What should I buy?

I got an email from an acquaintance asking for some suggestions about which camera to buy.

And I said…it depends 🙂

Here’s my full reply which I offer here for those of you making similar decisions.

I’ve bought just about everything from Henry’s Cameras. They have stores across southern Ontario. They will usually match any price that you see advertised by Future Shops or Best Buy.
One thought I’d offer is why the D300?
I don’t know how much experience you’ve had with cameras but if the main idea is to document the trip a D-300 might be too much camera. First it’s heavy especially if you get the second battery grip.  There are no quick “scene” modes to help you out and honestly scene modes can be very helpful even for professionals 🙂 It can be a handful to learn how to get the most out of it.
Now if I owned some Nikon lenses then the D-300 would be make sense as it can use any lens ever made by Nikon (although not necessarily with auto-focus and auto-exposure control working).
If I didn’t have any Nikon lenses I’d consider a D-5100 with the standard kit lens. (That’s the lens that’s sold with the camera. It’s usually an 18 to 55mm lens although you can upgrade to an 18-200mm lens which is what I have. It will allow you to shoot from fairly wide angle to fairly long telephoto.) 
The only issue with kit lenses is that they are slow lenses. Slow lenses don’t let in as much light as fast lenses which are sometimes called professional lenses. For example I have a 17-55mm f/2.8 fast, heavy, professional and expensive lens that allows me to shoot in much lower light than the kit lens. Either lens works fine shooting outdoors in regular sunlight.
If I bought a Nikon I’d also buy a 50mm f/1.8 lens. This non-zoom lens is really fast and best of all cheap at around $150.
There’s also a 35mm f/1.8 lens but it’s around $300.
If I thought I’d be shooting indoors a lot I’d buy a good flash. You can never have too much light and I have two SB-900s. The little pop-up flash on the camera is next to useless IMHO. It’s too small, too harsh and too easily creates the dreaded red-eye look in your subjects.
If I was shooting landscapes or portraits I’d buy a tripod. I shoot a lot at dawn and dusk especially when on vacation and I’ve got a couple of good tripods. BTW there is two ways to buy tripods. The expensive way (Go get a Gitzo or Manfrotto carbon-fibre tripod ($700 up to $1500) with an expensive  Really Right Stuff bullhead ($300-$500++) and be done with it. The really expensive way is to buy a $75 tripod this year. It will fall apart inside of a couple years so you’ll buy a $200 tripod. It’s nice but as you buy bigger heavier cameras with longer heavier lenses you’ll decide you need an expensive tripod so you’ll shell out $500 and buy a $200 head. After you’ve returned from your first photo expedition tour lead by a pro you’ll go out and buy the Gitzo or Manfrotto and REally Right Stuff head after all 🙂 … I’m almost there owning a carbon-fibre Manfrotto and expensive head. If I go full-frame camera body and long telephoto lenses I’ll have to upgrade it 😦
Now after all that here’s another thought: I got tired of lugging the D-300 and D-90 (another highly recommended camera) on vacations and bought an Olympus Pen E-PL2 micro-four-thirds format camera (around $600) and would buy the newer model the E-P3 (faster focusing and few more goodies but not cheap at $800). I’ve got a bag full of lenses 45mm f/1.8 which is the 35mm equivalent of a 90mm portrait lens; 12mm f/1.8 which is a 24mm wide in 35mm terms; a 17mm f/2.8 “pancake” lens; a standard kit zoom; an ultra wide zoom and a long telephoto zoom. All this stuff fits into a medium size camera bag plus I use on old Nikon flash (be careful some old flashes can damage newer cameras) and shoot images that are comparable to the D-300.
I use the D-300 when I need a camera that will run all day full-out without issue with motor drive on and often using flash continuously. For example I’m shooting the Toronto Zombie Walk later this month and I’ll shoot continuously for four or five hours producing a couple of thousand of RAW (this RAW format allows me to manipulate the images in Lightroom 3 software or NX Capture 2 which is exclusively for Nikon RAW files. JPG images have all the processing done in the camera and can’t be manipulated much at all. This is okay when shooting snapshots but images that need work need to be shot in RAW and edited in software.) BTW if you buy a camera and a couple of lenses see if you can’t get them to throw in the software.) This is a lot of shooting and typical of what I do professionally. I’ll take these three or four thousand images down to the best 200 and edit (this will take a day) and post those images.
I’m shooting a wedding as the second shooter (I don’t to weddings) for a friend and I’ll use the Nikons with flashes on both and likely the 17-55mm f/1.8 on one camera and a 12-24mm ultra wide zoom f/4 (slow but that’s not as big an issue with wide lenses and using a flash) on the other camera. Again I’ll shoot only RAW and process them. I also really like NIK software programs for adding extra touches.
I use the Olympus when I’m shooting more casually (like a regular person). It can shoot in a rapid mode but not as fast as the D-300. I use the $250 image viewer that fits on the hot-shoe and makes the camera much more single-lens reflex like in operation. On the other hand, if I’m in a crowd it’s great to take the viewer off and use the bright back screen to see what I’m shooting as I hold the camera over my head. This camera will also take an external mic which is critical for getting great audio when shooting video which I am getting into more and more. I really really like the Olympus plus when it’s on auto and you turn it on and off it resets itself to factory default specs so I can hand it to my wife and she can get pretty great images with it while not knowing anything about photography. When I use it, I can turn manual on and shoot the way I want to.
Finally if I wanted the least camera that’s capable of producing good prints or excellent online slideshows I’d get something like a Canon S-95 at around $350. Really fast lens, tiny camera, excellent images.
In any case I’d buy an extra battery (or two). I bought mine online for a tenth what the local camera dealer wanted. Often cameras are sold at cost and accessories are sold at huge markups.
Get a decent camera bag that is comfortable to carry and holds all your equipment and have fun.
Hope this helps 🙂