Not sure what camera to buy? This is the most usual question hobbyists and starting professionals ask. People usually answer depending on how much money you want to spend or what do you enjoy photographing. I am taking a different approach.
How did I choose what camera to buy
During the past 12 years of my photographic life, you can bet that I have done all the mistakes in and outside of the book. I have spent LOTS of money on equipment, LOTS of time drooling over websites and catalogs, and LOTS of hours second-guessing my choices because one of my friends chose something different, bringing something else to the table.
During that time, apart from photo quality, two factors where always constant for me. The first one is ease of use, and the second is what friends use.
I will not go deep in the quality issue here. The truth is that all big companies today offer quite high standard choices. All I will say is that budget dSLR kits do not offer quality. dSLRs can shine when used with good quality lenses. When you buy a budget dSLR kit, you are practically buying a big compact.
That said, whatever you chose, try to find and check real world sample images of the camera that you want to buy. You can check for online samples, but keep in mind that all those review sites are not always 100% impartial. The best thing you can do is buy an SD or CF card, go to the local mall or shop, and get as many sample photos as you can. You can later review them on your own computer, and see how the camera worked for you.
This brings me to the second point.
Ease of use
Going to a local shop and trying the camera yourself will also give you a good idea of how the camera works for you in terms of ergonomics. How big, small, heavy or light the cameras is, how it fits your hands, how easily accessible the controls are, how bright the viewfinder is and so on. This is especially important if you are a professional.
And now for the best advice I have ever received…
The best camera is the one that you have with you
For years I have been carrying around my favorite DSLR. Sometimes inside a big Lowepro bag with all my prime lenses, a flash, a tripod, batteries, chargers, filters and my analog Pentax with a couple of T-MAX films.
While this was great fun and helped me a lot to experiment and learn stuff, I could only do it during photographic walks. Most of the time I would leave stuff home, and just carry my DSLR with just one lens. And it still was not fun to carry around when not taking photos.
These days I take most of my cookie-cutter photos using my LG G3 phone (has great low light performance by the way). For fancier occasions and journeys I have my Fuji X-100S. I only use my D700 for work (product photos, portraits and so on). And as you can imagine, my Lowepro bag is gathering dust, acting mostly as a protecting case for the stuff I did not sell.
What I am trying to say is, buy what you know you will not mind having with you all the time. One of the best ways to get good in photography is having a camera with you all the time. If you want to buy that fancy DSLR, then keep in mind that you will have to carry it with you. Basically my point is, do not be afraid to get a nice compact camera.
What friends use
It is really fascinating how much we get affected by our friends or people around us. The good news is that choosing to buy what your friends use can be very beneficial, especially for DSLRs. You can exchange knowledge, share or borrow equipment, or even sell stuff to each other.
The problems start when you start seeing cameras like gadgets. Like a means to impress others, or to broadcast a certain image of authority. I have no problem with that. Just keep in mind that you have to be true to yourself and your intentions.
If you are here for the hobby and you wish to learn, then this is going to be a long and expensive journey. Buy what your current progress requires. And it usually works backwards. When you start you want fancy, big and complicated stuff. And as you get more experienced, you start looking for simpler and easier things. Which brings me to my final point.
The budget DSLR Kool-Aid
When people are starting on photography, they tend to think that getting a cheap DSLR with a kit lens will get them good results. Or at least better than what they get with their budget compact camera.
The truth is that a cheap DSLR can be worse than a compact in many ways. It will be big, heavy and will require a separate bag. The kit lens will be mediocre at best. The camera will perform badly in low light, and it will not work as expected, even if set to the full-auto program, since it will expect you to at least make some choices (for example ISO).
A compact on the other hand, makes no assumptions for your experience. It will be designed for minimal fiddling. You just have to find one that gives you nice results in most situations. Meaning a zoom range that allows you to get wide enough photos for landscapes, and narrow enough for flattering portraits. And a good sensor to offer low noise in low light conditions.
Things that do not really matter
Big megapixel numbers. They are easy to market, but they increase the file size, and increase the noise in low light conditions. The only benefit is that you can crop smaller parts of the image, so you do not have to worry about zooming or framing your subject precisely.
Big zoom numbers or ranges. Again these are just easy to market. Bigger zoom range and bigger focal length means more expensive glass and mechanics. And since you are on a budget, you are sacrificing quality A LOT.
My camera proposal
I will keep revisiting those issues in more detail. For now, just keep in mind that you do not have to spend a lot of money or get a dSLR to get good photos. My current budget proposal for someone starting in photography is something from the Panasonic LX series (which are apparently being discontinued). Even the oldest LX3 models are excellent. They work very nicely out of the box in full auto, but they still offer all the manual settings a hobbyist might want.