"WHAT KIND of camera shall I buy?" This has become the most asked question of the holiday season. Here are my recommendations:

At one end of the scale are the disc cameras. They are great for the person who doesn't care that much for photography but does like to have some occasional snapshots. Their prices range from $19.95 to near $100. Most come with electronic flash and a lithium battery. They all have the same disadvantage -- a small negative that doesn't give satisfactory results when enlarged to more than 5x7.

Next up the ladder are the point-and-shoot compacts. They are, for the most part, fully automatic. They are auto focus, auto exposure, auto advance, auto load and auto rewind. They all have DX circuits to automatically set your film speed. Most have center-weighted metering for the most successful pictures.

The best of the compacts that I have tested is the Pentax IQZoom. It has a power zoom lens that is extremely sharp and ranges from 35-70mm. The fill-in flash and compensation buttons are the best.

Its price is about $240.

After that, I like the Olympus Infinity, which is waterproof and sandproof, and the Infinity Jr. which is light, well balanced and easy to operate. The Infinity sells for about $160 and the Junior for about $120.

The newest entry in this field is the Fuji DL400. It features "drop-in loading," a system that pre-winds the film and advances it as you shoot. It also has an exclusive "landscape button" that blocks the auto focus infrared beam and focuses the camera at infinity. No more out-of-focus pictures shooting through glass or in low light.

It has a two-way power lens, 35mm wide angle and 70mm telephoto. It sells for about $300.

Be sure you look at the Nikon Action-Touch. It has lots of automatic features and has proved to be a well-constructed, long-lasting machine. Price, $190.

From the compacts we move to the manual-focus single-lens reflex cameras.

The Canon AE-1 Program is still near the top of the list. One of the first SLR program cameras, it has held up under competition. It has three modes: automatic (the camera sets the shutter speed); program (the camera sets both the shutter and aperture); and manual (you set the shutter and the aperture with the aid of an internal meter). It sells for about $295 with a 50mm lens.

When I first tested the Nikon 2000, I loved it. It was the first SLR I had used that had so many wonderful features that were easy to use. I started with the manual mode, advanced to the automatic and learned about programs on the 2000. It has a built-in winder and DX film setting. I still think it's well worth its cost -- $310 with a 50mm lens.

The Olympus OMPC, another of the three-mode cameras, is easy to use and to carry. In fact, I like the way all of the Olympus cameras balance. This one costs about $260 with a 50mm, f1.8 lens.

Two others are great entry-level SLRs: The Minolta X-7A has manual and automatic, but no program. It's easy to get used to and sells for $250 with a 50mm lens.

Finally, the Pentax P-3. This is a simple, user-friendly camera with program and manual. It's great for the novice's first SLR, and one to keep no matter how experienced you become. With lens, it costs $210.

Then there are the auto-focus SLRs. I have tested three and have reports on two others:

First, Minolta's Maxxum 7000. Maxxum is the grandfather of the group. Jack Fletcher, equipment specialist for the National Geographic, has been shooting with a Maxxum for several years, and praises it highly. "I've tried with all my skill to fool this camera, and I can't. It makes wonderful pictures under all conditions."

It has good design and balance and is easy to carry. I had a little trouble with the viewfinder in low light. The camera, with 50mm, f1.7 lens, lists for $659, but I have seen them for under $400.

The Nikon 2020 was the first auto-focus I tried. Its strongest point was that it made the transition to AF easy and desirable. The camera looks, feels and acts like many other Nikons. I was able to shoot with it within minutes after picking it up. I mastered the auto-exposure and the AF buttons on the front by the end of the second roll. It sells for around $499 and is a bargain.

I was able to shoot 10 rolls with the Canon EOS 620. I did reasonably well, but was unable to get completely comfortable with this incredibly high-tech machine. It does so many things: It has its motors in the lenses rather than the body; it has an autoexposure bracketing system; and it has lots of buttons to push -- and learn about. I found the auto focus more difficult to use than on some of the others, but assume I would become more adept with use.

The camera, with a 50mm f1.8, is priced about $575.

The Pentax SF1 has been a real pleasure to use. It has all of the high-tech advances, including a good LCD display, a great choice of AF and AE modes and a built-in, pop-up flash that also has a focus aid for low-light pictures. It's super for flash fill. You can change modes with the slide switch without taking the camera from your eye. The view finder is adjustable (+/- 1.5 diopters). It's very easy to use, and the owner's manual is very helpful.

It sells for about $429.

Then be

ure that you check the Olympus OM77AF.

It's less complex than some of the others but does most of the things you want it to do. It has a pop-up flash and an infrared focus aid. It's easy to shoot with and won't intimidate you. It costs about $299.

Above all, talk to the people in your camera store. They are knowledgeable and can help you make the right selection.

Write to Carl Kramer, c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071.