Sunday, August 20, 2006

Entry-Level D-SLR's Markedly Improved

Well, I've recently checked out three new entry-level cameras; the Pentax K100D,the Samsung GX-1S,and the Sony Alpha D-SLR A100. All three feel nice and light and are very COMPACT. In terms of volume of the body size in cubic inches, these three cameras are among the very,very smallest d-slrs.According to a chart at DC Ressource [ ] comparing the dimensions and volume of 13 d-slr's and one popular digicam, the Nikon D70s's volume is 75 cubic inches; the smaller Samsung GX-1S model is 45.9 cubic inches, and the Sony Alpha is 58.4 cubic inches. We're talking about cameras weighing 1.3 to 1.4 pounds without batteries. I also,very briefly, held a Digital Rebel XT in my hands (46.3 cubic inches,485 grams minus battery) and remarked once again how incredibly light and how very cheap and plastic it felt, and I did not spend any time evaluating the Rebel XT either on its own or as compared with these other cameras. I must say, the Sony Alpha is the nicest of the entry-level D-SLR's I've examined lately, in terms of fit,feel,finish,and viewfinder appearance. The Samsung feels good too. I was neutral on the Pentax for its lack of emotional connection, but the K100D's viewfinder image was adequately large and bright,and the Pentax 18-55 kit lens felt the most-solid of any kit type lens I've seen so far from ANY maker of a short 18-50-ish kit zoom. Prices are very low, from around $600 with the lens for the Pentax and Samsung, and $899 for the Sony Alpha body, with another $98 for the lens. I did not get to see the Sony-dressed 18-70 AF lens ,but a slightly older Konica-Minolta "diagonal rubber dress" 18-70 AF lens. The new Sony-branded lenses have rubberized rings with ultra-fine ribbing in a straight line, whereas the Minolta and K-M lenses had/have that unusual looking, steeply-angled diagonally oriented,deeply-grooved rubber coverings on the rings of the various lenses. The Minolta-styled diagonal rubber barrel dress has always been a love it or hate it type of thing since its introduction, I must say. Cosmetically, it draws a lot of eye attention and is the only really WILDLY out-of-industry practice Minolta used to engage in. Oh, that and insisting on using their own proprietary electronic flash foot design. Which, BTW, Sony has stuck with on the Alpha DSLR A100.
As I've said many times, it's a great time to be involved in digital photography. You can take your pick of three small,lightweight d-slr models which all feature built-in anti-shake systems,right in the body,decent viewfinders for crop-frame d-slrs,built in pop-up electronic flash units,and very comfortable feeling body design and construction. If you've longed for a truly LIGHTWEIGHT camera, these cameras feel,and are,lightweight. If you've read the test reports in the last three issues of Popular Photography & Imaging magazine as these cameras have come out, you know that the new wide-to-normal kit lenses in the 18-55 range and 18-70 range in the case of the Sony Alpha, are actually ALL pretty GOOD kit lenses,optically. According to tests done by Popular Photography & Imaging magazine, the Sony Alpha offers the highest image quality of any camera under $1700,meaning its nearest image quality competitor is the Nikon D200. Pretty good company to be in. The fact that currently Fuji,Pentax,and Samsung have 6 Megapixel-class image sensors in their d-slrs is probably more in line in keeping with their users' actual desires--very high image quality, but with reasonable file size economy also a concern. Six MP worth of quality pixels is ample for many,many purposes when first-rate lenses are used,and there's nothing like being able to get hundreds of images off of each 2-gig storage card,and of not needing a DVD and a half to archive off one afternoon's shooting in RAW mode.Using a d-slr with a 6 MP image sensor means more shorts per gig of storage,and that is important to many Fuji,Pentax,and Samsung customers,I'm sure. A 10.2 or a 12.2 MP camera eats through storage cards MUCH more rapidly than a 6.1 MP camera does, and for many people doing high-volume shooting, smaller is better. Really. With an efficient compressed raw format, the D70 for example uses about 5.3 megabytes per RAW image. The EOS 20D is around 7.2 megabytes per RAW capture from its 8.2 MP CMOS sensor. The Nikon D2x's 12.2 MP CMOS sensor's typical RAW capture is around 10.9 megabytes per compressed RAW capture.
I have not seen the new Nikon D80, Nikon's $999 newcomer. It's supposed to be available within mere weeks,and reports from insiders indicate it has substantially improved higher-ISO abilities over the D70s it is replacing in the lineup,and it sharessome selected aspects of the D200 model,such as a shared all-glass pentaprism viewfinder system first used in the D200,not a lower-performance pentamirror system style of construction. The D80 has a similar CAM 1000 AF focus module as the D200 does,but with some focus option simplifications as compared to the D200. Overall Nikon's new D80 appears to offer a whole slew of D50 and D200 strengths in a very affordable $999 body. Thom Hogan's D80 Analysis article is well worth reading if you're interested in getting a handle on what the D80 is supposed to be like. One new feature I expect from the D80 is a new capability in terms of usable,useful ISO range. In my opinion Nikon needs to improve its consumer-level cameras and their High-ISO performance at 800 and above,for many types of shooting where the ISO choice simply isn;t much of a choice, and one BEGINS shooting at 800,and moves upwards as the light fades and the lens is opened up to maximum aperture and left there all event. The thing I want the MOST in a d-slr camera is usefulness across a broad RANGE of shooting situations,and with a certain level of baseline camera capabilities. I'm going to venture that the AF of the D80 is adequate for 3/4 of a broad range of shooting,at least in decent light and with AFS lenses. The D80 looks to be a fairly camera capable across maybe 3/4 of my current shooting spectrum. Regardless of brand, the entry-level d-slr is now a very good value camera compared with what was on the market two years ago.In Nikon's lineup, the D50 is entry level by model designation, but some might consider that the $999 D80 is entry-level since it compares price-wise and MP-wise with the Sony Alpha 100 at 10.2 Megapixels and $999 body price, same as the D80's body price. I think going with 6 MP sensors and built-in anti-shake systems adds the most appeal for snapshot type hobbyists and budding photographers who are concerned about storage space,and who want a d-slr for its quick shutter release lag times and lens interchange capability, but who do not want excess megapixels and the MP penalty (in-field card storage penalty/hard disk storage limits/archiving headaches) that the Big Gun d-slr's all carry with them.
Let's face it...the D80 has got to be aimed by Nikon at their company finally making headroom against the excellent EOS 20D and EOS 30D imagers, with 8.2 VERY high-quality megapixels,low noise from 100 to 800 ISO, and with very,very good ISO 1600 capabilities. I own the Nikon D70,and have since it was a new camera,and I've owned the EOS 20D since Feb 2005,and I see a BIG image quality gap between the D70 and the 20D at 800 ISO. On the Canon, ISO 800 is actually USABLE. On the D70, I like to keep it at 500 ISO or lower, for anything resembling image quality. I think Canon's got Nikon beat at 800 ISO. The 20D's out of camera image quality at 800 beats the D2x or D70 at 800,pretty easily in lower level lighting,or when there's not ample light. I personally LIKE the clean,bright,detailed image quality Canon can get out of only 8.2 megapixels in the 20D and think that Nikon's D80 needs to make some inroads against the Canons at 800 ISO if Nikon is to retain respect from certain people,me included.
One way to "boost quality" in image-making is to return to fundamentals,including using premium lenses shot at wider apertures and moderate ISO ratings ,and if the light demands it, of using auxilliary lighting or reflectors or both to improve the lighting,and to make photos the old fashioned way. When you're working this way, a 6.1 MP imager can produce very,very good,clean files. The key is professional-grade optics, used at appropriate apertures, with decent lighting,solid white balance choices, and decent post-processing. What I am seeing now is sort of a dual-level entry price/performance point. We have the $599 and $699 D-SLR models at 6MP and now Sony and Nikon are offering $999 models with 10.2 MP sensors and significantly higher resolution that from 6MP cameras. The interesting camera now becomes the next _Canon_ offering designed to slot in as a 20D/30D replacement . Canon's $1399-class higher-end amateur market d-slr is not yet announced,and I have some really positive feelings about what Canon's next-gen return volley will include. Currently, Canon is now "behind" Sony and Nikon on the megapixel race in the higher-end amateur d-slr market with its 8.2MP offering against two 10.2 MP cameras,and within days,a third 10.2 model (the upcoming D80 from Nikon).

