While today’s point-and-shoot and advanced fixed-lens digital cameras produce excellent image quality at very affordable prices, you’ll need a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera to get high-quality images and to maintain maximum creative control over your shots. DSLRs are analogous to 35mm film cameras, though there are some very critical differences between the two.
Camera manufacturers now recognize that hobbyists and other nonprofessional shooters have become more serious—and more skilled—at producing a wide variety of photographic images and are demanding more-affordable DSLRs to help them do it. While the $1,000 DSLR price barrier was broken several years ago, lower-priced cameras with more-extensive features have been released in the past year. If you’ve thought of switching to a DSLR, considered upgrading from the one you already have, or wondered what all the DSLR hoopla is about, read on to learn the differences between SLR and point-and-shoot cameras and to check out our reviews of five of the newest DSLR models:
Digital Rebel XTi;
You say ‘SLR,’ I say ‘bigger’
stands for single-lens reflex, and a DSLR uses the same mechanism found in the traditional 35mm film cameras that many pros and amateurs have used for more than 100 years. The viewfinder on an SLR is a
through the lens,
or TTL, viewfinder. Thanks to a complex series of mirrors and prisms, when you look through the viewfinder of an SLR, you are looking through the same lens that exposes the sensor. When you press the shutter button, a mirror moves out of the way (this is the reflex part) so that the light passing through the lens illuminates the sensor.
A point-and-shoot camera uses its main lens to expose the sensor and a separate lens for its optical viewfinder. If there is no optical viewfinder, then the main lens illuminates the sensor, and the sensor generates the image that the camera’s LCD screen shows. Though you could argue that an LCD viewfinder is a TTL viewfinder (it is, after all, looking through the same lens that exposes the image), there’s an important difference: in an LCD viewfinder, you’re limited to an image generated by the camera’s sensor, and that sensor is much less sensitive than your eye. Consequently, you may not be able to see dark shadows and other details that would be visible through an optical viewfinder, making informed exposure decisions difficult.
The reflex mechanism—the series of mirrors and prisms—that enables an SLR to use one lens for both the viewfinder and the exposure requires a fair amount of physical space. Therefore, SLRs tend to be bigger than their point-and-shoot counterparts.
This additional space requirement yields an advantage: it allows camera makers to build cameras that have larger sensors. A larger sensor can hold more pixels than a smaller sensor, and those pixels can be
than on a smaller sensor. Larger pixels provide a better signal-to-noise ratio and allow for images that have less noise and better dynamic range.
The other obvious difference between a DSLR and a point-and-shoot is that a DSLR usually provides removable lenses. The ability to swap lenses means that you can select a focal length or quality that’s appropriate to your needs.
Also, a DSLR often has more-advanced features than you’d find on a point-and-shoot: faster burst rates for shooting images in sequence; speedier playback and navigation; the ability to shoot images in the camera’s Raw format; manual modes that afford you a high degree of creative control; and interfaces and control layouts that let you quickly and easily configure parameters while shooting.
How it feels
You shouldn’t buy a DSLR without handling it first. The weight, fit, and feel of different DSLRs vary considerably, and what feels great to one user (or reviewer) might seem bulky and awkward to another. Fortunately, all the cameras in this review are readily available in most camera or electronics stores. When test-driving a DSLR, try to assess how easy and intuitive it is to use the following (you might need to ask a salesperson how to access these features):
This feature, which lets you adjust the exposure measured by a camera’s light meter, is the most common exposure tool that you’ll use, so make sure that it’s easy to access. Ideally, you want an exposure-compensation control that you can use without taking your eye away from the viewfinder.
For optimal color representation, you’ll want speedy access to the camera’s white-balance control, which lets you set the kind of light—for example, outdoor or indoor—you’re shooting in. You’ll also want a camera that provides a manual white-balance option.
These days, even point-and-shoot cameras have adjustable ISOs, which let you make the camera’s sensor more sensitive to light. This ability gives you different creative options, but it does so at the cost of noisier images. However, because DSLRs have larger sensors, you can push the ISO higher on a DSLR than you can on a point-and-shoot. And as the ISO goes higher, you’ll see less noise. Make sure that your camera has a fast and easy way to adjust ISO.
