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Jeffrey Kampman

High-quality photographic tools are a great gift. As TR's resident photo nerd, I've picked out a couple of cameras that should make for great step-ups from a smartphone or point-and-shoot without breaking the bank.

Nikon's D3300 DSLR
While mirrorless cameras are the hot thing in photography right now, the wizened old DSLR still has a few things to recommend it. Maybe you want a dedicated viewfinder, which most cheaper mirrorless cameras lack. Maybe you want an abundance of control buttons and dials. Perhaps you just enjoy the feeling of a bigger camera in your hands.

Nikon's D3300 is my DSLR pick. The D3300 has a 24MP APS-C (read: big) sensor that appears to be better than that of any other DSLR in this price range. Its 18-55mm VR II lens is perfect for shutterbugs that are just starting out, and when it comes time to buy a second lens, Nikon makes great, cheap step-up lenses like the 35mm f/1.8 DX.

What don't you get in an entry-level DSLR like this? The D3300 is a relatively primitive device when viewed next to smartphones and some mirrorless cameras. It has no Wi-Fi or GPS capability built-in. it lacks an articulated touch screen, and it's pretty impractical for video. You'll have to decide whether those shortcomings matter to you.

Limitations aside, the Internet is nearly unanimous in its praise of this camera. The Wirecutter hails the D3300 as its "best entry-level DSLR." DPReview gives the D3300 its Silver Award, and a 77% rating. Ken Rockwell, love him or hate him, says the D3300 is the camera he'd recommend for most people, too. At $500 new after an instant rebate, or about $475 refurbished, I think the D3300 is a great value.

For context, I shoot all of the pictures you see in my reviews with Nikon's older, mid-range D5100. While the D5100 is an "amateur" camera, its images hold up just fine to the demanding standards we have for photos at TR. The D3300 has an autofocus system similar to that of the D5100, plus a much newer sensor, so I would expect similar—if not better— performance despite the D3300's more entry-level focus.

Sony's a5100 mirrorless camera
Want a camera that's smaller and lighter than a DSLR? Sony's Alpha a5100 mirrorless camera looks like a good bet to me. It packs the 24MP APS-C sensor of its bigger brother, the a6000, into a slightly more amateur-oriented body.

The A5100 has a lot of the latest tech built into its wafer-thin confines, too. It has Wi-Fi and NFC, an articulated touch screen for high-quality selfies, and remote-control options for iOS and Android devices. Its on-sensor, phase- and contrast-detection autofocus system should allow for fast, sure autofocus in still shots and videos alike.

The a5100 falls short in a couple of areas, though. It lacks a dedicated viewfinder and any provision to add one, so you have to look at the screen to compose pictures. Amazon reviewers complain that the screen may not be bright enough for use in direct, intense sunlight. The lack of any hot shoe or expansion ports limits the a5100 to its puny built-in flash, too. If an electronic viewfinder or a hot shoe for flashes are essentials for you, you'll need to step up to the a6000.

There aren't many reviews of the a5100 out yet, but the few that are look promising. PhotographyBlog is effervescent with its praise, giving the a5100 a five-star rating, and their sample images look great. Imaging Resource and DPReview also seem pleased with their a5100s. For only $50 more than the D3300 kit at $598, with a 16-50-mm lens, the a5100 looks like a solid mirrorless contender to me.

Brian Peterson's Understanding Exposure
There's no point in spending a ton of money on an advanced camera if you're just going to leave it in automatic mode all of the time. You'll still reap the image quality benefits of the large sensor and better lenses, but these cameras are at their best when you take control of aperture, shutter speed, or ISO as needed. Unfortunately, the average camera manual is an arcane, paperback-length thing that explains all of the whiz-bang features without touching too well on the basics.

Enter Understanding Exposure, a slim, concise volume that's written for the person picking up an advanced camera for the first time. Bryan Peterson explains how to use the complex settings of your fancy new shooter to maximum creative effect, all while maintaining a friendly, avuncular tone. If you're spending hundreds of dollars on a camera for your lucky recipient, drop $20 on this excellent book, too. Your budding photographer will thank you.