It would be easy to assume that the various sub-$1k DSLRs recently brought to market represent a breed of stripped-down, dumbed-down, second-tier products compared to super-$1k DSLRs that preceded them. But it wouldn't always be correct. In some cases, the economy-priced models have wowsier specifications than their pricier kin—the 8-megapixel Olympus E-300, for example, compared to the 5-meg professional E-1 at nearly twice the price. There are other differences between the two that justify their pricing, but a 60% larger image is hard to ignore. How come the lower-price camera has the higher-price imager? Because two years after the E-1 came out, the 8MP imager has become lower-price.
Let's not forget that we're still erupting, and large leaps in camera performance should be expected indefinitely. They'll show up as soon as it's possible, in the very next wave, which at the moment means the “affordably priced” SLR flood.
Canon introduced the $999-and-down category two years ago, concurrently establishing a principle: that what you don't pay for, you don't get. The original D-Rebel came across like a bargainized 10D, absent some things most folks don't miss—a massive capacitiy for custom settings, for example. There was not much discussion of constructional differences between the two models, but the bottom-most line for a camera is picture quality. And the clear message was, you could get the same great pictures at moderate prices as you can from some of the most expensive. From the standpoint of camera performance, that trims-off some fat—which is not the same as dumbing-down the product. They're still pretty smart products, a million times more whizbang than anything money could buy in 1995.
Canon's killer marketing move was to follow-up with a trimmed 20D, in the form of the Rebel XT. In look and feel, the two models are worlds apart, with the 20D's world the better. But that's still some fine picture—8-megs again—you can get from both.
With a model at the low-end and the high-end of the low-end high-end market —got that?—Canon snaps some ghastly jaws upon its competition. That is, the least and most expensive cameras in the sub-$1k market are both Canons. By certain turns of rhetoric, this could make it a challenge to talk a customer out of buying a Canon.
Konica Minolta's argument, of course, is an exclusive technology. The in-body Anti Shake system has the effect of stabilizing the image of all lenses used on the camera, and all manufacturers seem to agree image-stabilization is a good feature to have.
The Maxxum 7D that introduced AS to the DSLR market was priced toward the upper end of its group, but it had something special. That something is now available in a sub-$1k model. It's constructed a bit differently—a mirror-prism system taking the place of the traditional block of glass, and a little less strengthening beneath the skin—a more affordable box to house their specially good idea—shake-reduction at popular prices.
Every one of the manufacturers so far has an argument you can't refuse—a different argument for each—on why they provide the best bang for the buck. It seems everyone so far has something clear and decisive to command attention with, an irresistible “looka me!” Everyone so far.
Which brings us to Pentax.
Little Guy on the Block
There's no question that Pentax cameras and lenses made their mark back in the days when the 35mm SLR reigned supreme. But there can be questions about whether they, or any other traditional camera makers, have what it takes to reign supreme today. So much of their product employs new art and science, magic and voodoo. Some of the things you once had to be good at—a smooth film-advance, say—are simply moot today. So how's your circuitry holding up? Why should we expect a manufacturer that was good with springs and levers to be good with chips and boards?
Part of the answer would be that some manufactures, manufacturer products besides cameras, which make gateways for them into advanced imaging. Nikon's medical microscopes and related specialties come to mind. Pentax cameras come from a corporate family with its own portfolio of patents or, where needed, pockets deep enough to rent what it can't own. One way or another, it's entirely reasonable to expect all the traditional camera makers to be as adept at electronic cameras as, say, electronic camera manufacturers like Sony and Panasonic are.
So yes, we can expect manufacturers that were good with springs to be good with chips. But what's still uncertain is, is the manufacturer who was best at springs necessarily the best at chips?
Until such questions are tested by time, there's plenty of room for rhetorical jockying. Did Canon and Nikon dominate our attention in the U.S.? Do they still? For what reasons? Are theirs still better cameras—were they ever—or do they just buy bigger ads?
The digital age is no time to be resting on past laurels. As noted here previously, there are opportunities for all kinds of behavioral shifts among sellers and buyers of cameras. The massive lens systems used as a hook by a Canon or Nikon, for example, exert a changed influence once the D-lenses arrive. Digital-specific lenses encourage buyers to think about starting from scratch.
And right now, today, anyone thinking about starting from scratch has to think about Pentax. Theirs is the second-largest line of D-lenses currently offered, with eight in the traditional Pentax mount. Olympus offers ten digital lenses, but Olympus has to. Their new digital lens mount rules-out the use of legacy lenses from the OM lines of 35mm cameras. Of those with legacy lenses to draw from as well, Pentax offers the largest number of digital-specific lenses.