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Five affordable DSLRs vie for honors in the “step-up” class. If you’re a serious shooter looking to move on up to a better DSLR — with more resolution, faster firing, advanced features like in-camera image fixes and live view — but have been scared off by the $1,000 price barrier, fear no more. An entire class of DSLRs has appeared at this intermediate level, none of them more than $900, street — with a kit lens. And every one of these five comes with image stabilization right out of the box, through either a shifting image sensor or moving elements in the included lens.

These models, whose resolution ranges from 10MP to 14.2MP, are also ideal for the first-time DSLR buyer who wants more camera than you get in entry-level 6MP or 8MP cameras. And, for those weaned on digital compacts, three models have live view.

They’re not perfect, to be sure: All have plastic bodies, not designed for really heavy-duty use, and they rely on menus for many controls. Still, on balance they are excellent values.

Here are the factors we used to rank these cameras.

• Image Quality: We measure this by objective Pop Photo Lab tests of resolution, noise control, and color accuracy. We look at highest-quality JPEGs, as well as RAW files converted with the respective manufacturers’ software. To provide a real-world analog of these measurements, we photographed a model and a bouquet of flowers in our studio under the same conditions for each camera, with a neutral gray in the background, using automatic white balance. The only adjustment we made on the JPEGs was a small tweak of levels in Adobe Photoshop CS3. So these images are an accurate gauge of the kind of picture you could take with the cameras right out of the box. We also made RAW-to-TIFF conversions of the same shots, with more extensive adjustments, to show the level of image quality you can get.

To provide a real-world analog of image-quality measurements, we photographed a model and a bouquet of flowers in our studio, lighting the scene with flicker-free, daylight-balanced HMI lamps. We positioned the model sufficiently far from a white seamless background that it would fall away to neutral gray. We kept the cameras at the same distance but varied the focal length of the kit zoom lenses to maintain approximately the same perspective and image magnification for all five. (Notice marker tape in the uncropped photos.) We set all the cameras to ISO 100, and to Adobe RGB color space. Each of these RAW-to-TIFF conversions was made with the respective manufacturer’s RAW converter, with no compression. We made only modest adjustments during conversions. These are a good gauge of the maximum image quality you can get.

Ease of Use: We consider how the camera handles, placement of controls, click-to-click speed, logic and readability of menus, and viewfinder quality, among other factors. Live view (and its performance) counts here.

• Control: Camera controls for making the shot, as well as the fixes you can perform in-camera after the shot, are evaluated. We tested the image stabilization of the cameras with individual zoom lenses set to the same 35mm equivalent focal length, about 82mm.

• System Flexibility: Simply put, this means how much stuff is available for the camera — lenses, flash units, and other accessories — and how well those items integrate with these specific models.

**CANON EOS REBEL XSi******

THE MOST POWERFUL REBEL YET KEEPS THE COMPETITION AT FULL BOIL WITH LIVE VIEW AND STABILIZED KIT LENS.

EASE OF USE: While not greatly changed from the XTi, the control layout seems to work better, and the grip is more hand-friendly. The bright, high-magnification finder makes for great optical viewing; the big 3-inch LCD affords a superb live view, though with too much menu-hopping for the setup and AF selection, and some delay for AF. The menus are among the most readable and best organized we’ve seen. We just wish the XSi had the “nose wheel” (second command dial on the back) of other Canon EOS cameras. Rank: 2

CONTROL: Scads of it during shooting. The AF’s 9-point diamond pattern now has a high-precision central cross sensor for better accuracy in focusing high-speed lenses. The burst rate, 3.5 fps, ties the Olympus for leader. The XSi is also the first Rebel with a true spotmeter, and the first with a DIGIC III processor and 14-bit A/D conversion. It has both a self-cleaning sensor and software dust deletion. The Picture Styles menu gives you wide leeway in adjusting and customizing JPEG profiles, and you can shoot any of them combined with RAW. But you can’t adjust RAW files in-camera and convert to JPEG. We were underwhelmed by both the nonadjustable Highlight Tone Priority and Auto Lighting Optimizer, whose effects we found minimal. Rank: 2

SYSTEM FLEXIBILITY: Vast and always expanding. But the EOS system remains alone in not providing wireless TTL control of accessory units via the pop-up flash. All the other DSLR makers here know how to do it (though Nikon didn’t put it on the D60). Rank: 1 (tie)

WHAT’S MISSING: We’ve mentioned the nose wheel and remote wireless flash control via the pop-up. It could also use more weathersealing.

