« Quote o' the Day: 'The Direst Facts' | Main | Everything Is Amazing, Nobody Is Happy »

Wednesday, 22 April 2009


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

In this day and age, it takes guts to do a cop-out! Very nicely summarised. I also love the very succinct list of unique selling points of each system.

PS. What about #2? Or is this some smart way of meaning #2 will be out Thursday, and please look forward to #1 on Friday? I must be getting dense with each passing day...

Great rant Mike--makes me think of the camera Larry Towell used in New York on 9/11.

Thanks for your insights, informative and a pleasure to read!

Hans Berkhout.

Mike, if I only had the same brand pen used by Shakespeare, then I would be able to write a better comment. Darn!

Mike - as a Sony shooter who just kind of fell into the brand I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment here. The minute differences between cameras of this class are such that I struggle to understand the inter-brand angst. The most destructive element of this is, I think, the creation of insane measurement techniques in a desperate attempt to find something, anything that will just our, and repudiate another's, brand choice.

>A good shooter with a poorish camera will still shoot rings around an inexperienced goof with the latest and most fastidiously chosen and 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.<

Mike, to cop out the copped out copping you HAVE to give #1 to a fully manual film camera - operated by a good shooter.

These cameras are all good, but the Pentax K20D, which can now be had for less than $500 (body only) in some places, is a real steal.

Starting from scratch (no present lens inventory or brand loyalty) the Pentax has to be the best deal as, apart from its lower cost, it makes working with older bargain lenses much easier than the others.

Then again, things are never as simple as they seem - I used to have Pentax *istD and although I tried all sorts of wonderful old K mount lenses they often disagreed with the sensor. The sensor coating relective qualities of my present Sony A100 make life much easier with old lenses, how does the Pentax K20 sensor fare in this respect?

Cheers, Robin

Hmmmm... there's no #2? Must be a tie for #1. Nikon D700 is surely one of them. And, I suppose, one of the full-frame Canons...

But then would that be cop-out #2? ;-)


Bravo, Mike, bravo !!!
[Andrea B. stands and applauds vigorously.]

This is without a doubt the best advice on choosing a camera that I have read on any forum. Oh my God, rational thought on the internet!

I don't think your "cop-out" is a cop-out at all. Any of these cameras would be a great choice and allow terrific photos to be made. My primary digital camera just happens to be one of them: the Canon 50D. Without my pre-existing set of Canon lenses I may well have chosen a different camera from your list. (There's a separate argument that many people choosing a Canon would do better with a 40D, but this isn't the time and place, and wasn't the choice I made.)

Brand loyalty isn't the issue - system lock-in is. The differences between the competing brands and camera systems would have to be much more substantial than they are for most people with existing gear to contemplate switching systems.

...Mike F

If they are all similars why should I pay more than the 670$ K20D? (OK I'm biased I have a K20D, but a those prices it's a screaming bargain).

Finally, someone said they're all good.

The arguing I've seen on some forums...

I challege anyone to look at a photograph, and state which camera it was made with. Remember on the LL, there was a post that started with "You've got to be kidding"? Some pros could not tell between a dSLR and the Canon G10: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/reviews/kidding.shtml

Bravo Mike. It is refreshing to see an online review that emphasizes the quality and approximate equivalence of the available mid-level DSLR bodies. There are differences between them that would make one a more appropriate choice for certain applications, but they are all excellent and the limiting factor in quality photographs, as always, remains the camera operator.

The Pentax does have a distinguishing price point however.

You forgot the D300 and E3 on this very group. Thus, there you have it:

The Nikon D90 (12.3 MP, $930)
The Nikon D300 [12.3 MP, $1600)
The Olympus E-30 (12.3 MP, $1100)
The Olympus E-3 (10.0 MP, $1300)
The Canon 50D (15.1 MP, $1120)
The Pentax K20D (14.6 MP, $670)
The Sony A700 (12.2 MP, $1000)

This is the broadest group ever, and what I wonder is how does Hoya manage to make ANY profit out of the K series... at those bargain basement prices of the whole series [the K200d is dangerously cheap].

In my opinion, one of the pillars of camera shopping has fallen by the wayside as people peep pixels and arcane specs ad nauseam - ergonomics. I see less and less of this discussed. When I bought my first DSLR, I chose Canon's 20D over their Rebel cameras. The simple reason was the hand grip - the 20D felt so comfortable in my hand, that at times, I panicked when I thought I had set my camera down some place, when it was merely resting comfortably in one hand.

It if were me starting all over again, I'd try all the cameras on this list and pick out the one that feels best in my hand and the one that has the easiest to use functions, buttons and menus. Kudos to Mike for mentioning this!

I'm still making my best shots on a beat-up Nikon FM2N with AIS manual focus lenses, using Tri-X and Rodinal 1+25. I always get a tinge of narcissistic pride when my friends with their newfangled plastic wonder DSLRs admit that I'm still running circles around them. I sometimes give the FM2N a break to whip out the Bronica SQ-Ai. Take that, technology!

You're cheating.

I'd say all of these will be replaced within 12 months.

Also, the E-30 is the only camera of the bunch that lets you shoot in 1:1 aspect ratio (as does the E-620; and I think you can do so whether or not you're in live view.)

The K20D is quite a bargain right now. I shot it for a week in Tokyo with a 21mm Ltd and my only complaints were a hard shutter press (but it has a nice, soft shutter sound) and some minor banding at ISO 1600. Image stabilization was effective even at that short focal length. Easily the bang-for-buck choice, but but being fed up with having to shoot at 3:2, I'm going to try the E-30 or E-620 next time around.

