It's that time of year when thoughts turn to gift-giving, and photography is more popular than ever before. Choosing a first camera is extremely important. You want to make sure that the beginner has room to grow as they learn more, but you don't want to put them off with a lot of options that they might not understand. If you've got a friend or a family member who's taking his or her first steps into the world of photography, we've prepared some recommendations for you, from best cameras for absolute novices, up to models more suitable for a student or budding enthusiast.

Prices given are representative of street pricing, and our recommendations are arranged from most to least expensive. 

Recommendations are subject to change and are current as of November 2014

Olympus PEN E-PL7 (w/14-42mm lens)

$699 / £399 | 16MP | 3-axis in-body image stabilization| 3" tilting LCD | 1080/30p video

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Although designed to catch the eye, the very stylish Olympus Pen E-PL7 is more than just a good looking camera. It is a pretty sophisticated device that offers point-and-shoot ease and art filters for the beginner but at the same time all the features and controls the more advanced enthusiast will need. The small body is compatible with the extensive range of Micro Four Thirds lenses that Olympus has created, but users can also choose from those made by Panasonic for its Lumix G models – and the independent releases from Sigma, Tamron and others. 

Olympus’s E-PL cameras are often left in the shadow of their attention-grabbing siblings, the OM-Ds, but other than the viewfinder and different handling that sees the OM-D models equipped with more buttons and dials, there is less between them than most people imagine. 

The Pen E-PL7 uses a 16-million-pixel sensor and borrows the 3-axis in-body image stabilization system of the OM-D E-M10. It has a 3" LCD rear touchscreen that flips out for low angled shooting, but also flips cleverly down below the body to face forwards so that selfie shooters can see themselves easily. 

There is no built-in flash, but the camera comes with a small unit that fits in the camera’s hotshoe – and which can be replaced by a larger more powerful gun should you choose. Wi-Fi connectivity allows remote control from a smartphone and direct transfer of images. 

Also consider...

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GM5: The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GM5 is one of the smallest compact system cameras available, and surprisingly it is a good deal smaller than many non-interchangeable-lens compact cameras. Although small the camera is not just for beginners, as it features the same sensor and processor as the mid-range Lumix DMC-GX7, and a full complement of advanced shooting modes. A built-in EVF distinguishes it from the cheaper GM1.

Sony a5100 (w/16-50mm lens)

$600 / £450 | 24MP | 179-point hybrid AF system | 3" tilting LCD | 1080/60p video

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The Sony a5100 is a small and well-specified camera that borrows more than a little from the top of the range a6000. If you can live without a viewfinder you can have almost all the a6000 features in this lower cost model, and benefit from the a5100’s touch-screen capability – a feature missing from the a6000. 

This is a 24.3-million-pixel camera that uses the larger APS-C sized sensor often found in DSLR bodies, and it is a camera that is packed with features that will allow the beginner to grow. Although good point-and-shoot modes are available, users can also take advantage of the type of extensive manual controls offered by high-end enthusiast models. 

The a5100 can shoot at up to 6 frames per second and allows low light shooting with an ISO range of 100-25,600, it has an advanced autofocus system that is capable of tracking moving subjects and which features 179 phase detect sensors across 92% of the frame. 

Video fans get to shoot 60p HD and standard resolution footage simultaneously, and can enjoy the camera’s XAVC S codec that allows a bit rate of 50Mbps. The camera features a low-powered but built-in flash unit, and the high resolution 3" touchscreen flips out from the body for low/high angled shooting. 

Also consider...

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GM1: The 16MP Panasonic Lumix DMC-GM1 is a compact mirrorless interchangeable lens camera that looks great, and takes up very little space despite its Micro Four Thirds sensor. With an interchangeable lens mount, you have a lot of options. The kit 12-32mm (24-64mm equivalent) collapsible zoom is very useful for everyday photography.

Nikon 1 J4 (w/10-30mm lens)

$500/ £360 | 18MP | 60 fps max frame rate | 3" 1.04m-dot LCD | 1080/60p video

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Nikon’s 1 Series is all about tiny cameras that take tiny lenses and which shoot at very high frame rates. The Nikon 1 J4 is the latest in the line, and while it sits below the more advanced Nikon 1 V3 it offers many of the same features as well as the same sensor. The idea of these models is that they are as small as a compact camera, but they produce better image quality via their larger sensor – in this case a 1"-type CX-format CMOS sensor with 18 million pixels.