NICE SURPRISES: All the software that comes in the box, such as the RAW converter/editor, remote operation, browser, and panorama stitcher.

TEST RESULTS

IMAGE QUALITY: Excellent image quality throughout its ISO 100-1600 range. Resolution of 2265 lines (highest in this group) takes an almost insignificant drop to 2160 lines at ISO 800-1600. Noise went from Very Low to Moderately Low throughout the range. Color accuracy was excellent. Rank: 1

IMAGE STABILIZATION: We got an average handholding gain of 2.5-3 stops, which places it first in this group.

AUTOFOCUS: Fastest of this group. While the Nikon and Sony are very close in speed, neither has the sensitivity of the Rebel, down to -2 EV.

CIPA BATTERY RATING: 500 shots, 50% with flash. SIZE/WEIGHT: 5.1×3.8×2.4 in., 1.16 lb, body only, with card and battery. CARD: SD/SDHC. PRICE: $800, street, body only; $900 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Canon EF-S IS lens. INFO:www.usa.canon.com.

NIKON D60

CALL IT A SUPER-TWEAK OF NIKON’S D40X, WITH EVEN MORE IN-CAMERA IMAGE ADJUSTMENTS.

EASE OF USE: The tiny D60 is easy to grip but not that easy to use in anything but auto modes. For instance, the clumsy flash exposure compensation involves two buttons and a dial (or you can set it with a menu). Menu organization can be odd. Viewfinder magnification is on the low side, and data can be hard to see. But startup is speedy, shutter lag minimal, and AF fast. Many menu items have help screens, and you can bring up sample photos to see the effects of controls. The 2.5-inch LCD is respectable, but there’s no live view. Rank: 5

CONTROL: The D60 is the postproduction champ of inexpensive DSLRs. A favorite feature is the in-camera conversion of RAW files, which lets you tweak things like color balance, hue, contrast, and sharpness, before saving as JPEGs. Other fixes include D-Lighting (Nikon’s dynamic range adjustment), redeye removal, Quick Touchup (which works something like Auto Levels in Adobe Photoshop), and filter effects. You can even make a stop-motion movie from a series of still frames. However, you can save only Basic quality JPEGs in RAW + JPEG capture, and the only way to set Adobe RGB color space is to use a custom image profile. The burst rate for Fine JPEGs is slow for this class. Rank: 5

SYSTEM FLEXIBILITY: Nikon is the other 800-pound gorilla here, along with Canon. If you can think of a lens or accessory, Nikon probably makes it. But not everything’s perfect: The D60 will autofocus only with AF-S lenses, and you can’t control accessory units wirelessly with the D60’s built-in flash. Rank: 1 (tie)

WHAT’S MISSING: A better in-the-box RAW converter than ViewNX — the optional Capture NX2 software is superb, but it’ll cost you up to $180. And that wireless flash control via the pop-up.
NICE SUPRISES: Would you believe a self-cleaning sensor and software dust deletion and (a first) a momentary air puff near the sensor to remove dust? It has all three.

TEST RESULTS

IMAGE QUALITY: Excellent at ISO 100-1600. Resolution of 2050 lines was in the middle of this pack, but its best-in-class noise control gave it better resolution in JPEGs at high ISOs than even the 14.2MP Sony. Moderate noise at ISO 3200 dropped overall image quality to Extremely High at that sensitivity — but that’s still pretty good. Rank: 2

IMAGE STABILIZATION: With an average gain in handholding leeway of 1 to 3 EV, it ranks second to the Canon or Sony.

AUTOFOCUS: Essentially tied with the very fast Sony in speed and sensitivity (down to -1 EV). But, with only 3 AF points, it can’t touch the Canon in across-the-frame tracking.
CIPA BATTERY RATING: 730 shots per charge, 50% with flash. SIZE/WEIGHT: 5×2.5×3.7 in., 1.22 lb, body only, with card and battery. CARD: SD/SDHC. PRICE: $580, street, body only; $700 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR AF-S DX Nikkor zoom lens. INFO: www.nikonusa.com.

