Dec. 25, 2011 -- That digital camera to give as a gift or put under the holiday tree is more affordable than ever.
Even in this smartphone era, when many consumers find the photos on their cellphones are good enough, camera sales remain strong.
"Tablets and smartphones have captured the consumer zeitgeist," says Chris Chute, an analyst with research firm IDC. "But cameras are still selling."
Depending on the format you prefer, camera options abound:
Point and shoots
Many of the latest models sell for $300 and $400, though there's no reason to pay that much for a good point and shoot. Many full-featured, but slightly older, models are available for under $200.
Amazon has Panasonic's DMC-ZS9, with a 14-megapixel sensor and a wide-ranging 16x zoom, for $129.99. Best Buy will sell you the 12-megapixel Canon PowerShot 100, with a larger-than-usual 4x zoom, for $109.99.
Many consumers are looking to step up to this new format, which is smaller than a single lens reflex (SLR) camera but bigger than a point and shoot. The advantage: These models from Samsung, Nikon, Olympus, Sony and Panasonic are easy to tote on vacation, with a sharper image than point and shoot, thanks to the better lenses. The lowest prices this holiday are offered from Olympus and Panasonic. The Panasonic DMC-GF2, with a 14-42mm lens, is $374.95 at Adorama. Costco has the Olympus Pen E-PL1 with two lenses, 14-42mm and 40-150mm, for $399.99. By comparison, the new Nikon J1 is $599 at Amazon, where the new Samsung NX200 is $799 and Sony's NEX-C3 is $549.
Consumers love SLR cameras for their ability to stop the action and capture sharper images. Plus, SLRs allow you to tote around the same kind of camera as the pros do. For years, the best-selling model has been Canon's Rebel. But while this year's edition, the T3i, is heavily discounted, the better bargain is last year's T2i. The difference between the two is slight. Both have 18-megapixel sensors and shoot terrific 1080p high-definition video. The T3i's main differentiator is its larger LCD screen, which swivels. B&H has the T3i with the 18-55mm lens for $707.95, after rebate, while last year's T2i, with the same 18-55mm lens, is $619, after rebate.
For years, one of the most coveted SLRs has been the Canon 5D Mark II, beloved by filmmakers for its cinema-like HD video, as seen on many TV shows, including House, Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The camera, which first sold for $2,700 body only, is discounted heavily currently, selling for $2,099 (after rebate) at B&H.
Other good deals on SLRs:
•Amazon has the entry-level SLR Nikon D3000, a rival to Canon's Rebel, for $449.95, with 18-55mm lens,
•Best Buy offers the Canon Rebel step-up EOS 60D, with an 18-135mm lens and 16 gigabyte memory card, for $1,078.99.
Sadly, there are no great deals for Sony's $1,399 A77, which came out in October to great reviews. A victim of the floods in Thailand, the camera is very hard to come by at retail.
Keeping up with smartphones
With improved optics for smartphones, especially the new Apple iPhone 4S, many consumers have looked to the device in their pocket as their camera of choice while out and about.
Indeed, Chute says more smartphones will sell in the USA this year — more than 150 million — than all cameras combined worldwide.
For camera manufacturers to stay competitive in the coming years, Chute says they should enable their cameras to act more like smartphones, with easy, instant uploads and transfers — without having to plug them into computers.
"Consumers expect their cameras to work like smartphones and tablets," he says. "Their big complaint: Why doesn't my camera do what my phone does?"
There are only a handful of cameras with built-in Wi-Fi — such as the Samsung EC-SH100 and Nikon Coolpix S610c — but that is not a standard camera feature, and none of the models has taken off in a big way.
One solution is the Eye-Fi card, a memory card with built-in Wi-Fi, but it's much more expensive than a regular memory card. The 8 gigabyte Eye-Fi starts at $79.99, while a top-of-the-line, regular 8 GB card from Sandisk, for instance, sells for less than $20.
Reasons to keep your camera
OK, you love your smartphone camera so much that you figure your old point and shoot is going the way of the compact disk and the DVD. Yesterday's technology.
But don't throw away that camera yet. The dedicated imaging device still offers so much more:
•Zoom. Most smartphone zooms are in fact, just tools to crop. They won't bring you closer to the action, like a real optical zoom on a camera. Even a $100 point and shoot, with a small 3X lens, will get you much closer than a smartphone ever will.
•Adjusting the exposure. What do you do when you're in a dark room, and want to compensate for that by tweaking the exposure? On the smartphone, everything's automatic so you're out of luck. On a good camera with manual controls, you've got real flexibility.
•Sharper images. The lens you get on a camera — whether it be a point and shoot, or expensive SLR, has vastly superior optics, and hence, a dramatically crisper photo, with much greater detail.