The best camera deals for the holidays

Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Information Superhighway Wednesday. A common thread runs through all the major shopping days, even if the third one I just mentioned doesn't actually exist. That common thread is deals. Cheap stuff, priced to move, just in time for the holidays.

Just beware of the big catch. You'll see some enticing offers: "An HDTV for $200!" "A laptop for $100!" "A camera for $50!" But if you read those ads very closely, you'll notice that someone is playing you for a sucker. No product names are highlighted in many of these deals, because you wouldn't recognize the products being named, anyway. That cheap laptop? It has a processor made of twigs and molasses.

If you want to find the real deals this holiday season, it's best to start with a list of products that are worth buying. You'll need to spend a bit more to get the good stuff, but think of it as an investment. The extra money will come back to you in terms of performance, user satisfaction, and reliability.

With that in mind, here are a dozen cameras that scored very well in our tests, and they're all available this holiday season for a lot less money than before. Granted, these cameras may not be brand new, and they may not offer all the latest fancy features. However, they're all excellent performers for the price, and I'm willing to bet that you won't regret buying any of them.

Best cameras for $200

Canon PowerShot SX260 HS

The deal: $200 on Amazon

Original price: $350

The 20X-optical-zoom PowerShot SX260 HS is our top-rated pocket megazoom camera of the past year, and you can find it on Amazon for a whopping $150 less than its original price. It's a great gift for anyone who wants to take a big step up from a basic camera or smartphone, thanks to its far-reaching zoom lens, excellent image quality, and manual exposure controls.

Nikon Coolpix P310

The deal: $200 online

Original price: $330

The Coolpix P310 is the lowest-priced camera you'll find with a fast F1.8-aperture lens, making it an excellent option for low-light photography, portraits, and macro shots that feature a soft, blurry background. This pocket-size camera is a great option for anyone who wants to get the hang of manual exposure controls, thanks to its ease-of-use in auto mode and terrific performance for the price.

Best cameras for $250

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5

The deal: $250 on Amazon

Original price: $500

You can now get one of the best advanced point-and-shoot cameras of the past few years for half ($250) its original price ($500). The excellent Lumix LX5 has a bright F2.0 lens, full manual controls for both stills and video, fast autofocus, an outstanding macro mode, and an attractive old-school aesthetic. This is another great option for anyone who wants to learn the ropes of manual camera controls but doesn't want the bulk of a DSLR or an interchangeable-lens camera.

Canon PowerShot S100

The deal: $250 on Amazon

Original price: $430

You can also get Canon's high-end PowerShot S100 for $250 now, which is a great price for one of the best pocket cameras we've ever tested. We love the S100's ring-around-the-lens control ring for adjusting focus and other in-camera settings, fast F2.0 lens, excellent low-light performance, manual controls, easy operation, and impressive image quality.

Best camera for $300

Nikon Coolpix P7100

The deal: $300 online

Original price: $500

The Coolpix P7100 is a good step-up camera for a seasoned photographer who wants a camera that offers a lot of control. It's also an excellent fit for anyone who wants a more-portable, fixed-lens alternative to a DSLR without having to sacrifice all the DSLR-like controls. The P7100 backs up its very good image quality with extensive image controls, a 7.1X zoom lens that's lengthy for the premium compact class, and both an adjustable LCD screen and an optical viewfinder.

Best cameras for $350

Canon PowerShot G12

The deal: $350 refurbished from Canon

Original price: $500

The PowerShot G12 has one thing that its successor, the PowerShot G15, doesn't: An adjustable LCD screen, which makes it a better option for shooting over a crowd or close to the ground. This is another top-notch fixed-lens camera with a combination of superb image quality, manual exposure controls, and easy-to-use creative scene modes. It's also a standout performer in video mode.

Olympus PEN E-PL2 with 14-42mm lens

The deal: $350 on Amazon

Original price: $600

For just $350, you can enter the interchangeable-lens arena. The beginner-friendly PEN E-PL2 interchangeable-lens camera is now available for that price, offering near-DSLR-like performance in a much more compact body. The easy-to-use E-PL2 offers good image quality, manual exposure controls, and a "Live Guide" that teaches novices the basics of photography. We also like its Art Filters and the fact that the Micro Four-Thirds system has a lot of lenses available for it these days.

Best camera for $400

Nikon D3100 with 18-55mm lens

The deal: $400 online

Original price: $700

The Nikon D3100 is another excellent option for first-time DSLR users, thanks to its Guide Mode and intuitive controls. For the price, there's a lot to like for experienced photographers, too, as the D3100 snaps good-looking photos, performs well in low-light situations, shoots 1080p video, and offers manual exposure controls. It's also small and light for a DSLR, making it more everyday-friendly than most DSLRs.

Best camera for $500

Nikon D5100 with 18-55mm lens

The deal: $500 online

Original price: $900

The 16-megapixel Nikon D5100 is an amazing performer in low-light situations, and it features ISO equivalency settings that reach up to 25,600. Its tilt-and-swivel LCD screen is also a nice companion piece for its 1080p video capabilities. In addition to its full manual exposure controls, the D5100 is also fairly novice-friendly, thanks to a range of scene presets and creative effects modes.

Best camera for $600

Canon EOS Rebel T3i with 18-55mm lens

The deal: $600 on Amazon

Original price: $900

Last year, we ranked the Canon EOS Rebel T3i as the best DSLR available for less than $1000. Now it costs even less, making it a steal at its price. This camera is a wonderful performer for both stills and video, as it earned a near-perfect score in our image-quality tests and a score of Very Good for the quality of its 1080p video. This is a good first DSLR to grow with; it's easy to use for beginners, but it also offers more-granular controls for experienced shooters.

Best cameras for $650

Sony Alpha SLT- A57 with 18-55mm lens

The deal: $650 on Amazon

Original price: $800

If you need a camera with a fast continuous shooting speed, the Alpha A57 is the best option for its price. By far. The 16-megapixel Sony Alpha A57 has a burst mode that captures up to 12 frames per second. This rapid-fire camera also offers a lightning-fast phase-detection autofocus system, 1080p video recording at a smooth 60fps, and manual exposure controls in video mode. Those are all unique features for a DSLR in this price range--or any price range, really--making the A57 a very versatile bargain.

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 bundle

The deal: $650 for the RX100 with a 32GB SDHC card, carrying case, screen protectors, and lens-cleaning pen

Original price: $650 for the camera only

The Sony RX100 is the best pocket-size digital camera we've ever tested. It earned a perfect score in our review, thanks to image and video quality that runs laps around any camera in the premium compact class. But it isn't cheap: At $650, it's a couple hundred dollars more than most other premium compact cameras, and you'll have to wait a while before that price drops. In the meantime, you can find it on Amazon with a bunch of extras thrown in for that $650 price. The 32GB Class 10 SDHC card is a nice extra for the money, and the carrying case, screen protectors, and lens pen will help you keep this pricey camera in good shape.

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