Many predicted that 2007 would be the year of the digital SLR, and industry shipments confirm the huge growth in DSLR sales. In a time where home sales fell through the floor in the US and gas prices began to soar, digital SLR sales have grown dramatically. In the third quarter of this year digital camera sales increased 22% compared to the previous year, but industry breakdowns show DSLR sales almost doubled in the same period.

That means that this holiday season many of you will be looking for a new digital SLR camera to replace an aging point-and-shoot digital or an earlier DSLR. While there haven't been many new entry-level models in the last year, the $1000 "advanced amateur" models of last year are today's entry-level DSLR. Several manufacturers have also redefined "entry-level" SLR down to $400 and have very capable models selling for that price, including a lens.

Only a few new models have appeared in "Entry-level" this year. We will cover these in a look at entry-level choices. However, the last few months have seen a deluge of new "prosumer" digital SLRs aimed at the photo hobbyist, advanced amateur, and even some pro photographers on a budget. The important thing about the advanced amateur and prosumer DSLR markets is the influence those cameras will eventually have on entry-level models. For that reason, we will explore some of the most interesting features of the new prosumer models.

The digital SLR market has also seen the downward push of pro or near-pro models into the consumer space. A prime example of that is the Canon EOS 5D full-frame SLR. When it was introduced a couple of years ago it was hailed as a true bargain at around $3500. If you look around today, you will find this popular semi-pro model has dropped to a $2499 list price and you can actually find the 5D for around $2000 if you shop carefully. That is certainly close to the $1400 to $1800 prosumer price range, providing an additional option for photo hobbyists or pros looking for a good buy.

If you are shopping for a digital camera but you're not really a photo hobbyist, you might want to start with our overview of digital photography in Digital Photography from 20,000 Feet. In that introduction, we cover the terms and concepts used in this DSLR Buyers' Guide. If you're already a photo hobbyist then dive in.

To put the current DSLR market in perspective, the full-frame (24mmx36mm) sensor and the Olympus 4/3 sensor (13.5mmx18mm or half the diagonal of full-frame 35mm) represent the two ends of the current DSLR market. Full-frame DSLRs use traditional 35mm lenses, so you don't need to worry about multipliers. 4/3 is a digital-only standard supported by Olympus, Leica, Panasonic, Sigma, Fuji, and Sanyo. Lenses designed for 4/3 will work on any 4/3 camera and they are not designed to be used with larger or smaller sensors. Since the sensor diagonal is half the size of 35mm, the 4/3 lenses behave like 35mm lenses that are twice their focal length.

You can see these two ends in a Canon 5D with an optical image-stabilized 28-135mm lens sitting beside the diminutive Olympus E-510 with a 14-42mm lens and body-integral (mechanical) image-stabilization. The full-frame Canon 1Ds Mark III, 1D Mark III and upcoming Nikon D3 are even larger than the EOS 5D, but you get the idea. Similarly, the Olympus E-410 is even smaller than the E-510.

However, the majority of today's digital SLRs fall in between these two standards, using a very nonstandard sensor somewhere around APS-C size (22mmx15mm). This is why we have a range of lens multipliers on today's DSLR cameras, depending on brand. Nikon, Sony, Pentax, and Samsung are at 1.5x, Canon is at 1.6x, and the specialized Sigma Foveon sensor is at 1.74x. These multipliers represent how 35mm lenses will appear on these cameras - because they mainly use 35mm lenses. That means an 18-70mm lens on a 1.5x camera would appear like a 27mm-105mm lens on a 35mm film camera. There are also dedicated lenses for these in-between sensors with names like DX. They work fine on the digital SLR, but they are not usable on full-frame DSLR or 35mm film cameras.

It isn't as complicated as it sounds, since you mainly will pick your camera brand and stick with it, buying camera maker lenses or those compatible with the DSLR you choose. However, understanding the larger picture also helps in making informed long-term buying decisions.

Prosumer SLRs


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  • boogle - Sunday, November 25, 2007 - link

    The kit lens is better, no question. But the lenses you get later on are vastly superior from Nikon / Canon. I don't see any Olympus lenses used in industry:">

    I can get a Nikon 18-200mm (27mm - 300m) in a single lens that is superior in both image quality and range than the two Olympus kit lenses. This lens is considered a convenience and not 'high quality', so what does that say about the kit lenses in absolute image quality? Of course this one lens alone is only slightly cheaper than the twin lens E-510 kit. SLRs cost a fortune in glass & accessories, not bodies. But I'm sure you knew that ;)

    The E-510 is a fantastic cam, but it's far from a good choice if you want to get into photography as the earlier poster said.

    As for image quality, Nikon and Canon are superior there too:
    ISO performance is noisier:">
    Dynamic range is lower:"> (think burnt out skies)

    The sample photos are also rather 'soft'. It's a great cam, but don't be trying to say it offers superior image quality to a Nikon or Canon body - both have larger sensors and therefore have the advantage.

    If someone is going to stick solely to kit lenses then they're better off with a super-zoom because at least then they can point and shoot and get comparable image quality for a lot less money and a smaller overall package.

