What Camera Should I Buy...?

...is a question I get asked that a lot. When we’re traveling, on a tour, or even just on a walk at our local regional park, I’m almost never without a camera. I guess that makes me an easy target for someone in search of a clue to the puzzle. My first response is always, “What kind of pictures do you want to take?” This is generally followed by a quizzical look and a “Huh?” Let me explain.   

The kind of camera you buy very much depends on what you intend to use it for. If you only take snapshots at your children’s birthday parties and other family events, it doesn’t make sense to buy a $1,500 DSLR body and a bag full of $1,000+ lenses. If you want to get into photographing extreme sports, a 10MP, 4x zoom pocket camera will never fail to disappoint. “Use the right tool”, my father used to say as I was struggling to remove a screw with a pair of pliers. He was smart that way.   

I have also found that most of the people asking the question have heard all of the buzzwords and seen all of the ad copy related to digital photography, but often are a bit hazy on what it all means. So, read on and I’ll try to lay out some basic guidelines for what type of camera works best for what type of photography and just what the heck all those numbers mean.  


What kind? Which brand? Which model?

 There are so many models available today from so many major brands that listing them and categorizing them all would take months and hundreds of pages. By then, most of the models listed and categorized would be obsolete and replaced by new ones. That’s the way the market is set up. With the exception of the high-end systems with interchangeable lenses and accessories, the average camera sold is a one-time sale. The camera maker won’t get any more of your money until you buy a newer, better model or maybe a battery or two. That’s why you see models turned out two or three times a year. I’m leading off with this bit of info because many people are afraid to buy a camera (or electronic items in general) for fear that it will be obsolete soon afterwards. There’s a two-part answer to that;

a)   It will be obsolete very soon after you buy it, if not before.

b)   Buy the one you want and don’t worry about it.  

Buy the camera that will do what you want it to and get your money’s worth out of it through aggressive use and enjoyment. It’s only obsolete when it won’t do what you want it to do anymore.


Some Basics

 Before going through the camera types, let’s cover a few of the basic terms used when describing features and functions.

Resolution:

 The scope of this chapter is directed at the non-professional looking for some basic information to help them decide which camera to buy and travel with. For that reason, I’ll mention only in passing the pro-oriented DSLRs. The ultra-high resolution medium-format cameras and other bits of esoteric imaging hardware that can set you back $20k to $80k are a subject for another time. Youcan look thm up yourself if you have the money for a vacation home but would rather buy a camera. That still leaves a huge crop of excellent cameras with resolutions ranging from 10 to over 24 megapixels (let’s use MP from now on, ok?) Too many choices!  

Ask yourself, what are you going to do with the pictures?  If you plan to store and view them on a computer, more than 10MP is will only take up extra space (an extra 2-5MB per photo). Will you print them? 4 x 6 prints are cheap and are the most popular size. If you plan on elaborate albums with enlargements, you can go for a higher resolution bur even an old 2 MP camera will produce very acceptable 4 x 6 prints if it has a good lens. 5 MP is all that is needed to make very nice 8 x10s and 10MP and up will produce  acceptable 16 x 20 prints.  

A bigger pixel count isn’t always better! A 16MP digital SLR will outperform a 20MP compact camera. In many cases an 10MP compact with a great lens will outperform another model boasting much higher resolution. There are a lot of technical reasons behind this and since this is not a technical article, just take it as a given. Factors like lens quality, physical sensor size and internal processing make a big difference in the performance of the camera, and the price. (My article Viva la Resolution may provide some more insight into resolution and how to decide what will work for you.)

