The Dark Trio
Three DSLRs in particular, among the many we've reviewed, have shown cutting-edge performance at high "ISO ratings." We'd call them the princes of darkness of the moment, and amazing performers at that. Yet each is quite distinct from the others, in handling characteristics and features.
Their one point in common is price. The Olympus E-1, Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D, and Canon EOS 20D all sticker-out around the $1,500 mark. Besides that and their superior performance in the dim, they're very different cameras.
The Olympus E-1 is the eldest of the group, still the only camera in its price range to be sealed to resist moisture. We've been using one for a year and a half, under generally demanding conditions, and it has been utterly reliable. The E-1 was the first of the Four Thirds system (Olympus' E-300 Evolt is the second, with Panasonic having announced intentions to produce their own by next year). While the majority of digicams use a 4:3 frame format (the remaining DSLRs being the only exceptions, with 3:2 formats), the Four Thirds standard uses a somewhat larger imager.
Olympus has stacked their deck with a fine set of lenses, with an uncustomary fascination with wide-angle zooms. The 14-54mm that accompanied the E-1's introduction functions as a good "universal" lens, its angle-of-view being about that of a 28-108mm on a 35. Shortly afterward, they launched an 11-22mm (22-44mm equivalent), and most recently, a 7-14mm (14-28mm equivalent). That last one is a wowser, highly rectilinear for its focal length—that is, very little curvature of lines for such a wide lens. Against all this wide-angleness, the line includes just one telephoto zoom—the 80-200mm (there's also a 600mm non-zoom). It's a very formidable 80-200, its f/2.8 maximum aperture putting it among the top contenders in the zoom-lens specs derby.
While f/2.8 helps, what gives the E-1 its low-light prominence is its imager, a Kodak concoction with a notably low-noise performance. This helps compensate for its five million pixels—the 7D has six million, the 20D has eight—but it stands-out at 1600 and even 3200 settings. There's plenty of noise in the shadows at those settings, but if you shoot in raw mode it can be minimized. We've printed 6x4s shot with the E-1 at 3200, and the quality was acceptable. In the history of photography, that's a rare statement.
The E-1 also has its ultrasonic wave system, which cleanses the imager each time the camera is powered-up. This and another technical innovation, by Konica Minolta, made our round-up of unique features back in our December 2004 issue. It's the AntiShake or AS system built into the camera body, wherein the imager moves around to compensate for camera movement. It becomes a low-light shooting feature by improving your chances hand-held with slow shutters. If we assume the system adds a 2-EV range (which experience shows to be a reasonable assumption), then we can hand-hold at a 15th of a second with as much confidence as we would at a 60th.
That's half the battle—it still leaves an issue of subject movement—but it's an important half, and it gives the Maxxum an advantage when the light gets low. Its imager is also low-noise and quite sharp, yielding acceptable results up to about 800.
The most aggressive of the three, the hungriest for pictures, is the Canon EOS 20D. It's a blazing fast performer. The other two power-up instantly and have negligible shutter-lag, and both can be set to "burst" modes shooting a couple frames per second. But the E-1 is not so good with a rapid trigger-finger—it wants to stop for white-balance or focusing for each shot. It's not an eternity, but it does intrude on a relationship between photographer and subject. Shooting any moving object—a race horse, an athlete, a ballerina—a photographer might want to develop a rhythm of shooting to match the pace of the subject. The Maxxum is better at this than the E-1, though it's a bit slowish at writing files to memory. It keeps up with the action well enough, but it must pause periodically for its clerical chores.
The 20D chatters along, gobbling up the people, the furniture, the walls, swallowing everything in sight and asking for more. The shutter fires with each press of the finger, no matter how soon after the previous, or in what pattern or rhythm. It can be quite exhilarating, taking this camera for a spin.
Its ravenous appetite is more than just sexy—it can make a positive contribution to low-light shooting as well. A lot of such shooting is a product of dumb luck, where for example in one frame your subject holds still and is clear, in the next frame turns her head and is blurred. In conditions like these, the more pictures you take, the more of a chance you have of catching that rare magic instant where everything's still.
We couldn't shoot so many pictures when we were shooting on film, because 36 was the limit and then everything stopped. But nowadays, we find that SanDisk and Lexar are both shipping 8-gig CF cards. That's room for quite a few hundred pictures, even in raw mode.
It's not often discussed outside of marketing circles, but the camera's personality is an important part of its working abilities. It really helps to like your camera, to enjoy using it; the idea of outstanding equipment as both tactile and spiritual pleasure is not restricted to doctors with Leicas. Everyone feels it, whether admittedly or not. If taking more and more pictures under difficult conditions improves the user's odds, a camera that makes the procedure a pleasure improves the odds that much more.
Everything about the 20D is rapid-fire, including playback of pictures. Where most cameras use four-directional cursor buttons to move forward or backward through the catch of the day, the 20D uses a large circular dial on the back. As fast as you spin the dial, that's about as fast as pictures flash through the monitor. If you shot a long enough burst, you can sit and enjoy the movie.
With its 8MP CMOS imager, the 20D has the added gloss of the biggest picture of the brood—3504x2336, versus 3008x2000 of the Maxxum and 2560x1920 of the E-1—and although pixels aren't everything, they certainly are something, and more is still better, all other things equal.