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Sharpshooters

Sophisticated SLRs and pocket-size portables are today's hotshot digital cameras
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Gen. Tommy Franks, Nov/Dec 03

Odds are, if you don't already own a digital camera, you're seriously thinking about buying one. This is the first year that digital cameras will outsell traditional film cameras (by a whopping 27 percent), according to Infotrends Research Group. While some traditionalists take this as a biblical sign of the apocalypse (right up there with reality TV and laws that ban cigars in bars), it makes perfect sense to me.

For starters, you have to figure that many people who already have perfectly serviceable film cameras in the closet are adding digital to their arsenals. Film isn't dying just yet—it's still cheap and easy to use, and while high-end digital models are approaching the resolution and color reproduction of film cameras, they haven't caught up.

Still, the advantages of shooting digital make the switch nearly irresistible. For starters, you get instant gratification—you point, you shoot, you see what you captured on the built-in LCD screen. More important, when you take a photo in digital form, it's easy to transfer it into your computer and improve it, cropping out unwanted areas, adjusting brightness and tint, removing that demon-from-hell red-eye effect that ruins so many flash photo portraits. Going digital lets you save once-in-a-lifetime images that would require expensive professional retouching if shot on film—that's worth a couple of hundred dollars right there.

The biggest reason my digital camera is always handy while my film enlarger is gathering dust in the basement, though, is the way digital changes the way I shoot. With a traditional camera I'm paying film and development costs every time I press the trigger. Inevitably, that means hesitating over shots that good sense says have a minimal chance of coming out well, a strategy that means plenty of missed opportunities. With a digital camera equipped with a reusable high- capacity memory card, I can shoot first and ask questions later. Kids running around like lunatics? Just keep snapping in hopes of capturing a great moment, and toss out all the losers with no regrets (the bad photos, that is, not the rotten kids). The same holds true for shooting in difficult lighting conditions, or those interesting angles you can get only while perched precariously on your tiptoes. Might work, might not, but it's fun trying, and failure doesn't cost you an incremental dime.

Deciding on the right camera for your needs isn't easy—the store shelves are crowded with models ranging from under $100 to several thousand. Survey your options, though, and you'll find that digital models fall into much the same categories as film cameras. You have your low-end point-and-shoots, with no zoom lenses or manual settings, to satisfy the casual snapshot photographer. Then there's the step-up to mid-range cameras, generally with 3X zoom lenses and higher resolution, that turn out images suitable for
substantial-size prints and combine point-and-click automation with settings you can tweak when you feel ambitious. The next jump takes you to high-end models with more powerful zoom lenses and even higher resolution, usually festooned with additional fancy features you'll use three times in your lifetime. Finally, there's a relatively new category: high-resolution SLR cameras at prices nonprofessionals can
seriously consider.

These "prosumer" SLRs, which ran $20,000 just a few years ago but now can be had for under two grand, are an exciting trend. How is an SLR different from any other camera, you may ask? Whether we're talking film or digital, SLR stands for single-lens reflex, which means when you line up a shot, you're looking through the lens that's taking the picture and not through a separate viewfinder. That allows you to frame your subject with precision. It also lets you change lenses for a wider angle or a close-up view, or add filters for special effects. SLRs have traditionally been the category in which manufacturers offer their best optics and mechanical systems, appealing to the more demanding audience these cameras attract.

The other hot area in camera development is the serious pocket-size digital. Crappy little miniature models have been available for some time—you've probably seen them advertised in spam e-mail or splashed in the Sunday circulars at too-good-to-be-true prices. Today, we're seeing amazing achievements in miniaturization without the sacrifice of image quality, cameras you can literally pop in a pocket and carry everywhere you go, just in case a great photo opportunity suddenly arises. It's easier to build a high-quality tiny camera using digital technology than it is with film, since an electronic photo sensor is much smaller than a frame of film. Recently, digital camera manufacturers have pressed this advantage in truly impressive ways.

While these two categories differ radically when it comes to size, function and price, they have one thing in common—each opens up new picture-taking options. The digital SLRs represent a step up in photographic quality and control, while a pocket-size camera tags along easily on days when you'd leave an ordinary camera at home.

Before delving into specific models, here are a few key points to remember when shopping for digitals.

Resolution. The one easily comprehensible statistic you'll find when evaluating digital cameras is resolution, a number expressed in megapixels. A pixel is a single tiny dot of light; a megapixel is a million of them. It takes several million pixels to create a respectable-looking image, especially if you're planning to print the picture on paper. A three-megapixel camera delivers the resolution you need to produce a handsome 8x10-inch print. Why go higher, then? You don't have to, really, but greater resolution in the original image means more freedom to zoom in on a portion of the picture and crop out the remainder without noticeably affecting the sharpness of your final print.

Optics. By and large, the highest-quality lenses found on today's digital cameras come from the same folks who've created high-quality lenses for film cameras for generations—Canon, Olympus, Minolta, Nikon.