Lens:

  Without a way to focus light on the sensor (or film) a camera is…well, it’s not much of anything. The lens, therefore, is an important thing to consider when choosing a camera. Compact cameras most often have a 4X zoom range from about 28mm to 105mm equivalent and for most purposes, that does quite well. Some of the newer models have 10X and greater zooms and Kodak actually made a couple of models with two lenses and two sensors to increase the range without sacrificing image quality. SuperZoom cameras have 16X and even 40X zooms for even more reach. Digicams are a class of cameras with smaller zoom ranges than the SuperZooms that offer more refined optics and sophisticated features.  Digicams almost disappeared with the advent of sub-$1000 DSLRs but are making a bit of a comeback. Digital SLRs  (DSLRs) are really not much different from their film ancestors. They feature interchangeable lenses, so zoom ranges aren’t as important to consider as on a camera with a fixed lens.  ILC which stands for Interchangeable Lens Compact and that describes this relatively new class pretty well. These are small cameras with large sensors that have interchangeable lenses like a DSLR. Also known as "Mirrorless", these cameras are really making a dent in DSLR sales because their size and similar (sometimes better) image quality in a much smaller package makes them a popular choice for travellers.

A word about the Xs in the zoom ratings and what “28mm to 105mm equivalent“ refers to. The Xs refer to the ratio between the shortest focal length of the zoom and the longest; 105/28 = 4-ish. That’s a 4X zoom. The 35mm, 105mm, etc. numbers refer to the magnification of the lens with reference to an analog camera that uses 35mm film. Without going into too much detail, it uses the standard 50mm lens as an approximate equivalent to what the human eye sees. If a lens is shorter than 50mm equivalent, the camera will capture an image wider your eyes see – as if you had backed away from the subject. If it is longer, it will capture a narrower image – as if you had moved closer.

You’ll notice that I didn’t mention the other zoom that shows up in the ads, namely “digital” zoom. You will see “16X total zoom! (4X optical, 4X digital)” What this means it that the camera can magnify the image reaching the sensor 4 times using the lens and another 4 times by “cropping”. Say you have a 10MP camera and you use the 16X “total” zoom to take a picture of your kid playing soccer. When you get the 8 x 10 of the game-winning block, it’s fuzzy, grainy, and looks like crap. Why? The way a camera crops for digital zoom is to take the central fourth (4x is our example) of the image and reprocess it to fill the whole frame. What you get is a 2.5MP picture blown up to 10MP. “No such thing as a free lunch” applies here too. It’s just like zooming in on a picture on your computer. The more you zoom, the worse it looks. I’m not saying that you should never use digital zoom, just be aware of how it works and what to expect. Personally, I always use the menu to turn off the digital portion of the zoom and, if I need to crop later, I do it on the computer. That’s my choice, you make your own.

The LCD

  I couldn’t think of a digital camera that didn’t have an LCD screen on the back to view the images taken until Leica blessed us with the $15,000+ Leica M Edition 60. I’m sure someone out there is clapping slowly, overjoyed at the return to the "good old days" of guessing how the shot came out until they get it "developed. Maybe they will make it so the cards will only print on a Leica printer and can't be transferred or have images deleted. "Good old days" my butt! That’s the best and most basic feature of digital! You take a picture and you can see immediately how it came out. The range of sizes of LCD screens keeps growing with every generation of new models. A dim, grainy 1.5in. screen was all that was available in the dinosaur days of digital. Now you can find screens over 3 in. on the backs (nearly the whole back!) of some pretty tiny cameras.

Check the LCD out in the sunshine before you make up your mind. There are all types of screens with a wide range of both brightness and resolution. If you are looking at a SuperZoom, Digicam or ILC, pay attention to the viewfinder. They aren’t optical, but contain a tiny LCD screen that replaces the prism and mirror of an SLR. They too vary a lot in resolution and viewability. Electronic viewfinders (EVFs) have come a long way and are approaching high-end optical ones in the viewing experience with far more information available. (They passed the peep-holes on compact cameras and even the entry-level DSLRs a while ago.)Pan around the store and focus on various objects. Make sure you like what you see.

Memory

Yikes! Internal memory, Buffer memory, CompactFlash (CF), Secure Digital (SD, SDHC and SDXC) and Memory Stick (MS) are the types you’ll see most often. Be aware of, but disregard a couple of older formats called SmartMedia (SM), xD-Picture Card (xD) and MultiMediaCard (MMC) since they have all but disappeared.  

