The B&H 2009 Holiday Buyer's Guide
Going by the specs, it seems most any entry-level DSLR is capable of capturing sharp, full-toned stills, and in some cases, equally impressive HD video. And while 1 or 2 of the current crop of entry-range DSLRs can capture upwards of 4-plus frames-per-second, most capture a more modest 2-3 frames-per-second, which for some shooters isn't spunky enough.
A closer look at the numbers also indicates that stepping up to mid-range DSLRs often also means you're stepping up to quicker autofocus, often with more focusing points (and more cross-type focusing points) arranged in a more sophisticated grid. The metering system is often more precise too, especially under challenging lighting situations. From a tactile point-of-view, mid-range DSLRs have a beefier feel, add a tad more weight in your hand, and contain measurably more metal alloy and less polycarbonate materials compared to entry-level DSLRs. The degree of weatherproofing and overall ruggedness is also better overall in the mid-range cameras.
Like the imaging sensors in entry-level DSLRs, mid-range DSLRs contain APS-C format sensors, which are 50% (1.5x) smaller (23.6 x 15.8mm) than a standard 35mm negative (24x36mm), or in the case of Canon, APS-C sensors that are 60% (1.6x) smaller (22.2 x 14.8mm).
Depending on the camera model and whether Mars, Venus, and Jupiter are in alignment, 'similar' sensors used in same-brand entry-level and mid-range DSLRs may or may not be the same. In other words, the 10.2Mp sensor used in so-and-so's $499 DSLR may not be the same as the 10.2Mp sensor used in so-and-so's $999 DSLR.
But then again, it might be the same sensor powered by a faster and/or upgraded image processor (or in the case of Canon's EOS 7D, dual image processors), and possibly with a larger buffer for capturing longer and/or faster bursts of images. Another feature common to mid-range DSLRs is the ability to capture images at higher bit-rates (14-bit versus the 12-bit capture found on entry-level consumer cameras) for expanded dynamic range, which results in richer color, tone, and finer detail in the shadows, highlights, and mid-tone areas.
The viewing systems on entry-level DSLRs are not as bright or easy to use for manual focus compared to mid-range models because the lesser-priced cameras rely on less-expensive pentamirror reflex housings instead of the more efficient, all-glass pentaprisms used in mid-range models. Many mid-range cameras also allow you to see more of the total image (up to 100%) compared to entry-range models (95-98% of the total image area).
The resolving power of the LCDs on mid-range DSLRs also tends to be higher (up to 920,000-dots) compared to entry-range models (230,000-dots, occasionally 420,000-dots). The higher the dot-count, the easier it is to decipher the details when reviewing images, especially when shooting close-up at wider apertures or focusing manually in Live Mode.
All mid-range DSLRs shoot JPEGS, RAW, or RAW+JPEG and record these images to SD/SDHC and/or CompactFlash cards. And depending on your preferences, each of these mid-range cameras offers you the option of shooting to sRGB or Adobe RGB color spaces. Most of these cameras also allow you to shoot at shutter speeds up to 1/8000th-second, making it easier to shoot 'wide open' for narrow, selective focus under the brightest of daylight.
A closer look at the specs will often reveal why you're paying more for what at first glance might appear to be the same bill of goods in a larger, fancier package. And to save time and space, please note each of the camera's listed below contain advanced dust control systems.
An additional factor that should be taken into consideration when choosing the best camera for your needs is how it feels in your hands. Do the camera's size, shape, and weight distribution complement the size and shape of your hand? Is the camera too heavy for you? Too light for you? Are the controls and miscellaneous function buttons positioned sensibly? And don't forget the menus. Are they sensibly laid out, easy to decipher, and formatted for easy use while shooting?
Keep in mind, our brains are all wired differently and process information differently; consequently there are tactile and perceptive details about one camera over another that might make your nerve endings tingle, but not necessarily the nerve endings of the person sitting next to you.
Nikon offers two distinctly different mid-range DSLRs, the Nikon D90 and the D300s. The D90 and D300s feature 12.3Mp DX-format (APS-C) CMOS sensors along with the advantages of an EXPEED image processor. Both cameras are also compatible with most all Nikon standard AF-S and DX-format optics.
The Nikon, the first DSLR to offer HD (720p) video capture, is only a hairbreadth larger and a few ounces heavier than Nikon's entry-range D3000 and D5000 and it more than justifies the price of admission. Available as a body only or in kit form with an image stabilized 18-105mmDX VR lens, the D90 contains a 12.3Mp DX (APS-C) format CMOS sensor for capturing sharp stills and 720p HD video. Other features found on the D90 include still burst rates up to 4.5 frames-per-second, a top shutter-speed of 1/4000th-sec (1/200 flash sync), a 420-pixel Nikon 3D Color Matrix Metering II system with Scene Recognition, an 11-point AF system, in-camera image editing tools, a self-cleaning dust-removal system, a TTL pop-up flash, and ISO sensitivity up to 3200.
