I often get asked for advice on cameras. The number of choices and differing opinions can confuse anyone, so it is natural to ask someone who has owned a few of them. Deciding which camera to buy isn't an easy decision, but there are a few general things which one should consider. This, of course, is my opinion - feel free to ignore it :)
SLR or a point and shoot?
It depends (you'll hear that a lot). A point and shoot is compact and you will end up shooting more pictures (and have more fun) with it. SLR cameras are bulky and you won't be able to carry them everywhere. You wouldn't even *want* to carry them everywhere once the excitement of a new camera is over. Plus, buying an SLR usually becomes a journey into chasing lenses. Sure, SLRs will give you awesome pictures (and that's because of the lenses), but you will miss a lot of pictures because the SLR won't be in your pocket. The very fact that you're asking this question means that you should buy a good P&S. Learn how to take good photos. And if you're still clicking as enthusiastically after a year, but an SLR. Oh, and point and shoots are *good* these days.
OK, which point and shoot?
There are some really good P&S cameras there. If you aren't really serious about photography, just buy anything. Buy the camera you like the most which fits into your budget. Buy the slimmest, pinkest, loudest, most megapixels - whatever. Oh, and while you're at it - buy Sony because you're stupid anyway. But seriously, you can buy anything from Canon or Nikon without much worry. Both of them make awesome cameras and have a decent service network. Try out a few cameras and see what you like. Look at the picture modes, see if it has (and you like) features like "color accent" etc. Some things that you might want to look at:
- the "zoom range" - but don't fall for the digital zoom trap. Optical zoom is all that matters. And don't fall for the "x" numbers. Look at how wide and how tele you can go. See if you comfortably take in the whole room without having to step back.
- you might want to prefer a camera which has a lens that goes wider ("zooms out") over one with a more tele lens ("zooms in"). In all probability, you'll shoot group photos, indoor pictures, pictures of buildings/towers/trees etc, from a close enough distance. A wide lens is *really* useful then. And the more you zoom in, the more stable the camera (in your hands) needs to be. You could carry a tripod, but then why not buy an SLR?
- Optical viewfinder - a little inconvenient in a small camera, but saves battery. Not too important these days I guess.
- Battery - if you run out of it, can you use standard AAs to get some more shots? And how long does the battery last?
- Charging - if the battery charges outside the camera, you can shoot while you charge a spare battery. With charging integrated into the camera, you can't do that.
- Storage - does that camera have a SD card or a CF card? MicroSD or standard SD? Which ones do you already own? Do you need a card reader, or does you laptop already have an SD Card slot? Sony is a particularly bad choice because they use MemoryStick which is proprietary, not useful with non-Sony stuff, and the evil corporation will force another format if you upgrade your camera leaving your current storage cards useless.
But remember that friends don't let friends buy Sony.
Which SLR? Nikon or Canon?
Sony - if you're stupid. Redundancies aside, you are a serious photographer if you're buying an SLR, and that means in the near future (if not now with the crappy kit lens), it's the lenses that matter. The camera body is just electronics which you may upgrade. The cost of your lens collection will be significantly higher than the cost of the body. And people buy multiple bodies so that they don't have to change lenses.
What that means, is that the choice of the body depends on the choice of the lenses. Lenses are expensive, and you might want to borrow (or swap for a little while) from your friends. If your friends are in the Canon camp, pick Canon. If they're in the Nikon camp, pick Nikon. The difference in the cameras is easily overshadowed by the availability of a lens pool. But you should check if the lens pool *is* available. People are possessive about their lenses (rightly so) and might not want to hand them over to a rookie. A nice way is to give, and then take. Your excellent lens would give them confidence in your ability to take care of lenses. It also helps to discuss things like lens cleaners (materials and services).
If you don't have friends, join Facebook and then come back to reading this after a few months (or minutes, if you take a lot of quizzes). If you don't have friends with SLRs, just jump to any camp. I'm a little biased towards Canon. See, Nikon is a very good company and they make good cameras. But Nikon is a small company with really smart optical engineers. Canon, on the other hand is a really big company with a lot of money. And they make their own sensors. Which means - the Canon cameras will usually have more features, small builds, larger sensors etc. I think the lenses tend to be better per dollar, but a lot of people will debate that. I'm a Canon guy. You also get to joke about "flashing your Canon", and your "big Canon" etc., which is an added bonus :)
One point that many people overlook is the choice between a full frame and an APS camera. This refers to the sensor size. The full frames are more expensive than the APS (or "digital size") sensor cameras. For the same number of pixels, they have a lower sensor density and have lower noise. Which means better low light performance / higher ISOs. But they're more expensive. You can buy any one - that isn't the point. As I said, camera bodies are transient. It's about the lenses.
Since a smaller sensor-size camera has a smaller sensor (no, really!), the lens needs to produce a smaller image. Now, lenses are complex things, and the quality varies. The general rule is that the image quality deteriorates as you go out from the center of the image. Which means that a full frame is more demanding in terms of lenses. Of course, you could always crop out the bad parts to achieve the _exact_same_ results as from a small sensor camera. You're just cropping out after the capture - the small sensor effectively crops out at the time of capture.
The other thing is that there are some lenses "designed for digital cameras" (the "EF-S" lenses in the Canon world). What that means is that they produce an image sufficient only for the smaller sensor size. They won't work on the full frames. Don't be tempted to buy them unless you get a *really* sweet deal. They're cheaper - yes, but they won't work when you upgrade to a full frame. You'll have to buy your lenses all over again. Remember, cameras are transient - lenses stay.
Last note: for similar prices, prefer faster lenses (wider apertures) over "Image Stabilization" or "Vibration Resist" (IS and VR are from the Canon and Nikon worlds respectively). IS/VR helps in low light and gives you a 1-stop advantage, but only when *your hand* is moving. They're useless when the subject is moving. They also make the lens more complex. Complex things break easily and in complex ways. A faster lens is more generally versatile.
Full disclosure: I used to own a Canon 350D with a 50/1.8, a Tamron 28-75/2.8 (excellent lens!), and a Canon 10-22/3.5-5.6 which I sold off a couple of years ago. I now own a Canon 5D (that's a full frame) with a 50/1.8 and a Canon SD750 Point&Shoot.