Digigraphica

Picking the Right 35mm SLR

Picking a Brand and Model

Dan Knight - June 2002, revised

If you're like most beginning 35mm SLR users, there probably isn't a specific lens that you want that's only available for one brand of camera. If you elect to go with a 28-80 zoom - or even a 28-200 - you have your run of camera brands. And if the brand you want doesn't make the lens you want, you can often find a nice Tamron, Sigma, or other third-party lens to meet your need.

One of the first questions I would ask someone looking at SLRs is, "Do you have friends or family members with an SLR? If so, would you be able to borrow lenses from them?" Not only might this provide access to lenses you don't yet own (and may never own), it also provides someone familiar with SLR photography and the brand you're looking at. It's as good a reason as any to look at a particular brand.

I don't put any stock in Consumer Reports for consumer goods like cameras, computers, or stereos. Over the years that I've worked in various consumer fields, I've found their advice often diverges from those who work in those fields and know the product intimately. Better to read Popular Photography, Photographic, and other photo magazines where serious photographers are taking a hard look at camera gear - and, of course, do some research on the Web.

Bias

Don't let anyone tell you that they're not biased. We all are; it's human nature. I've used Minoltas and believe their discontinued X-700 was one of the finest manual focus SLRs ever. Their Maxxum 7000 and 9000 were also excellent, but their current entry-level offerings seem less robust than the old classics. That said, I think that most entry-level SLRs are built down to a price point and not designed for the kind of heavy use that entry-level models were meant for in the 1960s and 1970s.

I nearly bought a Pentax KX once, right after the model was discontinued. Too late - the store was sold out. I've traditionally seen Pentax as a good choice in consumer SLRs, but I've never owned one.

I've never owned a Canon film camera and only been tempted by one, the A-1. This was the first SLR to offer program exposure. I am pretty impressed with the EOS Elan 7, though. I think I'd pick it over Nikon's N80, although I'd rather have the Maxxum 7 than either.

I shot Nikon for several years. I didn't shoot Nikon because it was "the pro's brand." I don't shoot it because Nikon makes the best cameras - although there's no denying that they make very good equipment. No, I used Nikon because I love working with an 85mm lens, and Nikon's 85/1.8 was half the price of Minolta's, Canon's, or Pentax's 85/1.4 (not to mention Nikon's - those 85/1.4s are simply expensive lenses). Beyond that lens, I was very happy with my Tamrons and a Vivitar Series I 19-35. (Since writing this series of articles, I have abandoned film in favor of digital photography.)

The Levels

Like most things in life, cameras come in different quality and price levels. We were seeing some nicely featured budget SLRs circa 2002 (like the US$300 including zoom Nikon N55 and Minolta Maxxum 4), but most buyers ended up at the entry level, which included US$350-400 models like the Canon Rebel 2000, Nikon N65, and Minolta Maxxum 5. All of these prices include a "standard" 28-80 zoom, although you can usually buy just the body and choose a different lens - something I recommend you consider.

A step up from these are the "prosumer" or advanced amateur models. The Canon EOS Elan 7, Nikon N80, and Minolta Maxxum 7 were good examples of this class of camera. These are larger, heavier, and better constructed than entry-level models. They tend to offer higher shutter speeds, faster flash sync, and faster film advance. They often have faster autofocus, more metering options, and other features that set them apart as cameras for serious photographers.

Beyond this come the semi-pro and pro cameras. If you're reading this article, that's probably not the level of hardware you're looking at. On the other hand, if you can score a really good deal on a used Nikon N90s, for instance, go for it.

If you plan on using the camera heavily, take a hard look at the advanced amateur models. These are generally built well enough for anyone but a pro. That's important when your camera is a tool for taking pictures; you don't want to feel that you need to treat your SLR with kid gloves.

For casual picture takers, the entry-level and budget SLRs offer more capabilities that you'll probably ever use. They're less robust than the more expensive cameras, but they are excellent picture takers. Just don't abuse the poor things.