I would expect that the upcoming Nikon D80 will come very close to the overall picture quality of the Nikon D200 and the Sony Alpha 100. If one looks at the Phil Askey comparison shots on the dPreview web site, one can see that Canon manages to squeeze out a LOT of image quality over the ISO range from 100 to 800 on the 20D and 30D models, with not a whole lot of improvement actually being "seen" in images made from either Sony or Nikon 10.2 MP sensor cameras,and at 800 ISO and up, the Canon sensor of the 20D and 30D does a very respectable job. My question that I want answered is, "How good will an APS-C-sized 10.2 or 11 MP Canon sensor be in the 20D/30D's replacement model? Just how far will Canon feel like it needs to go as a direct improvement at the advanced amateur d-slr segment typified by the 20D/30D and Nikon D200? How many megapixels will Canon respond with to the 10.2MP threat of Nikon and SSony? As I see it, the D200 is a very much more-advanced camera BODY than the 30D and 5D bodies Canon has out right now, with the D200 offering much,much more of the flagship-type technologies than Canon has included in the 20D for example, or the relatively spartan 5D. I'm talking about body and system feature sets, which in my opinion Nikon wins on in a D200 versus 20D/30D or 5D comparison. And, what about anti-shake? Will that prove to be something Canon feels it needs to offer,or decides to offer?
Needless to say, 2006 is a GREAT TIME to be involved in digital photography. The newest cameras are the lightest,smallest, and the most-afordable entry-level d-slrs yet to be sold. I think it's exciting that prices are coming down, and new models are coming out,and with each new model it seems the makers get a little bit closer to that almost-perfect d-slr body. Better equipment is always welcomed by me,and as manufacturers improve their products and continue to lower prices and to introduce more new models,I think once again, it's time to reiterate: it's a GREAT time to be involved in digital photography!

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