NEW YORK - Digital cameras have been popular gifts for a decade, but enthusiasm is waning because most households already have one. The good news is that if you do know someone who could use a fresher model, it's hard to go wrong: Today's big-name cameras are almost uniformly good buys. Whether you're looking for a simple, compact point-and-shoot or a digital SLR, here's a selection that stands out from the crowd.
Best Budget Option: Kodak EasyShare C195, $100.
Pros: It used to be nearly impossible to find a quality digital camera for just $100. Now, Casio, Canon, and Kodak sell them, with Nikon offering one that costs closer to $110. Of these, Kodak's 14.5-megapixel C195 is the only one that has 5X optical zoom; all the others have a measly zoom factor of 3X. Whether you are shooting from the sidelines of a Little League game or snapping candids from across the room at a party, that versatile lens will make a difference.
Meanwhile, the camera's "Smart Capture" feature, which was borrowed from Eastman Kodak Co.'s higher-end cameras, automatically detects the shooting conditions and sets the camera to one of 21 scene modes. My test photos, which included close-ups with blurry backgrounds, looked decent, although I recommend turning the flash off indoors.
The camera has a large 3-inch display, a rarity on cameras this cheap. People can also select photos and movies on the camera so that they will upload to sites such as Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube when they plug the camera into a computer.
Cons: The C195 records standard-definition - not HD - movies, typical of cameras in this price range. It also takes AA batteries, not a rechargeable lithium-ion one, but some people might like the flexibility of being able to swap out dead batteries while on the go. It also claims less sensitivity in dimly lit conditions than competing cameras. Then again, just because another camera claims a higher level of lowlight sensitivity, that does not mean it actually fares any better in those situations.
Best Point-and-Shoot: Canon PowerShot S95, $400.
Pros: About as compact as a deck of cards, the S95 looks like any other point-and-shoot, but its photos are lovely enough that even people used to carrying bulkier, more advanced digital SLRs will be impressed. Although it is the same size as other cameras, the body feels particularly solid, well-made.
This camera from Canon Inc. has an unusually large sensor for a small camera, which means clearer, sharper pictures, especially when the light is low. It takes generally beautiful shots and does a better job of blurring the background than other point-and-shoots. The camera also shoots HD video (1280 x 720) and has an HDMI port, enabling people to connect the camera directly to a high-definition television. Serious photographers looking for a lighter camera will enjoy the various manual controls.
Cons: The S95's battery life is relatively short: Canon says it can take up to 200 photos on a charge, whereas competing models such as the Panasonic Lumix-DMC LX5 ($399) claim to take up to 400. The shutter button is small. Also, the S95's 3.8X optical zoom - about what you'd get on a $99 camera - might be too shallow for some people.
Best Digital SLR for Beginners: Nikon D3100, $700.
Pros: Nikon Corp.'s digital SLRs consistently take beautiful photos, and the company has made them easier to use, thanks to simplified menus designed to guide newbies. The 14-megapixel D3100, in particular, records full HD movies, something other DSLRs in this price category don't do. Just as important, the D3100's autofocus function works in video mode, something that's true of few other DSLRs, even Nikon's more expensive models.
Cons: The optical viewfinder - what you see when you put your eye to the camera - is relatively small. At its fastest, the camera can fire off three shots per second, which is actually slow compared with other cameras in its class. Still, the burst shooting will come in handy when capturing, say, your child's next soccer game. The screen is fixed and does not fold out of the body, which makes it harder to maneuver when capturing video.