By Ron Eggers
It’s difficult to get a clear picture of what's available in entry-level digital SLR cameras before another generation comes along. There are still considerable differences in feature sets, performance and potential image quality between entry-level models and professional DSLRs, but the resolution gap gets smaller and smaller all the time. All but the least expensive entry-level models have 10-megapixel or larger sensors. Some have resolutions topping 14 megapixels. But resolution doesn’t equal image quality.
The technological advances of the high-end models trickle down to entry-level DSLRs over time, bringing better responsiveness and less shutter lag to the current generation. Focusing is still slower on lower-end models, but again, the performance of the least expensive models is getting closer to that of the mid-range pro cameras.
Entry-level DSLR features such as scene modes, which aren't all that important to professionals, help less experienced shooters get better shots by allowing the photographer to set the type of picture to be taken (e.g. night shot, portrait, action) and having the camera makes all the technical decisions, like aperture size and shutter speed.
Photographers can increase image quality with entry-level models by upgrading the glass. Low-end models frequently come with inexpensive kit lenses. For their price, they're quite good, but no one claims that they match the quality of professional lenses. Sometimes just upgrading a lens can make a noticeable difference in image quality.
Our list of entry-level DSLR cameras is arranged in reverse alphabetical order by company name. I've played with most of the models included here at various trade shows, but I haven't tested them sufficiently to develop strong opinions. The prices quoted here are street prices, which vary considerably from vendor to vendor, sometimes by as much as 40 to 50 percent, so it pays to shop reputable sellers for the best buy.
Sony alpha DSLR-A350
Sony recently introduced a very affordable high-resolution digital camera, the alpha DSLR-A350. Equipped with a a 14.2-megapixel APS-sized CCD imaging sensor, the A350 has the highest resolution of any camera in its class. The new sensor has an expanded dynamic range and minimizes noise more effectively. It can capture up to 2.5 frames per second (fps) in the viewfinder mode and 2 fps in the Live View mode. Live View image preview makes it possible to frame and compose on the camera's large 2.7-inch tiltable LCD. In JPEG mode, the burst will go on until the memory card is filled. You can shoot a burst up to four frames in RAW mode.
The A350 features quick AF response, ISO 100 to 3200, and in-camera Super SteadyShot image stabilization. The built-in image stabilization provides an advantage of two to three stops, enhancing depth of field and significantly reducing camera blur, particularly when shooting in low light situations.
The two-channel data transfer Sony Bionz Image Processor uses hardware-based Large Scale Integrated (LSI) circuitry to enhance images. Image sensor information is divided into 1,200 zones of luminance and RGB color information. Autofocus begins when you raise the camera to your eye rather than with a half-press on the shutter button. The camera also offers a Dynamic Range Optimizer and advanced anti-dust technology.
Like all the Sony alpha DSLRs, it comes equipped with a lens mount that can accommodate Sony, Carl Zeiss and legacy Minolta a-mount lenses. The body alone has a list price of $700. With the 18-70mm lens, the package costs $800. A two-lens bundle adding a 55-200mm zoom is priced at $1,000.
Sigma’s most recent DSLR model is the SD14, which has a 14-megapixel Foveon X3 CMOS image sensor with an actual resolution of 2,652 x 1,768 pixels. The X3 sensor is different than any other sensor on the market. Rather than capturing all pixels on one level, and using a mosaic filter to differentiate colors, the X3 chip is designed in three stacked layers. The wavelengths of red, green and blue penetrate the silicon to different depths, so that separate RGB pixels can be captured at each position. That ensures optimum image quality. There is a Super-High resolution available with the SD14, but that's actually an interpolated resolution.
When shooting at the maximum capture resolution, the SD14 can fire at 3 fps for two seconds. One of the enhancements for the SD14 is the ability to capture JPEG files. The previous model, the SD10, only took RAW images. The new camera is also a little more compact than the previous model. Since it utilizes its own proprietary bayonet lens mount, it ties into the Sigma system. It has a street price of $800 for the body only.
Samsung is marketing the GX-20, which is a close cousin to the Pentax K20D (see below). While it has a slightly different body design, and some modifications to its internal electronics, the new Samsung has many of the same features and capabilities developed by Pentax for the K20D, including a 14.6 megapixel APS-C sized CMOS sensor. It can capture images with a maximum resolution of 4,688 x 3,120 pixels. Like the K20D, the GX-20 handles image processing through the Pentax Real IMage Engine (PRIME) image processor.
The GX-20 can capture both JPEG and RAW files at a maximum rate of 3 fps for up to 9 frames. Its Enhanced Digital Filter provides for a greater dynamic range. It can also be used to add various effects or compensate for missing pixels after a picture has been taken. There are a variety of digital filters, including four types of black and white, three sepia types, 18 different color options, and several other types. It has the standard Pentax lens mount, so all the Pentax DSLR lenses will couple. Samsung also has its own set of Schneider D-Xenon and D-Xenogon lenses. The GX-20 is going for $1,299 with a D-Xenon 18-55mm lens.
Pentax introduced the K20D just before the GX-20 was rolled out. While it has the same 14.6-megapixel CMOS sensor as the Samsung, the K20D's maximum resolution is slightly different, 4,672 x 3,104 pixels. The maximum frame rate is also 3 fps, but it has a longer burst rate. It can shoot continuously for up to 12 seconds for JPEGs or 16 images when shooting RAW. Its expanded dynamic range function makes it possible to gain additional contrast and detail in bright areas of a composition.
