So, this holiday season you’ve decided to step up your own photography game… or perhaps you want to help someone else you know shoot better photos. When you want to step up from your smartphone camera, you have approximately 1,975,233 choices. Which do you choose?
As always when it comes to photography, what you should buy depends on several factors: price, size, and what you actually plan to do with the camera. Thankfully, your choices will shrink depending upon which of those is most important to you.
A few of the cameras in this list are SLRs, you probably know that you can spend a little or a lot on one of those. With that in mind, we aimed a bit above the budget baseline models, to ensure the cameras on this list have clear and unambiguous benefits over shooting with a premium smartphone. If you’re going for a dedicated camera, go for one that will do things your smartphone can’t.
We're rounded up five wildly different cameras--something in this list should be appropriate for the aspiring photographer you have in mind.
Best action & adventure camera
GoPro continues to reign supreme in the action camera category. While you can find (much) cheaper competitors for capturing sports and action , GoPro is still the gold stadard for features, flexibility, and durability.
The top-tier, do-it-all GoPro is the $400 GoPro Hero5 Black: It captures up to 4K video, hands-free voice control, built-in GPS, and-the best part--it's waterproof, with no bulky plastic case required. Plus, it has a touch-screen and on-device record button. Great choice for the action-adventurer on your list.
Also: If you are on a bit more of a budget, consider the $300 GoPro Hero 5 Session, which still records up to 4K video, but lacks on-device controls (you’ll do everything via a smartphone interface).
Best interchangeable lens camera
Our pick here is neither the newest nor the shiniest. But throughout this holiday season, the two-year-old Sony Alpha a6000, a compact interchangeable lens camera, caught our attention for being just such a darned good deal.
Why? Sony’s discounts on this gem means you can pick up the body plus 15-50mm kit lens for $548 (that includes an instant rebate of $150). The a6000 remains a top-rated pick, thanks to its 24.3-megapixel APS-C sensor, fast 11-frames-per-second image capture, and its pleasing image quality. At this price, it’s one of the least expensive ILC is a packages you can buy, period; and even when the instant rebate is done, it will remain one of the better options for the price.
Alpha a6000by Sony
We’re going to go with two picks here. The Sony Cyber-shot RX100 III is another example of two-year-old tech aging like a fine wine. This 20-megapixel compact camera continues to more-than-hold its own against newer challengers, and at $800, it’s priced for discerning shooters who want flexibility and creativity in a slim, lightweight design that won’t make a dent in your pocket.
It has tremendous low-light performance, due in part to its 1-inch image sensor, excellent high ISO image processing, and wide-aperture f/1.8- 2.8 lens with a focal length of 24-70mm.
The other pick is the Canon G7 X Mark II, at $700. A little bulkier than the RX100 III, this 2016 model is also is easier to hand-hold, thanks to a slight grip at right. Equipped with a 1-inch image sensor, this 20-megapixel camera captures images at up to 8.1 fps, and it has full manual controls and RAW support (but not 4K video).
Its lens is also f/1.8-2.8, like the Sony; but it’s reach is longer, at 24-100mm. It’s another great choice, particular if you want easier-to-access controls, a dedicated hot-shoe, or easier-to-grip option.
Best camera for splashing around in the water
No need to risk drowning your smartphone with this camera in your pocket. The $380 Olympus Tough TG-4 can handle itself well in the water, up to 50 feet of water to be precise. It has a 25-100mm lens with an f/2.0-4.9 aperture range.
Tough TG-4by Olympus
And it captures images at 16-megpixels, and 5fps to get those dives and splashes. Built-in GPS means you’ll always know which inlet a beach shot is from; and RAW image capture means you can easily do all sorts of post-processing tweaks to adjust.
Best Entry-level DSLR
Whether you have a budding photographer on your hands, a DSLR still can be the best tool at the best images in the widest variety of circumstances. We pick the Canon EOS Rebel T6i as the best pick for the tweener universe.
You’re just stepping up from a camera phone, want more controls, and the flexibility of a wide and varied lens ecosystem, too. This 24.2-megapixel shooter packs in Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity, an articulating touchscreen, 5 fps burst mode shooting, and fast autofocus. The basic kit comes with an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, and sells for $900.
The $800 Nikon D5500 is another option. With similar specs, this is the Nikon equivalent of the T6i--which may matter if your household is already committed to one of the Big Two systems. Bonus: Both Nikon and Canon regularly run deals on these models, including during the holidays.
Also: If you’re trying to keep it to a minimum, the $650 Nikon D3300 offers a lot in a small, reasonably priced body.