Brands and Models

Pentax

Always a good choice in the amateur market, Pentax never made inroads into the pro market. The company makes excellent consumer models, but since the advent of autofocus, they've moved to the back of the pack among the four major brands. To make matters worse, some independently made lenses are available for Nikon, Canon, and Minolta, but not Pentax.

One other drawback of Pentax AF SLRs is the prohibitive cost of their 50mm f/1.7 normal lens. If you want an inexpensive lens for low light photography, you'll pay about $135 (current price from B&H) for the Pentax lens - but only $94, $75, and $80 for Nikon, Canon, and Minolta respectively.

Two strikes. The one nice thing Pentax does have for traditionalists is the ZX-5n, which includes an old fashioned shutter speed dial. Call me old fashioned, but I really like that feature.

Canon

The most widely advertised brand is also the second most popular among pros. The Rebel practically sells itself. That's a good thing, because most of the people behind the counter aren't shooting or pushing Canon.

Canon does things its own way, much like Apple does in the realm of computers. This has its pros and cons, but the pro is that Canon has tended toward innovation and quality (like Apple). The con is that sometimes those very innovations drive up the price of the camera or accessories and make the brand less desirable.

Canon makes some phenomenal high-end optics and very impressive pro cameras. From the midrange on up, I'm very impressed. On the bottom, I'm not overly impressed with the Rebel 2000. It has very quick autofocus, but the range of features for the money pales in comparison to the Maxxum 5.

Minolta Maxxum

Minolta pioneered the AF system SLR with the Maxxum 7000 in 1985. I've been generally impressed with the Maxxum line, although some of the lower cost models don't seem to hold up as well as anyone would like. Of course, that generally goes for low cost items.

I'd take the Maxxum 7 over the Canon EOS Elan 7, and either over the Nikon N80. I think the performance and handling for the Maxxum 7 is second to none in the midrange. I also see the Maxxum 5 as offering the best camera value on the low end, although that's subject to change as new models are introduced.

NOTE: Since writing this, Minolta merged with Konica, and the Konica-Minolta company sold off its entire photographic business. The Sony Alpha digital SLRs use the same lenses as the Minolta Maxxum. Sony does not make film cameras.

Nikon

Nikon built its reputation in the trenches and on the streets during the 1960s. The Nikon F was a full system camera with about 40 lenses to choose from, several different viewfinders, and even a motor drive. Nikon still dominates the pro market, despite the fact that Canon and Minolta make some excellent pro cameras. Why? Because once you own enough lenses, you don't want to switch systems.

Nikon has at times lagged a bit in technology, has made a few unimpressive consumer models that were designed to be cheap, and made a nice range of models for every level of photographer (when this was written in 2002). Their N65 was my second choice (behind the Maxxum 5) at the entry level, and their F100 was a worthy successor to the N90s I owned and loved.

Nikon still makes a couple manual focus cameras (the FM-10 and F6). The new N55 looks like a winner on the low end, although we'll have to see how it compares with Minolta's Maxxum 4. The one place I feel Nikon is less than impressive is the midrange - the N80 doesn't stand out in comparison with the Maxxum 7 and the EOS Elan 7. Not that it's a bad camera. It just seems pedestrian compared to the others.

Leica, Contax, and Sigma

Leica hasn't gone AF yet, but it's bound to happen some day.

Contax is new to the AF world and has a very limited selection of lenses. To compound matters, none of the independents are making lenses in the Contax AF mount. Carl Zeiss may make some of the world's finest lenses, but unless you plan on making huge enlargements from fine grained film, you may never see the difference.

I don't know what Sigma was thinking when they decided to produce an AF SLR with their own unique lens mount. The cameras seem decent, but Sigma SLR owners are limited to Sigma lenses. I don't expect to see Tamron, Tokina, or anyone else ever produce a lens for their competitor's camera.

Next: Pros and Cons of Built-in Flash

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