Scouting Report

The full lowdown on this season's newest, hottest, mid-level DSLRs.

Scouting-Report

Scouting-Report

Call them the Step-Up Generation. After the slew of introductions of enthusiast-level DSLRs (Canon EOS 40D, Nikon D300, and Sony Alpha 700 among them), it looked like camera makers would coast for a while. Wrong. Nearly every DSLR maker has recently added one or more models to this year's lineup, all of them aimed at the mid-level.

This makes perfect sense. Over the past few years, entry-level DSLRs have sold in the millions. Many of those buyers are ready to step up from their 6MP and 8MP cameras -- but aren't quite ready to drop up to $1,800 for one of those "enthusiast" camera bodies.

That's where these new models come in. For street prices of $630 to $1,400, they provide a nice boost in megapixels, with two models coming in at more than 14MP. But they aren't about sheer firepower -- don't look for the fastest burst rates or stratospheric ISOs. Instead, you'll find such conveniences as bigger LCD screens, live view, more battery power, extended in-camera image controls, and improved image stabilization.

Details on the latest models from Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Samsung, and Sony are in the pages that follow.

Stable Environment

Image stabilization is now as mainstream as you can get, with all five newcomers offering it right out of the box. Wait a minute, you're saying -- Canon and Nikon don't have stabilization built into their cameras, but require individual stabilized lenses. Well, that's exactly what you get with the Canon EOS Rebel XSi and the Nikon D60: The 18--55mm standard kit lenses for these cameras are, respectively, Image Stabilizer (IS) and Vibration Reduction (VR) optics.

Moreover, the manufacturers have priced these kits low enough that there is no short-term price advantage for the other three cameras that have sensor-based image stabilization built into the camera bodies.

But those three cameras -- the Pentax K200D, Samsung GX-20, and Sony Alpha 350 -- can stabilize any lenses you already have in your bag or may obtain down the line, which can save a fair stack of cash compared with putting together an outfit of Canon or Nikon image-stabilized lenses. In response, their rivals have been developing lower-cost stabilized lenses, such as the 55-250mm f/4-5.6 Canon EF IS ($300, street) and the 55-200mm f/4-5.6G AF-S DX Nikkor VR ($170, street).

It's going to be an interesting year.

Live Performance

Whether or not you're sold on live view, DSLR makers are embracing it on their new cameras -- and refining it. The Rebel allows two methods of autofocusing in live view: a quick method using a momentary flip down of the mirror (with face detection used to engage appropriate AF points), and a live method that can be enabled at any spot in the frame. This actually improves on the Reb's pricey stablemates such the EOS-1Ds Mark III (see camera test), which focus only manually in live view. The Samsung GX-20 can also autofocus with a mirror flip.

But the best live view system so far comes on the Sony, which uses a separate imaging sensor in the pentamirror housing to allow autofocusing with live view -- and nearly zero lag when you press the shutter to take the shot. You can even do burst shooting in live mode at a creditable 2 fps. Combined with the LCD that tilts up or down, it gives you a perfect setup for low-angle or over-the-crowd shots.

Viewing has also been improved with bigger LCD screens -- four of the five cameras have a modest increase in screen size from previous models.

More Megapixels

The big news on the sensor front is the Samsung 14.6MP CMOS chip, the first DSLR sensor made by the electronics giant. This gives the GX-20 (and its near-twin, the Pentax K20D) the highest-resolution imaging in this class. The Pentax K200D, meanwhile, inherits the Sony-made 10.2MP CCD from the now-discontinued K10D. The Sony uses its own 14.2MP CCD in the Alpha 350, and Canon its own 12.2MP CMOS chip in the Rebel XSi. (Canon once again makes a Rebel that leapfrogs its enthusiast model in resolution -- the EOS 40D is 10.1MP.) Nikon coasts along with the same 10.2MP chip from the D40x. All five cameras maintain the APS-C sensor size for a 1.6X 35mm lens factor for the Canon and 1.5X for all the others.

Digital photographs can be contrasty -- sometimes too contrasty. That's the message from this latest batch of cameras, all five of which have some means of extending the dynamic range of images. Sony began the trend with its Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO), which can calm down highlights and bring up shadows on the fly. Nikon's Active D-Lighting, Pentax's Expanded Dynamic Range, and Samsung's High Dynamic Range do similar duty. The Canon Rebel XSi has Highlight Tone Priority, which will maintain detail in an exposure level selected by the user.

