There's no real easy answer to your question. I note there is only 1 SLR in your shortlist so I'll offer my advice on that first such as it is. The SLR will give you better overall image quality and you are really starting in the deep end of creative photography with it, but as and when you get better with the camera, you wont really need to make the transition to SLR as you're already there. Nikon do some fine lenses for the D40 (as do Tamron and Sigma to name a few more) but therein lies the downside of the SLR - the cost of good glass. I personally do not use an SLR - I own a Sony H5 and Sony R1. The H7/H9 follow the H5 which was my first proper foray into creative photography.
I note the FZ50 does get panned for image noise/aggressive noise reduction. The S9600 has manual zoom, which is better than the switch my H5 has (R1 is manual and a lot better) and it has a good measure of pixel count compared to sensor size, hence the image quality is pretty good. Note however, no image stabiliser, which isn't the end of the world so long as you get good high ISO performance(as per my R1 so I know what I'm on about).
Neal - it's a difficult Q to answer. All I can say is what I did - I got a good bridge cam and worked my way up and I got the R1 for the lens and image quality without ever needing to buy more lenses. My advice would be the Fuji. Image quality better than FZ50 and probably the Sony's if I'm being honest (even though I'm Sony and always have been). You get good high ISO performance to offset the lack of stabiliser, manual zoom and full photographic control..
Or, get a new R1 (if you are lucky) if not a good second hand one and have the best of both like I do - SLR control and quality without the cost of glass. You can still move on to SLR later if you see fit, as do most people (other than me it would seem).Is your brain pickled with all that?! ..
Ps Neal - the Fuji has a 58mm front thread for filters. Some Sigma lenses have the same front size thread, as do Olympus Zuiko (own make) lenses. Hence if you did plump for an SLR later and had some filters etc, this is one less cost to think about...
Also worth considering your "end use" of the images - if you intend to produce large prints the quality/detail provided by the DSLR will show through. If most of your shots will be on the computer or only printed quite small then the difference between the DSLR & "prosumers" may not be so evident.
North Wales photographs - Snowdonia & Anglesey..
Hi, Neal. it's all about usage and the kind of use you described means that a Fuji 9100 would be ideal for you. Check out the introduction in my "back to the bridge camera" link below. That Fuji may well be the last of it's kind though..
The Nikon DSLR would not be wrong either, but they are not an instant all-in-one fix. Most of us who have DSLRs end up buying expensive additional lenses and accessories. I remember cursing mine one day back in the summer when clambering over rocks and being tempted to change lenses. I think you have to be a certain kind of masochist to get into all that and actually enjoy it..
John.Please visit me at:http://www.pbase.com/johnfr/backtothebridgehttp://www.pbase.com/johnfr/digital_dartmoor..
I'm not really sure about the money part but here goes. The fuji 9600 takes great pics. I have one. If you want to have more control and less auto uses, I agree with whoever suggested the R!. I have one of those also. It has a Carl Zeiss lens and takes awesome pictures without having to change glass.
Very verstile, easy to transport and user friendly. I am ready to go the the Sony a700, buy truly have loved and enjoyed my R1. The compliments on my pictures have come from friends and photographers alike..
Cheers for all you really helpful input on what camera to get, I have decided taking all your advice into consideration to get the s9600 , once again thanks..
Go for the D40. In addition to all the other advantages of a DSLR, it has a wider-angle lens than the others...