Budget DSLR cameras for the holidays

— -- When photography starts to become a real hobby, sometimes a point-and-shoot just isn't good enough. Thankfully, stepping up to a serious camera is easy and affordable these days. Most of the big camera brands make interchangeable-lens cameras designed for entry-level or step-up users, so serious photography doesn't need to feel intimidating.

We've picked a handful of budget-friendly and user-friendly DSLRs and compact system cameras, all of which capture top-notch photos and offer the hands-on control that photography enthusiasts need — at a price that's easier on the wallet.

Entry-level DSLRs

The Nikon D3100 is an excellent, no-nonsense starter DSLR. It's small by DSLR standards, but the handling is still fantastic. It has fewer dials and a smaller viewfinder than some of its more expensive peers, but it is everything that a step-up photographer needs in a camera. It can be found for about $550, including a kit lens. The Canon Rebel T2i is another great entry-level DSLR with similar features and similar performance, despite being over a year old.

Mirrorless cameras

Mirrorless compact system cameras have been around for a few years, but the genre has finally matured. Don't let the technology intimidate you — all that means is that manufacturers are developing methods of squeezing quality out of a more compact size. Budding enthusiasts who want to experiment with manual control and interchangeable lenses without the bulk of a DSLR should look at the Panasonic Lumix GF3 or Olympus PEN E-PM1. Both retail for around $500 including kit lenses.

Mid-Range DSLRs

If you're willing to spend just a little more money, you can get more serious features and more serious performance for just a few hundred dollars more. These mid-range cameras are a great deal and are just as user-friendly to the entry-level user. The Nikon D5100 is a notch up from the D3100, offering better image quality, autofocus, and handling than its little brother, all for about $750, including a lens. Sony's fixed-mirror SLT-A55 model is one of the fastest cameras out there, great for shooting action.

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