Let’s begin with buffer and internal memory. Both are rarely referred to as internal memory in ad-speak, but they are not necessarily the same. Some compact cameras come with internal memory in addition to the buffer. This memory works like a built-in memory card to store images until a card is inserted (oops!). The amount of internal memory is usually very limited. Internal memory has all but disappeared from even the cheapest compact models. Unless you are a truly occasional photographer, you will need at least a couple of memory  cards.

Buffer memory comes in varying sizes too. Larger amounts of buffer memory will allow several pictures to be taken quickly (called “continuous” or “burst” mode) before the camera has to pause to write to the card or internal memory. This may be important if you have kids or like to photograph sports. How long it takes the processor to feed the image to the buffer so another image can be captured is another factor. This is called shot-to-shot speed or framing rate. This can vary from about 1 full-size picture every 2 seconds to 5 or so pictures every second (10+ per second for some models) If you want to do action shots of the kid playing soccer, a fast framing rate is a must. If you plan on doing landscapes or still-life shots of flowers, one shot every minute would be enough.

Memory cards:

  These are your “film”. Cameras no longer come with a card in the box, but vendors often bundle a cheap card and an even cheaper camera bag. The card types mentioned above range in capacity from 8-64GB but are usually fairly slow generic brands. Most stores will only carry 8GB to 32GB because of low demand for larger capacities but deals are readily available online and honestly, a pair of 16GB cards will be all that most people need for a week's vacation. ?(To which I say, double that...just in case!)  

Memory looks like an expensive accessory but look at it this way; A 16MP compact camera set at the highest quality and resolution (which your camera should always be set at!) will produce about a 4.5MB file. That would give you 1,800-2,000 pictures on a $15 16GB card. A 20MP camera will produce a 5.5MB – 6.5MB file enabling you to store 1,400 – 1,600 pictures on the same card.  

Your mileage may vary based (again) on a lot of technical factors, but using average file size for a 16MP compact, a $15 16GB memory card will hold the equivalent of  eighty or so  24-exposure rolls of film. At $3.50 per roll plus, say, $7.00 to develop and print, you have $850 sunk into the same number of conventional photos.  

If that already sounds like a deal, remember that you can reuse the card…try that with film! If you look at it that way, digital cameras pay for themselves very quickly if you were used to taking a lot of photos. (Use that selling point at your own risk, my wife never did, or wouldn't, see it as clearly as I do!)

Memory speed:

  Bombarded with still more Xs…40X, 80X, 133X, even 1000X! An “X” in this case refers to multiples of the playback speed standardized for the CD-ROM which is 150 kilobits per second. That means that a 40X card can be read at a maximum of 60 megabits per second. Note the “bits”. Files are measured in 8-bit bytes so a 40X card can, theoretically, transfer about two 3mb files in a second. Higher-end cards have lately been labeled with a simpler MB per second rating which indicates maximum transfer rate. SD cards have another set of ratings to contend with. Class 4, 6, 10, UHS-I and UHS-II. The class system indicates the minimum sustained read and write speed of the card with Class 4 maintaining 4MB/sec., Class 10 will do 10MB/sec., etc.. UHS cards are the fastest with any UHS card being able to maintain at least 10MB/sec with 80MB/sec widely available. UHS-II is the latest format made to cater to high-res video capable cameras with write speeds up to 250MB/sec.. Again, mileage varies. Also keep in mind that a camera may not be able to write at such high speeds due to limitations of the processor and more techie factors. If the difference in price is fairly small, get a fast one. Remember, though, the Class 10 card may not always provide better performance than ta UHS-1 card in your camera.

Note: The big Xs and high MB/s aren't completely useless if your camera can't make full use of them. If you have a fast card reader, you can really see the difference in the faster card while downloading images to your computer!

