Holiday 2012: Entry Level DSLR Cameras
A DSLR is a step up for photographers looking to gain more control over the way they create images, as well as providing greater versatility and expansion for their future photographic endeavors. Serving as the contemporary progression from traditional film-based SLR cameras, a DSLR is a digital single lens reflex camera, meaning it utilizes a single lens for organizing light to reach the viewfinder, via the use of a reflex mirror, and the digital sensor. This simple construction allows for a greater range of accessories and gives you the ability to select an ideal lens for your situation.
Due to the larger size of these cameras, in comparison to point and shoots and mirrorless cameras, they also provide a generally larger sensor for producing greater image quality and more control of the focus plane in your images. The entry-level DSLRs featured here are the smallest of this type, providing a relatively compact form factor with minimal weight. They also tend to support a number of features that enable novices to achieve ideal exposures, without needing to have an overarching knowledge of how to manually control exposure settings. At the same time, however, they all support manual control of settings, which makes an entry-level DSLR an affordable backup or secondary camera for professionals, or for those who already own another camera.
Canon’s entry-level DSLRs are all members of the EOS Rebel series, and feature APS-C-sized sensors and lightweight construction for an attuned combination of performance and convenience. The most economical of their offerings is the Canon EOS Rebel T3, which comes bundled with the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II lens. This camera features a 12.2-megapixel sensor and DIGIC 4 image processor for producing clean, sharp imagery at a versatile resolution for everyday applications. It supports HD video recording up to 1280 x 720/30p and has a sensitivity range from ISO 100 to 6400. The included lens is equivalent to about a 28-90mm lens in 35mm format, giving you a fairly versatile range of focal lengths. It also features optical image stabilization, which helps to reduce the effects of camera shake that can become increasingly noticeable when photographing at longer zoom lengths.
The next step up for Canon is the EOS Rebel T3i. The T3i is a noticeable progression from the T3, improving upon certain technologies while maintaining those that have proven to be successful. The T3i features an 18 megapixel APS-C-sized sensor that is combined with a DIGIC 4 image processor for high image quality, reduced image noise levels and an expanded sensitivity up to ISO 12800. This camera also improves upon its predecessor by supporting full HD video recording up to 1080p resolution at 30, 25 or 24 frames per second. When recording video, you are able to utilize Movie Digital Zoom in order to magnify the center of your image by 3 to 10 times in order to extend the effective range of your lens. For recording fast-moving subjects, you can shoot either 6 consecutive RAW files or 34 JPEGS, at a rate of up to 3.7 fps. The T3i also integrates a 3.0” Vari-angle Clear View LCD monitor with 1,040k-dot resolution, which aids tremendously in shooting at high or low angles, as well as self-portraits. The T3i is available as a body only, in addition to two kits featuring either an EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II lens or an EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens. The 18-55mm lens is the same lens featured in the T3 kit, whereas the longer zoom range of the 18-135mm lens, equivalent to approximately 28-215mm in 35mm format, can capture images from even greater distances.
The newest addition to the Rebel series is the EOS Rebel T4i, which again, noticeably improves upon the founding technologies of the Rebel series and caters more to contemporary image making with its enhanced video features. Similar to the T3i, the T4i features an 18 megapixel APS-C-sized CMOS sensor, but at its heart is the newer DIGIC 5 image processor. This new image processor provides even greater speed and performance to all camera features and contributes to improved noise reduction and overall image quality. It has a greater native sensitivity range, ISO 100-12800, which is then expandable to ISO 25600. A continuous shooting rate of up to 5 fps permits recording fast-moving subjects, while a 9-point all cross-type AF system maintains critical focus at quick speeds.
An improved 3.0” Vari-angle 1,040k-dot touch screen LCD works in conjunction with the autofocus system, too, by allowing you to touch the point on which you wish to focus. The touch-screen navigation also allows you to easily navigate menus, view and scan through images and release the shutter during live view. In regard to HD video, the T4i supports a range of formats up to full HD 1080/30p and is the first Rebel camera to allow fully manual exposure control while recording. Also further separating the T4i’s video performance is the integration of Movie Servo AF, which allows for full-time continuous autofocusing and subject tracking while recording video. Manual audio level adjustment can be done across 64 different levels, and the use of auxiliary microphones is also possible via the 3.5mm microphone jack. Another new feature introduced with the T4i is compatibility with Canon’s new STM lenses, which feature an integrated stepping motor for quick, quiet focusing that is especially beneficial when recording movies. The T4i is available in a kit with an EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens, which enables you to take advantage of its ability to achieve quieter autofocusing. The camera is also available with the same EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens as the other Rebel bodies.
