Digital SLRs Are Affordable Enough to Replace 35mm SLRs

2008: It’s been the hallmark of serious photographers – professionals and advanced amateurs alike – for nearly 50 years now. It’s the single lens reflex (SLR) camera, and it’s seen a lot of changes, especially in the digital era.

Today’s Entry Level

The last time we looked at digital SLRs was five years ago when the least costly DSLR sold for US$1,499. With the recent introduction of the 10 MP Nikon D60, which is currently selling for US$742.12 with an 18-55 zoom VR (vibration reduction) lens, the 6 MP D40 that it replaces is being blown out for US$495.81 with the essentially the same zoom, but without vibration reduction.

Canon’s comparable camera is the 10 MP Digital Rebel XTi, and is selling it for US$598.63 today with Canon’s 18-55 zoom. The 8 MP Digital Rebel XT is going for US$469.99 with the same lens.

Sony, which took over the Maxxum line from Konica Minolta and renamed it Alpha, has the 10 MP A200, which has a longer range 18-70 zoom lens and in-camera image stabilization. is selling that kit for US$569.99.

Pentax’ entry-level DSLR is the 6 MP K100D, which also has built-in image stabilization. It’s selling for US$599.99 with an 18-55 zoom, and for US$140 more, you can get the 10 MP K10D.

Think Different

All of the above cameras take the same lenses as their 35mm film ancestors, while Olympus has blazed a different trail with its Evolt system. Where the other cameras have a sensor with roughly 2/3 the diagonal of a frame of 35mm film, the Four Thirds System (of which the Evolt family is a part) uses a sensor with half the diagonal of 35mm. So where a 28-80 zoom on a film camera was replaced by an 18-55 zoom with most DSLRs, the equivalent in the Four Thirds System is a 14-40 zoom.

Olympus has a worthy contender in the Evolt 410, a 10 MB DSLR that is usually bundled with a 14-42 zoom and sells for an affordable US$399. One truly clever innovation is the 2.5″ Live View LCD on the back of the camera. Unlike traditional SLRs, where you must use the optical viewfinder, the 410 lets you compose using the LCD – just like most point-and-shoot digital cameras.

The Evolt 500 bumps you to 8 MP at US$688.

In short, things have changed a lot over the past five years. None of these cameras sell for even half the entry-level cost in April 2003, three sell for under one-third of that price, and one can be purchased for under US$400.

At the same time that DSLRs have become more affordable, film cameras have been dropping from the market. Film isn’t completely dead yet, but Miracle Max isn’t going to revive it. (That said, there are incredible deals to be had in used film cameras!)

Five years ago, we were just beginning to see a market for digital-only lenses for DSLRs; today they are not at all uncommon. Back then we kept hoping full-frame DSLRs would become affordable; today we realize that doesn’t have to happen.

From any standpoint, there has never been a better time to buy a digital SLR. All you need is 6 MP to deliver gorgeous 12″ x 18″ enlargements. And if you want to go a lot larger than that or do a lot of image manipulation, there are 8, 10, 12, and 14 MP models. But for the average photographer, 6 MP is plenty.

Which Way to Go?

It’s been some years since I’ve worked in photographic retailing, but you can’t go wrong with Nikon or Canon. You also have a huge selection of legacy lenses available, as Nikon and Canon have been offering extensive lens collections for decades.

Pentax has an unexpected advantage here. While Canon needs autofocus lenses and Nikon won’t meter with many older manual focus lenses, Pentax DSLRs can use current digital lenses, older autofocus lenses, and manual focus lenses using the Pentax K-mount or the ancient M42 thread mount (with an adapter).

Minolta had a nice range of lenses for its Maxxum SLRs system, and most of these should work just fine with the Sony Alpha DSLRs.

It’s nice to have migration paths from the 35mm past to the digital future.

Four Thirds

Olympus never made the same mark in the 35mm SLR world as these companies. Its first SLR was the diminutive Pen, a half-frame camera that some photographers loved and most photofinishers hated (due to its oddball 18 x 24mm film format). Olympus’ next attempt was the FTL, one of a multitude of cameras that used the M42 thread mount – but with a proprietary meter coupling scheme. In the early 1970s came the Olympus OM-1, which was a real trendsetter but never especially popular. Olympus’ attempts at autofocus SLRs are better forgotten.

Olympus has nothing to lose by creating a totally new DSLR system, and they made their Four Thirds standard available to others. All lenses would be designed specifically for digital use, and every camera from every manufacturer would have the same sized image sensor. From the results I’ve seen, Olympus quality holds its own against the other brands.

In addition to Olympus, you can also buy DSLR cameras from Leica and Panasonic, and Olympus, Sigma, and Panasonic all make lenses that work with every Four Thirds camera. (There’s even an Olympus OM mount adapter for legacy lenses.)

What’s Best for Me?

In the end, we have several competing systems, each with a range of lenses and camera bodies, all of them capable of producing top-notch photos with the responsiveness we’ve long expected from SLR cameras. Read the online reviews. Put your hands on them in the local camera store. Only you can decide what meets your needs.

DSLR or Point-and-Shoot?

The big choice is between point-and-shoot type cameras and digital SLRs. Point-and-shoot cameras tend to be small, light, convenient, provide through-the-lens viewing on their LCD screens, and can often turn on the flash automatically when light is low.

Digital SLRs are bigger, heavier, generally don’t provide through-the-lens viewing on their LCD screens, usually require you to pop up the flash, and are much more responsive. Where a point-and-shoot camera can take seconds to focus in poor light, a DSLR will focus in a fraction of a second, making it a much better camera for sports.

Another DSLR advantage is that sometimes point-and-shoot cameras will focus where your subject isn’t – and you don’t realize it until after the fact. With a DSLR, you’re much more aware of things like that, so there’s no excuse for not having the focus on the right spot.

The biggest DSLR advantage is flexibility. You have lots of lenses to choose from: wide zooms, long zooms, high-speed lenses, macro (close-up) lenses, fast telephotos for sports and wildlife, fisheyes, etc. And you can add a flash that provides a lot more reach than the built-in flash.

But in the end, the biggest advantage is image quality. Compared to most point-and-shoot cameras, the image sensors in DSLRs are huge. Old timers can think back to the 110 Pocket Instamatics and Kodak Disk, remembering how print quality paled in the face of the cheapest 35mm point-and-shoot camera. Yes, the difference can be that big between a small camera with a small image sensor and a big camera with a much bigger one.

The big drawback – and the reason I sold my DSLR a couple years ago – is size. DLSRs from Nikon, Canon, Pentax, and Sony tend to be as big as 35mm SLR camera. Cameras in the Four Thirds System tend to be smaller, and Olympus bills the E-410 and E-420 as the world’s thinnest and smallest DSLRs.

If you’ve outgrown your current digital camera or are ready to make the move from film to digital, these DSLR cameras merit serious consideration.