Holiday 2012: Intermediate-Level DSLR Cameras

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An intermediate DSLR is what its name implies, a camera that falls between entry-level and professional-level DSLRs. While this is generally true, it should not necessarily imply that an intermediate camera is unable to produce images similar in quality to professional cameras, or that it cannot be used to its maximum potential by a novice photographer. The main advantages of an intermediate camera over an entry-level one include a greater range of control over exposure settings, more robust construction, greater low-light sensitivity and a more powerful image-processing system—resulting in even cleaner, more detailed imagery than one would get using an entry-level DSLR.


Canon

The Canon EOS 60D sits in the middle of Canon's DSLR lineup and fluently bridges the gap between their professional-grade cameras and their EOS Rebel series. This camera features an 18 megapixel APS-C-sized CMOS sensor, paired with the DIGIC 4 image processor, for immensely detailed images rich in tonality. The DIGIC 4 processor blends 14-bit signal processing with overall speed for smooth gradations within imagery as well as an expanded sensitivity range up to ISO 12800 and a continuous shooting rate of up to 5.3 full-resolution frames per second. For video work, the 60D supports full HD 1080/30p recording and allows for manual exposure control, both manual and auto audio adjustment and permits the use of external stereo microphones for greater sound quality. Live view monitoring and image review can be done on the 3.0” 1,040k-dot Vari-Angle Clear View monitor, which noticeably improves low- and high-angle viewing, as well as self-portraiture. For exposure metering and autofocusing capabilities, the 60D integrates a 63-zone Dual-layer sensor that works in conjunction with the 9-point autofocus system to acquire both measurements in a more precise fashion.

The 60D is available as a body only, or in a kit with either an EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens or an EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens. These lenses are equivalent to a 28.8-216mm or 28.8-320mm lens in 35mm format, respectively, and both feature built-in optical image stabilization for reducing the effects of camera shake. The 60D is also available in modified form, known as the EOS 60Da, for astrophotography. The 60Da features a modified IR cut filter in order to gain greater sensitivity to infrared light and achieve hydrogen-alpha light transparency. By modifying the IR cut filter, you are able to photograph reddish, diffuse nebulae and other astronomical phenomena more clearly, devoid of the infrared attenuation associated with traditional IR blocking filters incorporated into most digital cameras.

Nikon

Nikon’s intermediate offerings include two DSLRs, both of which incorporate APS-C-sized (DX) sensors, HD video capabilities and intelligent scene recognition systems for acquiring consistent, accurate exposures and focusing. 

The D90 features a 12.3 megapixel CMOS sensor and EXPEED image processor for clear, detailed imagery at a versatile resolution for both print and online photography. The sensor/processor combination also contributes to the sensitivity range of ISO 200-3200 (expandable to ISO 6400) and the continuous shooting rate of up to 4.5 full-resolution frames per second. The D90 gained notoriety when released because it was the first DSLR to incorporate HD video capabilities, and it does so at 720p with an HDMI output for direct viewing on HD televisions. Playback and live view monitoring is done on the 921k-dot 3.0” LCD with a wide 170º viewing angle. The D90 is available as a body only or in a kit with an 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S DX NIKKOR lens. This lens is equivalent to a 27-157.5mm in 35mm format, giving a wide-to-telephoto zoom range that has the benefit of the VR vibration reduction system and AF-S silent wave motor for quieter, more controlled focusing.

The D7000 takes many of the pioneering features of the D90 and refines them into a more well-rounded camera, starting with the 16.2 megapixel CMOS sensor and improved EXPEED 2 image processor. This combination affords greater resolution and overall speed, including the ability to shoot up to six full-resolution frames per second for up to 100 consecutive frames. A sensitivity range from ISO 100-6400 is expandable to ISO 25600, and the Active D-Lighting and noise reduction afforded by the processing results in clear, balanced imagery even in difficult lighting situations. For recording high-definition video, the D7000 supports resolutions up to 1920 x 1080 at 24 frames per second. The use of an external stereo microphone is possible, as well as the ability to autofocus continuously and track your subjects while recording.

