Edit 2023: Note that this was originally written waaaaay back in 2018.
Technology changes. Some points likely have not kept up!
A friend, a past film enthusiast, asked for comments about getting a digital camera...
There are many differences between film and digital. IMHO, there are three critical differences. When I took film pictures, every time I took a snap a little voice said "there goes a quarter". Now I routinely rack off 100 or more pics; the biggest expense is the time it takes sorting them all out later.
Which brings me to the next big difference - post processing. Used to be to do fancy stuff you needed a lab, chemicals and maybe an assistant named Igor. Now it's something you do on your computer while listening to music and having a nice cup of tea.
The final big difference is cataloging the damn things. That 100 pictures I casually racked off ... I aim to keep no more than 10. And that's difficult - they're all slightly different, and I love 'em all. But that's still 300 keepers a month, or about 4,000 a year ... at 16Mb per picture, keeping everything is problematic. Video is even worse at sucking up disk space. Even more problematic is finding a particular picture later. I have digital pics going back to 2005; my collection is in the 10's of thousands.
These points lead me to suggest you first consider your computing environment. As of this writing I have an Intel I7 based 8GB memory windows 8 computer with 700GB disk. It's just about minimum.
You also need a good monitor. A nice big screen helps when post processing, and of course it should be as high resolution as your computer and budget support. iAnd you need decent color fidelity. You don't want to tweak a picture's color on your monitor only to print it and find the monitor and print color disagree. I mostly use an ASUS VH 222H 1920X1080 ; I occasionally calibrate it using a calibration device, but it doesnt *really* require that.
I suggest staying away from Apple. Lots of people in photography like Apple. I don't. Long story.
So ... you need a good computer. And software. I recommend Adobe Lightroom. Every camera I've gotten came with it's own photo management software. My experience is that other than reference documentation for the camera such software is junk. I have several cameras from different manufacturers. Do I want several different programs to do essentially the same thing? No. Lightroom handles all of my photos , better than the software included with the cameras (except video - more on that later) .
You can get a subscription to it ( I dont know whether they sell a standalone version any more) I think for about $10 a month. They used to sell a standalone version for about $300 but I found I needed to upgrade every couple of years so on average the subscription amounts to more or less the same cost. There are one or two other software packages out there that do similar things for a little less money, but Lightroom is by far the big gorilla, with a huge
community of helpful people.
Ah , Lightroom. It took me a long time to get past the fumbling around stage, it's one of those pieces of software that just doesnt mesh well with my thought process. Doesnt mean it's bad, it's just organized differently than I am. But it has been worth learning. It was worth the $30 I spent on a book about it too.
Lightroom lets me edit pictures ( cropping, colorization, contrast, more ), and it does it non-destructively. That is, the original photo is unchanged. Lightroom saves my changes basically as a set of commands that it exeutes on the fly. It also lets me make copies and try different stuff. It is not quite as powerful as Photoshop, but about 99% of the time it does everything I want. The version I use doesnt do HDR or panorama stitching AFAIK - although I havent upgraded for a while so maybe the most current version does.
The second thing that Lightroom does is catalog pictures very well. I started out thinking I could just organize my pics using folders and names ... erm, no. That worked for a while but died of its own dead weight pretty quickly. With lightroom, I can add keywords and captions to photos. So 100 pics from a day hiking can all get labeled "mount Major" and individual pics can be labeled as appropriate ( so one pic might be tagged with "mount major, boulder loop trail, newt"). What makes this worth the effort is 5 years later I can search the database for a picture of a newt on mount major and find it within minutes.
Lightroom also has facilities for viewing and comparing pictures, which is important to me. Deciding which 90 pictures out of 100 to delete is important, and lightroom helps with that.
Using Lightroom is another piece of work that you may or may not have thought of. I typically spend hours after a shoot sorting, cataloging, and tweaking pictures, but I actually enjoy it. The downside is , if you've been using a smart phone you're probably used to taking pictures and slapping them right up on the web. Modern cameras may let you do that, I dont know. Mine are all obsolete, the newest being about 4 years old.
Lightroom and video
Lightroom is very limited in its video support. I can catalog my video snips, but editing and even playing them is very limited. If you want to do a lot of video, you should consider a cam corder, and definitely consider video editing software. I don't do enough video editing to make a software recommendation, I've been scraping by with Windows Movie Maker and Photoshop.
