Magazine Article


D50 Makes Five (Somebody Tell the Times)

Canon Rebel XT Digital SLR
Canon Rebel XT Digital SLR
Nikon D50 Digital SLR
Nikon D50 Digital SLR

For some pros, a fixed-lens high-performance model like the Konica Minolta A200 or the Canon Pro 1 is as much of a camera as they need--;either model has more features than the 35mm EOS and Maxxum models of a decade ago. And the manufacturers are perfectly delighted to sell accessories such as flash units to customers who won't be buying additional lenses. As it is, doctors (and photography pros) are likely to need all sorts of lighting devices for their work, even more than a photojournalist ordinarily does.

Doctors and studio photographers are less likely to be perturbed by the comparatively slow start-up time and comparatively long shutter-lag of most fixed-lens cameras. These would be devastating to photojournalists shooting a war, but they're low-impact for those who shoot tabletops or patients' molars.

Lilies For Gilding

Memories die slowly, and there are quite a few geezers who remember when "professional" cameras had lots of pixels, "consumer" cameras didn't. The very first digicam, Kodak's modification of a Nikon F3, had a whopping one-million pixels on its imager. Pixel-counts increased rapidly in the following years, to the extent that the only way you can sell a 1MP camera today is if you give away a cell phone with it.

The majority of DSLRs are in the 5MP to 8MP range, as are--;guess what?--;the high-end fixed-lens models. So how does a shopper tell them all apart, again?

"We were asked that a lot when our Pro 1 came out," said Canon's Chuck Westfall, which was at PMA 2004, same time as the EOS 1D Mark II came out. Both cameras have 8-megapixel imagers, which made them "alike" to a market raised to believe pixel-count defines cameras--;despite the imagers in these two models being different sizes, different shapes, made by different manufacturers, employing different technologies (CCD and CMOS technologies respectively). "Our response was, there's room on the market for both. The 1D Mark II is ready more quickly, and includes such features as Canon servo tracking focus. That's not available in our compacts."

While there's plenty to be said for compact little cameras, there's also much to say for larger camera bodies. "There's more room for the controls," said Konica Minolta's John Dembia. That makes a difference to the gloved hand. We might presume that most non-professionals go out to take pictures on warm, sunny days, but we ought to assume the pro goes out in the cold as well.

Pentax seems to agree there's a place for both camera categories, though they eschew quite so close a match than other product lines suggest. "We see the overlap in price and size of prosumer point and shoot digital and the lower end digital SLR," the company's BJ Adams said. "But do we have plans to deliver any ';SLR-like hybrid' models with 8x zooms and higher? No. These hybrid models that offer the 8x-12x zoom and SLR-like bodies are priced equal to or higher than our *ist DS SLR. Most people moving up from a point and shoot prefer having a true SLR with interchangeable lenses."

Déjà vu Again

With the prices between digital fixed-lens and interchangeable-lens models coming closer together, Pentax points directly to an analogy that others allude to more indirectly. "We've observed that this evolution in digital buying habits mirrors the film market" of a few years ago, "when consumers debated between high end point and shoots such as our IQ Zoom series, and entry level film SLRs." In other words, the digital market did not spring fully formed from the forehead of Zeus. Its product categories had a long gestation in the 35mm market of the 1980s.

Because the price of digital SLRs was so much higher than fixed-lens cameras for so long, it has been easy to think of them in professional hands only. But the 35mm market developed its own range of consumer-oriented SLR, in fact two of them: fixed-lens models (sometimes called ZLRs, or zoom-lens reflexes) as well as interchangeable-lens models for the sophisticated, but definitely non-professional consumer. With prices of DSLRs now dropping like stones, the market is developing in ways that mirror patterns of yore.

Look at the language in Nikon's press release announcing their latest: "The D50 is the smallest, lightest and easiest-to-use Nikon digital SLR camera to date, and is designed for the broadest range of consumers including family memory-keepers," which is probably code for the moms of the land. This is not how you'd phrase copy for the D2x. "With the new D50, Nikon intends to bring a fulfilling digital SLR photography experience to more consumers than ever before and help them capture their most precious memories with great quality and ease. The D50 stands out as ideal for families searching for that perfect camera to capture timeless memories during important occasions and life events such as weddings, first home runs, birthdays, prom night, and golden anniversaries..." Are you getting the point?

Nikon wouldn't talk like this if the camera's list price was more than $899 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. Pros may use DSLRs, but not all DSLRs are for pros.

The D50's suggested price is closer to the Rebel XT, though some of its defining features--;a 6MP imager, for example--;are likely to draw comparisons with the original D-Rebel, now listed at $799. The Olympus E-300 Evolt and Pentax *ist DS have both been seen selling in the mid-$800s. We'll go into further detail another time, but there's an abundance of variety in the sub-$1k DSLR "category." For example, three have 6MP imagers, while two--;the Olympus Evolt and the Canon Rebel XT--;provide 8MP. All but the Evolt use the 3:2 frame format of 35mm cameras; the Evolt uses the 4:3 format of consumer-model digicams and computer screens. Menu structures, control layouts, viewfinder brightness, LCD size and brightness, and a few dozen other things will be subjects of debate and competition within this new "category" of consumer-market DSLRs.

So if you were Nikon, what would you say to help customers choose between a 6MP D50 and an 8MP Coolpix?

We were unable to reach Nikon representatives for an answer by presstime. Canon's Chuck Westfall thought it had something to do with picture quality.