I'm asked this a lot. Cameras are a bit like cars, in that we all like something different, some people a runaround and some a slick sports car.
However much you spend, a camera should be intuitive to use, nice to hold, not too complicated.
It may look nice, but how easy is it to use ?
The camera industry is a minefield of seemingly endless choice with bold claims and lots of jargon. Especially the market in-between compacts and professional ; the prosumer market is highly profitable for camera manufacturers because semi pros turnover a lot of kit, constantly looking for the quality utopia. So here's some rash advice - cameras between £300 and £800 aren’t worth it. The optics and sensors aren’t any better than compacts. So either buy a £50-250 compact or buy professional kit. New or secondhand.
Whatever camera you buy, one of the most important things for me is 'shutter lag' ; the length of time between pressing the button and the camera taking the photo. As a pro, I want instant, if I'm waiting for the camera to focus and faff about, I've missed the moment. Timing is everything.
So my second bit of advice would be to check the camera's shutter lag. The info is available on the internet, or you can go into a shop and try it out. It's more relevant with compacts and point and shoot cameras than it is with slrs, but for me it's a reason to choose or reject a camera.
As for makes, my list of top manufacturers is based on ease of use, shutter lag, reliability and personal opinion ; Canon, Panasonic, Lumix, Olympus and Leica. For pro gear Canon, Leica and Hasselblad.
I'd recommend trying out any camera in a shop. While it may look great online, with great specs, you may find the controls complicated and it might not fit comfortably in your hands.
Another factor is batteries, I recommend cameras with rechargeable batteries. Because they're power hungry and you could end up spending a fortune on duracells and needing a bag full on every shoot. Viewing your images or video eats into the battery, as do long exposures and auto focus.
Viewfinders – I struggle to take a good photo with a camera that doesn’t have a real viewfinder, a place for your eye to look and frame. I don't like electronic viewfinders, because I can't see the scene clearly enough, I can't see the expression on people's faces or the detail. So I avoid any camera with that feature. There aren’t many compact cameras out there nowadays with a real viewfinder but Canon do a few, in their low end and high end range, I bought one for my daughter last year. (her first proper camera and she loves it for the simplicity). Many cameras do away with a viewfinder altogether and just use the screen ; not my preference but some people like it, and the reduction is size does make them appealing.
What about quality ? Every year each manufacturer brings out a new camera with more megapixels than the last. Or the new trend for new cameras that 'look' better than the last (don't be fooled by this). Digital technology has been developing for around 20 years and it ain't over yet. So don't worry about keeping up with the latest. Manufacturers make bold claims and a camera with more megapixels than another isn't necessarily better ; you also need to factor in the quality of the lens and the quality of the processor inside the camera. Like cars in general, the more you pay, the better the quality. Second hand pro kit will often be a better buy than new prosumer kit.
For more about professional kit, click here