Best Digital Camera 2011: 8th Pocket-lint Awards contenders

November is nearly upon us which can mean only two things. And this isn’t an article about Bonfire Night. Yes, drop your fireworks and pick up your thinking caps, it’s time to start nominating for the 8th Pocket-lint Gadget Awards.

If you want to know exactly how to send in your suggestions then take a look over here but, while the lines are still open for the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be bringing you a few memory joggers each day for the categories one by one. Today, we start with the award for Best Digital Camera. This is how the 2011 field looks in the camera space.

DSLRs

The ever-dependable DSLR category is not going to be as straight forward to analyse as usual for 2011 with the arrival of Sony’s SLT translucent mirror system and its electronic viewfiender ways. The year has seen not one but two such cameras arrive in the shapes of the £500 Sony Alpha SLT A35 and the more up market Sony Alpha SLT A77 - the latter a challenger for the more prosumer class. Both, as it happens, went down a treat with our boys in the labs.

Naturally, there are plenty of standard big snappers to choose from too but oddly it was just a one-camera-year for Nikon with the arrival of the mid-range Nikon D5100, whereas Canon impressed pretty much across the category with the starter Canon 1100D, the upper-middle Canon 600D and the very nearly pro Canon 60D as a replacement for the hugely popular 50D. Not an easy choice to make even just between those three.

Reminding us that there's more to DSLR manufacturers than what now seems to be a Big Three, Pentax stuck not one but two big cameras on the shelves in this Pocket-lint Awards judging year ranging from December 2010 to December 2011. Narrowly missing the deadline for last year's festivities are two K-mount cameras. The Pentax K-r is a happy enough device for the lower end user looking to continue to enjoy their collection of old school K-glass, but the prosumer Pentax K-5 is almost enough to make anyone switch no matter what lens ecosystem they're already wrapped up in.

Finally, there's also the one and only DSLR from the Olympus stables that, although launched in the autumn of 2010, didn't actually make it to shopping baskets until right at the end of the year. The Four Thirds size sensor system may not be for everyone, but the successor to the E3 that is the Olympus E5 certainly deserves a mention, and maybe even your vote.

 

Mirrorless

Getting slightly smaller now, the mirrorless interchangenable lens market has boomed in 2011 not least of all with the arrival of one of the big guns on the scene as Nikon launched the Nikon 1 system with the Nikon 1 J1 and Nikon 1 V1 cameras. They might not have received the critical response that many would have expected from this giant of photography but that's not to say that the entire category has been a disappointment; not by a long shot.

As first to market with their shared Micro Four Thirds system both Panasonic and Olympus have continued to pretty much define the genre with additions to all branches of their mirrorless camera families. The Pens have seen the arrival of the more modestly priced Olympus Pen E-PL2, as an alternative to the high end compact, and the launch of the Olympus Pen E-P3 which comes in at a more wallet-sapping £800 for those that just can't resist a little top end AF action. Both made our reviewers very happy indeed.

Partner in mirrorless crime Panasonic has been even busier in 2011 with refreshes to each of its Micro Four Thirds arms - even twice over in one case. The Panasonic G3 turned up to spring clean the original G1 camera line of things with a solid, middle of the road device, only this time, of course, a little smaller and a little lighter. If you're happy to strip things down even further - both in features as well as size - then you'll have been pleased to note both a Panasonic GF2 and its successor the Panasonic GF3 have turned up in the last 12 months. They might not have swept us all off our feet but each has been a damned fine machine in its own right.

For pure performance though, we have to include the Panasonic GH2. It might not be quite the compact kit that you're after from a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera but that's probably because it shoots more like an APS-C sized sensor DSLR anyway.

Relative new comers to this gang have been surprisingly understated in 2011. While Sony has launched plenty of NEX cameras, only one has turned up so far and it wasn't as great as it could have been. As soon as the NEX-7 and 5N arrive though, doubtless, that story will change. In the mean time, it's only really Samsung that's impressed outside the more established figures with the very reasonably priced APS-C sensor camera that is the Samsung NX11.

