If it's versatility you want when it comes to taking pictures, a digital SLR (DSLR) is the best choice. A modern DSLR camera offers the perfect blend of advanced functionality and user simplicity. Sure, they're packed to the rafters with features and functions to help you take great images, but these are typically hidden behind a user-friendly interface that you'll quickly become accustomed to.
A DSLR typically falls into one of two categories: those with a cropped sensor and those with a full-frame sensor. Models aimed at beginners and enthusiasts usually have cropped sensors, while full-frame models are largely the preserve of models for the serious amateur and professional user.
While the term 'cropped sensor' may sound rather dramatic it does, in fact, simply refer to the fact that the sensor is smaller than the dimensions of a 35mm frame of film (remember that?!). In practical terms, a DSLR with a cropped sensor will, in turn, have a magnification factor. This needs to be taken into acount whenever you buy additional lenses – one of the great benefits of owning a DSLR. A Sony Alpha 350, for example, has a 1.5x magnification factor, which means that the focal length of any lens you attach to the camera body has to be multiplied by 1.5x to give you a full-frame equivalent. So, an 18-70mm used on this camera is actually giving you the same field of view as a 27-105mm lens on a full-frame camera. Some lenses made by both manufacturers and independent manufacturers are designed specifically for cropped sensor cameras and so won't work on a full frame model.
The more pixels a DSLR offers, the larger the print you can make. But don't be a slave to megapixels when choosing a DSLR for your needs. A model with 10-megapixels, for, example, will comfortably produce an A3-sized print so it's worth asking yourself just how big you want to reproduce your shots – and whether you have the means to do it. It's far better to buy higher quality lenses as these, ultimately, dictate the quality of the final image.
So what features should be on your wishlist? Most DSLRs are so well specified that you won't be left short changed regardless of your budget. Spend as little as £300 and you'll get a plethora of exposure and metering modes, coupled to an advanced autofocusing system. Useful extras include some form of in-camera dust reduction to reduce the chances of black spots blighting your images, and image stabilisation to reduce camera shake which, depending on the model you choose, will either be in-camera or through the use of specific lens. Live View, which turns the rear LCD into a compact-style viewfinder, is also handy as is a built-in flash for occasional use indoors.
Ultimately, however, your choice should be made not only on feature sets, but also how the camera feels in your hand and how intuitive you find the layout and button functionality. The best way to do this is to go to a camera dealer for a hands-on demo. So, get your shortlist drawn up and hit the shops!