As a photographer, I'm often approached by people I know who are interested in buying a DSLR and want to know what I think. Here's the short answer: I don't know. The long answer, however, is a little more interesting and hopefully a little more helpful.
Before I begin, let me make a quick disclaimer: I haven't used all of these cameras personally, anything you read here is simply my opinion and not indisputable fact. Plenty of people may disagree with me, and that's fine. We're talking cameras, and there's little room for dogma here. This is written mainly for people who are somewhat new to photography, so if you're looking for the latest and greatest tech specs and finely argued points, feel free to mosey on...
I'm going to talk a little bit about what's available today vs. what was available when I went digital, and I also have some thoughts on brand, price, full-frame vs. cropped sensors, lenses, etc. If you don't care about all that and just want some quick camera recommendations, you can skip to the end… but I do believe the info below will be helpful as you make your decision. Ready? Here goes.
Modern DSLRs are light years ahead of cameras that were available 10 years ago.
When I began to get seriously into photography, film still ruled the day. It wasn't until a few years later that DSLR's started to become moderately affordable (meaning you could get one for somewhere in the $2000-3000 neighborhood). And I desperately wanted one. I had my eye on a beautiful Canon D60 and was saving my pennies, and then one glorious day, Nikon introduced the D70. At the time it was a little powerhouse of a camera, and more importantly, it was the first (to my knowledge) DSLR that hit the market for under $1000. I picked one up as soon as I could afford it, and was in love.
By today's standards, my Nikon D70 was a small, plasticky, low-resolution (6MP) machine that didn't do well in low light. Anything shot higher than ISO 400 had a ton of noise, and the highlights blew out in even moderately contrasty scenes. Still, that little beast traveled a lot of miles with me, and some of my favorite images were shot with it.
Today's entry level cameras will deliver image quality that far, far exceeds anything the D70 was capable of.
Nikon vs. Canon vs. Sony vs. Pentax vs. Fuji vs….
If you go online, you can find hundreds if not thousands of posts and threads of people arguing over what brand of camera is best. But you know what? They're just tools, meant to do a job, and I'd imagine any one of them will do it decently. Nikon and Canon are the two biggest at this point, and they're what I'll focus on today (although I'd love, love to pick up one of the new offerings from Fuji at some point). They also probably have the most options in terms of lenses available.
Factors to consider.
Camera spec sheets can be exhausting even if you know what you're looking for. Megapixels, focus modes, ISO performance, shutter speeds, etc etc etc. Here are a few of the big ones to pay attention to:
Resolution (megapixels): You know what? You can pretty much ignore this. Almost any camera on sale today is going to have more than enough resolution for the average user or enthusiast. Nikon's newest entry-level cameras sport a 24MP sensor, which is twice what I've used for the vast majority of my career. Canon's newest low-end models have around 18MP. Many professionals, especially event and wedding photographers, are satisfied with 12MP. More pixels means bigger files, with means you need faster computers and larger hard drives to work with the images. (Last year I upgraded to 36MP Nikon D800's because I make a lot of very large prints, and as a result needed a complete computer upgrade.)
Handling: It doesn't matter how clear the pictures your camera takes are, if you can't find the buttons to change your settings, you're going to have problems. Imagine you're trying to photograph your 2 year old, and he starts running toward you with a big grin on his face, drool a-flyin' in the wind, and you just know it's going to be the picture of the year if you can capture it. You'll want to make sure you can set aperture and shutter speed appropriately, or little Jimmy is just going to be a blur. Maybe the MOMA will be interested in your picture, but you won't want to hang it in your home.
I bring up handling because it's one of the tradeoffs you make when going for an entry-level camera -- it can be more tedious to change your settings, sometimes having to go through the menu system, whereas the pro level cameras are usually laid out to allow for quick one-button setting changes. The best bet when purchasing is to go to a store and actually pick up the different cameras, see how they feel in your hand, and play around with the settings yourself.
Lenses: A DSLR isn't going to do you any good unless you have a lens to go with it. Many times you'll find cameras bundled with a kit lens, usually a standard mid-range zoom, which is generally fine for everyday photography. As you get more and more into photography, you'll start to see the benefits of some of the other lenses available, and believe me, you can drop some serious cash on these things. But a good lens is at least as important to the quality of your pictures as your camera, and probably more so.
Crop sensor vs. full-frame: Here's where the talk gets a little more technical. Basically, this refers to the size of the actual sensor inside your camera. Crop-sensor cameras have smaller sensors, and this affects your images in a number of ways. I won't go into all of them here, but I will mention two:
1) Your lens focal length will be longer. Nikon's cropped sensors have a focal length multiplier of 1.5x, which means that a 24mm lens will effectively turn into a 36mm, a 50mm lens will look like a 75mm, etc. That's a gross oversimplification and there are other effects that it has as well, but for now, this is what's most important.
2) Your lenses will be cheaper. Yes, that's right… Because it's easier to manufacture lenses for cropped-sensor cameras, they tend to be less expensive, sometimes by a lot.
If you're just fascinated by this topic, just Google "crop sensor vs. full frame" to find a plethora of information. If it's on the internet, it must be true.
