Thursday, July 30, 2009


How Low Cost Are They?

My first idea, that of a $500 DSLR ready to go, faded quickly. Camera bodies are available under $500, but complete camera kits with a lens are more like $600, including the newly announced Nikon D3000.

The D3000 epitomizes the entry level DSLR camera: it is low cost, offers a series of settings that can totally automate the picture taking process, but still give a photographer access to a sensor that is much larger than that in a point & shoot camera, providing assurance of better photos, while still providing the utility of interchangeable lenses. The D3000 is to be introduced at $599, with one 18-55mm lens. The LCD is 3”, while shake reduction is in the lens. Like most lower cost DSLRs, it offers an array of settings that automatically do the figuring so that most photos come out fine, with little or no input from the photographer. ISO ranges from 100 to 3200, with me editorializing that you’re better off keeping it close to 800 tops, but with the good news that 800 and 1600 give useful photos, which is not the case with P&S digital cameras.

Recently, Pentax introduced its K2000 (K-M in Europe), their most recent stab at keeping some hold on the entry level camera market. It shares a sensor size with the Nikon D3000 at 10.2 MPs, and both have pentamirror viewing systems, as well as LCD backs. The lowest current price for the body alone appears to be about $440. The kit for this camera has two lenses, an 18-55mm and a 50-200mm, and comes in at $600 at a reputable mail order house. It comes with an in-body shake reduction system, plus a dust reduction system. The body is light, and compact, making it an excellent step up from a very light P&S camera. The Pentax offers the same wide range of ISO as does the Nikon, but a slightly smaller 2.7” LCD for viewing photos. The Pentax weighs only 625 grams, ready for bear—that is, with batteries and the SDHC loaded. It also has ten scene modes—night, surf & snow, pets, kids, food and on and a 3.5 frame per second burst rate, handy when shooting active children or pets or sports.

Sony presents their A230 entry level with similar features and their versions of the 18-55mm and 55-200mm lenses as a package. Price is close to both above, as are features. Sony has in-body stabilization similar to that used in the Pentax, thus reducing the cost of future lenses. It also has a 2.7” LCD like that on the Pentax. It uses a pentamirror, and weighs only 490 grams with the lithium ion battery inserted. It has a 2.5 frame per second burst rate, handy when photographing action, though far from up to professional standards (none of these are, but a pro camera, at the very least, adds about $1,000 to the camera body cost).

Canon’s entry level DSLR is currently the EOS 500D, shifted out of its alphabetical spot because it is pricier than the others by nearly $200 (with an 18-55mm IS—internally stabilized) lens. That’s a significant extra swat in the wallet, so anyone wanting to move into Canon early is going to spend more at the start. Is there enough extra to warrant the cost? That’s an individual decision, but, first, the D500 has a 15.2MP sensor, so that’s one very large point in its favor. It may well be the deal maker for many people. The ISO ratings are the same. It has a pentamirror and a 3” LCD, tying it with Nikon here. The D500 also has live view, something the others do not. For some people, this is a big plus, for others a small plus. Weight is 480 grams, without a battery. It has dust reduction, but stabilization has to be built into the lens. It records movies. The D500 has the features to make its price reasonable.

If you don’t already have lenses for a Nikon, Pentax or Sony, and do have the extra couple of hundred bucks, the Canon is a great choice. Personal likes and dislikes enter the fray, so camera handling, the variety of lenses available, the way the camera handles colors in finished photos, the way it looks, how the LCD looks, regardless of its size.

These are the lowest priced DSLRs ever, with features that the costliest early DSLRs didn’t even dream about.

Keeping an eye on deals and sales, a beginning DSLR photographer can get everything needed, including a modest bag and a very good 8GB SDHC card, for under $600 in most cases. There are other models with prices below original MSRPs. Many make excellent first-time digital single lens reflex cameras, but the four listed above are specifically designed for the first time user, with many small aids built-in. Easy access to the flexibility of controls that made SLRs in general the camera of choice of millions since the mid-1950s, after the Contax S in 1949 introduced the pentaprism SLR.

Next time around, I’ll kiss the snake—take a look at used DSLRs and how to buy them for the lowest possible cost.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Looking For A DSLR?

How Much Camera Do I Really Need?

This question is useful for people who believe they may sooner or later become serious about photography. If you want snapshots of your kids, family events or vacation locations, then a good quality point and shoot is the camera for you.

I am not about to poke fun at point and shoot users, who often get more downright enjoyment out of their vacation, backyard holiday and kid pictures than any serious amateur gets from his or her best attempts. There’s no rule, law or commandment that says a P&S user is a lesser person than someone who gets serious about picture taking, thus begins to use a digital single lens reflex camera, or other more expensive picture grabbing box…and some of the digital medium format cameras are almost unbelievably costly, while the higher end full frame (35mm frame) digital SLRs aren’t far behind.