The autofocus system employs 39 individual points, 9 of which are cross type, for gaining critical focus more quickly. The autofocus system also works in conjunction with the 2,016-pixel RGB sensor that is used to help determine exposure settings, as well as the Scene Recognition system for determining the lighting conditions of your surroundings. When both of these systems work together, more accurate results in both realms are possible, leaving you with sharp, well-exposed imagery that can be further refined through in-camera image editing. This camera also asserts itself by featuring magnesium-alloy construction for increased durability and rigidity, while also providing for weather and dust prevention. The D7000 is available as a body only or in a kit with the same 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S DX NIKKOR lens as the D90 kit. Another kit bundles the D7000 body with an 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II AF-S DX NIKKOR lens (equivalent to 27-300mm in 35mm format), a 16GB memory card and a carrying case.

Pentax

Pentax’s intermediate-level DSLR, the K-5 II, is the most recently released intermediate level DSLR and includes a number of improvements over its predecessor, the K-5. It incorporates a 16.3 megapixel CMOS sensor with integrated AD conversion for smooth, clear, detail-oriented imagery that is further benefitted by the in-camera Shake Reduction system, providing a reduction in the effects of camera movement with any compatible Pentax lens ever made. Also contributing to image sharpness is the 11-point SAFOX X autofocus system that is able to acquire focus easily in almost any situation, including very low-light settings. A sensitivity range of ISO 80-51200 also aids greatly in low-light capture, as well as allowing you to use extremely fast shutter speeds up to 1/8000 second in situations other than extremely bright locations. Up to 7 full-resolution frames per second capture is possible in continuous mode, ideal for fast-moving subjects and ensuring sharpness when shooting in a spontaneous manner. The K-5 II also supports full HD video recording at 1080p up to 25 fps, with sound being recorded with either a built-in stereo microphone or through the use of an optional external microphone. HD video can be output directly to an HD television through the HDMI port.

Similar to Pentax’s entry-level DSLR, the K-30, the K-5 II is fully weather sealed and protected against freezing temperatures, water, dust and other harsh conditions. A rigid, stainless-steel chassis that is covered by magnesium alloy for additional protection further reinforces its durability. The 3.0” 921k-dot LCD allows live view monitoring and playback, and features a scratch-resistant coating and air-gap-free construction for greater brightness and sharpness. The K-5 II is available as a body only, or in a kit with either an smc DA 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AL WR lens or an smc DA 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 ED AL (IF) DC WR lens. These lenses offer 35mm-equivalent focal lengths of 27-82.5mm or 27-202.5mm respectively, and both feature Pentax’s SDM System focus motor and SP (Super Protect) coating.

The K-5 II is also available in a more specialized version, the K-5IIs, which removes the anti-aliasing filter from its construction in order to provide even greater sharpness and image detail. An anti-aliasing filter is incorporated into most digital cameras to controllably scatter, or randomize, the light reaching the image sensor and help prevent moiré and color shifts, but at the cost of a slight reduction in sharpness. By removing this filter, more sharpness is attainable, but you do need to be more conscientious of the subjects you are photographing and have more control over the lighting in order to prevent moiré and aliasing in your images. The K-5IIs is ideal for photographers who shoot primarily in RAW and are accustomed to post-production work for handling moiré and other anomalies that are the consequence of the lack of an anti-aliasing filter.

Olympus

The Olympus E-5, available as a body only, features a slightly smaller image sensor than others in the intermediate DSLR range, but does compensate for this fact by offering wide compatibility with a large range of lenses. The 12.3 megapixel Live-MOS Four Thirds sensor works in tandem with the TruePic V+ image processor to produce sharp imagery, wide dynamic range and low-light sensitivity up to ISO 6400. The sensor and processor are complemented by in-camera image stabilization, providing up to 5 stops of camera-shake compensation and a Super Sonic Wave Filter self-cleaning system for maintaining clarity and cleanliness for all images. Also helping to keep E-5 images sharp, is an integrated 11-point High Precision Fully Twin Cross AF system, which employs cross-type AF points to ensure critical focus across the entire frame.

For viewing and review of images, a 3.0” 921k-dot swivel LCD is available, providing up to 270º of rotation for use at high or low angles. The E-5 is also able to capture high-definition video at 720p, for up to 30 fps, with manual exposure capabilities during recording. Creative effects, or Art Filters, can be applied to both HD video and still images and include modes such as Pop Art, Soft Focus, Pin Hole, Gentle Sepia and Cross Process, among others. For greater versatility, the E-5 also accepts both CompactFlash and SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards via the dual memory card slot.

The E-5 is compatible with a wide range of Four Thirds-mount lenses, making this camera an ideal step up or alternative for existing mirrorless system users. Its magnesium-alloy construction and splash and dust resistance also contribute to the versatility of this camera.

