Fuji S100fs. Canon S5IS. If you have time and inclination to shoot Raw & post-process, then Panasonic FZ18.Best Wishes, Ajayhttp://picasaweb.google.com/ajay0612..
Since you asked for best/cheapest I'm going to suggest the Kodak Z712. It has the best high ISO (400-800) performance of any 1/2.5 sensor camera and a 12x optically stabilized lens for your wildlife. It's macro capability is not as extreme as others in the market but you can fill the frame 1 3/4 in. figurine - been there done that. Decent ISO 400-800 is a must for museum work (without flash) and it will also extend the range of the built in flash. It's a bargain new in the $200-230 price range and two days ago had a refurb on there US web site for $170.
My next choice would be the Canon S5. The high ISO performance is not up to the Z712 but it has a hot shoe for external flash. An external flash increases the utility of flash by providing both bounce and extended range. The macro also allows closer focusing than the Z712. I understand that it is available for about $320 in the US. List is about $350..
Finally the FZ50 has the largest sensor of any image stabilized super-zoom and the combination of the large sensor and it's raw capability give it the best high ISO capability with extra work. Downside, it bigger and more expensive than the previous two, ~$500 which is getting close to the price of an entry level DSLR...
Canon 570IS does great photography indoors, and outdoors in most cases. Very low digital noise, by the way... .
If you are looking for something much more fancy - G9http://www.stan-pustylnik.smugmug.com..
A really good P&S or Bridge camera will do most of what you want to do, but not everything..
1. Macros. Any good P&S or Bridge camera will take acceptable macros. Others who have responded have good suggestions in this regard. Be sure to read the reviews on dpreview before you buy anything..
2 and 3. Portraits of people and pets, indoors and out. Again, any good P&S or Bridge camera will do this, but I recommend that you buy a tripod for use indoors in low light. Also, I recommend that you learn how to set a Custom White Balance..
4. Landscapes. No problem for any camera. If landscapes are a priority, try to find a camera with a wide lens..
4 (continued). Wildlife and Nature. This will not be a problem for a good P&S or Bridge camera with a long lens..
5. Museum exhibits. Forget it. I am the director of a museum, and I know the exhibit galleries of many or most museums are too dark for photography using anything less that a top-notch dslr with a very fast lens. This usually requires a tripod, and many or most museums do not permit tripods in the exhibit galleries. Worse, most museums do not permit use of a flash.
5 (continued). Zoo animals. No problem for any good camera except for the fact that animals frequent rest in the shade..
5 (continued). Aquaria and other situations behind glass. This is really tough, but it can be done. Learn how to use your camera and then ask how. That way you will know all the terminology that will be thrown at you..
So, I suggest that you carefully read all the reviews here and at other sites, and that you carefully consider the suggestions that respondents give (being alert to the fact that some suggestions are by fanboys who recommend the camera they happen to use no matter what a person really needs). I have a Canon P&S and a Canon dslr, and I really like Canons. However, there are some other cameras out there that are just as good..
Thanks to everyone for the replies and recommendations, particularly for the more explanatory posts. jchoate, the info you posted was very helpful and I'll bear it all in mind. I guess I should have said for the museums it's primarily science or natural history type museums (unfortunately there are very few art museums where I live) and they seem to have better lighting and frequently allow flash, at least in my experience. I'll take your advice about learning more about my camera first and then trying to learn how to take photos of stuff under glass, though..
Just as a general comment I wanted to say that I didn't post a specific budget because I'm not opposed to spending quite a bit of cash if it's necessary, but if I can take the types of photos I'm after with a $200-400 camera, I don't see the point in spending a whole lot more than that. It seems from most of the suggestions that it shouldn't be a problem to get a cheaper camera. I was wondering about the suggestion of the Fuji S100fs, though; it's so much more expensive than the other cameras listed, would there actually be a point in spending that much? I'd also think at that price point I'd be better off getting an actual DSLR which would offer even more flexibility...?.
Anyhow I'll be looking over all the cameras suggested and trying to make a decision; I still wouldn't mind hearing any more suggestions though if anyone has any. Thanks again to everyone who posted for their help...
Fuji F40 "AND' Panasonic TZ3 come to mind....
Just wanted to clarify, this was meant as a possible 2-camera combo solution-"2 non-DSLRs for different types of photos" as you stated....
The F40 will give you lower noise shots indoors and is a compact.The Fuji F20 is good also as a low light camera if you can find one..
The TZ3 will give you outdoor Wide Angle Landscape and10x zoom in a fairly small package..
There is not a P&S camera that will work as well in varied light as a DSLR. P&S camera's (all of the aforementioned models) use 43, 38, or 25mm square sensors. Compare this to the APS-C sensors in most DSLR which are 330 to 370mm square. You simply have larger pixels which are better able to gather light for a given MP count. ***Image Credit - Wikipedia***.
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That being said, Nikon D40 Kits (APS-C (DX in Nikon Speak)) with a 18-55 lens can be had as factory refurbs from the likes or Adorama or B&H for under $400.00..
Want really low light... get a 50mm f/1.4 or 1.8 lens either now or later for another $100-200 and take pictures in low light that the P&S folks can only dream of..
I have three P&S cameras that I use frequently (Canon, Fuji and Panasonic) but I never reach for them in the conditions you listed..
The D40 Floats about my house in constant use. My 7 year old is the biggest user (she even gets off green mode and understands shutter speed). A simple Gary Fong diffuser *** image credit - garyfong.com ***.
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In front of the pop up flash takes away the nastiness. The thing that none of the cameras will "Automatically" get right in the conditions or situations you mentioned is WB (White Balance) This is what makes photos in incandescent light look yellow/orange, fluorescent=green and mixed... who knows. If you set nothing else on a camera, the ability to set WB easily will make the biggest difference in the color of your shots. Folks will notice bad color long before noise, ca, diffraction, yada, yada, yada....
Point is, get a D40, program the function key to direct access WB, learn how to use it and leave the camera in program mode to do the rest. Want to take a shot of your kids at the ice rink in those funky vapor lamps???.
Turn on Camera, Set WB or better yet in awful mixed light, Take a manual reading (camera does this for you) and then shoot away. You only need to change WB when the lighting next changes. The only mistake you will make is when you forget you set it for incandescent in the living room last night, and then go to take pics of the first day of school in the morning outside and it's all blue. (I did this a lot a first). Eventually it will become second nature and it will be power on, WB, Shooting mode, zoom and shoot..
Any of the Canon, Oly, Pentax or Sony entry DSLRs will do these things too. I just happen to shoot Nikon and know it and stumbled on the Refurb D40s earlier in the day..
What ever you choose... just keep shooting and learn.Cheers..