Holiday Gift Guide: Top digital SLR cameras of 2011

Though 2011 saw a lot more action on the interchangeable lens compact front, for the best image quality and performance, digital SLRs still rule the roost. Here are my top picks for this holiday season.
Written by Janice Chen, Inactive

It's very telling that so far in 2011, there have only been seven new digital SLRs introduced to the market. Last year at this time, the count had been closer to 16 new dSLRs and the year before that 17. So what happened this year? Well consider that a full 16 rangefinder-style mirrorless interchangeable lens compact (ILC) cameras were announced during the same time period -- such as the Sony NEX line and the Olympus and Panasonic Micro Four-Thirds cameras -- and you start to get the picture. Trendy and more portable though they may be, however, even the best of the ILCs can't match similarly priced dSLRs when it comes to image quality and performance. So with that said, here are my five favorite dSLRs of the moment (in no particular order), just in time for your holiday shopping pleasure:

Canon EOS Rebel T3i
The upper-entry-level T3i has been my consumer dSLR camera of choice since it came out in February of this year. Practically identical to the excellent Canon EOS Rebel T2i (which made both my 2010 Holiday Gift Guide and my list of the Top 10 dSLR cameras of 2010), the T3i added an articulated LCD and improved video features as well as more automatic features aimed at SLR novices. It's due for an update early next year, so you can get some great deals on it this holiday season, as evidenced by the fantastic Black Friday sale prices.

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Nikon D5100 A close contender that sells for just a bit more than the T3i, the Nikon D5100 is the newest camera on the list, released in April of this year. A couple of months older than the T3i, it's just as well specified, if not a bit more so, with a slightly better autofocus system and faster continuous shooting. The T3i's video features trump the D5100, though and I still prefer the overall operation and ergonomics of the Canon, but the D5100 should definitely be on your short list for a higher-end entry-level shooter.

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Nikon D3100 The older, but still impressive D3100 is a great option for newbies or anyone on a tighter budget. Its novice-friendly Guide Mode makes it super easy to use, but top-notch image quality will satisfy the more experienced shooter on a budget. Videographers may appreciate that it's the one of the lowest priced cameras that offers continuous focus while shooting video, a feature only Nikon and Sony seem to support for dSLRs. That's probably because lens noise and slow focus adjustments can limit the usefulness of continuous AF for video, but depending on your shooting conditions and needs, it may still be a plus.

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Pentax K-5
Those looking for a good mid-range option should definitely consider the Pentax K-5. When it was announced just over a year ago, the K-5 was a bit of a departure for Pentax, which built a dSLR reputation by offering feature-packed and well-specified models at a lower cost than similarly featured competitors. The K-5 was aimed squarely at the Canon EOS 7D and Nikon D300s, but at just $100 less than those models when it was released, it didn't offer any clear competitive advantage.  Fast forward a year and the K-5 has dropped to a good $500 cheaper than the Canon or Nikon, making it's value proposition hard to beat.

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Canon EOS 7D
Though it's making my holiday guide for the third straight year now, the Canon EOS 7D is still my top pick for a high-end semi-pro option. It's not likely to get replaced until next fall and there are some great Black Friday deals to be had, so now's a good time to snap one up.

More than two years after it was first released, the 7D still stands out for superior image quality across the sensitivity spectrum and great performance. It outspecs even big brother EOS 5D Mark II (which is likely to be updated soon), with a 19-point autofocus system, a big and bright viewfinder with 100-percent coverage and 1.0x magnification, and 63-zone metering (not to mention the much faster continuous shooting mode). But what really sets the 7D apart is its top-notch video capabilities (1,920×1,080 HD video at a full 30 fps and full manual control).

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