Camera recommendations

From time to time (or a little more often than that), I am asked by friends and family what camera they should purchase. As this question usually involves repeating myself repeatedly, I figured I'd put some of what I've learned in a handy blog entry.

This advice is by no means definitive. Every style of photography has different demands and different people use cameras in different ways. This list is intended for those who are buying a DSLR for the first time, for general photographic use, and want to get the best camera possible for their money.

As for point and shoot style digicams, I really don't have a recommendation any longer. There is so much sameness in every manufacturer's offerings. There are (not even) a handful of digicams aimed more towards a serious photographer, but they don't offer near the image quality or flexibility of even the lowest priced dslr.

Entry level: Pentax K-r
Surprise, eh? Pentax cameras are quite a bit harder to find in stores these days, but I think the K-r is the best blend of image quality and price that's currently available. The Pentax features the same tried-and-true sensor as the last generation Nikon D90 and D300, both of which are much more expensive cameras. This sensor gives the camera fantastic dynamic range and image quality that the competition at this price point doesn't have. Price? Around $550 on Amazon as I type this, or $650 as a two-lens kit.

Mid-level: Nikon D5100
This camera just hit the market in the last couple of weeks, but it's a great value for anyone who wants to try out video as well as still images. The D5100 features a handy rotating, swiveling screen that can be used at all sorts of interesting angles. It also utilizes the latest 16 megapixel sensor from Nikon / Sony, a sensor with more resolution and even better dynamic range than the previously mentioned 12 megapixel sensor. The opening price is around $899 with a kit lens but will be sure to drop over the course of the next few months.

Prosumer: Nikon D7000
I recently downsized to a Nikon D7000 after shooting larger Canon full-frame sensor cameras for much of the past four years. The D7000 features the same sensor as the D5100 in a more robust body with a brighter, larger viewfinder that shows 100% of what will end up in the captured image. So far, I've been very impressed with the camera, especially the sheer amount of dynamic range available in the raw files, and have really enjoyed carrying around a lot less weight than I used to with the full frame lenses and camera. The D7000 is just small enough without being too small. Since the camera is still in heavy demand, it's price is holding steady at around $1199 for the body only or $1499 for the kit with the surprisingly good 18-105mm lens.

Beyond that, I'm sure most people spending in the ballpark of $2000 will have a good idea of what they are looking for. Currently, it would seem that everyone is waiting for replacements of the models that are currently out. I still think the Canon 5D MkII is the best camera in the $2-3000 price range, but wouldn't mind trying out the Sony A850 or A900. The Nikon D700 may be able to take pictures in the dark, but I'd rather have more resolution if I'm going to spend the money to shoot full frame.

As for the recent crop of micro four-thirds cameras from Olympus and Panasonic, as well as Sony's NEX system, I have trouble really recommending them at this time. Micro four-thirds (other than the slighty larger Panasonic GH1 and GH2) suffers from lower quality sensors with reduced dynamic range that can make noise in the shadows a problem. Sony's NEX system has potential, but there are hardly any lenses available for it. It will be interesting to see what happens once companies like Nikon and Pentax release mirrorless cameras, as has been rumored of late.

I'd really like try out a Fujifilm X100, if anyone wants to loan me $1200 to buy one. Your support is much appreciated...