At the outset of this list project, I warned you that there were going to be a couple of choices you would think were cop-outs. Choice #6 was originally intended to be one of those; it was supposed to be, "An entry-level DSLR of the brand of your choice." But the more I thought about it, the more I thought people would object to that—the purpose of a list it to make choices, not leave them open. So I ended up picking the compact Olympus E-420, based mainly on its current price.
Of course, not long thereafter, it occurred to me that what I had really done was cop out on copping out.
This time, I'm determined; my resolve is steely. This choice is going to be a real cop-out, dammit. Choice #3 is: "A mid-level 4/3 or APS-C DSLR of the brand of your choice."
A cop-out...sure. Yes. (Finally.) But, as usual, there is method to my madness.
First of all, this is a list of recommendations. For most photographers, I really do feel that the best possible choice of cameras in the current market is...a mid-level 4/3 or APS-C DSLR of the brand of your choice. For most photographers who are ambitious to do good work but who are not pros, this level represents a sweet spot. Putting significantly more money into a pro camera is often not the smartest move, and spending an appreciable portion of this money on a significantly less capable entry-level camera might also not be the smartest move. This tier—these cameras—represent a sweet spot for the manufacturers as well; these are superlative products that utilize many of the previous pro-camera generation's innovations of technology, but that don't have the cut corners (example: poor viewfinders) and dumbed-down feature sets (example: "scene modes") of cheaper models.
So which one should you choose, exactly? It isn't that important. That's what I'm trying to say.
It’s really unfortunate that with the photography hobby exploding in the digital era, so many people have been gulled into the false, not to mention asinine belief that brand loyalty has something significant to do with photography, and that minute differences in "image quality" (the very concept of which I could take issue with) mean anything at all to anyone. As long as you have a competent tool, the brand of camera you choose just doesn't matter. Whatever you choose, it’ll have some strengths, it’ll have some weaknesses, and you’ll get used to both if you use the thing enough. When they look at your work, nobody cares what brand camera you used, and you don’t get any credit one way or the other (i.e., positive or negative) for the name on the box you happen to choose. What you want from a camera is for it to be "good enough.” Beyond that, I’m here to tell you that the next incremental improvement in your work is not going to come from buying a slightly better box.
Sorry, didn’t mean this to be a rant. I realize that most of you reading this already know all this. But seriously, here’s how to buy a camera: figure out what lenses you need first, and who has them; figure how big a camera you want to carry; figure out (from that and from the pricing and your budget) what level or tier you’re going to be looking in (and this level is a good one); then pick one and get on with it. Photography is all about looking: looking at the world, and looking at pictures. It’s not about cameras. Well, it is, but it only begins with the camera. It doesn’t end there. Shooting skills, visual sensitivity, craft and technique have more to do with how good your pictures will look than the brand name on the box. With apologies to all those anxious corporate marketing and advertising departments out there.
This group currently includes:
The Olympus E-30 (12.3 MP, $1100)
The Canon 50D (15.1 MP, $1120)
The Pentax K20D (14.6 MP, $670)
The Sony A700 (12.2 MP, $1000).
(Prices are of this writing; check links to be sure. Note that at least two of these cameras are likely to be replaced in the next 12 months.)
This is the type of camera most of our readers own. There are a few differences between them. Choice for most people will depend on the following: brand bias; current investiture (or lack of same) in compatible lenses and other system accessories; specific feature needs or wants; habit; hand-feel and idiosyncratic ergonomic appeal; and price and purchase opportunity.
However: again: all of them are superlative products, all of them are cameras that skilled shooters could easily use to do top-quality work, and all of them are more camera than most photographers really need at a minimum. I have to mention, too, that no matter how carefully you choose, your choice will change meanings dismayingly shortly, because all of these cameras will be old news all too soon.
Okay then...within the context of "don't obsess," here are a few of the pertinent differences that might affect the choice of one or another:
• Canon and Nikon are the market leaders, with the broadest ranges of accessories, the largest selection of specialty lenses including super-telephotos, and the quickest adoption and widest accommodation by third-party software providers. Dominance can translate to profits, which then translates to re-investment in R&D. However, dominance can also translate to complacency: both companies' current cameras are based heavily on previous models, and neither the Canon nor the Nikon have body-integral image stabilization, largely because both companies make more money by putting that feature into their lenses.
• The Nikon is the only one of these cameras with video.
• The Olympus has a slightly smaller sensor. This does not have a detectable effect on image quality at most ISOs, forum hysteria notwithstanding, but it does have a noticeable effect on comparative high-ISO performance. On the plus side of the same ledger, the higher "crop factor" translates to more effective reach for telephotos of the same focal length, and the smaller coverage allows Olympus to make some of its lenses faster.
• The Pentax, Olympus and Sony all have body-integral IS, meaning it can be used with any lens, even those that Canon and Nikon do not make available with IS, and also meaning it does not need to be purchased repeatedly (and expensively) in each and every lens you buy that has it. Imaging-Resource.com has announced a verifiable protocol for testing IS, which will be coming online gradually over the coming months.
