I've been trying to do this post for a long time, but kept getting bogged down by other things. I get asked so often, "What kind of camera should I get if I want to get more seriously into photography?" that I felt it time to definitively answer the question. And I'm going to be blunt and partisan about it, but it's still the best answer I think to that particular question.
If you are a Nikon fanboy, or don't agree with my recommendations, you can make a comment here or write your own post about it on your own blog; but these are the best recommendations and answer to that question I can think of, and I think people want a straight answer to questions like this, instead of hemming and hawing. Because it's a pretty stressful question. So here's are some issues and answers to several sub-questions that are actually all wrapped up in the original question of what camera to get to take more serious pictures. If you like your P&S -- which has some useful features such as video capture and voice recording -- cool for you! I think they're great for that sort of thing, too. Remember -- YOU said you wanted to get more serious about photography, though? Right? So, assuming that's true, here we go...
DITCH YOUR POINT-AND-SHOOT
Yep, you heard me. You simply cannot do certain things with a P&S, and the prices on entry-level DSLR models now overlap with those of junk feature-loaded, high-end P&S cameras. Shutter speed doesn't lag, manual functions have their own dial (you often have to go into a menu on P&S cameras), and you can buy new lenses and other accessories. Digital noise levels are higher on these P&S models, megapixels aside. That means the picture looks kinda "thin" and digital-looking when it's printed, more digital artifacting, etc. And no matter how many megapixels the P&S has, you're still shooting through crappy glass. So, ditch that small camera. Save it for the birthday parties and taking pictures of your cafe latte, OK?
FUCK MEGAPIXELS, SMILE DETECTION, AND OTHER BS
I thought you wanted to get more serious about photography? All that stuff is window dressing. Yes, even megapixels. Stop looking at that stuff. All the megapixels have surpassed the resolution of an old 35mm negative a LONG time ago. And megapixels should never have gone above 2-4 to begin with, because 90% of those with P&S cameras are just taking snapshots for iPhoto, your home page, grandma's birthday party, etc. Unless you're going to make a print the size of your living room wall, you don't need 12 megapixels. You don't need the camera to track faces, detect smiles, or any of that useless crap. You have other shit to learn about, to apply. You know the best smile detector? Your eye. Get old school, fool. Wait -- are you still talking about megapixels? It's like sticking a Formula 1 race car engine in a Hyundai. Why worry about all that megapixel firepower if you're shooting through a pinhole? Stop thinking about megapixels, OK? We're clear? Good.
BUY WHAT YOU NEED
More expensive cameras do NOT take "better" pictures. They just don't. A camera, film or new-fangled digital, is just an overblown box. You open a hole for a set amount of time and it exposes to something that will record the image. In the old days, it was film; now, it's a chip that sits where the film used to be. Same shit, different recording method. Film exposed light and when developed with the right chemicals, organized the silver molecules floating around inside the emulsion to make images. That kinda stuff. Chips just write the information to a file. But in the end, you need a box with a hole for a lens. And the better the lens, the better your picture, actually. If you're a worry-wart, spend your money on the lens, dude. $5,000 spent on an L-class lens from Canon is going to get you much ACTUALLY sharper images than blowing that $5,000 on a camera body you don't need, nor know how to use. And if you're taking pictures on your Canon 1Ds on PROGRAM, it's like you bought a Lamberghini but don't drive stick. Any sports car with a "P" and "D" lever is a waste of God's good graces. So is your very expensive camera set to the green "P." Don't embarrass yourself while wasting gobs of money. So...
BUY THE ENTRY-LEVEL MODEL
Unless you have a very, very good reason not to. I prefer Canons, and Canon has led the DSLR fight, while Nikon ruled the professional film realm for decades, with Canon a close second. Basically, for several reasons I'm not going to even get into here, partially because it's fanboy compari-cizing, partially because I'm too lazy, and partially because it's just reality, baby. One caveat on top of all that: Korea is a Canon-controlled nation. Most people have Canons. So that means you are more likely to be able to borrow lens and other crap from friends and acquaintances. So, that said: If you really want low-end entry level, go for the Canon 1000D. The slightly more expensive 450D is the official entry level camera, but has a bigger, nicer screen, a frosting feature called "Live View" (which doesn't work in autofocus, feature fanboys), and can allow the connection of a large battery grip that will also help make your camera look like one of the more expensive ones. If you're not interested in any of that stuff, get the 1000D. If you want just a tad more flexibility, a few more modes, and perhaps a battery pack, a 450D is your choice. 1000D's going to cost you mid-5's (in either currency) while a 450d's going to set you back by the mid-8's or 9's for the whole kit. Actually, I'd pick up a used 400d and save a couple hundred on the body, but that's up to you.
