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What to look for when buying a digital SLR camera

Oct. 9, 2004

The first question to ask when searching for a digital SLR camera is, “which brand is right for me?” There are lots of brands to choose from like Canon, Minolta, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax and others who are competing in the consumer digital SLR market. Regardless of which brand you choose, buying a digital SLR is not cheap. Even Canon’s very affordable Digital Rebel starts at $1,300, and when you’re spending that kind of money, you want to feel confident that your camera will give you years of use before you outgrow it.

Choosing a camera is a personal decision and no single camera is the best choice for everyone. However, I can offer some advice that will help you understand what to look for — and what not to worry about — when shopping for a digital SLR camera.

Who Should Read This Article

If you’re new to digital or SLR photography and you don’t really know how to compare one brand of camera to another, this article can help you understand which factors are most important to consider. The advice is based on some of the questions I had when I started my search, and I hope it will help you ask better questions when you talk to the sales reps at your favourite camera store.

Features of a Digital SLR Camera

There are six criteria I use to evaluate whether a digital camera is going to meet my needs, and they are:

I form my conclusions about a camera’s suitability based on product brochures, manufacturer Web sites, Internet discussions, product reviews, and from speaking to a few of the sales reps at my local Henry’s photography store. However, there’s a big difference between using a camera and just reading about it, so you should always do your own research before coming to any decisions about a particular camera.

Picture Quality

Digital SLR cameras have gotten to the point where the picture quality is as good as 35mm film, so just about any digital SLR camera you consider is going to take sharp and vibrant photos. However, picture quality can degrade when the camera compresses raw image data into JPEG format, and some manufacturers are better at performing this conversion than others. While you could turn image compression off, you almost always want it on because it enables more photos to fit on a memory card, you can more quickly download photos to your computer, and compressed photos require less processing from the camera so you can more quickly shoot back-to-back photos. All the cameras I looked at offer excellent picture quality, and the reviews at Digital Photography Review (dpreview.com) can give you all the detail you need about the pros and cons of each camera.

Megapixels

One of the easiest specs to get hung up on is megapixels because having more makes it sound like you can print larger photos. While this is generally true, the differences are not as significant as you might think. Megapixels only describe the number of pixels in a camera’s sensor, and there are two problems with using megapixels as a measure of print quality. Firstly, the increase in resoultion is not linear, so doubling the pixel count from 3.0 to 6.0 megapixels only yields a 40% increase in printing resolution. Secondly, megapixel counts don’t say anything about the quality of the sensor, and a camera with more accurate colour reproduction and better compression algorithms can produce sharper prints at larger sizes than another camera with more pixels. All the digital SLR cameras I have seen have sensors with at least 5.0 megapixel capacities, and that’s more than enough to print 8"x10" photos and even larger sizes with excellent quality.

Build Quality

I really appreciate a well constructed product and the feeling I get from holding a camera can sometimes be more important than its technical specifications. When I’m spending $2,000 on a camera, I want it to feel sturdy and rugged; I want the dials and controls to feel mechanically solid; I want the plugs and mounts for cables and accessories to be accessible and strong enough to put up with day-to-day use; and most of all, I want the camera to feel good in my hands. Most digital SLRs will meet those criteria because design and build quality are closely related to price. However, it’s a very subjective decision and I recommend you go to your local camera store (several times if necessary) to get a feel for each camera, rather than relying solely on product reviews or photos on the Web.

To illustrate how much of a difference it makes, one of the reasons why I haven’t been able to choose between Canon or Nikon is because of the way the two cameras feel. I strongly believe that Nikon offers the best value of any camera in the digital SLR market. However, when I held the Nikon D70 and the Canon EOS 10D in my hands, I rather liked how the Canon felt. The Nikon is no slouch in terms of design and build quality, but it didn’t capture my attention the way the Canon did. Since you’re going to spend a lot of time holding your camera, it’s worth making the effort to try out different cameras and see which one feels best in your hands.

