So, you're a budding photographer, or will be taking a class soon and the teacher is a jerk and won't let you rent from the school. Now what? There is a wild world out there full of things to be pic-tu-fied, and seemingly just as many things to take the pictures with, all at horrifyingly different prices.
Where do you start?
First off, know why you need the camera, and what you'll be doing with it for the next few years. There are several levels of camera to think about, each level having its own levels of performance, features, and things you won't need. The next three sections will be based off of three groups: "I Wanna Camera", "High-End Casual", and "Prosumer". The "Professional" category will be left out, because if you were there, you wouldn't be here.
"I Wanna Camera", $50-200 range
[Samsung SL30, $75, Example
So, you don't have a camera and want one. Chances are, you really don't need much, mostly because you don't have any reason to take pictures larger than 500 pixels tall because your random photobucket collection, myspace and facebook compress them down that far anyways.
Most of the cameras you will find in the low price range are more than adequate, pushing out from 6 to 12 megapixels in size. This does not
mean that the massive 3000x4000 picture you just took will be of any useful quality at full size. You are more likely than not to get bad picture noise, from grain to color splotches, and all the horrors of digital zoom.
Honestly, cameras of this range are meant only for snapshots, and the more expensive ones are filled to the brim with useless gimmicks and such to trick soccer moms into spending an extra chunk of cash. The most money you really need to spend on a little snap'n'shoot is around $125.
"High-End Casual", $200-600
[Canon Powershot SX1 IS, $500, Example
This is considered "the aspiring young student", or "I want my pictures to look good, but I'll have to start rationing cans of soup to buy something worthwhile". Personally, I'm a bit iffy about this mid-range selection of cameras. It's a strange world of snapshot-meets-SLR hybrids and trickster lookalikes.
For the time being, I'm going to leave the description on this section at this, because the only experience I've had with this particular camera was fixing one (similar to the powershot pictured above) that had a jammed lens. It was so common of a malfunction that it was in the product's FAQs, and the best "advice" others could give was smacking it against a table or a wall.
Anyone with helpful information on these types of cameras feel free to chime in with a comment or a PM, and it will be added.
"Lower-End 'Prosumer'", $600-1500
[Nikon D5000, $750-850 Kit (body + Lens) Example
the Professional Consumer is someone who is seriously looking into doing photography for a living, or at least as a very serious hobby. The cameras you focus on in this grouping are D-SLRs, which are a camera body and detachable lens. This is the kind of camera you will likely learn about and be told to buy when taking a college course on digital photography. If you're getting one of these cameras and aren't in a class for it, I suggest you find a community college and take the class, you will learn a lot (depending on your teacher).
These cameras are meant
to be controlled manually, but have all of the fancy features you would find on the average point and click, including a variety of different "modes" for taking pictures. We're going to pretend these modes are there only for when your mom is trying to take family photos but wants you in the picture.
The best part is RAW format images. Taking photos in this format collects all the data as possible, and utilizing photoshop's RAW editor (or another program such as Lightroom), you can fine-tune a photo MUCH more efficiently, productively, and artistically than with editing a flat ol' JPG.
These are highly customizable to your needs, allowing for different lenses, flashes, and random doohickeys to be slapped on for your every need...
what I need is for my neighbors to open their curtains up again.
DaveP adds: the Key advantage of DSLR's and why they're touted as the best even though cameras like Rangefinders also have removable lenses; the Single Lens Reflex means that what you see in the viewfinder is exactly how the shot is going to look through exactly the same glass; compared to a viewfinder that can be the crucial difference between a fantastic picture and a blurry mess
LeYang adds this nice guide to different levels of DSLRs.
Nikon D3000, D5000 (D40 is being killed off in retail market)
Canon XS(1000D), XSi(450D), T1i(500D) (1000D is also being killed off)
Canon 40D, 50D
Nikon D300, D300s, D700
Canon 7D, Canon 5D MK II
Canon 1Ds MK III
Canon 1D MK IV (1.3x Crop)
OK, now that you [somewhat] know what camera type and money range you're looking into, you need to start thinking about specifics... Here's a few FAQs and general thoughts to look over:
Brand makes very little difference in the camera aside from aesthetic. Decide on the brand, if you're that picky, based on how a camera looks, feels, and behaves in your hands. It may sound trivial or extremely picky, but I personally can't stand the trigger button on Canons, nor do I like their circular scrolly wheel on the back, so I ended up rolling Nikon.
A: it refers to how many pixels there are, times a million.
my old OLD 1.3 megapixel camera took pictures that were somewhere around 1280x1024, which is about as much as your average point-and-shooter really ever sees when dumping things to their online galleries or keeping stacked up in their 'My Pictures' folder.
Larger mp means you have a bigger picture, and there are two reasons this is useful- cropping out smaller parts of a picture and blowing them up, and printing. The larger the picture, the larger you can print at a set DPI. Refer to the below image for mp needed for different print sizes at 300dpi.
it's telling you that if you don't have a photo printer that prints on something bigger than normal 8.5x11 paper, you will never need more than 8 mp. Here's a sample of the 12.1 mp put out by my D5000, ask yourself if you need this much detail, ever.
(2848x4288, click the thumbnail... Try and figure out her name looking at this, I dare you)
Why should I waste two minutes slowly toasting toast in my toaster, when soaking it in kerosene and tossing a match on it gets it crispy in seconds flat?
because the result is NOT the same, despite it being the same size of toast... er, image. The sensors are not big, the lenses are not so fine-tuned, no exposure controls, ISO levels (sensor's light sensitivity) are so high that you get grain and discoloration out the rectum... and aperture? Good luck.
Artistic talent is necessary for art, yes... but bringing a portfolio of cameraphone or point-and-shooter snapshots to a job interview at the local studio will get you nowhere... likewise, if you take emo self-portraits of yourself in the bathroom mirror or at arm's length NOW, not much will change when you dump the better portion of a thousand dollars on an SLR, except now it's hard to hold it at arm's length and take a picture at the same time.
Helpful Links in deciding on what you want
If your questions have not been answered, you haven't asked them yet. ASK.
This thread is a work in progress and is to be treated as a collaborative knowledgebase from all the different level photographers here at Facepunch. PM me with any additions/revisions you would like made and I'll take care of it in a timely manner.