Unlike in the article four years ago, I’ll be covering specific models. I’ll cover them in the reverse order to my original article, because I felt I gave the less popular brands a short shrift last time.
Four years ago, I stated that Pentax makes shooter-centric cameras at a great value. In fact, I mentioned that Pentax was the first entry in this dSLR price category, and this was in line with Pentax’s history: to bring those people on a budget a quality camera.
Pentax maintains that position today with the K-x, which sits smack dab in the middle of these cameras in terms of price but way on extreme upper end terms of quality—so good, that some say that Pentax should “trickle-up” some of the imaging technology to their professional K-7—a $1100 body-only camera. This earned Gordon Lewis’s nomination as camera of the year for 2009—the only dSLR in this class to be so mentioned by T.O.P.
And yes, it’s still the shooter’s camera. While the pentaprism has been removed to reach this lower price point, the K-x still maintains the largest viewfinder among entry dSLRs. It still is still 100% compatible with the oldest backward-compatible lens mount in history: the K-mount. And yes, the autofocus still boasts the best numbers: 11 points with 9 cross-type—the only camera here with more than 1 cross-type AF sensor. Cross-type sensors are more likely to lock focus in low-light. That’s good because by all reports (DxO hasn’t done a test yet), this body has an low light performance that approaches the best camera of the group—no surprise since they are using the exact same Sony-supplied CMOS sensor as that camera. Pentax has also given it the fastest continuous shutter rate in the class—your high school newspaper’s sports photography will never be the same.
The quirky use of AA batteries is still there too—it uses four AA’s lined up serially, which means the total mAH is the value of a single battery. You’re left with about $30 in extra purchases to buy batteries and a good charger (more later). By the way, ignore the part where people complain about the battery life. I’ve seen NiMH rechargeables with over 2900 mAH of charge in them and personally use 2150 mAH low-discharge AAs. Even these should have about as much charge as in competitor camera’s Li-Ion battery packs. Many people are just using old cruddy AAs in testing.
Still, since Pentax was late to the ballgame in live-view and video, those modes suffer vs. competitors. Pentax has never had the best autoexposure system, resulting in some complaints there. And traditionally, Pentax simply hasn’t spent as much development time in processing as the others, so camera buffer performance may be a little anemic.
Overall the camera is so good that their cheaper K2000 has disappeared from Pentax’s price list. No matter, because now that the K-x is available in four colors in the U.S., and 100 styles in Japan—the camera is just flying off the shelves as if Pentax had four different models for sale. And before you deride the cosmetics of the situation, recall Apple’s sales of the iPod mini and iPod nano. The biggest purchaser of these candy-colored beauties? Women and children. Last I checked they outnumbered us old guys so I guess that’s a good strategy for Pentax.
While Pentax is about the budget-minded photographer, Sony has been synonymous with consumer electronics. Just like autofocus a quarter of a century ago, sensor shift- image-stabilization is now widespread in it’s adoption among competitors, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for innovation in Sony’s consumer-focused engineering and design.
On one hand, Sony still has eye-detection that turns off the rear LCD and the eye-start AF in their viewfinder—though I think the latter is of limited utility. But the biggest advance is the best live-view LCD on the market. While the others accomplish live view by flipping up the mirror and directly reading and playing back on the sensor CMOS, Sony shifts the pentamirror slightly to read directly from the mirror box with a independent sensor. The advantage of this is that none of the autofocusing and mirroring system technology put into the large SLR box is lost.
There are some compromises in this design: no magnified view is available, the lack of 100% viewfinder, and space is allocated for the technology that gives it the smallest viewfinder in the class. But really the largest problem is the technology is currently confined to CCD instead of CMOS which means that the Sony is stuck with the noisiest cameras in the class at the same time they manufacture the best CMOS sensors for Pentax and Nikon. In addition, CCD means that none of the Sony entry dSLRs have video capability.