Finally, possibly one of the biggest stars of the 2011 mirrorless gang has to be the old school looks and Leica-like likeness of Fujifilm's first foray into this field - the Fujifilm X100. At a fifth of the cost of a body-only Lecia M9, it brings you more than that fraction of the style and performance as well. Sure to turn up under a few Christmas trees this year.

 

Compacts

As ever, the compact class of the Best Digital Camera category is a closely packed bunch - largely because there's always tonnes of them released each year. At perhaps the more interesting end of them have been new additions to the high end but small size class; the same type as the hugely popular Canon S95 and Panasonic LX5 cameras from 2010.

The Olympus XZ-1 turned up to weighty acclaim to occupy this space and the Nikon P300 - although not quite as highly positioned - has done a decent job in the same area as well. If it's true high end that you're after in a compact camera, then the Nikon P7100 is as compact as Nikon will allow you to go this time around.

Of course high end can come in huge form factors that really push the boundary of what can be considered compact at all. These creatures are the superzooms and they've proved more popular than ever in 2011. The standouts for us have to be the Nikon P500, Canon PowerShot SX40 HS, Fujifilm FinePix HS20 and the Sony Cyber-shot HX100V respectively offering 36x, 35x, 30x and 30x zoom but we were really pleased to see something in this area for those on a budget in the shape of the Fujifilm Finepix S2800HD with 18x zoom power for a £150 price tag. If you're off on safari, you'd do very well to take along one of those.

For those looking for a more sedate version of power that actually fits in your pocket, there's been some very decent middle ground devices launched this year. The Sony Cyber-Shot HX9V brings quick focus, great burst speeds and 16x zoom as indeed do the likes of the Canon PowerShot SX200 HSFujifilm FinePix F550 EXRNikon Coolpix S9100 and Casio Exlim EX-H20G if at slightly different 14x, 15x, 18x and 10x zoom rates respectively.

Being double hard is sometimes more important than how far away you can take photographs from, however, and, although there are plenty of contenders in this department, there was only one that we'd really recommend that came out in 2011, but whether you think the Panasonic Lumix FT3 is worthy of a nomination is your call.

Sometimes, of course, it's all about cash and there's been plenty of superb value compacts to choose from this year. Canon has presented three good options tailored neatly by fiscal needs with an even spread between the Ixus cameras. The Ixus 115 HS is where it begins at around £150, moving to the 220 HS in the middle at about £170 and up to the Ixus 310 HS at a still quite affordable for all £250.

Nikon's worthy candidate in this area is the Nikon Coolpix S5100 with just £179 required for 720p video recording through an f/2.7 lens. Up a notch at £250 is the Panasonic Lumix FX700 with Full HD video and a touchscreen display but, for some serious bang for your buck, it has to be the credit card look Fujifilm FinePix Z900EXR - one of the best point and clicks in the business.

 

Smartphones

The most compact cameras of all, of course, are the ones that are in our pockets all the time. Smartphones will never compete with the dedicated devices when it comes to sheer quality but combine some of the top models with the convenience they offer and we could certainly see a mobile scooping the prize one year. Now, that year may not be this year or in fact it might.

The one's we'd certainly recommend you consider would be the likes of the iPhone 4S with its improved glassware and image sensor, the Sony Ericsson Arc S and the Nokia N8.

 

Camcorders

Last of all to consider for your nominations for Best Digital Camera 2011 are the camcorders, both pocket and full size. At the smaller size there's the waterproof Kodak PlaySport, Sony Bloggie Touch and the very last in the line from Flip Video in the shape of the Flip UltraHD all to consider.

For the more dedicated videographer, Panasonic remains as serious as ever with the Panasonic HDC-SD90 and HDC-SD900. Both offer 3D video recording on top of stunning feature sets but it's the latter you're after if you want to get that extra dimension with any real class. If you're happy to spend the same cash and trade the 3D for a touch more video quality, though, Canon's Legria HF M41 is where to head in 2011.

Last of all, for the extremists amongst you, we're also rather fond of the pistol-grip Sanyo Xacti VPC-CA100 putting in a good turn as ever for the low end video area and the £1,600 JVC Everio GS-TD1 for all the bells and whistles you could need. Happy shootin' y'all.

Have we missed any crackers? Let us know in the comments below.