Sigma

Sigma’s SD15 DSLR features a unique 14 megapixel CMOS image sensor called the Foveon X3. This sensor differs from others in that its structure vertically stacks the light-receiving photodiodes into three distinct layers—one for red, one for green and one for blue—rather than the typical Bayer arrangement which places RGB-sensitive photodiodes in a patterned arrangement on the same plane. This different arrangement results in a crisp, highly detailed image with true color fidelity. Also unique to this camera is that the infrared cut filter is located on the lens mount and is removable, allowing the option to record infrared imagery without having to permanently modify your camera. This removable IR filter also works as a dust protector, helping to maintain clean, consistent imagery. 

The SD15 also incorporates the TRUE II image processor for powerful processing and interpolation of the information gathered from the sensor, resulting in vivid imagery and a sensitivity range up to ISO 1600 (expandable to ISO 3200). A 77-segment AE sensor helps to provide highly accurate exposure metering by blanketing the scene and evaluating exposure values from all regions of the image field. In addition to the powerful imaging capabilities of the SD15, it also features a 3.0” 460k-dot rear LCD monitor for image review and playback; up to 3 fps continuous shooting rate; and a durable focal plane shutter that has been rated for more than 100,000 actuations. For ensuring stable, crisp imagery, there is also a mirror-lockup mode available in order to reduce blur caused by the movement of the mirror—especially noticeable when working in macro situations.

Sony

Sony features two intermediate-level DSLRs, both of which include Sony’s Translucent Mirror Technology. This unique technology keeps the mirror in a fixed position and enabes it to simultaneously direct light to both the image sensor and focusing sensor, allowing full-time continuous phase detection autofocusing while shooting. This technology also adds an OLED electronic viewfinder, as opposed to the traditional optical viewfinder, for displaying image information and previsualizing exposure settings in real time with vivid clarity.

The Alpha SLT-A65 makes use of the Translucent Mirror Technology and incorporates a 24.3 megapixel Exmor HD APS-C-sized CMOS sensor and BIONZ image processor for fast performance and high image quality in both still and moving images. The sensor and processor combination affords low-light sensitivity up to ISO 16000, which is further complemented by imaging features such as Handheld Twilight mode and Multi-frame NR for reducing overall noise and allowing blur-free imagery in difficult conditions. The A65 is capable of recording full HD video up to 1920 x 1080 resolution, at 60i, 60p or 24p frame rates. Video can be recorded in either the high-quality AVCHD codec, or the more Internet-friendly MP4 format. Additionally, continuous still images can be recorded up to 10 full-resolution frames per second with constant autofocus during the shooting burst. In addition to speed and imaging performance, the A65 includes a 3.0” 921k-dot TruBlack tilatable LCD for enhanced viewing in bright conditions as well as when photographing from high or low angles.

The SLT-A65 is available as a body only, or bundled with either an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens or an 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. The 35mm equivalents of these lenses are 27-82.5mm and 27-202.5mm respectively, and both integrate Sony’s SAM (Smooth Autofocus motor) for fluid focus movements.

Sony’s other intermediate DSLR, the Alpha SLT-A77, carries over much of the same technology as the A65 but adds a few notable refinements for greater functionality and faster performance. The A77 includes the same 24.3 megapixel Exmor HD APS-C-sized CMOS sensor, BIONZ image processor, and Translucent Mirror technology as the A65. With this similar technology in mind, the A77 improves upon this by increasing the maximum continuous shooting rate to 12 full-resolution frames per second and refines the autofocus system by adding an additional 4 AF points, totaling 19 with 11 cross-type, for even greater precision and subject tracking. The maximum shutter speed has been increased, too, and allows for high-speed capture up to 1/8000-second. The A77 also features a more robust build quality, due to the magnesium-alloy body and weather-sealed ports, doors and controls.

The A77 is also available as a body only, bundled with the same 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 lens as the A65 kit, or with a 16-50mm f/2.8 lens (equivalent to 24-75mm in 35mm format).

The intermediate level DSLRs create a wider breadth of options to consider, compared to the entry-level choices, but still offer welcoming solutions and options for most shooting applications. At this level, it is important to consider the types of photography you are most interested in, and pair a suitable camera to best match those qualities. All cameras at this level offer superb image quality and features to help you attain the best exposure and focus possible. However, some are better situated for a slower or faster-paced workflow. Regardless of choice, it can be said that every camera here is capable of producing impressive imagery—the decision should be more in line with which features fit best according to the subject matter you will be photographing most.