Another interesting feature that seems a Sony modus operandi is the live view has a tilt-screen. While it isn’t fully articulating and is the least versatile of the articulating screens, it reminds me of the Sony Cybershot F1717 a camera whose tilt screen turned out to be a favorite of those who liked to do stealth documentary photography back in the early part of the last decade. I had a friend who used it almost exclusively, and it was a highly effective photographic approach. Overall when coupled with the only acceptably fast autofocus in a live view—the Sony models with this are probably the only useful cameras for that style of hip-shoot photography.
Minolta (Sony’s parent design) was always known as having a classically cluttered control-deck which was the easiest camera to use without looking away from the viewfinder. That is still true in Sony’s higher end cameras. But in a nod to consumer demand, Sony has radically changed their entry camera to target first-time buyers coming from the pocket camera world. The latest Sony cameras are now accompanied by the introduction of a piezoelectric (wave) motor to their lenses. Like the latest Canons and Nikons this means that the lenses focus quickly and silently, which is will be especially welcome now that video is starting to be demanded more and more. Other “sony style” features are the top-deck placement of the shutter button, the abbreviated grip, a rubberized finish, and the two-tone titanium coloring of the bodies. It also has the cleanest styling in the class—hiding most of the complex stuff in menus instead of cluttering the control deck. You’ll have to use them to see if it agrees with you.
Personally, I dislike the shutter button placement and the grip. When I put the Panasonic 14-150 HD lens on my Olympus E-P2 to shoot video, I can only think of how clunky it seems—not to mention aggravating the carpal tunnel on my right hand. I imagine that personally I’d get the same feeling if I put a large lens on the Sonys. It reminds me of the shutter sound—you may like it, but whenever I hear it it makes think “clacky” and think the camera feels a bit hollow and plastic.
On the other hand, I understand where Sony is coming from. Of all the cameras, this clean style most resembles a pocket digital. I imagine the transition it gives is most comfortable from someone upgrading from such a camera. Even though the live view works differently than such a camera, the way the live view feels is strongly like a point-and-shoot. The camera practically says, at all levels, “Just point me and shoot.”
Most importantly, Sony is committed to grow with you. Sony has been the most aggressive at trying to break into the upper professional market. In addition to manufacturing the sensor in the upper-end Nikons, the Sony α850 dSLR is probably the best all-around full frame camera body on the market, and Sony has introduced the largest number of new lenses in the last couple years—including partnering with the greatest optical company in the world: Carl Zeiss.
Due to a side-effect of how they launched into the dSLR market, Sony currently offers three models at the entry level: The α230, α330, and α380. The difference between the α230 and α330 is the addition of the live view and tilt LCD I have already mentioned, at the cost of a slightly increased bulk. Even so, the abbreviated camera grip makes all these cameras smaller than the Nikon and Canons. The α380 adds a higher resolution sensor to the α330. Because the α380 is a custom CCD instead of their CMOS and thus taxes the same-as-α330 image processor. The camera I recommend is the α330. The features that may attract you to the Sony line are not in the α230, though at a $140 cost savings, larger viewfinder, and smaller body may be attractive enough to justify a purchase. I’ve beat the megapixel myth to death, I think the α380 spec should be left for a later dSLR purchase—when considering an α500, α550, or α850.
True to my word, I went back to Olympus after a decade apart, with an Olympus E-P2. Of course that camera isn’t exactly an SLR, so why mention it. It’s because that half a century ago, Olympus came out with the “Pen” and introduced to the world the “half-frame format.” Olympus has been specializing in miniaturization for fifty years and it shows. As I alluded to five years ago, their Super High Grade lenses are considered the best optics around, and allows Olympus to dominate in two photographic areas: macro and food photography.
Because of the smaller sensor and being the only truly digital-specific lens mount here, the Olympus has the smallest bodies of the bunch. And even though things like live view and dust shake have been incorporated into competitors cameras, Olympus is leveraging their small-body advantages. In particular the three features that are interesting/unique are 1) the only fully articulating LCD of the bunch, 2) backlit buttons for using in the dark, and 3) in-camera creative processing modes that are actually good called art filters. They have six: Pop Art, Soft Focus, Pale & Light Color, Light Tone, Grainy Film, and Pin Hole as well as one that is buried in the scene modes: e-Portrait, and the interesting thing about these is that it isn’t just a postprocessing trick, the processing mode actually changes the exposure and focus settings of the camera vs. not setting it. It’s a love it or hate it thing, personally I love them on my E-P2, especially for video. (Full disclosure: my E-P2 also has a Diorama and Cross-Process art filter.) The RAW file, though changed, does not contain the filter post-processing. Oh yeah, there’s also muli-exposure modes that you only see in high end cameras like the Nikon D3, but nowadays that sort of effect would be done in Photoshop.