• The Pentax is the only one that is fully weather sealed, although only the DA Star lenses are also weatherproof.
• The Olympus is the only one with an articulated viewing screen.
• The Pentax is the cheapest.
• The Olympus is the prettiest.
• The Nikon has the best sensor rating at DxOmark.com. (Current ranks of this group: Nikon D90 11th, Sony A700 17th, Pentax K20D 21st, and Canon 50D 30th. The Olympus E-30 is unranked, although it would probably rank last of this group.)
• Olympus has the newest and, overall, highest-performing selection of zooms, but also, by far, the worst selection of prime (single-focal-length) lenses.
• Pentax has the best made-for-digital compact primes, which are an afterthought to the other four manufacturers.
So, the takeaway from today's recommendation: shopping—exhaustive, hysterical, argumentative, absorbing, never-ending, absurdly excessive shopping—has come to dominate many online discussions of photography. This is a distraction. A good shooter with a poorish camera will still shoot rings around an inexperienced goof with the latest, most fastidiously chosen, and most strenuously defended techno-wonder—and all of these cameras are truly excellent devices that will serve any thoughtful and hardworking photographer very, very well—very well indeed. Pick one and be done.
Friday: #1 [sic]
Featured Comment by Matthew Robertson: "Here's a slightly more appropriate way of listing the cameras:
The Nikon D90 (700g, $930)
The Olympus E-30 (730g, $1100)
The Canon 50D (820g, $1120)
The Pentax K20D (800g, $670)
The Sony A700 (760g, $1000)
As Miss Piggy once said, 'never eat more than you can lift.' "
Featured Comment by Shawn Barnett of Imaging-Resource.com: "Hear, hear! Though we're happy to report all the details and offer our opinions on digital cameras at Imaging-Resource.com, it's the camera you have, know, and use that will get you the best pictures. Though I can often steer individuals to one camera or another based on features or image quality, it's also heavily based on their individual needs and biases. In the end, I'm confident that most of the SLRs on the market will serve well, because competition has forced SLR makers to produce some pretty fine equipment. People should still think about what they want from a camera, but too many wait too long and miss out on the fun of photography. (So if you haven't yet, click the button on the A900 already, Mike.)"
Featured Comment by Sam G.: "Consider this a perspective from a first time DSLR buyer.
Mike replies: Valid concerns, for sure, Sam, and I'm sorry if today's recommendation isn't ideally helpful.
However, I think I covered this in the article at choice #6, which is why I linked to it at the beginning of today's article; the last paragraph of that earlier post addresses your concerns directly.
For the record, I think you did the right thing. I have a friend named Vitold who is a very successful software designer. He can afford any camera he wants, but I encouraged him to forego the higher-level models and start with a D60, and he loves it. The point is that he is learning his own preferences. Later, when he goes to purchase a higher-end camera, he will know more about what he likes and wants. So will you, very likely.
You must understand, too, that part of my motivation here is to counteract some of the prevailing attitudes among shoppers for ~$1k camera bodies. The arguments tend to polarize, and people say some pretty ridiculous things sometimes. This is caused in part by the tendency for discussion forums, and indeed whole sites, to be broken down strictly according to brand. I think this is a mistake, frankly. My first experiences on the internet were on the old Compuserve Photo Forum in the early '90s, where the categories weren't organized that way; although people ribbed each other about each other's camera choices, brand partisanship was much milder and more collegial and friendlier than it generally is on the internet today. Today it's gotten out of hand in some cases.
So the answer to your objections is probably that people coming from point-and-shoots shouldn't be looking at mid-level cameras. They should buy a closeout model or an entry level model or a used camera first, and get some experience with a couple of different cameras. Instead, they typically invest tens or hundreds of hours in "paper" (now, onscreen) shopping, and in forging alliances and defining prejudices—all without gathering firsthand data for themselves. Which I find rather silly, not to mention counterproductive.
The fact is, you really can't make an intelligent, informed choice of ~$1k mid-level DSLRs if you're new to DSLRs entirely, and that's probably not the best way to proceed anyway. What you need to do first is to try some different cameras—make "photo-friends" with whom you can swap cameras on a shooting jaunt for a couple of hours; look into rental options; certainly, patronize a local store that stocks some of the models you're interested in. (A hint: if you take a valuable camera you own into a camera store, you can leave it as "collateral" while you take the store's demo camera out the front door for a little quick test shooting. I used to carry my Leica M6 into stores and leave it with the salesman while a took his demo outside for half an hour's worth of shooting; they knew I'd be back. This allows you to examine some files or negs you shot yourself back at home, at leisure.)
But basically, I'm assuming here that mid-level cameras will be looked at mainly by people who have already owned SLRs, whether digital or film, and that they won't typically be the first step up for people who are just getting into photography and have previously used only camera phones or mass-market digicams. For those who are making such a big jump, a random choice among leading models probably is as good as anything—they just don't have a basis for intelligent, informed comparison. Your second-to-last paragraph above pretty much confirms as much.