American Photo Editor's Choice 2009: Entry-Level DSLRs

Live-view screens are the norm on these models because they attract compact camera users, and because they can double for video.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GMC-GH1

It looks like the smallest D-SLR ever, but Panasonic's elegant Lumix GH1 is really an entirely new breed of digital camera. Based on the Micro Four Thirds standard, it substitutes a high-quality electronic viewfinder (EVF) for the optical viewfinder used by SLRs-that "pentaprism" you see is just for show, since there's no need for a reflex mirror. Losing the mirror makes the GH1 considerably quieter than a D-SLR, and because it allows a reduced distance between lens and image sensor lenses can be more compact and much lighter.

The GH1's color EVF is exceptionally good, which it has to be to compete with D-SLRs. It has 1.44 million-dot resolution (sharp enough for manual focusing) and a 60fps refresh rate (fast enough to keep most moving subjects from smearing). In low light it's brighter than an optical screen, though you get some motion smear and pixel noise. What's more, the viewfinder offers 100 percent coverage-something ordinarily found only in pro D-SLRs. It is also nearly as big as viewfinders in full-frame D-SLRs. Also rivaling competing D-SLRs are the speed and precision of the GH1's contrast-detection autofocus, with its uncanny focus tracking of moving subjects across the frame.

Perhaps the first successful hybrid camera, the Lumix GH1 is just as adept at capturing high-definition video (at broadcast- quality 24fps 1080p or ultra-smooth 60fps 720p) with Dolby stereo sound. And unlike all other video-capable D-SLRs, it can focus continuously and silently while you're shooting, just like a regular camcorder-a huge advantage that gives you or your subject the freedom to move in and out without the worry of manual refocusing. In video mode, the GH1 offers useful manual control of aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and more, and unlike "clip"-based D-SLRs the recording duration is limited only by the size of your memory card.

The GH1's video finesse makes its horizontally unfolding, swiveling LCD all the more valuable. OK, so it isn't technically a D-SLR. Depending on your needs, it might be something even better.

Quick Stats:

  • 12.1 MEGAPIXELS/ LIVE MOS IMAGE SENSOR

  • 2.0X FOV CROP (Micro Four Thirds)

  • 3.0-INCH TILT/SWlIVEL LCD (460K dots)

  • IMAGE STABILIZATION: IN-LENS

  • TOP ISO: 3,200

  • 3FPS

  • LIVE VIEW: YES

  • VIDEO: 1080p HD

  • ABOUT $1,300 (with 14-140mm kit lens)

Nikon D5000

This newly minted model raises Nikon's entry-level prowess by adopting the same 12.3-megapixel CMOS sensor found in the Nikon D90 along with that camera's ability to capture 24fps, 720p HD video. Aided by advanced image processing, its chip produces moderate-ISO output indistinguishable from that of Nikon's full-frame D3, which costs six times as much. And images shot at higher speeds (up to ISO 6400) are less noisy than from Canon's entry-level and advanced models.

Though it's hardy, the D5000 is lighter and more compact than the D90, with a smaller pentamirror viewfinder and no top-deck status panel. Also trimmed are the D90's depth-of-field preview and wireless strobe control from its pop-up flash. The D5000 has a slightly smaller LCD too-but that's a good thing, because it makes room for a flip-and-swivel design that's great for low- and high-angle live-view shooting. The D5000 inherits the D90's superb, color-tracking 11-point autofocus, the most advanced in this class. And its 4fps shooting speed is almost as fast as the D90's 4.5fps. The new model offers many features that are unique to this category. Our favorite: the ability to correct perspective distortion in-camera by tweaking the displayed image with the four-way controller until everything is neatly squared up.

Quick Facts****:

  • 12.3 MEGAPIXELS/CMOS IMAGE SENSOR

  • 1.5X FOV CROP

  • 2.7-INCH tiltTILT/SWIVEL LCD

  • IMAGE STABILIZATION: IN-LENS

  • TOP ISO: 6,400

  • 4FPS

  • LIVE VIEW: YES

  • VIDEO: 720p HD

  • ABOUT $730

Olympus E-620

Leave it to Olympus to create the smallest-ever D-SLR with in-body image stabilization. At just over a pound, the E-620 is lighter than any competitor except for the mirrorless Panasonic GH1, yet it fits in most of the features and the same 12.3-megapixel sensor found in the advanced E-30.