I shoot professionally, primarily for magazines, but the thought of spending $4,000 to $8,000 for a camera body, plus many more thousands for a set of lenses to use, makes my Scots-Irish blood pressure scream upwards. Such cameras are excellent for the box photographer—that’s the pro captured in a small box with 20 to 50 other shooters trying to get the same action shots at the same time at football games, baseball games and similar tightly confined events.

My high speed shots are usually confined to racing automobiles or motorcycles. That kind of shooting always leaves enough space to wander, so you’re not rubbing elbows with other pros. Amateurs can’t get through the access gates to get close to the track, but even shooting from outside the fence, most of today’s DSLRs will render unto you some mighty fine photographs.

At this point, there’s not a whole lot of sense in spending more than $1,500 for a DSLR and a couple of lenses to get you started in high end digital photography. It’s quite possible to get a start shooting less demanding subjects for under $500, including a single lens. This is for new gear.

The $500 DSLR/Lens Combo

Nikon’s D40 with an 18-55mm zoom lens has an MSRP of $500 with a $50 instant rebate applicable (at least at one camera store). Olympus E520, with a 14-42mm lens is on the rolls for $460 at the same store. Pentax’s K2000 with an 18-55mm lens sells for $480 at that store. The closest Canon comes is with the Rebel XS, selling for $530.

The cameras and lens listed above are not the only ones available under $500, but generally are noted as useful for less demanding photographic situations and events. That means that the shutters will probably last for aout 40,000 actuations, and the other features of the bodies are sufficient to allow a good bit of photographic learning, though there are also plenty of step-up features to make it easier for those just graduating from point and shoot cameras.


If you want to guess how long 40,000 shutter clicks might last, think of how many rolls of film you shot in the past decade. If you shot more than 1,112 thirty-six exposure rolls of film, you need to move up a camera grade.

Understand that materials in these cameras are not quite the quality you’ll find even in $750 cameras, and that some features are not available. We can step through the features of two cameras to see the differences. I use a Pentax K20D in my work. It’s not the best camera available, but when I bought it, the price was $800, delivered. Today, that price is about $675. The Pentax K2000 is a beginner’s camera with enough features to keep most users quite happy for years. It will do most of what my K20D will do, but it won’t last as long, nor will it do as well in some more difficult arenas. The photo you see above is of my K10D, which I used last year, but turned in on a K20D.

$500 Camera Features

The K2000D offers shake reduction, a five area focus, a pop-up flash with a guide number of 11 at ISO 100, CCD shake dust reduction, a 10.2 MP sensor, 2.7” LCD, 3.5 frames for 5 frames continuous shooting in best JPEG, 4 frames for raw (because of the larger files). With batteries and SDHC card, it weighs only 22 ounces. It uses AA batteries, giving as many as 1,600 shots per set of lithium batteries, and can accept rechargeable AAs. This provides the ability to shoot all you want anywhere in the world, because AA batteries are a standard, and available almost everywhere. The K2000 is plastic over a stainless steel chassis. It is not weather-sealed. The viewfinder provides information on AF frame, spot AF frame, shake reduction, flash status, shutter speed, aperture, focus indicator, manual focus, EV compensation, AE lock indicator, ISO warning. The LCD monitor at 2.7” wide has 230,000 pixels.

If you want the camera to give you settings, there are scene modes for Night Scene, Surf & Snow, Food, Sunset, Kids, Pet, Candlelight, Museum, Stage Lighting, Night Snap. There are a host of other settings, many of which you can quickly glean at, in my view the current champ of camera reviews and other tech info for digital photography.

Compared to...

The Pentax K20D is a high end amateur/low cost pro camera that offers many more features than the basic K2000, or, until the K-7 came out, than any other Pentax camera. As a start, there’s a 14.6 megapixel CMOS sensor, live view mode (not the best, though), 2.7 inch 230,000 dot LCD, burst mode, allows 21fps shooting at 1.6MP resolution (up to 115 frames, dynamic range expansion mode, X-sync flash socket, image parameter settings (Custom image), color adjustable LCD monitor, compare mode in playback,32x zoom in playback, adjustable levels of high ISO noise reduction, sensitivities up to ISO 3200 (can be extended to 6400), rather than ISO 1600, dust alert for locating particles on the sensor pixel mapping to identify and correct for dead pixels, AF fine-tuning for as many as 20 chosen lenses. The K20D offers two dials on its right side, front and rear, for much more complete control of commands. It does not offer scene modes.

Look to for detail information on almost all cameras.

You have to select between models (and there are many), as well as brands, which is really all that makes the selection complex. I’ll trek further into the forest of lower cost DSLR cameras next time around.