Ok, the average Fstoppers.com reader probably could use a new DSLR (digital single lens reflex camera) for Christmas, but I'm not writing this for them. I'm writing this for the average husband, wife, high school, or college student who wants a DSLR for Christmas to "take better pictures." You people do not need a giant digital camera for Christmas.
I understand where you are coming from, I really do. Maybe you like gadgets, maybe you want to take better pictures of your children or a vacation. Maybe you like the idea of becoming a professional photographer and you think the first step is to buy an expensive (or bigger) camera. The bottom line is that you want to take better pictures right? Let's start there.
DSLRs Are Not Convenient To Use
Most people outside of the photography world assume that larger cameras take better pictures and although there may be a sliver of truth to that, it's the wrong way to think. The truth is that owning a larger DSLR camera seems like a good idea until you stop using it altogether, because it's too inconvenient to travel with. I'm a professional photographer. I own 5 DSLRs. I do not ever casually walk around with my professional cameras. I pull them out for paying jobs, and I pull them out for individual images that I have already scouted, otherwise I use my cellphone camera. If you don't already carry a dedicated camera with you today, you certainly won't casually carry around a DSLR.
You Are Paying For Features You Won't Use
DSLRs are powerful cameras because they have manual options that other cheaper cameras don't. If you aren't already using every manual feature of your current camera (even if that is a cell phone), what makes you think that you will become interested in manually controlling a much more complicated DSLR?
Are you interested in manually choosing your White Balance with a Kelvin setting? Are you itching to choose your cameras ISO based on your current lighting conditions? Does slowing down and choosing your shutter speed and aperture before every image you take excite you? Do you know how to use Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop so that you can process the raw images that your new DSLR can produce?
If you aren't actually interested in learning to use a DSLR in full manual, you probably don't need this type of camera.
Your Pictures Will Not Magically Get Better When You Buy A DSLR
Yes, a DSLR is capable of taking a great picture. Your laptop is also capable of writing a great book. Until computers are able to automatically churn out the next literary masterpiece, your camera will still require a photographer to work. If you are consistently underwhelmed with your photography, it's not your cameras fault.
Most cameras these days, even cell phone cameras, are capable of taking amazing pictures. Don't believe me? Check out the iPhone Bikini Shoot. In this video I take professional looking images with my iPhone 6s.
90% of the time, lighting alone makes or breaks a photograph. Why don't your landscapes look good? You were there at the wrong time of day. Why don't your portraits look good? Because you were placing your subject in unflattering light. If you spent time learning about lighting, exposure, composition, and post processing, your photography will become exponentially better, no matter what camera you own.
What You Actually Want Costs More Than You Think
Entry level DSLRs are extremely affordable these days. For just $400 you can get a Canon Digital Rebel T5 with an 18-55mm lens. That's unbelievably cheap, and if someone has an interest in learning about photography, it's a fantastic camera to buy. But will you stop there?
Most people think they want a DSLR because they have interchangeable lenses. Having options is great but most people won't ever buy extra lenses, or if they do, they will rarely use them. You will also quickly learn that the price of camera lenses can get out of hand faster than then cameras themselves.
The Nikon 55-200mm f/4-5.6 lens is only $160. That's a pretty amazing price of a telephoto lens. The "professional" version of this lens, the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 costs $2100. What are you getting for an extra $1940? Better build quality, better image quality, vibration reduction, and a constant aperture of "2.8" which will give you the "professional looking" shallow depth of field (when your subject is sharp and background is blurry). The professional lens actually has less zoom.
"Professional looking" images are actually created by the lens more than the camera. Have you actually considered which lenses you want/need?
So Then What Camera Should I Get For Christmas?
To decide which camera is right for you, you need to be completely honest with yourself. Are you actually interested in learning about photography, or do you simply want a camera that can take a better snapshot than your cellphone?
Entry Level Point And Shoots
Looking for something that's cheap, easy to carry, but still has more zooming options than your cellphone? The Canon ELPH 170 is only $139 and it has an 12x zoom which is more than you will get with most DSLR lens options. For $349 you can get a significantly better sensor and lens (with less zoom) and WiFi with the Canon S120. This S120 is my top suggestion for casual shooters.
