What dSLR (not to buy)? [The entry kit dSLR Part 3]

(Article continued from part 2)

I wrote an article about purchasing an entry dSLR four years ago. What it so surprising is how much of it has stood the test of time—only small details and features have changed: Nikon autofocus now has more points than Canon (as well as better coverage and the use of color); Olympus no longer is the only company with Live View (even Pentax does it), nor the only company with dust shake (all the others, starting with Canon, now offer it); Sony is not the only company with sensor-shift image stabilization.

Still, the essence is still true: Canon and Nikon remain among the last three holdouts adamantly against sensor-based image stabilization. Canon settings are still bulletproof; Nikon still is light focused: with the best autoexposure system and the best high ISO performance. Olympus and Panasonic are still cramming the coolest tech into the smallest space, Sony is proving their engineering chops, and Pentax is still putting photographic value first.

Nikon D5000 w/AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G
South of Market, San Francisco, California

Olympus E-P2, M.ZUIKO Digital ED 14-42mm 1:3.5-5.6
1/6sec @ ƒ5.2, iso 800, 36mm (72mm)

It’s still best to forego the kit and stick a fast-wide-cheap prime on your camera. This Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 lens is not cheap, but Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 DX lens is the 50mm equivalent for Nikon APS-C and costs about the same as a kit lens. I’ll talk about lenses in a later section.

The rounded right side of the camera is actually an extremely well thought out way for resting smaller these smaller cameras in your palm. It’s a tiny detail, I’ve not seen in the other Nikon models, but it’s just one of the reasons why people rave about Nikon small body dSLR ergonomics.

The advice hasn’t changed: When you buy a first dSLR, it is still the best to forgo the kit lens and plaster on a cheap, fast prime. Lenses still get more expensive, and bodies still get cheaper. Every manufacturer makes a camera for your budget with a negligible price difference…

And the problem is all the cameras are still too good.

In fact, the most significant difference from four years ago is only that the “entry level dSLR” has dropped below $700 for an entire kit, (in addition to) the $1000 “body-only” category—redefining the latter as an “enthusiast” category. Not only that, in many cases, manufacturers have issued multiple models in this sub $700 category, all offering at least one full kit below $550. Three of these sell kits for less than a Canon G11 pocket camera!

A mistake never mentioned

The worst mistake I made in four years ago was not mentioning the dangers of buying too much camera.

One thing never mentioned in a spec sheet is how easy-to-learn a camera is. As you move up the dSLR price ladder, the cameras get harder to use, not easier. This is because more expensive cameras are more targeted toward someone coming from the film world—and film cameras are hard to use! Controls that make learning to use a camera easier take up space and slow down people SLR experts. Also people simply don’t want to to take their eye out of the viewfinder or navigate a menu to do something they’re going to do a hundred times—think of a physical button as the command-key shortcut for a menu somewhere. Pros need different macros than the rest of us. And, since the pro dSLRs are even larger, the physical real-estate can get even more cluttered with these buttons and dials. Out goes the scene modes; in comes the selector for bracketing and flash. Out goes the face detection; in comes the selectable autofocus points. Out goes a modifier button; in comes a depth-of-field preview.

Entry level Nikon D3000 on top, Professional Nikon D3 on bottom.

The flickr page (click on the image) has notes highlighting the differences between the two control decks.

I have a friend who shoots a Nikon D300—a $1800 body-only semi-professional dSLR. He recently went to a relative’s wedding in Thailand and told me all the people there shoot Nikons. “But not Nikons like your D3 and my D300,” he added, “They carry Nikon D40s and D60s [entry kit dSLRs]. We traded cameras and they couldn’t shoot mine, and I couldn’t shoot theirs.”

“That’s because the front dial is missing in those cameras, you have to press a modifier button,” I pointed out. “It takes a while to figure them out, because they’re more menu-driven than a regular Nikon. There’s a trick—forget what you know about Nikon.”

In fact, not only do these cameras have “scene modes”, but many of them now contain menus with info buttons that tell you at glance what the heck some obscure menu setting really does. One camera even has a GUIDE mode that is an expert system for SLR photography, walking you through the settings by asking you questions about what sort of photograph you want to take! Expensive dSLR cameras demand that you are an expert with intimate understanding of focal length, f-stop, shutter speed, ISO, guide numbers, focusing and metering systems and how to access each of them from a cluttered control deck backed by a self-customizeable menu system that is pages long. Entry dSLRs create a “more streamlined design” that “is much easier to pick up and ‘just shoot’…if you’re coming from a relatively limited knowledge base.”

But here’s the surprising thing: feature-wise that kit camera is going to have 99% of the functionality of the pro camera and in terms of image quality, it’s the same or better! For instance, I learned to shoot Nikon on a $1300 dSLR—an “entry” price in 2004. Many of my best photos I ever took, including one that has appeared in a magazine and been used by the Sierra Club, were taken on that camera. The image quality score for that model is 50.2. The entry level cameras I’ll be talking are about half that price or less. The worst of them has an IQ score of 54.7; the best of them has an IQ of 72—the second highest mark ever recorded by an APS-C camera at any price! (For reference, your pocket digital camera probably won’t even score a 30 and my $5000 Nikon D3 scores slightly above the best of this class at an 80.6—the fourth highest score of any camera in any format at any price.)

There are some of you who have a lot of money and can buy a Nikon D3X or D300S, or Canon 5DmkII or 50D, and I’m saying is hold off on that purchase until you’ve shot a lot of SLR. Ignore the spec sheet or what your buddy tells you, because too much camera will simply rot in your closet. These “entry” cameras, in the right hands and with the right eye, are good enough to create a photos that can be published in magazines or shown in galleries.

Redwoods and West Berry Creek

Redwoods and West Berry Creek
Big Basin State Park, Santa Cruz Mountains, California

Nikon D70, Nikkor 12-24mm f/4G
(3 exposures at 1/4″, 1.3″ and 3″) @ f/16, iso 200, 12mm (18mm)

Six megapixels, poor dynamic range, and still looks great. A sub-$500 dSLR can take this photo…only better.

(Article continued in part 4)

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9 thoughts on “What dSLR (not to buy)? [The entry kit dSLR Part 3]

  1. I can't agree more with getting by with an entry level camera before moving up. I have such a camera (Canon Rebel XTI) and in many ways I'm still a n00b. You really should use an entry level camera a lot…until the controls feel "right" and the settings all make sense. I'm not there yet, my only excuse is not shooting enough, but I do feel good going to the local photography shop and not being intimidated by all the "big words".

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