Welcome to Engadget's back to school guide! We predict plenty of campus parties in your near future, which is why we're tackling digital cameras today. Head to the back to school hub to see the rest of the product guides as we add them throughout the month. Be sure to keep checking back; in early September, we'll be giving away a ton of gear.
You don't need to pick up a dedicated shooter before you head off to college -- your smartphone can likely fill in until you're able to drop some serious cash on a model that'll last all four years. Still, you'd certainly be better off with a device that can capture memories at concerts, football games, in the dorm and at parties without hesitation. For that, you're going to want a camera with serious capabilities, and many don't come cheap. We've sorted our favorites based on model type -- there's something for everyone, and in every price range, too. A point-and-shoot will suit most students just fine, but photography and journalism majors will definitely want to step up to an interchangeable-lens camera, such as a compact mirrorless ILC or a full-size DSLR. Click through for our picks.
The Sony RX100 II is a modest update to our favorite point-and-shoot of all time, the RX100. This high-end camera definitely falls at the upper end of the pricing spectrum, but it's worth every penny thanks to top-notch optics and spectacular image quality. A large 1-inch BSI CMOS sensor lets you snap usable images at up to ISO 12,800, enabling low-light captures without a flash. The improved 3-inch 1.3M-dot LCD tilts up and down, so you can see clearly even when holding the camera at odd angles. There's even a Multi Interface Shoe for adding accessories like an electronic viewfinder, microphone or external flash.
Key specs: 20.2-megapixel 1-inch BSI CMOS sensor, 3.6x f/1.8-4.9 optical zoom, 1080/60p HD video.
Price: $750 on Amazon
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The Ricoh GR's 16.2-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor is gigantic for a pocketable camera, and an absent low-pass filter means super-sharp captures. The f/2.8 18.3mm (28mm equivalent) lens doesn't zoom, which many will find inconvenient, but the image quality you can achieve here makes the sacrifice worthwhile.
Price: $800 on B&H
Canon PowerShot ELPH 130IS
If you're on a tight budget, you really can't go wrong with an ELPH. Canon's PowerShot 130IS sports a 16-megapixel sensor, an 8x lens, a sharp 3-inch LCD and boosted battery life. It also includes WiFi, enabling instant uploads to the web.
Price: $140 on Amazon
Samsung's flagship NX300 is the company's most powerful camera yet. And, thanks to its autofocus capabilities, fantastic image quality and a competitive price, it's our top pick for 2013. The 20.3-megapixel APS-C sensor offers excellent output, and the retractable 20-50mm kit lens is versatile and compact. There are plenty of hardware controls, but you can also input settings directly on the high-res 3.31-inch AMOLED touchscreen, and you can share your shots right away using the built-in WiFi and companion smartphone app. It's also an excellent choice for shooting sports and other fast motion, thanks to a top shutter speed of 1/6000 second and an 8.6 fps continuous mode.
Key specs: 20.3-megapixel CMOS sensor, 20-50mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, 1080/60p HD video.
Price: $699 on Amazon
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Sony's NEX-3N is our top pick under $500. With a 16.1-megapixel APS-C sensor, 1080/30p HD video, 4 fps continuous shooting mode, 16-50mm retractable kit lens and a built-in flash, it's less powerful than the Samsung above, but the 3N is still a fantastic camera.
Price: $400 on Amazon
Olympus PEN E-P5
The E-P5 is Olympus' best mirrorless camera yet, with incredibly fast autofocus, a 1/8000-second top shutter speed, 9 fps continuous-shooting mode, 16.1-megapixel Micro Four Thirds sensor, WiFi and a unique five-axis image stabilization that lets you snap sharp shots and smooth video.
Price: $999 on Amazon
Canon EOS 70D
Canon's 70D is light-years ahead of its predecessor, particularly when it comes to video. If you plan to use a DSLR to capture motion pictures, there's no other model that can touch the 70D's autofocus capabilities. A completely redesigned autofocus system enables brilliantly smooth focus transitions and incredible speed whenever you're using live-view mode. As for stills, the camera can snap 20.2-megapixel images with its APS-C CMOS sensor at up to ISO 25,600. The 3-inch high-res touchscreen pops out and tilts up and down for improved control at a variety of angles. It also includes a 7 fps continuous mode, 1080/30p video capture and a microphone input with manual levels control.
Key specs: 20.2-megapixel CMOS sensor, 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens, 1080/30p HD video.
Price: $1,349 on Amazon
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Nikon's D7100 doesn't sport Canon's advanced AF, but it's still a great choice for photographers who already have a collection of compatible lenses. It boasts a 24.1-megapixel DX-format CMOS sensor, 6 fps shooting, 1080/30p video and a bundled 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 lens.
Price: $1,500 on Amazon
The Rebel SL1 is the smallest full-size DSLR in the world, and it really is compact. There's an 18-megapixel CMOS sensor, a top ISO of 25,600, nine-point AF system, 4 fps continuous shooting and 1080/30p video. It also ships with an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens.
Price: $700 on Amazon