But that's just one trick from this bunch. The Nikon D60 can convert RAW files to JPEGs with image corrections, remove redeye, add a cross filter, and even assemble stop-action movies from individual frames. The Pentax and Samsung have an assortment of digital filters and extensive picture adjustments. The Sony A350 inherits the menu of eight scene selection modes, each one of which can be individually tweaked.

And the Canon Rebel debuts a new tool, Auto Optimization, which can improve brightness and contrast on the fly (something like Auto Levels in Adobe Photoshop) and which gives priority to faces in the frame -- to bring up detail in backlit portraits, for example.

Clean Machines

DSLR manufacturers are recognizing that with more megapixels, shooters will view or print pictures at larger sizes -- and will be all the more aware of dust spots on the sensor.

All five of these cameras provide a momentary ultrasonic shake of the sensor to remove dust, but the precautions hardly stop there.

The Nikon simultaneously provides a momentary puff of air -- something like a built-in bulb blower -- and can map dust particles for removal later in software. The Canon also has software dust mapping. The Pentax and Samsung models highlight dust particles on the LCD -- and display the map as a mirror image to facilitate manual cleaning of the sensor.

Should You Buy?

Fierce competition once again proves a good thing, with four of these five models coming in well under $1,000 with a kit lens. And those prices should come down further once the cameras are established in the market. Again, if you've been waiting patiently for a replacement for your aging 6MP model, you'll probably find one of these cameras to your liking. But given the capabilities and features of this new generation of cameras, more than a few hardcore enthusiasts will go for them, as well. Test reports will tell the full tale, and we plan to test all of them. Stay tuned to www.PopPhoto.com for more.

|| |---| | | Click photo to see product shots.| Canon Rebel XSi

12.2MP
$800, street, body only; $900 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Canon EF IS lens

The Buzz
Fastest Reb yet gets live view and other great upgrades -- plus it comes with an IS lens standard.

The Lineup Now
The 10.1MP Digital Rebel XTi ($520, body only, $590 with non-IS kit lens) now becomes the base model, below the XSi. The 8MP Rebel XT goes away.

New & Noteworthy

• First D-Rebel with speedy DIGIC III processor, 14-bit A/D converter. • Live view with two flavors of AF plus manual focusing. • Auto Optimization fine-tunes brightness and contrast on the fly. • Highlight Tone Priority controls dynamic range. • New Li-ion battery has 50% more juice but size is same as previous version. • Finally, a real (4%) spotmeter. • Improved viewfinder is brighter, has 0.87X magnification, good eye relief.

Not So Hot
• Live view takes some menu fiddling.
• Stays stuck with maximum ISO of 1600.
• Still no built-in wireless flash control.

Our Take
Will jump off shelves at this price. Sony Alpha 350 has better live view, but the XSi's viewfinder beats it by a mile.

Vital Stats
Autofocus: 9-point diamond pattern, improved central cross sensor with high precision for f/2.8 and brighter lenses.
LCD: 3-inch, 230,000-dot.
Burst: Up to 45 JPEGs at 3.5 fps; up to 6 RAW.
Storage: SD card (first EOS DSLR to use SD).
Battery: Canon Li-ion.

|| |---| | | Click photo to see product shots.| Nikon D60

10.2MP
$630, street, body only; $750 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G Nikkor AF-S DX VR lens

The Buzz
Modest upgrade to the D40x comes with VR kit lens standard, lots of in-camera processing tricks.

The Lineup Now
The 10.2MP D40x ($535, street, body only; $610 with non-VR kit lens) and the 6.1MP D40 ($500 with non-VR kit lens) will continue in the line for now.

New & Noteworthy

• Self-cleaning sensor plus Airflow Control technology to dislodge dust. • Rear LCD control readouts automatically reorient to vertical, switch off when raised to eye. • In-camera RAW-to-JPEG conversion that allows adjustment of more image parameters. • Active D-Lighting tones down hot contrast on the fly. • Redeye correction and digital filters. • Can make stop-action movies from individual frames. • Scale-type manual-focus indicator in viewfinder.

Not So Hot
• Autofocuses only with AF-S lenses.
• Low-rent AF array.
• 2.5-inch LCD now looks small by comparison.

Our Take
Great price for a camera with a VR lens, plus fun and functional image controls, but where's the live view?