Most cameras provide a program (fully automatic) mode, shutter and aperture priority, a manual mode, and scene modes (sports, sand, and snow, for example). Determine how easy it is to select these modes.
All the cameras in this review have built-in pop-up flashes, as well as hot shoes for adding an external flash. Make sure the camera provides an easy system for changing the flash mode (from fill to automatic to red-eye reduction, for example) and deactivating the flash altogether.
Try to assess how quickly the camera focuses and how well it can focus on subjects in very low-contrast environments. This capability is usually lens-dependent, so make sure that you test this feature with the lens you’re considering buying.
Viewfinder Status Display
Take note of which camera settings are shown inside the camera’s viewfinder. Ideally, you want to know shutter speed, aperture, and exposure compensation. If you can get ISO, bracketing, and shots remaining, that’s even better.
As your photography skills improve, you’ll want to start using more-sophisticated shooting and exposure options. Fortunately, even low-priced DSLRs will include plenty of features that you can grow into. Look for these, specifically the following:
An autobracketing feature will adjust the exposure as you shoot multiple frames, so you can shoot a sequence of images with different exposures. For difficult lighting situations, this can mean the difference between getting and missing the shot.
Multiple Light Meters
Most cameras meter by analyzing lots of points in the scene and then averaging them to come up with an overall recommended exposure. Ideally, you want a camera that provides this type of matrix metering (sometimes called segment metering), as well as center-weight metering (which puts more focus on the center of the frame) and possibly a spot meter. These last two options make handling backlit shots easier.
Like the automatic winder on a film SLR, drive mode lets you shoot a series of frames in quick succession—especially useful when you use autobracketing or shoot dynamic, fast-moving subjects. You’ll want to assess how easy it is to activate this feature, and how speedy the burst rate is.
The histogram shows you a graph of the distribution of tonal values in your scene, and it’s an essential feature for serious exposure work. These days, even point-and-shoot cameras offer histogram displays. When evaluating a DSLR, take note of how easy it is to activate the display, how big a graph it shows, whether it includes highlight-clipping indicators, and whether it offers a three-channel (red, green, and blue) display as an option.
When you look through the viewfinder of a DSLR, the camera’s iris is open all the way to provide as much light as possible. When you choose an aperture smaller than full wide (which is usually the case) and then take a picture, the camera closes down the iris to the size you’ve specified. This often has the result of
the depth of field (the distance at which your subject appears in focus) in your scene. A depth-of-field preview button closes the iris while you look through the viewfinder, allowing you a preview of the scene’s depth of field. As you begin to think creatively about depth of field, this feature can be very helpful.
Shooting in Raw mode (the camera’s digital negative format) offers better image quality and far more editing flexibility than the default JPEG modes on many cameras. (For more information about shooting in Raw mode, see
Weighing the Pros of Raw.)
In addition to assessing a camera’s features, you’ll want to consider its build quality and overall feel. Some cameras simply feel better and make more sense than other cameras. No matter how high its image quality, a camera doesn’t do you any good if you don’t have it with you, so make sure that you select a camera you want to use.Canon Digital Rebel XTiNikon D80Sony Alpha DSLR-A100K
You’ll need a lens to go with your new camera. All the cameras we looked at for this roundup come in kits that include a decent starter lens. These lenses are small and lightweight, produce good-quality images, and offer focal-length ranges of 18mm to 202mm in 35mm terms—that is, wide to telephoto.
There are many factors that make one lens more expensive than another. Pricier lenses have higher-quality glass, which, for a number of reasons, can yield better sharpness and contrast to make a nicer-looking image overall. Higher-quality lenses also often allow for a wider maximum aperture. For example, a 3.5 lens has a maximum aperture of f/3.5, while a 1.8 lens has a maximum aperture of f/1.8. A 1.8 lens is considered faster than a 3.5 lens because it gathers light so quickly that it can operate with a very wide aperture.
Faster lenses allow you to shoot in lower light and let you capture images with a shallower depth of field, offering the promise of greater creative control. However, faster lenses are usually larger and almost always more expensive than slower lenses.
