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Friday, 17 April 2009


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I think this is all good logic. I bought my girlfriend a Nikon D40 at Circuit City a couple of months ago when they were closing down their stores, for $350 with the standard kit lens, brand new in the box that had never been opened. Not a fantastic camera by today's standards, but a big jump up from the Canon P&S she'd been using. I'm still using my 2-year old Canon Rebel XTi, and have spent any extra money on better glass rather than upgrading the body....though it's about time for that too! Interesting discussions going on here.


I held one of these in a store, and I think you left out another very important reason for buying one. It feels like those tiny film SLRs from the 80s, before auto-focus. This won't mean much to newcomers to photography, but it can make some men weep (nearly). I know, I know, it doesn't have that protuberance on the right they call a "grip". So what.

You can find pretty good quality lenses from 28 mm-e to 300 mm-e for not much money at all. The entire kit will end up costing less than you'll believe, including extra batteries and bag, weigh less than you think it should, and if you pretend that stabilization doesn't matter, you won't have buyer's regret (or the urge to upgrade for a while). And it uses the same battery as the E-620 that you may upgrade to one day.


The second paragraph about sensor sizes thoroughly outclasses David Pogue's latest column which at best confuses and at worst misguides laypeople about the importance of sensor size. Pogue should just start linking to you, fer chrissakes.

Excellent, Mike. Not only do you give us a #6 at which we can salute or throw darts, you provide a nice unbiased overview of the entry-level field as a bonus.

Nicely done.

I prefer to call the T1i the TOneI or the Toni.

Mike, nice progression so far, I really like the simplicity of "an entry level DSLR." In a way, this should be your #1. ch

Another reason not to make the D40 your recommendation is that it was discontinued yesterday. However, I had one from just after it came out and it was a great little camera to learn on. I also acquired a bunch of useful lenses that work very nicely on the D90 I now have.

Lens availability and a good upgrade path was important in my decision-making, since once you're in a system, you're probably going to stick with it (I'm not going to sell all my kit and switch to Canon or Pentax).

Maybe you should recommend an entry-level DSLR less for its own merits than for what the next move is? So I'll be interested to see recommendation #5.

Agreed, that is a good gloss on sensor sizes, but "fingernail" might be too variable; how about something like "pencil eraser"?

"T1i" reminds me of a gag from the first episode of Futurama, in which Leela, the cyclopian career enforcement officer, identifies herself as "Agent 1BDI". Maybe Canon is trying to distinguish future SLR's from an upcoming line of 3D stereoscopic cameras, which will get names like "T2i".

The 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Zuiko that comes with the E-420 kit is not just good, it's--as we say in the current vernacular--"stoopid good." The camera's not bad either. It's one of those that once you're familiar with it, it becomes like an extension of your hand and eye. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better deal at this price. You might even have some money left over for a fast prime or the latest version of Photoshop.

Mike, this is excellent advice,
A year ago I bought a Canon Rebel XSi with the cheap kit lens (I paid $899, now down to $699), as a stopgap until the full-frame 5D MkII became available.
Much to my surprise, I'm getting really sharp, detailed 16x24 prints,(both B&W and color). Even though I have several excellent Canon lenses from my 35mm film camera just waiting to use on a full-frame digital camera, I don't think that I'll soon be trading "up." The XSi kit is THAT good.

My choice as an entry level DSLR would have been the Sony A200. Why? Bigger finder image. The 420's is seriously tiny. Wider range lens -- 18-70, bigger sensor for better high ISO. True the camera is somewhat larger, but it's still pretty light. Unless, that is, you're choosing the Olympus partly for its range of lenses and upgrade path. But Sony has a decent tele zoom, a 50mm 1.4, and lots of others from Sigma and such. + it has in-body stabilization. Currently it's 499 at Amazon, but it's frequently put on sale, esp. as it's the bottom end camera of the line, though with 10 mpxl, that should plenty for anyone looking at this sort of camera. I realize though, that there are arguments to made for any of the entry level cameras and, as you say, they're probably ALL good!

