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Digital Dynamics

Digital SLRs and High End DigiCams Empower Professionals

By Thomas Franklin

There is truly an abundance of riches for those shopping for a high-end digital camera. Professional photographers have long prized the single lens reflex (SLR) camera for its flexibility, speed, and generous assortment of lenses. Now, as digital SLRs (d-SLRs) sink below the $1,000 price mark and widen the prospective consumer base for these cameras, the competition among camera makers has become intense, which means the buyer wins. Now, a complete kit with the camera body and lens, is available for as little as $700.

While d-SLRs may have won the pro’s heart, buyers don’t necessarily have to tie themselves to an interchangeable lens product line if all they need is a high resolution, fully-featured digital camera. A significant niche product line has opened up, aimed at pros and prosumers, without interchangeable lenses but with a host of high-end technology that a d-SLR cannot duplicate. Not quite an SLR, these digital cameras all sell for under $1,000 and offer long focal lengths, high resolution video recording, live preview on the LCD screen, and a more compact form factor. They also have core features that pros require—hot shoes for accessory flashes, manual and custom exposure controls, tripod mount sockets, and the ability to capture unprocessed RAW image files.

Camera vendors stress several criteria for evaluating d-SLRs, among them speed and durable construction. When sizing up a camera’s resolution, it’s not enough to count pixels. Equally as important is the physical size of the CCD or CMOS image sensor. Larger sensors produce less digital noise and are more desirable than smaller sensors with more pixels. Also, as fast as d-SLRs are, they are only as fast as the memory cards they save images to. Investing in a high-speed memory card is a must to maximize your camera’s performance.

All of the cameras below are PictBridge-enabled. This technology allows the camera to connect directly to a PictBridge-enabled photo printer via USB cable for making prints without a computer. Many high-end printers from Canon, Epson, and HP offer PictBridge support as well. Printing parameters, such as number of prints desired, are controlled on the camera’s LCD screen.

Market Players
Canon U.S.A., Inc. boasts one of the largest assortment of d-SLRs, from $800 to $5,000. Its lowest cost model, the 8-megapixel Rebel XT, is capable of a 14 frame burst mode at a speed of three frames per second (fps). The $999 XT can simultaneously capture RAW and JPEG images in burst mode.

If you need more of a workhorse, consider the all-metal, weather-resistant EOS-1D Mark II N—the successor to Canon’s EOS-1D Mark II. In burst mode, the Mark II N can snap 8.5 fps up to 48 full-resolution JPEG images, an eight frame improvement over its predecessor. The 1D Mark II N also adds a new 230,000 pixel, 2.5-inch wide-angle LCD screen capable of being viewed at a 170 degree angle, and a minutely faster start-up time—0.2 seconds from 0.3.

The $3,999 Mark II N can shoot up to 22 RAW frames and up to 48 full-resolution JPEGs in burst. The camera can also shoot 19 frames of RAW+JPEG files in burst. When image file numbers reach 9,999, the camera automatically stores photos in a new folder on the camera’s memory card for streamlining image management. The camera offers two memory card slots—CompactFlash and SD—and can save the same images to both simultaneously for backup.

Fujifilm USA’s FinePix S3 Pro—$1,999—is anchored around the company’s Super CCD image sensor technology, specifically the 12-megapixel Super CCD SR. According to Fujifilm, the SR sensor helps the camera capture detail in high contrast scenes and offers higher sensitivity and a more natural color reproduction.

The unit features an F-mount lens fitting for use with Nikon lenses, dual shutter release buttons for horizontal and vertical shooting, a two-inch, 235,000 pixel LCD, and a built-in PC sync outlet for connecting strobes and external flashes. The FinePix S3 Pro offers Intelligent Flash with a D-TTL full-aperture exposure metering system for use with Nikon compatible speed lights—a first for Fujifilm. The S3 Pro also has both IEEE 1394 (FireWire) and USB 2.0 outputs, and slots for both xD-Picture Card and Microdrive memory cards.

Konica Minolta distinguishes its SLR lineup with an image stabilization technology called Anti-Shake. Unlike other image stabilization systems, which rely on gyroscopes to move pieces of the lens to reduce blur, Konica Minolta’s system shifts the actual CCD image sensor in the camera’s body. Anti-Shake allows users to take photos with slow shutter speeds in dimly lit or twilight scenes, in natural light with a telephoto lens, and with macro shots, without relying on a higher ISO setting or the aid of a flash or tripod. The anti-shake function can be switched on or off.

The company has two d-SLRs in its lineup, both under $2,000 and compatible with its Maxxum lenses and related accessories. The cameras are also compatible with the company’s new DT lenses, specifically designed for digital photography. The newer 6-megapixel Maxxum 5D—$799—features a 2.5-inch LCD, five scene modes, high-key and low-key tone capture for extended dynamic range, and lower noise in low-light environments. It can capture RAW and JPEG images simultaneously. In burst mode, the 5D snaps three fps to five JPEG frames and three frames of RAW+JPEG.

Nikon Corporation recently announced the ten-megapixel D200 for $1,699.95. The D200 offers an array of automatic and manual controls and several new enhancements in the unit’s autofocus. The D200 features a 2.5-inch LCD with a 170-degree viewing area, a 0.15 second power-up time, and a new 11-area autofocus system that can convert to a seven-wide area sensor. It features a shutter lag of 50 milliseconds.