Like the Samsung GX-20, it features the PRIME image processor. It also incorporates enhanced noise-reduction technology. There's a new custom image function for adding different finishing touches to an image. They include Bright, Natural, Portrait, Landscape, and Vibrant modes, each with its own gamut radar and fine-tuning adjustments of saturation, hue, contrast, and sharpness.
Its improved dust reduction system features both dust prevention and removal capabilities. The Pentax proprietary Shake Reduction (SR) system makes it possible to pick up an additional stop or two, regardless of which lens is attached to the body. It supports Live View for direct LCD framing. The moisture and dust resistant body makes it possible to keep shooting even in harsh weather conditions. The K20D costs around $1,299 or less for the body only.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10K
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10K is a 10.1-megapixel camera with an articulated LCD that supports full time Live View. Able to write both JPEG and RAW file formats, it can capture images at a maximum resolution of 3,648 x 2,736 pixels at up to 2 fps. With its bayonet-mounted lens, it's part of the Four-Thirds System. It ships as a kit with a Leica-branded 14-50mm f/3.8-5.6 lens D Vario-Elmar lens. Targeted at novice photographers, the L10K is being received better than Panasonic's initial entry into the DSLR market, the Lumix DMC-L1.
With either the kit lens that ships with it, or the lens that shipped with the L1, the newer Lumix utilizes contrast-based autofocus. Other Four Thirds System lenses will fit the body, but the camera switches to phase difference autofocus. Special scene modes include Pet, Food, Baby1, Baby2, Macro, Scene, Sunset, Scenery, Sports, Portrait and Night portrait. One of the things that it can do, that most DSLRs can't, is capture MPEG video. The DMC-L10K's street price is $1,099.
Olympus recently released the E-520, a 10.1-megapixel consumer-oriented DSLR with a Live MOS sensor that's part of the Four Thirds System E-series. It has a maximum pixel resolution of 3,648 x 2,736. Image processing is handled through the camera’s TruePic III Image Processor. Advanced Supersonic Wave Drive image stabilization technology provides blur-free images when using any of the more than 30 digital-specific Zuiko lenses, even at relatively slow shutter speeds.
There are three image stabilization modes. IS-1 is for general shooting. It adjusts the sensor on both the X and Y axes to compensate for camera movement. IS-2 is ideal for capturing action moving horizontally. It preserves the sense of motion while panning with the moving subject. IS-3 lets a photographer hold the camera vertically while panning.
Autofocus Live View brings subjects into sharp focus on the camera's bright LCD. It can shoot at 3.5 fps for up to 8 frames when shooting RAW. It includes sophisticated face detection technology that targets and locks on faces to ensure they are in focus and blur-free for superior portraiture. Shadow adjustment technology opens up detail in the shadows that otherwise might be rendered too dark or underexposed, while still maintaining detail in the highlights. The E-520 has a street price of $599 for the body only.
Nikon's newest entry-level DSLR is the D60, a 10.2-megapixel camera with a CCD sensor and a maximum resolution of 3,872 x 2,592 pixels. Featuring many of the capabilities found in Nikon's mid-range DSLRs, the D60 is quick and responsive. It takes just a fraction of a second to power-up, and it can shoot long bursts. It can capture both JPEG and RAW images at a maximum frame rate of 3 fps with bursts up to 100 JPEG frames.
Exposure modes include Digital Vari-program, Portrait, Landscape, Child, Sports, Close up and Night portrait. It accepts and supports all functions of AF-S and AF-I Nikkor lenses. The D60 includes multiple dust-reduction options, including image sensor cleaning and an airflow control system. There's also a software fix to reduce any dust that occurs on an image by using a dust off reference image.
Image processing includes a variety of retouch options, including Quick Retouch, directly in the camera. Internal NEF (RAW) processing makes it possible to create duplicate images with different photo effects. The D60 also has the capability to create stop-motion movies. It sells for around $660 for the body only.
Canon EOS Rebel XSi
Of this entry-level camera selection, I've had the most experience with the Canon EOS Rebel XSi. (Digital technology has become so ubiquitous that Canon dropped the "Digital" part of the Rebel's name.) I was amazed how well it handled and how responsive it was. It shot like the mid-range professional cameras of just a year or two ago.
The XSi is equipped with a 12.1-megapixel CMOS sensor that has a maximum resolution of 4,272 x 2,848 pixels. It can take capture images at a rate of 3.5 fps in a burst up to 53 for JPEG and 6 for RAW. Canon has incorporated many of the advanced features and capabilities found in its higher-end models, such as white balance bracketing, dioptric eyepiece adjustment correction and exposure compensation. Scene options include Portrait, Landscape, Close-up, Sports and Night Portrait.
Anyone who's previously shot with a Canon DSLR will find the menu structure familiar, and the extra large LCD on the back of the compact body is a real pleasure to work with. While it's not really being targeted at professionals, the XSi would be a good choice to replace an aging 10D or 20D as a back-up body. It sells for $799.
All the DSLRs covered here have their pros and cons. If you're happy with your high-end camera, you'll probably like that company's entry-level model, too.