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: firstname.lastname@example.org.