Holiday Buyers Guide 2006: DSLR Cameras

Single-lens reflex cameras were a hugely important innovation upon their release. It provided photographers with the ability to view their subjects directly through the lens. This was different from previous cameras that often used a separate viewfinder that didn’t see exactly what the lens was viewing.

The proliferation of these new SLR cameras offered a reasonable method of avoiding the motion parallax, the bane of many would-be-photogs. Also, because of the wider apertures of SLR lenses, pictures can be shot in lower light settings with no flash. This allows for pictures with better ambiance.

As 35mm wanes into specialized oblivion, it’s no surprise that we’re now beginning to see a significant number of digital SLR cameras. DSLRs offer the same advantages as their 35mm brethren, except they contain things like CMOS sensors and rather than storing their infinite-pixel pictures on film, pixelated images are stored on increasingly infinite flash cards.

So what does this mean for you? Well until recently it didn’t mean much. DSLRs previously cost inordinate gobs of cash that typically required the selling of organs and/or your first born. Now, however, DSLRs are cheaper than ever. Prices range from about $600 into the several thousands of dollars, but most people can suffice with sub-$1500 models.

When I set out to do this piece, I had ambitions to do a huge sprawling expose on about 10 different SLRs. The idea was to consider models from every class and compare them against each other in terms of performance and value. I had wanted to settle upon a clear victor from all levels: entry, mid and high. However, the field of battle quickly became disordered — there aren’t that many pro-sumer grade DSLR cameras out there, friends. It’s either a $10,000 journalist’s special or a $100 1-megapixel beast. Finding a happy medium became our goal, and many of these cameras performed admirably.

Nikon D40

Product Page:
$600 with lens

The D40 is a peculiar animal. Not only is it Nikon’s newest addition to its DSLR line, it is perhaps the most mainstream DSLR made to date, teetering somewhere on that lucrative boundary between consumer and pro-sumer. Like all DSLRs, the D40 offers many features that are alien to lesser point-and-shoot cameras.

The kit includes a basic lens, the AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 15-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED II. The lens is essentially the main limitation of the camera. Fortunately, since it utilizes the Nikon F Mount, so there are about a bazillion AF-S and AF-I lenses that’ll work with it.

As far as DSLRs go, this one is relatively small, weighing in at just about 1-pound and measuring 126 x 94 x 64-millimeters. The body is molded from plastic, but it doesn’t feel flimsy at all.

While it doesn’t have the 11-AF points that its older brother the D80 has, it racks in three points that get the job done nicely. It can accommodate ISO 200 – 1600 and ISO 3200 in high mode.

One thing its notably lacking is a status LCD on top. But the 2.5-inch rear LCD projects crisp images and manages to stand-up nicely in directly light. It can, however, sometimes be tedious having to adjust everything through the rear LCD.

Overall I enjoyed shooting with this camera. Although its 2.5fps were often too slow for me, I doubt that will register as a problem for its target demographic. And speaking of registers, the D40 costs just $600 with a lens, making it the most consumer friendly DSLR currently up for grabs.

Canon Digital Rebel XTi

Canon USA

The Canon Digital Rebel is probably the best known – and most popular – DSLR on the market. While we’re usually fairly skeptical when it comes to popular electronics, the Rebel has earned its stripes as one of the best entry-level cameras ever made.

New parents and budding shutterbugs take note: the XTi kit, complete with standard lens and body, is one of the best investments you can make. This 10-megapixel shooter is designed for ease-of-use and fun. It’s not portable, so if you’re used to pocketing your digicam you might want to look elsewhere. Otherwise, there are tens of thousands of happy Rebel owners out there who can corroborate our undying praise.

Should you consider the Rebel over any of the other ones in this round-up? No. It has some minor issues that the shutter heads don’t like including shutter speed overal write speeds, but this is nitpicking. The real question is this: am I ready to upgrade or am I happy with point and shoots? After answering this question, give the XTi a try. You might even change your mind.