Low-light capability: In darker situations, you will need to bump up your ISO, which if you've ever shot film, is like film speed. As it gets darker, increasing the ISO on your camera will allow you to capture more light at the same shutter speed, so you can still take well-exposed pictures even though the sun has set, or the concert lights went down, or you're turning off the lights to light the candles on a birthday cake. The problem is that as your ISO goes up, image quality goes down and you'll start to see digital noise in your pictures. The good news is that modern cameras do a much, much better job with this than they did even 4 or 5 years ago. Sure, you can drop $6K on a Nikon D4 which will pretty much let you shoot in the dark, and if you make your living covering concerts or events, this might make sense. But probably not if you just want to take pictures of your kids.
There are plenty of other things to consider when purchasing a DSLR (speed, focusing capability, etc.) but for the sake of trying to keep things simple, let's stop there. Once again, technology has come so far that even entry-level cameras will do things that the high-end cameras of 10 years ago could only dream of.
The most important thing: your eye
At the end of the day, the camera is just a tool. It helps to have the best tools possible, to be sure, but even with top-of-the-line equipment I wouldn't be able to build a seaworthy boat or make a beautiful sculpture. The best possible advice I can give is to purchase a camera within your means, then carry it with you all the time and use it constantly. Henri Cartier-Bresson famously said, "Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst." So shoot a lot.
Brass tacks: Which camera should you buy?
All right, all right… I wrote all that stuff above because I'm reluctant to recommend particular cameras. The list below is going to be obsolete in a year or two, and as I said earlier, I haven't used most of these. I'm not going to reinvent the wheel when so many others (especially the fine people at DPReview) have done such a thorough job. Nor will I tell you which camera you should buy. What you should purchase is probably different from the gear that I use. But I can give you an idea of price and point you toward some resources that will help you make an informed decision. I hope it helps. PS. I buy a lot of gear at B&H in NYC, and they're a fantastic store. But it's also a great idea to support your local camera dealer. Check out Allen's Camera in Levittown if you're in the Philadelphia area. The best part is you can walk out the door with your camera the same day!
Below are new and/or noteworthy models from Nikon and Canon. Pricing is approximate and subject to change depending on where and when you shop.
Nikon D3200 - around $550 with kit lens Nikon's newest budget DSLR. Small, inexpensive. The camera to buy if price is your primary concern. You can find a full review of it here.
Nikon D5200 - around $700 (body only) or $800 (with kit lens) Flip-out screen. Faster, slightly better image quality, and better high ISO performance than the D3200. Check out this comparison between the D5200 and D3200. No full review, but there is a pretty detailed preview of it here.
Nikon D7100 - around $1200 (body only) or $1500 (with lens) There are rumors of a D7200 to be released, but so far this is what we have. Compare it with the D5200.
Nikon D600 - around $2000 (body only) I have used this camera, and it was tempting. It's a full-frame camera for right around $2K. Dual SD card slots and lots of features that pros like, and I know a number of wedding photographers who really like this camera. I came close to buying one, but decided I'd rather get a 2nd D800 instead. Full review.
Nikon D800 - around $3000 (body only) What a great camera, but I wouldn't recommend it for everyone. I use it because it's phenomenal for portraits. Super high resolution. Not great in low-light but that's not primarily what I'm interested in. If you're a portrait photographer, it's a gem. If you're looking to just take some pictures of your family, it's probably overkill. If you want to shoot weddings, I'd go for something with better high ISO performance and smaller file sizes. Full review.
Nikon D4/D3x/D3s - $5K and up Incredible cameras, to be sure. Hey, if you've got the money to burn…
I have much less experience with Canon cameras than I do with Nikon. But in my experience, while they don't exactly mirror each other, both companies make quality tools that roughly correspond in quality and price.
Canon EOS Rebel T3 - around $500 with kit lens Canon's entry-level model. Full review.
Canon EOS Rebel SL1 - around $800 with kit lens Pretty brand new. There's not even a review of this camera up yet at DPreview, but the preview has quite a bit of info.
Canon EOS Rebel T5i - around $900 with kit lensPreview here. Never having used these Rebel models, all I can do is speak to price point and say that in general -- although not always -- buying a more expensive model gets you more features and better handling/weather sealing. With a difference of only a hundred bucks or so between models, I'd be more inclined to go with the better models. But I have no scientific basis for that. :)
Canon EOS 60D - around $900 (body only) Now we're getting out of the I-just-want-something-to-photograph-my-children field and into I-really-love-photography-and-am-prepared-to-spend-a-bit-more-for-it territory. Great for photography enthusiasts, and pros will sometimes even use it, often as a backup body. Full review.
Canon EOS 6D(around $2000 body only) and EOS 7D(around $1500 body only) Definitely getting into pro/semi-pro range here. Here's a great comparison (with 5d Mark III as well). 6D full review and 7D full review are also available.
Canon 5d Mark III - around $3500 (body only) If I were going to purchase a Canon DSLR today, this is what I'd buy. That said, the feature set is far beyond what most people would need. Get it if you make a living with photography, or money is no object (in which case, just get a Leica). Full review.
Canon EOS 1D-X - around $6800 (body only) Canon's top-of-the-line model. More camera than I need.