OLYMPUS E-520

IT’S ONE OF THE LOWEST-PRICED DSLRS TO HAVE BOTH LIVE VIEW AND IMAGE STABILIZATION.

EASE OF USE: A very ergonomic camera to grip, the successor to the E-510 gets a bigger LCD: 2.7 inches. This serves as the control panel, and you can scroll around it fairly quickly to access common settings. Its Perfect Shot Preview shows a grid of photos previewing what you’ll get with various settings. Live view is simple to access, and provides three AF options — but all of them involve at least a couple seconds delay in firing.

While the viewfinder has pretty good magnification, it’s still tunnel-visioned, and eyeglass wearers in particular had a tough time seeing the data display without losing some of the finder image. The menus, while logically arranged, can take a lot of scrolling to find some settings. And we found it frustrating that the switch from auto- to manual focus is in a menu. Rank: 4

CONTROL: The E-520’s image stabilization has three modes — normal, and then two for panning with the camera held vertically or horizontally — a first for sensor-based stabilization. Burst rate of 3.5 fps nominally ties it with the Canon, but it slows down after fewer shots than the Reb XSi does when set for Fine JPEGs. RAW images can be converted to JPEGs in camera, but to make various picture adjustments on the file you have to first change the camera settings — a clumsy procedure. The camera has good weathersealing. Rank: 5

SYSTEM FLEXIBILITY: Olympus produces an array of fine optics and accessories, including two flash units with wireless TTL capability. But the drawback of creating a ground-up system is that it will have fewer pieces than competing camera makers for the foreseeable future. Rank: 5

WHAT’S MISSING: Direct RAW editing controls with preview of the effects.

NICE SURPRISES: In live view, you can have the entire control panel overlaid on the image as a transparency. The image-editing software that comes with the camera provides lens-distortion correction.

TEST RESULTS

IMAGE QUALITY: Similar to the E-510’s, though improvements in noise suppression resulted in Excellent image quality for both JPEGs and RAW files at ISO 100­-1600. Resolution hung on to nearly 2000 lines through ISO 1600. Rank: 3 (tie)

IMAGE STABILIZATION: Our testers average a handholding gain of 1 to 2.5 stops, tied with the Pentax in third place.

AUTOFOCUS: Similar in speed to the E-510, which isn’t surprising, the Olympus is a notch behind the Nikon — which is still pretty fast. Sensitivity, though, goes down only to EV 0. It ranks fourth overall.
CIPA BATTERY RATING: 650 shots per charge, 50% with flash. SIZE/WEIGHT: 5.4×3.6×2.7 in., 1.05 lb, body only, with card and battery. CARD: CF and xD. PRICE: $600, street, body only; $700 with 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 ED AF Zuiko Digital lens. INFO: www.olympusamerica.com.

PENTAX K200D

YOU MIGHT CALL IT A K10D LITE — WITH THE SENSOR AND MANY CONTROLS FROM THAT LATE, GREAT 10.2MP CAMERA.

EASE OF USE: While it has many controls in menus, the Pentax manages to be more intuitive than most other cameras in this group. The function button gives you fast access to the most common settings. The main menus have dropped the K10D’s endearingly garbled contractions for full descriptions with help screens. It has a big 2.7-inch LCD, a viewfinder with excellent magnification, and a pleasantly chunky handhold. It’s also well-sealed against weather. We still wish there were a second command dial, as on the K10D. Rank: 3

CONTROL: The Pentax has excellent in-camera RAW file editing — you can tweak white balance, image profile, sharpness, saturation, etc. — and then convert it to a JPEG (while keeping the original RAW). We also like its graphic interface for image profiles. Sensor-based image stabilization works with literally millions of lenses, and if the lens is too old to communicate electronic data, you simply enter the focal length in a menu. The Expanded Dynamic Range function helps bring out shadow and highlight detail in high-contrast scenes. What’s not to love? Autofocus — while the 11-point system can track across the frame, it’s the slowest of this group. Rank: 3 (tie)

SYSTEM FLEXIBILITY: A huge installed base of Pentax lenses and a growing stockpile of digital and full-frame lenses makes it a formidable system. Pentax and Sony are currently in an arms race to develop premium optics, and the ones we’ve tested are superb. May they keep fighting it out. Rank: 3 (tie)

WHAT’S MISSING: Live view. Also, a rechargeable Li-ion battery (it uses four AAs — boo!).