Well said, especially the part about the choice being meaningless in a fairly short time period. These cameras are great, but won't have the staying power say of a Nikkormat, a classic Olympus range finder, or a Mamyia 645.

When I shoot 35mm SLR, I first grab a Yashica, 2nd - Minolta, 3rd - Pentax. I have two Pentax DSLR: reason, prime lens.

Dustin has a good point, ergonomics need more attention. All current dSLRs produce great images, speed and ISO performance being the major separators, but the feel of a camera can really be the dealbreaker. All of this group feel good in your hands so now it comes down to control placement. I use a Pentax K10D so I am very familiar with the feel of the K20D since there are no major changes in shape or user interface.

No cop-out here, all are great and only details that may be more important to certain photographers actually separate them.

I look forward to the final entries.


The way it is phrased in most forums is that 4/3s is not as good at very high ISOs. It would be more accurate to state that the current crop of sensors in the 4/3s bodies are not as good as others at very high ISOs. I doubt that a large part of the perceived deficiency is due to size alone, given that they really are similar in size. A 4/3s manufacturer could potentially build a sensor that was superior to the others, no one has a monopoly on technology, but they don't seem to have done that yet.


A truly excellent cop-out and I agree wholeheartedly. I would point out that the Pentax K20 is the only camera here that supports the non-proprietary DNG raw format, something that I feel needs more support from photographers who are less interested in being in one camp or another than actually taking pictures.

Meanwhile, I'm off to Barcelona with my trusty Ricoh GX-100. An odd choice, I know.

Excellent recommendation!

"Levels" of product, and names for them, are interesting. You've used "entry-level", which has a fairly obvious meaning that's compatible with how you used it. Now we have "mid-level", which clearly means between other levels; presumably between "entry-level" and a grouping to be named later.

Also, "mid" seems like a less precise concept than "entry", so this band may have vaguer boundaries -- perhaps as indicated by Inaki's suggestion that the D300 and the E3 really belong in this group. Given how those prices stand out, I'm not sure they do, and I doubt you "forgot" them.

Presumably there's a "top" or "professional" level (not necessarily as a recommendation; maybe that's the big controversy you're planning, simply not recommending any of the top-level cameras?) to cover the Nikon D3[x] and Canon 1D* (that's a wildcard "star", not a confusion with Pentax naming :-)).

So I guess the big question is where you'll put the D300, D700, and 5D. Also it's not totally clear the D300 belongs on that list. Apparently not in "mid"; so either in "pro", or in another intermediate level, perhaps "prosumer" (hate the term; it labels a useful concept, though, gear of pro quality for some purposes that's cheap enough for some mere mortals to own). The fact that two of them are full-frame probably confuses the issue, introducing a cost and feature point that (may) not be really relevant to categorizing the camera.

Hope you're having as much fun as I am!

I had a conversation in a camera store with a Nikon shooter (I use Canon) about the relative merits. Not once was picture quality mentioned - preference was all to do with functions and ergonomics. We agreed that both cameras (earlier models in this bracket) were excellent picture making machine, neither better nor worse. More photographers should care to have such an attitude.

"ergonomics need more attention.... All of this group feel good in your hands so now it comes down to control placement."

And control logic, and general consistency and thoughtfulness.

Cameras used to be metal hand tools, for which ergonomics meant how they fit your hand. But now they're small computers, and software really counts. With the same buttons and knobs you could design... well windows 3.1 and mac os 10.5!

Some pet loves/hates:

- My old nikon has hold the button and spin the wheel adjustments for iso, white balance... and after not touching it for 3 years, my fingers can still make these adjustments blind.

- Whereas I find canon's pushing a button and then turning awful. If you get distracted, you have to look to see if it's reset yet, or not yet.

- My pentax idiotically uses "right" on the dial to always mean "bigger numbers": towards 1/2000, +2ev, f/22, less/more/less light.

- I'm still waiting for an "M*" mode in which 2 dials are exposure and aperture, rather than shutter and aperture. On film bodies I was pretty quick at counter-rotating the two in sync, but on digital I can't do this, sometime they lose a click, so you have to think... This would make me very happy.

Your list focuses primarily on new cameras, but in my opinion a used Canon 1d Mark II is a better choice than any of these cameras and can be had for about the same price. Yes, you only have 8mp and can't use the APS-C lenses but it's a better (and heavier) camera in just about all other respects that matter for taking good pictures.

I wonder whether this is the last series of advanced/semi-pro cameras without video. No, somehow I don't think that D90 is really in this group, however good it may be.

And triplight, you can't shoot 1:1 in viewfinder, just in Live View. And in JPEG only or for conversion in Olympus software. Otherwise it's a crop like any other.

A very nice post indeed Mike, both pragmatic and lucid.

The only thing I might add is: What lenses do your friends have?

If your best mate from down the road is an industrial tycoon ( or insert rich profession here) and happens to own a closet full of summicrons and noktons, and loves to loan them to friends, get a freakin M8.

I'm really struck by the price of the Pentax K20D. I could buy a K20D with a really sweet lens such as the 21mm f/3.2 and still pay only slightly more than the cost of the other bodies alone. And as quiet as it's kept, a certain blogger whose name will not be mentioned has been using a K20D for several months now. Whether that's a plus or a minus for the Pentax I will leave for his readers to decide.


So what I'm trying to figure out is it pixels or IS0 for number 1

D700 & 5D mkII which is # 1 and which is #2.