Vital Stats
Autofocus: 3 points, widely spread, with central cross sensor.
LCD: 2.5-inch, 230,000-dot.
Burst: Up to 100 JPEGs at 3 fps, up to 6 RAW.
Storage: SD card.
Battery: Nikon Li-ion.

|| |---| | Pentax K200D

10.2MP
$720, street, body only; $800 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Pentax DA lens

The Buzz
Entry-level DSLR mates with tank and it won't get cranky working in the rain.

The Lineup Now
The K200D replaces the K100D and K100D Super as the new base model, with 14.6MP K20D slotting in as the enthusiast model above.

New & Noteworthy

• Only weathersealed DSLR in this price class. • Self-cleaning sensor plus clever dust-map system to show you where to aim your blower. • Expanded Dynamic Range calms down excessive contrast. • Sensor shift stabilizes shots with any lens on the camera. • Image comparison lets you review two shots simultaneously on the LCD screen.

Not So Hot
• Wimpy burst rate.
• High ISO limited to 1600.
• Trades in Li-ion battery of the K10D for 4 AAs.
• Controls get more "entry-level" -- e.g., a single command dial.

Our Take
Toughest body in its class makes it a good deal for a 10MP camera; ideal move up from a point-and-shoot.

Vital Stats
Autofocus: 3x3 grid of cross sensors plus linear sensor to either side.
LCD: 2.7-inch, 230,000-dot.
Burst: Up to 4 JPEGs or 4 RAW at 2.8 fps.
Storage: SD card.
Battery: 4 AAs.

|| |---| | | Click photo to see product shots.| Samsung GX-20

14.6MP
$1,400, street, body only; $1,500 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Schneider D-Xenon lens

The Buzz
This high-megapixel (thanks to Samsung's first DSLR chip), weather-resistant beast is a near-clone of the Pentax K20D.

The Lineup Now
The 10.2MP GX-10 ($650 street with kit lens) stays in the line. The 6.1MP GX-1S is gone.

New & Noteworthy

• Beefy weathersealed body. • Live view with AF and manual focusing. • Goes to ISO 6400. • Self-cleaning sensor and dust mapping on the LCD for stubborn dirt. • Shifting sensor can stabilize shots with any lens on the camera. • Accurate, high-magnification viewfinder. • Interchangeable focusing screens.

Not So Hot
• Initial price set somewhat high.
• Records RAW only in Adobe DNG format.
• Live view must be first enabled in custom functions.

Our Take
Given past experience, the GX-20 should put up test results nearly identical to the Pentax K20D -- which would make it one very good camera.

Vital Stats
Autofocus: 3x3 grid of cross sensors plus linear sensor to either side.
LCD: 2.7-inch, 230,000-dot.
Burst: Up to 38 JPEGs at 3 fps; up to 16 RAW.
Storage: SD card.
Battery: Samsung Li-ion.

|| |---| | | Click photo to see product shots.| Sony Alpha 350

14.2MP
$800, estimated street, body only; $900 with 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 Sony DT lens

The Buzz
Big megapixel number and best live view
in a DSLR to date.

The Lineup Now
Alpha 300, same camera but with a 10.2MP CCD, will sell for an estimated $700, body only, or $800 with kit lens. The 10.2MP Alpha 200 ($700 with same lens), a replacement for the Alpha 100, is the new base model.

New & Noteworthy

• Live view via a separate sensor provides autofocusing and lagless firing. • Articulating LCD screen tilts up and down. • Anti-dust cleaning system. • Dynamic Range Optimizer with selectable control levels. • Eye-Start AF triggers focusing when you raise the camera to your eye. • Sensor-shift stabilization has improved performance from previous models.

Not So Hot
• 0.75X finder magnification is a little tunnel-visioned and on the dim side.
• Burst rate slows from 3 to 2.5 fps because of file size.
• LCD can't be turned to face inward.

Our take
Sony's live view without tears, tilt-a-screen, big fat resolution, and skinny little price make it the leader of this new pack.

Vital stats
Autofocus: 9-point AF, diamond pattern, center cross-type sensor, claimed 70% faster than previous version.
LCD: 2.7-inch, 690,000-dot.
Burst: 2.5 fps, to capacity of card for JPEGs, up to 6 RAW.
Storage: CF card, Memory Stick with adapter.
Battery: Sony InfoLITHIUM.

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