I am no supreme expert on the offerings of every manufacturer, but I can offer a bit of help where the basics are concerned!
NIKON vs. CANON CAMERAS
It's important to remember that, in general, prices on similar products are going to be very similar across the board when you're looking at Nikon and Canon models, because in order to be a Nikon or Canon retailer, you have to adhere to the manufacturer's pricing guidelines. For instance, Nikon says to all of its distributors, "The retail price for this is 499.95, and you may not sell this item at a lower price." If you see the item at a smaller store for 529.95, it's probably because it's a smaller store with a smaller inventory. They don't have the buying power of the larger stores, so generally you'll pay a bit more.
You'll find competing Nikon and Canon products at most price points. Which brand you choose is ultimately up to you-- I highly recommend going to a store that carries both brands and holding them in your hands to see what feels good to you. You can't go wrong with either; both are highly respected manufacturers. Any argument in either direction will really end up being a Mac/PC-Ford/Chevy-Coke/Pepsi type of argument. You'll find loyalists to both brands.
I shoot Nikon and work on a Mac, but even the most seasoned professional would never be able to tell you what equipment I use simply by looking at my images.
Sony & Sigma are also competitors where the dSLR is concerned, but they're newer to the market. Their products will probably run a smidge lower in price for the comparable product simply because their name in the digital photography market isn't as strong (although Sony is a huge name in electronic/digital technology, and Sigma has been manufacturing lenses for years).
Which camera body you choose will pretty much be based on your budget, but go as high as your budget will allow. You won't regret it! This is a big investment for most people, and I can absolutely understand where spending $500 vs. $800 could seem to be a no-brainer... but it's very easy to outgrow the basic entry-level consumer camera body. If you have some wiggle room, take it to the next level : )
dSLR manufacturers will usually put out "kits" around the holidays-- a camera body with lenses included (sometimes also a memory card and camera bag). They'll also include things that come with EVERY dSLR, but retailers like to list them out to make the "package" seem to have more things in it. Including a camera bag is nice, but it's iffy whether or not it'll really be a bag you'll use.
Things that will come with every dSLR, and are not "bonus" items in a kit:
- Rechargeable lithium ion battery
- USB cable
- Audio-Video cable
- Neck strap
- Body cap
- Monitor cover
- Camera manufacturer software
- Any other caps/covers listed
Extras that generally don't come "with" the camera body:
- Memory cards
- Additional batteries
- Camera bag
Why kits are good: You get a ready-to-go package of stuff you can play with and learn to use. You've got a camera and lenses and chances are, the lens that comes with the kit will be useful.
Why kits may not be good: You might be getting a lens that isn't ideal for your use, and in many cases the kit lenses aren't the best, and will not get you much in the way of resale value. You might be getting lots of extra junk you aren't going to use.
There are a couple of key pieces of information to look for where the lens is concerned... Reading the name of a lens can be like reading a foreign language. Here's your secret decoder ring information:
Some lenses are "zoom lenses", and have a notation like "18-55mm". You can zoom in and out, and take a wider or zoomier picture standing in the same place, simply by manipulating the lens barrel. Most kit lenses will be zoom lenses.
Some are "fixed" which means they don't zoom-- you have to walk back and forth to change what you see in your image. They don't have a "mm" range, just one number (for example, 50mm)
The "mm" number tells you how much you'll be able to capture in the image you snap. Shooting at 18mm, you might be able to capture the entire table of children at a birthday party from end to end if you're standing near the table. We'd call this a "wide" shot.
Shooting at 50mm, you'd probably be able to get the birthday boy and three or four kids surrounding him. At 80mm, just the birthday boy.
At higher mm numbers like 200mm or 300mm, you'd be able to zoom to your little center fielder from the bleachers at a little league game.
Having an 18-55mm lens AND a 55-200mm lens is exactly the same range as having one 18-200mm lens.
