Many a photographer has opted to replace an old silver based, SLR camera with a high-performance digital compact one. In doing this, they have high expectations of reducing bulkiness and weight, while conserving performance and versatility. Several hundreds of dollars later, the majority of them have found some satisfaction. The rest, however, the reflex fans, remain less than satisfied. While the technical specs are amazing, the camera does not live up to their expectations. They quickly realize the limitations of the 1/2.3” diagonal sensor and they slowly begin to regret their decision.
The Limits of Miniature Sensors
Reducing the size of an image sensor comes with a price, a high one at that, when it comes to image quality. The dynamic range (the ability to capture detail in high and low-level light) shrivels, like a dried prune. While the images have plenty of contrast, the bright zones stand out, due to their lack of texture. Although the depth of field is increased, this leads to a welldefined background, a nightmare for portraitists who would rather focus the attention on the model. The aperture sizes advertised, f/3.5, f/3.8, and even f/2, cannot change a thing: when you reduce the sensor size, the focal length dwindles, and, consequently, the depth of field extends to infinity. A => B => C. The laws of optical physics are universal.
As if that were not enough, compact cameras are slow to take a picture—they make a snail look mighty speedy. This almost generalized optical viewfinder defect is a flaw you have to live with, literally: in bright light you will often have to start from scratch and reframe a shot. Then there is the noise, which produces graininess; it is ever-present with even the slightest increase in the ISO setting. The incamera image correction (read “smoothing”) decreases this graininess, but it cannot recover details lost in the process.
Ouch! This is turning into a requiem for the slow-moving sensor camera. Don’t get too excited! I actually own a Canon Powershot SD780 IS. It’s practical and slides into the pocket of my leather jacket where it is under orders to keep out of sight. Far be it from me to ask too much of it. A compact camera cannot replace a reflex camera; period.
A Good Reflex
If you’re under the impression that you’re reading a perfect description of your troubles, perhaps it is time to take that next step. The world of the reflex is waiting for you, with open arms! In exchange for your film, it is ready to unlock your passion for picture taking. Don’t worry: reflex does not necessarily mean “mandatory manual controls”; reflex cameras on the market come with a plethora of automatic modes, created to help sim plify the task. I am not going to try and separate the wheat from the chaff here, but rather look at how each company has managed to find its niche in a cut-throat market where brand loyalty is less and less defendable.
Note: In determining our selection, we wanted to showcase cameras that might be of interest to advanced-amateur and semi-pro photographers. Therefore, our selection does not include high-end cameras and those models considered to be professional.
From the very beginning, Canon put its money on the CMOS sensor (Complementary Metal Oxide Semi – conductor), which has demonstrated its quality. History seems to have proven Canon right: Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony initially criticized the choice, but slowly (and silently) the others have come around. The Rebel T1i is quickly becoming the market leader, and rightly so: a lightning speed of 3.4 i/s with predictive autofocus that follows a moving subject, at this price, well done. It’s smaller and lighter than the XSi it has replaced, and is a perfect fit for the traveller or active person. Its analogue/digital converter has a 14-bit sample rate (rare for this price range) and it comes with Full HD (1920 x 1080 at 20 fps), which helps it stand out. The EOS 5D Mark II is also a standard on the market: it is focused on image quality and sharpness with its full- format 21-MP, 14-bit CMOS sensor. With its Full HD video mode and the quality of its 920,000- pixel LCD screen, the EOS 5D Mark II is aiming to redefine the standards of semiprofessional products.
The preferred brand of press photog raphers, Nikon remains a leader in reflex cameras, and the D700 is no exception. Its 12.1 MP, 14-bit CMOS sensor can rub shoulders with the best of them. You cannot take anything away from its ruggedness and manufacturing quality; just hold it and you’ll understand. Quick, with a particularly efficient shooting system (Nikon’s matrix metering is by far the best in the world), the D700’s market share is increasing each day. The D5000 is no slouch either. The last of the advanced amateur line, it’s equipped with a high-quality CMOS, like that of the D90. Particularly light, it has kept its excellent handling. The D5000 is very popular with travel photographers who have to deal with wide ranging contrast and backlighting, conditions that rigorously test the shooting system. The only flaw is the lack of an updated motor inside the camera body (like the D90, D300, D700, and D3X), which limits the choice of available optics: the AF-S optical series
The E-620 is one of the smallest reflex cameras on the market (no one would argue that Panasonic’s G1 and GH1 are smaller, to which I reply, “There are no mirrors, no image reflections; therefore, by definition, they are not reflex cameras.” I’ll come back to this need.) Despite the fact that it is not the fastest camera body on the market, it can defend itself fairly well next to the big boys. Its principal quality is being a great optical carrier, sort of like Leica or Contax: good bodies, yes, but what optics! It allows for 12.3 MP of precision detail, from the centre to the edges. With its fiberglass body (the current favourite) and tiltable LCD screen, this new edition is lighter than the E-520, and will definitely have its day in the sun.
