I won't spend a long time getting to the core of this question - in fact, I'll jump right at it: The best camera is the one you have on you in the moment. It's a cliché statement most photographers make to a new shooter dipping their toes into the hobby. However, it's an important one to remember, if only because technique matters more than equipment majority of the time. A great camera in inexperienced hands is not likely to produce beautiful photos. On the opposite end of that spectrum, a basic iPhone in the hands of a skilled photographer can produce amazing results, in spite of its limitations. That's why before you spend a lot of time worrying about gear, you should first learn about technique and composition, which I'll cover in another topic... But now, on to the gear wars!
There are many questions one must first answer about their needs before anyone can make a camera recommendation. For someone looking to take occasional photos with the goals of social media and small prints, smartphones do just fine. Point and Shoot cameras like the Nikon A900 are great options for a dedicated camera with more power and performance than a smartphone, but manage to still be lightweight, portable, and easy to use for any skill level. However, just like smartphone cameras, point and shoot systems have fixed lenses. While they do offer optical zooms and some come in "superzoom" categories, these lenses cannot be changed out later for different shooting needs. The cameras also lack many features that more advanced photographers enjoy, or that an spiring amateur may want later. Many lack full manual modes and few that I have seen will allow you to save to RAW image formats, which is an image that has not been compressed and modified by the camera. This can be especially important if you're wishing to touch the photos up later or are wanting to learn how to down the line.
They are great, however, for portability and ease of use. Anyone whose ever used a camera, film or digital, can operate one. That makes it easier for family events where multiple people may use the camera or you may want someone to take photos for you. They are the basic film camera evolved for our digital era, and they've come a long way!
Next, there are the tried and true Digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR). These camera types are where most advanced shooters and professionals tend to find themselves. However, for an eager amateur who is committed to learning, they can be cheap and easy to find, especially in the pre-owned market. I shoot with a Nikon D750 DSLR which is a full-frame sensor camera, meaning it replicates 35mm film style cameras in digital format. The advantages of DSLR's are pretty numerous over simple P&S systems as mentioned above. Their lenses are interchangeable to start, giving you much more control over your focal length, aperture size, and depth of field. The sensors, the objects that produce the digital photos, are often of higher quality and feature better dynamic ranges than simple P&S systems, and are much better than smartphones. More control means more options, too. Many semi-pro and pro-range DSLR's feature multiple memory card slots, which can be set to save different types of image outputs, and they offer full manual modes and RAW image saving. They also have multiple rockers or sliders on the grips to allow you to control the aperture and shutter speed simultaneously without pressing any buttons or moving the viewfinder from your eye, and most view finders have real time digital outputs showing the exposure, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
What they make up for in features they also gain in weight. Unlike your iPhone or the above-mentioned A900, these are not going to fit easily in pockets or purses. Depending on your sensor type, which I'll touch on later, lenses can be pretty bulky and heavy themselves. When I shoot portraits on my D750 I often use a 150-600mm lens, which weighs in at 1,930 grams, and that's just the lens itself... By comparison, a 15 inch Macbook Pro weighs 1,369 grams. My lens weighs more than an entire laptop! That's a lot to lug around if all you want to do is shoot occasional family photos and birthday parties. It's certainly on the extreme end, but even lighter lenses still weigh more than most P&S cameras or smartphones. And this doesn't even include the actual camera's body weight.
They're also bulky. I love my DSLR and I, like most old people, am set in my ways. I can't help but love the sound of my mirror actuating when I capture a shot. But that noise comes with some added space in the body, where the mirror and its mechanisms are set up in front of the sensor, and must lift to allow light into the sensor to produce and store the image. These dimension gains further add to the limitations of a DSLR being a family-friendly camera you can just toss into a bag.