My guess D700 wins, Mikes style is not huge amount of pixels vs great high ISO sensor with excellent B&W capability


So given that these are "mid-level" cameras, why do they all look like they are designed for pros who need to hold a camera for 8-12 hours every day? I'm getting to detest that "ergonomic" bulbous "pro camera body" look. We're well into the digital revolution, and yet, after all these years, we're still waiting for a digital Pentax MX.

I've worked with all types of cameras in my career as a large sign printer. I now do photoshopping for a publishing company, so I've seen the files coming off of digital cameras from the beginning. In the early days (6+ years ago) I would tell anyone to get a Canon, it's files were superior to all its' competition, when it came to enlarging an image for print. I'm a Canon shooter, and have been since I started with film. So I admit I'm biased. Today, however, I feel all the brands (not sure about Pentax just yet) are equally impressive, but they all still record images differently. However, RAW has become so versatile that doesn't even matter. I'm so glad to see it finally boil down to preference, this gives us new thinking in competition (HD video), and also the megapixel war seems less important (finally). No one will ever win the Nikon/Canon war...it's a bloody battle that will be waged for eternity. I'm glad some reviewer finally admits there is no difference.

"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."

Amen. Bronze that, Mike.

I'd go even further to say that the camera -any camera- has far less impact than the photographer on a photograph.

Buy the camera you can easily afford and that you know you'll find convenient to use often. You'll be rewarded for making a modest choice.

Cop? As in police service person?
The bastardization of the language?

However assuming Cop in proper terms is
Constable, as in painter of landscapes,
then maybe I shall agree.

Lovely range of models though; you should mention your source of pricing.

Here in Canada, quoted prices are way more than what you've listed. And nobody here to my knowledge sells for less than list price.

Then there is the damnable sales taxes, 13 percent here.


You know, being replaced by a newer-better model isn't such a bad thing. After all, how much better can the new camera possibly be? Other than incremental improvements in image quality and video (hey, some people may want this), I can think of one feature worth having: focus calibration in camera. The Pentax, the Olympus & the Canon in this range have it, the Nikon & Sony don't. Both Nikon & Sony have it in higher range cameras, and I wouldn't be surprised if their successor midrange camera's will.

Minor quibbles aside, perceived obsolescence is a great boon for the value shopper. Google makes a business out of building a supercomputer out of last year's latest and greatest PC parts. I have a friend who calmly pulled the trigger on a 5D right when the Mark II came out - for not too far off the top end of these prices.

Mike, you are brilliant!

Though could I mention the Canon 40D. It's practically the same camera as the 50D but £200 less in the UK. I admit I am being selfish by pushing the 40D since I own one and couldn't be happier.

I chose a mid-level DSLR for my first digital camera for exactly the reasons you gave. It 'had' to be Canon and I can only afford one so I figured I may as well pay a bit extra to get something more robust and versatile. I doubt I'll ever need 6.5fps but I'll be damned if I go without the rear contol dial and 3200 ISO.

Your "cop-out": well said.

That's just what I say to anybody asking my advice, even people I may buy pictures from later: any entry- or mid-level DSLR will do you fine.

Also, like you yourself pointed out brilliantly: the closer two things are, the harder the choice will seem. (And the more arguments you often get.) Though it should not be so.

I agree completely with you and the others that pictures are the point, and that a competent photographer can produce good work with any of these cameras. I also agree with those that have mentioned ergonomics as an important factor. One of the brands listed has all the buttons and dials just where I would have put them if the choice had been mine, and all of them turn in the direction that seems most logical to me, so that is the brand I've settled upon. Some of the others have things in places that seem odd or uncomfortable to me, or that operate in a non-intuitive way. Could I learn to live with that? Of course I could, but why, when I have an alternative that's better suited to me and my hands! (And at least one of those cameras has knobs and dials placed for the hands of another species, or so it seems).

I am not in violent agreement about IS (or VR, or OIS, or...) however. You conclude, regarding in-body IS, that "it does not need to be purchased repeatedly (and expensively) in each and every lens you buy that has it." Certainly that's true. You also state that "...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." That might be a logical conclusion. It might even be true. But do you have any actual evidence for that statement? At any rate, slight motion due to hand-holding the camera results in slight spatial translations of the image. This is more pronounced the longer the focal length (after all, telephotos do magnify). It is also more pronounced at the image plane than elsewhere in the optical path. For longer focal-length lenses especially, the needed corrections can be small near the nodal point (inside the lens), but will be relatively much larger at the image plane. For this reason alone, it seems likely that applying the correction in the lens, rather than at the image sensor, should be a more tractable solution to the IS problem. Further, by applying the correction in the lens, the solution can be tailored to the specifics of said lens (focal length, focal ratio), which seems like a more difficult thing to do in the image plane. Do you suppose it's just possible that this is why Canon and Nikon put this feature into their lenses rather than their camera bodies? It will be interesting to see what Imaging-Resource.com comes up with, assuming they test a suitable variety of focal lengths.

Finally (I couldn't stop myself), triplight says of the K20D and 21mm Ltd that "Image stabilization was effective even at that short focal length." Jeez, I'd hope so! There's scarcely a need for IS at that short focal length. Tell me it was effective with the DA Star 300mm F4, and I'd be impressed!

Keep doing what you're doing, Mike, and thanks!

I don't think the high ISO performance of current 4/3s cameras has much to do with sensor size. It has to do with Panasonic's sensor technology being a step behind the others in this department. If it were Canon or Nikon making the 4/3s sensor, we wouldn't see any difference.

