I get asked this question quite a bit. I like photography and I’m a bit of a gear head, so I understand why. I definitely prefer it to other questions that I’ve complained about in the past.
When I think about cameras, and what’s the ‘right’ camera, this is the way I look at it. Ultimately, it comes down to who is going to be using the camera and what they’re going to use it for.
For most users, the best camera is a small point-and-shoot style camera and I happen to be a fan of the Canon PowerShot line. A quick look on B&H Photo shows this model, a Canon SD1200 – a 10 megapixel camera with image stabilization, a nice zoom range, of course it shoots videos and all of the other whiz-bang features you’d expect – and it all fits easily in a pocket (we’re talking shirt pocket here) all for less than $230. This is a camera that most people will be able to carry with them everywhere (which is the most important thing you need in ANY camera) and it will take really great shots.
A few years ago I stopped carrying my compact point-and-shoot camera for a slightly larger ‘rangefinder’ size point-and-shoot, also from Canon – the Canon G10. This allows me a lot more control over the image capture process for only a slightly larger frame. This one doesn’t do shirt pockets (or even pants pockets really) but it will do a jacket pocket or cargo-pants pocket just fine.
Slightly larger, is a class of camera that I really like for people who want a ‘better camera’ (read: they think they want an SLR) but are really just looking for (without knowing it) a larger image sensor and larger lens. They don’t want any of the manual controls or exchangeable lenses of an SLR. A great camera in this class is (staying with the Canon name, for no particular reason) the Canon SX 10 IS. For our trip to Africa, I bought Meghan a camera from this class (a Panasonic) and she took some great photos – which she wouldn’t have gotten with an awkward SLR, or with her point-and-shoot.
Finally, there’s the 4th class of camera, the SLR. This is what most people think of when they want a ‘good camera’ but I really don’t think it’s a great match for most users. It’s the SUV of the camera world – the big honker that everyone thinks they want but nobody uses it for what it was designed. If you’re just going to get a single cheap lens and use that all the time, you’re just as well off getting a nice camera like the Canon SX 10 IS or equivalent.
Now, I realize that there are more than just these 4 categories (there are ultra-compacts and mini-SLRs (a form-factor I’m intrigued by) but for the most part those are fringes that won’t suit most people.
Finally, for anyone looking for a camera, two sites that I think do a nice job of providing reviews: Imaging Resource and DP (Digital Photography) Review. Imaging Resource has, for a long time, offered Dave’s Picks which just makes simple, straight-forward recommendations based on different categories (by camera type, by user type, etc.,). Looking now, I see they also have a fancy My Product Advisor application that I can’t vouch for.
DP Review offers really thorough reviews of cameras and their features and limitations. It’s probably way more info than most people need though – so I would recommend just navigating to the ‘conclusion’ page where they write up a nice summary of their findings.