10MP DSLR Shootout

If you're looking for top image quality for less than a grand, one of these rigs is your perfect 10.

10MP-DSLR-Shootout
10MP-DSLR-Shootout

If there were any doubt remaining that the digital SLR is the camera for photo enthusiasts, 2006's blockbuster introductions wiped it out. Five 10MP cameras hit the U.S. market, all packed with high-end features and priced at $1,000 or less (street) -- including, in four cases, a kit lens.

But these cameras are about more than megapixel counts or price breaks. They represent a genuine maturing of the digital SLR. High resolution no longer comes at the price of excessive digital noise at higher ISOs. Image adjustments like color saturation, contrast, and white balance can be fine-tuned in the camera. Yet, for all the tinkering you can do with their controls, you can still switch them to auto-everything mode and use them like a point-and-shoot (a very good point-and-shoot).

If you've been waiting to make the move into a digital SLR, or you're planning to upgrade from an older DSLR, one of these five models should nudge you off the fence. To help you decide which one's for you, we've compared the models head-to-head on performance and features.

|||| |---|---|---| | NAME| PIXELS| STREET PRICE| | Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi | 10.1MP| $710, body only; $780 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 EF-S lens | | Nikon D80 | 10.2MP| $940, body only; $1,050 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED DX Nikkor lens | | Pentax K10D | 10.2MP| $920, body only; $1,000 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 SMC-DA AL lens | | Samsung GX-10 | 10.2MP| $900, body only; $1,000 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Schneider D-Xenon lens | | Sony Alpha 100 | 10.2MP| $700, body only; $800 with 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 Sony AF DT lens | How we rank them: 4 factors

Image Quality ShotsCanon EOS Digital Rebel XTiNikon D80Pentax K10DSamsung GX-10Sony Alpha 100

1. Image Quality
You know the mantra: resolution, color accuracy, digital noise. These three factors make up our overall Image Quality rating. (See "How to Read a Camera Test," January 2006, or www.PopPhoto.com, for the details.) We've summarized quality ratings in the camera profiles that follow; for Certified Test Results from the Pop Photo Lab, look for our full tests of each camera at www.PopPhoto.com.

Lab numbers are solid, objective measures of image quality, but you're not buying a DSLR to photograph resolution charts and GretagMacbeth color patches. For an illustration of what these ratings mean for real-world shooting, we photographed the scene on the facing page with all five cameras under the exact same studio flash lighting conditions, using each manufacturer's 50mm f/1.4 lens. All cameras were set to ISO 100, recording in highest-quality, highest-res JPEG format, using custom white balance, and bracketing around f/16 in 1/3-stops. The magnified detail shots accompanying the individual camera reports show what to expect from a 1x1-inch square taken from a 13x19-inch enlargement at 200 dpi.

As image quality is the most important factor by far in choosing a camera, we give it twice the weighting of the other factors in our overall ranking.

2. Ease of Use
Given all the adjustments available on these cameras, it's inevitable that many controls will end up in menus, even with lots of external buttons and dials. How each camera strikes a balance between external and menu controls is critical to ease of operation. We look for well-placed controls, clear labeling, logic, and simplicity in menus, as well as a good "feel" to the camera. Performance factors count here, too, as pokey autofocus, shutter lag, or short battery life also detract from ease of use.

3. Control
Control stands for adjustability: the extent to which a user can precisely fine-tune a picture -- before, during, and after the shot. DSLR controls include both the traditional camera adjustments (metering and exposure, autofocus, flash output, drive modes) and digital settings (file size and quality, white balance, color spaces). This current crop of 10MP DSLRs also feature considerable image tweaks and fixes, such as color-balance and color-saturation adjustments, shadow/highlight controls, even in-camera processing and conversion of RAW files. We evaluate the power and usefulness of these various controls.

4. System Flexibility
The legacy of the 35mm film SLR guarantees that users of any of these cameras will have plenty of choices for expanding their collections of lenses and other accessories. Even DSLR newcomer Sony can bank on a large existing base of interchangeable optics from Konica Minolta, in addition to its growing catalog of Sony- and Zeiss-branded optics. And all the tested cameras have full-featured accessory TTL flash units in their respective systems. That said, it's no secret that Canon and Nikon lead the league in this regard, given their vast lens and accessory catalogs, as well as their line of camera models ranging from entry-level bargains up to full-bore professional rigs.

Image Quality Uncovered

A floral arrangement with hands is an ideal subject to show how well the test cameras record skin tone, fine detail, shadow/highlight range, and colors ranging from subtle pastels to bright primaries.

RAW vs. JPEG

Image-quality judgements were made after evaluating highest-quality 10-megapixel JPEGs. Most of the variations in color, contrast, and detail are the result of JPEG image processing. In all cases, RAW images from these cameras exceeded JPEG quality, and differences between images became less apparent.
Editor's Note: Some readers have been confused by variations in our image quality rankins. For further explanation of our testing procedures and how we arrived at different results for the five cameras tested here, see this discussion on the PopPhoto.com forums.