Lenses can be grouped into two categories: zoom lenses, which you’re already used to from your point-and-shoot camera, and prime lenses, which offer one focal length. Prime lenses are generally faster than zoom lenses and often yield better quality than a zoom lens with an equivalent focal length.
Note that on a zoom lens, the maximum aperture often varies depending on the focal length you’ve selected. A zoom lens might have an aperture range from f/4 to f/5.6, meaning that it can shoot at f/4 at its widest angle but can manage only f/5.6 at its most telephoto angle.
If you’re new to SLR shooting, stick with the kit lens for a while. You can buy new lenses later. With practice, you’ll get a better understanding of what you need in a lens. Your lens collection can grow as your photographic skills do.
Because most DSLRs have sensors that are smaller than 35mm, their field of view is narrower than that of a 35mm camera. If you have experience shooting with film cameras, then you’re probably used to the idea that a 50mm lens (often called a portrait lens) has about the same field of view as your eye. Longer focal lengths are telephoto (they magnify) while shorter focal lengths are wide angle (they can capture a wider distance in a single shot).
The field of view that a lens of a given focal length provides depends on the size of the imaging medium (be it film or a digital memory card) that sits on the focal plane. For example, if you were to put a 50mm lens on a digital camera such as the Canon Digital Rebel XTi, you’d have a field of view equivalent to an 80mm lens on a 35mm film camera, because the sensor in the XTi is small enough so that any lens has a 1.6x cropping factor. That is, you should multiply the focal length of any lens you place on the camera by 1.6 to find its 35mm focal-length equivalent.
All the cameras in this review have a cropping factor.
The $899 Canon Digital Rebel XTi, the $1,300 Nikon D80, and the $900 Sony Alpha DSLR-A100K (all prices include an equivalent kit lens) are similar in size, offer 10-megapixel sensors, have 2.5-inch LCD screens, and have similar approaches to interface design. Also, each company that makes these cameras provides a good lens selection. Each camera is unique in many ways and has its own strengths and weaknesses. (See
Plenty of Room to Grow
for a review of the Nikon D40 and the Pentax K100D cameras.)
These cameras pack full feature sets, including program, priority, and manual modes, as well as an ISO range of 100 to 3200. Raw mode, full white-balance control, and bracketing and burst features are all present as well.
While these cameras provide built-in pop-up flashes with similar modes and features, they also allow you to add external flashes. Advanced amateur shooters will find that each camera’s external-flash system is sufficient, though the Nikon D80 and Canon systems have extra features for people who want high-end multiflash setups.
Each camera also offers a choice of focus and metering modes, so any of these cameras will give you professional features.
All of these cameras are well made and sturdy. Of the three, the Nikon D80 is the most comfortable, thanks to the shape of its handgrip and its professional, textured finish. The Sony and the Canon both have cut-rate plastic finishes but are every bit as sturdy as the Nikon D80.
In my hand, the Canon feels the least comfortable, but my hands are a little too big to fit well in the camera’s handgrip. Also, with a long lens attached, the camera feels off balance.
While the Sony is slightly more comfortable than the Canon, it’s a very noisy camera to operate. The continuous autofocus makes a lot of racket, so you might want to turn it off. Even the regular autofocus and shutter sounds are very loud and tend to clunk. If quiet shooting is critical (such as with distractible children or sensitive wildlife), you’ll want to go with the Canon or the Nikon D80—the latter is the quietest of the three.
The Sony and the Canon have similar interfaces. Both cameras’ rear LCDs have status and menu readouts, and you set most parameters and options through the menu. While this method can be a little slower than dedicated external controls, both companies have done a good job of creating simple navigation and menu layouts that help you easily and quickly configure the features you want.
Oftentimes, using the LCD screen as a status display can get in the way of your shooting because you have to turn it off and on. Both the Sony and the Canon have proximity detectors beneath the viewfinder. The detector allows the camera to automatically deactivate the LCD screen when you bring the camera up to your eye, and then reactivate it when you take the camera away. This smart feature greatly streamlines the use of both cameras.