Usability and Ergonomics

If you’re buying a digital SLR camera, you obviously want more creative control than you get from a Point & Shoot camera, so the layout and usability of buttons and dials is an important consideration. When I go to a store to evaulate a camera, I look at how quickly and conveniently I can adjust the following settings:

  1. Program modes (shutter priority, aperture priority, and fully manual operation)
  2. Metering modes
  3. Focus sensor selection
  4. Focus and exposure lock
  5. Flash control (on/off/auto)
  6. Exposure compensation
  7. Exposure bracketing
  8. Drive mode (one-shot vs. continuous shooting)
  9. Manual and auto focus mode

Most digital SLRs use similar techniques to adjust these settings, but their location on the camera body makes a big difference to how convenient they are to use. When you’re in a store, you have all the time in the world to change camera settings, but when you’re traveling or taking photos in changing conditions, the photo opportunity may be lost if you spend too much time fiddling with your camera. Usability is another subjective factor that depends on your preferences, and once again it is best answered by a visit to your friendly neighbourhood camera store.

If you’re new to SLR photography, you may have no idea what any of these settings do, but you can still evaluate a camera’s usability and ergonomics. Try asking the sales person to guide you through the steps for each setting as you hold the camera in your hands. See if it feels natural and if the camera gives you good feedback about the features you have enabled, both in the LCD display and in the viewfinder. When you try this out with a two or three different cameras, you should get a feel for which camera is least confusing or offers the most direct approach for adjusting these settings.

Camera Lenses and Accessories

Once you decide on a brand, your choice of lenses, flash units, and other accessories is limited to only those that work with your camera. You don’t want to invest $2,000 on a digital SLR only to find that the available accessories don’t fit your needs. For example, most accessories for my Minolta XTsi are very expensive in Canada, and while Minolta’s excellent 5600HS (D) program flash sells for $600 here, I can import the same product from a U.S. retailer for US$300. This exaggerated pricing came as a real shock to me, and it’s certainly something you want to discover before making the commitment to a particular brand.

If you’re not sure what your future needs may be, Nikon is probably the best choice because their lenses and accessories are affordable, widely available, and they have a reputation for being the best in the industry. Canon also has an excellent line of affordable and high-quality lenses and accessories and they are equally as available as Nikon products. You just have to be a bit careful with Canon because some of their cheaper, low-end lenses and accessories do not have the same quality or value as simlarly priced Nikon products.

Software Support

One of the most important criteria for whether or not you’ll enjoy your digital camera is if the software is as good as the hardware. I have briefly used Nikon’s software along with a Nikon Coolpix digital camera and found it to meet my expectations. I have also used their scanner software for my Nikon CoolScan IV and found it to be very sophisticated and wonderful to use. I can’t really comment on the software from other manufacturers because unless you have one of their digital cameras, you can’t really use the software. Any store that has a digital SLR camera on display should also have the software CD that came with the camera, and they can install it on one of their in-store computers to show you what you’ll be getting.

From my experience with scanning slide film, I would expect a digital camera’s software tools to perform basic image manipulation functions like rotation, scaling, cropping, and sharpening, as well as tools for correcting colours, white balance, brightness and contrast. In addition, the user interface should offer a fluid workflow and the interface should be nice to look at because you’ll be working with it a lot.

Another important resource is the manufacturer’s Web site, and here again Nikon seems to pay a bit more attention to their customer’s needs. Nikon makes it pretty easy to find product manuals, download software updates, and get answers to questions about using their digital cameras. I found Canon’s Web site to be a bit of a maze and Minolta was somewhere in between; both those sites felt very corporate and disconnected from the customer. As part of your evaluation of a particular camera, you should navigate the manufacturer’s Support Web site to get a full understanding of the resources that will be available to you if you choose to buy their product.

Camera Reviews

I have primarily been comparing products from Canon and Nikon because they are the market leaders in digital SLR photography. Three weeks ago, Minolta announced the Maxxum 7D which looks very impressive, so I have added that to my short list as well. By excluding other brands, I’m not suggesting that they are inferior but that they simply do not cater to my needs. You may find that the simpler design of an Olympus or Pentax makes it easier to learn and use, whereas I am looking for a camera that gives me quick and convenient access to advanced photography functions.