Nikon also offers three different options for entry-level DSLRs, all of which include an APS-C-sized (referred to in Nikon parlance as "DX"-sized) CMOS sensor, lightweight construction and the ability to record full HD 1080p video. The first step in their lineup is the D3100, which is available with either an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR AF-S DX NIKKOR lens or in a kit with both the 18-55mm lens and the 55-200mm f/4-5.6G IF-ED AF-S DX NIKKOR lens. The 18-55mm lens is equivalent to a 27-82.5mm lens in 35mm format, and features the Nikon VR vibration reduction system to reduce the effects of camera movement. The 55-200mm lens is equivalent to an 82.5-300mm lens in 35mm format, giving you a long telephoto zoom that also integrates the VR system to aid in capturing sharper imagery. The D3100 has a 14.2-megapixel sensor, which is combined with the EXPEED 2 image processor for highly detailed, clear imagery and a sensitivity range up to ISO 3200 (expandable to ISO 12800).
The D3100 has a built-in HDMI port for streaming your videos directly to an HD television. Image review and playback can also be accomplished on the 3.0” LCD monitor. In-camera image editing, six automatic exposure scene modes and picture control allow you to apply creative image enhancements in a simple, direct manner without the need of post-production time on your computer. The D3100 also incorporates a helpful Guide Mode, which helps to familiarize novices and first-time users with certain camera features and how to best obtain the results you desire.
The successor to the D3100, and the newest entry-level DSLR from Nikon, is the D3200. The D3200 greatly improves upon resolution with the addition of a 24.2-megapixel sensor, which when combined with a newer EXPEED 3 processor, enables a native sensitivity up to ISO 6400 (also expandable to ISO 12800). Helping you make better photographs more easily, the D3200 utilizes a 420-pixel RGB sensor in conjunction with the imaging sensor to enhance detection of the type of situation in which you are photographing, and then apply the proper exposure and focus settings to most clearly capture the scene. This includes face and subject tracking for portraiture and action photography, as well as different light types and lighting scenarios to help best expose your subject matter.
For fast-moving subject matter, you can record up to 4 fps in continuous shooting mode to help ensure critical focus and increase the chances of capturing the ideal angle. Full HD video capture is possible, up to 1080p, with full-time autofocus and manual exposure control, and there is a stereo mini jack available for use with an external microphone for improved sound quality. For playback and review of your images and HD video, the built-in 3.0” LCD provides a wide 160 º viewing angle and apt 921k-dot resolution for clear representations of your subjects. The D3200 is also compatible with the optional WU-1a Wireless Mobile Adapter, which enables connectivity between your camera and smart phone or tablet. This wireless adapter allows you to instantly share images between devices and also gives you the ability to remotely view and take images from your wireless device. Available in either black or red, the D3200 comes bundled with the same 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR AF-S DX NIKKOR lens available with the D3100.
The final camera available from Nikon is the D5100, which integrates a 16.2-megapixel sensor along with an EXPEED 2 image processor for clear, detailed images and video. The D5100 has a sensitivity range from ISO 100 to 6400, which is then expandable to ISO 25600. An 11-point autofocus system helps to maintain critical focus, including moving subjects, and also contributes to the Scene Recognition System for attaining the precise exposure settings in almost any situation.
For creative applications, there is a host of special effects built into the camera, including in-camera HDR, which allow you to modify the look and feel of your imagery directly in-camera. These effects can be viewed in real time when using live view on the 3.0” Vari-angle 921k-dot LCD. This LCD can open horizontally from 0-180º, and then pivot up and down from +180º to -90º; greatly improving viewing from high and low angles, as well as when recording self-portraits. Full HD 1080p video recording is also supported, as well as an optional external stereo microphone for improved sound quality. The D5100 is available as a body only or in a kit with the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR AF-S DX NIKKOR lens as found with the other entry-level Nikon DSLRs.
The one entry-level DSLR offering from Pentax is the K-30. This camera features a 16.3 megapixel APS-C-sized CMOS imaging sensor that is coupled with the PRIME M image processor for smooth imagery as well as a reduction in chromatic aberrations and energy consumption. It has a sensitivity range from 100-12800, which is further expandable to ISO 25600 for enhanced low light and shake-free imagery. The sensor is endowed with sensor-shift technology, which provides in-camera image stabilization as well as dust reduction to aid in cleaner imagery. Also greatly contributing to the imaging quality, the K-30 features the Advanced SAFOX IXi+ autofocus system for accurate focusing in a variety of lighting situations. When working in live view on the 3.0” 921k-dot LCD, focus peaking can also be used to help determine critical focusing more objectively, which is especially beneficial while recording full HD 1080p video. For capturing still images of moving subjects, a 6 fps continuous shooting rate and maximum shutter speed of 1/6000 second help to isolate subject matter and provide a higher probability of capturing the crucial moment.
Aside from imaging performance alone, the K-30 is also built with durability and functionality in mind. The body construction is completely water and dust resistant, enabling you to photograph in some of the harshest conditions without worrying about whether or not your camera is safe. It is also cold proof down to 14ºF, making it compatible with snowy or icy situations. Additionally, contributing to its ability to perform in rough conditions, the K-30 is able to accept widely and readily-available AA batteries as a power source (when used in conjunction with the optional AA battery holder).
