Nothing has more typified the advanced amateur photographer in
recent decades than a good SLR camera. That was true when I got started
in photography 30 years ago, and it remains true today.
The cameras have changed a lot over time. Back then there was no DX
encoding of film speed, no flash built into the camera, no TTL flash
metering, no programmed exposure (let alone multiple program modes), no
automatic wind unless you bought a motor drive camera, and no matrix
metering (although Minolta's CLC metering foreshadowed it).
Zoom lenses were considered a compromise - convenient, but not very
sharp and prone to distortion. Color print film was 80 ASA, and serious
photographers shot either black and white film, which they often
processed themselves, or color slides, since they were not subject to
the vagaries of the color printing process. Kodachrome was the good
stuff, as were fast, sharp, fixed focal length lenses.
Zipping through three decades we saw the introduction of zooms wider
than 40mm, dedicated flash, winders, zooms that were actually sharp
(kudos to Vivitar for their groundbreaking Series I 70-210/3.5), 400
ASA color print film, TTL flash metering, programmed exposure, DX
encoding, matrix metering, built in film advance and rewind, autofocus,
high speed flash sync, D lenses, auto popup flash, 3D metering, 28-300
zooms, and who knows how many other conveniences along the way.
Back in 1973, I paid US$239 for my first new SLR, a Minolta SR-T101
with a 50mm f/1.7 lens. No zoom. No flash - not even a hot shoe.
Manual wind and rewind. Manual exposure settings. And I learned
photography inside and out with that camera.
Today a nice entry level 35mm SLR, such as the Minolta Maxxum 5,
comes with a 28-80 zoom, can turn on its flash automatically when
necessary, and sets focus and exposure, winding and rewinding the film
for you. You don't have to know much about photography to take great
pictures, although you can have as much control over the process as you
want. The Maxxum 5 sells for $339 at my local camera specialty
Digital Costs a Lot More
Where an advanced amateur might have spent $300-400 on a camera in
the early 1970s or $500-800 today, the least expensive digital SLR
sports a $1,499 price tag for the body alone. At over twice the price
of a Maxxum 7 body and about three times the price of Canon's Elan 7,
the price of entry is steep.
So far most serious photographers who wanted to dabble in digital
have looked at 3-4 MP (megapixel) point-and-shoot cameras, which are
much more affordable. They're convenient, but for the most part they
take away our control over the process. We're not looking through the
lens. The digital viewfinders aren't terribly precise. And more often
that not there are no exposure controls.
We want digital SLRs, but two things hold us back - price and
It wasn't long ago that a digital SLR could set you back $10-20,000.
Just a month ago many would have gladly paid $2,000 for a Nikon D100,
$2,200 for a Canon D60 (if you could even find one of these perpetually
back ordered models), or $2,400 for a Fujifilm S2 Pro. Steep, but at
these prices more and more photographers were stepping into serious
Canon made digital SLR photography even more affordable when they
introduced the 10D a few weeks ago. This model combines the imaging
system of the D60 with the heart of the very impressive Elan 7 and a
new brain, Canon's DIGIC system - all at a $1,500 street price. Canon
is already producing these at three times the level of the successful
D60, and at two-thirds the price of its predecessor, I suspect Canon
won't be able to keep up with demand.
The 10D has the widest sensitivity range yet, allowing the user to
choose an ISO rating as low as 100 or as high as 3200. The clever DIGIC
circuitry even lets the camera record two copies of an image
simultaneously, one in RAW format and another using JPEG compression. I
may not see one of these for months (we have several on order, but the
first half dozen or so are already spoken for), but it has all the
marks of a winner.
Over time, prices will continue to drop. At $1,000, sales of digital
SLRs will probably triple compared with the current success of the 10D,
and once a system digital SLR hits the $700-800 mark, the floodgates
The biggest drawback to digital SLRs is price. The second biggest is
imaging. With only a few exceptions, digital system SLRs use sensors
that are significantly smaller than a full 35mm frame. Depending on the
camera, the "multiplier effect" means that a 50mm lens acts like a 75mm
or 80mm lens.
That's hard to explain to some customers. "You mean my 28-200 zoom
isn't 28-200 any longer?" No, that's not quite what I mean. Physically
it's the same lens. Nothing in the lens changes. It's more like
cropping out one-third of the picture area. On the Canon D60 or 10D, a
30mm lens would provide the same perspective as a 50mm lens does on
35mm film. With the Nikon and Fujifilm models, a 33mm lens is
equivalent to 50mm.
(It's nearly as hard as converting APS lenses to 35mm equivalents.
Thank goodness APS seems to be on the way out.)
To the best of my knowledge, only three digital SLRs address this by
providing imagers as large as a frame of 35mm film: the US$5,000 Kodak
Pro14n, the US$8,000 Canon EOS-1D, and the US$7,000 Contax N. None of
these are consumer friendly prices.
The most obvious advantage, of course, is that there is no
conversion factor involved. Your 28-200 works on these digitals just as
it does on your film camera. If you need a really wide lens, you don't
have to buy something far wider and more costly to compensate for a
small imager. If you have a full frame fisheye, you can do full frame
fisheye shots on these cameras.
Other advantages are more esoteric. You could have larger sensors on
a full frame digital SLR, which would mean increased light sensitivity.
Or you could just use the extra space to provide a lot more pixels,
which is what Canon (11 MP) and Kodak (14 MP) do.
A Possible Future
I suspect the industry will move away from the smaller imagers once
it becomes practical to provide full frame imaging at a competitive
price. There will always be some demand for premium digicams (anything
well beyond the 6 MP mark), but the advanced amateur will likely
gravitate toward 6 MP digital SLRs will full frame imaging once
they become affordable.
Whatever the other benefits, the simple fact that your existing 35mm
lenses will work just like they do on film will eventually push digital
SLRs with smaller imagers from the market.
It's only a matter of time - the only question is how much time it
will take for full frame digital SLRs to reach the consumer market.