I was all fired up to get Canon's Digital Rebel, until I learned that the current model would probably be replaced in a few months. I'm glad I did, because it led me to look around a bit more. Eventually, I stumbled upon a name from the age of film - Pentax - which came late to the field of digital photography, but has brought a fair bit of innovation with them. Most photojournalists would not even consider them, as the media tends to buy only Canon and Nikon gear for their pools - but I'm not trying to get a staff job. :-)
There are many, many reviews out there comparing and contrasting the cameras on offer from Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and various other manufacturers. I read a lot of the current crop. After considering all the options for a week or so, I felt the Pentax K10D offered the best value for money for the amount I was willing to spend - in build quality, photographic features and lens selection - so I decided to buy it. There were many factors involved - the in-body stabilization, which would let me buy cheaper high-quality lenses without inbuilt stabilization and still expect reasonable results, the dust-cleaning sensor, the weatherproofing . . . most of all the fact that it offered all of these well below $1000, while other companies reserved them for models costing $1500 or more. They also offer the K100D Super, a 6MP version, but I felt it was worth the extra money to get the camera with more professional features.
That was just the camera body, though - I needed a lens to go on the front. Indeed, since it was an SLR, to do it justice I really needed several lenses. All lenses make compromises in one way or another, but one lens that tries to do it all (as you get on a compact camera) will be too heavy and have problems in other areas. In the end, I bought three:
My "main" lens is the Sigma 18-50mm f/2.8 Macro. This costs almost $400 with shipping - a lot more than the kit lens or cheaper zooms from Pentax - but from the reviews I've seen, it appears to be worth it. If I had got a Canon camera, I would probably have gone with the Tamron instead, because it is reportedly slightly sharper, but this will do nicely.
I wanted a prime lens, too - something small, that would not be awkward to run around with, but which would get good images - better than the zoom lens could get. That turned out to be the Pentax 40mm f/2.8 "Limited". To be honest I was virtually sold when I saw what it looked like (with the hood) - it's just so titchy, and I'm a sucker for green. The price is also quite reasonable, and while the equivalent 60mm size is an "odd" perspective, it should fit the full-body shots I often take quite well. I agree with one review which suggested Pentax made it to see if they could rather than having a great reason to; but I'm glad they did.
Of course, this left me with something of a hole in the telephoto end. I don't plan to be standing a long distance away from most of my subjects, but it'll probably happen sooner or later, and I'd be kicking myself if I didn't have something for it. I ended up going for the Pentax 50-200mm f/4-5.6, because the combination of size, weight and value was simply too good to pass up. A $100 rebate means I spent $130 on a flexible zoom that should provide some great images. It's not the perfect lens, but then I don't imagine I'll need it all that often - and when I do, I'll have it with me, rather than have left it at home because it was too heavy.
This last lens is relatively "slow" (high-valued aperture), so I would prefer to use it with a tripod. Fortunately I already have one. The two wider lenses are fast, but not super-fast, which means I may have trouble in lower light. I am hoping that the inbuilt shake reduction will help sufficiently when photographing in reasonable light, and that the flash will deal with the other situations - when I want a sharp picture of a dancing fursuiter, say. If I find I need more light without flash, I intend to get Pentax's 50mm f/1.4, which is generally considered to be great value. This was another reason to go Pentax rather than Canon - good lenses are cheaper, and although there's not quite the same selection out there, I don't really need a 50mm f/1.2 at $1350.
And now, the lens I didn't get, but was sorely tempted by - the Pentax 10-17mm f/3.5-4.54 Fisheye. I had to admit to myself that I didn't want this for any real reason other than being able to take really cool wide-angle pictures. $400 was too much for that, initially. I could have got a $100 rebate on it, but that would have stopped me getting another rebate. It is a good piece of equipment and I may buy it in the future - just not right now.
Last, but not least - lighting. The camera comes with a flash, but my experience of camera flashes is that they are seldom sufficient for everything you want to do. The K10D also lacks a red autofocus assist beam - it strobes the main flash instead, which I know can get annoying. In the end I decided to bite the bullet and get Pentax's top-of-the-line flash, the AF540FGZ, rather than settle for the 360. This is the one area which I felt uncomfortable spending as much as I did, but I suspect I will be glad of it eventually. It's twice as powerful as the 360 (eight times more than the inbuilt flash), and offers far more in the way of tilt, bounce and swivel options. The $100 rebate lessened the pain.
As for accessories, I bought the battery grip because it makes it easier to handle the camera and stores both an extra battery and an SD card, and the remote control, because it fits nicely in the battery grip, and I know I'll want to be in the picture sooner or later. Oh, and a SanDisk Extreme III 2Gb, since I didn't want to hamstring my fast camera with a slow storage device.
To carry this all around, I got the Lowepro CompuDaypack, since I like to take my laptop with me as well. Lowepro is one of the best names in camera bags, so I'm reasonably sure the padding will be sufficient. It fits my new MP3 player, too, and doesn't look like it has $$$$ of equipment in, which might help avoid it getting stolen. Because a backpack is hard to access while walking around, I got their shoulder bag as well. It probably won't fit a longer zoom lens, but should work nicely for the shorter ones.
All in all, it comes to a shade over $2000 after rebate; not exactly change, but I'm happy to spend it, because it's what I need to do the job. I could have gone cheaper, but I think I would have regretted it sooner rather than later. While the equipment above is hardly the best in the world, it's about as good as I can do without spending three times as much, and it should serve me well for several years to come. Hopefully the pictures I take will be worth it, for myself and the subjects. :-)
(And if any of you are thinking about upgrading, perhaps this has given you a starting point to build your own kit. Don't rely on Amazon for the reviews, though - there are many better sites out there, just search a little. There may also be better places to buy than Amazon - I got most of the expensive stuff from Adorama, as it was slightly cheaper.)