The K-30 is available in a number of configurations depending on your needs. As a body only, it is available in black, blue or white. There are kits available with a standard 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AL zoom lens; these kits are also available with a black, blue or white body. This lens provides a 35mm equivalent focal length of 27-82.5mm, giving you an ample zoom range for most medium-distance situations. For even greater versatility with lenses, there are also kits available that add a 50-200mm f/4-5.6 AL lens (equivalent to 75-300mm in 35mm format). The two-lens kits are again available with a black, blue or white body.
Another kit that pairs the standard 18-5mm lens with a telephoto is available; however, this kit includes an even longer 55-300mm f/4-5.8 AL telephoto lens, providing a 35mm equivalent focal length of 82.5-450mm. This kit is only available with a black body. The final camera body and lens kit available includes the smc DA 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 ED AL (IF) DC WR lens. This high-quality telephoto zoom lens has a 35mm equivalent focal length of 27-202.5mm and features an SDM motor for smoother, quieter autofocusing. It also features an smc coating, which helps to improve light transmission and contrast, and an SP (Super Protective) coating to make the front element more water and oil resistant and easier to clean. This kit is also only available with a black body.
Sony’s inclusions to the entry-level DSLR field are slight misnomers in that they are not true DSLRs. These two offerings both incorporate Sony’s unique Translucent Mirror Technology, which enables the mirror to simultaneously direct light to both the imaging and focusing sensors. Since the mirror does not have to move in order to record imagery, it allows for full-time, continuous phase detection autofocusing while shooting still imagery or video. The Translucent Mirror Technology also affords these cameras the inclusion of an electronic viewfinder for eye-level monitoring, which supports information display and previsualizing of exposure settings. Sony’s DSLRs also incorporate SteadyShot INSIDE technology, which places the image stabilization function in the camera body and allows all paired lenses to be stabilized for increasing the probability of blur-free imagery.
The Alpha SLT-A37 incorporates a 16.1 megapixel Exmor HD APS-C-sized CMOS sensor and BIONZ processing engine to aid with fast 7 fps continuous shooting and clear image quality with an expanded sensitivity range up to ISO 16000, which can be even further extended to ISO 25600 when working with Multi Frame NR mode. The focusing system benefits from the Translucent Mirror Technology and utilizes 15 points, including 3 cross-type points, for acquiring precise focus quickly. The A37 supports full HD video recording up to 1080/60i in the AVCHD codec, as well as 1080/30p in the more Internet-friendly MP4 format. Also incorporated is a 2.7” tiltable LCD, providing greater viewing ability when shooting at high or low angles. The SLT-A37 is available in two kits with zoom lenses: either an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens (equivalent to 27-82.5mm in 35mm format) or an 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 lens (equivalent to 27-202.5mm in 35mm format). Sony’s SAM (Smooth AF motor) is incorporated into both of these lenses, offering quiet, fluid focus movements.
The other entry-level DSLR from Sony is the Alpha SLT-A57, which more closely straddles the boundary between entry-level and intermediate. This camera also includes a 16.1 megapixel Exmor HD APS-C-sized CMOS sensor and BIONZ image processor, which contribute to high image quality and extremely fast performance. Also similar to the A37, the 15-point autofocus system with three cross-type points has been carried over for quick, continuous and accurate focusing. The A57 is capable of recording up to 10 full-resolution frames per second, or 12 fps when shooting at a cropped 8.4MP resolution. Full HD video recording is supported up to 1080/60p or 24p in the AVCHD format, or at 1080/30p in the MP4 format. Several imaging functions are incorporated, helping you to gain more consistent, accurate exposures or also to creatively modify your images directly in-camera. Auto Portrait Framing will automatically detect the subject in your image of a person, then aesthetically crop the image based on the rule of thirds, and apply enhancements to make your subjects look their best. 3D Sweep Panorama is also available, which will record both right- and left-eye images that are then composited into an MPO file for viewing on a 3D-enabled television. This camera includes a 3.0” 921k-dot tilt/swivel LCD, as well as a 0.46” Xtra Fine EVF with 1,440k-dot resolution, for enhanced viewing capabilities. The SLT-A57 is available as a body only, or in two separate kits with lenses: either the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens or the 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 lens.
Any of the aforementioned cameras is a more-than-able tool for most general photographic purposes, especially in regard to novices and newcomers to photography. These cameras still allow for control and performance without the intimidation factor inherent to many higher-end DSLRs. They feature numerous technologies and functions to help maintain consistent exposures and best represent the scene you're photographing. While these cameras are certainly geared for those just learning or looking for a more simple way to record imagery, they also certainly have value in the hands of an experienced photographer as a secondary or back-up camera that can still produce excellent imagery at a fraction of the cost of most professional-level cameras.