Best Digital Cameras – 2011 (includes 2009-2010)

Sony Alpha NEX-5N

Sony Alpha NEX-5N

Updated Dec. 26, 2011.

It’s that time of year with the holiday season approaching and I am already getting questions about which digital cameras I recommend. The camera lists below will point you to the highest rated models, along with information and advice. The lists will be updated throughout the holiday season as new, highly rated cameras become available.

Camera Classifications

Your first decision is to decide what type of digital camera you want.

Not long ago, there were two broad classifications of cameras in the 35mm and smaller format: digital single lens reflex (DSLR) and fixed lens, point-and-shoot (P&S).

DSLR cameras have a reflex mirror that bounces light up through a pentaprism (or mirror box) and out through an optical viewfinder. When taking a photo, the mirror moves up out of the way (hence the name “reflex”) so the light can strike the digital sensor. One of the key advantages of a DSLR is the ability to change lenses. Most DSLRs give you a wide variety of accessories for tackling specialized photographic projects. As a group, DSLRs are also faster and more responsive than P&S cameras. DSLRs excel at fast action, high speed photography.

Point-and-shoot cameras are usually smaller and lighter. They don’t have a reflex mirror and they have one, fixed (non-interchangeable) lens. They are perfect for people who want a convenient, all-in-one camera, with no need for a wide variety of lenses or accessories.  If you want to push a button and let the camera do the rest (at least most of the time), a P&S is probably your best choice. Some P&S cameras give you a lot of manual controls for those occasions that you want to make the photographic decisions.  The size variation is huge from smaller than a deck of cards to as big as a a smaller DSLR. The right P&S fixed lens camera can give you convenience and simplicity when you want it, to a lot of controls if you need them.  They vary widely in the focal length range their zoom lenses cover.

More recently, hybrid interchangeable lens cameras (ILC) have become available that mix features of both types of cameras. For some photographers, they combine the best of both worlds. They are usually smaller and lighter than SLRs, but they do take interchangeable lenses (although the selection of lenses is still less than for a DSLR).  They don’t have a movable “reflex” mirror or a pentaprism bump on top with an optical viewfinder, two of the reason they are smaller than a DSLR.  Either there is no mirror at all or the mirror is fixed in place and some light passes through to the sensor and some is bounced up to the viewfinder.  If you want more than a P&S, but don’t need everything a DSLR offers, a hybrid ILC camera may be just right for you.

Camera Ratings

DP Review is my favorite camera rating site. They have been doing this for a long time. For a long time I have recommended the purchase of a camera that receives one of DP Reviews two highest ratings. Under the old system, the highest rating was “Highly Recommended”. Under the new system which began this year, the two highest ratings are the Gold Award, and the silver Award. DP Review also began giving cameras an overall percentage score, but the scores are only comparable withing the same class of cameras. Don’t compare the score of a fix lens camera with the score for a digital SLR.

The cameras listed below received a Gold or Silver Award from DP Review under the new system or a “Highly Recommended” rating under the old system. I also included the overall percentage score.

Buying These Cameras Online

You can find almost all of these cameras at my photography store (powered by Amazon.com) which you can find here at my Web site, and here as a stand alone site. Just look for the “Highest Rated” links. Your order, purchase, and delivery at my photography store are handled by Amazon.com’s safe and efficient system, and you are protected by Amazon’s excellent return policies.

The Best Digital SLR Cameras – 2011

Sony A580 – 75% – Silver

Nikon D5100 – 76% – Silver

Canon Rebel T3i – 77% – Silver

Nikon D3100 – 72% – Silver

Pentax K-5 – 83% – Gold

Nikon D7000 – 80% – Silver

Canon EOS 60D – 79% – Silver

The Best Hybrid Interchangeable Lens (ILC) Cameras – 2011

Sony NEX-7 – 81% – Gold

Sony SLT-A65 – 78% – Gold

Olympus Pen E-PM1 – 71% – Silver

Sony SLT-A77 – 81% – Silver

Sony NEX-5N – 79% – Gold

Sony SLT-A35 – 73% – Silver

Olympus PEN E-PL3 – 72% – Silver

Sony NEX-C3 – 74% – Silver

Olympus PEN E-P3 – 74% – Silver

Panasonic DMC-G3 – 75% – Silver

Panasonic DMC-GH2 – 79% – Silver

Olympus PEN E-PL2 – 71% – Silver

The Best Fixed Lens (P&S) Cameras – 2011

Canon S100 – 72% – Silver

Panasonic DMC-TS3 (waterproof) – 72% – Gold

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX10 (waterproof) –  71%  – Silver

Fujifilm FinePix X100 – 75% – Silver

Olympus XZ-1 – 74% – Gold

Canon G12 – 73% – Gold

Canon S95 – 72% – Silver

Panasonic DMC-LX5 – 73% – Silver

Cameras to watch that will likely be highly rated

Fujifilm X10

The Best Cameras in 2009 and 2010

Some of the best cameras on the market today were introduced in 2009 and 2010, so be sure and check out those lists at the end of this article.