Batteries:

  Cameras use power. This has been true since someone decided to put the exposure meter inside the camera. That took a teensy amount of power and a $3 battery would last for years. Digital cameras use a lot of power. You are holding a tiny digital device with the computing power of a 1960s mainframe! Some compact models still use AA batteries, but most use proprietary lithium-ion power packs. These usually cost from $30 - $60 each, but can be recharged hundreds of times and can last for 3-4 years with normal usage. You will need at least one extra battery if you plan on using the camera much. Trust me! If you think that nothing could be worse than that once-in-a-lifetime shot getting away because you left the camera at home, try missing it because a dead battery has transformed your camera into an expensive paperweight.  

Rule-of-thumb; stick with buying the camera maker’s battery unless the camera model is popular enough that you can buy a major-brand replacement. If the camera uses AAs, get quality rechargables and a good charger that shuts off when the batteries are charged (see below). The initial outlay is more, but modern NIMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) hybrid batteries hold a lot more charge than alkalines and can be charged 500-1000 times.  

Proprietary lithium-ion batteries will self-discharge between charges if not used, but do so very slowly and will hold a charge for several months to a year. High-capacity NIMH rechargables hold a lot of power but will self-discharge in a month or less. The newer hybrid NIMHs such as the Sanyo Eneloop batteries are are designed to perform like a NIMH and will hold a charge like the lithium batteries. Always something new...and it's generally good news for camera owners! Always remember to check the batteries left in your camera and any spares in the bag before an outing to see if they need to be charged. The better chargers will charge the batteries quickly and then switch to a light “trickle” charge. That lets you leave batteries in the charger so they are always ready to go.


Camera Types

Compact Cameras:

 A lot of people carry a camera with them at all times. You never know when a photo-op will present itself and whatever the camera used, the picture you took is better than the one you didn’t. The low end of the compact camera range is facing heavy competition from camera phones and may be on the road to extinction. High quality cameras in smartphones are satisfying the needs of a growing number of casual photographers and are changing the face of the compact cameras now available.

Point & Shoot:

 Compact Point & Shoot (P&S) cameras are the Instamatics of the digital age. The "point and shoot" class of cameras are made to take the guesswork out of taking pictures. They provide the average user the ability to take good pictures under a remarkably wide range of conditions without doing much more than pointing the camera and shooting the picture….hence the name. The simple ones are mostly affordable, take good photos and are easy to carry around. The sub-$100 category is still there and offers some pretty basic point and shoot features with a modest zoom lens. These simple cameras are great for everyday use, family gatherings and casual travel photography. They can produce very good results for a relatively small investment in both money and in learning to use them. Great for a first digital (or any type) camera. As the features and the quality of the lens increase, so does the price. A top of the line P&S can run over $300 buy the price is usually  justified by a better sensor, longer zoom and in-camera features like self-stitching panoramas. Action-oriented models offer waterproof bodies that can be dropped and banged around as you record your more physical adventures.

Advanced Compacts:

 As you reach the top end of the P&S models, the term "point-and-shoot" may still apply since virtually all cameras have an auto mode but the feature set expands to appeal to photographers who want more control and higher image quality without the bulk of a larger camera. At that point, you cross over into the realm of advanced "pocketable" cameras. These are still compact models but they feature larger sensors (some as large as a pro DSLR), high-quality lenses and can produce images that would be welcome in any gallery. Several higher-end models have added "fashion statement" to their list of features and while retro styling doesn't improve image quality, you can use it to inflict some serious gear envy on friends and family. All this comes with a price, so if you want a camera that will slip into your pocket and still produce top-notch images be prepared to loosen the purse strings and dig deep!

