The best camera bargains right now
For the most part, the digital-camera landscape is mapped out in $200 increments. Every $200 you're willing to spend represents a nice step up in camera capabilities.
Here's how it generally shakes out: For $200, you'll find basic, pocketable point-and-shoots with decent image quality, automated controls, and little else other than a range of color options. For $400, you'll get an "advanced" fixed-lens camera with manual controls, a wide-aperture lens, and a RAW-shooting mode. $600 buys you a ticket to entry-level DSLR land. If you step up to $800, you can get a mid-range DSLR or a premium mirrorless camera with a faster shooting speed, higher ISO, and more-granular manual controls. At $1000 and up, the sky's the limit in terms of APS-C-sensored DSLRs, but you'll still need to spend a bit more to get a full-frame DSLR.
Once in a blue moon, you'll find a camera with features that represent a step up from what you'd usually see at its price. Normally, these standout cameras already have successors, so they may be a year or so old. Occasionally, you'll find a brand-new camera that's priced to compete with better-known rivals in its class. For whatever reason, these five cameras represent superb values at each $200 step of the game.
If you have $200 to spend
Buy this camera: Canon PowerShot SX230 HS
It's not a brand-new camera, and that's why the price is so nice. The Canon PowerShot SX230 HS offers excellent image quality, versatility, and extra features for $200; when the camera was first released, it went for $350. This 14X-optical-zoom (28mm to 392mm) pocket camera backs up its far-reaching lens with top-notch image quality, manual controls for shutter and aperture, shooting modes that capture images at 8fps and video at 240fps, and in-camera geotagging via a built-in GPS antenna. We've seen it for around $200 in various places.
If you have $400 to spend
Buy this camera: Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5
The Panasonic Lumix LX5 is another camera that was released a while ago, and you can find its impressive set of skills for a relatively low price. Its bragging rights start with a bright F2.0 lens and lightning-fast focusing speed. Manual exposure controls are a must at this price, and the LX5 goes a few steps further than its rivals in this area by offering shutter and aperture controls while recording video. It's a bit bulkier than more-pocketable (and also excellent) rivals such as the Canon PowerShot S100 and Nikon Coolpix P310, but that extra real estate allows for a hot shoe that accepts separately sold viewfinders and flashes, and it feels a bit more like a "real camera" than most compact models in its class. You can find it on Amazon for less than $400, a great price for one of the best manual-minded point-and-shoots on the market.
If you have $600 to spend
Buy this camera: Nikon D5100 (body-only price)
Keep in mind that the $600 price for this $850-as-a-kit DSLR is for the body only, but if you already own a Nikon DX lens, this is a great deal for one of the best mid-range DSLRs of recent years. The 16-megapixel APS-C-sensored Nikon D5100 earned great scores for image quality in PCWorld Labs' subjective tests, and it's a standout low-light performer with minimal noise up to about ISO 1600. Video capture is another strong suit, with 1920 x 1080 shooting options at 30fps and 24fps, and the camera's tilt-and-swivel LCD screen will come in handy when shooting video over a crowd or from low angles. We found it for $600 for the body only on Amazon.
If you have $800 to spend
Buy this camera: Sony Alpha SLT-A57
The 16-megapixel APS-C-sensored Sony Alpha SLT-A57 sets itself apart from the rest of the mid-range DSLR pack in a number of ways. First of all, it isn't a "DSLR" in the traditional sense, as it has a fixed translucent mirror and lacks an optical viewfinder, which may rub traditionalists the wrong way. However, the unique innards contribute to a blazing continuous-shooting speed of 12fps at 8-megapixel resolution--all with the camera's zippy phase-detection autofocus system enabled. That alone outclasses the burst speeds of any camera in its price range and far beyond it. Once you factor in the A57's 1080p video recording at a silky smooth 60fps, you've got the most feature-packed sub-$1000 camera out there. If you shoot sports or fast action, you won't find a better fit for $800 as a kit.
If you have $1000 to spend
Buy this camera: Canon EOS 60D (body-only price)
You shouldn't accept anything less than superior image quality and performance in a camera that costs a grand, and the Canon EOS 60D delivers on both of those counts. Another body-only special, this camera has the same 18-megapixel APS-C sensor found in the higher-end EOS 7D, and in PCWorld Labs' subjective tests for photo and video quality, the 60D earned scores of Superior or Very Good for every single testing category (exposure quality, color accuracy, sharpness, distortion, video, and audio). Other goodies include in-camera RAW processing, a tilt-and-swivel LCD screen, a built-in wireless controller for Speedlite flashes, and manual audio controls for an external 3.5mm stereo microphone.