The Nikon D50 should be going on sale for $899 or less at about the time you read this, and in the process it should bring to a boil a question that's been on our front burner all year. The question is, what is the relationship of high-performance fixed-lens cameras to interchangeable-lens single lens reflex cameras these days?
In less interesting times, the answer was obvious. Digital SLRs cost a lot of money, fixed lens cameras didn't. Or anyway, not as much as DSLRs by a longshot. Two years ago, when most DSLRs had list prices in the $2,000-$2,500 range (with the exception of the top Canon EOS and Nikon D1 models, priced upwards of $5k), the choice for most buyers was made for them. A high-performance fixed-lens camera cost only a grand at the time, still a whopping lot for most consumer budgets, but less than half the price of most DSLRs.
Two years ago next August, Canon upset that apple cart with the original Digital Rebel, breaking the "thousand dollar barrier" by a one-dollar hair--;$999, battery included. Nikon responded with a sensational success, the D70, which though marvelously low-priced, was still over $1k. Probably, most people who could afford the D-Rebel could also afford the D-70, but from a psychological standpoint Canon took the point. They'd busted a barrier, after which all heck broke loose.
Pentax was the next with a three-figure price on a DSLR, in the mid-$800 range for the compact *ist D. Shortly after that was Olympus with the E-300 Evolt, with street prices also in the mid-$800s. At February's PMA Show, Canon announced their digital Rebel XT at the former price of the D-Rebel, while the D-Rebel dropped to $799.
With the D50, Nikon now brings to the buffet a fifth DSLR made to sell for under a thousand bucks. Can you see the product category in this picture?
Who Needs 'Em?
The price of high-performance fixed-lens cameras has also come down in the same period. A 3-megapixel camera with 10x zoom might have cost $700 two years ago, while a 5MP with 10x zoom might be $500 to $600 today. That same range of prices now buys even 12x zoom models. There's still a price premium for a DSLR, but it's one or two hundred, not as many thousand above the cost of a fixed-lens camera. It's small enough that a lot of people who consider fixed-lens cameras can also consider interchangeable-lens cameras for purchase.
The biggest single differentiation between the two camera categories--;the price--;having been eliminated, how do you tell them apart?
That should be simple. The interchangeable-lens cameras accept interchangeable lenses, the non-interchangeable-lens cameras don't. Is that a big difference, or what?
It's a big difference, but not as big as it used to be. Back when most zoom lenses covered only a 3x range--;which is from the dawn of time up until about four years ago--;the lenses gave some cropping ability, but no serious power on either the wide-angle or telephoto end. Their ranges might extend from a 35 to 105mm equivalent--;handy, but look at the SLRs, with their 28 and 24 and 16mm and fisheye wides, their 200 and 400mm teles. For those who could use it, the optical flexibility was extravagant among DSLRs, and quite so-so among the fixed-lens models.
This all changes in the day of the 8x to 12x built-in. All of a sudden, these one-lens cameras have just as much optical range as most DSLRs do. Most. The built-in lenses in some cases zoom-out as wide as a 24mm equivalent, and zoom-in as close as a 400mm equivalent. Most SLR owners probably don't buy lenses much shorter or longer, for reasons including their high prices. A relative few also buy shift lenses, macros, telescope or microscope adapters, and so on.
Although the specialist or the otherwise ambitious user still will find more wishes granted by an interchangeable-lens system, the more mainstream user may ask himself, "what do three lenses clattering around my life have that one built-in lens doesn't?"
They might even have disadvantages, depending on how you operate. You may have three lenses whose coverage from the widest to most-telephoto equals 12x, but to use them you've got to take one off and put the next one on. Forgetting wasted time, this provides opportunities for dust to spill through the open lens mount, cascading into the camera and leaving dishwasher spots, or other unsightly blemishes, on the image capture device. Olympus has gained much capital through the ultrasonic wave filter that cleans the imager of their E-1 and Evolt models each time they're powered-up. Some of the other manufacturers offer CCD cleaning kits, though conventional wisdom in the early days was that only trained professionals should try cleaning CCDs at home.
Most of the fixed-lens cameras use imagers that are way small, so their high-performance lenses can be small accordingly. A fair portion can be enclosed within the camera body, making for compact packages despite their resounding versatility. If you need to switch from a 38mm angle of view to a 400mm one, you do so without fiddling with lenses, lens caps, cases, and everything else that can slip from your fingers and bounce off the sidewalk. There are all kinds of reasons to like fixed-lens cameras.
Joining The "System" Club
Many fixed-lens models are compatible with the accessory systems built for the SLRs, further blurring some of the lines between the two categories. Konica Minolta's Eric Cinque, for example, says nearly all Konica Minolta electronic flash units that are compatible with the Maxxum 7D can also be used with the two top Dimage fixed-lens models, the A200 and the Z5. The exceptions are the ringlight flash used principally for extreme close-up work by doctors and similar specialists. (The A200 has extreme close-up or macro focusing provisions, the Z5 doesn't). A camera with "pro" in its name, Canon's PowerShot Pro 1, is compatible with all Canon strobes including their ringlights. Does a camera become more of a professional model as more features are added?