Cameras of Today and Tomorrow

Only a few years ago, dSLR cameras came in only one category — expensive. You could expect to spend at least $5,000 for a digital SLR from Canon, Nikon, or Kodak, and be thankful that the camera was that affordable. After all, it wasn’t long ago that digital SLRs cost upwards of $30,000, used a tethered 200MB hard drive, and gave you 1.3-megapixel photos!

Of course, dSLRs of the late 20th century were built on rugged professional camera bodies, and they housed very expensive sensors. The Kodak DCS 460 of a decade ago was basically a common Nikon body with a very, very costly 6MP imager built in. Although some digital SLRs that cost as little as $2,000 (for the body alone) made an appearance, it wasn’t until the original Canon Digital Rebel was introduced in 2003 at less than $1,000 (with lens) that the new category of basic consumer dSLR was born.

Although the distinct camera categories that I cover in the following sections have some overlap, these categories are still aimed at particular classes of buyers. Basic dSLR cameras The basic dSLR is the newest type of digital camera that has interchangeable lenses. These cameras are stripped-down versions of more advanced digital SLRs, aimed specifically at photographers who are looking to step up from point-and-shoot models but don’t necessarily want full-fledged systems that include all the bells and whistles. Typical cameras in this class include the entry-level Nikon, Canon, Pentax/ Samsung, and Olympus.

A typical compact basic dSLR is shown in Figure 3-3. Priced at around $500 to $600 (with lens), basic dSLRs compete directly with the more expensive point-and-shoot, non-dSLR cameras in the same price and megapixel range. The point-and-shoot cameras might have non-interchangeable zoom lenses that have a longer range (12:1 or more) while offering a smaller and lighter package that’s more portable. Figure 3-3: Basic dSLR models boast very low price tags but a lot of useful features.

I tend to avoid calling basic dSLRs entry-level models because that implies a tendency to move up and beyond the original dSLR to more advanced cameras, lenses, and accessories. In practice, a surprising number of people who buy these cameras are perfectly happy with the capabilities they have and may stick with their new dSLRs for years. Many of them never buy another lens.

They get great results with their basic dSLR and its kit lens, and they have no interest in upgrading. I think it’s terrific that vendors have recognized this important type of snapshooter and have provided affordable cameras with the features casual photographers need. Indeed, I was surprised to find that a very inexpensive Pentax model dSLR that I purchased had sophisticated weather sealing and advanced features that I would have expected in a much more costly camera.

The advantage of an entry-level dSLR over a comparably priced point-andshoot camera is usually faster operation and better image quality (even when matched in the megapixel department), plus the ability to exchange lenses. Those who never plan to buy additional lenses find the quality of the non-SLR adequate, and people who don’t shoot demanding subjects, such as sports, are happy with the point-and-shoot models, especially the models that offer a bit of manual control. Both groups prize the pocket size of point-and-shoot cameras and will actually pay more for an extra-tiny shooter. But more serious photographers take a basic dSLR at the same price every time.

Of course, these basic dSLR models do lack a few features that their more advanced brethren have — but, boy, are they affordable! You might be happy with one of these as your main camera or as a second camera body, particularly if your budget is tight. What do you give up? Most of the most basic dSLRs sacrifice a few features that you might never or rarely use.

These include depth-of-field preview, shutter speeds faster than 1 /4,000 of a second, or the speediest continuous shooting bursts. Some of the cost-saving measures add some inconvenience: Your basic dSLR might have only one command dial, so you need to press a button to switch between setting the shutter speed and aperture. Many skip the traditional top-panel monochrome LCD (liquid crystal display) status display and show all shooting information on the color LCD on the back of the camera.

Or the budget model might use only tiny SD (Secure Digital) memory cards, rather than the larger (and more difficult to lose!) CompactFlash cards found in many upscale dSLRs. Still, what you give up to save several hundred dollars might be insignificant if it means you can get behind the wheel of an honest-to-gosh dSLR today. Enthusiast dSLRs What I think of as enthusiast dSLRs are a step up from the most basic models and provide a true launching point for avid photographers who need to get into digital SLR shooting at minimal cost, but insist on plenty of opportunities for enhancing their capabilities later with new lenses, flash units, and accessories.

These dSLRs start at about $800 (often including a basic zoom lens) and range to about $1,200. These models are available from Nikon, Canon (as shown in Figure 3-4), Pentax, Sony, and other vendors. These cameras don’t sacrifice many features; the corners are cut in ways that probably don’t affect the typical photo enthusiast. For example, cameras in this class often are built around rugged polycarbonate bodies rather than the almost-indestructible magnesium camera bodies found in upscale cameras.