To optimize image detail when shooting video, the D90 features a D-Movie mode, which does for the image quality of your video what Nikon's D-Lighting mode does for stills. And along with an all-glass pentaprism (approx 96% view), the D90 features a hi-res (920,000-dot) LCD, which makes shooting in Live View or video mode manageable even under brighter viewing conditions. And as for response times, the D90 claims 0.15-millisecond start-up times and shutter lag times of under 65-miliseconds. The D90 records images onto SD memory cards.
The Nikon D300s is a bit heftier and tougher-to-the-feel compared to the D90. Available as a body only or with an 18-200mm Nikon VR II lens, the D300s features a 12.3Mp DX-format CMOS sensor, a 3" (921,000-dot) LCD, a 1005-pixel Nikon 3D Color Matrix Metering II system with Scene Recognition, an advanced 51-point Autofocus System, burst-rates up to 7 frames-per-second, a top shutter-speed of 1/8000th-sec (1/250th/1/320th flash sync), a TTL pop-up flash, and 100% viewfinder accuracy in a robust, dust and weather-resistant body.
Like the D90, the D300s also features Live View and 720p HD (@24 frames-per-second) video capability, though unlike the D90, the D300s can also record stereo sound using external mics via the camera's 3.5mm auxiliary stereo port.
Along with a variety of preset and custom shooting options, other neat features found on the D300s include a Virtual Horizon Graphic Range Indicator for maintaining range horizon lines, and up to 950 exposures per battery charge (up to 2950 exposures when used with the optional MB-D10 battery grip and also-optional EN-EL4a battery). As for memory, the D300s records images onto Type I CompactFlash cards.
Canon also offers two mid-range DSLRs - the Canon EOS 50D and the Canon EOS 7D. Both cameras contain APS-C format (1.6x) imaging sensors and are compatible with Canon EF and EF-S lenses.
The Canon EOS 50D, the more compact of the 2 cameras, contains a 15.1Mp APS-C format (1.6x) CMOS sensor powered by a DIGIC 4 image processor, and is capable of banging out up to 60 images at 6.3 frames-per-second. The 50D also features a 3" (920,000-dot) Clear View LCD, ISO ranges up to 3200 and expandable to ISO 12800, a 9 cross-type, wide-area AF system, a 35-zone metering system, Live View with Face Detection AF, an integrated dust-removal system, and an HDMI output for viewing images on HDTVs directly from the camera.
Along with JPEG, RAW, and RAW+JPEG, the 50D can also captures RAW files (and sRAW+JPEG), which allow you to squeeze more images onto your memory card while maintaining the advantages of shooting RAW. Another cool feature found on the 50D is a Lens Peripheral Illumination Correction setting for evening the light levels across the image field.
The Canon EOS 50D is constructed from rugged magnesium-alloy, is shock-, dust-, and weather-resistant, and is available as a body only, or in kit form with a choice of an EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens or an 18-200mm EF-S IS lens.
The Canon EOS 7D which contains an 18Mp APS-C format (1.6x) CMOS sensor, is one serious speed demon capable of capturing fast action stills under the lowest of lighting conditions as well as 1080p HD video with user-selectable exposure frame-rate controls.
Backed by dual DIGIC 4 image processors, the EOS 7D is capable of firing off up to 126 large JPEGs at up to 8 frames per second; and to better ensure sharp imagery, the 7D relies on a 19 cross-type focusing AF system and a 63-zone iFCL metering system. The bright, all-glass prism allows for 100% viewing area as does the camera's 3" (920,000-dot) LCD.
Other noteworthy features found on the Canon EOS 7D include weather-, dust-, and shock-resistant, magnesium-alloy construction, ISO levels expandable to 12,800, a top shutter-speed of 1/8000th (top sync 1/250th), a Lens Peripheral Illumination Correction setting for evening the light levels across the image field, and compatibility with over 60 Canon EF and EF-S optics.
The Canon EOS 7D records JPEGs, RAW, RAW+JPEG, as well as compressed sRAW, and mRAW file formats onto Type I & II CompactFlash (CF) cards. The EOS 7D is available as a body only or with a 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens.
The Pentax K7 is a very solid performer in a compact, well-designed body. Available as a body only or as a kit containing a DA 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 AL WR lens, the K7 features a 14.6 Mp APS-C format CMOS sensor powered by a Pentax PRIME II imager processor. Able to capture stills as JPEG or RAW at burst rates up to an impressive 40 JPEGs (or 15 RAW) at 5.2 frames per second, the K7 can also capture sharp 720P HD video @ 30 frames-per-second with mono sound, or stereo using an (optional) stereo mic via the K7's 3.5mm stereo input jack.
