Plugged In: Keep an eye on image quality for camera value

By Joseph Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Each of the five major digital SLR vendors offers several entry-level and midrange models. All of this week’s cameras use either APS-C or Four/Thirds size sensors, which are between one-half and one-fourth the size of more expensive professional cameras using full-frame sensors.

I’ll first discuss what I consider to be the more notable current models and then make some purchasing suggestions. I place the most value upon getting the best possible image quality for your money, followed by ease of use. Adding more and more “features” usually does not improve overall image quality.

Regardless of which camera you might choose, though, your familiarity with your camera, photographic knowledge and “eye” for a good image have the greatest impact upon your final results. A knowledgeable photographer who’s really familiar with an entry-level dSLR camera will usually produce better photographs than someone using an expensive but unfamiliar semipro dSLR system.

Nikon

Nikon’s 10-megapizel D3000 ($562 with basic kit lens) is their least-expensive, entry-level dSLR and replaces the highly regarded D40x. Although it lacks some of the features of the more-expensive 12-MP D5000, upper entry-level, Nikon dSLR camera, the D3000 is based upon proven technology.

The upper entry-level D5000, the midlevel D90 and the semipro D300s all use the same 12-MP sensor and processing chips and hence have generally comparable basic image quality, but there’s quite a difference in price. The D5000 with a basic kit lens sells as low as $730, while the D90 goes for $875, body only, and $1,140 with a better-quality, 18-105 mm kit lens.

Both of these cameras have generated quite a bit of excitement, the D90 because it was one of the earliest Nikons to include a decent video mode and excellent image quality in a midrange camera and the D5000 because it’s basically a D90 in its essentials but at a much lower price.

The semipro D300 body is currently being phased out and discounted to $1,680. The new, slightly upgraded D300s sells for $1,800 without lens. The D300s now includes high-definition video capability in a serious and proven semipro body, for a serious price. Add at least $500 for a comparable image-stabilized zoom lens.

Canon

Canon’s upper entry-level EOS T1i (500D) goes for about $792 with a basic 18-55 mm kit lens, while their regular semipro 50D (which uses the same sensor as the T1i/500D) sells for about $1,050, body only, and about $1,300 with a 28-135 mm kit lens. Canon’s 12-MP Xsi ($622 with kit lens), though, is an excellent, though slightly older, model that’s still in Canon’s inventory.

Canon has recently announced another, totally new, upper-level semipro line, the 7D series. This appears to be a direct competitor to the Nikon D300 line and fills a distinct hole in Canon’s line. The 18-MP Canon 7D without lens currently sells for $1,700, about $100 less than Nikon’s D300s.

Canon’s 7D uses a new, higher pixel density 18-MP sensor and, to my surprise given the very high megapixel count, initial comparative test photographs look very good, indeed better than images from its nearest competitor, the Nikon 12-MP D300s. The 7D should ship in the next few days and sell for some time at its current $1,700 price. Add another $600 to $1,000 for a high-grade lens that makes best use of the 7Ds high-resolution sensor.

The 7D has practically every feature that you might want on a midsized dSLR camera aimed at the semipro market, including high-definition video and a very fast-shooting rate of about eight frames per second suitable for sports photography.

However, for all this, the 7D still uses only a midsized APS-C sensor, rather than a much larger full-frame sensor like the marginally more expensive Canon 5D Mark II.

Pentax

Pentax currently has one upper entry-level and two semipro models. Uniquely, all Pentax semipro models are heavily weather-sealed, and the newest WR-series kit lenses are likewise weather-sealed. The newer Pentax 18-55 mm AL II kit lenses are considered to be among the sharpest, low-cost kit lenses. All Pentax dSLR cameras include mechanical image stabilization built directly into the camera body, thus stabilizing any lens that can physically mount on a Pentax camera body.

The Pentax K2000 (K-m) is a 10-MP model that apparently uses the excellent CCD sensor and many of the same features as Pentax’s breakthrough K10D semipro model introduced in 2006. Some of my best-liked photos were taken with a K10D, and the K2000 has received very good reviews for image quality. It’s oriented toward simplicity for consumers new to dSLR photography.

Amazon has several different K2000 kits under $540 that include either the basic kit lens and a more powerful external flash unit, or the K2000 body and two lenses, the basic 18-55 mm kit lens and a lightweight consumer 50-200 mm telephoto zoom lens. The K2000 body with its a sharp, nonweather-sealed 18-55 mm AL II kit lens most recently cost a mere $409 at Amazon.

A two-lens kit that adds the lightweight, 50-200 mm Pentax telephoto zoom goes for $539. The 50-200 mm lens, in my experience, is adequately sharp only at smaller apertures like f8 or f11, but it’s light, compact and probably more than adequate for most casual photographers, although I would not use it for critical work.

Pentax is substituting its new 12-MP K-X ($650 with 18-55 mm kit lens) as its entry-level system. The K-X is basically a refined version of the K2000 and is the same size and weight.

The 2008 K20D (currently $765 at Amazon with 18-55 mm AL II kit lens) increased pixel density to 14.6 MP and added quite a number of actually useful features aimed at improving image quality. The K20D is still sold by Pentax as a semipro model.