Choosing A Camera

The lists above (and below) are a good place to start if you are looking for a digital camera. Many of the cameras released in 2009 and 2010 are first class models that are still on the market.

As a group, hybrid and fixed lens cameras are hugely different in terms of functionality and feature set. Some are almost as big as an SLR, others are shirt pocket tiny. Some have lenses with a fairly limited focal length range. Others have a very long range and you can zoom in on your son or granddaughter even if they are on the far end of the ball field. If you want a “carry anywhere” shirt pocket camera, your choice will be very different than if you want to photograph wildlife at a distance with a camera that has a long range zoom lens. Decide on what you want a camera to do and then read some full reviews at DP Review before you make your final camera choice. It wouldn’t hurt to look at the cameras on your short list at a local camera store. Don’t get talked into getting a camera you haven’t thoroughly checked out ahead of time at DP Review.

With so many digital SLRs (DSLRs) receiving high ratings, which camera should you choose? The answer usually comes down to lenses and systems. If you have a lens or set of lenses that you like, get a digital camera that will take your lenses.

If you need certain specialized lenses, then pick a camera brand that has the lenses you need.

If you need highly specialized equipment, you will want to go with a manufacturer that provides a wide range of specialized accessories.

If you don’t have specialized needs, almost any high-rated camera from any manufacturer will work very well. Read some full reviews at DP Review to narrow down your choices. Pick out several models and brands of cameras in your price range. Go to a well equipped camera store and try the cameras out to see how they feel and work in your hands. Narrow down your choices to your top two models, but don’t buy a camera just yet.

Rent both of your favorite models (with a lens) for a week (one week with each, not both at the same time). Online camera and lens rentals have become quite reasonable. A week with each camera will tell you which one you most like to work with. And remember, you can’t go too far wrong with most any recent, high rated DSLR.

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Some of the best available cameras came out in 2010 and 2009, so look at the lists below.  Some of these cameras have been recently discontinued but they are still excellent cameras and available on the used market.  There is some overlap between these 2010 lists and the 2011 lists above. If you buy a used camera, choose a reputable dealer that provides a good used warranty. I list some of my favorites camera stores here.

The Best Digital SLR Cameras – 2010

Nikon D7000 – 80% – Silver
Canon EOS 60D – 79% – Silver
Canon Rebel T2i – 77% – Gold
Canon EOS 1D Mark IV – 89% – Gold
Nikon D3S – 89% – Gold
Nikon D3100 – 72% – Silver
Nikon D3000 – 72% – Highly Recommended
Nikon D300S – 82% – Highly Recommended
Canon 7D – 84% – Highly Recommended

The Best Hybrid Interchangeable Lens Cameras – 2010

Sony SLT Alpha A55 – 76% – Gold
Panasonic DMC-G2 – 72% – Silver
Sony NEX-5 – 71% – Silver
Sony NEX-3 – 70% Silver
Sony E-PL1 – 69% – Silver
Olympus E-P2 – 69% – Silver

The Best Fixed Lens Cameras – 2010

Canon G12 – 73% – Gold
Canon S95 – 72% – Silver
Panasonic DMC-LX5 – 73% – Silver
Canon SD 4000 IS – 74% – Gold
Samsung TL500 – 73% – Silver
Panasonic FZ35 – 75% – Gold
Canon SX20 IS – 73% – Gold
Nikon P100 – 70% – Silver
Casio EX-FH 100 – 72% – Gold
Samsung HZ35W – 72% – Gold
Canon S90 – 75% – Silver
Canon G11 – Highly Recommended

The Best Digital SLR Cameras – 2009

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Canon EOS 7D
Canon Digital Rebel T1i
Nikon D3X
Nikon D300S
Nikon D5000
Olympus E-620
Olympus E-30
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
Pentax K-7

The Best Hybrid Cameras – 2009

Olympus Pen E-P1, 12.3 megapixels, interchangeable lenses
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1, 12.1 megapixels, interchangeable lenses

The Best Fixed Lens Cameras – 2009

Canon PowerShot SD880 IS
Canon PowerShot SX110 IS
Canon PowerShot SX10IS
Fujifilm FinePix F100fd
Fujifilm FinePix F200 EXR
Panasonic Lumix FZ28
Panasonic Lumix LX3
Panasonic Lumix TZ5
Panasonic Lumix ZS1
Panasonic Lumix ZS3

The Best Fixed Lens Underwater Cameras – 2009

Canon Powershot D10, 12.1 mp, 3x zoom lens
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1, 12.1 mp, 4.6x zoom