1. Nikon D300 (APS-C sensor DSLR). It's curious how many new DSLRs seem to be shape-shifting morphings-together of older or different cameras. If you buy this premise, then the D300 is a combination of the D200 and the D2x. Although it has actually or effectively orphaned many a poor D2x, the 12-MP D300 (with a CMOS sensor, no less) is essentially a D2x for 1/3rd the price, and in a much friendlier-sized and -shaped body. Nikon itself calls the D300 the best reduced-sensor-size camera it has ever built—no small claim. Although image quality is not quite as good as the K20D's, and the basic body style is not quite as pleasingly put together or as much of a pleasure to use at the Olympus E-3, the D300 trumps all of the competitors in its class in terms of overall speed, responsiveness, and flash options and control. It's a true semi-pro camera.
Caveat: hold one before you make the decision to buy. Although "mid-sized" in relative terms, it's a big camera, especially so when mated with a big lens.
Also a well-sorted, nicely evolved, cheaper competitor with excellent performance: the Canon 40D, a recent update of the D30 [sic]*. Although it scores over the D300 in only one way—price—the 40D is a solid step up from entry-level DSLRs and a fine user overall.
2. (tie) Pentax K20D (APS-C sensor DSLR) and Olympus E-3 (4/3rds DSLR). The K20D is an improved version of the K10D. Carl Weese and I are both using this camera at the moment; Carl a "boughten" one, me a loaner from Pentax. Carl is so far finding that it fixes most of what he found to be the K10D's shortcomings. Solid performance, a viewfinder to rival the D80/D200's, in-the-body Shake Reduction (i.e., image stabilization), not too terribly big or small, weatherproof, and favorably priced—and it's got peerless lens compatibility, which is just plain fun. You can get modern AF zooms, a decent selection of independent-maker optics, tiny pancake AF primes, or you can mount manual-focus lenses going all the way back (with the proper adapter) to M42 screwmount, for heaven's sake. And the functionality means that, unlike the case so often is, these now-ancient lenses are actually easy to use. For real pictures. Overall, a package you can't beat with a stick, and a fine choice for both enthusiastic hobbyists and dedicated amateur shooters.
Let's get the negatives about the Olympus E-3 out of the way first, because there are some, as rehearsed ad nauseam by pontificators who don't find this camera appealing on paper.
• Only ten megapixels. Check, although "who needs more" is still a valid question.
• Sensor slightly smaller than the more common APS-C-size. Check, although the difference is mostly theoretical and usually highly overstated—4/3rds is really barely smaller than APS-C, and the lion's share of viewers, even experienced ones, wouldn't be able to pick out which is which in a blind test except at just the right enlargement sizes.
• Olympus isn't one of the "Big Two." Check. But it's still a big, innovative, highly experienced camera company with extremely talented designers and engineers in its employ.
There are some advantages to the E-3 too: a solid and pleasing feel to its build; with the right lenses, it's waterproof (you won't catch me trying this, but I've seen them held under running faucets with impunity—try that with your D300); IS built into the body; and the lens line is simply ne plus ultra—Olympus, we feel, is the world's leading lensmaker at this moment. Focus with the new SWD lenses is very fast, but slows down considerably in low light levels (the D300 and A700 do better in low light levels). No, the E-3 just doesn't win many of the pixel-peeping or spec-chasing contests. Other cameras can out-point it.
- (Continued below the break)
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However, there is one important measure in which the E-3 absolutely excels: image quality. As Peter K. Burian writes in his Shutterbug review, "Low ISO image quality is superlative. My best ISO 100 to 400 JPEGs are clean, silky smooth, and finely detailed. Resolution is outstanding, color saturation, contrast, and sharpness are quite high for a very pleasing overall effect." Used with one of the better Oly lenses, the E-3, within its power band, is capable of connoisseur-pleasing photographic image quality that's tough to beat with just about anything on the market.
Also well worth considering in this class: the fine, streamlined, ergonomic and easy-to-use Sony A700. Questions about its ultimate image quality, at least with the initial firmware, are what have kept it off our list.
Regarding our "tie" between the K20D and the E-3: What both of these cameras share is especially high image quality and fine lens lineups. However, the two companies' approach to lens availability is radically different. Both have advantages. Olympus has been building its Zuiko Digital lineup from scratch since the advent of the E System, giving it a real advantage in terms of overall quality—what one might call a coherence of quality. As we've written elsewhere, Olympus has become to the digital age what Leica was to the preceeding generation and Zeiss to the generation before that—the world's leading lensmaker. However good its principal offerings, however, the line remains seriously limited, meaning that you should check for the current availability of the lenses you need before buying into the system.