Image quality

1. Nikon D80
2. Canon EOS Rebel XTi
3. Pentax K10D (tie)
3. Samsung GX-10 (tie)
5. Sony Alpha 100

As all these cameras are capable of Excellent overall image quality, our rankings are based on incremental differences in performance. And you should keep in mind that these 10MP cameras give you choices in the look of your images; you can, for example, sacrifice some resolution for lower noise in available-light shots, or add extra sharpening while keeping your shots to low ISOs to keep the noise under control. We gave the nod to the Nikon for its highest resolution numbers at low ISOs and its ability to maintain at least 1700 lines resolution at ISO 3200-still with Very Low noise. The Canon EOS Rebel XTi sacrificed some noise suppression at higher ISOs to maintain high resolution, and it's a good balance. The Pentax K10D and its clone, the Samsung GX-10, also maintain good balance between resolution and noise control. The Sony Alpha 100 has great resolution, but at higher ISOs, digital noise strays into Unacceptable territory.

Ease of use

1. Pentax K10D (tie)
1. Samsung GX-10 (tie)
3. Nikon D80
4. Canon EOS Rebel XTi
5. Sony Alpha 100

These cameras represent a quantum leap over the previous generation of DSLRs, with much more readable (and comprehensible) menus, a good selection of external controls, and excellent ergonomics across the board. The Pentax/Samsung twins to us struck the best balance between menu control and button/dial access. The Nikon has a zillion controls but it keeps them well sorted out. We marked down the Canon and Sony for their lack of a second command dial, which we think is almost a necessity on cameras of this complexity.

Control

1. Nikon D80
2. Sony Alpha 100
3. Canon EOS Rebel XTi
4. Pentax K10D (tie)
4. Samsung GX-10 (tie)

Again, all the tested cameras have extensive image controls available. The Nikon's is near overkill, but the color tweaks in in-camera RAW conversion are great things. The Sony's Density Range controls are genuinely useful. The Canon has lots of image tweaks, but we still wonder why color balance can't be set manually in Kelvin. The Pentax/Samsung twins keep things simpler, which is not at all a criticism.

System flexibility

1. Nikon D80 (tie)
1. Canon EOS Rebel XTi (tie)
3. Pentax K10D (tie)
3. Samsung GX-10 (tie)
5. Sony Alpha 100

Canon and Nikon make everything for their DSLRs, and then some. Which is not to say that you can't get the lens or flash or battery grip you want/need with the other cameras. It's just the difference between "extensive" and "humongous."

Overall

1. Nikon D80
2. Canon EOS Rebel Xti
3. Pentax K10D (tie)
3. Samsung GX-10 (tie)
5. Sony Alpha 100

There has to be a winner, and, given its image quality and near-pro-level feature set, the Nikon D80 was hardly a surprise. We're more than happy, though, to use any of these superb cameras.

|||||| |---|---|---|---|---| | IMAGE QUALITY| EASE OF USE| CONTROL| SYSTEM FLEXIBILITY| | Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi | 2| 4| 3| 1 TIE| | Nikon D80 | 1| 3| 1| 1 TIE| | Pentax K10D | 3 TIE| 1 TIE| 4 TIE| 3 TIE| | Samsung GX-10 | 3 TIE| 1 TIE| 4 TIE| 3 TIE| | Sony Alpha 100 | 5| 5| 2| 5| The Missing Tenner

Olympus has actually fielded a player in the 10MP DSLR class, the new E-400 (price N/A). But since this camera is not for sale in the U.S. (do you feel snubbed?), it doesn't qualify for this shootout. Die-hard Olympus fans, though, can get one if they're willing to travel to Europe.

And that might be worth the trip if you're looking to jump up a notch in image quality from the 8MP E-330 and lower-priced E-500, especially since the new E-400 accepts all of the Four Thirds System lenses you own from Olympus and others. It also features higher resolution and a larger 2.5-inch LCD monitor than previous Olympus cameras. There's no live preview mode, and the AF still features a TTL phase-detection engine with only three zones, but the E-400 now includes an in-camera RAW editing mode and 31 scene modes including Underwater, Wide, and Macro. We like that Underwater feature, especially since we're stuck holding our breath till Olympus introduces its next DSLR in the US (we're hoping in spring of this year.)

Canon-EOS-Digital-Rebel-XTi
Canon-EOS-Digital-Rebel-XTi
Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi
Canon-EOS-Digital-Rebel-XTi
Canon-EOS-Digital-Rebel-XTi
Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi
Nikon-D80
Nikon-D80
Nikon D80
Nikon-D80
Nikon-D80
Nikon D80
Pentax-K10D
Pentax-K10D
Pentax K10D
Pentax-K10D
Pentax-K10D
Pentax K10D
Samsung-GX-10
Samsung-GX-10
Samsung GX-10
Samsung-GX-10
Samsung-GX-10
Samsung GX-10
Sony-Alpha-100
Sony-Alpha-100
Sony Alpha 100
Sony-Alpha-100
Sony-Alpha-100
Sony Alpha 100
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