NICE SURPRISES: Besides a self-cleaning sensor, the K200D has Dust Alert, which maps the location of particles and displays them in mirror image on the LCD monitor — so you can aim the blower brush accurately during cleaning.

TEST RESULTS

IMAGE QUALITY: Excellent, ISO 100­-1600. While a little bit below the Olympus in resolution at 1940 lines, very effective noise reduction produced ratings of Extremely Low and Very Low at ISO 800 and 1600, respectively, with only a minor hit to resolution. Rank: 3 (tie)

IMAGE STABILIZATION: With average handholding gains of 1 to 2.5 stops, it tied with the Olympus at third.

AUTOFOCUS: Speeds on par with the discontinued K10D’s — and the K10D was one of the slower-autofocusing DSLRs to start with. At its low-light limit, EV -1, the K200D sometimes couldn’t focus at all.
CIPA BATTERY RATING: 500 shots, 50% with flash, with lithium AA batteries. Size/weight: 5.2×3.7×2.9 in., 1.52 lb, with card and batteries. CARD: SD/SDHC. PRICE: $620, street, body only; $690 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 SMCP-DA Pentax lens. INFO: www.pentaxusa.com.

SONY ALPHA 350

THE MEGAPIXEL LEADER OF THE BUNCH, THE 14.2MP ALPHA 350 HAS THE BEST LIVE VIEW, TOO.

EASE OF USE: The clever live view lets you autofocus and fire without delay. And the 2.7-inch LCD screen tilts up and down for low-angle, waist-level, or over-the-crowd shooting. The dual sensors and split mirrors required to do so, though, make for compromises: The viewfinder is dim and a bit tunnel-visioned, and data can be hard to read, especially for eyeglass wearers. Ergonomics are excellent; the function button brings up frequently used controls quickly; menus require minimal scrolling and they bounce to the next folder when you reach the bottom. But we’d still like a second command dial and a direct control for flash output. Rank: 1

CONTROL: The Sony has the best dynamic-range control of this group with its Dynamic Range Optimizer, which can be set for Simple or Smart and to several levels. There’s a range of image profiles, which can be further tweaked. White balance can be adjusted within the presets and set in Kelvin degrees. While a 14.2MP image file makes for a more modest burst rate of 2.5 fps, you can keep firing off standard-quality JPEGs at better than 1 fps until the card fills up. Rank: 1

SYSTEM FLEXIBILITY: Vast. Millions of existing lenses in the Minolta Maxxum mount work on the camera, and Sony is aggressively filling in the line with Sony and Zeiss optics, both digital-only and full-frame. Rank: 3 (tie)

WHAT’S MISSING: RAW-to-JPEG processing in-camera.

NICE SURPRISES: A kit lens that goes to 70mm, equivalent to 105mm in 35mm terms. Live view that turns on with a plain old switch.

TEST RESULTS

IMAGE QUALITY: While it produces Excellent resolution of 2150 lines and Excellent overall IQ at ISO 100-800, results change at higher ISOs. With noise reduction cranked up enough to get a Low rating at ISO 1600, resolution drops to 1730 lines. All three of the 10MP cameras in this test can do better than that. Rank: 5

IMAGE STABILIZATION: The A350’s image stabilization is clearly designed for longer optics, where it shows a gain of 2.5 to 3 stops in handholding. But when tested at 55mm (to equate the effective focal lengths of all the cameras), it managed an average of 1 to 2 stops. That ranks it last, but only for the narrow test conditions of this test.

