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Astounding DSLRs Debut At photokina



The digital SLRs making their debut at the photokina show re-prove a premise we've been pushing all year: that if digital photography is amazing, the DSLRs are the most amazing part of it. At the same time as displaying the technical state of the art, they're going in directions most people didn't imagine two years ago. They're creating serious sub-groups in a breed of cameras you might think, superficially, was homogenous. Such ripples in their perceptions can make people loopy, and loopy customers are harder to satisfy. Let's see what the new products at photokina reveal about this developing market, and what we can glean as the DSLR field sets new boundaries.

In the past year, we've given hands-on reviews of DSLRs from everyone who makes them. We never found a camera we didn't like. Why we liked them, however, was not always consistent. Before adding photokina's brood to the mix, let's re-examine the cameras already considered, and look for the one-liners that sum each of 'em up.

The Konica Minolta Maxxum 7 Digital boasts superior anti-shake capability. (Photo by Don Sutherland)
After a long wait, Nikon has unveiled the successor to the D1X—the D2X.

The Olympus E-1, for example, has the best low-light performance of all that we studied, and a rugged construction, though in certain condition is a little slow on the draw. The Kodak SLR/n makes the clearest picture we've ever seen, though reveals color-aliasing once in awhile, and could use improvements in the control layout (its Canon-mount fraternal twin, the SLR/c, improves on that last point). The Sigma SD10 has the best size/resolution ratio, providing a remarkably clear picture from a relatively small file, but it may show linear aliasing once in awhile. Are you getting our drift?

The Fujifilm FinePix S2 delivers a lovely-colored picture, whose contrast range is acceptable but apparently the narrowest of the DSLR group. The Pentax *ist D is the overall most likeable, but probably reveals the most anti-aliasing blur of the collection. The Canon Digital Rebel was the first to deliver serious SLR quality at a thousand-dollar price, though its satiny good looks are reportedly easy to mar. The Nikon D1X is the traditional Nikon battleaxe, pure and simple, but comes from the oldest design (1999) of the family.

If we could add up all the above-named cameras and divide by eight, we'd have the universally perfect DSLR. What we have instead is a diversity of potentials, strengths, and soft spots. Satisfied purchasers would be those who most successfully matched those potentials to their individual picture-taking needs.

All this takes thinking on their part, and maybe some counseling on ours. The fine points of these cameras aren't expressed in the brochures, and may need to be talked-through at the point of sale. While it may sound complex, there are a few factors that simplify the decision-making tasks.

Setting the Mold
Price is, of course, the blade making the first and sharpest cut. There's a lot of money between $1,500 and $5,000, and most of the DSLRs now on the market (and previewed at photokina) fall close to the pricing extremes. The Cameras like the Canon 1Ds or Mark II, and the two Kodak Pro SLRs, and the Nikon D1 and D2 series, really target users who take pictures for a living. Not only do those folks have justification for buying professionally styled cameras at their much higher prices, they also can take the deduction.

The "popular price" group of DSLRs opened at just over two grand, but has since dropped to around $1,500 and downward. In principle, this conforms to the mold established in the 35mm SLR market. The high-end EOS and Nikon F5 models (F6 as of photokina) cost perhaps three times as much as "consumer market" 35mm SLRs. So from an economic standpoint, the purchaser faces a similar system of economic choices in both digital and film cameras.

Canon showed off the 16.7MP EOS-1Ds Mark II at photokina.

Where the mold cracks a little is in the fact that the DSLR market as a whole is priced about three times higher than its 35mm counterpart. This probably causes some pause in the buying public. We continue to hear more-than-rhetorical questions, such as "won't anything I buy today be eclipsed next year?"

To this concern, we can refer to a testimonial for the SLR/n that arrived unsolicited: "As a working photojournalist, I determined that both I and my publishers required the supreme sharpness and the extreme picture size that this camera produces, and we need them now, not just next year." That would seem a good template for anyone to follow, pro or consumer—do you need what the cameras offer today?

Despite such sober contemplations, there may be some people who sense, on some level of intuition, that if DSLRs were priced according to manufacturing costs alone, they would be priced much closer to the 35s. Part of their "now/next year" quandary may come from uncertainty about where prices will settle, for once and for all.

The economic trail blazed by the Canon D-Rebel and paved by the Nikon D70 has led to another destination, this one with a little less precedent. For around the same price, folks can buy a rather snazzy prosumercam with a high-performance lens permanently built-in. Canon, Minolta, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony are among manufacturers offering cameras with lenses that zoom to a 10x and even 12x range. This kind of situation never existed in the world of film, for the 35mm frame, larger than most digital imagers, would require most 10x zooms to be too big for comfort.

It's frequently said that a substantial proportion or even majority of non-pros who buy 35mm interchangeable-lens SLRs don't buy the interchangeable lenses. For some, the appeal of an SLR may be the apparent sophistication it lends to whomever carries it around. They may be forever satisfied, as picture-takers, with whatever midrange zoom lens the manufacturer offers as "standard" for the camera (a practice followed with several consumer-oriented DSLRs as well). Perhaps there's a thought in the back of the mind, or a rationalization, that these purchasers could buy additional lenses in the future, if ever they really wanted (and had the spare change).

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