Point and shoot and camera phones
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)
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
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.