Little silver pocket cameras are small and cheap, they take movies, and they don’t turn you into a tourist cliché by dangling from your neck.
But those big black digital single-lens reflex cameras take much better photos, thanks to a much larger light sensor and vastly superior light sensitivity. They also offer gorgeous soft-focus backgrounds, zero start-up time, no shutter lag, impressive burst modes of several shots a second, twice the battery life and interchangeable lenses.
Last year was a big year for S.L.R.s. New players like Sony and Panasonic entered the market. Prices dropped to new lows — you can get an excellent starter model for under $475. And as the year ended, four new semipro models had their debuts, defining a new midrange category ($1,300 to $1,800) almost overnight: the NikonD300, Canon40D, and OlympusE3. Thanks to the technology trickle-down effect, they offer many features of $5,000 professional S.L.R. models at a fraction of the price.
These cameras make you understand why people get hooked on photography. It starts with the feel of the huge, rugged body in your hands, a shape that’s been refined over the decades. It continues with the satisfying, instantaneous click of the shutter —not the chirpy audio recording from a pocket camera’s speaker, but the actual clack of the S.L.R.’s mirror snapping out of the way. (The Nikon D300’s snap is especially satisfying.)
At these prices, you also get burst-mode speeds of five or six shots a second. It’s not just for sports and wildlife; that speed is also great for portraits, because you can choose from multiple gradations of smile and expression.
The new Nikon, Olympus and Canon cameras offer something that’s been missing on S.L.R.’s until recently: live view. That’s where you compose the shot on the screen, just as you can on a pocket camera, rather than holding the camera to your eye.
Live view permits angles and heights that are impossible with the camera pressed to your face. Live view also helps with manual focusing, since you can magnify the preview on the screen.
And live view in most of the cameras lets you see changes in exposure, white balance and depth of field before you actually snap the shot.
Unfortunately, using live view entails compromises like delays in focusing and limited features; for example, the Canon can’t autofocus in live-view mode or use any of its scene modes (like Sports or Portrait).
All four of these cameras are supposed to shake off any dust that might have wandered onto the sensor during a lens change. (For Nikon, that’s a first.) That’s a relief to anyone who’s been getting shadow dots in the same place on every photo.
So here they are, in alphabetical order: the latest midrange S.L.R.’s in the $1,300 to $1,800 bracket — lens not included. A comparison table appears at nytimes.com/tech.(All the cameras accept the cheap and capacious Compact Flash cards; the Olympus also takes XD cards, and the Sony also takes Memory Stick Duo.)
Canon EOS 40D (10.1 megapixels, $1,215). On this massive camera body, there’s room for plenty of thoughtfully designed controls and buttons; between the four-way joystick and the rotating selection dial, you’re covered. (This is the only model of the four that’s not fully weather-sealed, however.)
This camera offers a gigantic three-inch screen, although it’s not as sharp as the Nikon’s or Sony’s. The mode dial offers not only some presets (like Sports and Night Portrait), but even has room to store three presets of your own. (You don’t have to burrow into menus to get to them.)
The pictures look sensational. Low-light, high-light sensitivity (high-ISO) shots are unusually free of mottled digital “noise” (speckles).
These days, the greatest high-tech gift to photographers is image stabilization, which prevents blurry shots when you’re zoomed in or shooting in low light. Canon, like Nikon, builds this technology into the individual lenses, rather than into the camera body. Of course, you wind up paying more, since you have to re-buy the stabilizer in every lens; but Nikon and Canon argue that matching the technology to the specific lens creates a more effective stabilizing effect.
Nikon D300(12.3 megapixels, $1,820). At this price, you’d better be pretty serious about your photography. But if you’ve got the dough, you won’t feel cheated. This is a serious piece of gear.
Its numbers are stunning: 6 frames a second (8 if you buy the optional battery grip); ISO settings up to 6400, although the shots start getting grainy above 1600; and a category-leading 1,000 shots per battery charge.
There’s also an H.D.M.I. jack for displaying your photos on a high-definition TV; a percentage-remaining battery gauge (rather than just a four-segment graph); and a three-inch screen whose clarity is the envy of the industry.
The D300 is the most customizable camera here — you can tweak or customize almost everything — but also the most complex. You don’t even get a mode dial, as though to emphasize the D300’s “not for amateurs” mission. (The Olympus lacks scene modes, too.) But holy cow, what a camera.
Olympus Evolt E3 (10 megapixels, $1,650). Olympus claims that the E3, its new flagship model, has the world’s fastest autofocus. That’s hard to measure, but let’s put it this way: it’s darned fast.
The 2.5-inch screen is the smallest of this bunch, but it compensates with some deft moves: it flips out, swivels and rotates. That range of motion lets you aim the camera over your head, down low or even toward yourself—a feature that fits perfectly with live view.
Shooting with the eyepiece is a joy, too; it presents a bigger, brighter window on your subject than its rivals. Image stabilization is built into the camera; Olympus insists that its system is more, not less, effective than Nikon’s or Canon’s in-the-lens stabilizers.
The E3’s sensor isn’t as big as its rivals (17.3-by-13 millimeters, versus about 24-by-16 millimeters on the other more light-sensitive models). There are a few annoyances, too. For example, there’s no dedicated autofocus lamp to provide focusing illumination in low light. Instead, this model, like the Canon 40D, fires off an irritating series of flashes.
Note, too, that every time you turn on live view, you have to close the viewfinder shutter manually to prevent light leakage — a very silly requirement.
Sony Alpha A700(12.2 megapixels, $1,330). The A700 is Sony’s second S.L.R., once again descended from the Minolta models that Sony acquired in 2006.
The three-inch screen looks terrific. If you’re willing to buy a special H.D.M.I. cable, you can use the included remote control to conduct high-def slideshows on your TV.
Unfortunately, the Sony is the only S.L.R. here that doesn’t offer live view. It’s also the only one with no top-mounted L.C.D. display that summarizes your camera settings, shots remaining and so on. That information appears on the main screen, which partly explains the relatively weak battery life (650 shots).
So what’s the bottom line? If you’re moving up from an older S.L.R., your lens collection may determine which brand you buy. None of these cameras will disappoint you.
If you’re new to S.L.R.’s, you might be happier with a sub-$1,000 S.L.R. instead. You’ll get essentially the same image quality—after all, you’ll use the same lenses and, in most cases, the same-size sensor — without the bulk, weight or complexity. Consider, for example, the Pentax K10D, Nikon D80 or Canon Digital Rebel XTi.
But if you consider yourself an almost-professional, you do get what you pay for in these tweener S.L.R.’s — better speed, less low-light noise, more customizable and all those cutting-edge features (like live view). People may still look at the camera dangling from your neck and assume you’re a tourist — but in your head, you’ll know that you’re the next Ansel Adams.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: email@example.com.