OHHH. SO YOU STILL WANT SOMETHING HIGHER END?!
Fine. Don't listen to me. Just answer me these questions, then -- why do you need 6 frames-per-second shutter as opposed to the 3.5 or 4 or whatever's offered on the entry level you're getting? You shooting fashion shows? Sports? A leopard running after its prey for National Geographic? You don't really need it if you can't think of a specific REASON you think you need it. Higher megapixels? Stop it. The more expensive bodies are a bit stronger, more weather-resitant. Does that matter? Are you planning to get caught in a flood or mud-drenched in a firefight? Come on.
OK, OK. MAYBE YOU DO NEED A FEW MORE FEATURES
Faster motor drives mean more pictures of potentially key moments, more shots of that model who pauses for only 2 seconds at the end of the runway. The sturdier 40D is far more weather-sealed than the 450D; it stands a much higher chance of surviving getting hit with a blast of water from a riot police hose than an entry level model would. A Canon 1D with the proper weather-sealed lens might survive the blast and keep on shooting, or a sudden downpour, or even getting slopped in mud as you avoid gunfire, Mr. War Photographer. A 1000D is mostly plastic on top of plastic. It's not made to be hit hard. An $8,000 top-of-the-line is made so it might just survive. Although you shouldn't go sticking any cameras in mud just to prove a point. Or maybe you've got a need for different data grips that can wirelessly fire your camera, or simultaneously write your pictures to your camera's internal CF card and a USB drive. Wait -- this all above your head? Or your expected uses? Then I guess you don't really need "a few new features," huh?
IT'S THE LENS, STUPID
Let's just start this easy-like. Your kit lens nowadays is going to be far better overall than the lens on the best thingamawhizzee P&S you had. So stop your "I don't want the kit lens" snobbiness, unless you already know what you're talking about and could be hurt by the difference. Basically, it's OK to have a kit -- but do remember that all those lenses that costs hundreds or even thousands more than yours aren't just BS features, like megapixels and smile detection are; if you buy a 70-200mm IS 2.8L lens, it's sharp as a frickin' laser beam. A frickin' LASER BEAM! You get what you pay for in lenses. Don't be depressed because you have a relatively crappy (and despite what I said about your kit lens being better than what you had on your P&S, there are lenses that are that that much better and more than your kit lens -- which should tell you how crappy your P&S is, actually, instead of you feeling bad about your kit) kit lens. You have an DLSR. You can always buy a better lens.
YOU HAVE MANY MORE LENS OPTIONS
Wide-angle. Extreme telephoto. Macro. You can get an entire building in the frame, freeze a slam dunk from across the court, or take a picture of a little green bug sitting pretty on the stem of some flower that looks like a tree trunk in your viewfinder. You can get some lenses that let you take good pictures in far lower light, tilt-and-shift lenses that do funky stuff with perspective, as do "fisheye" lenses that warp everything in funky ways. Your camera is just the base -- capabilities can be endlessly added.
FEEL THE POWER OF THE FLASH
Many P&S people think taking the picture with a flash "makes the picture look bad" or are doomed to constantly getting redeye, etc. Sticking on an external flash with a diffuser, using it to bounce the light off the walls or ceiling, or for multiple strobes in a single frame, etc -- flash adds an entire range of options. Most people don't realize that most of the pictures that look "natural" are actually taken with highly-controlled flashes, soft boxes, diffusers, bounce cards, and the like. If you can learn to use an external flash, you open up a whole new world. You'd be surprised at what a DSLR, good lens, and flash can lead you to far, far better pictures than you'd ever imagine.
WHERE TO BUY
OK -- experience has told me that the cheapest place with the most knowledgeable sales staff is Yongsan Jeonjaland, in the Etland Building. You might have a Korean friend who says some other place like Namdaemun or some other electronics market. Well, they're wrong. They will probably say that Yongsan is full of crooks and sheisty characters -- they're right. Except for the Etland Building, most of the electronics places from the Yongsan train station/subway stop, including the new complex, through the old terminal building -- they're all crooks and liars. They're just ajussis who've memorized the specs and want to sell you anything they can get away with. Never, ever buy from them. But the original, high-end place for electronics is on the 2nd and 3rd floors of the Etland Building, where they go from consumer electronics all the way to the high-end -- broadcast cameras and places with 300,000 speakers. The people who shop here know what the hell they're talking about, as do the people who sell things to them; so there are generally no tricks involved. A recent friend of mine priced a lens in Namdaemun for about $1070. The shop guy maintained he was all but giving him the lens for free. A cursory check at my guy's place got the lens for $30 cheaper, and it was the standard listed price. Not a huge deception, but it's good to know when you man's honest. I've even been told not to buy certain things, or steered to cheaper products, alternatives. I'e taken around 10 people there to buy their cameras and lenses, and they keep returning and bringing their peoples. Everyone's happy, and no one gets screwed. Shop guys get a steady flow from volume, so they know to keep the flow happy. And I like the fact that we're talking to real people, rather than undercutting knowledgeable storeowners to save $10 on the Internet. My man's number is 718-0818 and you can get directions to his place directly. Tell the taxi driver to take you to "Yongsan Jeonja-land" -- and call Mr. Park Ju-bong if you can't do the Korean. And tell him Michael sent you. No, I don't get no kickbacks. But I do get the benefit from getting the absolute cheapest price I can get on equipment, and you get the benefit of being part of our faithful-customer-stream. Mr. Park's an honest businessman, but you joining a customer stream that's several years old now is gonna guarantee you the lowest prices possible.