Over the pond (UK), typical street prices are (from a large respected internet retailer):

The Nikon D90 (12.3 MP, £619)
The Olympus E-30 (12.3 MP, £849)
The Canon 50D (15.1 MP, £825)
The Pentax K20D (14.6 MP, £580)
The Sony A700 (12.2 MP, £580)

You might also consider the 40D (£580), 500D (£869), E3 (£994) and D300 (£1145).

As Dustin says, it's how the camera feels in your hand, how you can "see" with the camera, and how you can work the controls that matters more in the end. I bought at Minolta D5 because, of the cameras I could afford at that time, it "felt" the best. I had no lens investment to protect [*]. And I have had no regrets.

But any of the other equivalent cameras that were available at the time would have done me just fine.

Mike, excellent cop out all around. And I'm really enjoying your top 10 list! Can't wait for the remainder.

[*] all my old lenses were Canon FD, almost completely orphaned until I bought the Panasonic G1 a few months ago... but you've already covered that camera!

" ... 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... "

Very true - to the point that maybe the choice of such camera should include evaluating (as per the brand and latest model date release) how long the camera will remain "hot". Even more than features, this might prove to be the deciding factor since no one wants to buy a new camera that will be obsolete or replaced in 3 months.

It's quite frustrating for any consumer to invest a relatively large sum of money into what they believe to be the best camera in their price range, take it home lovingly and begin flirting with it - slowly undressing it and learning its many moods - and then soon thereafter realize the manufacturer has already released a new model and is marketing it aggressively, coming short of sending owners of past models a personal email saying that their camera has become obsolete and owning it now reeks of shameful weakness...

On weight:

Pentax K20D with DA 40mm: 890g
Nikon D90 with AF-S 35mm: 910g
Olympus E30 with ZD 25mm: 825g

Mike, this the the best recommendation ever on cameras. Even the worst of these crop of 12Mp DSLRs is plenty to make good print around 14" x 20". Camera brands no longer make that much of a difference; it all depends on the photographer's vision and skill set. I hope most people can see what you are getting at.

Due to family med problems (bills from hell) I sold off most of my good gear last year including a newly acquired 5D and 24-105. An unexpected financial recovery has me with a D90 in hand with a plastic 18-105. I'm quite thrilled with the D90's image quality and really don't feel I'm missing much except a bit of status.:) Despite other cameras being all so close do yourself a favor. Go to Best Buy and fondle all the cameras and tell me honestly that Nikon doesn't make the best plastic cameras and lenses around. Not talkin' bout the pro stuff just the consumer grade cameras. Add to it Nikon superb flash metering and there is little question the Nikon deserves to be at the top of the list.

Hmm... only the Canon has a body cap on. Is it a subtle way to reinforce the Canon brand by showing the Canon logo twice? Or is it trying to suggest that the Canon needs to be ashamed of its sensor, while the other brands' sensors look sexy "naked"?

I think this was great advice, well written, and needed to be said. Still, I think you're cheating and, in addition to all you said here, should specify the one amongst these that would specifically suit you the best and explain why.

(1) Ergonomics are key. I fully agree with the others who have emphasized this point. Anyone choosing among these cameras should decide based on that alone. Go to a store, try them ALL. I am positive that one will just feel more natural to you than the rest.

(2) Mike: You didn't mention viewfinders! I am shocked, absolutely shocked! This is certainly a pertinent difference. If I remember correctly, the Nikon D90 and Pentax K20D have the best viewfinders of the bunch, but I'm open to correction.

(3) As a Nikon shooter who is very, very happy with his D300 and D60, I tell anyone who asks me to buy the Pentax K20D.

- Great viewfinder for a cropped-frame camera
- Weather-sealed
- Body integral stabilization
- Great ergonomics (admittedly subjective)
- Highly customizable
- Great selection of new, unique, innovative, loveable and envy-inducing primes
- HUGE selection of available lenses. While "Canon and Nikon are the market leaders, with the broadest ranges of accessories, the largest selection of specialty lenses including super-telephotos", there are thousands upon thousands of lenses that are natively compatible with, or can be adapted for use on, the K20D, including all M42 and K-mount lenses.
- IT ONLY COSTS $670!!!!

Incidentally, the Pentax K200D, which is practically a K10D in a smaller, lighter package, it another screaming deal.


For photographers invested in a certain brand of lenses, or type of lens mount, the decision between these cameras is simple, but the photographer looking to take his first steps into photography in a fairly grand way is not much better off after reading this. The pendulate reviewer strands the vacillant photographer.

Whenever someone asks me, "what camera should I buy?," I first ask them:

- "What are you going to shoot?
- "What kind of light do you usually shoot in?"
- "How big do you print (if you print at all)?
- Do you already have any lenses you'd like to use?

I might narrow the field based on the above. Then I say: "The mid-level cameras are all good. Go to a store and hold them in your hands. Shoot some pictures with each. Pick the one that feels the most comfortable and natural to you."

Which is a long-winded way of saying, "Right on, Mike." And "Ergonomics matter."

In addition to thinking about which manufacturer has lenses you want, it's worth thinking about resale value of lenses. Nikon and Canon lenses hold their value much better than third-party lenses. For example, I bought a Nikon 12-24mm DX lens in 2004 for $860, and sold it on Craigslist in one day for $500 cash nearly 5 years later.

I'm not sure how Olympus and others stack up on that issue, but it's a factor to be considered. You can look at Ebay and Craigslist ads to get a feel for the rate of depreciation for various lens makes and models.

Excellent article and rant, Mike.

