Best Cameras for Graduates

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Spring is in the proverbial air, which means only one thing.  Raging pollen allergies?  Okay, two things.  It's also Graduation Season.   As kindergartners prepare for first grade, middle schoolers for high school, high schoolers for college, and college students for (gulp) the infamous Real World, there's no better way to document Life's next stage than a new digital camera.  And because most new cameras also record HD video in addition to high resolution JPEGs, twenty years from now, you might actually be able to remember not only the commencement speaker's name, but also what wisdoms and philosophies he or she bestowed on your once academic mind.

In buying the perfect camera, you'll want to make sure to not only focus on the needs of your particular graduate's lifestyle, but also on buying a quality product that will (hopefully) last for years to come.  Things to consider...  Does your graduate travel?  Keep a camera handy in a pocket or purse?  Play outside in good weather or bad?  Want to learn more about advanced photography techniques?  Already know more about photography than you?  Regardless, this guide hopes to inform you on the latest and greatest from the likes of Nikon, Pentax, Canon, and Sony.  A tour across different sizes, styles, feature sets, and budgets in honor of the graduates who fit into one of two categories: so in debt with they can't afford anything more expensive than a cup of Raman noodles, or you've just dropped six figures on their education...what's a few hundred bucks on top of it all?  Either way, give generously and enjoy any one of these fantastic finds.

Nikon Coolpix S9100

Full Review

Our Top Overall Pick for Grads!

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If you are looking for a well rounded, compact digital camera with an excellent optical zoom and has the ability to shoot smooth 1080p HD video, you can't go wrong with the Nikon Coolpix S9100.  It's a fantastic gift for any graduate that's finally breaking out of college or high school and needs their first high quality camera.  The slim styling of the S9100 comes in at less than 1.5 inches thick and can easy be slipped into a pocket or bag.  The Nikon camera sports an 18x optical zoom as well as super high resolution 3.0 inch LCD screen with 921K pixels. 

The image processor in the S9100 is exceptional at captuing pictures in burst mode as well as reducing noise in dark, night-time shots.  It shoots video up to 1080p high definition and can capture about 270 photos before needing to recharge the battery.  The camera also has a USB charging port so you can easily recharge the battery through your laptop or other USB device.  Most importantly, the Nikon Coolpix S9100 is very competitvely priced for a model with this feature set and the picture quality will blow away other cameras in the price bracket.

Canon PowerShot SX230 HS

Full Review

For the traveling graduate

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If you know a graduate that's going to be traveling heavy for their first job or perhaps backpacking across Europe before entering the workforce, a digital camera with GPS capabilities is probably a safe bet.  Enter the Canon Powershot SX230 HS, a compact digital camera with GPS functionality for geotagging and tracking of photos.  By using Canon's included software, you can track your trip and be reminded instantly of where a photo was taken. 

In addition to the GPS functionality, the camera offers a 14x Optical Zoom, 3.0 Inch LCD screen, 1080p HD video capture and a speedy photo capture rate for a camera in this class.  The camera has excellent outdoor image quality and great high ISO performance at the maximum 3200 setting.  The camera comes in a variety of colors and a price point that's competitive for the GPS market.

Sony DSC-T99

Full Review

For the Urban Graduate

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If you are looking for a stylish camera to give to a graduate that's most likely to carry the camera in their pocket all the time, check out the Sony T99 Touch Screen digital camera.  The camera is slimmer than a deck of cards and the responsive touch screen allows quick access to all the camera's functions / photo slideshow.  While the slim form factor does allow for an enormous zoom lens, the wide angle 4x optical zoom has plenty of range for the urban graduate.  

The T99 has excellent image quality and offers the ability to use either Sony's Memory stick cards as well as the standard SD memory cards.  The camera also shoots 720p HD video and has a helpful automatic shooting mode.  The camera comes in five colors (Black. Silver, Violet, Pink, Green) and can be found under $200 online.

Pentax Optio WG-1 and WG-1 GPS

Full Review

For the Adventurer

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For the rough n' tumble men and women in our lives -- the divers, the climbers, the carpe diem adventurers --  Pentax has created the Optio WG-1.  A part of their "Lifeproof" W-series (because really, the Outdoors Student may be fine with the occasional bumps and bruises, but most digital cameras are not), the WG-1 has a 14-megapixel sensor,  2.7-inch LCD screen,  5x optical zoom lens, and 720p HD video recording. Waterproof down to 33 feet, the WG-1 features five macro LEDs around the lens for extra light in murky water.  The camera's also dustproof, coldproof to 14°F (10°C), shockproof up to a 5-foot fall, and crushproof up to 220 pounds (100kgf).  Perhaps your Outdoors Student is a bit clumsy.

Available in Black or Purple, the Pentax Optio WG-1 has an MSRP of $349.95 and comes with a (not-rated-for-human-weight) carabineer and strap to clip onto a belt or backpack.  If your Outdoor Student wants the added feature of GPS (or needs it because "direction" isn't his or her thing), the Pentax Optio WG-1 GPS comes in Black or Yellow/Green with an MSRP of $399.95.

