To an ordinary person, the summer might mean picnics, swimming pools and trips to the hills. To a photography nut, however, it means longer days of sunlight, brighter subject colours (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 the recent price drops in digital SLR (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 SLRs turn on instantly, can take three shots a second, offer optional manual controls, go for weeks on a battery charge and have zero shutter lag. In short, they’re awesome.
In the last few months, Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Olympus and Sony have each started selling new advanced SLRs. There are cheaper SLRs, but the models below boast of 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 place 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 6 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 such as lens quality and sensor size are far more important.
Here’s what the 10 megapixel camera category has in store for you.
Based on an older Minolta model, this is a very good first foray for Sony. It comes with dust reduction, inbuilt stabilization and a big, comfortable body. It accepts any of the 21 Konica Minolta lenses.
Sony’s electronics geniuses have added some gadgety treats. One is the shake-O-meter inside the viewfinder that tells you just how likely you are to get a blurred photo because of camera instability.
Another innovation is Eye-Start AF, which sets off the autofocus when your eye reaches the eyepiece. That pre-focusing facility means the shot is ready before your finger reaches the shutter button, which is handy. Unfortunately, Eye-Start can also be set off, noisily, by your clothing or leg as you walk.
The flash doesn’t pop up automatically; there is not even a button to pop it up manually. You have to dig it open with your fingernail. Otherwise, the A100 gets an A, 100%; its photos are glorious and vivid.
This is a great camera. 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 won or tied for the 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 officials say 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 labelled AF-S or AF-I.
Finally, this camera’s four-month-old predecessor, the D40, costs much less and has identical photo quality. The “X” model offers 10 megapixels instead of 6 megapixels, three shots a second instead of 2.5, and 10% better battery life. For most people, those are minor differences.
CANON EOS400D DIGITAL REBEL XTI
This popular camera is the smallest in the group. The XTI remains one of the least comfortable SLRs; the grip is sharp and skinny. All digital SLRs take amazing photos, but viewed side-by-side with photos from its competitors, the output from this 2006 model seems a little washed-out and muted.
The XTI has a dust system, but lacks inbuilt 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. An inbuilt stabilizer, in contrast, works with every lens automatically.
Officials of Canon and Nikon, which have the same approach argue, 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 officials 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. Moreover, only lens-based systems show the stabilized image through the viewfinder. Photographers are debating this issue with relish.
This weather-resistant tank of a camera may be in the same price-and-megapixel class as the others here, but it’s not aimed at the same client base. It is a more serious piece of gear.
In some ways, that is good. For example, the K10D 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 pre-configured scene modes such as sports, night-time portrait and so on.
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 such as Photoshop. In other words, the fault lies in the Pentax’s post-shot processing circuitry, not in the lens or the shooter’s ability. That Photoshop step is another reason the K10D is a bargain for semi-pros, but a potentially complicated proposition for amateurs.
(Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org)