I agree that they are all excellent bodies, and that you should consider above all how they feel in hand and which lenses you will want to use regularly.

Two weeks ago I bought my first dSLR. I had been using two manual focus canon SLRs since the 70s, always with primes (that's what works for me). I chose the pentax K20D, mostly on account of ergonomics and the modern primes available for it... and some of the older ones. For example, I bought a K (non-automatic) 50mm 1.2 prime for it second hand. All of this makes me feel at home: I feel I haven't lost what I was afraid of losing when switching to a dSLR.

And I am very happy to have some of the other features I feel should not be reserved to pro bodies: weather sealing, micro adjustments remembered for each lens you own, in-body stabilization, among others.

What I wanted to say is that, looking at specs, both the D300 and the E3 belong to this cathegory.

Because were we looking at the price point, the Pentax should not be in this group at all.

Nevertheless, all seven cameras are on a very tight competition.

I agree with your list insofar as general image quality, and admire your decision to list them all as '#3.

I remember during the 80's and 90's, that your image quality was essentially determined by the film, given the same level of lenses (L, ED, G, etc...). The difference was personal taste and intended use.

But along with your lens choice, size and price criteria, I think the intended application should also be a consideration, because there are significant differences.

I would take the 50d and its USM lenses over any of these in a heartbeat for sports or fast action.

However, I'd be much more inclined to - and currently tempted by - the Pentax or Sony for hand-held work (with IS and fast primes). The Pentax and Olympus would be great travel cameras, with their weather sealing.

I'm not trying to start a which-is-better debate at the next tier of features, but I do think there is a deciding factor, and fortunately it is now a personal one. And that's a good thing.

Great Post! Might another option be buying last year's model as these things drop in value so quickly? I realise this post is about cameras you can buy new today, but I've had great luck with last year's model. I shoot with a pristine used Olympus E1 ($300) and Nikon D2h ($600). The Pentax K10D can still be found new for $300, the Nikon D200 for $600, and the Canon 40D for $800. With the money you save, you can buy better glass, which has the benefit of far slower depreciation. Or appreciation in some cases.

Well said, Mike. I formed the same conclusion myself, and that in fact helped me to make the ultimate purchase decision - to buy just a CF card and an SD card and keep them both in my pocket at all times. Then I just borrow someone else's camera where ever I am, and use my memory card in the friend's camera for the few minutes that I need to grab a shot.

I have held most of these in my hand and they just feel wrong.
My OM1 feels better than these electronics.

My first and only DSLR : the PanaLeica
Lumix L-1 feels right. Good weight.
Great lens. Feels like a camera not
an electronics package. But lousy poroprism
optical viewfinder & limited low light abilities. Really a shame. I had such high hopes for the PanaLeica synergy.

Sigh. I hate to admit that the Nikon D3
will likely be my sweet spot. If only the
lenses were better sealed.

This is an excellent recommendation and all very good advice. My only quibble is your assertion that Canon and Nikon use lens based image stabilization and not body-integral "largely" so they can make more money. It's true, it likely does raise the price of their lenses, but I'm sure it also raises the production cost to put that technology into each lens. I just don't think they're raking in extra money, and certainly not on the consumer end where they have to compete with Sony, Pentax, and Olympus in a competitive marketplace. If anything, it puts them at a disadvantage.

Lens based image stabilization came first, and for better or worse, Canon and Nikon have years of R&D invested in their systems. As you've said, there is a tendency to be complacent, and I think this has more to do with it than anything else. Now, we can argue about whether one method works better than the other, or is the more cost effective purchase. I just think we need to be careful about assigning nefarious profit motivations to one manufacturer over another. We're not talking about non-profit businesses here.

"These cameras are all good, but the Pentax K20D, which can now be had for less than $500 (body only) in some places, is a real steal."

I've checked K20D pricing with five reputable dealers and the lowest price to be found was $669.95. I would be very careful with any K20D deals at around $500.00

I think its great that the old time top 5 camera makers all seem to be peacefully coexisting at this seemingly mature state of the digital progression.

I have a friend who is looking for his first DSLR and I have forwarded him a link to your list today. The one caveat I have made to him: hold each camera you are considering and look through the durn viewfinder. I just could not get along with the VFs on entry level DSLRs, including the predecessors of those on this list -- I could NOT focus with them accurately. So: ranking or no ranking you have to be able to use the tool -- it is better yet if you can enjoy the tool.

Ben Marks

erlik, thanks for that info. I haven't had a chance to handle the E-30 yet, I'd read somewhere you could shoot 1:1 in the viewfinder. A little disappointing that it's JPG only, but at least E-30 JPGs are top notch (according to DP Review.)

Applesanity, you loser!
My F100 with AIS lenses easily tops your FM2n in ergo, speed, build quality and most important of all, image quality: Tri-x souped in D-76 1+1!

Can't argue with the Bronica SQAi, though. That's my "backup" also.

I would like a D700, however, for snapshots of the kids!

Five cameras in one "T.O.P. Ten Recommended Cameras" slot?! This is a travesty! How the heck are we supposed to compose pointed refutations of your choice if you start cluster-bombing us like this?

It's not fair.

Good advice though.


"an "M*" mode in which 2 dials are exposure and aperture, rather than shutter and aperture"


I'm likely misunderstanding you, but this describes the "A" mode on my 20d. One dial controls aperture, the other EV compensation. I assumed this was typical.

After nearly a year, I find Canon's control arrangement largely counter-intuitive, and I doubt it's just because I once used a Nikon DSLR for a week.