Canon EOS Digital Rebel T3i (600D)

Full Review

For a first dSLR

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If your graduating Student is already pushing his or her point-and-shoot camera to its natural limitations -- snapping shots of anything / everything while taking the time for exact framing and focus  -- you may have a future Shutterbug on your hands.  Preparing to dip a toe into the modern dSLR landscape can be daunting and the prices scary, but fear not, we have a camera for you.

Canon's EOS Rebel T3i.   I personally have last year's model (the T2i), and have never looked back.  Like its ancestor, the T3I shoots huge, impressive images and near-professional speeds ;  Sport Mode recently came in handy while trying to perfectly capture Killer Whales off the coast of Alaska.   This multi-function wunderkind shoots movies at 1080p for budding Spielbergs, has an 18-megapixel CMOS sensor  that can shoot 3.7fps for 34 JPEG images or 6 RAW, and a brand new million-plus pixel 3.0-inch Vari-Angle LCD touch screen.  The T3i also does surprising well in lowlight situations, with an ISO sensitivity range of 100 - 6400 (expandable to approximately 12800).

The Canon EOS Rebel T3i (600D) is a great first dSLR for those looking to jump into deeper waters without having to empty out the piggy bank.  The T3i is available wherever Canon cameras are sold at three different price points:  1) body only for around $799.99 US, 2) a kit with Canon's EF-S 18-55mm IS lens for $899.99 US, or 3) a kit with Canon's EF-S 18-135mm IS lens for $1099.99 US.    

Nikon D7000

Full Review

For the budding professional

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If your recent grad has already knows all about ISOs, white balancing, focal length, shutter speeds, and exposure settings, it might be nice to pick up a more professional, mid-level dSLR like the weather and dust resistant Nikon D7000.  With its 16.2-megapixl DX format CMOS image sensor, shooters will be able to capture 6 frames per second. File that under super-sized and super-fast.  Battery life is pretty good too, thanks to the included EN-EL 15 Li-on battery pack, which offers up the ability to take over a thousand shots per charge.   For anyone as interested in making movies as snapping pictures, the D7000 shoots full 1080/24p HD video (as well as 720p at 30 or 24 fps), with the option to have continuous auto-focus running during video capture.  Photos and movies can be reviewed on the 100% frame coverage 3.0-inch (921K pixel) LCD screen.

What the pros and semi-pros are going to love most about Nikon's D7000 is the ability to fiddle with endless exposure, picture, and camera settings.  Our reviewer even claims that after using the D7000, some non-Nikon users make question his or her brand loyalties.  The Nikon D7000 retails for around $1199.95 for the body only, and $1499.95 for a kit which includes the AF-S DX Zoom-NIKKOR 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens.   The D7000 is compatible with any F-mount Nikon lens.

Accessories

Digital cameras are perfect presents for grads, but don't forget to send the ex-students in your lives off fully prepared for his or her next great adventure.

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The first accessory for any camera is an SD flash memory card.  Digital cameras are useless without one.  For point-and-shoot cameras, be sure to check your manual for specifics of course, but generally speaking, any Class Speed -- as noted on the card by a number in tucked into a capital "C" -- will do.  It's really about how much space you need for how much money you want to drop.  Given that many cameras are shooting 12 or more megapixel files these days, we always recommending getting the biggest SD card you can find.  Click here for an overall list of nicely priced SD cards, but for the Canon T3i and the Nikon D7000, you're going to want to make sure you pick up a card with a Speed Class 6 or higher rating to take full advantage of HD movie recording and the highest frames per second shooting speeds. Click here for the best prices on Speed Class 6 Memory Cards.

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Most folk don't ever think they'll ever need a tripod.  They're cumbersome, a pain to set up and lug around, and most of the cheaper models aren't very well made.  Enter Joby's Gorillapod to change your mind about what a tripod is supposed to be and do.  Gorillapods are unique in that they are designed not only to sit on tabletop-type surfaces as a traditional mini-tripod, but their legs also conform to any shape and hold their positions.  Meaning, you can wrap them around sign posts and fences, to get a perfect, stable picture any time you want.  Combine that with the built-in timers on most cameras, and you've got a recipe for perfect family photos, framed just the way you want.  Gorillapods, by Joby, come many different sizes for just about any camera.  They start at around $20 for the smallest model, with $5 more dollars getting you the magnetic version that can play Spider-Man and take pictures at the same time.  Click here for great prizes on Joby's Gorillapads.

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Last, for the pros and semi-pros where are picking up a Nikon D7000, consider adding on the MB-D11 Multi-power Battery Grip (batteries not included).  Not only will it make the whole camera feel more sturdy in handheld shoots, but you have the option to power your camera with an additional EN-EL 15 Li-on battery, or six AAs.  This is definitely recommended for longer shoots, such as a wedding, so you'll never miss an important shot!  The MB-D11 retails for under $225.  Check here for the best prices.