It's been a great year for digital SLR shooters: There have been no fewer than 17 new dSLRs released this year, with HD video shooting coming to the low-end and long-awaited updates to stalwarts like the much-loved Nikon D40. Prices have come down and features have continued to ratchet up, so if you're shopping for a dSLR as a holiday treat (for yourself or a loved one), your dollar will go further than you think. To help you narrow down the options, here's a list of my five favorite dSLRs of the season:
Canon EOS Rebel T1i If you're looking for an entry-level camera with all the bells and whistles, and are willing to spend a little more than rock bottom, the Canon EOS Rebel T1i should definitely be on your short list. As we've come to expect from Canon dSLRs, image quality is top notch, but it's the video recording capability that really sets this dSLR apart: The T1i serves up 720p (1280×720) HD video capture at 30fps and 1080p (1920×1080) at 20fps. You'd have to spend almost twice the T1i's $899 price to get much better from a dSLR. Other highlights include the fantastic 3-inch, 920,000-dot LCD and an extended ISO sensitivity range up ISO 12800.
Nikon D5000 The Canon T1i's chief competitor for the top of the entry-level dSLR heap is the Nikon D5000. Though it doesn't match the Canon's HD video prowess, delivering 720p video capture at only 24fps (and no 1080p support), some will like the cinematic effect of 24fps and find the D5000's tilt-and-swivel LCD the more compelling feature. Though it's not as gorgeous as the Canon's LCD, the D5000's 2.5-inch, 230,000-dot articulating unit is a lot more versatile, allowing for shooting flexibility and control that's just not possible with a fixed screen.
Nikon D3000 If your budget is tight and you don't care about shooting video, the Nikon D3000 should be one of your top contenders. It took the place of Nikon's super popular D40 as Nikon's lowest priced dSLR this year, selling for just $599.95 with an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. Despite the rock-bottom pricing, however, the D3000 inherits plenty of features from its higher-end siblings, such as its 10.2-megapixel, 23.6x15.8mm CCD and 11-point autofocus system. It's a great option if your gift recipient is making the move from point-and-shoot to dSLR, with a Guide Mode that offers step-by-step instructions and an easy-to-use interface. The one down side (besides no video capabilities) is a lack of Live View shooting, which will take some adjustment for folks coming from point-and-shoots where Live View is ubiquitous.
Pentax K-7 Moving in the opposite direction for folks willing to part with a little more coin, this year's new mid-range Pentax shooter, the K-7, came barreling on the scene mid-year to great reviews. It delivers 720p video capture at 30fps (like the Canon T1i) as well as a non-standard aspect ratio of 1536x1024 at 30 fps. The magnesium-alloy body is more compact than its predecessor's (the K20D), and is not only dust- and weather-resistant, but cold-resistant too, for shooting in temperatures as low as 14 degrees F (a good 18 degrees lower than most cameras). Other stand-out features include a 14.6-megapixel, 23.4 x 15.6 mm CMOS sensor, a 3-inch 920,000-dot LCD, and an optical viewfinder with 100-percent coverage.
Canon EOS 7D Last, but not least, if money is no object, then Canon's new EOS 7D would be sure to bring a smile to any gift recipient's face. Though you'll have to cough up $1,699, that price tag will buy you an 18-megapixel CMOS sensor, dual Digic 4 image processors for improved performance, and HD video recording capability at a full 1080p, 30 fps. Canon has also improved the autofocus system, increasing AF areas to 19 points and using a dedicated processor, and incorporated a new and improved viewfinder that delivers 100-percent coverage and includes a transparent LCD that can overlay various displays such as grid, spot metering, AF points display, and more.