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.

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