If the personal computer revolution began with the introduction of the first IBM PC in 1981, the digital camera revolution began with the introduction of Logitech Fotoman, the first commercially available digital camera, in 1990.
The Fotoman was way cool at the time, but we've come a long way since then. It let you take pictures only in black and white and at a grainy resolution of about 100,000 pixels, about 100 times less sharp than current digital cameras.
The two main types of digital cameras today are compact cameras, also called point-and-shoot cameras, and single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras. Most snapshooters do fine with compact cameras. They're a step up in quality from the cameras in cell phones and portable media players such as the iPod and yet are still small, easy to use and inexpensive.
Digital SLRs, often abbreviated as dSLRs, in turn are a step up from compact cameras, producing higher quality photos and being considerably more versatile. If you're any kind of camera buff, you'll want to splurge for a dSLR.
The good news here is that, as PCs did earlier, dSLRs recently have come down dramatically in price while continuing to improve in quality. Though you can still spend several thousand dollars on a dSLR, "entry level" dSLRs can be had for less than $500.
The three most popular dSLR camera brands are Nikon, Canon and Olympus, though quality dSLRs are also made by Fuji, Panasonic, Pentax, Sony and others.
Like personal computers, digital cameras are personal, and one of the most frequently repeated pieces of advice is to see how any given model feels in your hands before buying it. No matter what others say about the camera, if it doesn't feel right to you, you won't enjoy using it.
Another good piece of advice, as with digital technology in general, is to find the "sweet spot," a price range that's neither at the very low end nor the very high end but that maximizes the quality you receive to meet your needs for the price that you pay. This often is a single step up, or sometimes two steps up, from the least expensive models of brand-name manufacturers.
Nikon for some time has been the most popular choice among professional photographers. Its optics are unparalleled, and a large range of optional lenses is available.
Nikon cameras have a reputation of being more difficult to use and not quite as reliable as other cameras. The most recent Consumer Reports survey ranked it as the maker of the least reliable dSLRs, though the difference between it and the four other brands ranked wasn't dramatic. In its favor, in their most recent findings, Consumer Reports, PC World magazine, and PC Magazine all ranked the Nikon D90 as either the top dSLR camera or tied for the top. At about $1,150, however, it's not inexpensive.
Canon is a popular brand among digital camera enthusiasts, and it can be more affordable than equivalent Nikon models. The Canon EOS Rebel T1i's claim to fame is that it packs a whopping 15 megapixels (15 million picture elements) for about $800. All those pixels mean higher resolution for sharper detail. But this comes in handy most when you're creating very large, poster-size, prints or when you're using your computer to enlarge a small part of a photo and crop out the rest.
Canon dSLR cameras were ranked by Consumer Reports' readers as more reliable than Nikons but slightly less reliable than Olympus models. The one camera that hits my personal sweet spot is the new Olympus E-620.
The E-620 is among the lightest dSLRs on the market, weighing in at just 1.1 pounds with battery, which comes in handy when carrying it around a lot. It also feels great in my hands. It's not Olympus's least expensive dSLR, but at about $600, it's a good deal, packing 12 megapixels (same as the Nikon D90) and most of the capabilities of Olympus's well-regarded but much more expensive E-30 in a smaller and lighter body.
Among the useful features is the ability to shoot at your choice of "aspect ratio." You can choose the standard 4:3, which is best for 8x10 enlargements; 3:2, best for the popular 4x6 print size; 16:9, for displaying photos on a widescreen TV; and 6:6, for a square image.