The fastest-growing segment in digital photography is the professional-looking digital SLR camera, the full-featured camera that fixes some of the annoying problems associated with little point-and-shoots.
The SLR stops action on a dime (no shutter lag) and, with an accessory flash, can prevent the red-eye blues.
These are pricey cameras, averaging about $1,000, but consumers don't seem to care. Their high-quality photos and ability to handle many different lenses have done wonders for Nikon's and Canon's bottom lines.
Sony has just shipped its first entry into the hot digital SLR market. Nikon and Canon will shortly unveil updates of the best-selling Nikon D70 and Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT cameras.
The Nikon D80 ($1,299, mid-September release) is the best camera of the bunch, with the most features. But the Canon XTi ($899, mid-September release) has much consumer appeal thanks to its price tag (expect discounts to $799, or $699 if you buy only the body) and slick new features.
Canon established the consumer digital SLR market in 2004 with the first Digital Rebel and has sold more than 1 million Rebels since, says research firm IDC. The Rebel's success helped Canon grab a 21% share of U.S. camera shipments in the first half of 2006, says IDC, followed by Sony at 16%, Kodak at 15% and Nikon at 12%.
Sony: Nifty image stability
Sony has long been known for having, arguably, the best TVs and camcorders. In the Alpha, Sony has released a respectable consumer camera. But Canon and Nikon have no reason to worry.
The Alpha's specs -- 10 megapixels (more megapixels mean higher resolution and sharper images) and 2.5-inch LCD preview screen -- are comparable to the new Nikon and Canon models. But it is not a breakthrough camera. The Alpha is a remodel of the bulky and discontinued Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D. (Sony bought Konica Minolta's assets last year when the company discontinued its camera operations.)
The good news: The huge LCD screen on the back of the camera is bright and a delight for anyone who's suffered through the (seemingly) tiny 1.8-inch screen on the back of the Canon Digital Rebel XT or Nikon D70. The auto focusing is instant and precise.
The bad: Sony has just 19 lenses for sale, along with years of legacy lenses from Minolta back to 1984 that can be picked up on eBay and elsewhere. Sony also has a few accessories for the camera.
Nikon and Canon have complete systems, with more than 50 lenses for their digital SLRs, and hundreds of accessories.
What the Alpha has that the D80 and XTi do not is image stabilization. Sony offers in-camera software to correct shaky-hand syndrome. With the Alpha, otherwise blurry shots are sharpened thanks to that feature, more commonly found in camcorders.
To test it, I shot several pictures in low light, and the results were more than acceptable.