Pentax introduced a new, upper-end semipro model, the K7, in May 2009. The K7 body, without lens, currently sells on Amazon for about $1,150 and has generated a surprising amount of interest. It’s the most compact semipro model on the market, even though it’s robustly built and fully weather-sealed. This is a fully featured semipro model that’s on par with the Nikon D300s and the Canon 7D but offering comparable quality and features for less than two-thirds the price of the Nikon D300s or Canon 7D.

Sony

Sony seems to have a model for every taste and budget. Their entry-level dSLR cameras are the A230 (10 megapixels, $900), the A330 (10MP, $780) and the A380 (14MP, $935) cameras. These were announced in May 2009, but have not met with very much positive critical approval. In fact, these Sony entry-level models are not even carried by Amazon, which otherwise carries all Sony sDLR cameras.

All Sony dSLR cameras include mechanical image stabilization built directly into the camera body, thus stabilizing any lens that can physically mount on a Sony camera body.

The A230 is intended for first-time dSLR users moving up from compact, point-and-shoot cameras, while the A330 and A380 are similar cameras that offer a Live View that’s similar to what you would see in the LCD screen of an ordinary compact consumer camera, along with a higher level of user control.

I’ve seen test results that suggest that the image quality of these lower-tier Sony cameras is somewhat lower than that of similar models from other vendors, but sensor test results are almost identical among all cameras in this bracket. That suggests that Sony’s internal processing of standard JPEG files and noise may lag a bit in this lower price range.

Sony’s midrange cameras include a well-regarded, semipro model, the 12-MP A700, which currently sells on Amazon between $900 and $1,250, depending upon lens. Sony’s new 14-MP A550 and basic, 18-55 mm kit lens are priced at $1,050, while the slightly lower-end 12-MP A500 and basic kit lens sell for $850. Neither of these midrange Sonys have yet been subjected to thorough professional reviews, so how well they compare with other cameras in this price bracket is not yet established. They appear to be aimed at more experienced “enthusiast” photographers.

There is one spectacular Sony rumor afloat, a possible 35-MP full-frame dSLR camera that would directly compete with far more expensive, medium-format cameras from the likes of Hasselblad, Leica and others.

This has not yet been announced but would be logical, given that Sony’s new $2,000 24-MP A850 full-frame dSLR is basically identical to Sony’s much more expensive A900. Replacing the A900 with the rumored 35-MP model would both eliminate any obvious duplication in Sony’s professional models while establishing Sony as a serious competitor in the very top bracket of professional cameras. We’ll see.

Olympus

Olympus is the fifth major player in the dSLR market and also offers a full range of cameras using the slightly smaller Four/Thirds sensor. Their basic, entry-level dSLR is the E520, which is compact and fairly light. The E520, like every current Olympus dSLR except the inexpensive E420, includes mechanical image stabilization built directly into the camera body and able to stabilize any lens that can be mounted. Amazon typically offers a number of well-priced camera and lens kits using the E520.

Olympus’ most recent dSLR is the E620, which sells for $700 at Amazon with Olympus’ excellent 14-42 mm kit, generally considered to be the sharpest basic kit lens offered by any manufacturer.

The E620 is roughly the same size as the E520 but with a more modern, 12-MP sensor, and may be Olympus’ breakthrough dSLR. Image quality, particularly at higher ISO sensitivity levels, is noticeably better. In fact, image quality with the E620 is better than the Olympus semipro E-30 model, which uses the same sensor but processes files differently.

Recommendations

At this time, most consumers will get the best possible combination of image quality and value from an APS-C sensor dSLR camera. The principal drawback to these dSLR cameras is they tend to be bulky and heavy. We’ll be looking at upper-end compact cameras next week, but the image quality of even the best compact camera is noticeably lower than an entry-level dSLR.

Most consumers don’t need semipro equipment and can hardly justify the additional cost, particularly when upper entry-level dSLR cameras typically have comparably good image quality because they use the same sensors and internal processing chips.

On the other hand, pros and really serious photographers considering a Nikon D300s or Canon 7D might be well-advised to spend a few hundred dollars more and get one of the less-expensive, full-frame dSLRs, such as the Sony A850, the Nikon D700 or the Canon 5D Mark II. These are not that much more expensive, relatively speaking, but do provide an extra margin of image quality, which is the real test for a pro camera.

All things considered, most knowledgeable consumers and fine-art photographers will find the best combination of good image quality and good value occurs when they purchase an upper-entry-level dSLR camera and then use the savings to buy the best possible lens. We’ll be examining lenses in a few weeks, by the way.

For these reasons, I would recommend any of the following as particularly good buys for consumers and moderately serious photographers: Nikon D5000, Canon XSi or T1i, Pentax K2000 or K-X kits, Pentax K20d or Olympus E520 or E620.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his Web site, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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1 Comment

Filed under photography, technology

One response to “Plugged In: Keep an eye on image quality for camera value

  1. David Whitney

    Excellent; A uniquely outstanding review / report.

    Many thanks

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