The Nikon D80 has a more professional interface, which features a separate status screen on top of the camera, and dedicated buttons or dials for all the major shooting functions. Obviously, these dedicated controls come at a cost, but there’s no comparison when it comes to the ability to quickly change the parameters of a camera: you can work much quicker with the Nikon D80 than with the other two cameras. And with practice, you may find that you can make many adjustments without even looking at the camera.
Focusing and stabilizing
The Sony provides a continuous auto-focus mode that adjusts the focus as you move the camera around. Because the Sony camera is usually one step ahead of you, there’s a good chance that it’ll already have the correct focus once you’ve zeroed in on your shot. One nice thing about Sony’s implementation of this feature is that the camera doesn’t bother hunting for a focus if you’re not looking through the viewfinder. This preserves the battery life and keeps the camera quieter.
The Sony is unique among these three cameras for its use of sensor-based stabilization. To counter the slight vibrations and hand movements that can occur while you hold the camera, the Sony uses motion sensors to detect camera shake, and then counters those motions by shifting its image sensor in the opposite direction. The result is an effective stabilization that smooths out jitters and makes framing a shot through a long telephoto lens easier.
Stabilization technology also lets you shoot in low-light situations that would normally be too dark to get a sharp image. Sony says that the camera provides 3.5 stops of stabilization; therefore, you can take sharp handheld shots in situations that would normally require 3.5 more stops of light. In Macworld Lab tests, the stabilization was closer to 1.5 to 2 stops.
Still, this is a nice feature to have, and it works with any lens that you put on the camera. Canon and Nikon don’t offer in-camera stabilization, opting instead to build it in to certain lenses. Canon calls its technology Image Stabilization, and lenses with IS in the name have the feature. Nikon brands its technology Vibration Reduction and uses a VR moniker on its stabilized lenses. Both Canon’s and Nikon’s technologies are much more effective, offering 4 stops of stabilization. While you could argue that lens-based stabilization is inherently inferior because you have to buy specific lenses, you don’t need stabilization on wide-angle lenses, and the superior performance of Canon’s and Nikon’s lens-based mechanisms makes the Sony stabilization less enticing.
Sony released a broad assortment of lenses with its A100K camera, an impressive feat. However, Sony’s lens selection pales in comparison to the offerings available for Nikon and Canon cameras. In addition to the lenses made by the camera makers themselves, there are vast assortments of third-party lenses. What’s more, Sony’s lenses are kind of pricey. You’ll have a much greater choice in price and performance with either Canon or Nikon.
In addition to the basic features, all three cameras have many more features, ranging from the really cool to the somewhat esoteric. But in a feature-to-feature shoot-out, the Nikon D80 wins hands down, with options such as more flexible autobracketing, multiple exposures, the ability to add text comments to an image, and a vast assortment of in-camera image-processing options. The stand-out feature here is Nikon’s D-Lighting, which does a great job of brightening an image’s shadowy areas without blowing out highlights. For backlit situations, it provides a handy, quick fix.
Dust to dust
When you take a lens off an SLR, you expose the mirror and sensor chamber to the outside world, and create the opportunity for dust to get inside the camera and onto the sensor. Dust will show up in your images as smudges or dark spots. While prevention is the best way to guard against dust, all three cameras offer some additional features to help reduce dust.
The Sony employs the same sensor-moving mechanism that the camera uses for image stabilization to shake dust particles off the sensor. Every time you turn off the camera, the sensor dislodges dust.
Using a similar mechanism, the Canon places a transparent screen in front of the sensor to trap dust; it then vibrates when you turn the camera on or off (or, if you prefer, both).
The Canon and the Nikon D80 also let you create a dust-reference photo. This is basically just a picture of the dust on your image. Through the included software, you can use this reference image later to remove the dust from your images. This is the only dust proofing that the Nikon D80 offers.
These are all welcome features, and I’m glad to see vendors taking the dust problem seriously.
10-Megapixel Digital SLRs: Jury Results and Specifications
||Canon Digital Rebel XTi
||Sony Alpha DSLR-A100K
|Focal Length (35mm equivalent)
||Rechargeable lithium Ion
||Rechargeable lithium ion
||Rechargeable lithium ion
|Media/number of slots
|Size (w x h x d; in inches)
||5.0 x 3.7 x 2.6
||5.2 x 4.1 x 3.0
||5.3 x 3.8 x 2.9
|Weight (in ounces)
¹ Scale: Superior, Very Good, Good, Fair, Poor. ² Box contains Memory Stick-to-CompactFlash adapter.