Canon EOS Digital Rebel

The Canon EOS Digital Rebel is a relatively good digital camera at an affordable price. To achieve that lower cost, the Digital Rebel uses plastic instead of magnesium alloy for the casing and it uses cheaper construction for the viewfinder and other controls. While this is the same build quality used in Canon’s EOS Rebel (the 35mm film camera), the Digital Rebel is priced at over $1,000 and I was quite disappointed with the cheap, plasticy feel when I held one in my hands.

The picture quality on the other hand is excellent, since the Digital Rebel uses the same sensor as the more expensive (but discontinued) EOS 10D. However, the camera omits some advanced features such as the ability to select metering or auto-focus modes. While most consumers probably won’t miss these features, I wonder why someone would spend the extra money on a digital SLR camera if they were going to let the camera make creative decisions for them. If you are considering the Digital Rebel, perhaps a fully manual Point & Shoot camera like the Nikon Coolpix 8800 would serve you better.

Canon EOS 20D vs. Nikon D70

Both the Canon EOS 20D and the Nikon D70 are excellent digital SLR cameras that meet all my criteria. The EOS 20D has a slight edge in terms of ergonomics and how it feels in my hands, whereas I perceive the Nikon to have a slight edge in its software support and the quality of its lenses and accessories. To come to a final decision, I’d have to go to my local camera store and give each camera a thorough test-drive, which would include testing the usability and ergonomics of the various camera functions I described as well as using their software tools to download images to a Mac.

Minolta Maxxum 7D

Minolta just announced the availability of the Minolta Maxxum 7D, so I haven’t had a lot of time to research this camera. However, it looks very impressive both in terms of its technical specifications and even more so in its ergonomics. What strikes me the most about this camera is how the body is covered with dials and buttons for quick access to all the advanced functions such as program modes, metering modes, exposure compensation, bracketing, and everything else I want. I completely love the idea of flicking switches and rotating dials compared to Nikon’s and Canon’s approach of using a thumb wheel and an LCD screen to cycle through parameter settings. Dials and switches feel more direct and efficient, and I like being able to look down at a camera body to quickly see what my current settings are.

The Maxxum 7D also offers built-in AntiShake technology which reduces the effect of camera shake when taking photos at slow shutter speeds and without a tripod. Both Canon and Nikon incorporate a similar kind of technology into some of their lenses, but Minolta’s approach seems more logical because it reduces the cost of each lens and lets you use AntiShake with every lens you own.

The only drawback I see with the Maxxum 7D is that the 28-75mm kit lens is effectively a 42-112mm lens due to the camera’s field of view crop¹. Both Canon and Nikon have designed lenses that compensate for field of view crop in their digital cameras and which provide the more traditional zoom ranges of a 35mm film camera. I expect that by the time I’m ready to buy, Minolta will have introduced a new line of lenses to address this issue and it will no longer be a concern.

¹ Field of view crop occurs because digital camera sensors use a smaller surface area to expose a photo than traditional 35mm film. The camera sees a smaller portion of the image in the lens which crops out the edges of the picture, effectively zooming in on the image at a factor of about 1.5 times.

My Recommendation

If you are new to digital SLR photography, you can’t go wrong with either the Nikon D70 or the Canon EOS 20D. The choice really comes down to personal preference, and you should take the time to visit your camera store and go through the features I highlighted to see which camera feels right for you. While many camera stores will let you return a product if you’re not happy with it, I think there’s lots of information out there to help you come to a decision before you purchase, and there’s nothing more satisfying than feeling like you’ve made a well-informed buying decision.

My personal favourite is the Minolta Maxxum 7D because it seems to offer exactly the quality, usability and feel that I’m looking for. I’m cautious about recommending Minolta to others partly because their products are overpriced in Canada but also because you’ll find a wider range of accessories if you go with a Canon or Nikon. If you’re not sure what your future needs will be, Canon and Nikon products are almost always in-stock on store shelves so you’ll have an easier time trying out lenses and accessories before you decide to buy. I have a pretty good idea of what I need, so I’m pretty confident that the Minolta will work for me.

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