Sage advice Mike. I agree that these trickle-down mid-market models represent excellent value ... but only if you resist the urge to move up to their replacements. However your selection also highlights the downside in the industry's current offerings: namely they're all pretty much the same. Which is fine if you fit the mould, but distressing if you're after real choice. In a market of me-too products, surely there's big profits to be made by any manufacturer having a clear vision of what the audience is for their products and bold enough to target their product(s) to that audience.

If any manufacturer would like to get in touch I have a very specific list of changes I'd like to see ... mostly throwing out stuff (like AF). You never know, the resultant product may even hit a sweet spot for performance, accessibility and portability, a novel idea I admit.

Or like this.... (adjusting for sensor size).
Viewfinder: Magnification/Coverage

Nikon D90 (0.63x, 96%)
Olympus D30 (0.51x, 98%)
Canon 50D (0.59x, 95%)
Pentax K20D (0.63x, 95%)
Sony A700 (0.6x, 95%)

Nikon D3 (0.7x, 100%)
Canon 5D (0.71x, 96%)
Canon 1Dsiii (0.76x, 100%)
Nikon FM3a (0.83x, 93%)

Mike Jones,
...And don't forget that to compare reduced-sensor DSLRs to full-frame DSLRs, you have to DIVIDE the magnification by the crop factor...so the Canon 50D for instance is really .4X magnification compared to the .76X of the 1DsIII. The Olympus E-30 is even worse at .26X. This is why the 1.15X magnification of the Olympus E-3 is *not* better than any full-frame DSLR despite the much higher number.

The reason is that all these sensor sizes are spec'd with 50mm lenses, which are normal lenses on full-frame but short teles on reduced-sensor DSLRs.


P.S. Oh, and the two specs most often given are not quite complete without also giving the eyepoint specification. A .7X finder with 11mm of eye relief is a very different kettle of fish than one with the same magnification but 22mm of eye relief. This is why eyepiece magnifiers aren't a panacea...because they simply trade more magnification for less eye relief.

Matthew Robertson’s list:
“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)”
Let us look at how much weight you can buy:

Nikon D90: 700/930=0.75 (g/$)
Olympus E-30: 730/1100=0.66 (g/$)
Canon 50D: 820/1120=0.73 (g/$)
Pentax K20D: 800/670=1.19 (g/$)
Sony A700: 760/100=0.76 (g/$)

So the choice is simple. I would pick up a K20 for biggest bang for the buck :).

I would like to echo a few of the pervious comments;

Firstly, Ergonomics are the single most important factor to someone deciding between one of these cameras. Go out and use/touch/handle/fondle all of them, and whichever one feels the best/most comfortable/intuitive is the camera for you.

They can all make wonderful, stunning photographs, but in the end, it's still all up to you. (Which I suppose is my second point.)

Now please excuse me if I sound a bit like an Olympus fanboy for the next bit...

There is no doubt in my mind that the current 4/3 sensors do give up a bit of high-ISO performance to their larger-sensored competition, but in practice I have not found that to be an issue. The combination of very effective stabilization and (some blazingly) fast lenses makes the necessity of using the higher ISO settings fairly rare. Of course, this obviously does not apply to all the bodies and the slower lenses, but in my experience the performance gap that seems to be bandied about on seemingly all the forums just ain't that big of a deal.

The other thing worth mentioning that Olympus' decision to use a smaller sensor gave them the ability to use a perfected lensmount for that sensor. What this gives is an ability to make lenses that are not strangeled by the requirements of the previous technology, I.E., film and the SLR mirrorbox. So Olympus quietly makes lenses of breathtaking optical quality and performance, as good or better than any other lenses made.

(Fanboy mode off)

All that said, when people ask me what to buy, I will always ask them to go to the local dealer (we still have one or two here in the Denver area) play with all of them, and buy the one that feels the best to them.

If you like it, you will use it, and that is how the good photos are made.

Hi Mike (Johnston),

Mike Jones' figures are already corrected for crop factor.


You're like the old professor. You taught me how to divide the magnification by the sensor size and I did it! The variation might not seem big but 0.1x difference is very noticeable.
I disagree with you on eye relief, unless you wear glasses. It really kills viewfinder magnification. This and autofocus took viewfinders from 0.8x plus to 0.7x in the 80s and 90s. It is therefore good to see that Canon, with the 1Ds, have bought this up to 0.76x.

Err, Mike? I think other-Mike said "adjusting for sensor size". The magnifications quoted by the manufacturers are larger than these, like 0.95 perhaps for the D90 & K20d.

Good point about magnifiers though. They also introduce more surfaces, often uncoated and (in mine at least) often dirty.

Oh, okay, I'm wrong then. Sorry!

Carry on.


I'll keep it simple... you're dead on. Glad you stuck to your guns and posted this, because you're point is correct.

"When they look at your work, nobody cares what brand camera you used,"

And neither will they be able to tell what brand camera you used.

Excellent article, Mike. When you first announced this series, I thought, "Oh no, not another one of those." But this series just gets better with each installment!

"an "M*" mode in which 2 dials are exposure and aperture, rather than shutter and aperture"

"I'm likely misunderstanding you, but this describes the "A" mode on my 20d. One dial controls aperture, the other EV compensation. I assumed this was typical."

Yes, my 5 year old A1 does this too. It even has a custom function that allows you to pick which dial (front or back) does which (aperture or EV). The "S" mode works the same way only for shutter speed and not aperture. The P mode can be configured similarly with one dial doing program shift and the other doing EV compensation.

