I regularly get asked what is the best camera to buy. Or I will be reading different internet posts talking about the same thing. Most of the time when other people answer they simply will say whatever camera they use. Either that, or they will say some expensive camera. Usually their reasoning for the expensive cameras is some take on one of the popular photography cliches. You know them... "oh you need lots of megapixels for a large print"... or "you need the DSLR so you don't get noise in the photo" etc. They fail to do the most important thing that needs to happen before answering the question. They don't ask what you want to do with your camera. So this post will actually break down why you would want different types of cameras.
Point and shoot and camera phones
The least expensive cameras are the point and shoot cameras and the camera phones. These are really good to have tucked in a pocket or purse and have available for those quick shots when you are just out and about. These are also the cameras to get if you simply want nice snapshot photos of family and friends. Camera phones have gotten quite good, and for many people will be good enough. Any of the name brand point and shoots will work pretty much just fine. So something from Nikon or Fujifilm or Canon are great choices. Kodak are pretty nice, but with the future of the company up in the air are hard to recommend at the moment. There are some really cool point and shoots that will have features like being waterproof (to like 10 or 20 feet), or shooting in 3D. So you can get some fun additional features.
The bridge cameras (also known now as superzoom) are some of the most overlooked options. Most people don't even know the term bridge or superzoom. These are the cameras that at first glance look like a DSLR, but the lens does not come off the camera. The camera will run between like $200 and $500. The biggest feature is that they can zoom to extreme telephoto lengths. You will see stickers on them showing values like 20x or 35x zoom. The Fujifilm HS20 will zoom all the way to 720mm equivalent. The cameras will also do macro, and wide angle focal lengths. Most of them will allow you to shoot full manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, and program mode, along with full auto. Many will also save the image in either RAW or JPG format. Pretty much any of them now will do full HD video too.
My advice is that if you want something better than a point and shoot, want a lot of different features like extreme telephoto, and like the idea of the control of manual mode or aperture priority etc. but don't want to invest a small fortune in camera equipment, then the bridge camera is totally the choice for you. I definitely like both the Nikon and Fujifilm bridge cameras. I have not had a chance to play with any of the Canon, Panasonic, or Sony versions. I would assume they would be good too.
A year ago I had a friend that asked my advice. I told him to get the Fujifilm HS10. He was going on a trip to Alaska. When he got back he said that it was the best camera he could ever have imagined getting for the trip. His photos were stunning, and he did not get sore muscles from lugging lots of equipment around. And yes, you can make huge prints from any of those bridge cameras. I will write in a later blog post about printing and some of the stupid stuff you will hear a lot of people say. But that is way beyond this blog post.
Digital SLR (DSLR)
The DSLR is that fancy camera that a lot of people buy. They are most notable for having interchangeable lenses. The biggest name brands are Canon and Nikon. Sony has a really nice lineup now with their Alphas. Panasonic and Pentax both have some really nice cameras, but you don't see them nearly as often. Personally I shoot Nikon. I love my Nikon. I almost went Pentax, but no local retailers carried them. That was probably the biggest reason I went Nikon instead of Pentax. It was like my second choice. Nikon does have a lot of options in lenses and other accessories that Pentax won't have because of more market share.
When trying to figure out which manufacturer to go with consider a few different things. First, do you have other family that uses a DSLR and whom you will want to share equipment back and forth with? This is a good way to save some money on equipment purchases. Second, see if you can find a camera store that carries the ones you are considering. Take some photos with them. Change the settings. Which feels natural to you? Are the buttons in places that seem to make sense? Third, what type of shooting are you going to do most? If you are going to do a lot of sports then you want a camera with fast frames per second. If you are doing sports inside then you want something that will do great high ISO. For most beginners pretty much any of the name brands will work well other than those stipulations for sports. If you want to do video also then it is really important to have an external mic jack on the camera (vital!).
I find that the Nikon and Pentax have the best high ISO results of any of the cameras. The Canon low end have a mic jack on them where on the Nikon you need to be in at least the D7000. The Sony Alpha do the best for frames per second for continuous shooting. Personally I like the menuing and button arrangement of the Nikon by far the best. The other thing with the Nikon that I have seen is that they tend to keep the controls in the same places on all models, so moving up to higher models later is easier to do.
Keep in mind with the DSLR cameras that once you pick a manufacturer you will pretty much stick with them throughout. The reason is that lenses and many accessories are specific to a particular manufacturer. So you get a Nikon and some lenses that fit Nikon, if you switch you need to buy all new lenses too. So take some time with picking your first DSLR body. One nice thing though is that if you decide after 6 months you want to go a different way then usually you can get most of your investment back from a DSLR and equipment on eBay to make the switch. So it is not all money lost.
Other types of cameras and final notes
There are some other types of cameras coming out now. The Nikon V1 is a good example. It has removable lenses on a camera body that is more like a point and shoot (but not really like it either). There are some cameras that are going back to the old rangefinder cameras for construction and styling. There are a number of mirrorless cameras out now. Sounds like some future blog posts to talk about those eh?
I have not gone into lenses and such for DSLRs. That is a fairly involved discussion that will probably be a number of different blog posts in the future. In future posts I will also cover things like filters, straps, tripods, and other accessories. Feel free to tweet me @onewithcamera or post comments below if you have specific things you would like me to write about. I also plan to have a number of additional video postings soon on all of this.