I've had extensive experience with Canon since I'm a Canon shooter, but I also shot Nikon a lot since my mentor uses them on occasion. Canons I've shot with are 40D, 50D, 1Ds mark 3, 1D mark 4, 5D mark 2 and 5D mark 3 (I only owned the 50D, 1Ds mark 3 and the 5D mark 3). Nikons I've shot are the D7000, D700, D3X and D800.
*I'd say Canons are more intuitive, easier to navigate their menus. *Canon has the biggest lens selection, and has some really nice glass. That said, you could also use Nikon glass on Canon bodies, (you'd lose AF though), while you can't use Canon glass on Nikon bodies. That said, I'd say the best bang for buck glass available is third party glass, and that's available for both Canon and Nikon. But still, if you care for having only OEM, Canon offers larger selection. *High ISO is a bit of a tie, and usually those two manufacturers keep leapfrogging one another every generation or two. At the moment, in beginner models imo the Canon has a VERY SLIGHT advantage, but that's splitting hairs, and not really something you have to worry about. *Dynamic Range is on Nikon's side, but again, leapfrogging one another *Resolution: yeah, that appears to be a clear winner to Nikon at the moment with the D800, but you have to factor in that you'd need the very best glass to take advantage of this resolution, and that this camera is only suitable for landscapes and studio stuff (I'd personally rather buy a medium format Pentax with a quality lens or two for that kind of money, and it gives better results at base ISO), basically when you're at base ISO, as the DR and quality drops fast when you go at higher ISO. Again, depending on what your style is.
Sony: Ok, I'll be frank, my experience with Sony is very limited, so I can't really talk about them, BUT, everyone I know who uses Sony raves about them. Yes, the lens selection is limited, but honestly, unless you do some specialized stuff, you're probably covered, and if not, you're covered by third party glass. I only handled Sony cameras briefly, but they are very comfortable to hold, and honestly, have the best battery grip ergonomics imo. Sony does however lack a good professional sports and wildlife body, so if that's your thing, you might want to factor that in. The EVF is not my thing, but it does have it's advantages, one of them being what you see is what you get, meaning, you get to see how your photo is gonna look before you take it, exposure and dynamic range wise.
Pentax: Honestly, I'd steer away from Pentax 35mm format, since they currently do not offer a FF solution. You'll never know how far into photography you're gonna get, and if you ever need an FF in the future. If you think you'll never get to FF, that's great, but if you do end up needing one, switching systems is gonna be painful on your pocket, so better safe than sorry.
So, to sum it up...go to the store, pick up a Canon, Nikon and Sony in the price range you like, and play with them a little, see which fits in your hands better, and which has more intuitive menu system for you, see how you like the optical vs electronic VF, and of course, see which one is easier to change basic settings.
"and finally Pentax is a consideration as I've seen some nice quality out of them. Pentax is a maybe, as I am not too hot about the lack of lenses available"
As far as I know all lenses made for/ from Pentax (D)SLRs from the seventies (K-mount) up to know can be used on new DSLR bodies without an adapter. Pentax has a huge lens availability compared to most other brands.
"So, what I want from you, is to maybe mention what you have, why it works, why you like the brand, the ugly side of the brand, just lay out the good, the bad, and the ugly. I'm not looking to name the best camera or the best brand as there is hardly such a thing, it simply comes down to personal preference."
When I bought my DSLR in 2006, I looked at three brands that had models in the entry class price range: Pentax, Canon en Nikon. I chose Nikon simply because it felt better in my hands compared to the other two. I have big hands, so I need a bigger camera. Quality wise, there is no big difference between those brands. Pentax is the only one that doesn't offer a full frame camera yet. My advise therefore is to go to a shop, and feel the cameras. Look through the viewfinder, is the view bright and large enough for your needs? What is the layout like, does it seem logical to you?
Makes sense! I've been meaning to go to a shop and line them up but haven't gotten a chance, I agree the layout and all and that's why I posed this question, I feel none, like you said, are better than the other, it comes down to how I feel about it. Thanks again!
I just got a Nikon D5100 and I love it, the operations are simple enough but they give you a wide range of stuff to do (like the effects mode and stuff). The ISO is a little bit hard to change, but its not too bad. The body is really light, so I have a feeling heavy lenses like a telefoto lens or a large zoom lens might make it front heavy so you'll need a strong tripod. But overall I really like it a lot.
About Nikon vs. Canon, from my experience, Canon is better for action shots, so like sports and high speed stuff, whereas Nikon is great for color and clarity, so if youre shooting landscapes or models. It's a close race, neck and neck for sure, but it really just depends on what you're gonna use it for.