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Historically the exclusive turf of professionals and serious hobbyists, digital SLRs are fast becoming viable options for casual photographers who want to get deeper into digital photography. At the same time, point-and-shoot cameras are getting smarter, making it easier for amateurs to get better pictures without a lot of effort.

SLR price drop

A few years ago, an entry-level digital SLR with a lens cost around $1,000—beyond the budget of most consumers. Today, that price has dropped dramatically. Nikon recently released the D40, a $600 compact digital SLR with a lens. Analyst Ross Rubin, of NPD believes that we’ll see a $500 SLR within the next year.

The lower prices have opened up the digital SLR market. According to NPD, sales of digital SLRs were up 48 percent from January to August of 2006, compared with the same period the previous year. Also in that same time period, sales of compact digital cameras were up 21 percent.

To make SLRs more attractive to buyers, camera manufacturers are adding features typically found in point-and-shoot cameras—including expanded help screens and program modes for portraits, sports shots, and night shots—to their entry-level SLRs. Nikon’s D50, for example, offers a Child mode for photographing children. Olympus, Panasonic, and Leica offer SLRs that show a live preview of your scene.

The end of the megapixel race

Meanwhile, among point-and-shoots, the megapixel race is still going strong. But the benefit of having all those pixels is increasingly questionable.

“Unless you spend a lot of time cropping your photos and making poster-size prints, there’s really no reason to have a 10-megapixel camera,” says Ben Long, author of Complete Digital Photography (2004; Charles River Media) and a frequent Macworld contributor. The images such cameras capture take up gobs of hard-drive space, are harder to print, and require more processing power to edit. Worse, the 10-megapixel sensors found in many current compact cameras produce images that are noisier than those produced by their lower-megapixel counterparts.

That’s why the race may be nearing an end. “Consumers are starting to realize that having more pixels isn’t the most important criterion [in buying a camera],” Rubin says. Instead of just continually upping pixel counts, manufacturers are making their cameras smarter.

For example, Canon and Nikon both now offer in-camera software that can detect faces in a scene and optimize the focus and exposure appropriately. Nikon and Hewlett-Packard offer camera modes that can automatically detect and eliminate red-eye. And almost every camera manufacturer now offers compact cameras with image stabilization to reduce the incidence of blurred photos. Such technologies let you correct—or even avoid—common image problems without resorting to an image editor.

Buying advice

The upshot: If you’re feeling limited by your compact point-and-shoot camera, you should soon be able to buy an entry-level digital SLR for not much more than you’d pay for an advanced point-and-shoot. These cameras offer the simplicity of automatic modes while giving you access to advanced options such as Raw support and high-quality lenses. Some of the newest models even have a surprisingly compact design.

If you don’t care about editing images and just want something that can fit in your pocket or purse, look for a point-and-shoot camera that’ll correct images for you and has a large LCD screen that’ll let you see your images well enough to edit them. At the moment, you’ll find in-camera image editing on the newest (and more-expensive) point-and-shoots. You may need to wait for camera manufacturers to refresh their camera lines (which typically happens in late spring) for such features to appear in more-affordable models. Whatever you do, don’t spend your money on an expensive 10-megapixel camera unless you frequently make large prints.

[ Kelly Turner is Macworld ’s senior features editor. ]

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