AUTOFOCUS: A hair slower than the Canon in speed, and the 9-zone diamond-pattern sensor array provides dynamic tracking across the frame. Sensitivity limit is -1 EV, whereas the Canon can autofocus in -2 EV murk.
CIPA BATTERY RATING: 730 shots per charge, 50% with flash. Size/weight: 5.25x4x3 in., 1.49 lb, body only, with card and battery. CARD: CF; Memory Stick PRODuo with adapter. PRICE: $800, street, body only; $900 with 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 Sony DT lens. INFO: www.sonystyle.com.

IMAGE QUALITY

1 Canon EOS Rebel XSi 10 points

2 Nikon D60 8 points

3 Olympus E-520 (tie) 6 points

3 Pentax K200D (tie) 6 points

5 Sony Alpha 350 2 points

You can get superb images with any one of these cameras. Ranking IQ becomes a matter of looking at results at high ISOs. We gave the lead spot to the Canon EOS Rebel XSi for its consistency in resolution and noise control. The Nikon D60 had higher resolution than the Olympus E-520 and Pentax K200D, plus superb noise control. The Olympus’ and Pentax’s resolution, noise, and color accuracy were so close that we called it a tie. The Sony Alpha 350 at low-to-medium ISOs would have challenged the Canon. But at higher ISOs, noise rated Unacceptable unless heavy noise reduction was applied.

EASE OF USE

1 Sony Alpha 350 5 points

2 Canon EOS Rebel XSi 4 points

3 Pentax K200D 3 points

4 Olympus E-520 2 points

5 Nikon D60 1 point

The Sony Alpha 350 is a pleasure to use. Its live view, while making for a dimmer viewfinder, is the way these systems should work, with no delay in autofocusing and firing. The menus go from folder to folder by themselves, and the function button allows for rapid setting changes.

The Canon comes close behind, with a clear control layout, big menu type, and a bright viewfinder — the best of the lot. Its live view, however, causes a delay in focusing and firing.

The Pentax shows how you can do more with less, with its logical control groupings under the function button.

The Olympus, for all its buttons, is very menu-dependent. And almost every editor who has used the Nikon D60 has found something frustrating — try setting Adobe RGB color space without consulting the manual, for example.

CONTROL

1 Sony Alpha 350 5 points

2 Canon EOS Rebel XSi 4 points

3 Nikon D60 (tie) 3 points

3 Pentax K200D (tie) 3 points

5 Olympus E-520 1 point

We decided that the tools for taking the shot should rank higher than postproduction fixes — you can, after all, fiddle with the image in editing software. On that basis we ranked the Sony first, for things like its fast AF with reliable across-the-frame tracking, and white-balance adjustments galore. Its Dynamic Range Optimizer can be a true lifesaver when shooting JPEGs.

The Canon takes second on the basis of superior autofocus, its Picture Styles menu, and RAW + JPEG capture that works with any JPEG style, including black-and-white. We were very impressed with its white balance shift and bracketing controls. We do wish it had better dynamic-range controls, though.

The Nikon and Pentax are like little Photoshop work stations. With either, you can make adjustments on a RAW file and save it as a JPEG. They both have good dynamic-range fixes and image profile adjustments. We have issues, though, with their respective AF systems — limited across-the-frame tracking on one hand, slow on the other.

The Olympus’ RAW-to-JPEG is far more rudimentary — you can’t preview the effects of your image settings. It has good dynamic-range controls, but its autofocus is the least sensitive of the five.

SYSTEM FLEXIBILITY

1 Canon EOS Rebel XSi (tie) 5 points

1 Nikon D60 (tie) 5 points

3 Pentax K200D (tie) 3 points

3 Sony Alpha 350 (tie) 3 points

5 Olympus E-520 1 point

The more lenses and accessories that work with your camera, the better. Canon and Nikon are undoubtedly at the top of the heap here. Pentax and Sony have a big established base of legacy lenses, and are both developing new optics at a good clip. Finally, Olympus just doesn’t have the lens catalog of the other makers, and there are few third-party lenses made for the system.

OVERALL

1 Canon EOS Rebel XSi 23 points

2 Nikon D60 17 points

3 Pentax K200D (tie) 15 points

3 Sony Alpha 350 (tie) 15 points

5 Olympus E-520 10 points

The Canon wins overall on the basis of high marks across all factors.

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