    In a year's time the SLRs that have been recommended here will be replaced with new models, making the choice here largely moot. However, the glass/flash you already have will still be as good then as it is now. Hence do you want to spend a load of cash each year on a good body and rubbish glass and end up with the same quality photos - or get a cheap body now and invest wisely in good glass? The body in a year will be worth very little, but the lens will barely have dropped in price at all, meaning you can still sell it without losing much money. This is why the system is so important and why the vast majority of people go Nikon/Canon, they have a great system that has lasted for decades.
  • Wesley Fink - Sunday, November 25, 2007 - link

    The Olympus 18-180mm f3.5-6.3 (36mm-360mm) is available as a walk around for less than $400 if you want one lens. You really need to check Olympus lens reviews from several major lens review sites. I think you will be more than surpirsed at the quality and lens performance of the common 14-54mm f2.8-3.5, the 7-14 (14-28) f4.0 or 11-22 f2.8-3.5, the 50mm-200mm f2.8, the 50mm f2.8 Macro, etc.

    Don't take my word for it, look at real comparisons, not just what you suppose is true. Imaging Resource was so impressed with the performance of the E-510 and E-3 lenses that they have recently been testing all the Olympus lenses at their affiliated site.

    Many readers are too young to know this, but Olympus was one fo the premier lens makers, as far as performance and quality, in the 35mm era. They never got AF right, so seeing them coming back strong in DSLR is very interesting - and the lens development staff is still there for stellar optical designs for 4/3.

    I own both a Canon 5D and 40D, a new Olympus E-3, and a Pentax K10D. I sold my Nikon equipment and a Sony A100 when I got the 5D. The lenses were carefully selected for my needs and optical performance. The Olympus and 5D produce the best images IMHO. The E-3 is the fastest and quietest in operation among all the cameras I own, and it is the camera I usually carry with me these days. That could change but I was genuinely shocked by the E-3 as I didn't expect what it is.
  • boogle - Monday, November 26, 2007 - link

    That's very interesting, and I like to be proven wrong :) I still have my doubts about the system overall - but the lenses do seem to be very good. The 18-180mm is somewhat disappointing in terms of price (in the UK) and aperture (6.3 :( ), but the 7-14 looks very fancy:

    "Indeed, rather than just describing it as the only ultra-wide option for Four Thirds owners, we'd go as far as to say it's a compelling reason to buy a Four Thirds body in the first place. Certainly if you're a well-healed ultra-wide fanatic looking to invest in a new DSLR system, it should sway your decision towards Four Thirds. We particularly enjoyed testing the ZUIKO DIGITAL 7-14mm and, reservations about price noted, can highly recommend it." - CameraLabs:">

    If it was cheaper (a lot cheaper) and accomodated filters I would be tempted to have an Olympus E-510 for general use. None of the lenses match the best Nikon/Canon kit, but they definitely hold their own in the mainstream. Then again, given the relatively high cost of these Olympus lenses for what you get, I would still prefer a Nikon/Canon for barely any extra cash. I think in the next article you need to elaborate more on why Olympus may be better than Nikon/Canon? But also make sure to mention Nikon/Canon's merits rather than writing them off as just 'the most common'.

    But still, the overall system is relatively immature albeit improving far more rapidly than I thought.
  • Wesley Fink - Sunday, November 25, 2007 - link

    We get frustrated by the lack of Edit in comments also :). The 50mm Macro (100mm eqivalent) is a fast f2.0, not the f2.8 reported by my typo. Ther ias also a new, reasonable (about $200 plus a current $35 rebate - net $165) Macro lens in the 35mm f3.5 (70mm equivalent) Reply
  • boogle - Saturday, November 24, 2007 - link

    I'm not sure what to make of this article tbh, it doesn't seem to have a particular target audience in mind - at least not an obvious one.

    I'm assuming the idea wasn't to target serious amateurs/enthusiasts at all, since for these people the body is secondary to the system itself. You buy an expensive lens - and use it for years and years, as well as numerous other accessories.

    So that leaves one remaining target - the person who wants high quality snapshots with the odd serious creative photos in-between. I think in this case, the bias to Olympus is probably fine, they're small and cheap with liveview - perfect for family holidays, etc. I remember seeing a woman contemplating buying a Canon EOS 40D or Nikon D200 for family photos. Neither gives good photos in auto imo anyway. The Olympus on the other hand with liveview means it's almost trivial to get good snapshots.

    But what does concern me, are the factual inaccuracies. I sense the author used film a lot and got cajoled into writing a DSLR article. The end result? Some quick research and some loaner bodies from the big-boys. For example Nikon has one full-frame body, and it's barely even out the door. That hardly shows Nikon are really big on full-frame. In fact their stance was borderline full-frame hostile for years:">">

    Nikon also have more crop-sensor only lenses than any other manufacturer. There are more DX lenses out there than for the heavily under-used 4/3 system. Of all the manufacturers involved with 4/3, only two are producing bodies (Olympus/Panasonic) and only three are producing lenses (Leica, Olympus, Sigma) and in very limited quantities.