The viewfinder systems might use pentamirrors that are a little dimmer than the pentaprisms found in pro cameras, and magnification through the viewing system might be lower. It’s common for these dSLRs to have much less sprightly continuous shooting modes, too. For anyone who could never justify spending $1,800 or more on a dSLR, these models offer just about every needed feature with enough megapixels to produce very high-quality pictures, indeed.

They form an excellent foundation for building an arsenal of lenses and other accessories that remain useful even when the photo enthusiast upgrades to a newer model in the future. Advanced amateur/semi-pro dSLRs The next step up from enthusiast dSLRs are the advanced amateur/semi-pro models, which are cameras intended for more-experienced, advanced consumers/amateur photographers, but outfitted with enough features to make them attractive to professionals as a second camera body.

Indeed, some pros who have light-duty shooting requirements (perhaps because their work is more contemplative and they don’t fire off thousands of shots a day) use them as primary cameras. In truth, of course, no hard-and-fast set of features makes a particular camera a pro camera. Professionals can get excellent photos from any model that they care to use.

Figure 3-4: True entry-level enthusiast dSLRs start at less than $1,000 and have a full set of features. 60 Part I: Digital SLRs and You These dSLRs start at about $1,200 (for the body only). These models are available from Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, Sony, Olympus, and others. Like entry-level enthusiast cameras, these cameras trim a few features to achieve their affordable cost and may use plastic bodies rather than the almost-indestructible magnesium camera bodies found in the pro cameras. They might lack built-in vertical camera grips and easy plug-in remote controls that professionals require.

They typically fire off fewer shots in burst mode, typically from 3 to 5 fps, whereas pro models usually have 8-to-11-fps capabilities. Professional dSLR models Although some models are priced in the $3,000 range, most professional dSLRs set you back a bit more — up to five to eight grand. (See Figure 3-5.) If you’re selling your work, the camera is well worth the cost.

Cameras in this class include the Sony Alpha DSLR-A900; Nikon D700, D3, and D3x; Canon EOS-1D Mark III, EOS-1Ds Mark III, and EOS 5D Mark II. These models take you all the way from 12MP up to a lofty 25MP (or beyond) and can, arguably, meet or exceed the image quality of the best film cameras. What do you get for thousands and thousands of extra dollars? Here’s a quick checklist of what your extra cash buys:

✓ Tank-like reliability: Okay, I really have no experience with how reliable tanks are, but they must be pretty good if being built like a tank is a positive. Pro dSLRs have metal bodies, excellent sealing against the elements, and rugged controls and components, such as shutters that can operate thousands of times without failing. A typical professional might shoot more pictures in a day than an amateur photographer takes in a year. I know one canine photographer (he’s not a dog; he photographs Pomeranians) who recently passed the 500,000 exposure mark with his pro camera and its original shutter. Professionals can’t afford to have a camera wimp out at the worst possible moment. So, professionals often purchase these cameras for the cameras’ ruggedness alone — and even then, true pros commonly buy multiple bodies in order to have a backup — or two or three. Figure 3-5: Many of the leading professional dSLRs have full-frame (1X crop) sensors, such as this model.

✓ Faster operation: Pro cameras generally have the most advanced autofocus systems available from a vendor, so they can take pictures right now without delay or shutter lag. They have large internal memory buffers that suck up exposures as fast as you can take them. And the speedy digital image chips process the bits and bytes, and then write them to your memory card. Exposure systems, too, are top-notch, both in accuracy and speed. Professional dSLRs are veritable speed demons.

✓ Faster burst modes: Whereas prosumer dSLRs are considered speedy if they can capture continuous-mode pictures at 3 fps, pro cameras typically can grab 4 to 11 fps without sweating. Those big memory buffers (to store images until they can be written to the memory card) and digital signal processing chips make this speed possible.

✓ More options: Pro cameras let you set up multiple sets of shooting parameters and recall them at the press of a button, so you can tailor your camera’s operation to particular environments. You might find other choices not available to lesser cameras, such as the ability to save images in compressed or uncompressed RAW format, TIFF, and multiple levels of JPEG quality. (You can find out more about file formats in Chapter 8.)

✓ Bigger sensors: Some pro cameras offer larger, full-frame sensors, which can be an advantage to pro shooters. These sizeable, non-cropped sensors are available from Sony, Nikon, and Canon; and a few so-called medium-format dSLRs, such as those from Mamiya and Hasselblad. (Chapter 2 explains lens crop in detail.)