American Photo Editor's Choice 2009: Advanced DSLRs

We couldn’t decide whether the Nikon D90 or Pentax K-7 should win advanced DSLR of the year, so we chose them both.

Pentax K-7

The brand-new K-7 retains the 14.6-megapixel resolution of Pentax's top-of-the-line K20D, but overhauls nearly everything else. Its tough, magnesium-alloy-over-stainless-steel body is smaller, more squared off, and more professional looking, with an excellent contoured grip. Like the K20D it is massively weatherproofed, with 77 seals and improved cold resistance.

The K-7's viewfinder is certainly the biggest in this class, and it's also the only one to offer pro-level 100 percent subject coverage. The three-inch LCD is sharpened by 921,000-dot resolution and has a snazzier menu display, which rotates automatically for vertical composition. The CMOS sensor and 14-bit A/D conversion (up from 12 in the K20D) are all new, as is a four-channel processor that reduces shadow noise and raises shooting speed to a swift 5.2fps. (Burst rate is 40 best-quality JPEGs or 15 RAW/PEF frames.) The K-7 shakes dust off its sensor with quieter piezo-ceramic vibrations, while the camera's sensor-shifting Shake Reduction (which steadies the image with any K-mount lens) now corrects for unintended rotational movement. And get this: You can manually shift the sensor sideways or up and down, to fine-tune composition (and avoid upsetting your tripod) or to make small corrections in perspective! There's even a level gauge on the top-deck status panel.

The K-7's 11-point AF system gets a dedicated assist lamp and now uses color data to improve its accuracy. And the exposure meter gains 61 segments, for an ample total of 77. Also new are the higher capacity (980-shot) battery and weatherproof vertical grip. The K-7 comes packed with postprocessing options, including new digital effects filters. The coolest of these, in our opinion, automatically combines three bracketed exposures into one high-dynamic range JPEG. As you might expect, the new camera shoots video (30fps) at a standard 720p or a unique, not-quite-1080p 1536x1024 (4GB limit per clip), and allows manual aperture control. There's no continuous focus, but you can reset one-shot AF while you're shooting simply by pressing the shutter button. There's even an external microphone jack.

Quick Stats:

  • 14.6 MEGAPIXELS/CMOS IMAGE SENSOR

  • 1.5X FOV CROP

  • 3.0-INCH LCD (921K dots)

  • IMAGE STABILIZATION: IN-BODY

  • TOP ISO: 6,400

  • 5.2FPS

  • LIVE VIEW: YES

  • VIDEO: 720p HD

  • ABOUT $1,200

Nikon D90

It looks a lot like Nikon's long running D80 digital SLR, but this groundbreaking successor to that model adopts most of the new technologies found in Nikon's more expensive D-SLRs. Its 12.3-megapixel CMOS chip is lifted straight from the advanced-level Nikon D300, upping resolution and shifting technology from the D80's 10.2-megapixel CCD.

At low ISO settings, our comparisons showed that the D90 delivers image quality essentially identical to that of the 12.1-megapixel full-frame sensors in Nikon's professional D3 and D700. Though it's understandably noisier than those two models at high ISOs, its output looked excellent to us all the way up to ISO 3200. That, plus a usable top ISO of 6400 and adjustable noise reduction, make the D90 best for lowlight work among D-SLRs with APS-C-sized sensors.

The camera's LCD display, much better than its predecessors', is in fact identical to the super-sharp LCDs on the D300, D700, D3, and new D3X. At three inches (diagonal) and 922,000 dots, it offers double the resolution of the D80's 2.5- inch, 230,000-dot version, along with a very wide (170 degree) viewing angle. The screen provides ultra-detailed playback (with up to 27X zooming) and superb legibility with the D90's menu system and shooting information display.

The D90 is the first Nikon model under $1,000 to offer Live View. It's a dream to use, in part because of the big LCD screen but also because it's quickly activated with a dedicated button, not hidden in the release mode dial. And its 24fps refresh rate is smoother than in Nikon's more expensive models. You may find yourself sticking with the optical viewfinder, though: With 96 percent coverage and 0.94X magnification, it's one of the biggest in its class, and a pleasure to see.