    The 1.5x/1.6x format is easily a standard since it hasn't changed since inception. There are numerous lenses designed specifically for this standard too.

    Now I'm not saying it won't disappear, potentially full-frame will become the dominant format. But given the sales cheap entry-level SLRs are getting, it's just as likely that entry level will remain with nice cheap (relatively) APS-C sensors indefinitely.

    IMO I would rather have 35mm (aka full-frame) lenses than DX, simply because if you 'upgrade' later on you can continue on with the same glass. While you're still on APS-C, you have the advantage of using only the centre of the lens circle - the highest quality part.

    I'm not a fan of in-camera stabilisation either, and the reasons are pretty clear. I'm surprised this wasn't mentioned - especially since it was brought up so often. In-camera stabilisation means that any lens will benefit, but some more than others. A short wideangle will benefit a lot (not that it really needs it), while a long telephoto will hardly benefit (and it needs lots of stabilisation!). Finally, with in-body you can't see the stabilised image through the viewfinder so it's somewhat difficult to frame while everything is moving up and down. In-lens stabilisation (as used by Nikon/Canon) means what you see is what you get (more or less) - and it works just as effectively for a dirty great long telephoto as a wide angle.

    You'll only notice the difference in the field, but when you do, it becomes a big thing. All the things that the manufacturers tend to push don't ultimately matter when in the field, it's all the little things that end up being a big deal. Things like the brightness of the viewfinder, the coverage, how the handgrip feels, the controls, the weight...

    But anyway, all of this is for naught. A new SLR user should under no circumstance use a review as a basis for purchasing a piece of kit like this. You need to go out and HANDLE the camera in the shop and see which feels the best. You'll take infinitely better photos with a camera you're in tune with, than one you struggle to use properly. I personally use Nikon, because I like the way they lay everything else. You may like something else - that's fine! Whatever feels right IS right!
  • Wesley Fink - Saturday, November 24, 2007 - link

    There is also a dearth of fast prime lenses available for APS C. The Canon 60mm Macro is the only one that comes to mind although I am sure someone will tell me others that I overlooked. There is also the Sigma 30mm f1.4 that is OK on Nikon/Canon, but pretty great in the 4/3 version.

    I use mostly fast primes in product photography and you end up buying Nikon or Canon full-frame glass, pay dearly for it, and then use it at very non-demanding equivalent focal lengths.
  • finbarqs - Saturday, November 24, 2007 - link

    you know, a lot of people prefer cropped sensors to full frame sensors... People who do not care about the "ultra wide" portion of their exposures and want more telephoto shots.

    Personally, i'm a fan of ultra wide shots and full frame sensors. I've actually just ordered a D300 which will be here wednesday. I'm waiting for canon's successor to their 5D as i like the "non battery gripped" full frame body and their line of L series lenses. Personally, I see it to be better than nikon's ED glass series.

    But hey, real photography isn't about the equipment that we use. The equipment that we use just helps our vision, no matter what what camera we use.
  • Wesley Fink - Saturday, November 24, 2007 - link

    I agree the DSLR market will likely segment into full-frame pro/prosumer and aps-c, and then there is 4/3. Your criticism there are few lenses for 4/3 is simply not true. You can easily find an 8mm fish eye, 11-22 f2.8 ultra-wide zoom, 30 f1.4 normal, 12-60, 14-54 f2.8, 14-42/13-45 f3.5, 40-150, 50-200 f2.8 and additional specialized fast lenses aimed at the pro/prosumer. Compare the 4/3 lens lineup to the available APS-C lenses even from the majors and the selection is extensive by comparison.

    Your statement is not fully correct on mechanical IS vs optical. Olympus Live View allows you to SEE the impact of IS on the image. In Live View you hold down the IS button to see the impact of IS on the screen. This is particularly useful on the new E-3.

  • yyrkoon - Saturday, November 24, 2007 - link

    Where is the 'testing' ? Sample images ? Extensive feature comparison ?

    I know its holiday season guys, but come on, anyone could have tossed together a bunch of images of cameras, and read specifications on cameras, putting it all together into an 'article'.

    I am all for you guys doing camera articles, but at the same time, I feel if you're going to do it, you need to do it right.
  • tomycs - Saturday, November 24, 2007 - link

    I do think sample images would be overkill for so many cameras reviewed, don't you think ? If you want sample pictures there's full of sites that have them you can compare the same scene for n different cameras at different settings and pixel peep the whole day.
    Since this is a guide your claims seem out of place and from personal experience if you take photography seriously it's very difficult to distinguish between entry level and even midrange DSLRs based solely on image quality so yeah features and build quality do count, in the film days you had basically the same sensor for every DSLR however some were xx$ other xxx$ and others even xxxx$.
    I find the guide quite truthful the E510 is a great buy (check the dpreview review) certainly better than the D40X(features) or 400D (both features and build quality) and i would say a little weaker than the K10D(a special case as thios is an entry level camera only on price)as as for Sony(Minolta) i don't really consider them ever no matter how good the body is their limited range of modern lenses is way overpriced.

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