There are so many factors to consider when purchasing your first “serious” camera. Quite frankly, the cameras on the market today are all so competitive that you're unlikely to find a camera that is not capable of producing professional quality photos.
My main advice to you is to stop obsessing about scientific details, and focus more on which camera is more fun for you to shoot. I have been shooting Nikon full-frame cameras (and before Nikon, I shot Canon) for several years. I have shot every camera on the market many many times. But in mid-2015 I sold all my full-frame Nikon gear and switch to the Fuji system. Why? It's much lighter, it has more techy features which I enjoy, and it costs half the price.
What I found is that when I got my Fuji XT1, I looked back several weeks later and found that I'd never picked up my old Nikon since I got the new Fuji. Why? The Nikon was so heavy and such a pain to carry around, that I never found myself bringing it with me. Now I look back through my portfolio since the switch and there are about 10 photos in there that I would never have taken with my Nikon because I never would have brought my camera with me.
So my advice is to pick a camera that (1) Is suitable to your budget, (2) Is a good fit for the type of photography you'll be doing, and (3) Is fun for you to shoot.
If I were buying my first camera today, here are some of the main options I'd consider, along with some things to consider about each one.
Jim's #1 Pick for Your First Serious Camera: Fuji XT10
There is so much to love about the Fuji XT10. The way I've been gushing on Fuji in this article, you may be wondering if they sponsor me. They don't at all.
I love the Fuji system because they have an intuitive system of buttons and dials for helping the photographer to set the exposure in manual or automatic mode in the fastest time possible. It can take some time to getting used to all of the buttons and dials, but once you do, you'll fall in love. I also like the big, bright digital viewfinder in the Fuji cameras.
But the two primary reasons for my love of Fuji are (1) They are extremely lightweight, and (2) the lenses on the Fuji system are top notch.
I think the Fuji XT10 is an excellent choice if you'll be primarily taking pictures of family, doing portraits (including if you're thinking you may want to do it professionally), street photography, travel photography, and landscape photography. There are two areas that I'd caution you against choosing sony: wildlife and sports. Fuji has plans to release a supertelephoto lens but we haven't seen it yet. If you're shooting wildlife or sports, there just aren't great lens options for you yet.
Check out the Fuji XT10 on Amazon to see the current price.
#2: Nikon D3300
No, I'm not a Canon hater. I own a Canon camera still and I think there are many advantages to them. However, in this case I'd pick the Nikon D3300 mostly for the price over the T5i or T6i.
The Nikon D3300 is an excellent first serious camera if you're going to be doing sports photography or wildlife photography. It's also a good choice if you know you want to stick with a traditional DSLR format instead of trying out a mirrorless camera.
Personally, I'd take the XT10 over the Nikon D3300 or Canon Rebel any day of the week, but that's just my personal preference.
Which DSLR is better? Canon or Nikon?
There are many differences between Canon and Nikon. Some of the differences are significant, but almost all are trivial. Having the opportunity to shoot both brands on a regular basis, here are the major differences that I have found between Canon and Nikon cameras.
Benefits of Nikon DSLR Cameras
- Nikon cameras almost always have more focus points. This is a major advantage because it enables you to follow the rule of thirds where Canon cameras often don't have focus points near the third lines–forcing the photographer to focus and recompose.
- Nikon cameras are often slightly less expensive than comparable Canon cameras.
- Slightly larger sensors. Nikon uses a crop sensor that is slightly larger than the comparable Canons. Obviously this isn't true for full frame cameras, which are identical in size between the brands.
- Built-in features. Nikon is often more willing to include features such as timelapse and bracketing into its cameras.
Benefits of Canon DSLR Cameras
- Better color and contrast in RAW files. Many photographers think that RAW files come straight off the sensor without processing, but that is not technically true. Canon RAW photos look more polished when you first look at them on the computer, but please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying Nikon photos look any less colorful or contrasty when finished. I'm only saying they look more polished straight out of the camera when shooting in RAW. If you shoot in JPEG, you'll notice a difference in the color styles, but the final photo will look just as good from one camera as the other.
- More user-friendly UI. The user interface and menu system on Canon cameras has always seemed more intuitive to me than the Nikon system. However, Nikon is working to improve on this front with new GUI features on the D5200.
- Focus motor. There are very few lenses on the market that require the camera to have its own focus motor. Usually the focus motor is found in the lens. However, the popular Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens requires a focus motor and some of the entry-level Nikon DSLRs don't have a focus motor. This means that newer photographers are forced to spend an extra $120 for the 50mm f/1.8G lens to get a focus motor. This is a very minor difference, but since most new photographers will eventually buy this lens, it is something to be aware of. Advantage Canon.
When it really comes down to it, buy whichever brand has the best camera in your price range and then stick with that brand.
Mirrorless or DSLR
I personally believe that all of the top cameras will be mirrorless within the next 5 years, but right now it really just depends on your personal preferences. The mirrorless system has many advantages, but also some drawbacks that haven't yet been overcome.
If I were buying a camera today as my first camera and I didn't fall into a special situation where I needed a very robust lens system from a Canon or Nikon, I'd probably start out with a mirrorless camera since they are generally better connected, easier to use, and less expensive.
I use a mirrorless camera for all of my professional work now.
Should I go full frame?
Good question… one which I have answered extensively in this post.