Nikon D80

Product Page: D80
Price: $1000 for body or $1300 with lens

The D80 is the new hotness as far as prosumer DSLRs go. Sporting a 10.75-megapixel sensor, it’s got roughly two megapixels on the Canon EOS 30D. But megapixels aren’t everything.

Fortunately for Nikon, the D80 shines in all other categories. Pictures are some of the most bright and vibrant I’ve seen from any camera in the class.

Like its younger D40 brother, the D80 uses Nikon F Mount lenses, so you can draw from that same expansive lens collection. As I mentioned above, the rig features an unparalleled 11-AF points and they do a lot to improve your picture shooting experience.

As per the DSLR standard, it supports ISO 100 – 1600 and boosts up to 3200. And it can log 3fps when shooting continuously, so it’s definitely more inclined for fast action than the D40.

It has seven presets, but I suspect most users will want to adjust things manually. So if that’s your bag, you’re in luck, because everything on the D80 is adjustable.

One thing I didn’t like is the fact that it uses SD cards instead of CF. Having used CF for quite sometime, I have a whole stash of them. It’s rather irritating being forced to change, but I guess this is considered an upgrade.

With a mass of just 1.3-pounds, it weighs a bit less than the 30D. Granted it’s not much, but after holding it all day, you’ll appreciate reduced weight.

The D80 has been on the market since September, but Canon is looking to usurp it soon with the EOS-40D. Nevertheless, the D80 can be had now for $1000 for the camera body only, or for $1300 with an AD-S DX 18-135mm f/3.5-4.5G IF-ED kit lens.

Canon EOS-30D

Product Page: EOS-30D
Price: About $1000 for the body and $1399 with lens

I’ve been shooting with this camera for quite some time now and it’s never let me down.

Housed in a sturdy metal body, the 30D feels as if it could go to war. I’ve bashed the camera against all sorts of baddies and it’s always come up kickin’.

Sadly, it’s beginning to find itself long in the tooth when compared to younger competitors like the Nikon D80. That’s not to say it’s a slouch though. The 30D has an 8.2-megapixel sensor which is more more than sufficient.

Pictures are pretty and reasonably bright, but when compared to the D80, it lacks some vibrancy. It has nine AF points for your focusing pleasure.

The 30D uses interchangeable EF and EF-S series lenses which gives it access to the most expansive lens collection in photography.

Like many digital cameras, the 30D uses CompactFlash cards in either Type I or II flavors. It also supports microdrives, but given their slow access times, I’d generally recommend against them.

Like all the other cameras we’ve seen, the 30D has an ISO range of 100 – 3200. It also scores the highest in terms of picture speed, with five frames per second. This makes it more suitable for sporting events than any of the other cameras we’ve considered.

Although I love my Canon EOS 30D, I can’t recommend it above the Nikon D80. Given the bevy of features the D80 offers above and beyond the 30D, and the fact that it costs costs $1399 with lens, $100 more than the D80, Nikon is undoubtedly the way to go.

When given the option, I’d almost always recommend going with the camera body sans lens. The stock lenses are typically sub par and you can often get something significantly better for not too much more than the body plus lens kit costs. This also gives you the ability to find a lens specific to your needs.

The other thing you’re definitely going to need is a nice bag. I currently use The Sinking Barge from Crumpler Bags. It can hold my camera and two lenses as well as my Powerbook and all of my other effects. It’s the most versatile camera bag I’ve yet encountered. The huge advantage it holds over other packs in its league is that it’s not huge. It’s only a bit more unsightly than a regular backpack and because of that it’s easy to tote around. I’m able to carry it on planes easily and have had much luck with it in general.

Other than that you should be good to go. You will, of course, acquire more gear as your photography expands so don’t feel the need to run out and buy everything right away. Chances are you’ll get things you don’t need. The best bet is to give it some time and let your abilities dictate your gear requirements.