The E-3 is making all the reviews, as it should. You just have to look through the viewfinder and press the button to fall head over heels. Along with a SWD series lens, Olympus is bragging loud and clear that it has perfected the fastest system in the world. (A little pompous, perhaps, but after testing it, you’ll agree). With the most efficient dust-reduction system on the market, of any brand, its 100% viewfinder frame coverage, Olympus still stands out after close to two years on the market.
The E-3 is a nice, dependable machine that is up to the task (the body is dust and weather resistant). The LiveMOS sensor in these two units is impressive: it delivers images without noise up to 800 ISO, which is something, given the size of this small sensor.
The G1 and the GH1 are not reflex cameras: they are hybrids. They do not have mirrors; the viewfinder is electric and works through the image sensor, like in compact cameras. But they have interchangeable lenses and big 4:3 CMOS sensors; more often than not they are lumped in with the reflex cameras. I prefer to consider them brothers-in-law rather than blood brothers. The GH1 first impresses by its size: in amateur Olympic boxing, it would be lightfly weight class (three levels beneath feather weight!). It weighs 385 g soaking wet and is only 90 mm tall. Nonetheless it will stand up to anyone: 12.1-MP resolution, 2.7” tiltable screen, and Full HD video capture (1920 x 1080, AVCHD format).
The GH1 is not known for its speed (a 100-m race seems like 200 m for a gnome!), but it can defend its title any day when it comes to quality. If I were the proud owner of one, the only thing that would keep me up at night would be the naked image sensor behind the optics. Like Adam in Eden, before he ate the Forbidden Fruit. Naked. Completely naked.
Pentax has always been a religion of sorts; and their disciples are many. Likely, people are attracted by the quality of the SMC optics, but above all by the quality of their construction and their resistance to the tests that amateurs put their camera bodies through. The KD200D helps strengthen the Pentax following: it is the only reflex body at this price with 60 special seal points in order to render it dust, rain, and sand proof.
Shutter button, switches, levers, dials… it is practically “waterproof” and ready to follow you anywhere. The K-7 has the same philosophy, but with a little more: the body is made of magnesium, with a high-definition LCD screen (921,000 pixels), and a reflex viewfinder with 100% coverage. In addition, it reacts almost twice as fast as the K200D, and it has an HD video function (720p). The DA* lenses are becoming the standard for those looking for quality construction, luminosity, and, above all, extraordinary image definition.
In 2006, after Konica/Minolta left, and Sony had put its first digital reflex camera (the Alpha A100) on the market, you could sense a new energy, a change on the horizon. Sony did not disappoint us. After three years, the Alpha series has made an impression: an image stabilizer on the sensor (like the ones first designed by Minolta); revamped dyna mic range in post-treatment, to increase the JPEG quality in contrast situations (D-R function), and automatic modes that allow more advanced users complete freedom… that’s what the Alpha A380 has fixed, always improving each of its functions.
This 14.2-MP CCD sensor passed the test on the A350 and the A700. Without super performing, the A380 knows what to do. The LCD screen is adjustable, which makes aiming without the camera in front of you easier. Its greatest strength remains its ability, when you feel the need, to accept Carl Zeiss T* lenses built especially for the Alpha series and the Minolta’s magnificent G series. They have been reissued and are now branded Sony. The Alpha A900 keeps moving: with its fullformat 24.6-MP sensor (equivalent to 35 mm), it is on par with the best camera bodies on the market. With its magnesium alloy chassis, 100% coverage, and continuous shooting up to five pictures a second, Sony has no intention in giving an inch to the competition.
Too much choice is the same as not enough…
The final choice is never easy. You talk to one person. Then you talk to another. Your brother-in-law knows a little bit. Then there are photo magazines, like Photo Life (have you heard of it?). There are the clerks in the specialty stores and in the big box stores. That’s not including the Internet. How do you figure it out?
Start by figuring out what you want. What are you going to do with your reflex camera; what type of photography interests you? You see, there is a big difference between night photography and wildlife photography. A 13 x 19” print enlarged on paper requires a better quality of information (resolution and optical quality) than does looking at images on a computer screen. Take a look at your budget, but be flexible. And, most importantly, be realistic. If you’re going to take photos of shows, expect to pay a little more than if you’re planning on taking pictures of silly animals in your backyard. Collect information from several sources, and remain sceptical: just because Samuel’s brother’s cousin’s friend has an Olympus (that he loves) doesn’t mean it is necessarily the right choice for you too.