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Roundup: Entry-level Digital SLRs

By Ron Eggers

Just a few years ago only expensive, high-end digital SLRs had the resolution, speed and creative controls required by professionals. Advanced consumer models, also known as prosumer cameras, didn't have sufficient resolution, lacked the speed required for professional applications and didn't provide the full range of options demanded by professional photographers. Every year the entry-level models seem to conquer the territory only recently left behind by the professional-level cameras: resolution, response time, battery life, advanced controls.

You still hold the advantage with a high-end DSLR, but many of the limitations in less expensive models have disappeared.

Even if you never plan to pick up a DSLR that costs less than $3,000, you should educate yourself about how far the technology of the entry-level DSLR cameras has come. This is the market where many of your affluent to moderate-income clients or potential clients are shopping, and they may be asking you about it.

I've tried several of the camera models covered here, but not all. The ones I tested performed well, but there are a couple of things about shooting with lower-end DSLRs that should be kept in mind. While they've gotten a lot faster, they are still slower than the pro-level cameras. Under optimum conditions, most are able to capture images at 2 to 3 frames per second. Almost all of them can capture RAW images.

In general, the entry-level DSLRs are smaller, lighter-weight and more delicate. Being small and lightweight is good when carrying a camera around for general photography, or having an extra camera body along, just in case. But it's not particularly an advantage for serious work. Most photographers like the feel of a solid piece of equipment in their hands when they're shooting. Construction can also be an issue. The plastic bodies on some of these cameras can get damaged much more easily than the rugged bodies of high-end models. I've had the body of an entry-level model crack when it slipped off of a camera bag.

Mechanical durability is still another issue. For most models, the shutter rating is lower, in some case, much lower, than high-end models. Some high-end DSLRs have a shutter rated at 200,000, even 300,000 frames. The ratings for consumer models are generally a third to half of that. That's understandable, since the prices for these models are generally a quarter to a third of the more expensive models.

The Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi provides a good combination of price and performance. It's particularly responsive for an entry-level camera. I've used one a number of times and would consider it a functional backup body to my Canon system. It has a 10.1-megapixel Canon CMOS sensor with the company's EOS Integrated Cleaning System that automatically cleans the sensor. The XTi's Picture Style technology makes it possible to recreate the characteristics of favorite films, with variations in color, saturation, sharpness and contrast. In addition to the six preset styles for shooting things like landscapes, portraiture and monochrome, there are three additional settings that can be personalized.

One of the improvements to the XTi is the newer, brighter, 2.5-inch LCD monitor. That had been an issue with earlier entry-level Canon DSLRs. The LCDs were difficult to see and the menus were hard to read. Those problems have pretty much been solved with the XTi. The Digital Rebel XTi is fully compatible with over 60 EF and EF-S lenses and a wide range of other Canon EOS accessories. The latest Digital Rebel is priced right at $800.

Nikon D40x

Nikon's entry-level DSLRs are getting better all the time. I shot with the 6-megapixel Nikon D40 quite a bit, and I was surprised with how quick it was ready to go and how fast it could shoot. The Nikon D40x is a higher resolution version of the D40. It's another camera that I've had the chance to test. The major difference is the resolution. The D40x comes with Nikon's high-performance 10.2-effective-megapixel DX-format CCD imaging sensor and the company's image-processing engine for excellent color and precise sharpness. Like the D40, the shutter response and frame rates are very good, particularly for a camera in its price range. It can capture up to 3 frames per second.

The D40x's in-camera image editing capabilities include lighting adjustment, red-eye correction, image trimming, image overlays, warm tone and color balance filter effects. In-camera editing adds a level of creative control without first having to transfer the images to a computer. It's on the market for $799.

Pentax K10D

The Pentax K10D is another example of a very affordable, very functional digital SLR. It's designed around a 10.2-megapixel sensor with built-in Shake Reduction technology. There are a number of things that set this model apart from the company's previous models, most notably, the advanced PRIME image processing engine. It features full 22-bit analog-to-digital conversion. That has a significant impact on the quality of the pictures it can take. I took it on several excursions, and it performed extremely well.

It's particularly good at shooting in low-light situations. It has sophisticated Shake Reduction technology built into the sensor that lets you pick up anywhere from 1 to 3 stops. There's also a dust removal system incorporated into the CCD. At a rated 3 frames per second, it's competitive with other cameras in that price range. It has an 11-point autofocus system as well as a 16-segment meter system. The K10D is the first Pentax DSLR with Lithium Ion rechargeable batteries. An optional power grip is available. I've shot with most Pentax DSLRs. The K10D is my favorite so far. It costs $995, bundled with an 18-55 mm lens.

The Olympus Evolt E-510 comes equipped with a 10-megapixel Live MOS sensor with advanced sensor-shift technology for image stabilization. Built into the body, sensor-shift technology will work with the complete line of Evolt lenses. Besides the sensor-shift technology, it also features a Supersonic Wave Filter, located between the shutter and the image sensor. The filter vibrates silently to shake off dust. The E-510 includes 29 different exposure modes. There are 19 easy to use Scene Select modes, as well as advanced shooting modes. Olympus pioneered Live View capabilities, where images can be framed and previewed on the LCD. I haven't shot with the E-510, but have tried several of the other DSLRs in the Olympus line. The street price is $899.95.

Sony alpha DSLR a100

Sony has also entered the DSLR market. So far, it has only released one body, the Sony alpha DSLR a100, but more bodies and an extensive selection of new lenses are in the works. The company acquired Konica Minolta technology when KM dropped out of the digital camera market. The a100 includes some of the KM technology, such as image stabilization, which has been renamed Super SteadyShot image stabilization. It also has a KM lens mount, so that many of the KM lenses can be used with the body. The a100 has a 10.2-megapixel sensor, a new Bionz image processing engine and its proprietary dynamic range optimizer. I shot with the a100 for a long time, and it came through with flying colors. It's priced at $699.95.

Third in Samsung's digital SLR line is the Samsung GX-10 with a 10.2-megapixel DSLR that can capture up to 3 frames per second. The GX-10 has a high-speed image-processing engine for quality images with minimum electronic noise. It's designed with an 11-point autofocus system and 16-segment multi-pattern metering capabilities. The body has proprietary optical picture stabilization (OPS). Like the other Samsung DSLRs, it has a Pentax KAF lens mount. That means a wide range of lenses is already available for the body. The company is also introducing its own line of Schneider D-Xenon lenses. The GX-10 costs $799. 

Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1K

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1K has a 7.5-megapixel resolution and looks a little different than competing bodies. Its unique mirror system makes it look more like a rangefinder than a single lens reflex camera. The Lumix can take up to 3 frames per second, up to a total of 6 frames. The internal image-processing engine has a significant impact on the quality of pictures that a digital camera can take. Panasonic's DSLR has the Venus III image processing engine, as well as a through-the-lens phase difference detection autofocus system and a sophisticated multi-pattern metering system.

The Lumix also comes equipped with proprietary dust filter technology that reduces dust and other particles on the sensor. It supports live view for LCD image preview and framing. The Lumix uses lenses designed by Leica, one of the leading lens manufacturers in the world. The Lumix DMC-L1K costs $1,499.95, with a 14-50mm optical image stabilization lens.

Whether you're an aspiring pro looking to purchase your first DSLR, shopping for a backup body, or want to know what your clients might have in their own camera bag, it's important to keep up with this growing niche. It's an extremely important market for the camera manufacturers, so expect them to continue to improve the technology, simplify use and push the price boundaries.