"an "M*" mode in which 2 dials are exposure and aperture"
"One dial controls aperture, the other EV compensation. I assumed this was typical"

OK but I want this in manual mode, not in auto. Sorry if that wasn't clear. It just seems more logical (for most ambient light work) to have brightness/aperture as the two controls, not shutter/aperture.

If the exposure lock were persistent (even if you turn the camera off or it goes to sleep) then the common A mode you describe would fit me fine. I've never met a camera which does this but maybe they exist?

For me, it's the lenses, which is why I went Pentax. The K20D looks fine, but not so much better than my K10D that I seriously considered it. As long as you're happy with the glass, jumping one or two generations of camera hardly puts you at a disadvantage

When people ask me what camera (DSLR) to buy I first ask them if they have lenses. Usually, if they do and it is compatible I suggest they either find some with compatible camera and give it a whirl.

If not, I send them to a photo store and tell them to find the one they can best work with/feels comfortable/menu seems sensible and ignore the brand name.

Seems it works for most of them. Had no complaints so far.

"So I ended up picking the compact Olympus E-420, based mainly on its current price."

And here I thought there was some special zen insight!

Now I understand Marvin.


GKFroehlich wrote
Do you suppose it's just possible that this is why Canon and Nikon put this feature into their lenses rather than their camera bodies

I suspect it has more to do with the fact that Canon and Nikon were making image stabilised lenses in the film days, where in lens IS was the only practical solution.

So far, I've not seen anyone who has been able to demonstrate that one method is clearly superior to the other.

What would be really cool is if one of the in-body stabilisation vendors offered the ablity to manually shift the sensor over a wider range - perspective control with any lens (with a decent enough image circle), or even modify the DoF by tilting the sensor.

"an "M*" mode in which 2 dials are exposure and aperture"
"One dial controls aperture, the other EV compensation. I assumed this was typical"

OK but I want this in manual mode, not in auto. Sorry if that wasn't clear. It just seems more logical (for most ambient light work) to have brightness/aperture as the two controls, not shutter/aperture.

Er, what? Really don't understand. If you have a set aperture, what is "brightness" but the function of a changing shutter speed?

Or you mean a changing ISO, possibly?

Sigh, I am *SHOCKED*, shocked that a bunch of so called photographers, who are supposedly arteests forgot the most important criteria - which one is the prettiest *!

Clearly, the E-30 is the most pretty of them all **, unlike the A900 that looks like monkey's arse (can we say arse in U.S.?)

* SA
** True fact

"I'm still waiting for an "M*" mode in which 2 dials are exposure and aperture, rather than shutter and aperture. On film bodies I was pretty quick at counter-rotating the two in sync, but on digital I can't do this, sometime they lose a click, so you have to think... This would make me very happy." Posted by: improbable

Check out Pentax's TAv mode. It's what some call ISO priority mode. You can assign front and back wheels to change ISO & Shutter. If you change one, the camera would keep the correct exposure by changing the other.

Again, one of those unique Pentax "features" ;-) Keep in mind, it goes far beyond the limited function of Auto ISO offered by other brands.

Like others I went with Pentax for the lenses. The new limited primes, as well as the older star (*) lenses. It took me two years to find a A*200mm macro... well worth the wait ;-)

For some Pentax gear heads, the hunt for the awesome older lenses is the fun part of being a Pentaxian.


You wild and crazy man. You have forgotten that we are talking about two different pursuits!

1. Taking pictures. All of your choices are equally good. A good picture-taker adapts fairly quickly to the equipment and gets on with it.

2. Collecting cameras. Now here of course they are not all equally good. Every tiny feature counts. This is the hobby discussed on forums. It's also very easy to be good at this hobby, all you need is money, a strong opinion and a thick skin. For people in this camp your cop-out is inexcusable, almost incomprehensible.

Perhaps you can clarify - is your top 10 list for category 1 or 2?

I am actually interested in both, and sometimes to satisfy hobby #2 I am tempted to make a purchase that will make little or no real difference to #1. But I am not (very) ashamed to admit it.

I know - how about two top ten lists? I have been enjoying the countdown and am sad that it will soon be coming to an end. :P

"an "M*" mode in which 2 dials are exposure and aperture"

improbable: Pentax have a couple of nice additions to their M mode.

The first is a time-saving "reset values" button which simply centres the metering readout, via a pre-selected method - say, aperture priority. Remaining in Manual.

The second is a function assigned to the AE-L button (its normal function does not of course apply in Manual). Here the camera temporarily links shutter and aperture values together, and one responds so as to preserve your EV when you change the other. In effect, it's like Program Shift but around a fixed not a live EV. You can toggle in and out of this mode freely. The stored EV persists.

It's perhaps not quite what you are after, but when you toggle this mode, the aperture wheel's function switches between aperture (EV maintained), and aperture (EV adjusted).

I'm basically a little confused by your question - in Manual, is the shutter wheel not already, in effect, an Exposure (brightness) wheel? What am I missing? ISO variation? In the Pentax implementation of Manual, ISO also acts as a brightness control but cannot "program shift" with the other parameters.

Viewfinder, weight, sensor, ergonomics (what some call haptics) which includes qualities like lumpiness (and dear heart, some of these modern DSLRs sure are lumpy), autofocus speed, the number of dials and displays and the structure of menu choices...

It is hard to evaluate many of these things without handling a camera in a camera store. Remember those?

improbable writes:
``I'm still waiting for an "M*" mode in which 2 dials are exposure and aperture, rather than shutter and aperture.''

