but it is very hard to match the capabilities of a DSLR. Over the years the price of low end DSLRs has dropped considerably and aren’t much more than a high-end P&S. If you are outgrowing your P&S or want to upgrade an older model then see my recommendation.

Nikon D3100 DSLR | Amazon – $549

The D3100 is just an incredible little (for a DSLR) camera for the money. Canon is very competitive with Nikon, but right now the two things that make me lean towards Nikon is their flash system and the $200 Nikon 35mm f/1.8. I suggested this setup to my brother and his results are just as good as my D90 and miles ahead of his old D40.

Nikon D7000 DSLR | Amazon – $1399

If you’re looking for one of the best cameras out there without completely breaking the bank then the D7000 is the ticket. This thing is a beast and nothing can really beat its bang-for-buck right now. If my D90 ever craps out or I felt the need to upgrade then I’d be looking at the D7000.

Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 Nikon and Canon lens Review

Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 AT-X116 Pro DX for Nikon and for Canon

Nikon’s DX zoom lenses like the 18-55mm start at 18mm (27mm after crop factor) which is just starting to get into the wide angle arena. Most of the time this gives you a wide enough field of view (FOV) and if you need to get more in then you can just back up. There are times though when you can’t or don’t want to back up. Sometimes you might want a wider FOV to get a different perspective in a shot. It’s not just about “getting it all in”, but rather looking at a shot differently and getting the composition you want.

I had never shot a DX lens wider than 17mm or one with a constant f/2.8 lens. We can see the difference in FOV between the Tokina 11-16mm, Nikon 18-200mm and Nikon 35mm:

11mm is wide, really wide. The test shots above were taken at about 5 feet from the TV. The first thing I notice in the 11mm shot is the perspective distortion, but that isn’t necessarily bad. The Nikon 18-200mm presents quite a bit of barrel distortion at 18mm. The Tokina gives nice straight lines, but going so wide starts to affect perspective. Things at the edge of the frame in this situation look stretched because of perspective distortion.

The best way I can describe perspective distortion is that the ultra-wide focal length allows you to move the camera forward into the scene. This has a large impact on the size of subjects depending on their distance from the camera. Subjects in the foreground will appear larger in size than subjects in the background. You can see this in the shot of Mt. Shasta below, the foreground right in front of my feet is balanced against the huge volcano in the distance. You have to use that foreground emphasis to your advantage and it is surprisingly hard to do. That’s about the best I can explain it, but you can read more about perspective distortion on Wikipedia.

The Tokina 11-16mm is a very interesting lens and can be considered special purpose. It’s definitely not for close up portraits as the perspective distortion can wreak havoc on your subjects’ faces if you aren’t careful. For a more distant portrait like my wife in front of Haystack Rock you can get away with it. Keeping the subject in the very middle of the frame helps avoid unflattering distortion like me with the moose in Coeur d’Alene.

The lens itself is very solid and well built. The focus ring pulls in and out to switch between autofocus and manual focus. I’m very happy with the lens and has whetted my appetite for more “pro” lenses, especially with a constant f/2.8. Overall this lens is a very good value.

For Nikon users, depending on your camera you might want to look at the comparable Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5. The Tokina does not have a built in autofocus motor so it will not be able to autofocus on bodies missing the motor to drive non AF-S lenses. The lower end bodies like the D5000, D3000, D3100, D40, D50, and D60 do not have the motor so the Nikon 10-24mm becomes your best option. The D70, D80, D90, D200, D300, and D7000 are all good to go.

Canon users will run into a similar situation if your body does not include an autofocus motor then you’ll want to consider the Canon 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5. The only problem with the Nikon and Canon versions is the higher cost, slower apertures and more distortion.

The Nikon version is about $600 from Amazon and the Canon version is about $700