These breakout DSLRs are destined to be next year's stars. Plus, Canon and
Nikon's newest pro models compared, and an entry-level DSLR from Panasonic.
Call it the Year of the Enthusiast's Camera. Three DSLR makers have introduced new breakthrough models aimed squarely at the advanced amateur. The Canon EOS 40D, Nikon D300, and Sony Alpha 700 all promise higher resolution and noise reduction, faster burst rates, better optical and electronic viewing, and finer autofocusing than on earlier cameras in this category, including the Canon EOS 30D, Nikon D200, and Sony Alpha 100. Other improvements: beefed-up bodies, extensive customization options, and wireless connectivity.
Add to that new lenses, optional vertical grips, and other accessories, an entry-level DSLR from Panasonic (see "Beginner's Luck"), plus two pro-level super cameras from Canon and Nikon (see "Varsity Squad"), and you have one of the richest lodes of SLR gear ever.
The Canon EOS 40D ($1,300, estimated street, body only; $1,400 with 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 EF IS lens) replaces the 30D; it should be in stores now.
The Nikon D300 ($1,700, estimated street, body only) is scheduled to become available early in November. Nikon's lower-priced 10.2MP D200 will remain in the line, at least for the near future.
And with Sony aggressively filling in its lens line, the Alpha 700 ($1,400 estimated street, body only; $1,900 with 16-105mm f/3.5-5.6 Sony DT lens), a big step up from 2005's Alpha 100, presents genuine competition to the dominant DSLR players. It should be hitting stores in October.
In imaging, 12MP is the new 10MP, and CMOS sensor technology is replacing the CCD as the universal chip of choice. The Nikon D300 and Sony Alpha 700 use a similar CMOS sensor (12.2MP in the Sony; 12.3MP, effective, in the Nikon). Indeed, the Nikon D300's sensor is made by Sony, although there might be some slight differences in their architecture.
The surprise here is that Canon took the EOS 40D to only 10.1MP from 8.2MP, using essentially the same CMOS chip that's in the EOS Digital Rebel XTi, although the company says that new microlenses on the sensor have improved image quality and sensitivity significantly. (We'll put that claim -- and all others -- to the test; see upcoming issues and watch PopPhoto.com.)
The real story here, though, is not pixel count, but capture speed and noise control. The slowest camera of this group, the Sony, can gobble full-resolution JPEGs at 5 frames per second, up to the capacity of the card; the Nikon shoots at 6 fps (8 fps with an optional battery grip), up to 100 JPEGs; and the Canon can do 6.5 fps, up to 75 JPEGs. The Canon and Nikon are therefore significantly faster, and with a higher capacity, than before, when the top capture speed for this class (from the Nikon D200) was 5 fps, up to 37 JPEGs.
Startup times and shutter lag have shrunk accordingly, with milliseconds vying with megapixels in manufacturers' bragging rights. And all three of the new cameras have 14-bit image processing and new image-processing engines: The Canon boasts a DIGIC III processor, Nikon has a newly dubbed EXPEED processor, and Sony uses a newer BIONZ processor.
One advantage of the CMOS chip over a CCD is that the analog-to-digital signal conversion can be done directly on the chip, which, theoretically, makes for a cleaner final signal with less digital noise.
In fact, all three manufacturers claim dramatic improvement in noise control, to the extent that the Nikon and Sony offer up to ISO 3200 in their normal ranges, and Canon up to ISO 1600. Nikon and Sony go to ISO 6400 in their extended ranges, Canon to ISO 3200. (And that's kid stuff compared with the new Nikon pro camera described in the sidebar.) In the last-generation DSLR, ISO 3200 was the limit.
Combine this sensitivity with optical image stabilization (camera sensor or lens-based), and low-light shooters are going to have a great time. Sony, for example, upgraded its sensor-based Super SteadyShot IS system for a claimed 4-stop gain in handholding.
Another feature that was once a high-end novelty and is now a standard: sensor self-cleaning. All three models have it, and the Canon and Nikon also provide software dust mapping and deletion software.