I notice that the E-420 is unavailable at most the the camera stores in Canada I look at. Has it been discontinued (here)?

FYI, Costco.com has the D40 with the superior 18-55mm VR (rather than the usual non-VR kit lens) and a 2GB card for $450, which is probably a final closeout price or very close to one. As everyone here knows, I love mine with the red hot passion of a thousand suns.

This piece is excellent and eloquent advice for entry-level future TOP obsessives and other shutter fiends but for most everyone else, buying a camera like the E-420 or D40 isn't the beginning - it's the end. If you are not going to make fairly big, serious prints, you simply don't need anything above this level for general photography. With the mad proliferation of flat screens throughout the lives of normal people who don't own >2 cameras and can't imagine why anyone would want to, fewer and fewer prints of ANY kind are going to be made.

A few weeks ago I shot a nice image of my neighbor and his 4 year-old boy with an F5; naturally the boy was somewhat disoriented by not being able to run behind the camera to see the picture. I'm used to that, but what happened next was a first. I slipped a 8x12 under their front door a few days later. Later the dad told me it was the first printed picture of his kid that he'd seen since the birth announcement cards.

You are now looking at the future of the Kodak Moment!

Hmmm, two 13.5X18mm sensor cameras in a row. I'm surprised selection #6 has not resulted in the controversy #5 did. Just three months past I bought the discontinued 410 w/kit lens for the silly price of $340 new. Even so, I've never have been so unexcited about having a new camera. I still use my Pen F and Pen vf cameras more than this thing. The missus thinks I'm crazy when she gets home from work and still finds several prints or a couple of rolls of film hanging up to dry. When I get a ink jet printer for B&W that might change. As for now I don't know enough to make an informed purchase decision.

I don't understand why the D40 kit isn't recommended. The 18-55 II and 18-55vr are both equally optically excellent (with a tiny hat tip to the vr version), and the e-420 has not only a stop worse SNR than the D40's 6MP CCD, but also lacks IS/VR. Since they both go for the same price, and the e-420 is at best marginally smaller and lighter than the d40, with an inferior normal prime, it seems that if you recommend the e-420 you should feel compelled to also recommend the D40.

I think that Mike is right on about sensor size, but I also believe that "fast" lenses and great high ISO performance are also image changers! My D700 or D3 are simply so much better than the D200 or D300 re: high ISO performance it boggles the mind. Now of course this comes at a price. But I truly think the difference in performance justifies the difference in price. Perhaps not in this economy but I also believe you can be happy for a much longer period of time with either of these Nikons (and I am sure the equivalent
Canons or Sonys) so that if you don't get consumed by the fever of always needing the latest and greatest the additional time you will have your gear for shooting will help with the initial captital cost of the gear.

I bought an E-420 last year when Oly first introduced it. Although I was not into Olympus I was drawn by the camera's small size and relatively good reports. Actually I bought it, plus several lenses, for a single event.

My opinion: It's not bad at all. I only used mine for two days (with a few days of practice) but I was reasonably pleased with its performance (coming from top-end Canons and Leica). It is quite small and light. You could do much worse in making the jump from social/pocket cameras into a camera system. Oly's optics are fine and the E-420 has some nice usability features that were immediately comfy to me.

Ultimately, though, I decided not to use the Oly E-420. It just made no sense for me to jump into yet another camera system. So mine has been boxed-up in like-brand-new condition, plus four lenses, etc., for nearly a year. I almost for got about it until Mike's post. I've been meaning to offer it for sale but just never remembered! (If you're interested in a good deal, send me a note.)

I agree with Chris, especially as readers of TOP are more committed to photography than the average consumer. One will want to keep one's investment in lenses, and then use the entry-level camera as a spare body.

Also, as someone in the software business (ImageIngester; see ad at right), waiting for various apps to support your raw format is very annoying (judging from my mail). With Nikon (NEF) and Canon (CR2), one never has to wait long. With other formats, who knows?

So, for these reasons, I would suggest that Nikon's or Canon's entry-level DSLRs would be better choices. (Which is not to negate the many fine properties of Mike's first choice.)


