There is no perfect camera. So get that idea out of your head right now. Far better to think of any camera as a set of compromises. Size, speed, image quality, low-light performance, price, etc., can all be features—and they can all be liabilities.
You want image quality? Get an 11×14″ film camera. Great for detail and tonal range. But sucks for action sequences / portability / low light performance.
Every camera is a compromise in at least one area. So to start, list your most important features on a sheet of paper and let that guide your choosing strategy.
• If you want best-possible image quality, you might sell your car/house/plasma and buy a digital medium format camera.
• If you need super long glass and/or FPS speed (sports, nature, etc.) maybe grab a fast Nikon (or Canon) and a super-telephoto lens.
• If you shoot people, speed and high ISO performance might not matter as much as gorgeous color.
• I you travel a lot you might put a premium on your cameras being small and lightweight, with good low-light performance.
• If you are following a toddler around the living room, continuous AF performance may trump price.
So think about what is important to you (and your budget, of course) and begin your search for cameras using that as a compass point.
If you are old like me, you might be tempted to only consider cameras built around the dated form factor of film cameras to be the only cameras worth serious consideration. That’s an age bias. Have it if you like, but be aware of it. To a twenty-year-old that doesn’t matter any more.
Speaking of age, if I were just dipping my toe into the water I’d strongly consider a late-model used digital camera and a used lens or two. If I was not happy, it would be a cheap marriage to unwind. Within a year I could probably sell the lot on eBay for a couple hundred less than I paid, max.
And if I was happy it would be a great platform to build on. Once committed, my next body might something current and the original body goes to a second/backup. Either way, I would not expect to be using the camera after five or six years.
Point is, you don’t have to jump in the deep end. Buy one body and a lens or two. Maybe buy used from a shutterbug friend, knowing the camera implicitly comes with ad hoc tutoring. (And a good outlet to borrow/lend lenses, bodies, etc.)
I spent over 30 years with Nikon film and digital SLRs as my primary cameras. But the further I got away from shooting for newspapers (which at the time had included lots of sports photography) the more my priorities shifted. Here is what is important to me now: small, lightweight, good image quality, great in low-light and quiet/unobtrusive. That led me to move to mirrorless (Fuji) a couple years back.
Pictured at top are the cameras that currently get more use than anything else I have (save maybe my iPhone): a Fuji X-E2 and a Fuji X100s.
Whatever camera style/brand you are considering, you can use the ‘net to easily scope out how other photographers are using it and what kind of image quality it has.
For instance, try this: click on the night photo just above, which will take you to its Flickr page (in a new window). Scroll down beneath the photo’s page where it says “Fujifilm x100s” (or just click here) and you go to a page that will show you lots of different photos shot with exactly that model of camera.
And here’s the thing: clicking on that link from just about any camera icon on a Flickr photo page will quickly show you that you can make amazing photos with just about any current camera. So don’t sweat it or pixel peep too much.
Instead, focus on how you will be using the camera and what features are truly most important. Then let that drive your choices. And understand that the camera you use today probably won’t be the camera you are using in five years.