Top of the class: The Nikon D800.
THE Nikon D800 full-frame digital single lens reflex is the camera of the year. Nikon astonished the world with a 36-megapixel sensor, easily the highest resolution in its category. ($3420, body only. The prices quoted here are from Livewire advertisers).
The virtues of this camera go well beyond the ground-breaking sensor. Nikon nailed DSLR ergonomics years ago and the D800 makes the good better. It feels wonderfully responsive and almost sensual in the hand. Nikon makes more expensive cameras for professional use, but they don't make any better camera than the D800 for the serious enthusiast.
Nikon followed up the D800 with the D600 ($2480, body), which has a more modest pixel count of 24 million but shares many of the features of the D800. The price will be tempting for anyone lusting after full frame on a limited budget.
Also top of the class were Canon's EOS 5D (top) and the Olympus OMD E-M5.
Canon has ruled the enthusiast full-frame roost with its EOS 5D MkII, and this year it got its upgrade to MkIII ($3600 body). The II and III are not vastly different and the II is still on sale, alongside the new 6D, another full-frame DSLR ($2400 body). These are the sorts of prices we were paying last year for top APS DSLRs.
Two lesser DSLRs that impressed during the year are the Pentax K-30 and the Canon EOS 650D.
The Pentax K-30 ($810 with Pentax 18mm-55mm lens) appeals because it doesn't perform like an inexpensive entry-level camera. It has all the features found on more expensive products from the competitors, including the 16mp Sony sensor found in other brands and in the Pentax K-5.
Impressive for less: Nikon's D600 (top) and the Pentax K-30.
The Canon EOS 650D's claim to uniqueness is a hybrid autofocus system, combining phase detect with contrast detect to give continuous autofocus in video mode. It is a good DSLR with the ability to shoot decent video, all at an entry-level price ($894 with 18mm-55mm lens).
We have singled out these models because in their various ways they are different and stand out from the crowd. But in our reviewing year we did not encounter one bad DSLR. They are all worthy of consideration, in our opinion.
Do you really need a big gun?
Our second camera of the year, alongside the Nikon D800, is the Olympus OMD E-M5 ($1170 with 14mm-42mm lens). This charmingly retro, faux DSLR, sports a new 16mp sensor in a body reminiscent of the much-loved OM cameras of yore. This is a micro-four-thirds camera using a sensor format shared with Panasonic, which also launched new models during the year.
Collaboration between the two companies results in interchangeability of lenses and some accessories. Realistically, there is no reason to prefer one company's product over the other - all their cameras are excellent. But the heart says the Olympus OMD is so beautiful that it cries out to be preferred on looks alone. However, if you are a Panasonic person, you won't be disappointed with the new G5 ($950 with 14mm-42mm lens) - it is a superb camera.
Olympus and Panasonic make smaller, more pocketable versions of their micro-four-thirds cameras and our favourite is the new Olympus E-PL5 ($718 with lens).
Sony and Samsung both use larger sensors in their mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, which does result in a notionally wider dynamic range and better image noise control. All the cameras in this MILC category are so good that the choice will depend on price and aesthetic preferences.