I can't count how many times I have been asked "what kind of camera should I get?" or "I want a really nice camera that can take really good portraits, do sports and photograph planets but I don't want to spend a lot of money". Hey, me too.
I am going to keep this post as simple as possible by talking about what I have learned on my journey as a photographer and making highly opinionated suggestions based on that journey.
Avoid common mistakes.
My first consumer grade DSLR was a Nikon D60. Of all of the Nikon bodies out there, it was the worst one I could have gotten for what I wanted to do. A ton of lenses don't work on the D60 (it had no internal focus motor) and I think it had 3 focus points. I did my research online and I listened to the reviews I read about the camera. I furthered my mistake buying lenses that didn't work properly on the camera and were optically inferior because I was trying to save money. Instead of reading reviews, I should have looked at photos the camera had taken. Sites like flickr or 500px are perfect for letting you search for images created with a certain camera and lens combination. If you like the images a camera (and lens) take, at least you will know what the gear is capable of... it is a great place to start.
Do you need to buy a camera?
Cameras are expensive. A brand new top of the line Nikon D4 will cost about $7,000 USD... that is if you can find it in stock. I should mention that It does not come with any lenses, memory cards or an assistant to carry it for you. But who needs a D4? They are designed for studio work anyway. How about the Nikon D800? (this is what I carry) You can get one of these with a good lens and a memory card that will hold about 200 photos for around $4,200 USD. You can spend that $4200 on a camera or you could buy a good used car... and you can finance the car. If you are looking for a camera for a vacation or a special event, a good alternative to buying one is to rent it. Sites like lensprotogo will let you rent cameras, lenses, lights and even give you tips on how to use it. This option is best suited for more advanced photographers who are looking to test out that $2,000 lens or $4,000 light panel before making that commitment. I am not trying to sticker shock you here... but I want to get a point across, good camera gear costs good money.
I want to buy a camera on a budget.
I would suggest that you get a fun Fuji Instax. It is a wide format, instant film camera that is perfect for people who want maximum bang for their buck. I have one of these and I love the photos it takes (and so does everyone else). You just aim, snap and pvvvvvvvt the film pops out the top.
Your only realistic option is a used iphone. There are countless apps that let you process your photos in creative ways... I took a trip to Mexico a couple of years ago and documented the whole trip with my iphone, I still get compliments about the photos and it fit in my pocket. I would spring for the waterproof case as well.
This is a tough price point. A lot of mediocre consumer cameras fall into this range bucket but unless you are going to shoot just portraits at f/8 then you will quickly become frustrated with it. My advice is to find a used Fuji X100. I have seen these on Craigslist going for less than $400. It is an amazing camera with a fixed 35mm lens. It is great for portraits, landscapes and just about everything in between. You can read one of my favorite reviews about the camera here.
What would I buy if I was a consumer.
If I was shopping for a camera today I would buy a Fuji X-E2. At just $1,000 USD for the mirrorless body it is the best value to performance camera I have ever seen. It looks awesome, works like a professional camera and is so easy to use... not to mention, it takes amazing photos. I have been asking my wife for one of these cameras for 2 years now. I would pair this body with a 27mm lens. For less than $1500 you have a professional quality system that would make ME jealous.
You could always track down a used copy of this lens on ebay, craigslist or the local pawnshop and save %50 or more.
What would I buy if I was starting my own business.
This is highly opinionated... but I would buy a Nikon D700 (noto the D7000!). It is the camera I cut my teeth on and does so many things so well. It is sharp, fast and built like a tank. You can find these for less than $1,000 on ebay or craigslist and it has taken photos for me across the globe. My first lens would be a Nikon 50mm f/1.4G and from there I would get an 85mm then a wide 24 or 35 and round it out with a 70-200.
Do you buy cameras used?
Yes I do. I recently bought a new camera body and by using a private seller was able to save %30 on a camera that was less than a month old (still under warranty!). Money you save on cameras and lenses can be spent on lights and plane tickets.
I know that this post won't answer everyone's questions but it is a start. You can always email me if you have specific questions, I love talking about this stuff and welcome debate.