An extremely fast image processor allows users to shoot at up to 20 frames per second at full resolution with AF, and at up to 60fps with the AF turned off – so it is an ideal camera for casual sports and action, in addition to its more every day uses. Its top shutter speed of 1/16,000 sec is also quite remarkable. 

The camera is compatible with Nikon’s growing line of 1 Series lenses that comprises everything from 28mm equivalent wide angle zooms to telephotos of up to 810mm. 

With a 3" touch screen, built-in Wi-Fi, an ISO range of 160-12,800 and a new improved autofocus system that uses 105 phase detection points across the frame, the Nikon 1 J4 is a very capable and flexible little camera. 

Also consider...

Samsung NX mini: The NX mini is truly tiny, offering a 20MP 1" sensor inside a highly compact body which features a 180-degree tilting LCD and extensive connectivity features. The mini's touch-sensitive display is the camera's primary interface for changing shooting settings, and while it might frustrate a more experienced photographer, beginners and smartphone users should feel right at home. 

Nikon D3300 (w/18-55mm lens)

$496 / £395 | 24MP | 5 fps max frame rate | 3" 921k-dot LCD | 1080/30p video

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The D3300 is Nikon's current entry-level DSLR and this small, compact interchangeable lens camera offers a lot of bang for your buck. For starters there's its 24MP sensor - the highest resolution in its class. The D3300 is designed to appeal to beginners and non-experts while allowing them some room to grow and learn more about photography. As such, the D3300's simple interface will be easy to grasp for anyone stepping up from a simple point-and-shoot camera, but should also be familiar to anyone who's used a DSLR before.

The viewfinder size has been bumped up by about 9% compared to the D3200, making the D3300 more competitive in its class. If framing your images on the LCD is your thing, though, the D3300's slower contrast-detect autofocus system pales in comparison to comparably priced mirrorless cameras. Video recording has also been improved upon, now with the ability to record 1080/60p video, though manual controls are very limited.

What stands out about the Nikon D3300 is its extremely high resolution in such a small, light, and simple-to-use SLR design. It's a great choice as a family camera or a backup camera, as it's easy to pack along.

Also consider...

Pentax K-50: One of the best value DSLRs on the market, the Pentax K-50 is a weather-sealed mid-level DSLR with a 16MP sensor and PRIME M processor. It can shoot continuously at up to 6 frames per second, has a maximum shutter speed of 1/6000th of a second and can capture video at 1080/30p. The camera can be custom ordered in one of 120 possible color combinations.

Samsung NX3000 (w/16-50mm lens)

$450 / £260 | 20MP | 5 fps max frame rate | 3" 460k-dot LCD | 1080/30p video

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The NX3000 is Samsung’s latest entry-level compact system camera, but with a 20MP APS-C sensor it is more than capable of taking advanced-level photographs. Designed to be slim and low-rise, the camera offers a 3" LCD that flips out and flips up to stand above the body facing forwards – so selfie shooters can easily see exactly what they are shooting. Of course the camera features a shutter button, but we need only wink at the camera to make it take a picture. 

The camera comes with the 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 standard zoom which features powered zooming that can be controlled via switches on the lens barrel, but of course the camera is compatible with all the lenses in Samsung’s broad optical line-up. 

With no built-in flash the NX3000 is supplied with a tiny external flash unit that sits in the hotshoe – a hotshoe that can also be used to house much larger and more powerful guns. 

While suitable for beginners, the Samsung NX3000 provides plenty of growing room, with advanced shooting modes and a comprehensive specification. Multiple automatic settings are supplemented by fully manual operation, a 5fps top drive speed, ISO settings of up to 25,600 and HD video recording. Connectivity is provided via Wi-Fi and NFC, and the camera can be controlled via a smartphone. 

Also consider...

Canon PowerShot SX60 HS: The PowerShot SX60 HS is a 16MP superzoom compact built around a gigantic 65X optical zoom lens, equivalent to 21-1365mm. It offers 6.4 fps continuous shooting, 1080/60p video, and a max ISO of 3200 (at full resolution). It has a fully articulating 3" LCD as well as an electronic viewfinder and full manual control - plus raw capture mode - is available if you want it. The SX60 HS can't match larger-sensor cameras for image quality but its versatility and heavyweight feature set make it a great first camera for a beginner.