At least newer Nikons (e.g. the D90) can do this, the mode is called "A" :-)
If the custom setting mode `easy exposure compensation' is enabled, then the otherwise unused dial in A/S/P mode will adjust the exposure compensation.
Personally, I prefer to use `easy ISO' instead, since I find the exposure compensation button easy to reach anyway.

"OK but I want this in manual mode, not in auto."

OK, but that doesn't make much sense to me. In manual mode, if you change the aperture the exposure is going to change, if you don't want the exposure to change you have to change the shutter speed (or on digital, the ISO). How would that be different if you had EV on one of the two dials? To put it another way, you're saying you want a "manual" mode with no control over the shutter speed--how is that different from "A"perture priority?

Firstly, great post, all are supberb cameras capable of excelent results in the hands of a good photographer.

Secondly, regarding image stabilisation, GKFroehlich said - ".........Do you suppose it's just possible that this is why Canon and Nikon put this (IS)feature into their lenses rather than their camera bodies?"

No - C & N developed their lens-based IS systems in the days of film so in-body stabilisation was not possible. In-lens was the only way to go and they have since promoted their legacy technology as superior and I fear any perceived acceptance now of in-body IS would be viewed by C&N as marketing "suicide".



"I suspect it has more to do with the fact that Canon and Nikon were making image stabilised lenses in the film days, where in lens IS was the only practical solution."

Canon was, Nikon wasn't. The "true" story of how Nikon got VR will never be known, sharing patents that Canon did not wish to share, but let's just say it had a lot to do with MITI coercion and lots and lots of polite bowing.


>>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...<<

You seem to have pretty well re-created that here.

Which is one reason I love this site.

Wow I seem to have confused eveybody with the crazy "M*" idea. I'm sorry! Here's an attempt at clarification:

I like M mode, a lot of the time. That way things don't change unless I ask them to. But when in M mode, on a digital camera, I find it surprisingly hard to go from 1/1000 at f/2 to 1/60 at f/8. On film bodies this was a two-handed move I could do in the dark. But on digital I can't do it without working it out in my head, partly because spinning the dial by 5 clicks doesn't reliably produce 5 clicks of change - you have to watch the screen. (And having 1/3 stops makes it much worse.)

And I'd like a mode to make this easier. Let one dial adjust the brightness, either aperture or shutter I don't care, as usual. But let the other one "shift the program" by changing both shutter and aperture in opposite directions. OK? This I'd call M*. It would make my move (f/2 to f/8) easier. And I don't think it would be much worse for other purposes.

I think this would be a much better use of two dials than the standard M mode. It wasn't possible in mechanical days, but if I remember right Olympus arranged the controls to make this easy: you could grab and turn both of them together.

Yes I realise that in A mode, the two dials have functions a bit like this, aperture and compensation. But it's compensation from whatever the meter is now looking at, not from what I told it to do.

richardplondon says that 2-dial pentaxes can do this if you hold down AE-L. That sounds good. I should get one. On my one-dial Pentax, the AE-L button in M mode sets the shutter speed to what the meter thinks it should be, which I think is what the green button does on fancier ones.


Wow, Mike, I don't know what it says about either the site or your readership demographic that so many are Pentax aficionados. While I'll admit I was kind of hoping the Pentax K20D would get its own slot, I'm glad I'm in good company here.

So, let me see if I have this right. Pentax has the best primes in the world and primes are the best lenses you can use. Without a good lens a body is nothing. But if we are looking at bodies Pentax has weather-sealing in a range no-one else does, plus image stabilisation, plus the best viewfinder you can get. Not only that but the images are not cooked extensively and retain the most detail possible, as people much cleverer than me have figured out. And the features go on and on.

Oh, and it is also the cheapest camera of all.

Yet you did not make this the number one. Nor even the number three camera.

Yes, I say cop out. But I'm biased. And what is my bias? I want to get the best possible image taking system at the best price.

Thanks for the fine article Mike. I totally agree with your conclusions. Any of the above camera's could be used for most applications and produce fine results. I would have no qualms using any of them for a magazine production fashion shoot. My using Pentax is a consequence of other factors that affected my reasons for opting for the brand. I must say however, that Pentax glass in most cases is excellent and have been quite impressed with the outcome. I believe the popularity of certain brands over others has more to do with marketing force and budgets allocated for supporting those brands. In today's harsh economic environment, manufacturers have to come up with very innovative marketing schemes that are as inventive as the technologies being proposed. I won't get in to a lengthly diatribe here, but many camera manufacturers seem to more often than not miss their mark. Pentax is a prime example of a manufacturer that hasn't exploited their pedigree DNA and that is unfortunate. None the less, again, all of the above tools do their job well. Unfortunately the only limitations to their excellence is often those pressing the shutter.

I agree with everything you say here, Mike.

I'm an ex-pro at a fairly high level, shot Paul McCartney's stuff for a couple of years, national and international magazines and newspapers. Now retired bit still take pictures for fun.

Results wise, I would defy anyone to look at pictures taken side by side with Nikon, Canon or any other DSLR and tell the difference.

I used Nikon professionally because back in the late 60s, they were the first with a heavy duty pro SLR. Having bought in to the system over the years from 20mm to 400 f2.8, it's expensive to change.

Canon came to build better cameras in some respects. But again, it's the results that count and on a Kodachrome 64 tranny then, could anyone tell the difference? Of course not.

I bought a Samsung (Pentax) K10 for my personal work, after a lifetime using Nikon, Hasselbald and Mamiya.

Why? Because it's the only well priced model that feels solidly made, is weather sealed and has weather proofed compact prime lenses available.

In other words a pro spec at an amateur price.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007