Last Modified: March 20, 2000.
The short answer is that as long as you choose one of the major brands like Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Pentax, or Olympus (and there are probably others I didn't think of), you'll almost surely be happy.
Most professionals use Canon or Nikon, and I think they're marginally better than the other brands. I happen to use Nikon equipment, but if it magically changed overnight to the equivalent Canon stuff, I'd be perfectly happy.
You'll save some money if you get the other brands, and unless you're planning to abuse your equipment like a professional, you probably won't notice. Besides, Nikon, at least, has a "pro" series (the "F" series) of bodies that are particularly aimed at professionals. They're more expensive and more rugged (and heavy). If you're not planning to drive a truck over your camera body, or use it to stop a bullet in a war zone, the non-professional bodies are perfectly good.
One advantage of going with Canon or Nikon that some people don't think of is that if you want to rent equipment (you want to use the $10000 lens for the weekend, but are not particularly excited about having a $10000 lens gathering dust in your closet the rest of the time), the rental shops tend to have pretty complete sets of Canon and Nikon stuff and it's harder to find gear for the other lines.
I think Canon's EOS lens mount is better, since they designed it from scratch, but Nikon's auto-focus F mount had the design constraint that it had to work with the older lenses. So if you're getting all new stuff, Canon EOS is a good way to go, but if you get Nikon, you'll be able to buy that cheap ancient lens at a swap meet, and it'll almost surely work on your brand-new camera.
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