One of the questions I seem to get asked a lot of the time is "What camera should I buy?". Every time that I get asked this, I end up writing a big long email detailing all the things I like to look and compare between various cameras. Since this question has actually come up more and more frequently, I figured it is time for a blog entry to pass on what knowledge I know in this form. This article doesn't recommend a particular model. A camera is a personal choice, and one small difference in two otherwise perfectly identical cameras could be enough to sway you from choosing one over the other. By the way, people who already have a camera but don't know what some of the specs on their camera mean can tune in too since I'll go into those details as well. General Tips
Before I go into the specifics, here's some general tips. Cameras are an investment, and you don't want to rush purchase. If you have a local camera shop, it doesn't hurt to go in and ask questions and handle the cameras. The better shops will allow you to play with the controls, and snap a few sample photos. They'll also be able to tell you about the different parameters on the cameras. Like buying anything techy, it doesn't hurt to crosscheck what the people in the shop are telling you with other sources to make sure they know what they're talking about!
In terms of finding good deals, the goto place is often B&H Photo. This camera supercenter based in New York City employs an army of people who know what they're talking about and has some of the best deals available anywhere. That said, if you aren't in the states then you might be able to do a little better consulting other places. For those in Alberta, I've had really good experience with The Camera Store based in Calgary. They tend to have very good prices (sometimes beating B&H's price when you include shipping and currency conversion). If you're buying a consumer camera (and sometimes even the prosumer cameras), you might also be able to find good deals at the bigger retail chains like future shop, best buy, etc. Just be warned that the people in those stores tend not to know much about cameras, so make sure you've done your research before buying there.
For camera reviews and specification sheets, the site to go to is Digital Photography Review. This site has listings for every camera going back years. If you want to do a side by side comparison of two cameras, this is the place to do it. But to do that, you'll need to know what features are the game-breakers. We'll get to those in a moment. But first ...
SLR or Point and Shoot
The first big choice is choosing whether to go SLR or not. Single-Lens-Reflex cameras use an internal mirror to reflect the light coming through the lens up into the viewfinder. This means that what you're seeing through the viewfinder is exactly what the lens sees. Most professional photographers (one might say almost all of them) use SLR cameras, and there's a good reason. They offer two big features: the photo quality tends to be very good, and they offer the ability to pick from a vast array of lenses that change the type of photography you can do. You can pop off your walk-around lens and slap on a telephoto and suddenly you have a very different view on the world through your camera. The downsides? The SLR bodies are comparably expensive, they are large and bulky, and to take advantage of them you really need to spend more money on a good lens.
Fundamentally then, the decision on whether to go with an SLR or a P&S camera depend on what your goals are. If you need a camera that fits in your pocket, or doesn't hit your budget very hard, then a P&S camera is the way to go. If, on the other hand, you want to get more into photography and the size of the camera isn't a big deal to you then an SLR might be the way to go for you.
The decision process for each type of camera is very different. If you're buying a P&S, you really have to take into consideration its focal length, aperture range, and other lens-particular parameters since you don't really have much opportunity to change the lens. The choice of which SLR body to buy depends a lot more on outside factors: do you have any SLR lenses already? Do you have friends who might be willing to lend you lenses? In these cases, the company you're going to buy an SLR body from should be one that matches the lenses you have access to. The big two camera companies in this field are Canon and Nikon. Both companies are fiercely competing, and either is a good choice if there are no other factors to tilt your choice one way or the other. Alright -- with all that said, let's look at what all the different parameters mean.
What does everything mean? A camera's technical spec can be an incredibly intimidating thing to read. Of the various parameters, these are the things to pay attention to. The first two on this list are by far the most important when choosing a P&S camera.
Focal Length - This stat tells you the "zoominess" of the lens. A small number is a more wide-angle view meaning you can fit more of the scene into the picture. A larger number is more telephoto meaning how far you can zoom into particular parts of the scene. Be warned that you need to be comparing two different cameras on their effective focal ranges. Different digital camera sensor sizes pointed through the same lens would actually have different focal lengths. So a good idea would be to compare the focal lengths on digital photography review. What numbers should you be looking for? 50mm is a standard size that is good for a lot of styles of photography. On the wide angle side, something like 22mm is quite wide ... good for taking photos of landscapes and scenery. On the zoom side, 200mm starts to get into some serious zoom.
Aperture - This stat tells you how wide the lens opens. A smaller number means the lens open wider. A wide aperture will make only a small amount of the picture in focus, leaving the rest blurry. This blurriness is called bokeh. In addition, a wider aperture allows the camera to take light in faster, which means it will be easier to take shots in lower light. A typical P&S camera might have an aperture range of say f/3.2-f/5.8. That means that at the widest angle the widest the aperture can open is f/3.2. At the opposite end, the widest angle the aperture can open to is f/5.8 (which is less wide). Professional quality zoom lens tend to have apertures that open as wide as f/2.8.
Resolution (megapixels) - While many cameras feature megapixels as one of the biggest features, it is actually much less important than the random salesperson might try to convince you of. See, higher megapixel count means the sensor needs to pack more pixels onto the same size area. With camera companies packing more and more pixels onto this area, the image quality can suffer. The real benefit to higher megapixels? If you like to print your pictures, you can print them bigger. That's the only real advantage to this way too oversold feature.
Those are the more important features to look at. If the cameras you're trying to compare between have the same important stats, you can choose between some of the more minor features. For example, cameras range in the quality of video that they shoot which might be more or less important to you. The camera might have a low macro focus range - which means you can put the camera closer to your subject and it can still focus. If you like to take close-up shots, the smaller this distance the better.
Buying a new camera is complicated. There's a lot of numbers to look at and compare, and beyond all that, you really need to try holding the cameras in your hand and playing with the controls. Modern cameras are capable of taking some amazing pictures, and it is hard to go too wrong. But buying the camera that will match the kinds of photos that you would like to take is pretty important and by looking at some of the numbers you can sway your decision in the correct way.
So if you like to take outdoor scenery shots, you want a camera that goes as wide angle as possible. In the point and shoot range, certainly look for one that goes at least as wide as 24mm. Scenic photography tends to have everything in focus: which you need a narrow aperture for. Try shooting shots at high numbers like f/11.
If you take your camera into lowlight conditions a lot and would like to have a hope of taking photos without flash, look for a camera with a wide aperture. A tip as well: don't zoom in with a typical point and shoot -- that will make the lens not able to open as wide. Shoot it as wide-angle as possible to get the widest aperture.
Whatever camera you choose, try and take it everywhere. The more pictures you take and the more you learn to use its capabilities, the more likely you'll be able to capture the moment when you really want to. It's a great skill to have, and it is also lots of fun!