This is a tough decision but can be made easier if you know what kind of pictures you want to take.
If you’re a newcomer to digital photography, you might want to consider a point-and-shoot camera. Almost any point and shoot that costs $200 or more will take absolutely wonderful images. They’re very small in size and will fit in a purse or pocket. Most have built-in zoom lenses that allow you to take wide-angle to telephoto images. This is a good thing. They store the images on a memory card and most cameras can hold hundreds of images that you download to your computer (using a supplied cable and simple software) for viewing and printing. One major downside to these cameras is you use the LCD screen to frame your shot which can be tough in bright sunlight. I always have one with me when I travel.
There’s a higher-end point-and-shoot camera (some people refer to this camera as a “pro-sumer” camera) which has a much bigger zoom lens (but still doesn’t allow changing lenses) and other more professional controls. These cameras won’t fit into a pocket but the enhanced controls may make it worthwhile to carry. These cameras cost $500 and up. Often they have a visual viewfinder which you choose over the LCD screen. (A good feature.)
Finally there are the digital single-lens reflex cameras. Any DSLR from the humble Canon Rebel or Nikon D40 (at around $500) to the high-end pro DSLRs like the Nikon D3 or Canon 1D (if we have to ask the price we can’t afford these guys) will take professional quality images right out of the box. The difference between the pro models and amateur cameras comes down to what’s on the mode dial. On amateur cameras there are pre-set modes (portrait, landscape, macro, sports, day/night, and others) which help newcomers get great shots without having much camera knowledge. The pro models only have aperture and shutter priority, program and manual modes (which do everything and more as compared to the pre-sets). While some of these cameras have a mode called live-view (it allows you to use the LCD screen to frame your subject) all it does is turn your expensive DSLR into a really expensive point and shoot. I never use live-view as the viewfinder in DSLRs work so much better.
When it comes to what to recommend let me say I shoot Nikon and have since the early 1970s. They’ve worked well for me and I like the way they feel in my hands. That’s important. If the camera doesn’t feel right when you pick it up try another model. Any of the Nikon DSLRs are terrific. I have a D-300 (around $1500) and a D-90 ($1000) and if I could find a D40 at a distress price I’d grab one (because they’re light as heck and can take most of my lenses). I have a FujiFilm S6500 prosumer camera which at 6 megapixels isn’t the most modern of models but it takes great shots and I carry it when I’m using the camera like a visual sketchpad. I’ve also got a 6-megapixel FujiFilm F-31d which is a legendary (bright colors and very little noise in the image) that fits into a shirt pocket and goes with me anytime I want to leave the big stuff at home.
If I was buying a new camera today I’d look at the Canon G11 (lots of pros carry this big point and shoot in their camera bags. Get the newer G11 which has less megapixels for a cleaner image) or the new Panasonic GF-1 (and I’d buy the zoom lens for all-around shooting and the fast tiny 20mm f/1.7 lens. You have to compose your image on the LCD screen but that’s a small price to pay for this very capable camera that’s ideal for travellers (as it’s small, capable and very cool). In point and shoots, I like Canon’s S90.
Regardless of which camera you buy please add the small cost of a course to help you learn your camera. A good teacher can save you weeks of aggregation.
And here’s a tip: One Canada-wide retailer offers a one-hour get-to-know-your-camera course which I haven’t heard great things about from people who signed up. Some of the other courses out there are little more than extended sales pitches where you’re pushed to buy extra memory cards and faster lenses. Stay away from these courses. And while I offer great courses on getting to know your camera (ask me for info at email@example.com) I understand not everyone lives within driving distance of the Toronto area, so how do you know if your camera course is going to be any good?
The best way is to ask for the instructor’s name and their website and then go check them out. If the course administrators won’t tell you who is teaching the course then you’re likely going to get a sales clerk who will read the words on a slideshow presented in a dark storage room that will go for several hours. Protect yourself! Find out if your instructor is a working pro and if they’ve had any experience teaching photography.
BTW camera clubs often have professionals like me come in to do talks at their club and that’s one of the ways I get many of my students who, based on what they saw and heard at the club, want more of the same from me 🙂 There are lots of great instructors out there so regardless of where you spend your hard-earned dollars don’t get tricked and end up settling for second best.
And remember: Anytime you have a question feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get back to you usually within 24 hours as your question is important to me. I want you out there shooting radically better images than every before.