ABOUT "GRAY MARKET"
Technically, there are two prices for any electronics you buy from a big dealer like at Yongsan, or from guys like B&H Photo in NYC. You get the official (in Korean, the "jeong-pum") price, or the gray market (in Korean, called the domestic or "guk-nae") price. Gray market products are NOT fake. What is happening is that you're buying the camera without a warranty. "Why the hell would you ever buy a picture without a warranty?!" ask you. Well, if you're CNN and have you own in-house repair department, and need to buy 100 consumer DSLR's for reporters and such, you don't need the extra $30 or so warranty that is built into the price you get on the box. If you buy direct without a warranty, and usually large companies do this in bulk, you save a lot of money. What these big NYC or Seoul warehouses do is also buy in bulk and offer cut-rate prices. Sometimes, if you don't know what you're doing and don't know it's gray market, you can get screwed in the US. And non-warrantied repair prices in the US are just plain scary. If you ding your camera and something breaks, under warranty, they'll just give you a new part. They don't "fix" anything if they don't have to. If it's totaled, they'll give you a new one. In 4-6 weeks.
But in Korea, a lot of stuff is sold gray market, but you have 2 advantages here. For one, these stores provide their OWN warranty for 1 year, not in small part due to the fact that two, repair costs here are cheap. I broke my lens and body in a nasty fall and it cost me $430 here. Then I broke the lens again and it cost me $40 to realign it. That's unheard of back in the States. For all intents and purposes, the cost of repair labor is free -- you just gotta worry about whether you broke an expensive part. So, if you are living in Korea, you might as well go gray -- basically, buy at the cheaper price. Now you understand why having bought from a trusted guy -- rather than whomever was charging 10,000 won less on the Internet -- is an important thing. You build a good relationship, keep the good feelings flowing, and you don't get screwed. When you think about it, I don't know what part of the shutter mechanism was broken and had to be replaced -- but they didn't try to bend me over the table and bring out the gimp. And the same was true for 2 other people who broke their cameras and got very reasonable repairs for stuff that would have been a few hundred bucks back home (which would have totaled most cameras, effectively).
In the end, if you're gonna be here for about a year, buy away. If you're leaving in 2 months, perhaps waiting until you get home is a better idea (if you live in North America, that is). For you European types, buying here may always be a good idea, no matter what. You and your high taxes.
Caveat: Keep an eye on the exchange rates. They're slowly bringing prices up, but if you're like me and get paid in Korean won, it's almost as if it doesn't matter -- if you're stuck in the Korean economy, you're screwed either way. But if you do have funds in American bucks, it might be cheaper to make big purchases back home.
TO SUM UP
In short, I'd recommend the 1000D or 450D from the git-go, with the 400D if you can find it, so as to save a few bucks. You're not missing anything but frills. Forego Nikon. Korea's a Canon nation and Canon's leading the field in DSLR, anyway. There are other reasons, but whatever. That's my recommendation. Get the kit lens (the 1000D isn't sold body-only, so that's moot) and think about lenses for other purposes. Wide-angle? Telephoto? Macro? And buy from my man. I get emotional credit and a cheap price on my future purchase of my big baby -- the Canon 5D Mark II. Need that video.
Tips on how to actually USE these cameras (and shameless promotions of my photo classes!) and what basic information is required to actually learn the basics of photography. In short, 80% of it is understanding the relationship between shutter speed and aperture, followed by depth-of-field and the meaning of certain shutter speeds. Once you throw a bit of flash in there, most people are good to go. At least you've had exposure to what you need to know, and even if you don't understand it all, you know what to research and get that understanding later. What's hardest about learning photography is not just the not knowing how things work, but also not knowing what the basic set of information there is to know. Which is what my course gives you.
Responses to this post? Additions or corrections? Send 'em to the comments, please! They're always welcome.