Next is Mirrorless Digital Cameras. Mirrorless cameras are not so much a new technology anymore as much as they are an unadopted one. Yet. The leader by far in this game is Sony with products like the above pictured Sony A9 Digital Camera. Similar to many DSLR's, it's equipped with a full-frame sensor replicating 35mm film in digital format. It's feature packed and has what is called an Electronic View Finder, which replaces the pentaprism system DSLR's use, thus eliminating the need for a mirror. They also show realtime results of what the sensor is seeing and producing, eliminating some of the guesswork in the shooting process. They're also lighter, with the A9 being outfitted similarly to my D750, yet it comes in at just 673 grams, compared to 750 grams. When you're shooting for several hours at a time, these weights can actually add up. They are stylish and high-performance oriented, with many of the early limitations they had being all but eliminated from the newer builds. They're arguably the future of professional photography, even if that makes some of us old timers a little crabby. (WE LIKE OUR NOISE, OKAY?!)
Where they are an obvious detractor is cost. Where my D750, which has now been out for a few years, can be had for almost $1,400, with a kit lens, and was only roughly $2,200 new... The Sony A9 starts at just under $4,500. Add a lens kit, and you easily shoot past $6,000 due to Sony's high quality and high price tag lenses. The prohibitive cost may make you want to wait or shoot for older/cheaper models... Or keep an eye on the pre-owned market.
Another limitation to Mirrorless Digital Cameras is that there is not a lot of competition in the field. That's changing, with both Nikon and Canon unveiling their own entries to the Mirrorless markets. But the pricing is probably set to stay prohibitively high for average shooters for quite some time.
So we've talked about gear... But that doesn't explain what a person should buy. After all there's so many choices and everyone has a favourite brand and style. Where can I turn to decide?!
It ultimately boils down to you, the shooter, to determine your needs. As I stated above, if your goals are to get better shots of simple family moments and events, and you're not wanting to get technical... Consider a high-end point and shoot. They offer more than enough power and with some composition and technique training, they truly can produce beautiful photos. You won't break bank on the camera and you can still feel proud of the moments you're sharing with family and friends.
If you are looking to expand beyond basic shooting and wanting to get into creative works and amateur or professional photography, you may want to look at DSLR's. Many good bodies can be had cheap from all major manufactures, but especially Nikon and Canon. If you have tolerance for pre-owned gear, you can even get high end equipment that is a couple model years old at modestly discounted rates, and because it's pro gear usually its been cared for and is extremely durable to boot.
DSLR's offer more choice and range in products and can be better suited to a growing amateur and aspiring professional. One of the biggest thing to think about is the sensor you might choose. Is the bulkiness and cost of a full-frame worth it? Unless you're shooting landscapes or astrophotography, the answer is probably no. And if you're wanting to add telephoto lenses to the mix for wildlife or portraits, a full-frame will be both heavier and more expensive. APS-C cropped sensors are the most common and are cost effective, lighter on their lens sizes, and easy to grow with. They can't capture as much of the entire scene as Full-Frame will, but for most people that's probably not an issue.
Micro Four-Thirds (M4/3) is another sensor option worth considering. Slightly smaller than APS-C, they can be more compact and get better zoom on telephoto lenses. They produce beautiful photos and it's worth mentioning that both Olympus and Panasonic make several great cameras. It's an option worth checking out, even if it is less common than APS-C and Full-Frame. The same general rules all apply to Mirrorless, as well, and I'll avoid a second category for that. They're also great for video because the smaller sensor size doesn't overheat nearly as easy as a Full-Frame sensors do.
The last thing to consider is lenses, or what you may commonly hear referred to as glass. High quality glass, regardless of the camera, is where a lot of the magic happens. Quality lenses will produce great photos on old bodies and continue to do so on newer ones. When getting into DSLR's or Mirrorless cameras, it's worth it to buy high quality, well reviewed, well trusted glass. These items will likely be with you for years to come, even as bodies cycle out and retire. Always put strong emphasis on researching lenses and don't chase good money after bad. If you can't afford the lens you want, wait until you can rather than settling for less. It's also worth noting that many older lenses, including manual ones, are great keeps to have and may serve you for years or decades down the line!
At the end of the day, photography should be cathartic and fun for the shooter. If you're considering coming into the realm of photography, welcome! Be ready to learn a lot. Remember to share your images and ask for feedback if you're wanting to grow. You'll learn a lot in your journey and you'll be very proud of the clear evolution in your artworks. You've chosen a challenging hobby that has a lot of contenders... So do everything you can to stand out! Remember to have fun and be unique!
I'll see you out there.