Digital S.L.R.’s That Let You Shoot Like a Pro
To an ordinary person, the summer might mean barbecues, baseball games and trips to the beach. To a photography nut, however, it means longer days of sunlight, brighter subject colors (beach balls, bathing suits) and more people who don’t have to be told to “Smile!”
Nothing has turned more ordinary people into shutterbugs than recent price drops in digital S.L.R. (single-lens reflex) cameras. These big, black, interchangeable-lens cameras may not fit in your pocket, and they may scream, “I’m a tourist” when hanging from your neck, but their photos blow those little shirt-pocket cams out of the water. Digital S.L.R.’s turn on instantly, can take three shots per second, offer optional manual controls, go for weeks on a battery charge and have zero shutter lag. In short, they’re awesome.
There are even cheaper S.L.R.’s, but these models have some useful features that justify the price.
For example, most can shake dust off their sensors — dust that may have entered the camera during a lens change, and would otherwise cast a shadowy spot in the same places on every picture.
Three of these five models offer built-in stabilizers, too. Without a tripod, a stabilizer can mean the difference between a blurry shot and a sharp one. Stabilization also lets you get long-range shots without blur.
All of these are 10-megapixel cameras. It’s a shame the camera companies continue to flog this measurement as though it’s important; more than six megapixels adds only negligible sharpness and may introduce random speckles in the photograph, something the pros call “noise.”
You gain some freedom to crop enlargements, but you also fill up your memory card and hard drive faster. Factors like lens quality and sensor size are far more important.
Here’s what the 10-megapixel $800 camera category has in store. Don’t miss the photo samples that accompany this review at nytimes.com/tech.
CANON EOS400D DIGITAL REBEL XTI This popular camera is the smallest of the group; the street price is $670 without a lens, or $740 with an 18- to-55 millimeter starter lens (multiply by 1.5 for the film-camera equivalent).
The Rebel remains one of the least comfortable S.L.R.’s; the grip is sharp and skinny. All digital S.L.R.’s take amazing photos, but viewed side-by-side with photos from its rivals, the output from this 2006 model seems a little washed out and muted.
This model has a dust system, but lacks built-in stabilization. Instead, Canon sells image-stabilized lenses, which means that you have to buy the stabilization mechanism again with each lens you buy. That gets expensive. A built-in stabilizer, by contrast, works with every lens automatically.
Canon and Nikon, which takes the same approach, argue, however, that in-body stabilizers are far less effective, because they can’t be tailored for the focal length of each individual lens. For example, you need more stabilization at long focal lengths (zoomed in) than short ones. Canon and Nikon say that with an in-lens stabilizer, you can make the aperture four stops smaller without changing the shutter speed, versus about two stops on an in-camera system. Furthermore, only lens-based systems show the stabilized image through the viewfinder.
Photographers are debating this issue with relish. At press time, they had not reached a consensus.
NIKON D40X This is a great camera ($650 for the body, $700 with 18-to-55 mm lens). It is fast and extremely comfortable, even though it is among the smallest. The power switch is a ring around the shutter button, so you can flip it on and take a shot —with one finger — in under a second. As you scroll through the menus, helpful sample photos illustrate the effect of each setting.
Above all, the photos either took or tied for first place in every blind comparison test I conducted with laymen.
On the other hand, the D40X is the only camera here with no dust-removal mechanism. Nikon says that its target audience changes lenses so rarely, dust isn’t a big problem. There is no in-camera stabilizer, either. Note, too, that the autofocus works only on about 25 modern Nikon lenses, those labeled AF-S or AF-I.
Finally, this camera’s four-month-old predecessor, the D40, costs almost $200 less and has identical photo quality. The “X” model offers 10 megapixels instead of 6 megapixels, 3 shots per second instead of 2.5, and 10 percent better battery life. For most people, those are minor differences.
PENTAX K10D This weather-resistant tank of a camera ($795, body only) may be in the same price-and-megapixel class as the others here, but it’s not aimed at the same audience. It is a more serious piece of gear.
In some ways, that is good. For example, the 10D is the only camera here with a top-mounted illuminated status screen that shows the battery charge, shots remaining and so on. It offers both dust removal and in-camera stabilization. The big, bright eyepiece viewfinder is sensational.
On the other hand, less-experienced shooters will be disappointed to learn that this is the only camera without preconfigured scene modes like sports and nighttime portraits.
Worst of all, the photos are soft and slightly washed-out — at least at first. You can extract the brilliant shots the Pentax really takes by shooting in RAW mode, an unprocessed format, and then tweaking the results in a program like Photoshop. In other words, the fault lies in the Pentax’s post-shot processing circuitry, not the lens or the shooter’s ability.
That Photoshop step is another reason the 10D is a bargain for semi-pros who may already own and know how to use the software, but a potentially complicated proposition for amateurs.
OLYMPUS E510 Because it is brand new, this model’s street price — $800 for the body, $900 with a 14-to-42 mm lens — has yet to sink to the price level of its rivals. But it offers dust removal, in-camera stabilization, a small and comfortable body and spectacular photos.
The truly radical feature here is Live Preview, which means that you can compose your shot using the back-panel screen, just as you can on little pocket cameras. (Most S.L.R.’s require you to compose shots using the eyepiece viewfinder.)
The screen lets you frame shots that you couldn’t get with the camera pressed to your face. Unfortunately, the camera can’t actually focus in this mode. You can either tap a button for a one-time focusing, or you can just take the picture; the camera will focus and shoot at once. Both options feel awkward, and both limit your ability to get shots in a hurry.
But if you believe that some live preview is better than none, you’ll love this camera.
SONY A100 Based on an older Minolta model, this is a very good first foray for Sony. It comes with dust reduction, built-in stabilization and a big, comfy body ($650 without lens). It accepts any of 21 Konica Minolta lenses.
Sony’s electronics geniuses have added some gadgety treats. One is a meter inside the viewfinder that tells you just how likely you are to get a blurred photo.
Another innovation is Eye Start AF, which sets off the autofocus when your eye reaches the eyepiece. That prefocusing means the shot is ready before your finger reaches the shutter button, which is handy. The A100 gets an A, 100 percent; its photos are glorious and vivid.
With three of these cameras — Nikon D40, Olympus E510, Sony A100 — you can’t lose. Let price, features and your existing lens collection, if any, be your guide. And then get outside while the days are long and the colors bright.