It is my personal belief that if you really want to learn photography, you should get a DSLR. Point and shoots can take lovely pictures but they limit creativity, their sensors are too small to play with depth of field techniques, and they try to do too many things for you.
Things you want in a camera…
The ability to change lenses
Lenses are probably more important than the camera itself. Fast lenses for night shooting and shallow depth of field. Zoom lenses for, well, zooming. Macro lenses for cool close up shots of tiny things. Tilt-shift lenses to make everything look miniature. Wide angle for landscapes. It goes on and on. The ability to change lenses is one of the most powerful creative tools and is something a point and shoot just can’t deliver.
The ability to shoot in raw format
Raw images are essentially digital negatives. They have a wide number of variables that you can change after the fact. You can often save pictures that might otherwise be worthless. You can adjust white balance, exposure, shadows, highlights. The creative possibilities are endless. I highly recommend acquiring and learning Adobe Lightroom to “develop” your images.
Here is an image that started out in rough shape, but I was able to fix due to it being shot in raw format.
Program mode (P)
Program mode is a better “auto” mode. The camera does its best to give you the best settings, but if you don’t like what it chose, you can quickly turn a dial or two and adjust it how you like.
Aperture Priority (Av)
This mode allows you to choose the depth of field you want for the image and then the camera will automatically pick the best shutter speed so you get a proper exposure. Depth of field allows you to get that cool background blur. It can really draw the focus to your subject. Point and shoots have such small sensors, that almost everything in the picture is in focus. Which means you can’t do stuff like this.
Shutter Priority (Tv)
If you want a cool motion blur or you want to stop action, you can adjust the shutter speed and the camera will then pick the best aperture to give you a proper exposure. It is incredibly hard to stop action with a point and shoot.
You can choose both shutter speed and aperture. This is a difficult mode to learn, but you can really take some neat pictures if you master it.
The ability to add an external flash
On camera flashes are terrible. They blow out the subjects and make everything look like they were taken in front of a nuclear blast. Not to mention red-eye and crazy animal laser eyes.
An external flash with a swivel head allows you to angle the light and bounce it off a wall or ceiling. It diffuses the light and allows you to light the subject much more naturally.
Bulb mode and shutter remote
This is for long exposures. You press down the shutter button and it will collect light in the sensor for as long as you wish. If you want to take pictures in the dark, do light painting, or get cool pictures of the stars… this mode is for you. Having a shutter remote allows you to open the shutter without jiggling the camera and causing motion blur. In this image, night time almost looks like day and the cars passing by are turned into streaks of light.
Vital for taking action shots. If something is moving past you at great speed, you want to be able to take as many pictures as fast as possible in order to get the shot.
This is incredibly important for macro photography. Auto focus is great most of the time, but to get a truly sharp focus on small objects, you want to dial it in manually. The detail you can get is pretty incredible.
DSLRs all have these features. Point and shoots can have some of them, but they rarely offer the same kind of control. If a DSLR is absolutely too bulky for you, a micro 4/3 camera might also be an option.
So save up your money. Check ebay and craigslist. If you are serious about learning photography, do whatever it takes to get a DSLR. Even if you have to sell a kidney or valuable bodily fluids.
Once you get the camera, learn how to use it. I have links to some excellent online courses here.
If you want to do some research on different cameras, check out the reviews at Digital Camera Info.
And if you want to learn about all the different lens options, check out The Digital Picture reviews.