The 10-megapixel Canon SD4000 IS uses a one-two punch for shooting in low light without a flash: a wide f/2 aperture and a high-sensitivity BSI image sensor with the circuitry on the rear of the chip so there's more surface area to absorb light. Other pluses on this stylish little camera include a versatile 3.8x (28 to 105mm) optical zoom, 720p HD video recording with stereo sound, and a high-speed shooting mode that can capture 8.4 frames per second at a reduced resolution. At full resolution, the SD4000 can shoot at a still sprightly 3.7 fps.
The Sony Alpha NEX-5 is a pint-size camera with a 14.2-megapixel image sensor as large as what you'd find in a big and bulky DSLR. That sizable sensor has bigger individual pixels, giving you crisp, clean images even in lousy lighting. The NEX-5 uses interchangeable lenses, letting your shutterbug switch them out depending on the shooting situation; we like the snub-nosed 16mm f/2.8 for capturing dreamy wide-angle images. The camera's Sweep Panorama mode automatically combines several shots into one large image, and its full 1080p HD movie mode captures some pretty sweet high-def clips.
$649 (w/16mm lens), $699 (w/18-55mm lens)
A sophisticated camera with features even pros would like (but that's simple enough for beginners), the 10-MP Panasonic LX5 has a sharp Leica-branded f/2.0 lens that offers sterling performance in both optimal and low light. And because it's a 3.8x lens that can zoom out as wide as 24mm, you'll have no trouble shooting street scenes, landscapes, or group portraits. The LX5 has a larger-than-average 1/1.63-inch CCD image sensor that captures great color, while the camera's built-in Optical Image Stabilizer steadies shaky shots. One-touch video recording means she'll always be ready to shoot HD movie clips, which can play back for friends on the LX5's gorgeous, 3-inch, 460,000-dot LCD screen.
An entry-level DSLR made for novices, Nikon's 14.2-MP D3100 boasts an improved Guide mode that displays a sample photo to demonstrate an effect, such as softening the background in a portrait. This camera also has a surprising number of powerful features for the price, including full 1080p HD video at 24 fps for a film-like look. In-camera editing tools let him tweak his HD clips without having to transfer them to a computer, while a built-in HDMI port lets him connect the camera directly to an HDTV for immediate playback. In addition, the D3100 is the first DSLR to offer continuous autofocus in both video and one-touch Live View modes. As a still camera, the D3100 uses a sharp 11-point autofocus system to capture photos at up to 3 fps.
The 12-MP Olympus PEN E-PL1 is another small camera with a big sensor that allows for interchangeable lenses (this one using a Micro Four Thirds system). We like the 720p HD video capability along with its six art filters, including a cool pin hole filter, an old-school grainy film filter, and a new filter called Gentle Sepia. The camera's new Live Guide mode lets users select icons to change basic settings, such as brightness and contrast, via sliders. The changes are shown live on the camera's 2.7-inch LCD screen. The E-PL1 is also less expensive than Olympus' other PEN models and features something its stablemates don't have: a pop-up flash.
The perfect camera for the rough-and-tumble adventurer in your life, the 12.1-MP Optio W90 is waterproof to 20 feet below, shockproof to withstand up to 4-foot drops, coldproof to resist sub-freezing temperatures, and dustproof to protect against sandy environments. The W90 also takes pretty good pictures, thanks to its 5x (28 to 140mm) lens and built in Shake Reduction system to steady shots. Most of all, though, this rugged camera is just plain cool, with a rubberized body and carabiner strap. There's even a Digital Microscope mode that shoots an LED beam from the front to illuminate close-ups.