My question is when will at least one of the manufacturers wise up to the fact that forcing their new customers to peer through tiny tunnel-like viewfinders does nobody any favors. The Olympus E-420 is a particularly egregious offender in this area, but they're all pretty bad. It's amazing how much better one's compositions are when one can actually see the details in the frame.

For that reason, the late Pentax *ist DS remains in my view the only good entry-level DSLR yet released.

#5 on Monday?! You mean you're actually planning to take the weekend off?!

Oh all right.

I have nothing to say about #6 because I know absolutely nothing about it, but I promised myself I'd poke my nose in on every day of the "T.O.P. Ten Recommended Cameras" project in sort of a perverse show of support.

Mike, I admire your determination in taking this on. And I know how hard it can be to actually come up with a substantial piece every single day, even if it's only for ten days. So far it's going very well, and I have enjoyed every installment. The sage advice embedded in today's choice should be given careful consideration by anyone looking to buy their first "real" DSLR.

And now I have to wait until Monday ... oh well ...

Guess I'll go take some pictures in the meantime.

>Assuming your interest is first and foremost in pictures, and not some other aspect of the photographic hobby, then the best way to make pictures that satisfy you—that "nourish your enthusiasm," in the quaint and kindly words of Uncle Ansel—is to spend time with a camera in your hands<

ahem, what? You recommend fondling? I'd rather say the best place on earth for one really, really (I mean it) in pictures is the DARKROOM. Is, was, will be.

Start with: Pentax K2000 plus the DA 35mm Macro Limited ;-)

And expand to;
K2000 and 15mm, 35mm, 70mm limited lenses. They are all very small, about the same exact physical size... with great IQ.

The perspective and advice of a teacher instead of that of a worshiper of equipment, or worse, a fan boy. Very refreshing indeed!

Marc and Chris,
Bear in mind that what I'm really saying here is "any entry-level DSLR of the brand of your choice." In fact, up until yesterday, that WAS choice #6, but late last night I decided that I would probably catch too much flak for that--after all, the purpose of a "best" list is to *make* choices, not throw in everything and leave the choice up to the reader.


Mike: Trying to follow the logic of: "...the Nikon D40, a good 6-MP camera which I don't recommend at the moment because of the lens(es) it's currently bundled with..." The 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED II AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor has gotten positive reviews as an entry level lens from most sources. Of course, it is not a VR lens, but as you point out "In fairness, the value-leader E-420 doesn't have stabilization either." Comment? Thanks!

I don't like those Olympus cameras. I've tried to help a few people shoot with them in manual mode & they were really fiddly in regards to what buttons you had to press to make things happen. They seem very biased to auto mode. They have tiny viewfinders, I suppose you're meant to use live view but I find that useless for manual focusing. Also people who like to make prints at mini labs have to realise the sensor is a different shape to most DSLRs & they need to select the correct option to avoid cropping to a more rectangular shape.

The Nikon D60 is not bad although Nikon tends to cripple their cheaper models. e.g. you don't get a port for a cable release, you have to buy a separate remote. Canon always include basic things like cable release ports, even on their entry models. The Olympus does make good quality images but I reckon I'd throw it against a wall before I got used to it.

I'm pretty certain all the 28-85 equivalent kit lenses on all the starter DSLRs are pretty good. Not a reason to choose one camera over another. Well maybe the Sony might not be as good (the only one I haven't seen) but I doubt it.

The Sonys and the Olympus have terrible viewfinders though. I tried a Sony A350 once and I think it's actually worse than the old Nikon D70. That's really something, to say the least!

Well done Mike,

It's not just bias on my part as a current Olympus shooter that I think the E-420 feels the most robust and well built of the entry level cams. I think it really is. It's still a fantastic - plastic camera but it has never made me smirk at it. I can't say that for any of the others including Pentax at the very entry level.

Not that anyone has any reason to care what I think.

Like the Hippies say...It's all good.