 What to look for:

Resolution 10MP to  24MP covers almost all the available models. For most purposes, 12-16MP will do just fine and save you some $s over a higher resolution model with the same features.
Lens A 28mm – 105mm equivalent zoom is very common. Longer zooms and very wide zooms are becoming more popular. The wide ones are great for indoor group shots or real estate photos. Fixed focal length specialty cameras with very high quality lenses can be found on some of the high-end advanced pocketables.
Flash Most won’t cover past about 10 ft. This is a fact of life with compacts. Some high-end models have mounts for accessory flashes and there are aftermarket flashes available that will use the camera’s flash as a trigger and can increase that range considerably. Be aware of this if flash is important to you. The advanced pocketables can provide excellent low-light performance and reduce the need for flash considerably.
LCD The little screen on the back has replaced the optical viewfinder on virtually all newer model compacts. Check to see if it is visible in the sunlight as it is your only means of aiming and framing. Sizes range from 2.5 in. to 3 in. +. The large screen is great for passing pictures around the group. Electronic viewfinders are showing up on many of the advanced pocketables and can be a real blessing in bright environments.
Movie mode 640 x 480 is rare anymore with most offering 1080p or even 4K at 30 fps. That resolution looks great on a TV or computer and can be copied to DVD just like a digital camcorder. Caveat: It gobbles memory. Figure on 1gb for every 8 minutes, or less, of 1080p video. Most cameras limit you to how long you can shoot a continuous scene to 29 minutes and factors like sensor overheating can reduce this considerably. If you need to shoot more than 5 minutes at a stretch, consider a dedicated camcorder.
Waterproof and Shockproof Some P&S models are submersible from 4 – 30+ ft. without accessory housings and can withstand being dropped 5ft without damage. Even if you don’t snorkel, you may want this feature for dusty or rainy conditions or if you just drop stuff a lot.
Wi-Fi Models are showing up that feature Wi-Fi connectivity and even built-in  or accessory apps for social media and advanced in-camera effects. Cool or gimmicky is up to you.
Memory Most compacts use SD memory. MemoryStick Pro is still used by Sony but new Sonys accept SD interchangeably.
Stabilization Most of the newer models feature some kind of stabilization and some add "anti-blur" technology that raises the ISO to shorten the exposure. This can have a negative impact on image quality, so be aware.
Battery If it uses AAs, get rechargables and a charger. If it is proprietary, buy an extra or two.
Tripod socket Believe it or not, some compacts don’t have one! With a puny flash, you will need a tripod for long exposures of a dimly lit garden or nighttime skylines

SuperZooms:

SuperZoom is a class of camera meant to be the best of all worlds for many photographers. They are amazingly compact and come with the equivalent of a 28mm to 500mm or longer zoom range. Some most offer the ability to add an accessory flash to cover more picture-taking situations. The zoom range allows for indoor social shots as well as close-ups at the soccer or baseball game. Most models are under $450 and can offer an awful lot for the money. Don't be too obsessed over getting the longest zoom available. Even with stabilization, hand-holding a camera with the equivalent of an 800mm telephoto is a hit or miss proposition at best.  

What to look for:

Resolution 12MP to 20MP covers almost all the available models. Again, for most purposes, 12MP will do just fine and save you some $s over a higher resolution model with the same features.
Lens 28mm – 400mm equivalent zoom is common. Longer zooms are available some up to 1000mm+ equivalent. At the top end, some models have very high quality lenses and can produce truly excellent quality images. Some don’t have threads on the lens barrel to use accessory filters and such. If not, you may have to buy an adapter (usually offered by the same manufacturer that didn't put threads on the lens...hmmmm!)
Flash Better than the compacts, but still not great. Most models have mounts for accessory flashes.
LCD Same caveats as the compacts, but some offer tilt and swivel LCDs. Check to see if it is visible in the sunlight. Also check the viewfinder for resolution and clarity since it is likely electronic as well. 
Movie mode 1080p-60fps video is available on most models. Some allow zooming while filming, some don’t. Most allow continuous shooting to the capacity of the card or 29 minutes, whichever comes first.
Waterproof and Shockproof I don’t currently know of any SuperZoom that is waterproof. Aftermarket housings are available, but not as common since these cameras with their long zoom range aren’t really that well suited for shooting underwater.
Wi-Fi Yup, showing up here too. What do you expect when phones are becoming a major source of competition for P&S models.
Memory All or nearly all use SD memory. MemoryStick Pro is optional for Sony though thay will use SD as well.
Stabilization All models offer stabilization. This can be very important for shooting hand-held at the long end of the zoom range. Same caveat as above with the "anti-blur" technology.
Battery Lithium-ion proprietary units are most common, buy an extra or two.
Tripod socket All models have tripod sockets.