The D90's headline feature is its 720p high-definition movie mode-the first to appear in a D-SLR. Top resolution is 1280x720 at 24fps; sound is mono-only. Our biggest gripe is that autofocus doesn't operate when you're shooting video-too bad given the impressive still-image performance of the D90's 11-point, 3D-tracking AF system. But this important new camera is certainly a step on the way to our hybrid future.

Quick Stats:

  • 12.3 MEGAPIXELS/CMOS IMAGE SENSOR

  • 1.5X FOV CROP

  • 3.0-INCH LCD SCREEN

  • IMAGE STABILIZATION: IN-LENS

  • TOP ISO: 6,400

  • LIVE VIEW: YES

  • VIDEO: 720p HD

  • 4.5FPS

  • ABOUT $1,000

Canon EOS 50D

This new model boosts the short-lived EOS 40D's pixel count by 50 percent, to 15.1 megapixels, for roughly 25 percent higher resolution. Higher pixel density usually means more noise, but in our tests the 50D's JPEGs delivered about one stop less noise than the 40D's. The improvement is the result of both bigger microlenses (which focus more photons on each pixel) and smarter DIGIC 4 processing. The new camera even quadruples the 40D's top sensitivity, from ISO 3200 to ISO 12,800, and offers four JPEG high-ISO noise-reduction settings, for more control of sharpness vs. smoothness.

The faster imaging engine also means the EOS 50D can shoot at 6.3fps, virtually the same as the 40D, despite its larger files. And it captures more continuous JPEGs with a fast UDMA Compact Flash card. The new camera also offers two smaller RAW sizes, which let you make space- saving files with the wider tonal and color range of 14-bit postprocessing.

The 50D inherits the 40D's large viewfinder and super-swift diamond-pattern AF system, which we judge top in its class for both low-light focus acquisition and continuous tracking.

The 50D's live view is also superior to competitors' because the mirror stays up when you're shooting, allowing for much faster, quieter operation. And the view on its 920,000-dot, three-inch LCD is dazzling-twice as sharp as the 40D's. That makes it easy to check minute details and critical focus and adds clarity to the 50D's more elegant menu system and new joystick-operated Quick Control interface.

Quick Stats:

  • 15.1 MEGAPIXELS/CMOS IMAGE SENSOR

  • 1.6X FOV CROP

  • 3.0-INCH LCD (920K dots)

  • IMAGE STABILIZATION: IN-LENS

  • TOP ISO: 12,800

  • LIVE VIEW: YES

  • VIDEO: NO

  • 6.3FPS

Olympus E-30

The Four Thirds-format Olympus E-3 tied for 2008 Camera of the Year in this category, an honor it earned for its solidly built weatherproof body; its huge, best-in-class viewfinder; its fast 11-point biaxial autofocus; its swift 5fps capture speed; and its fully articulated live view LCD screen, a D-SLR first. You get the better part of all that in the smaller, lighter, and more affordable Olympus E-30. You give up a certain amount of ruggedness and weatherizing, and the E-30's pentaprism finder provides a somewhat smaller view (98 percent coverage and 1.02X magnification, versus the E-3's 100 percent and 1.15X). But that viewfinder still trumps the tunnel-vision pentamirror finders in most Four Thirds D-SLRs. And the E-30 is actually superior to its big brother in its sensor resolution (12.3 megapixels vs. the E-3's 10.1) and the size of its versatile tilt-swivel LCD (2.7 vs. 2.5 inches).

It even adds new features such as a dedicated mode dial; contrast-detection AF (with face detection) that we found to be a third faster than that in the Canon EOS 50D; a new image stabilizer mode that disengages vertical sensor shift, for panning up or down; and in-camera Art Filters, including Grainy Film and Pinhole effects, among many others.

The Olympus E-30 offers seemingly infinite custom configurability, one of the E-3's best qualities; an external white balance sensor; the ability to control strobes wirelessly, straight from its LCD panel; and best of all, access to superb Zuiko Digital lenses, many of which have no equal in competing full-frame systems.

Quick Stats:

  • 12.3 MEGAPIXELS/LIVE MOS IMAGE SENSOR

  • 2.0X FOV CROP (four thirds format)

  • 2.7-INCH TILT/SWIVEL LCD

  • IMAGE STABILIZATION: IN-BODY

  • TOP ISO: 3200

  • LIVE VIEW: YES

  • VIDEO: NO

  • ABOUT $1,050

ADVERTISEMENT