1. PROFESSIONAL COMPACT
BEST FOR Serious photogs tired of schlepping DSLRs
Behind the Lens Cram a DSLR's brains into a point-and-shoot body and you get a camera with the best features of both. The Canon PowerShot G10 ($500; canon.com) weighs just 12.3 ouncesless than half the weight of the D300, (below)yet it takes pro-quality images.
The biggest advantage: The G10's ability to shoot in manual mode and RAW format, which vastly increases your editing options later.
Bummer: Most compact cameras, including this one, have a delay between the shutter release and the image capture, making action shots more difficult.
2. WEATHERPROOF POCKET CAM
BEST FOR Boaters, adventure travelers
Behind the Lens Muddy trails, occasional wipeouts, unexpected downpours, choppy waves. If you're like us, these things are part of your life. Which is why investing in a waterproof point-and-shoot, like Olympus's Stylus Tough-8000 ($400; olympus.com), is a wise move. It's watertight down to 33 feet, and while the image quality is good, the extra protection comes at a price. Since the lens can't protrude from the weather-sealed casing on cameras like these, there's less room for the optics to move, so zoom power is reduced.
BEST FOR Fair-weather users
Behind the Lens Cameras like this one are designed to be pocket friendly, but most make concessions on the most important thing: picture quality. The best, like Leica's C-Lux 3 ($600; leica.com) use an optical zoom and top-tier glass lenses, so colors stay true, and crisp details that would otherwise look hazylike hairs on the stem of a flowerstand out.
The drawback: Many pocket cams are limited in low light, and most are not designed for the rigors of the backcountry.
4. PROSUMER DSLR
BEST FOR Upwardly mobile amateurs
Behind the Lens If you want to capture action like a pro, you'll need a DSLR that can shoot at least six frames per second, like Nikon's D300 (body, $1,800; nikon.com). That's 30 percent faster than what you'll get on cameras just one notch down the price scale. At this level, you can also expect a metal (not plastic) housing with water-resistant sealskey for outdoor shooting. And with a DSLR's interchangeable lenses, you can buy as much clarity and zoom as you want.
The main disadvantage is portability: Lugging this 1.8-pounder down the trail takes dedication.