The Digital SLR: Affordable or Overpriced?

2003: 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 (starting with the Olympus OM-2), 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.

Minolta SR-T 101

Minolta SR-T 101

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 shop.

Digital Costs a Lot More

Where an advanced amateur might have spent $300-400 on a film 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 or crisp. And more often that not there are no exposure controls.

We want digital SLRs, but two things hold us back – price and imaging.

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 digital.

Canon made digital SLR photography even more affordable when it 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 at the camera store where I work part-time, 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 will open.

35mm Imaging

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 (nominally 24mm x 36mm). 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. [APS was introduced in 1996, the last APS cameras were discontinued in 2004, and Kodak and Fujifilm stopped making APS film in 2011.]

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 digital SLRs 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 image sensor. 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 individual pixel 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 sensors 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.