I've recently been feeling a growing interest in capturing images and scenes that intrigue me in order to share them with the world, but one thing which has kept me from acting on this impulse is the quality of the equipment at my disposal; to make a long story short, currently all I have is a creaky Olympus D-380 handed down to me in the days when I didn't really give a damn about photography, and the image quality simply sucks.
The thing is, though, that looking at the sorts of pictures I see others put up on their websites, most of the newer point-and-shoot cameras aren't exactly exemplars of high-quality photography either, despite all their additional megapixels, fancy zooms and myriads of camera modes, and it seemed clear to me that this was a field in which diligent study beforehand would pay great dividends when making a purchase. My subsequent investigations would validate this assumption, and to save others much of the trouble I went through myself, I present here the most important of my findings, along with concrete recommendations of cameras worth getting.
At this point, if you're the average person with a snazzy new 8mp thingie you've just bought at Best Buy or whatever, you're probably thinking I'm crazy, but the logic behind my argument is really quite simple. Cameras work by gathering light unto a surface which records the impact of photons, and, all things considered, the more light they gather, the better of the quality of the images they can produce; conversely, while packing ever more pixels unto the same surface area does nothing to add to the total quantity of light falling on it, what it does do is ensure that each of those pixels gets a smaller share of the available number of photons, and is therefore exposed to more random variation. In plain English, sensor size is what counts most in a digital camera, and packing more pixels into a camera with a tiny sensor means more noise in the images one takes, especially under less than sunny, daylight conditions.
Now, at this point you might be saying to yourself that this is all very well, but you need all that extra resolution to do careful cropping and so forth, but in all likelihood all you're doing is engaging in self-deception. Just look at the mathematics for a moment and see: an increase in megapixel count of 30%, as one gets by going from a 6 megapixel camera to an 8 megapixel one, only really buys you 15% extra length per side, even as it means that your shots are likely to be noisier than they could have been, and therefore less tolerant of cropping in the first place - and that's even assuming the manufacturer hasn't secretly shafted you by decreasing the sensor size (which most n00bs never look at) to compensate for the cost of providing all those extra pixels.
Finally, if you still stubbornly insist that you need an 8 or 10 megapixel consumer camera, let me ask you this: what is it that you do that that professional photographers, who are able to take gorgeous images which are used on magazine covers and in huge ads with a 6 megapixel Nikon D70, don't?
A Matter of Exposure
For this particular issue it is possible to give particularly straightforward advice: don't expect any compact to match a digital SLR equipped with a decent lens for quality at higher ISO settings, but if an SLR is too much camera for your needs and you want to take good evening or night-time pictures, then you've only one choice: the Fuji FinePix F30 (also read this review). While nearly all other compacts fall down at ISO 400 or less, the reviews I've read from those best placed to know are virtually unanimous in praising this camera's image quality at settings even as high as ISO 800, and a compact camera able to take usable photos at ISO 1600 is virtually unheard of. Finally, if you're looking for more evidence that this camera is in a class of its own, I suggest you look at this blog by Rick Lee, a professional photographer: by his own account, most of the images he posts online are taken with the FinePix F30.
The "Prosumer" Scam
In case the title of this segment hasn't tipped you off already, I'll make plain that in my view these "prosumer" cameras are one gigantic scam, the equivalent of sticking fancy spoilers and a muffler on a Ford Fiesta in hopes of selling it off for a Ferrari-equivalent price. The truth is that the sensors on nearly all the cameras in this market segment are the same tiny ones used in point-and-shoots, and as such they can never hope to approach the image quality of the SLR cameras whose looks they so carefully mimic; with a single exception - about which more shortly - fancy "prosumer" cameras are pretty much useless for sports photography or low light conditions, and about the only thing they're good for is impressing ignorant people who are easily taken in by their "professional" looks.
There is but a single "prosumer", fixed-lens camera which is truly worth taking seriously in terms of picture quality, and currently that is the Sony DSC R-1. With a 21.5 x 14.4 mm sensor rather than the rinky-dink 7.2 x 5.3 mm or smaller typical of all non-SLR equipment, this unit is certainly capable of taking superb pictures, and if you really must have a fixed-lens camera, you simply will not do better for any amount of money. The problem is, though, that for the amount you'd have to pay for a DSC R-1, you could easily pick up an "entry level" digital SLR kit and a 50mm prime lens which would blow the Sony fixed-lens away, even while providing avenues for growth, so what is the point of buying a DSC R-1? Here is the problem with "prosumer" cameras in a nutshell: they are neither fish nor fowl, lacking both the affordability and mobility of compacts as well as the flexibility and quality of the higher end stuff.
When Quality is What Counts Most
There are several "entry level" offerings to choose from in the digital SLR segment, but there are two important things of which to be aware in going about making a decision. The first issue is that when buying a digital SLR camera, you are really buying into an entire system: your choice of camera body will determine the choice of lenses available to you, several of which can easily cost more than the body itself. As such, you cannot allow yourself to be carried away by mere featuritis - a camera with fewer features and a wider market of higher quality lenses which can be fitted to it is a better buy than one with a lot more fancy features but far fewer lenses. The second, related issue is that in fact in this market segment it is less the body of a camera which determines image quality than the lens attached to it, and going up the price range doesn't really buy you better image quality but functions useful in managing workflow, more ruggedness and water resistance, etc., in short, more features of little use to anyone who isn't a professional photographer attached to a major newspaper or a magazine like National Geographic. Yes, you read me right: going from a Nikon D50 to a D200 or better quintuples your cost without buying you much additional functionality you'll ever make use of.
With the above in mind, I think it's clear that there are really just two suppliers in the digital SLR market whose wares are worth contemplating, namely Canon and Nikon. Canon pioneered the low-cost digital SLR market, and its EOS 350D (aka "Digital Rebel XT") is certainly a fine product with which one can take gorgeous pictures, but as I've said, in this market segment that is pretty much a given with the right lens and the requisite skill, so camera body price takes on greater importance, and here there is a clear winner: the even cheaper Nikon D50. Put out of your mind immediately any weird thoughts you might have about "getting what you pay" for: the Nikon D50 is not a cut-down, baby version of the more expensive D70, but actually superior to it in quite a few ways, and what functionality it lacks and the D70 provides is of a sort unlikely to be missed by any non-pro; the reviewers' verdicts are unanimous: never has so much quality been available at such a low price, and you'll have only yourself to blame if you can't coax gorgeous pictures out of a camera which takes shots like this, this, this, this or any of these.
At this point, assuming you're now convinced that I'm right, and have your mind set on a Nikon D50, it's possible you're already worrying about what lenses to get and whatnot, but here too expert opinion seems fairly agreed: the 18-55mm lens which comes included with the cheapest kit is plenty to start with, and there'll be plenty of time to explore fancier, more expensive lenses later: at most, while you're still learning what your camera can do, you might opt for, say, a secondhand 50mm f/1.8 Nikkor prime lens in addition to the bundled 18-55mm kit. Only when you're truly confident with these should you start looking at ultra-costly 18-200mm vr lenses and so on - though by that point I expect you'll have long gone beyond needing advice from the likes of me! In any case, remember that your D50 will take pretty much any lens which supports Nikon digital cameras, so you'll never be starved for choice.