The image-quality rating of the camera is based on a panel of judges’ opinions in five categories: exposure, color, sharpness, distortion, and overall. Battery-life testers follow a precise script, including shots with and without flash, until the battery dies.—Tested in conjunction with the PC World Test Center.
Macworld’s buying advice
Based on the spectrum of features and performance, the Nikon D80 is the top pick. Currently it scores highest for feature set, while the Canon offers the smallest size, and the Sony offers built-in image stabilization. However, all three cameras yield excellent images, with enough resolution to easily create large prints or crop and enlarge small sections of shots. If you plan on doing a lot of high ISO shooting, you’ll fare better with the Nikon D80 or the Canon Digital Rebel XTi. While the Sony Alpha DSLR-A100K does very well up to ISO 400, its pictures start getting too noisy at ISO 800 and above.
The Canon and the Nikon D80 offer near-instantaneous startup and wake-from-sleep functionality, provide zippy playback, and have menu functions. None of these cameras exhibited shutter lag, and their burst rates are all around three frames per second. All three vendors have delivered impressive cameras with high-end features.
Plenty of room to grow
If $900 is more than you want to spend for a DSLR, consider these new entry-level offerings: the $599
is the least expensive DSLR available right now, yet it offers excellent image quality and a good feature set. The $699 Pentax
has one or two extra features, and it, too, delivers great image quality.
Both of these cameras yield 6-megapixel images, which is more than enough to produce high-quality 8-by-10-inch images and even decent enlargements of larger sizes. Both cameras also feature 2.5-inch LCD screens and are almost identical in size and weight.
The Nikon D40 comes packed with all the basic features that any user in this market would want: adjustable ISOs; a Raw mode; scene modes; and all the same image-processing features as the Nikon D80, including D-Lighting. However, there are no bracketing features, and the camera doesn’t have a depth-of-field preview button.
The Nikon D40’s most innovative feature is its excellent help system. It provides an interactive iris display that helps novices easily understand what will happen when they make a specific change to their f-stop.
Like the Sony Alpha DSLR-A100K and the Canon Digital Rebel XTi, the Nikon D40 uses its main LCD for status display and parameter selection. However, unlike those cameras, it lacks a proximity detector, so you’ll have to turn the display on and off manually.
Tiny and affordable, the Pentax K100D has a high-end feel, thanks to its dedicated top-mounted status display, which makes changing parameters a little easier than on the Nikon D40.
Like the Sony, the Pentax offers a camera-based stabilization system that yields an effective 1.5 to 2 stops’ worth of stabilization on any lens that you use with the camera. Unfortunately, the camera doesn’t hold up as well when it comes to battery life. Because the Pentax ships with AA batteries rather than a longer-lasting proprietary battery, it won’t give you as many shots per set of batteries as you’d get per battery charge from the other cameras in this review. However, AA batteries have the advantage of ubiquity—you can always find them.
Macworld’s buying advice
Both the Nikon D40 and the Pentax have excellent lens selections, and both are fun and comfortable to use. The D40 wins the contest because of its many fine features and strong battery life.
Should I keep my point-and-shoot?
If you already have a point-and-shoot camera and are planning to buy a DSLR, you may be considering selling your current camera to help finance your new purchase. A better option, though, is to keep it. Point-and-shoots are smaller and easier to carry, so they’re ideal for situations in which carrying a DSLR is not possible or necessary.
Also, almost all point-and-shoot cameras provide excellent macro features for extreme close-ups. If you’re interested in macro photography, you’ll find that working with a point-and-shoot is usually easier and cheaper than investing in a DSLR macro lens. Finally, many point-and-shoots now include excellent movie modes, which make them a great resource for taking short video clips, something you can’t do with a DSLR.
Ben Long is the author of
Complete Digital Photography, third edition
(Charles River Media, 2004).
Nikon D40Pentax K100D