Nikon D3200

If you're getting serious about your shots and want to stare down the viewfinder of a digital single-lens-reflex (DSLR) camera for the first time, the D3200 is a worthy weapon to wield. Nikon shoehorned a 24.2-megapixel CMOS sensor into the entry-level shooter, making it the highest-resolution camera in its class. And because photographers can't live on pixels alone, the camera maker also added its high-powered Expeed 3 processor to handle the massive amount of visual data collected.

These are impressive prosumer stats, but what makes this a beginner-friendly shooter? For starters, those 24 megapixels do come in handy when you poorly frame a shot and want to crop that hairy sunbather out of it without marring picture quality. Helpful, too, is Nikon's wonderful Guide Mode – brought over from the D3100 – which walks you through settings, making it incredibly easy to select scenes or perform minor adjustments. (Of course, there are manual modes, too, if your better-photographer friend needs to borrow it quickly to shoot, say, your birthday party.) We gave it to pals whose photography skills are essentially nonexistent, but when wielding the D3200, even these camera novices produced a wall's worth of frame-worthy shots, from low-light portraits to incredibly crisp action shots at a swimming pool. The D3200 is a confidence builder, for sure. [$699 with 18–55mm VR lens; nikonusa.com]