Every once in a while, friends ask me what camera they should get. I might as well make a blog post about it...
There are basically 5 cameras I'd recommend, if you're getting into photography, in size order:
- Canon S120 or any Canon point-and-shoot
- Sony RX100
- Any Sony NEX
- Any entry-level Nikon DSLR plus 35mm f/1.8 prime lens
- Canon 70D (for DSLR video) plus 17-55mm f/2.8 lens and mic
(Note that I haven't actually tried all of these cameras and lenses, so this is a mixture of personal experience and aggregation of what I've read from other people's reports.)
1. Canon S120 or any Canon point-and-shoot
I honestly haven't really looked at the point-and-shoot market in a while. I remember Canon having the best point-and-shoots, and in its time the S100 was amazing. Its current generation is the Power Shot S120 ($400). I honestly wouldn't recommend it unless you need something both small and cheap. If you want it small but are willing to spend a bit more, get an RX100. If you want the same price but you're willing to get something a big bigger, get a low-end NEX. Both would be much better quality. And if your budget is even less than $400, then just get any low-end Canon point-and-shoot.
2. Sony RX100
(I think the new one is just supposed to be overall a bit better quality, but no huge differences.)
This is a (barely) pocketable camera that has nearly the same image quality as an entry-level DSLR with standard zoom lens. (It fits in my jeans pocket uncomfortably and in a way that might cause Mae West to comment, but it fits!) That's a remarkable technological achievement that I anxiously waited years for someone to actually achieve. I have one, and I love it. If you think you aren't likely to want to change lenses, I highly recommend it. Takes pretty good video, too. Many photographers with DSLRs (like myself) also have one of these as their second camera, for all the times we don't want to bother lugging our DSLR around.
3. Any Sony NEX camera
(Not sure what the difference between the two is, but I think it's just various features, and not so much image quality. Here's a thread on the differences.)
(If you're reading this long after November 2013, just look for whichever the current entry-level Sony NEX cameras are. The rest of this entry will still apply.)
(Update Aug 2014: Looks like Sony has stopped using the "NEX" branding, and the NEX line has been absorbed into the Alpha line, so that they're just called things like "a5100" now (which is essentially the latest version of the NEX-5 line). So take that into account.)
The Sony NEX-series are "mirrorless interchangeable lens" cameras which are exactly the same image quality as an entry-evel DSLR with standard zoom lens. The main difference between this and the RX100 is that you can also get new lenses. To be honest, though, I know very few NEX-owners who actually ever change lenses, and Sony's lens selection isn't great.
There are probably some advantages the NEX cameras have over the RX100 in terms of feature set even if you don't change lenses, but the larger physical size is a deal-breaker for me since it won't fit in my jeans pocket. It fits great in a purse, and isn't too heavy, so I think it's a good option for people who carry a purse or bag wherever they go. It's notable that the low-end NEX is cheaper than the RX100.
There are other mirrorless interchangeable lens camera manufacturers, but Sony is by far the most popular.
4. Any Nikon entry-level DSLR plus 35mm f/1.8 prime lens
First, I should mention that if you just plan to use a standard zoom lens, there is no reason to get a DSLR. The NEX or even RX100 will get you the same quality, but they will be much lighter. Only consider getting a DSLR if you care about getting another lens.
Second, Canon and Nikon are very similar in quality and mostly pretty similar in lens range, with one significant difference:
Nikon offers a 35mm f/1.8 prime lens for $200.
Prime lenses are lenses that you can't zoom, but that let a lot more light in, so you can get great low light shots. The lack of zoom also allows them to be much higher quality than zooms of a similar price. With a prime lens, you'll be able to get indoor low-light photos that the other cameras can't get. Prime lenses also allow you to reduce depth-of-field, getting those in-focus subject but blurry background shots. You'll learn more about photography with it, if that's something you want to do.
(If you've noticed that 50mm f/1.8 prime lenses only cost $100, it's because 30-35mm on an entry-level DSLR is considered a "normal" field of view on entry-level DSLRs and is appropriate for most situations. A 50mm prime lens on an entry-evel DSLR will be too "zoomed in" to used for general-purpose photos indoors; it can still be useful for portraits.)
As for camera body, really any model is probably fine. The cheap Nikon DSLR at the moment seems to be D3200 for $500.
Canon does not offer a modern prime lens in the 30-35mm range, and their older lenses are $300+, so if you do get Canon, I'd recommend the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 which is going for $500. This lack of a cheap normal prime is the reason I'd recommend Nikon. (I actually personally got started in DSLRs with a Canon and the Sigma 30mm and loved it, but that was before the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 existed.)
One more amazing recent lens option is the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8, available for Nikon or for Canon ($800). No one else makes an f/1.8 zoom lens for entry-level DSLRs. This would be the perfect lens for photography. It lacks image-stabilization, though, so it won't be as good for video. More on that in the next section. Also, these prices are starting to get out of the beginner range...
5. Canon 70D (for DSLR video) plus 17-55mm f/2.8 lens and mic
The Canon 70D body-only is $1000.
One other reason you might want want to get into Canon is that they're more established on the DSLR video front. DSLR video is rather complicated. You can get great results, but it has many complexities. Notably, the auto-focus is usually painfully slow, forcing you to focus manually. The Canon 70D is the first DSLR to have fast auto-focus during video, so if you're interested in video, give it a shot.
For the DSLR video to shine, though, you'll want lens with a wide constant aperture and image stabilization. (Image stabilization is handy for shooting still photos, but is an absolute must for hand-held video.) That's why I recommend skipping the kit zoom lens, buying the camera body-only, and shell out for the Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 ($780).
You'll also want an external microphone, because the camera's built-in microphone is both terrible and picks up on noises from the lens. (External mics have noise-dampening mounts). The Rode VideoMic with Windjammer ($135) is mono and directional, good for picking up speech; the Rode Stereo VideoMic ($300) is better for environmental sounds.
And as mentioned earlier, if you go this route, you may also want to shell out for the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 for photography.
|Canon P&S||Low||Pants Pocket||Very Low||Okay|
|Canon S120||$400||Pants Pocket||Low||Okay|
|Sony RX100 (II/I)||$750/$550||Pants Pocket (Barely)||High||Decent|
|Sony NEX (3N/6)||$400/$750||Purse/Jacket Pocket||High||Pretty good|
|Nikon (D3200) + 35mm f/1.8||$500 + $200 = $700||Large||Very High (with 35mm)||Good but difficult|
|Canon 70D + 17-55mm f/2.8 + mic||$1000 + $780 + $135 = $1915||Very Large||Very High (esp. with Sigma 30mm)||Very good|
Where to buy
There's no such thing as a good deal on a camera, for the most part. If it's too good to be true, it probably is. The camera shop industry is rife with "deals" that seem several hundred dollars cheaper, but when you try to buy, you get hassled to get a bundle, and if you don't bite, they say the camera is out of stock, sometimes keeping your money, etc.