Lately, I've received a number of messages and emails from friends trying to decide what type of camera to buy for themselves or for their kids. Generally people are shopping for a camera for one of two reasons: they are not happy with the pictures they are getting from their current camera or they are beginning to develop an interest in learning photography and they want a camera that they can grow with. While I don't consider myself an expert on cameras, I think I can provide a few tips that may help.
The first big decision is whether to choose a point and shoot or a DSLR (digital single lens reflex). The temptation for a point and shoot camera comes in the price tag and the size. They are so affordable and convenient to carry anywhere. However, as much as they are improving, a point and shoot will not offer the same quality as a DSLR even when they have the same or in some cases more mega pixels. Without getting too technical, point and shoots have smaller image sensors. They are slower, noisier (digital noise, not audible noise), and inferior in picture quality. Generally, point and shoot cameras do not allow you to change the lens. They are great for trips to Disneyland, but not for all of your family's precious memories.
While we are on the topic of mega pixels, let me just say "MEGAPIXELS ARE NOT THE MOST IMPORTANT FEATURE!" If you plan to shoot billboards, then definitely go for the most megapixels, but otherwise, don't give megapixels more importance than they deserve. I've blown up a picture from my very first 6.3 mp DSLR to a 20x30 and it was sharp and beautiful. How many of your images do you enlarge beyond an 8x10? Probably not many. I'm not saying that the number of megapixels doesn't affect the quality of image, just that you may not need as many megapixels as you think. Don't let that be the primary selling point for you.
Most people assume that the more expensive a camera is, the better quality pictures it will produce. This is only partly true. These days, consumer level DSLR cameras can produce exceptional quality images. While high end cameras have a greater number of manual controls and features, if you don't know how to use them, they will not help you. For example, the Canon 5d mark iii has a 61 point AF focal array. If you are not manually selecting your auto focus point, this feature does nothing for you. The most important manual settings are available on any consumer level DSLR; you don't need to go for the pro level camera. Generally, these manual settings are a little easier to find and change quickly on professional level cameras. This is great, but it makes the camera larger and heavier with many more dials and buttons. If you are not already taking control of the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, you will not likely use these other manual user controls.
If you are serious about taking better pictures, I recommend investing in a good consumer level DSLR (I'm a Canon girl and recommend a Rebel t3i). I also recommend learning the basics of lighting, composition, and the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO). And, if you have money left, invest it in a faster lens because, generally speaking, more expensive lenses produce better images. Fast lenses have a large maximum aperture (which oddly enough is represented by a small f-stop number [for example f/2.8 and below are very fast]). A fast lens will allow you to capture images with a shallow depth of field (blurred background and foreground) which draws all the attention to your subject, they will allow you to capture moving subjects with clarity, and they will perform better in low light situations, but they tend to be pricey.
When choosing a lens, consider first what you will be using it for most often. If you plan to shoot pictures of your child on the soccer field, you need a fast telephoto to stop action and reach far away. If you plan to shoot mostly portraits, you will want a lens with 75-85mm somewhere in its range as that is the ideal length for portraits. If you love shooting flowers and insects, get yourself a macro lens. If you have a passion for landscapes, choose a wide angle lens. If you are interested in trying out a fast lens without too great an investment, I recommend getting a "nifty fifty." A 50mm f/1.8 will run you close to $100, which in the realm of fast lenses is very reasonable. It will not allow you to zoom in and out, but it is light weight, affordable, crystal clear, and fast! You will have so much fun with this lens!
There you have it. My best advice for purchasing a camera and lens. Right now is a great time for photography enthusiasts. Cameras keep getting better and better and the prices are dropping, but please don't forget that although camera technology is improving and auto settings frequently produce great quality images, the only way to ensure consistently great quality images is to learn how to get your camera off the auto settings.