VR (vibration reduction) or IS (image stabilization)
This means that the lens will compensate for your shakiness when you're far away and zooming to something. It's super-helpful for taking pics of your little centerfielder from the bleachers. Nikon calls it VR, Canon calls it IS. You want to get this on a lens with a lot of zoom, if it isn't a great deal more expensive than the alternative.
AF (auto focus)
You want this. Most lenses will come with AF... you want this if you'll be taking pictures of moving subjects.
The f-stop range
If you don't know what the f-stop is, don't fret. You'll figure it out in good time ; ) Move on to the next point because this will just confuse you further. The f-stop range tells us what the lens's aperture is capable of-- which tells us what kind of conditions you can use the lens for. Most kit lenses and zoom lenses with a wide range are going to be "f/3.5-5.6"... normal range for shooting outdoors in daylight or with a flash.
If you'd like to purchase a lens that will really help teach you about photography basics, I can't recommend a "nifty fifty" enough. A 50mm f/1.4 lens is tiny and fun! It should cost about $300-350. The "f/1.4" part of the lens's name tells us that it's a "fast" lens. The aperture (the hole that lets in light) will open up much larger than your everyday lens, allowing you to really experiment with aperture and shutter speed-- and shoot in low light conditions. This lens will lot you get artsy, people!
Third party lens manufacturers
Canon and Nikon (Nikkor) manufacture lenses, but they aren't your only options. Canon lenses aren't compatible with Nikon, and of course Nikon lenses aren't compatible with Canon bodies. Be sure you're purchasing lenses that are compatible with the body you've chosen.
Companies like Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina all make lenses that will work with different brands of camera body. Wolf Camera/Ritz Camera also sells a Quantaray brand. They'll usually offer the more popular lens models at a lower price. The quality is debatable, but for the average consumer they're a very good option. I have a few Sigma lenses that I use for professional shoots, and I love them. In general, I'd always prefer the Nikon glass... but sometimes price is a motivating factor. I have a Sigma 30mm f/1.4 that's one of my favorites.
WHERE TO PURCHASE YOUR CAMERA AND LENSES
You've got local options like Houston Camera Exchange and Camera Co-op... where you will probably get the absolute highest level of customer service and find sales people with a great deal of knowledge. These are wonderful places to purchase from because they really are the heart of our local photography community. Their prices may be a little higher, but this is because they don't carry the huge inventory of larger stores and don't have the bulk buying power of chains and "big box" stores.
There are photography chains like Wolf/Ritz Camera, which are photography-centric, though your salesperson courtesy/knowledge is going to be more hit-or-miss.
There may be kit options available at Sam's Club, Costco, Best Buy, and other "big box" stores. If you're going to buy at one of these stores, go in equipped with all the information you need. The customer service associates at these retailers are not generally in the know.
There are major online retailers like B&H Photo and Adorama that are extremely reputable, and chances are you will find the best prices here. They have a very wide selection of products in stock.
Please be sure you are purchasing a product with US warranty and not an import/gray market item. The rule of thumb with online retailers... if a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is (this goes for eBay sellers as well). "Gray market" items are sold by unauthorized dealers and come with no warranty; you have no way of knowing if you're getting a good product and have virtually no recourse should you encounter problems.
Purchasing used equipment is also a great option, especially if you don't have the extra cash laying around to spend spend spend on items you want to experiment with! The absolute best place to find reputable sellers of used equipment is Texas Photo Forum (www.texasphotoforum.com), on the Buy and Sell Forum. Houston Camera Exchange and the Houston Camera Co-op also deal in used equipment.
You can actually rent photographic equipment, which is great if you want to try out a lens before buying. I love BorrowLenses.com!
BAGS & STRAPS
Here are some really cool camera bag manufacturers... Ladies, take an extra look at these, they do offer some not-so-mannish selections:
ShootSac (I love mine!)
Jill-e (love my large red rolling bag)
Kelly Moore (want! pink! WANT!)
Tamrac (great for everyone)
LowePro (great for everyone)
For those of you with dSLR questions... watch the blog for more info on beginner classes I'll be offering in January : ) The classes will be small and cater to your individual needs.