First of all, there is a lot of hype and emotion about whether Canon or Nikon is better. We have chosen to become a Canon shop, so that is what our recommendations will be based upon, but either brand will serve you well. When it all comes down to it, it is the person behind the lens that makes the difference - not the brand of the camera.
For enthusiasts starting out with a new DSLR to mid-level skilled amateur photographers, we recommend the Canon EOS Rebel T2i 18 MP APS-C Digital SLR Camera (Body Only) . You may ask why not the Canon EOS Rebel T3i ? We do not feel the extra $125-150.00 is worth the flip-out view screen unless you intend to shoot hours of HD video.
We do not recommend buying the 'kit' lenses that come packaged with either camera body. Instead, we recommend buying the 50mm lens listed below. The lens quality is much better than the kit lenses, and it will be transferable to larger camera bodies as you progress in skill.
The General Use Lens - Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Camera Lens
This general use lens will cost you about the same or a slight bit more than the 'kit' lens that comes with the camera. This is the first lens that we would recommend to you for immediate purchase. It is of much higher quality, and allows photographs to be taken in much lower light. Your ability to create images with backgrounds either in crystal clear clarity or in a beautiful blur while your subjects are in full focus is enhanced with this lens. It is a 'manual' zoom lens - in other words - you have to get up on your feet and move to zoom in or out. This lens will be transferable to full-frame DSLR bodies.
The next two lenses, we would only suggest buying after you feel accomplished with your Canon EF 50mm lens. The move up in price considerably, but are well worth the extra money for the glass that you receive.
The Landscape Lens - Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM Ultra Wide Angle Zoom Lens
This lens is what we consider one of the most important lenses in Canon's lineup for a landscape photographer. The Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L II USM is the new standard for professional and serious amateurs. Vignetting is somewhat identifiable for full-frame users in the corners at 16mm and f/2.8, but for medium format camera bodies (like the T2i) it is highly unnoticeable.
The Candid Portrait / Sports / Wildlife Lens - Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Telephoto Zoom Lens
This lens can fill a book with its uses. Some may feel this is a long focal length for portraits but it works great for candid portraits in low light action situations or tight, crisp head shots. Events usually occur in low light venues and the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II USM lens is a great event or sports lens (usually best on large field sports events like soccer, baseball, etc.). The serious wildlife photographer will probably go for a longer focal length Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS USM Telephoto Zoom Lens , but the Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8 L IS II USM lens works great if the subject is relatively close or a larger bodied animal. If you pair this lens with the Canon EF 1.4X II Extender on a Canon T2i body, you get that extra reach the wildlife photographer is looking for. We consider this a core piece in our arsenal.
OK - The Tax Return Was REALLY BIG Gear:
It's always nice to dream, right?! Here is what we would do if our tax return was REALLY, REALLY big!
Canon EOS 1D Mark IV 16.1 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 3-Inch LCD and 1080p HD Video (Body Only)
Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Ultra Wide Tilt-Shift Lens for Canon Digital SLR Cameras
Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Super Telephoto Lens for Canon Digital SLR Cameras
Suggested Place to Buy Your Camera Gear:
Personally, we have bought the majority our gear at Amazon.com. They are trust-worthy, competitive pricing, easy to work with including returns, and have never caused us to rethink our recommended place of purchase. If you do purchase from Amazon.com using one of the links above, we do get a small referral fee. It's not a lot, but it is always appreciated and it's the law that we tell you. And besides, we are pretty sure the Tilt Shift lens is not going to show up in our PO Box any day soon?!
Most Importantly - Learn How to Use your Camera!
That's the most important purchase advice we could give. Regardless of what you buy for camera gear, learn how to use your camera. Take online classes, read books, or take time with a mentor photographer to learn your camera, its settings, and good technique. Top-of-the-line gear is only as good as the photographer behind the lens.
So, we'll See You Behind the Lens...