With that in mind, here are some practical suggestions to guide your process.
Buy the biggest camera that you'll actually use. Photography is a series of compromises, and larger cameras will typically have better controls, more features, and larger image sensors. So the bigger the camera, the better the results – but only if you have it with you. A monster SLR with exotic lenses is useless if it's sitting at home, while a mediocre cell phone camera might be worth a fortune if the right celebrity stumbles out of a bar in the early hours of the morning.
The way a camera feels is very important. Try them out in person sooner rather than later: there's no point reading every review ever written only to discover that the grip is too small or too big. If you're fortunate enough to have a good camera store in your area, find a salesperson who can show you the different models and provide useful guidance. Needless to say, when it's time to buy you should return the favour and support them even if it costs a few dollars more.
Be realistic about the relationship between cost, features, and quality and you won't be disappointed at any price. Some people won't want to spend more than $100 on a camera, while others use tripods that cost ten times that much. But as a general guide, expect to pay a couple hundred dollars for any compact camera that's worth having, and add a hundred more for features like a really long zoom lens or waterproofing.
Entry-level SLRs generally start around five hundred dollars, and the smaller Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Format cameras can be a bit cheaper than that. On the higher end of the range, cameras can easily cost thousands fo dollars, or tens of thousands – but unless you know exactly why these are better then the differences between those and a good entry-level camera will hardly matter. It's not that the differences aren't important, but they're only really important to very few people. The effect of diminishing returns is very strong.
It makes sense to use the same brand as the people you know. Whether it's the ability to borrow equipment or share knowledge, there's strength in numbers. This is about the only time the long-running "Canon or Nikon" rivalry will actually matter for anyone who's just starting out.
With luck this should be enough to narrow down the market to only a few models. If you like one of them enough to go ahead and buy it, great. If not, or if you know you'll want to build a system instead of just buying a camera, there are a few more things to think about. I look at that in Part Two.
Matthew Robertson writes for the popular website `thewsreviews, and pays the bills by working part-time in a camera store. When he's not actively working with cameras, he's usually reading about them.