One thing to note is that the aspect ratio is the same as in video, 4:3, not the 3:2 as in film. Because of this, it has selectable aspect ratio in all their cameras: You can shoot in 16:9, 4:3, 3:2, or even square 6×6. The RAW file contains the full image area, but this does help framing a lot. A neat trick is to set it to black and white 6×6 and pretend you have a pocket medium format—you can still pull color and a larger crop from the RAW file if you need to. The wide barrel and small register distance means that their are adapters for almost any SLR camera lens out there—including the well recognized Olympus OM series. Similarly 4:3 lenses will mount and most will autofocus on the mirror-less micro 4:3 design—so if you are thinking of getting one of those cameras in the future for street photography and the like, it is worth consideration.
The biggest weakness of Olympus cameras is also their strength: the 4:3 sensor. This sensor is the smallest of the bunch which means it’ll have the smallest viewfinders, and the poorest performance, and be the least different from compact digitals—there’s just no getting around physics. Still, the sensor is 4x larger than that of the largest compacts so the difference is noticeable. In practice, I’d say the images at high ISO are just slightly less noisy than my Nikon D70 and close to my D200—what is ISO 1600 on my Olympus resembles ISO 800 on my D70, ISO 1600 on my D200, and ISO 12,800 on my Nikon D3.
Olympus, unlike other manufacturers, sells all their models way past their “sell date” side-by-side with older ones Technically this means they have the E-420 and E-520 side-by-side with their sequels: the E-450 and E-620—all in this price category even though the prices are the tightest grouping among all manufacturers. However, the E-450 is just the E-420 with the art modes in, and the E-520 is just the E-420 with image stabilization—just like I noted with the E-410 and E-510 a couple years before. Thankfully, Olympus has spared us the pain and quietly dropped the E-420 and E-450 from sale—probably because the price squeeze from the E-520 which already is at a super cheap $420 now. (BTW, to CrunchGear’s “who’d pay more for just image stabilization?” question: the market has spoken and given your snide review a big middle finger by eliminating all non-stabilized Olympuses for sale.) This is especially ironic since technically the E-450 is the newest camera of the bunch.
The E-620 adds to the E-520 the following: the fully articulating display, backlit buttons, and scene modes I mentioned, more megapixels (14), 4fps shooting (up from 3.5), 7 focus points (up from 3), and a physically larger camera (because of the LCD) while actually weighing in at slightly less—because of their compact sizes, all Olympuses feel solidly built. You pay $150 more for it so it’ll be up to you if those features are worth it. I tend to think so, but please ignore the megapixel count—DxO tested the overall quality of this sensor as actually worse.
Smaller is better sometimes
The entry-level camera exists for a reason, and in some ways, this class is even better than the highest-end. I can’t tell you how many express shock at the amount of gear that I carry—that my camera demands I carry—even though I think I’ve gotten my event photography kit pretty light:
That’s over six and a half pounds—not including a spare lens, spare batteries, and other things! For reference, the heaviest camera in this class—a Nikon D5000 w/ kit lens and rubber hood is 954 grams—or a third of this weight.
Three years ago, I ran into Guy Kawasaki at a Lunch 2.0 sporting a new Nikon D40. I asked him about it and he said, “I had your camera [a Nikon D200, $1800 for the body only], but I got rid of it. Why? It was just too heavy!”
Some of you might ask, “But if I shoot these cameras with their automated beginner modes how will I ever learn to shoot a real dSLR?” I’d answer, “Given what you’ve read why would you want to shoot a ‘real’ dSLR?” and then add, “I’ll get to the how in a later installment.” But first, I need to complete my review by bringing up Canon and Nikon.