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 2013

Pentax K-500 (w/18-55mm kit zoom)

$525 / £350 | 16MP | 5 fps max frame rate | 3" 921k-dot LCD | 1080/30p video

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Pentax packs a lot into its DSLRs, and the K-500 is appropriately feature-rich. Highlights include a 100% coverage glass pentaprism viewfinder, a maximum shutter speed of 1/6000sec (high for its class, allowing you to freeze fast movement effectively) and a maximum ISO of 51,200, which is very useful in low light. This is in addition to the expected DSLR features like full manual exposure control, a RAW capture option and plenty of external controls.

The Pentax K-500 is an entry-level DSLR which offers almost all of the features from Pentax's midrange K-50, including the same excellent 16MP CMOS sensor, but minus weatherproofing and (more annoyingly) AF point indication in the viewfinder. The K-500 is also relatively unusual in being powered by readily available AA batteries, as opposed to the more common rechargeable lithium-ion cells. An optional lithium-ion battery is available, which when installed, boosts the maximum frame rate of the K-500 to 6fps.

As such, the K-500 is a highly accessible camera for a beginner photographer, which won't break the bank.

Also consider...

Canon EOS Rebel SL1 The SL1 is Canon's smallest DSLR yet, but despite its slimline form factor the SL1 doesn't skimp on features, offering a capable 18MP APS-C CMOS sensor and Canon's 'Hybrid CMOS AF II' autofocus system, which is especially useful when shooting movies.

Olympus PEN E-PL5 (w/14-42mm kit zoom)

$500 / £450 | 16.1MP | 8 fps max frame rate | 3" 460k-dot LCD | 1080/30p video

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The PEN E-PL5 is a very strong mid-range interchangeable lens camera with a lot to recommend it. For starters it's small, lightweight and very capable, offering high-speed autofocus and tons of advanced and beginner-friendly features. Olympus has a habit of packing as much into its cameras as it possibly can, making the E-PL5 a great camera to 'grow into' over time.

The Micro Four Thirds lens mount is well-established, and as well as Olympus's own range of high-quality zoom and prime lenses, you can also choose from a great many others made by Panasonic and Sigma. It's also a highly adaptable mount, allowing you to mount literally hundreds of third-party, older, or more obscure lenses via optional (and affordable) adapters.

Also consider...

Canon EOS M The EOS M is Canon's first (and currently only) mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, built around the same APS-C format 18MP CMOS sensor as the Rebel T5i. The major selling point of the EOS M is in fact this sensor. Image quality is great, but autofocus is somewhat disappointing compared to the competition.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200

$460 / £375 | 12MP | 25-600mm F2.8 lens | 3" 460k-dot LCD | 1080/60p video

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Confidence is crucial when it comes to starting out in photography, and thanks to the FZ200's fast, long-ranging zoom lens there are few situations in which you'll struggle to frame a decent shot. Although it is a relatively bulky camera which resembles a small DSLR, the FZ200's 25-600mm (equivalent) lens doesn't twist off. In one sense this makes the FZ200 less versatile than an interchangeable lens model, but no DSLR could replicate a zoom range like this with a fixed constant aperture of F2.8.

The FZ200 offers good image quality and a Raw capture mode, but where it falls down compared to interchangeable lens cameras is high ISO, low-light work. Although very good for its class, the FZ200's small sensor can't match the performance of even low-end ILCs. But for a novice, the combination of full manual control and a super-versatile zoom lens make the FZ200 a fantastic 'first step' into photography.

Also consider...

Canon PowerShot SX50 HS The SX50 HS is Canon's flagship 'super zoom' compact with a zoom range spanning 24-1000mm (equivalent). This is significantly longer than the FZ200's maximum telephoto but the lens isn't as bright, which makes it less useful in poor light. That said, in favorable conditions the SX50 HS is capable of very good image quality for its class.

Nikon 1 J3 (w/10-30mm kit zoom)

$400 / £445 | 14.2MP | max 15fps frame rate | 3" 921k-dot LCD | 1080/60i video

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The Nikon 1 system is relatively new, but is growing quickly. The J3 is Nikon's third-generation 'entry-level' 1-series camera (although the cheaper S1 has since been introduced beneath it) and offers plenty of advanced features packed in a small, light and novice-friendly body. The major selling point of the J1 over a compact camera is its interchangeable lens mount, which is built around a 1"-type CMOS sensor.

Image quality is a step up from most point-and-shoot cameras, and autofocus is impressively capable. Like all 1-series cameras, the J3 is able to achieve focus quickly and accurately, and in good light it can also track moving subjects. The J3 is a great entry-level system camera and a good starting point for a student or budding enthusiast.

Also consider...

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF6 The GF6 is a slimline beginner-friendly Micro Four Thirds camera, like the E-PM2, but with a tilting rear screen and built-in flash (but minus a hotshoe). The GF6 also offers Near Field Communication (NFC) that allows setup of Wi-Fi connections with compatible smartphones and tablets, simply by tapping the devices together.

Sony NEX-3N (w/16-50mm kit zoom)

$400 / £290 | 16MP | 4 fps max frame rate | 3" 460k-dot LCD | 1080/60i video

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The Sony NEX-3N is Sony's current entry-level NEX-series interchangeable lens camera and its main selling point is the large, APS-C format sensor, Sony's (and Sigma's) growing lineup of E-mount lenses, and an LCD that can flip upward by 180 degrees. Aimed at people who have outgrown their compact camera or smartphone the NEX-3N is light on external controls, but is good camera for a student or young photographer who is still learning about the basics of photography.

From the point of view of learning, the only serious omission from the NEX-3N is a hotshoe for adding an external flash, but the built-in flash is good enough for social snaps and close-range portraits.

Also consider...

Samsung NX1100 The NX1100 is Samsung's entry-level mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, and like the rest of the NX lineup it offers a 20MP CMOS sensor with wireless 'smart camera' capabilities for use with smartphones and tablet devices. Performance and image quality is good, and the NX lens lineup is growing, making the NX1100 a smart choice for a beginner photographer or student.