Technology

Digital Cameras for Serious Shooters

Take advantage of the price drop and move up to a camera that performs like the pros.

Now that point-and-shoot digital cameras are effortless and inexpensive, why do you still feel dissatisfied? Maybe it's because tiny and easy-to-use aren't everything. Maybe you yearn for the high-quality photographs that only a single-lens reflex camera can take. Professional-grade digital SLRs can run as high as $10,000. But for less than $1,000, you can buy a DSLR that will blow the buttons off your average point-and-shoot.

Digital SLR models take better pictures for many reasons. Their image sensors are larger than those in point-and-shoots and can capture better color and detail. A DSLR usually comes equipped with a general-purpose zoom lens that is fine for most portraits and wide-angle shots. Plus, like film SLRs, a DSLR's lens can be changed, so you can attach, say, a macro lens to shoot extreme close-ups or a telephoto lens to zoom in from far away.

DSLRs also support a huge array of add-ons for the budding auteur, including filters, flashes and remote-control devices. Be prudent, though. You can easily double the cost of your camera by buying extra equipment. For instance, although the Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 camera we tested costs $700, Sony's SAL-500F80 500mm f/8 Reflex Super telephoto lens also runs $700.

With a DSLR, you eliminate the shutter lag that plagues many point-and-shoots. That's what happens when you press the shutter and then ... wait ... a second for the click. And from the moment you turn it on, a DSLR is ready to shoot -- unlike point-and-shoots, which take time to warm up.

Like point-and-shoot cameras, DSLRs come with an automatic mode that adjusts the focus and exposure for you. But shooting with a DSLR on autopilot is like driving your Porsche only to the supermarket. You'll want to experiment with the shooting modes, including aperture priority, which adjusts the amount of light that passes through the lens. You could, for instance, open the aperture to sharpen the subject -- say, a bird perched on a branch -- and blur the background. Or you might use a higher shutter speed when shooting fast action, such as your child's fast break to the basket.

Learning curve

You'll need to crack open the manual to learn these tricks, though. To a beginner, the icons and abbreviations that appear on the camera's LCD screen may look like hieroglyphics.

That said, a DSLR isn't for everybody. It won't take video clips, and if you've grown comfortable using an LCD to compose shots -- a technique popularized by the digital point-and-shoot -- you'll need to reacquaint yourself with optical viewfinders. On practically all DSLRs, you look through the viewfinder to frame shots; the LCD is used only to view photos or to change camera settings. Serious photographers prefer a viewfinder, which uses a sophisticated mirror system to display exactly what the lens sees. A point-and-shoot's LCD shows a less-detailed electronic copy of the lens image, and the screen sometimes picks up glare.

Size may also be a drawback for some users. Even a relatively petite DSLR, such as the Nikon D40, is a behemoth compared with many point-and-shoots that slide into a shirt pocket. But for those who prefer the feel of a traditional camera, the larger size is a plus: It's easier to grasp and the buttons are bigger and clearer.

When choosing a DSLR, don't fret over megapixels. Even the least-expensive model -- in our roundup, the $585 Nikon D40 -- has more than enough pixels for the largest photos you're likely to print. How large? The 6.1-megapixel D40 can provide high-resolution images for a 13-by-19-inch photograph. The 7.5-megapixel Olympus Evolt E-330 and the 10-plus megapixel models from Canon and Sony that we tested can produce poster-size prints.

Unlike point-and-shoots, DSLRs don't come with internal memory. That means you'll need to buy a memory card, too. Because you'll be shooting high-resolution shots, we recommend a fast 2-gigabyte or 4GB memory card, which costs $60 to $120 and stores from about 100 to several thousand photos, depending on image quality.

We think the four DSLR cameras below are good buys, based on features, affordability and usability. (All prices quoted are for cameras equipped with general-purpose zoom lenses.)

Best Value

Nikon D40 ($585)This DSLR is relatively petite for a camera in its class (weighing in at a little more than a pound), but it packs a lot into a small package. We were particularly impressed with the D40's easy-to-follow screen menus and icons, which make changing settings a snap. The camera's no slowpoke, either. It shoots up to 2.5 frames per second and features a start-up time of less than 0.2 seconds. The D40's 6.1-megapixel sensor is low-end for a DSLR, but it provides all the resolution needed for quality 13-by-19-inch prints.

Once you leave auto mode, the D40 holds its own as a true DSLR. You can set the ISO from 200 to 1600 -- the higher the number, the better for low-light shots without a flash -- which is useful for capturing the atmosphere of a candlelit dinner party. And the D40 produced sharp image quality under low-light, no-flash conditions -- no grainy shots here.

Most Versatile

Olympus Evolt E-330 ($800) Unlike its DSLR brethren, this solidly built, 7.5-mega-pixel digicam has a swivel LCD that extends about an inch from the camera body and tilts up and down, allowing you to frame shots even when you're holding the camera at an odd angle.

The Evolt also offers a generous assortment of 29 preset shooting modes, including ones for nature shots, panoramas and even underwater pictures -- but you'll need the optional PT-E02 Underwater Housing ($925) to shoot photos in the briny deep.

Negatives? The E-330 is a bit heavy at 1 pound 3 ounces, and its brick-like styling isn't going to thrill anyone. Furthermore, first-time users are likely to be baffled by its screen menu's cryptic icons and acronyms. But the E-330's excellent photo quality, flexible LCD and powerful features make it stand out.

Built for comfort

Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 ($700) Sony packs 10.2 megapixels into this powerhouse, making the DSLR-A100 the highest-resolution camera we tested. It's a bit larger than the Canon and Nikon models but only about 2 ounces heavier. The Sony's finger grip is excellent (an ergonomic ridge separates your middle and ring fingers), making the DSLR-A100 the most comfortable camera to hold over extended periods. Another clever feature is its Super SteadyShot anti-blur technology, which helps shaky hands snap smoother shots. (Other cameras require a special lens for that purpose.)

But Super SteadyShot isn't perfect. The sports photos we took at a kids' basketball game still suffered from the blurries. (Not surprisingly, the Sony manual recommends a tripod for best results.)

Most of the time, however, our DSLR-A100 pictures were excellent, with sharp detail and colors, and very little "noise" (color speckles and other imperfections). Like the Canon and Olympus cameras, the Sony has an anti-dust system to keep its sensor clean, and its three-photo-per-second performance in continuous-shooting mode is impressive. The on-screen instructions aren't always novice-friendly, though, so you'll want to keep the manual close at hand until you learn the lingo.

Petite Powerhouse

Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi ($790)The best consumer DSLRs combine pro-style features with plenty of guidance for amateurs, and here the Digital Rebel XTi excels. The Rebel XTi has a compact, lightweight body, a 10.1-megapixel sensor, and a 2.5-inch LCD screen for viewing saved photos and camera settings. Its clever, self-cleaning sensor removes dust automatically, and five buttons to the left of the LCD make it a breeze to access settings, menus, and photo-playback and photo-delete features, among other essentials. The Rebel is also fast: In continuous-shooting mode, it snaps three frames per second, and its 0.2-second start-up time lets you boot up quickly to take impromptu shots.

Image quality is excellent, with accurate colors, plenty of detail and little visual noise. It's hard to find fault with the Rebel. But if we must, it's that the camera's bantamweight body may prove to be too light when connected to a heavy telephoto lens, making the entire package a bit front-heavy and clumsy to hold.

Next: Five simple but sophisticated point-and-shoot cameras

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