Zoom and Portability
Do you want more zoom? The Canon SX710 and the Sony DSC-HX50v have a 30x zoom which is equivalent to 35-750mm. This is insane, I've personally never taken a shot over 300mm before, and I take pictures for a living. But just in case this is what you are looking for, it is an option.
Pocketable DSLR Power
Maybe you do have an interest is the manual side of photography but you know that you don't want to carry around a DSLR with extra lenses. Mid-high level point and shoots are a great option. The Sony RX100 series is currently the leader in this market and Sony has 4 versions of this camera available.
The original Sony RX100 came out in 2012 and instantly became the years most popular point and shoot camera. Normally a camera this old would be discontinued but it was such a good camera then that they have continued to sell it. It's currently $449.
Sony RX100 II
The second version of this camera is very similar to the first but it has an upgraded sensor, a tilting screen, and added WiFi to send photos to your cell phone. It currently costs $549. This version is probably the best value.
Sony RX100 III
The third version has a better lens, better sensor, and significantly better video features. It currently costs $800.
Sony RX100 IV
The latest version of this camera has once again improved image quality and video quality. This camera can now shoot in slow motion and in 4k. It currently costs $950.
It may seem a bit strange that you can buy a new DSLR for significantly less than a 3 year old point and shoot camera but keep in mind that these Sony cameras give you all of the same manual controls that a DSLR will, plus amazing portability. These cameras will give you a significant boost in image quality over your cell phone or older point and shoot and they have enough features for you to learn more about photography if you take an interest in it.
Larger Point and Shoot Cameras
There are larger "point and shoot cameras" that you may also want to consider. The Panasonic DMC-LX100 has a larger sensor compared to the Sony RX100 series and has more room for manual buttons and knobs that are on DSLRs.
Smaller Interchangeable Lens Cameras
If you want interchangeable lenses like a DSLR in a slightly smaller package, you will want to check out "mirrorless" cameras. Mirrorless cameras can have equivalent or even better sensors than DSLRs, but cameras can be smaller because they lack the mirror and prism found in DSLRs.
You may want to check out the Sony Alpha 6000, the Samsung NX500, the Fuji X-E2, or the Olympus E-P5. The problem with each of these cameras is that they each cost more than an entry level Canon or Nikon DSLR, and you aren't necessarily getting better image quality. You're paying for a slightly smaller, more convenient camera.
When It's Time To Buy A DSLR
You don't have to be a professional photographer to appreciate a DSLR, but if you aren't willing to learn to use them properly, your photography will never improve.
You should buy a DSLR when you have reached the top of your current camera's potential. You should buy a DSLR because you have an interest in taking pictures your current camera cannot (long exposures, shallow depth of field, extreme low light). It's time to get a DSLR when you are ready to move your camera out of "auto" and into full manual so that you are thinking through every image you take. Until you are ready to do each of these things, a smaller point and shoot camera would be a far better choice.
If you are ready to take your photography to the next level and you've decided a DSLR is right for you, I want to welcome you to this exciting world. I would highly suggest that you stick with Canon or Nikon DSLRs. They are currently the industry standard for DSLRs and their cameras are the easiest to find accessories for. Nikon in particular has never changed their mount so any old Nikon lens will mount to any current Nikon DSLR.
The first lens you should buy
The first lens that every DSLR owner should buy is the 50mm 1.8 lens. It's a "fixed" or "prime" lens, meaning that it doesn't zoom but that is ok. You can learn to "zoom with your feet" (walking towards or away from your subject). This lens has an extremely wide aperture and you will be able to take professional looking shallow depth of field images. It's also one of the cheapest lenses you can buy at just $110.
Hopefully this article has helped you figure out which camera is right for you this Christmas. No matter which camera you decide to buy, I would challenge you to learn about your camera and learn about photography in general. Your vision and your knowledge, will take your work to the next level. Your camera, like a paint brush, is only a tool. Learn to paint first and upgrade your gear when you can fully appreciate it.