What ShadZee said. I think anyone contemplating a small dSLR like the Oly 420 would be better off with the recently introduced Pentax K2000 (Km outside the US). The K2000 has shake-reduction in camera, bigger finder, and ability to use a Pentax 'pancake' lens for a really small kit. The larger sensor in the K2000 means less noise at higher ISO and an improved dynamic range. Kit + external flash is ~$530 and the body with kit lens is ~<$500 (Amazon)

E-420: Poor viewfinder, poor ergonomics, only one (mediocre) small prime in the system. No IS unless you also get one of the (expensive and large) PanaLeica zooms. Live View.

K-m/K-2000: Adequate viewfinder, good ergonomics for its size, as small or smaller than the E420 in the controlling dimensions (height and width). 5 Pancake lenses available from 15 to 70mm with a 6th coming (4 DA Limiteds, Voigtlander 40 and 20 pancakes), in-body IS, no Live View.

The day is half over, where is #5? You're not going to make us wait until Monday are you? That would be cruel.

Monday it is.


Two things...for one, if a VR lens is available I think you should be able to get it with the camera; and, the D40 has just been discontinued.

On a scale of 1-10, the Olympus kit lens would rank a half point better than its competitors. It's really very good.


Monday, huh?

Oh boy! This is gonna be good.

I can tell.

Just because the E-420 sensor is slightly smaller than APS-C does not automatically mean it is noisier and has less dynamic range. DPreview's test of the K-m/K-2000 shows it to be noisier, though I'm sure noise reduction software on raw images would make it a wash.

YS is right, the Sony A300 and A350 have small viewfinders, but the A200, which lacks live-view, has a larger viewfinder than its brothers.

The DPReview of the k2000 did show the images to have more detail than the Oly E420 - the aggressive noise reduction in the E420 results in soft looking jpegs in their tests. The E420 also had the most limited dynamic range of any of the cameras compared in the test.

The E420 is a fine little camera but the lack of image stabilization is a problem. I have the K200D, the larger brother to the k2000 (same sensor) and find the image stabilization to be very helpful.

Great stuff Mike! So much more profound than just camera picks, and it doesn't matter that the E-420 isn't the camera I would have chosen for this slot, it is, afterall, your list. I eagerly look forward to the rest.

Dear Folks,

If picking a "recommended" camera were just about technical image specs, there'd be no need for Mike to write this. You could just look up the specs online.

"Recommended" is a personal evaluation that includes all aspects of a camera, not just some tech spec. That includes price, size, ergonomics, handling, convenience, lenses, and probably most important of all, the mix of all of those.

Just for the heck of it, I pulled up the DxO print results for the 420, D40 and K200D. There ain't a lot of difference. The biggest one is a stop difference in exposure range. 10.4 vs 11.4 stops. Yeah, I'd like the extra range, but it wouldn't be a make or break for me.

Low light ability? A whole (unimportant!) half-stop spread. Other image characteristics-- essentially identical across the board.

There's just not enough objective difference in image quality to make one stand out over the other. If I were the one writing this column, I'd decide to ignore image quality entirely as a deciding factor, and look at all those 'incidentals.'

Pixel peeping won't tell you which camera is best for you, just which spec is best. It's not the same thing.

pax / Ctein

I agree totally, comming from a camera sales background, its a big jump going from a canon ixus/elph to a camera like a Nikon d90 or Eos 50D, go for the lower level camera, use it and get the best out of it.. upgrade the glass then in a couple of years go for a better body if that is what you want.. me personally, im starting to look at replacing my Canon EOS 300D/Dig Rebel.. it has just gone through 50,000 frames yes thats right 50,000 without an overhaul and has only had one sensor clean in just on 4 years... its still turning out great work, i just need more speed....

My e-420 has been great for exactly what you recommend it - entry level from point and shoots. Since I haven't had experience with other cameras, I don't know the viewfinder is too small (yet) and the small body means I carry it everywhere with me. I've graduated to the 12-60mm lens from the 24mm pancake kit; both are great by the 12-60mm works for everything I need and stays on the camera all the time. It's been great so far and has really altered the the photos I've been able to take from snapshots to better quality. I may graduate to a more serious SLR someday, but in the meantime, this has been a nice, inexpensive way to get started.

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