Digicams:

 Digicams have very high quality lenses and a feature set similar to DSLRs. There are optical accessories available and one can build a respectable system around a digicam while still keeping it all in one fairly small bag. Even at at high-ISO, picture quality rivals DSLRs in most cases and they will produce excellent images under a wide variety of conditions.  Priced in the $700 - $1000 range, the advent of sub-$1,000 DSLRs nearly eliminated this class of camera until Sony resurrected it with the RX-10. The number of models is pretty limited even with most of the major manufacturers joining the party.  Though most of the advanced features digicams offer can be found in the superzoom category, larger sensors, stellar lenses and sophisticated movie modes justify the difference in price. The new breed of digicam has a lot to offer to travel photographers who are unwilling to give up image quality but want the fixed-lens convenience and are willing to pay a bit more for it. The feature set is similar to the superzoom class with the aforementioned step-up features

ILC:

Interchangeable Lens Compacts have, for the most part, filled the niche that Digicams once occupied. They not only filled the niche but have expanded it by adding removeable lens mounts to make this compact class of camera a viable replacement for a DSLR in the photographic arsenal. Almost all models except Nikon Series 1 feature sensors nearly as large as most DSLRs with the Samsung NX and Canon M series using DSLR-sized APS-C sensors. The Sony Nex/Alpha cameras feature APS-C sensors and the A7 series ups the ante with full-frame sensors with resolutions up to 36MP. These sensors are packed into compact bodies, some smaller than the smallest SuperZooms or even larger compacts. This class of camera is rapidly gaining popularity with advanced amateurs and even pros looking for a more compact option for travelling as well as many new photographers moving up from a P&S or SuperZoom who previously might  have chosen an entry-level DSLR.  I can say that I personally went to a Sony NEX-7 and later to an A6000 as a back-up to my A77 DSLR and have found myself picking the NEX for most situations where a long, heavy lens isn't needed.

What to look for:

Resolution 10MP to 36MP. Get what you think you need. 16MP is fine for 12 x 18 prints. 24MP+ is overkill for casual snapshots, but when coupled with a quality lens these cameras can equal or surpass most DSLRs in image quality.
Lens Lenses - Take your pick! The variety of lenses available for the Micro Four-Thirds and Sony E-Mount standards has grown to cover almost any requirement. In addition, several companies offer adapters to mount nearly any lens ever made on either of these mounts. An increasing number of third-party manual and autofocus lenses ranging from good to superb quality are available as well.
Flash This class has pretty good built-in flashes. Some even offer limited bounce capability. All models have mounts for accessory flashes. The flash systems available for this class include multiple unit capability and other sophisticated setups.. 
LCD No clunkers here. Some tilt and swivel. Check the built-in or accessory viewfinder for resolution and clarity since they are electronic as well.  
Movie mode 24, 30  and 60fps Full-HD or even 4K video is becoming the new standard. Most of the top-model ILCs will rival almost any non-professional dedicated movie camera for quality. Most allow continuous shooting to the 29 minute limit or the capacity of the card.
Live-View All models by nature have live-view, allowing you to compose or shoot movies directly off of the LCD. Features like focus magnification can be very useful for macro or studio work. Focus peaking is a trick from the high-end video world that causes the sharply-focused area of the image to be highlighted with a bright color on the LCD or viewfinder image to indicate where focus is the sharpest. This is excellent when using manual focusing since it is quick and easy to see what you are focusing on.
Waterproof and Shockproof Some are sealed better against dust and splashing than others. There are also aftermarket underwater housings available for many models.
Wi-Fi At this level, some of the connectivity options and add-on app functions are pretty sophisticated. Worth exploring if this is important to you.
Memory All use SD. Sony uses SD or MemoryStick Pro.
Stabilization Optically stabilized lenses are available from the various manufacturers.
Battery All use proprietary units, so buy an extra or two.
Tripod socket All models have tripod sockets.

