The scenario often goes something like this.... I'm watching a subject from a distance waiting for the right light or right moment or both to happen while trying to blend into the background when someone taps me on the shoulder and says, “Hi. Are you a professional photographer? I love taking photos too, can you recommend a camera I should buy?”
As a professional photographer people stop me all the time and chat me up about cameras. I enjoy it even if I miss the shot I was hoping to get. I know there will be another one coming along eventually. But I can't answer that question quickly. There is not one right answer for everyone.
First you have to get an idea of which type of camera is most suited to your needs. I'm going to clump cameras into four different types Cellphone, Point & Shoot, DSLR, and Medium/Large Format and above. There are some cameras that break these molds but those are pretty much unique items, and frankly I'm not going to talk about medium or large format cameras because if you needed it you would likely know that already.
In my opinion the Cellphone camera does a great job when you just want a quick snapshot and aren't worried about quality. Though they often lack in speed and image quality they have a great benefit of being pretty much with you all the time and you can usually quickly share the photo with a friend or send it to a website such as twitpic, facebook or flickr. There is also the space consideration to take into account since many cellphones are limited to how much memory they have built into them unless you have one that has an easily accessible external memory card slot.
A step up would be the Point & Shoot Camera and it is a great all around choice if you want something that will take great photos, is easy and quick to use, and has expandable memory space. They come in big and small sizes, with tons or little features, with lots of abilities or next to none, can create nice photos or poor photos, and can cost a princely sum or very little. Generally speaking the more you pay, the higher quality lens, better features, and larger image size you will get.
I've known professionals to pick up a point & shoot for a special ability or because it fits a need for a project. There is huge variety of point and shoot camera and knowing what you want to do with a camera really helps narrow down the options you need.
If I don't have time to talk with a person, I'll often suggest the Canon G12 (or whatever is newest in the series) or a Nikon Coolpix model but honestly sometimes this is too much camera for the person or not enough to fit their needs.
A DSLR (or Digital Single Lens Reflex) Camera is what most professionals and advanced amateurs use. If you care about image quality, the versatility of the camera, or want a specific feature such as a wide angle or telephoto lens then this is the type of camera you'll likely buy. Most DSLR cameras give you full manual control but also have full auto modes, and the price you pay can range from moderately expensive to dear Lord how much does that cost again? And the expense doesn't stop at the camera body because if you put a bad lens on a good camera body you still will have bad looking photos.
For the most part the amount you pay for a camera and lens together directly corresponds with the number of features and the quality of image. Expensive lens usually give better sharpness and the ability to take photos in natural light at high shutter speeds. If you want something to just pull out and take a quick photo, you can do it with a DSLR though it may be cumbersome at times to haul around.
If you did want to experiment with medium format cameras you could get a Holga which costs about $40. It's made of plastic, uses film, and doesn't give you much if any control, but sometimes just experimenting is half the fun. You could also look at buying a medium format film camera from a pawn shop, garage sale, or ebay. They can be fun to play around with, and you can push yourself out of your comfort zone and experiment.
In the next part of this series I'll talk about some of the questions to ask yourself when looking to buy a camera.