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The best cameras (and smartest camera buys) of 2012

This has been one of the most exciting years yet for, as the photographic industry put the woes of 2011 behind it to release some truly amazing cameras. From flagship DSLRs to incredible compacts, there was a seemingly endless parade of superb cameras to test. Out of this diverse and ever-growing market, we have selected the very best, the cameras we would recommend to not only you, but to our friends and families as well.

(Note: Pricing listed is manufacturer's suggested retail price. Chances are, you'll find many of these cameras at much better prices at your favorite retailers — especially this close to Black Friday.)

Best point-and-shoot camera
Nikon P7700 - MSRP $499.95

Sony RX100 - MSRP $649.99

It's been an ugly year for the bottom end of the point-and-shoot camera market, but at the same time the upper tier has flourished. Impressive high-end compacts from virtually every major manufacturer passed through our labs this year, but we found the Nikon P7700 outdid them all. With a 7x optical zoom, fully articulating screen, hot shoe, and plenty of physical controls on a body with superb handling characteristics, the $500 Nikon P7700 is the best point-and-shoot we tested this year.

The Sony RX100 is a close second, however, with a larger sensor and a slightly brighter lens. The result of that combination is excellent low-light capabilities and attractively blurred backgrounds. While the P7700 outperformed the RX100 in the lab, shots from Sony's flagship compact have an aesthetic quality that no other camera in its class can match. On the other hand, we were less impressed with its characterless handling and newbie-oriented user interface. Its high price is a concern, too.

Best value point-and-shoot camera
Canon PowerShot ELPH110 HS - MSRP $229.99

Nikon S6300 - MSRP $199.95

Canon PowerShots have long been the go-to recommendation for anyone looking for an inexpensive, simple camera that offers decent image quality. The 110 HS carries that torch well, with a 3-inch rear LCD, 5x optical zoom, and a size and shape that can easily slip into all but the tightest pockets. With smartphones getting better and better, there's not much room left for cameras like this, but if you want higher-resolution photos or an optical zoom at a low price, the 110 HS is a great option.

Best overall-bang-for-your-buck camera
Samsung WB150F - MSRP $229.99

Sony NEX-F3 - MSRP $599.99 w/ 18-55mm lens

Just because the budget point-and-shoot category hasn't seen much love in 2012 doesn't mean you can't still find bargains. With a street price that frequently drops below $200, the WB150F offers image quality on par with more expensive cameras. A smart design, solid handling, and built-in Wi-Fi gave us plenty to like about this camera. There are cheaper options available, to be sure, but this is one of the best cost-to-value propositions on the market today.

We also want to reserve a special mention for the entry-level model in Sony's NEX line, the NEX-F3. Like the NEX-C3 before it, the F3 perfoms as well as cameras that cost north of $1000 for a price of right around $600 (with a kit lens included). Getting that kind of quality for such a low price is practically unheard of, which makes the NEX-F3 a perfect introduction to interchangeable lens cameras for those on a tight budget.

Best super-zoom camera
Canon PowerShot SX50 HS - MSRP $479.99

Panasonic FZ200 - MSRP $599.99

The Canon PowerShot SX50 HS takes home our super-zoom award this year thanks to its combination of solid design, excellent ease-of-use, and great overall image quality. Of course, it's hard to argue with the SX50's credentials when it sports a ridiculous 50x optical zoom. The SX50 HS is more than a one-trick pony, though, as it performed well enough to take the top prize over some serious competition from both Panasonic and Sony.

The Panasonic FZ200 is the runner-up here, largely due to its excellent 24x zoom lens. The FZ200 is unique in the super-zoom market in that its lens maintains a wide f/2.8 aperture all the way through its optical zoom range. The Canon SX50 did better in the labs and offers nearly double the zoom range, but the FZ200's aperture is more than twice as wide at full zoom, helping keep motion blur under control.

