What kind of camera do you recommend? That is the question I get asked most often when I am seen with a camera at events. I have trouble answering the question because, I could barely afford the camera I have now, let alone even touch the other brands and models available to say with any authority what they should buy. I can only speak from experience.
A photographer, somebody who shoots photos of professional quality, would never ask that question. Once you get to know your way around your camera, you start to understand what its strengths and limitations are, and you start dreaming of other cameras. In other words, a pro either already has the camera they want, or it's on their wish list.
So, for those who ask me what camera to get, I will recommend a camera with manual, shutter priority, and aperture priority modes. If they can learn those settings on any camera, they can make some decent photos and appreciate better gear. But, getting down to the nitty gritty, I recommend the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS as of February 2012. Obviously, this will change as other cameras become available in time
I own its predecessor, the PowerShot SX40 HSIf I am pressed to recommend a camera, I now (February 2013) recommend the PowerShot SX50 HS. I do not have one, nor have I used it. However, I do own the PowerShot SX40 HS camera, which is the one you might say "taught me" about photography. I am very pleased with the PowerShot SX40 HS, even though it is a point-and-shoot camera.
The reason I would no longer recommend the SX40 HS is because there are some limitations. The most notable limitation is that the PowerShot SX40 HS does not shoot in RAW. This is not the case for the PowerShot SX50 HS model. They have added the ability to shoot in RAW. While RAW is not something I use every day, it certainly is useful when I need it.
Another limitation of the SX40 was that I could not use a remote trigger. The new SX50 does have the option to trigger remotely. This is handy for shooting photos at slow shutter speeds; you avoid shaking the camera when pressing the button.
Compared to a DSLRThe best reason to purchase a DSLR camera is the ability to fit your camera with a variety of lenses, flashes, and other accessories. The downside to this ability to reconfigure your camera is that it can get quite expensive. Each piece costs almost as much as the camera body.
For this reason, I also recommend the PowerShot SX50 HS today. You get a lot of value for a fixed price, as there is no interchangeable anything. The camera improves upon the SX40's 35X zoom lens with a whopping 50X zoom lens. For the camera geeks out there, it goes from 24mm to 1200mm. The camera loses some maximum aperture to achieve this; but, that's still a big zoom range that would take at least three lenses to achieve on a DSLR.
There are a variety of other improvements to the new model that would make it fun to use; but, I won't go into those.
The Only DrawbacksTwo limitations that make the camera NOT the perfect point and shoot are the motorized zoom and lack of long exposures. When you start up the camera, the lens has to extend to its widest angle every single time, no instant on. When you zoom, you have to rock the switch...and wait for it to get into position. It's definitely not for fast moving tight shots. As for long exposures, the SX40 offered 30 second exposures, at the longest. I'm going with the assumption that it's still 30 seconds. A DSLR camera, on the other hand, allows you to leave the shutter open as long as you want, assuming the battery holds out. This allows you to shoot star trails and other time-lapse shots.
AccessoriesIf you do buy the PowerShot SX50 HS, I recommend purchasing extra batteries and a spare charger. You can get good 2 for 1 deals on Amazon. And, if you don't want to spend too much on a flash, I recommend the Speedlite 270EX II, if you want name brand. There are also other brands on Amazon made to work with the camera's light metering system. You can get a cheap-o retail store flash; but, you'll have to learn how to constantly manually adjust your camera to deal with the flash.
Where I Get SnobbyAfter having recommended a camera, I make sure to tell the person asking that my photos don't come out looking great right out of the camera. Even when all the settings are spot-on, there are adjustments that need to be made. I hold open my arms and say, "this is how much light our eyes see". Then I close my arms a bit and say, "this is how much light the camera sees. In order for the picture to look real, you need to adjust it on the computer so that the colors get stretched close to their real range".
And without going into the details of white balance, I tell them that even a very good camera won't get the whites absolutely white; you have to adjust your photo in the computer to get it right.
And then, of course, I can't explain in a five minute conversation what I put into my pics, such as framing, rule of thirds, metering, focus points, choosing a priority mode, lighting, not chopping heads and limbs, and whatever other "rules" are out there.
A decent camera does help to a certain extent; but, after that it's thousands of crappy photos learning how to do what you want to do. I leave this out so as not to discourage their interest; but, I do make sure to impress that it's more than just a good camera, there is also behind-the-scenes work involved.