The K7's all-glass pentaprism allows for viewing 100% of the image area, ditto the camera's 3" (921,000-dot) LCD. The K7 contains an in-camera shake-reduction system, which enables sharper imaging using any lens you can fit onto the camera including older Pentax bayonet and screw-mount lenses via (optional) lens adapters.
A unique feature found on the K7 is the Composition Adjustment mode, which enables you to adjust the composition of the image 1mm in each direction vertically and horizontally, and 1° rotationally. This feature can come in handy when shooting in situations where physically adjusting the camera is difficult or downright impossible.
When shooting with Pentax D, FA, DA, DA Limited, and DA* optics, the K7's PRIME II image processor works to suppress lens distortions and lateral chromatic aberrations that might be present in your image files. Another noteworthy feature found on the K7 is a Dynamic Range Adjustment tool that allows you to select optimized settings for shadow and highlight details when shooting in contrasty lighting conditions, as well as HDR Image Capture, which rapidly captures 3 bracketed exposures, samples them, and in-camera, combines them into a single optimized image.
Top shutter-speed on the K7 is 1/8000th-sec (flash sync 1/180th-sec) and for studio shooters, the K7 features an honest-to-gosh PC sync terminal. There's also a user-selectable 11-point AF system, auto copyright embedding, Live View, and the ability to capture up to 980 images (or 440 minutes of video capture/playback) using the included lithium-ion battery. You can also use dual lithium-ion batteries or 6 AA batteries when using the (optional) Pentax D-BG4 battery grip, and there's an HDMI connector for playing back stills and video on compatible HD TV systems.
Sandwiched between Sony's entry-level DSLRs and their advanced, full-frame pro-series DSLRs is the Sony Alpha a550, which is available as a body only or in kit form with an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 DT AF lens. The Sony Alpha a550 contains a 14.2Mp APS-C format CMOS sensor, which-backed by a BIONZ image processor- is able to bang out JPEGs, RAW, or RAW+JPEG image files at up to 7 frames per second when shooting in Speed Priority Continuous Shooting mode (4 in Live View mode).
The Alpha a550's pentamirror reflex finder allows for a 95% view of the total image area. For 100% viewing, you can use the Alpha a550's tiltable 3" (921,600-dot) LCD, which can be adjusted up to 90° upward or downward.
To facilitate sharp low-light imagery, the Alpha a550 features SteadyShot INSIDE image stabilization that allows for up to a 4-stop advantage when shooting with all Sony and Minolta AF lenses. You also have the option of upping the ISO sensitivity to 12,800.
Other features found on the Sony Alpha a550 include an advanced Live View mode, a 9-point AF system, Eye-Start Focus, which kicks in the AF system as you raise the camera to your eye, an HDMI output jack, an on-camera Help Guide, which holds your hand from the comfort of the camera's LCD, 6 Scene and 6 Style modes, and upwards of 950 exposures per battery charge (480 in Live View mode).
The Sony Alpha a550 records images onto a choice of Memory Stick PRO Duo (or Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo) or SD/SDHC memory cards.
The Olympus E-620 is available as a body-only, or in kit-form with a 14-42mm zoom or with a 14-42mm and 40-150mm zoom lens. Designed around a 4/3-format 12.3Mp Live MOS imaging sensor, the E-620 is capable of capturing up to 4 frames per second in the form of JPEGs and/or RAW files.
Other features found on the Olympus E-620 include 5 metering modes (Digital ESP metering, center-weighted averaging metering, and 3 types of spot metering including shadow and highlight spot metering), Shadow Adjustment Technology, wireless electronic flash, in-camera image stabilization, multiple exposures, and a 7-point AF system with 5 cross-points.
For all you 'artsy types', the E-620 features 6 Art Filters (Pop Art, Soft Focus, Pale and Light Color, Grainy Film, Light Tone and Pin Hole Camera) and 12 Scene-Select modes including dual underwater modes (Saltwater or fresh water? Shark or kelp?). Regardless, the Olympus E-620 is fully compatible with all 4/3-format optics.
While compiling our list of mid-range DSLRs, several cameras raised discussion as per where they belong. One camera is the abovementioned Canon EOS 7D, which despite its mid-range price tag (and the fact it's more advanced in some ways than the pro-ranked 5D Mark II) is more than qualified for inclusion in a pro toolbox.
The other cameras are the Nikon D700, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, and Sony's Alpha a850. What separates these cameras from other equally-abled mid-range DSLRs is the fact these cameras are full-frame and as such are held in high regard by serious amateurs and pros alike. For many pros, these cameras play backup to their tougher/faster brethren, the Nikon D3-series and Canon 1D-series cameras, while for others, they also represent the opportunity to purchase two excellent full-frame DSLRs for the price of one top-gun camera.
That said, we will be reviewing the Nikon D700, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, and Sony Alpha a850 in our Pro-Level Buyers Guide.