Best travel zoom camera
Canon PowerShot SX260 HS - MSRP $299.99

Sony HX30V - MSRP $419.99

Canon also takes home our award for best travel zoom of the year with the SX260 HS. Its combination of a solid 20x optical zoom and a sleek, stylish, compact design will probably check all the boxes for many casual users. If you need a big zoom range in a camera that will easily slip into a jacket pocket, the SX260 HS is our unqualified recommendation. A close second, however, is the Sony HX30V. The HX30V falls behind the SX260 HS in overall performance, but it offers superior video capture capability, which will be a big deal to some users.

Best waterproof camera
Olympus Tough TG-1 - MSRP $399.99

Panasonic Lumix TS4 - MSRP $429.99

We dunked every waterproof camera we could find for our roundup this past spring, and one camera rose above the rest. We found the Olympus TG-1 produced the best images of the lot, with an f/2.0 lens letting in plenty of light. In addition, the TG-1 can go to depths of 40 feet and is rated to withstand dust, cold, and even drops of up to 6.6 feet. Those credentials easily earn it the award here, and really it's a fine point-and-shoot camera no matter the conditions.

Best compact system camera
Sony NEX-7 - MSRP $1249.99 w/ 18-55mm lens

Olympus OM-D E-M5 - MSRP $1099.99 w/ 14-42mm lens

The Sony Alpha NEX-7 was one of the first truly high-end compact system cameras to hit the market, with great handling, an articulating LCD, three control dials, and built-in electronic viewfinder. The NEX-7's 24.3-megapixel CMOS image sensor is of the same APS-C standard size as you'd find in many larger DSLRs, offering superb dynamic range and excellent shot-to-shot speeds. While we wish the NEX system had a few more high-quality lenses to complement its great cameras, we feel the NEX-7 is the best performing compact system camera you can pick up today.

That said, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 put up a serious fight, sporting an excellent Sony-produced sensor and vintage Olympus looks. The E-M5 is one of the more popular cameras of 2012, with weather sealing and a level of customization few cameras can match. We think it's a fine option for anyone who wants a little more retro flavor—and access to the Micro Four Thirds ecosystem—with their compact system camera, and we doubt you'll be disappointed if you pick one up.

Best value system camera for video
Canon Rebel T4i - MSRP $1149.99 w/ 18-135mm STM lens

Sony NEX-5R - MSRP $749.99 w/ 18-55mm lens

While some fantastic and fantastically expensive video cameras have come through our labs this year, we understand that not everyone is willing to shell out several thousand dollars for high-end video capability. Those looking for solid video from a budget-friendly system camera should look no further than the Canon Rebel T4i. The T4i captures appealing full HD video, has full manual control, and sports nearly silent continuous autofocus while recording clips. At a body-only price of just $799.99, we think the T4i is a great option for those who want quality stills and HD video in one cheap package.

Sony’s line of NEX system cameras all are capable of recording excellent video, but theNEX-5R offers the best value of the bunch. Like the Canon T4i, the NEX-5R handles autofocus very well, and, although the camera doesn’t have a fully rotatable LCD, it does have a screen that tilts up and down to accommodate various shooting angles. In terms of performance, the NEX-5R basically matched the Canon T4i in our video tests, but we gave the Canon an edge in handling thanks to its better grip and easier access to video controls.

Canon 1D XCanon

Camera of the year
Canon 1D X - MSRP $6799.00 body-only

Nikon D4 - MSRP $5999.95

While there were only a couple high-end cameras brought to market in 2011, this year saw the eventual release of some incredible full-frame models from each of the major players. With some fantastic mid-range bodies also seeing the light of day, the Canon 1D X had stiff competition for our top spot once it finally was released to the public. Despite the delay, the 1D X bested all comers in our lab tests, producing the highest overall score of the year. While it's certainly too big, too expensive, and simply too much for most people, the Canon 1D X is, hands-down, the best camera from 2012.

The Nikon D4 also graced our labs this year, and we found that it offered performance that exceeded the 1D X in some areas, falling behind in others. We should reserve special mention for the D4's backlit control labels and uncompressed HDMI video output. The D4 is an impressive machine that any pro shooting Nikon should be proud to own, but it falls just behind the 1D X in our overall scoring.

For more of's favorite cameras, photo innovations and accessories of 2012, read on.