This is the post that should have been step two, if I did things in the right order, but sometimes I get ahead of myself.
I started off my twelve step program talking about how photography isn't all about the camera. That isn't really true because the camera can make a difference in the quality and artistic aspect of your photographs. The reason I say can, not does, is some cameras give you the ability to control the camera more than others. The question is whether you are going to take those controls into your hands, or just press the button.
There's nothing wrong with just pressing the button. Sometimes I don't want to hassle with aperture, shutter speed and exposure. I just want to capture the moment. That's why I love my iPhone so much. I love the freedom of framing it up and just pressing the button. Other times, I just don't want to lug my camera around. If that's you, then your cellphone or a compact camera is more than sufficient for your needs. Think of these cameras as an automatic transmission on a car, you just press on the gas pedal and let the engine do its thing.
But if you want to be more of a stick shift type of person with a camera then you might want to consider a DSLR. A DSLR allows you to be more in control. Depending on the mode you use and the lens you have, you can decide whether you want everything in the picture in focus or whether you want to have just a specific object in focus. You chose the exposure (how much light is let into the shot). For a basic new model Canon or Nikon body only DSLR camera, that control could set you back over $600.00 (meaning you still have to shell out more money for the lens).
Like a stick shift car, a DSLR takes a while to get to know. No one just gets into the driver's seat of a car with a manual transmission for the first time and expects to be able to drive into the sunset without the car jerking and sputtering. The same thing goes for a DSLR. It takes a long-term commitment to get the most out of the camera and if you're expecting to pick up a DSLR and make magic happen from the moment you first say hello, you're going to be disappointed.
Yes, you can just leave a DSLR on automatic mode, but if that's the case, personally I think you made a mistake with your camera purchase. It's kind of like buying a Maserati and giving it to my mom to drive (no offense, mom!).
When I was learning about my DSLR, one of the best pieces of advice that I received was to read my camera manual. It was recommended that you not only read your manual, but you read it at least once a year. Honestly, I didn't like the sound of that (who reads an owners manual for goodness sake?), but it came from someone who I trusted and I was struggling to get the pictures I really wanted at the time so I tried her advice. It helped me so much that I do still read my manual each year. Not cover to cover, but I'll reread a section that maybe I forgot about or that I still haven't nailed. Don't let it daunt you. Reading the owner's manual is an investment that is well worth the effort.
If you're not interested in doing that or shooting in manual mode but you still want a step up from a compact camera, then I would suggest that you consider a Nikon CoolPix 500 or a Canon Powershot XS 40. Both have received excellent reviews and this will save you several hundred dollars under the DSLR body. You don't have to invest in lenses on top of that either. But like a DSLR, to maximize your value you'll want to crank open the owner's manual to take full advantage of the camera's capabilities as these cameras do offer you the ability to shoot in a partial or full manual mode, too.
On a note about brands. Sometimes I get asked about which is better, a Canon or a Nikon. It's kind of like asking whether to buy a Honda or a Toyota. I don't think you can make a mistake with either one, but what I do suggest is that just as you would take a car for a test drive, that you go to the camera store, hold the camera in your hand and up to your eye. Look to see where all the buttons are and then pick the one that feels the most comfortable to you.
My last recommendation for you, if you do get a DSLR, is not to get the kit that comes with the lens. At least not if you get a Canon (I'm a Canon girl so I'm not quite as familiar with Nikon's). The lens with the kit doesn't really allow you to get really creative with your settings so it's okay at first as you learn about your camera, but sooner or later you're going to need a better lens. The nice thing about Canon is that they have a very good inexpensive 50mm lens that is right around $100.00. It's a f/1.8 which will mean something in a later step, but that lens will give you enough buttery bokeh (the ability to get part of your picture in focus and other part out of focus) to make you smile. I've heard, but I don't know if it's true, that Nikon doesn't have an equivalent in price to the Canon 50mm f/1.8.
Coming up is seeing the light, working with creative modes and then we'll go into candid and portraiture shots.