Lightroom does not support my TG-3 video, It will catalog it, but cannot play it, because the TG-3 uses Apple's quicktime format, which is no longer supported by Lightroom. Lightroom also does odd things to my Sony camera video, sometimes
turning them upside down. Weird.
So many options. For the majority of uses, your smart phone is probably perfectly adequate. And it has the huge advantage of *being there*. I've missed thousands of great shots because my camera was home. Or in the car. Or in the bag on my shoulder. Can I do stuff with my camera that a smart phone can't? Sure. The number of those things
dwindles daily it seems.
I mostly use two cameras, an Olympus TG-3 and a Sony a77.
The TG-3 is a "point-and-shoot" . It has relatively limited controls, no manual mode which is very frustrating. It has lousy battery life. But it is *waterproof* which matters a lot to me when kayaking and occasionally when outdoors in heavy weather. It is also pocket-size and light, and has an internal lens that can zoom over a reasonable range. And takes decent video.
The photo quality of the TG-3 is somewhat disappointing. It also does not do well in low light. I probably would not buy it again, knowing what I know now.
The a77 could be weather proof with the right lens, which I dont have. Instead I have several lenses for different purposes. This is a Sony "alpha" series camera. I bought into the Sony family for a number of reasons, one of which was the perceived availability of legacy lenses. That turned out to be not much advantage.
The a77 also is capable of controlling an flash without needing a radio controller. And it is capable of HSS flash. Those were important features to me at one time.
Whole books are written about choosing a camera. I'd say the first thing to decide is what you want to do with it.
Do you need an interchangeable lens camera?
Will a point and shoot work?
Are you hiking? Spending all day walking a city or other
tourist attraction? Lugging around a 3 lb camera is not that much fun; and if
you have to have it out ready for "THAT SHOT" ... ugh.
Wildlife? ( long lens )
Landscape? ( wide lens; maybe long too, filter)
People indoors? ( flash )
People outdoors? ( flash & filters )
High speed? ( shutter speed )
High speed flash ( HSS )
Low light? (lens speed, aperture and ISO )
Off-camera flash? ( may need to buy a radio control )
BIG prints? ( Mp used to be a big marketing thing. Nowadays 20Mp+ cameras are
easy to find. I'm happy with my 36X20 print of Chocorua from a 24 Mp camera )
Night photography; event triggers; intervals? ( remote controller )
One thing i ran into with the Sony cameras I have is that finding accessories was relatively difficult.
Everyone and his brother makes something for Canon cameras. Nikon too, though less so. Sony ... maybe different now, they're more popular than they were but still ... drop your lens while on vacation ? With a Canon you can walk into a walmart and buy some kit lens that may not be a great lens but at least will let you take pictures. With a Sony? Or even a Nikon? Maybe you can find one. Maybe not.
Technology has evolved a great deal.
Full frame digital cameras are now (sort of ) affordable. Super low light capability, and great IQ. Better IQ than can be had from an APS-C camera ( ignoring low light and other such environmental factors)? I dont know. I doubt most people could tell the difference, especially looking at a computer screen or 8X10 print.
First, try to decide what you're mostly interested in photographing.
How much can you afford? Remember the cost of different lenses, filters,
off-camera flash and remote controllers.
What are you going to do with your pictures? Mostly this is a question about
How much kit ( camera, flash, tripod, remote, etc) do you want to lug around?
I would definitely try to go mirrorless. One less thing to break. One less thing to get out of the way while cleaning your sensor. Lighter. No mirror slap.
I would also strongly consider the new Light camera. It has multiple lenses and sensors and uses internal software to merge them. The result is a camera about the size of a smart phone but with better low light response, and a wide zoom range. IQ appears to be very good.
Full frame is attractive for IQ and low light, but expensive. And heavy, especially if you're looking for long range - a 250mm lens on an APS-C camera gives an equivalent of 375mm full frame. I'd lots rather carry ( and pay for ) a 250mm lens than a 375.
Finally, some resources.
Go here. Definitely go here. You can get sample images, reviews, side-by-side feature comparisons & more.
Start here, but read as much as you can on this site :)
If you want to compare a huge selection of prices and options:
I can vouch for B&H service and prices. However, before you buy anything I strongly urge you to visit
your local photography store. Always shop locally if you can.
In the Manchester NH area I recommend Hunt's on South Willow St.:
Their selection is good, prices are competitive, their service is good and you can get hands on.