This month, four eagerly awaited cameras all hit the market with a big ole thud: Canon's EOS Digital Rebel XSi, Sony's Alpha a350, Nikon's D60 and Olympus' E-420. They are not all evenly matched on paper, as you will see, and they certainly vary in price. But what's different about them, really? They are all aimed at people who wake up one morning and realize their point-and-shoot's pics are pretty crappy, people who don't consider themselves photographers but wouldn't mind spending a little money (under $1,000) to put those high-school photography lessons to practice with a decent body-and-lens kit. I decided to fiddle around with the four hottest new entry-level DSLRs and see what I could see.
The Weigh In As you can see, there's a wide range. I'm not saying weight is everything, but being the heaviest (by a lot) doesn't help the Sony.
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On Paper Before we get into each camera's capabilities, have a look at their specs. Cameras are arranged in order of price, from cheap to pricey. You can see how it's easy to fall in love with the lower-priced models. But in action, you statt to realize why the pricing is so slanted.
1600 ISO and Auto White Balance In these shots, you can judge two things. First, some cameras have noisier high-ISO results than others (cough*Olympus*cough), and second, that auto white balance isn't the easiest thing to master. (I'm talking about you, Nikon.) Fortunately, two cameras do both reasonably well:
Action Shots in "P" Automatic Mode Some of you have beef with me complaining that some DSLRs have lousy automatic settings, but the truth is, great DSLRs do damn well on auto, so it's a way to separate the good from the bad. Here you can see from a quick session with all four cameras that getting a clean shot of a moving cat in low light isn't always possible:
Note the Nikon's shot: The cat is squinting because of the auto-focus lamp that goes on before the shot—generally annoying when trying to capture kids and pets in their natural states.
Full Manual Shooting
Here's what happens when I try to take the same or similar shots with the different cameras, using more or less the same manual settings. (The above shot was from the Sony Alpha a350.)
Daffodils: Low f-stop, medium shutter speed, handheld
Dawn: Medium f-stop, fast shutter speed, handheld
Creek: High f-stop, slow shutter speed, tripod
THE END RESULT
Canon EOS Digital Rebel XSi - First Place
What I Liked It's an all around decent camera, much lighter in weight than the Sony but with most of the same performance. The cheap starter lens, which you may scoff at, gives it an added weight bonus, making it lighter than all but the Olympus.
What I Didn't Like Live View is limited, or you might even say crippled. You can't preview autofocus—I'm not even sure the autofocus works very well in this mode. In the manual, Canon concedes that this is really for still life shooting and other limited applications. Also, for being $150 to $170 more than the Nikon, it's more or less the same class of camera, especially for manual shooting.
Sony Alpha a350 - Second Place
What I Liked All around intuitive camera with impressive automatic modes, a Live View that can demonstrate a lot, and solid control for people who know more. It's got the teaching ability of the Olympus with the picture reliability of the Canon. Although the a350 with 14-megapixel sensor is not as good a buy as the Canon at the same price, I think the nearly identical $700 a300 kit might be the best value of all right now.
What I Didn't Like The thing is giant, especially with the 16-80mm lens I tested. (The a300 is the same size and weight, by the way.) In Live View, I noticed from time to time that white balance on preview was different than what came out in the shot, which was annoying. The worst attribute, though, is the exceptional processing delay after you take each shot.
Nikon D60 - Third Place
What I Liked There's a keep-it-simple design here that works: not many hidden frills, but many nice clear options. I think for the money, this is the best idea for knowledgable, confident shooters, though it's not the best bet for beginners. I like one rare random perk in particular, the stop-motion video maker.
What I Didn't Like Simple means no frills like Live View previewing that the other models have. Though it's very handy when done right, like on the Olympus, it can also be done badly. Judging from Canon's execution, I can see why Nikon didn't bother. I have two particular pet peeves with the Nikon: Low-light autofocus triggers a very bright AF lamp, which makes pets and children go all squinty, and the auto white balance makes things too yellow indoors, and can't be overridden when in automatic modes.
Olympus E-420 - Fourth Place
What I Liked Besides the remarkably low price, I think this camera has the capacity to teach you a lot about manual settings because of the Live View. Like the Sony, this shows you the effects of your WB, exposure, f-stop and shutter settings in a live preview as you make them. Oly has this down, and was the one that started it all.
What I Didn't Like The lightweight camera is missing a lot of strong tech: the ISO 1600 is noisy, autofocus doesn't respond nearly quick enough, and shooting in automatic modes turns up blurry and unfortunate shots.
There you have it, folks. I've tried to include enough of my methodology to let you judge this stuff for yourselves. Surely there's a lot to talk about, including the obligatory "body vs. glass" debate. I agree that lenses make a difference, but with new DSLR advancements, the bodies are starting to have a greater impact on how well people take pictures. You may know it all, but any one of these cameras can help the ignorant noob more than anything that came before. OK, that's my take... you have the floor.
Update: Check out our DSLR Battlemodo follow-up, which answers some of the questions raised in the comments below.