There is a bright 2.7-inch, 230,000-pixel articulated screen, which unfolds horizontally and swivels 270 degrees and is fully usable on a tripod. The body has a deeper grip than on previous entry-level E-series models, plus a slightly bigger viewfinder, though it is still small compared with competitors'. It can shoot five RAW frames at 4fps. TTL autofocus is quick, relying on seven points (five of them cross-type); Live View has three AF modes, including 11-point contrast detection that is faster than most competitors'. It also offers a Face Detection mode.

Like the bigger Olympus E-30, this new model gives you a lot for your money: direct-access control panel, SSW dust reduction, shadow optimization, vignetting compensation, multiple aspect ratios, and special- effects Art Filters. It can even command three groups of wireless strobes from its built-in pop-up flash. Customization options are extensive. And, in a first for an entry-level Olympus, the E-620 gets its very own accessory grip, for extra power and more comfortable vertical shooting.

Quick Facts:

  • 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: 3,200

  • 4FPS

  • LIVE VIEW: YES

  • VIDEO: NO

  • ABOUT $700

Sony Alpha 330

With this entry-level D-SLR, one of three new models, Sony shows that it is paying close attention to the wants and needs of beginning and budget-minded amateurs. Rather than increasing megapixel count over previous models, the company has focused on size, ease of use, and system affordability. The new models are indeed smaller, lighter, and less complicated. In rethinking and restyling them (handsomely we must say) Sony has moved nearly all the control buttons to the right of the LCD screen. Every one of them is in reach of the right thumb.

To further simplify matters, the screen in the Alpha 330 (and new Alpha 380) can be tilted more than before, for higher and lower angles in Live View mode. The screens display scaled sliders to clarify the effect of changes in f-stop and shutter speed-the f-stop slider has a sharp mountain icon on its small end and a blurry one on the wide end, while the shutter speed slider has a static figure on its slower end and a running figure on the faster. The screen is brighter, too, and adjusts to ambient light for better image readability. (You can make the menu's background pink or brown if black or white don't suit, and the camera itself is available in copper brown.)

We choose the 10.2-megapixel Alpha 330 rather than the less-expensive companion Alpha 230 or the Alpha 380 because the former has no tilting screen and the latter has higher (14.2-megapixel) resolution that costs more but may not make much visible difference to the typical user. The savings can be spent on a second lens from these cameras' new companion optics, which are based on the same user-friendly agenda as the bodies. The 30mm f/2.8 macro, for example, accesses the fun-loving world of close- up photography for less than $200, far cheaper than other good macros.

Quick Facts:

  • 10.2 MEGAPIXELS/CCD IMAGE SENSOR

  • 1.5X FOV CROP

  • 2.7-INCH tiltingTILTING LCD

  • IMAGE STABILIZATION: IN-BODY

  • TOP ISO: 3,200

  • LIVE VIEW: YES (from secondary sensor)

  • VIDEO: NO

  • ABOUT $650 (with 18-55mm kit lens)

Canon EOS Rebel T1i

Canon's new top-tier Digital Rebel looks just like the 12.2-megapixel Rebel XSi, last year's Entry-Level D-SLR of the Year. But the T1i borrows the 15.1-megapixel image sensor found in the more advanced EOS 50D, which gives it the highest resolution in this class. The camera is also tops for low-light shooting because of better microlenses and DIGIC 4 processing-a one-two that gives it a three-stop boost in sensitivity over the XSi, to a night-loving ISO 12,800. The new processor even lets you set three levels of high-ISO noise reduction.

At 3.4fps the T1i is slightly slower than the XSi, but it ups bursts to nine RAW frames. Its nine-point AF, same as in the XSi, remains the fastest among its peers in achieving focus lock, though its focus tracking is less savvy than the Nikon D5000's. What's new are a super-sharp 920,000-dot LCD screen and fully interactive Quick Control interface, a Rebel first. But the most significant new feature on the Rebel T1i, similar to that in the semi-pro EOS 5D Mark II, is its ability to shoot high-definition video. In its 30fps, 720p (1280x720-pixel) mode we judged it to be smoother than the 24fps Nikon D5000. (It also does 1080p at 20fps.) There's no manual exposure or focus tracking, but as with other video-capable D-SLRs the T1i offers big advantages over conventional camcorders-including better low-light quality and the ability to achieve beautifully shallow depth of field.

Quick Facts:

  • 15.1 MEGAPIXELS/CMOS IMAGE SENSOR

  • 1.6X FOV CROP

  • 3.0-INCH LCD (920K dots)

  • IMAGE STABILIZATION: IN-LENS

  • TOP ISO: 12,800

  • 3.4FPS

  • LIVE VIEW: YES

  • VIDEO: 1080p HD

  • ABOUT $800

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