I'm biased. While, the small handheld cameras are nice, for really great image quality, you do need a nice dSLR because of lense quality. Right now, the leaders are Nikon, Canon and Sony is coming on strong. All have shipped new cameras at the entry level now with the Canon EOS 450D. "Cameralabs":http://www.cameralabs.com/reviews/Canon_EOS_450D_Digital_Rebel_XSi/verdict.shtml has a good quick comparison. Here are recommendations right now:
h3. If you don't have any lenses yet
If you don't have any lenses yet, then this is the big decision, because the main investment in a digital SLR is not the body, but the lenses that you buy. Right now, my lense investment is literally 20x the body investment, so that's the big decision. There are 2.5 major families right now to consider. Canon makes its own imagers and has the most worldwide share, but Nikon has lots and lots of lenses and uses the higher volume sony imagers. Finally, Sony acquire Minolta (the old #3 in cameras) and is really adding lots of technology.
Right now 99% of all folks can get a 12 megapixel camera with a superzoom (12x) and that is just about all the camera that they will ever need. Each of the vendors now has such a model, so here are the top recommendations:
* Nikon D40x and Nikon 18-200 lense. This is a great combination. The lense is image stabilized and quality is very, very good. When you grow up a little, you can get the incredible professional quality 70-200 F2.8 lense or really anything that is F2.8 in that family. Finally, when you really grow up, the D300 is just an amazing camera. It is also 12 megapixels, but it is amazingly fast. You can take pictures at ISO 3200. What that means is that the relatively slow 18-200 with the D300 at F/3.5-5.6 can take pictures in the same light as a D40x does with a very expensive F/2.8 lense (each doubling of ISO, means you in effect get double the light, so a F2.8 lense at say ISO 1600 is equivalent to an F/1.2 lense at ISO 400)
* "Canon XSi":http://a.img-dpreview.com/news/0801/canon/eos450dfront.jpg and Sigma 18-200 lense. This camera doesn't come out until April this year, but is the response (finally!) to Sony and Nikon just kicking them. No review yet on this one, but it has a 12 megapixel (up from 10 megapixel) and hopefully will have a faster imager.
* Sony. This is the dark horse, but the great features here are great image quality (same imagers as the Nikon) and built in optical image stabilization which means you don't have to buy lenses that are stabilized.
h3. If you are a Nikon lense person already
I'd say right now the right choice is probably the D300 because it is such a fast camera. Although expensive at $1500 plus, this body is really quite remarkable. it has a 1.5x lense factor but most importantly it takes great pictures at ISO 1600 or even ISO 3200. Drool, drool.
You can use your existing lenses, but if you don't have one, getting the superzoom listed
h3. If you are a Canon lense person already
Then you are in a little bit of tough spot right now. The Canon 5D is a full frame camera that is great but pretty old now. Feels like this is going to get upgraded soon, so I'd wait for that. Abset that, the Xsi is a pretty good value, although doesn't have the speed potential that the D300 does.
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