The camera can shoot continuously at up to five fps for up to 37 JPEG images or 22 RAW images. A Recent Settings menu displays the last 14 settings adjusted, giving users the ability to track and make changes to the camera’s settings. The D200’s battery can fire off up to 1,800 shots per charge. Battery life is displayed via a Fuel Gauge on the LCD which displays remaining power in one percent increments. It also displays the total number of shots taken on each charge and the overall life of the battery, alerting users to the need for a replacement. The SLR is compatible with the company’s AF Nikkor lenses and Creative Lighting System. Using an optional WT-3 Wireless Transmitter—shipping in the Spring of 2006—the D200 can send images to networked computers or be operated remotely via 802.11b/g.

Nikon has its own lower-cost d-SLR in the D50. For $899.99 with lens, the six-megapixel D50 features a two-inch LCD screen, a start-up time of 0.2 seconds, and a continuous shooting mode of 2.5 frames per second for up to 137 photos in JPEG normal mode. The D50 can simultaneously capture RAW and JPEG images and can snap 2,000 images on a single charge of its lithium-ion battery.

Olympus America Inc. redesigned its SLR offerings from the ground up, offering an all-digital system complete with all new lenses. Other camera makers have tapped into their existing store of lenses previously used on their film SLRs to outfit their digital models. According to Olympus, because the size of an image sensor does not exactly match the dimensions of film, there is a loss of quality, particularly around the edges of a photo when adding a film lens to a digital body. That’s why the company pursued an all-digital system, building out a new set of Zuiko Digital Specific Lenses to compliment its digital SLRs.

The company also tackled a common problem in SLR photography—dust accumulation on the sensor. Using a supersonic wave filter, Olympus d-SLRs will automatically vibrate to dislodge dust when lenses are swapped out.

The eight-megapixel E-500 features a kit containing a 3.2x optical zoom (28-90mm/35mm equivalent) lens for an estimated $899.99 ($799.99 without lens).

Additional features include a 2.5-inch HyperCrystal LCD with a 160 degree viewing area, simultaneous RAW and JPEG image capture, and a 64MB image buffer for burst shooting. The camera can snap up to four TIFF or RAW files at 2.5 fps and an unlimited number of high quality JPEG files when using a high-speed CompactFlash memory card.

The camera offers five metering modes; three color modes (vivid, natural, and muted); and a choice of sRGB or Adobe RGB color. The camera also offers nine B&W shooting modes and can remove red-eye in-camera. Images can be saved to CompactFlash or xD-Picture Cards.

Pentax Imaging Company distinguishes its d-SLRs with compact form factors. It has three models currently in the line. The newest, the *ist DS d-SLRs—$799.95 with lens—features six-megapixel resolution, a 2.5-inch LCD, battery saving power save mode, 11 point autofocus with nine cross-type sensors, and 16-segment multi-pattern metering. It also offers Center-weighted and spot metering, 19 custom-programable settings, RAW image capture, digital noise reduction technology, and a high-magnification glass pentaprism viewfinder.

It uses SD cards and can run on either AA batteries, 2CR-V3 lithium batteries, or an optional AC adapter.

Samsung offers an eight-megapixel fixed-lens model for advanced users. The Digimax Pro815 is the first digital camera to sport a 15x optical zoom and 3.5-inch LCD screen.

The Pro815 retails for $849, and features both manual and automatic exposure controls, a manual focus ring, selectable ISO settings, five flash options, and custom white balance. It also features a 1.44-inch status LCD that can double as a viewfinder. The Pro815 features a one-second startup and 1.3-second shot-to-shot speed alongside a shutter lag of 0.05 seconds. It uses a new proprietary lithium battery for up to 500 shots per charge. In high-speed continuous shooting mode, the camera can burst at 2.5 fps, while an ultra-high-speed continuous mode can snap up to ten 1-megapixel images per second. The camera also offers USB 2.0 connectivity.

Sony Corporation of America has taken aim at the digital SLR customer with a new high-end fixed-lens model—the $1,000 Cyber-shot R1—packed with technologies that have yet to be duplicated on an interchangeable lens system at comparable price points. That technology consists of a ten-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor capable of live preview on its two-inch LCD.

The sensor on the R1 is roughly the size of those employed in digital SLRs, but unlike SLRs currently on the market, the fixed-lens R1 can offer a live preview through the LCD screen. It also loses the mirror and prism typically found in SLR lenses, which is necessary to create an image in the optical viewfinder. Sans mirror and prism, Sony says the camera is smaller and quieter.

The camera also features a 5x optical zoom (24-120mm, 35mm equivalent), a one-second shot-to-shot time, three fps burst shooting, and a shutter release time of 7.5 milliseconds. New processing circuitry gives the camera a battery life of up to 500 shots per charge, depending on usage. The R1 offers three different modes of color reproduction including Adobe RGB, standard sRGB, and Vivid sRGB. It captures images in both JPEG and RAW file formats and features slots for both Memory Stick PRO and CompactFlash Type I and II memory cards.

Get Together
In the world of SLR lenses, Canon, Konica Minolta, Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax all have digital offerings. If you are interested in d-SLR technologies, but hesitant to invest in an assortment of lenses, take heart. In 2006, Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony will team with Olympus, Pentax, and Konica Minolta, respectively, to offer d-SLRs.

Feb2006, Digital Output

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