Four Cameras Middling Only in Price
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.