Pentax enjoys the opposite approach. Its DSLRs will work with varying degrees of compatibility with lenses going all the way back to the screwmount age, meaning, so long ago that most active photographers don't even know what we mean (Pentax or M42 screwmount was a common-standard screw-in type of lens for SLRs that was outmoded by the end of the 1960s). Plus, there is a wide variety of independent aftermarket lenses that can be fitted to a Pentax, notably including several options from Voigtländer and Zeiss that are also available for Nikons. No company has Pentax's range of purposed-for-digital single-focal-length lenses, however. Both Carl and I are using Pentax's stunning new 35mm DA Macro, which we plan to do an extensive joint post about sometime in the coming two months or so. Suffice to say that we both agree it is, in Carl's words, "really something special."
By contrast, Nikon's and Canon's large but jumbled lens lineups are a hodgepodge of good and not-so-good, old made-for-film and new digital-specific, IS-enabled and not, pro and "consumer," full-frame and reduced-frame, that can ultimately be confusing and even frustrating.
4. Nikon D3 ("full-frame" [~24x36mm] or "FX" DSLR). Two things happened as 2007 matured and drew to a close that changed the landscape in professional DSLRs. First, Canon had some highly publicized AF problems with its new flagship pro camera, the 1D Mark III (since fixed; the camera is selling well), and Nikon introduced its first "full-frame" camera. "Full-frame" has come to mean a sensor the same size as a 35mm negative, which has been an arbitrary size for more than 80 years now. But never mind that—it matches well with the many legacy lenses out in the world and in many lensmakers' lineups, which is the point.
Too expensive for many amateurs and, frankly, overkill for many peoples' actual uses, the D3 is a no-holds-barred, full-on professional camera. As industrial design and a technological marvel, it is that rare "home run" in the great procession of camera-company at-bats, besting the Canon alternative in several parameters. This might not be decisive for any given pro: it can be argued that Canon and Nikon, the "Team Red" and "Team Blue" of camera manufacture, have simply been swapping places at the top spot ever since Nikon brought out the D1 and real professionals started shooting digital. That's true, but for now, Nikon's it. So popular has the D3 been that the company has had to increase its monthly production targets and is selling all it can build. (Canon, no doubt, will be back.)
5. Zeiss Ikon ZI (35mm film rangefinder). A brilliant new camera (see our full review) that is in essence an improved Leica. Although missing the Leica's redoubtable Teutonic solidity and the panache of Leica's continuous heritage, the Zeiss Ikon is based on the Leica rangefinder: great care and thought was put into its design by people who were intimately familiar with the experience of shooting with Leicas. The improvements are several and logical, and, when considered alongside the advantageous price and weight, make the ZI the rangefinder of choice for users not already wedded to Leica—although, since it has the same lensmount and takes the same lenses, it could well appeal to those folks as well. The result is a camera that's ideal in terms of all of its various balancing acts, that has just the right feel, and that comes out being much more than the sum of its parts. It's just a pleasure to shoot with.
6. Any entry-level DSLR, with the Canon 450 (Rebel XSi in the 'States) and Nikon D60 leading the pack. (Note: both bodies are recommended with the matching IS/VR lenses, per the links.) The primary difference between point-and-shoots and DSLRs is the size of the sensor: digicams have sensors roughly the size of a fingernail, and DSLRs have sensors roughly the size of a postage stamp. It's a huge difference, and it shows in overall image quality, especially at higher ISOs (light sensitivity) in low light. Unless you always shoot in good light, we feel it's worth jumping that chasm. Our top recommendation for anyone currently shooting with a small-sensor digicam of any description, assuming they can handle the size, is to make the jump to large image sensors. The cheapest and most satisfying way to do this is to invest in an entry-level DSLR.
Besides the Canon and Nikon, two entry-level DSLRs that offer body-based image stabilization (as opposed to having the technology in the lens) are the Pentax K200D and the Olympus E-520. The advantage of doing it this way is that any lens you put on the camera will be able to utilize the feature. In the case of the Pentax, that includes many older lenses in Pentax K-mount.
7. Canon 5D ("full-frame" [~24x36mm] DSLR). In the race to produce the pro camera with the mostest that does things the fastest, cameramakers seem to have forgotten—or at least shunted off to one side, for the present—the fact that a great many photographers just want the best possible results for their money, state-of-the-art speed not required. For many photographers, the 5D has long come closest to filling this bill. Size- and handling-wise it is solidly in the "x0D"-series camp, but it sports a junior version of the 1Ds's full-frame sensor, with what was originally a very generous number of pixels (mid-level APS-C cameras have finally caught up), for a price that can be stretched to for many, if they're dedicated enough. Although it's been impressively long-lived in its niche, it's getting long in tooth now for a digital SLR and it may soon face some up-to-date competition. It's not the best or the most in any single category, but the 5D provides exactly what many art and landscape photographers most need.
The only reason that the 5D is not placed higher on our list is because of the frequency of rumors that it will soon be replaced. Remember, this is a list of recommendations, and it's always a bit dicey to recommend for purchase a camera that might soon go out of production. (Note the fire-sale price, at the link above.)
Again, however, as with many of the other cameras on our list, where the 5D really scores is in terms of its results. The sensor has long been thought to hit a sort of "sweet spot" between photosite size, number of pixels and technical implementation, so unfailingly pleasing are its results. How good is it? A formidable sign of its accomplishments is that many longtime 5D users are at least a little worried lest the next generation of the 5D not be able to quite match its special image qualities.
