It’s been about two years since we began our series of articles appraising the DSLR market and its most provocative subset, the under-$1,000 models. We got a few double-takes at the beginning, for wasn’t it the entry-level camera that would churn out the big numbers? And aren’t big numbers what marketing and sales are all about? To those in 2003 who thought digital photography still needed evangelizing, it was almost heretical to sing the praises of DSLRs. They were too pricey to sell in large numbers, and what would that give the analysts to say about the growth and profitability of the digicam market? Good gadfry, the PR would be awful.
So what happened next? The DSLR market erupted. Reinforcing all fears, there was indeed a high end, the camera that breathed the rare air of the knockabout pro. These are the folks who could use 10 million to 16 million pixels or more, and who’d pay four grand and up for the distinction. That population would not produce numbers that sizzle and pop, razzle and dazzle.
Fortunately for all, the manufacturers understood perfectly, and two years ago had an abundance of product at shocking low prices. With the first DSLR priced close to $30k in 1991, and the “typical” price of the breed at $10,000–$20,000 through most of the ’90s, the arrival of much better cameras—with 5MP to 8MP and a million new features—at a suggested list around $2,500 was a stunning coup. What was more stunning was that most sold widely in a rather short time for a thousand dollars less.
The EOS 10D could be spotted on eBay for around $1,500 at the time Canon announced the first digital Rebel at $999. The loud cracking you heard came from the ceiling, which was about to crash down all over DSLR pricing. It was only a buck less than a grand, but in the mind it’s a very big buck. And in actuality, it was still only two-thirds the price of the 10D. And in actuality, again, although not as full-featured as the 10D, the Digital Rebel was still an enormously versatile camera, and—most important—the general quality of the output, the finished pictures, was about equal between ’em.
There’s still plenty to be said for the Compacts (or DZLRs), with their high-performance, permanently mounted zoom lenses. But as the market matured, the word got around that bigger is better, in matters of imaging-chip size. Today’s compact cameras squeeze maybe 6 million pixels in a space the same size they squoze 3 million a few years ago. How do they do it? Smaller pixels. But all other things equal, that would make them noisier, too. It’s maybe a full step forward and a half-step backward—you improve the resolution of the picture with more pixels, and reduce it with more noise.
Some of the DSLRs are quite compact as SLR cameras go, the smallest of all coming from Pentax. It’s hard to recall any full-featured SLRs quite so small in the 35mm film market (although the APS SLRs by Canon, Minolta, and Olympus were quite small, too). Canon’s second Digital Rebel, the XT, is just a hair larger than the Pentax. The new Olympus E-500 is a smidgen narrower than its predecessor/companion, the E-300. You could call smallness a trend in this class of equipment.
Still, with the lens permanently set inside the camera body, the Compacts live up to their name. The whole of the lens will always stick out on a DSLR, more so if it’s a telephoto. Since it’s bound to be bigger anyway, the SLR body might as well leave room for a larger imager. All of the DSLRs now on the market use imaging chips that are larger than most of the non-SLR cameras. The majority use the APS-C format (22x15mm, which is not to be confused with the APS-C print format), the closest thing to a standard in digital cameradom, although the Canon 5D, 1D Mark II, and 1Ds Mark II use larger imagers yet.
Because of all this, the DSLR comes with a quality story that SLRs couldn’t spin over ZLRs in 35mm. In the film-camera market, an SLR might have an argument on behalf of its versatility, but any camera with an equally good lens could take equally good pictures on the identical films. In the digital age, the recording substance is an original and sometimes proprietary, always permanent part of the camera. That permanent part, in theory at least, is better in DSLRs than in most other cameras. (As if reading our minds, Sony recently introduced a 10MP ZLR with an APS-C-size imager.)
Our experience so far indicates that the larger imagers are better in practice, as well as in theory. Particularly when we get in the 8-megapixel league, we’ve found vast differences between the performance of DSLRs and the DZLRs with sub-APS-C imagers. At low ISO settings, the 8-megapixel Compacts struck us as okay, but they got noisy quickly as the speed was cranked up—we didn’t want to go past 400. With the DSLRs—of which we’ve sampled four that have 8-megapixel imagers, Canon’s Rebel XT and 20D, and the two Olympus Evolt models—we’re generally comfortable around 800-speed, and sometimes get away with 1600.
Clearing Our Name
Just as it’s a psychological milestone to have DSLRs selling for under $1k, it’s a balm to the industry’s conscience that their performance truly is spectacular. While we ardently hope and believe they’ll get even better, they’re now truly the equal of film in technical picture quality, or maybe even superior. This is a landmark, because it’s been an ongoing promise since the dawn of digital. VGA-resolution cameras were the first on the mass market, and they were “film quality”—ask anybody. Then came XGA, and they were “film quality.” Then came SXGA. “Film quality.” Three-megapixels, four, five—all “film quality.” So no one could be faulted for asking, “Vas ist los, das ‘film quality?’”
And the correct answer, at almost any point till the year 2000, would be “hype.” In the early days it was expensive, the quality was marginal, and the computers weren’t big or fast enough anyway. You could “see the picture immediately,” a benefit that had been the mainstay for a half-century of Polaroid. Those all-important sales figures got churned out on schedule, but except for obscure industry newspapers, the rate of customer dissatisfaction and product returns went largely unannounced.
The prior history of electronic photography had been somewhat colored by egregious misapprehensions, in the SV (still video) system of the mid-1980s. This was a means for shooting still pictures in TV cameras that were shaped and designed like 35mm cameras—both SLR and point-and-shoot styles. They produced an NTSC-quality picture that, nomenclature notwithstanding, was not “still” video. The interlaced NTSC frame wobbled endlessly, sometimes animating the on-screen figures in picturesque ways. The solution was to show one field only, halving the pictures’ resolution—which was no greater (actually less, considering color-depth) than VGA in the first place. No one dared call it “film quality,” and it was barely “TV quality.”
By the turn of the century, the hype had been a steamroller for 15 years, aspiring to numbers, again, to make heat. The pressure was on, and the product got pushed into places it didn’t belong. People strong on administration but weak on technology got talked into using technology they couldn’t control—not for the first time, not for the last—and some of the crashes were resounding. Few magazines reported the failures, or the careers interrupted as a result.
Until recently, the history of electronic photography has been one of promises unkept. There continue to be skeptics. But the big difference now is that digital cameras, as a breed, don’t need hype. At their best, they can be excellent. And the DSLRs are the best so far.