DSLRs

 If you feel that you have a need for the flexibility and almost infinite options available in an interchangeable-lens digital SLR system, you’re going to have to consider a lot of factors. First of all and ask yourself if you need it, or just want it. If you have tons of disposable income, this question loses importance, obviously. If you are an average wage earner looking to spend your money wisely, you should consider your needs (or wants) carefully. You can pick up an entry-level DSLR with a kit lens for less than a top-of-the-line ILC (or even an advanced compact). Decent entry-level units with an 18-55mm kit lens are under $500. Then again, a 36MP state-of-the-art pro model with a fast 24-70mm lens will set you back over $8,000!  

Remember: it’s a system, not just a camera. Unless you have decided that the image quality of the larger sensor is what you want, but only plan to buy a body and a wide-range zoom, you need to consider whether the system you have chosen has the depth to grow with you. While most DSLR owners will never expand beyond the wide and telephoto kit zooms, it often turns out that the camera body becomes an important, but fairly small component in a complete system. There are lenses, flash systems, filters, remote triggering devices, tripods and monopods, cases, bags and accessories that fill catalog after catalog. If your aspirations are to travel and bring back great vacation photos, any current brand will do nicely and an ILC may suit your needs at a third of the weight. If you plan to travel to the Himalayas to capture photos of a Yeti with a radio- or motion-controlled, remotely triggered, weather-proof camera, make sure those are available options for your chosen brand. Oh, and good luck with the Yeti!  

If you decide to go for it, do a lot of research and take what you read on the internet and what you hear from the guy at you kid's soccer game with a large grain of salt. Brand loyalty, for some reason, has developed a near-religious belief system that denies quality and functionality existing in any brand other than what that believer owns. Maybe admitting that another system is equal or even superior is hard to do when you have a small fortune invested in yours. There are, however, many good sources of un-biased information out there.  

Personally, I use Sony/Minolta cameras because no other camera is as good or ever will be! Just kidding! I'm really not a brand fanatic (and you will meet some, believe me!) I’ve always been happy with the bang for the buck that Minolta offered, their superb lenses and the great innovations. After 78 years, Minolta is no longer in the camera business since turning over that entire division to Sony in 2006. I still own both my Minolta A2 digicam and Maxxum 7D DSLR (I want to convert the 7D to infrared just for the fun of it...but that's another article in the making!) I currently shoot with a Sony A77 as well as an A6000 and with the trusty  NEX-7 aa a backup. I'm happy to say that Sony is carrying the Minolta torch admirably. The truth is that none of the top manufacturers makes a bad camera. The features that make one camera different or ‘better” are purely a matter of personal taste. If you can, go find a store where you can handle the camera you are interested in or even take a few test pictures with it on your own card.  

What to look for:

Resolution 12MP to 36MP. Get what you think you need. 12MP DSLRs produce stunning quality. 16MP is common, some less than $500.
Build Rugged, full-featured advanced amateur bodies start at a bit over $1000 without a lens. These are tough cameras with more external controls designed for more than casual use. Bodies are usually magnesium alloy instead of plastic and weather sealing is common. Full-frame advanced amateur models range from $2000 - $3500. Pro models are built like tanks and can run up to $7000+
Crop Factor 35mm film is exposed on an area 24mm tall by  36mm wide. This is referred to as “full-frame” an increasing number of models have a full-frame sensor. Canon, Nikon and Sony offer full-frame models that start at about $2k. Most DSLRs use a sensor that is roughly 16mm high by 24mm wide. Since it only covers 66% of the area of full-frame, it is said to have a 1.5x crop factor. This means that the image captured by a 50mm standard lens will capture the field of view of a 75mm lens on a film or full-frame camera. 4/3 format sensors like Olympus uses are smaller than APS-C with a crop factor of 2x.
Lens Focal length ranges vary from brand to brand, but with offerings from third-party lens makers, you will be able to cover ultra-wide to ultra-telephoto if you have the need.
Flash Almost all entry-level to semi-pro models have built-in flash though most pro-level bodies don't. All models have mounts for accessory flashes and many have connection ports for studio strobes. The flash systems are as sophisticated as you want or can afford.
LCD Again, no clunkers. Many LCDs tilt and swivel. The optical viewfinders vary significantly in brightness and clarity. The electronic viewfinders on the Sony SLT cameras are larger and brighter than some optical units on the APS-C cameras and the XVGA unit on the top-end SLTs is amazingly sharp. Full-frame cameras have very large and very bright viewfinders.
Movie mode Big-time movie making has come to the DSLR. Excellent HD video is widely available. Stunning, broadcast-quality video can be taken with the pro models and even most of the advanced amateur models.
Live-View All models now offer live-view, allowing you to compose or shoot movies directly off of the LCD. This is a useful feature for studio and macro shooting and mandatory for movies. Be aware that autofocus varies from camera to camera in live view and while the SLT models from Sony will focus at full speed in live-view or movie mode, traditional DSLRs using on-senor contrast focusing can be slower to lock. Contrast-detect focusing is fine for still or slow movement but not so good for action. Recent advances in on-sensor phase-detect focusing has made live view better and faster to the point where hybrid phase/contrast-detect autofocus may eventually render the DSLR mirror obsolete as a part of the focus mechanism. Focus-assist magnification is common and Focus Peaking (see ILC section) is a very handy feature to check for.
Waterproof and Shockproof While not waterproof or submersible, some are sealed better against dust and splashing than others. There are also aftermarket underwater housings available for most models.
Wi-Fi Again, some of the connectivity options and add-on app functions are pretty sophisticated. Worth exploring if this is important to you.
Memory Most above entry-level still use Compact Flash with an increasing number using high-speed SD. All entry-level models are SD only. Some higher-end models have a second card slot for expanded storage options.
Stabilization Most manufacturers offer optional optically stabilized lenses. Several are following Sony/Minolta’s lead and integrating the stabilization into the body so any attached lens is stabilized.
Battery All use proprietary, so buy an extra or two. Several models offer accessory grips that hold an additional battery or an adapter with AAs.
Tripod socket All models have tripod sockets.

I will state again that if you feel the need or choose to go with a DSLR. Choose carefully and give some real thought to the future. That first $1,000 you spend can turn out to be a drop in the bucket compared to a complete system, so make sure you’re happy with all that the company of your choice offers before going off the deep end buying accessories. You may want to check out my article on adding lenses to a DSLR system HERE.

Yet Another class?

  Doubtless inspired by the smartphone cameras beating them up and stealing their lunch money (though they supply the sensors and camera modules for all but a few), Sony introduced the QX series. This is a small camera/lens module that looks like a small removable lens and contains the sensor and memory but no viewfinder, LCD or control interface. This is provided by your smartphone via Wi-Fi or NFC connectivity and works with the QX camera attached to the back of your phone or separately to the range of your connection. If you are in love with your phone but want to step beyond a microscopic lens and sensor, this may be worth looking into. Several QX models are available featuring sensors as large as a DSLR and judging by other manufacturer's models recently announced as of this writing, this may be a real "thing". 

In Conclusion...

  Remember what you read earlier: Cameras are suffering from rapid upgrade cycles right now and it’s easy to be stricken with feature envy when the next best thing comes out a month after you buy yours. Most cameras, like most computers, are obsolete as soon as they hit the stores. I have found that unless you truly need that new super-feature, buying a generation back from the cutting edge can save you a lot of money and give you equipment that has been blessed with the long list of fixes that those brave buyers going before have shed sweat and blood to get released. Why do you think it’s called the cutting edge?  

At the risk of being repetitive, I will end this article with what has become my standard advice to anyone buying a camera:  

Use it! Take pictures and enjoy them!

Dave