8. Wista 810DX (8x10-inch brass and cherry wood field view camera) with Rodenstock 240mm ƒ/5.6 Sironar-S lens. Wista's 8x10 (like the earliest of the 4x5's it marketed) is actually made by Tachihara (that's the Tachihara in the illustration), and, really, there's nothing wrong with any of this camera's many competitors. Or, for that matter, with a used Deardorff you might find on eBay. (If you want a more modern-styled and premium-quality option, check out the options made by Keith Canham, a garrulous and very friendly schoolteacher from Arizona who's been building bespoke view cameras for many years now.)
So why an 8x10? Isn't it obsolete? The word is obsolescent, actually, meaning almost but not quite obsolete, and nothing's changed with the advent of digital in that respect—field view cameras were obsolescent in the 1970s when photographers such as George Tice and Steve Szabo led a revival of their use among art photographers. And that's the first reason to use one—a disproportionate number of high-level fine art photographers, such as Steven Shore, Joel Meyerowitz, and Alec Soth, use 8x10 cameras to distinguish their work visually and technically from the great digital flood.
The other reason is that there has been a big change in what was considered for a long time to be a bottleneck in view camera practicality. 8x10 contact prints (made by sandwiching the negative and paper together, so the print had a 1:1 correspondence to the negative), although big enough for Edward Weston, were seen by many as being too small; but 8x10 enlargers were formidably big, expensive, and difficult to work with. Because 4x5 enlargers were so much more practical, and because studio pros found 4x5 Polaroids most practical, 4x5 became the dominant size in view cameras.
So what's changed? Scanners! An 8x10 negative (or positive) is just as easy to fit on the bed of a high-quality flatbed scanner like the Epson V-750 as a 4x5 negative is. (Expect to contend with enormous file sizes, however.) Digital might yet be a puff of wind beneath the sails of this venerable old format. And, assuming your technique is good, the results of such a working method would surpass those from our #10 camera, too, for image quality.
9. Canon SD870 IS Digital ELPH (digital point-and-shoot). To be honest, we're not big fans of little cameras, but size is literally the first thing to consider when you're buying a camera—many people will just not be able to conveniently carry a larger camera, even if it's as compact as the feature-laden Canon G9. So, okay: if you want a genuine carry-anywhere shirt-pocket camera the image quality of which will best most any camera phone, you face a formidable shopping challenge: not only is it tough to choose one overall, it's tough to choose one within each brand, there are so many. Our pick is the Canon ELPH SD870, which bests the Fuji FinePix F40fd—just—because it has real image stabilization. (The Fuji's a little better at high ISOs for low light, but it has fake IS.) The SD870 is 8 MP (plenty), has a 3.8X zoom (a bit too much, but the lens is decently fast at the short end of the focal-length range) and is an outstanding bargain at $265. (Who wants to spend more on a shirt-pocket p&s?)
By the bye, If you're eager to have the best image quality out of a p&s, follow these five tips: 1. Choose one or two ISO speeds higher than the camera's lowest; 2. Set the focal-length of the lens to a setting that's a little longer than its widest; 3. Set an aperture that's one or two smaller than its largest; 4. Set the Image Quality to the highest setting (Superfine for this Canon); and 5. Shoot when and where there's plenty of light while avoiding high-contrast situations.
10. Phase One P45+ ("medium-format" digital back). All of the major camera review sites save one (The Luminous Landscape) treat "medium-format" digital backs as if they don't exist. They're never mentioned, much less reviewed. Given the constant disputation (and worse) on many forums about the ultimate in digital image quality, this is strange. Let's make no bones about it: the very best image quality in digital is attainable only with dedicated medium format backs. There are several of them, some being proprietary to specific cameramakers and some adaptable to any one of several cameras. I'm not familiar personally with any, because they're priced a wee bit out of my reach. The one under discussion here, for instance, costs as much as two new economy cars—not including the camera and lenses. I've chosen this one because it's the one Michael Reichmann uses, and it's a close cousin to the one Charlie Cramer uses.
Despite their no-holds-barred image quality, the entire category of digital backs is beginning to show some strain. The rampaging pace of sensor development is such that several new or upcoming 35mm-style DSLRs will cut the low end out of the digital back market, and, as medium-format camera makers have fallen by the wayside, there are some limitations and some uncertainty as to the availability, selection, service, and future support of bodies and lens systems available to mate to such backs. Still, we can argue about which "full-frame" or smaller DSLR offers the ultimate in digital image quality all day and all night, but the answer is very clear: none of the above. They're all trumped by the Phase One and its estimable brethren.
*In the sense that the 40D is descended from the D30 in the lineage D30 —> D60 —> 10D —> 20D —> 30D —> 40D. The D30 being a landmark camera as the first mid-sized, mid-priced DSLR.
Copyright 2008 by Michael C. Johnston—All Rights Reserved