One important point to keep in mind when reviewing camera stats: a world of difference separates "optical zoom" and "digital zoom." Optical zoom means the lens moves when zooming in and out, changing the way light hits the sensor without compromising the sharpness of the image. Digital zoom is an electronic process that takes the pixels that the sensor registers and mathematically computes a larger version of the image, which definitely cuts down on image quality. When shopping for a camera, optical zoom matters—digital zoom is inconsequential.

A shopping note: prices listed are manufacturer's suggested list, which are routinely discounted, often substantially, by photo retailers.

 

SLRs -- The Big Guns

Let's deal with the key digital SLR drawback right up front—these are heavy cameras. Combine the camera body with a typical lens and you're hefting around two pounds—at that weight, you're not going to forget that you're lugging a camera around anytime soon. The crystal-clear photographic images you create, though, coupled with the pure pleasure of handling a finely crafted high-tech machine, more than make up for a little heavy lifting. It's just that, unlike many digital models, this is not a casual toss-in-your-bag camera—when you carry a digital SLR, you're going out to shoot pictures.

One major attraction of the three digital SLRs featured here: they accept standard 35mm camera lenses. If you've already invested in a collection of lenses, this means you can move to a digital camera with the same lens mount without starting over from scratch. Given the wide assortment of lenses available, you'll find plenty of choices when shopping for additional gear. But keep in mind: mounting a 35mm camera lens on a digital camera doesn't produce the same size image it would on a 35mm camera. Remember, that electronic sensor is much smaller than a 35mm film frame, so light hits it differently—the lens magnification on a digital camera is roughly 1 1/2 times what it would be when mounted on a 35mm rig.

If you're used to shooting with a standard digital camera and lining up your shots with the built-in LCD panel, you're in for a disappointment when you move to a digital SLR. While these cameras do have LCDs for reviewing images, shooting requires using the optical viewfinder—that's the only way you can see through the actual lens that's taking the picture.

For each of these cameras, the prices given are for the camera body alone—lenses are sold separately, at prices ranging from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.

 

Canon EOS 10D

Fast, responsive, featuring convenient scene modes for point-and-shoot simplicity, and offering extensive customization for more ambitious photographers, this is, quite simply, one superb camera. It boasts the fastest continuous-shooting mode of any model tested. Keep your finger pressed down on the shutter and you can squeeze off nine full-resolution shots in about three seconds, making the camera an excellent choice for sports or other action photography. The basic controls you'll grasp intuitively. Delving deeper will mean grappling with some challenging menus and a host of separate buttons and dials, but the exploration is worth the trouble. The effort will yield such useful features as automatic bracketing (shooting multiple shots at different settings) for aperture, flash, and white balance, and three autofocus modes to cope with fast-moving subjects. Image playback on the LCD is another strong point: vertically shot photos are automatically rotated for right-side-up viewing, and you can magnify the display up to 10 times to check for image sharpness. It lacks a few niceties, such as a spot metering setting for measuring exposure in one small area and voice annotation, a feature found on the Nikon D100 that allows you to add spoken reminders to your image files.

Specs: 6.3 megapixels, 5.9 x 4.2 x 3.0 inches, 27.9 oz.

$1,999; 800-652-2666, www.usa.canon.com

 

Nikon D100

While you can't go wrong with either the Canon EOS 10D or the Nikon D100, a few subtle differences lead me to give the Nikon the nod. While it's not radically lighter, a few ounces make a difference, and this, combined with superior balance, a quieter, smoother shutter release, easier-to-master menus, and a joystick-style control positioned right under my thumb, convinced me that the Nikon handled a bit more easily. Even with tricky lighting situations (heavy backlighting, uneven illumination), the Nikon 3D matrix metering consistently produced excellent results without fiddling. One feature I found especially useful outdoors was the option to display fine grid lines in the viewfinder, perfect for lining up buildings or landscape features.

Specs: 6.1 megapixels, 5.7 x 4.6 x 3.2 inches, 24.7 oz.

$2,000; 800-645-6689, www.nikonusa.com

 

Sigma SD9

Don't let that three-megapixel resolution number fool you—the Sigma employs a radically different type of image sensor, developed by a company called Foveon, that shakes up the numbers game in an interesting way. In every other digital camera on the market, each pixel captures only one primary color of light (red, green or blue). They are then combined to create a full-color image. The Foveon chip, on the other hand, sandwiches three sensors one on top of the other, so each point captures the full color spectrum, raising the effective resolution to 10.2 megapixels.. The result: images with exemplary sharpness, especially when shooting fine textures and highly detailed scenes. Less impressive, though, is the color reproduction, which lacks vibrancy. Equally important, the SD9 doesn't match the sophisticated design of the Nikon or Canon. The camera is the heaviest in the group (in part due to its two sets of batteries). There's no built-in flash, and the camera captures only in its own proprietary RAW mode, meaning you need to use Sigma's computer software to convert the picture to TIFF or JPEG before sharing it or having it printed by a service bureau. The Foveon technology has tremendous potential, but the Sigma camera that's currently its only standard-bearer doesn't match the ease of use or feature set of competitive models.

Specs: 3.43 megapixels, 5.9 x 4.7 x 3.1 inches, 28.3 oz.

$1,800; 631-585-1144, www.sigma-photo.com

 


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