Digital Cameras for Designers

Need quick, quality, custom photos for a project? Ready to supplement the stock photos you’re buying now? Getting the photos you want with a digital SLR camera is easier and more affordable than ever. But selecting the right DSLR has never been tougher. Prices are lower, image quality is better, hardware is faster and feature-rich—and there are more choices. That’s great news for buyers.

To help HOW readers considering their next—or first—DSLR, we put together this quick guide to affordable cameras and essential accessories.

Affordable, Not Cheap
Not long ago, the price of admission for a DSLR was $1,500, then $1,000 and recently close to $500. But beyond price, most of the technology in expensive pro models has filtered down.

Affordable DSLRs are now easy to find in big box retailers. Six capable models are the Nikon D40/40x, Canon Digital Rebel XT/XTI and Olympus 410/510. (See table below for an in-depth spec sheet of each camera.)

Each of these are appropriate for shooting in a studio, at events or for landscapes. Each gives access to professional lenses. Yet there are some noteworthy differences.

Buy More Than Pixels
One important thing to remember about digital cameras is that bigger sensors are more important than number of pixels. Crowding too many pixels into a smaller sensor leads to grainy digital noise and less depth of field. So, a larger sensor with 6 megapixels can produce better results than a small sensor with 10 megapixels.

A related issue to consider is matching the quality of the lens to the sensor’s resolution. A professional quality lens will quickly reveal the limitations of a low-res sensor.

Don’t Buy from A Spec Sheet
These DSLRs are similar in what matters most in delivering excellent images—if you do your part in adjusting the camera for the right exposure.

So if they’re similar, how do you choose? Decide what’s important to you.

The Nikon D40x and Olympus 510 may feel best in my hands because I like a chunkier, quick-handling grip. Others may like the trim and lightweight Olympus 410. If you have a couple of Canon lenses from an old film camera, the Canon XTi would be a good choice.

Removing dust from a sensor can be tricky, so if you’re squeamish about swabbing inside your camera, go with Olympus or the Canon XTi and their automatic dust-removal systems. In-camera stabilization is also valuable because it means that you can often get sharp photos at slower shutter speeds in low light—without having to buy special vibration-reduction lenses. Only the Olympus 510 in this group offers this.

If you’re truly new to DSLRs, check out the fantastic help system on the Nikon D40 and D40x. Have a question about a function? You’re just a button push away from a detailed explanation and suggestion without ever having to crack a manual or consult a computer. Nikon’s large, high-res camera LCD makes it easy.

If you expect to keep this camera for a while—or if you’re just rough on gear—the Olympus 510 or Nikon D40x might be right. Both low-end Canons have a plasticky feel that doesn’t inspire confidence. For comparison, handle a solidly-built Canon 30D or 40D.

Bargain Among Bargains?
Pricing on these cameras is also similar. At the low end is the 6 megapixel Nikon D40 at $498 with 18-55 lens. It also takes SD storage cards you may already own for a digicam. You have to spend up to $100 more to get the Canon XT or Olympus 410 with a similar lens. But with higher resolutions, the Canon or Olympus may be better values.

At about $700, you get the 10 megapixel Nikon D40x or the Canon XTi with an 18-55 lens—or the Olympus 510 with no lens. One can argue that a dust-reduction system is worth more than a low-end lens. The Olympus also includes vibration reduction. So on capabilities alone, the Olympus 510 is very attractively priced. For $200 more, you can get Olympus’ good two-lens set that covers 14-42 (28-84) and 40-150 (80-300) focal lengths.

On the other hand, Canon and Nikon offer a larger universe of lenses and accessories. For me, this is the major reason I wouldn’t unequivocally recommend the Olympus 510 over the XTi and D40x. For casual shooters and even some serious amateurs, fewer lens and accessory options isn’t a major problem.

Truly, you can’t go wrong with any of these as a first DSLR. If possible, try them all in a local store. Keep in mind that, ultimately, it’s an imaginative photographer who takes the shot, not a lens or camera.

The Right Accessories Make All the Difference
But what kind of accessories should you buy for your DSLR? From lenses to flashes to the tripod—read on for our recommendations.

Spec Sheet of Reviewed DSLR Cameras

Olympus 410 Olympus 510 Canon Rebel XT Canon Rebel XTi Nikon D40 Nikon D40x
Resolution MP 10.0 10.0 8.0 10.1 6.1 10.2
ISO Range 100-1600 100-1600 100-1600 100-1600 200-1600 100-1600
Shutter Speeds 60 s. – 1/4000 60 s. – 1/4000 30 s. – 1/4000 30 s. – 1/4000 30 s. – 1/4000 30 s. – 1/4000
Storage Formats CF, XD CF, XD CF CF SD SD
Size (in.) 5.1 x 3.6 x 2.1 5.4 x 3.6 x 2.7 5.0 x 3.7 x 2.6 5.0 x 3.7 x 2.6 5.0 x 3.7 x 2.5 5.0 x 3.7 x 2.5
Weight (oz.) 13.2 16.6 17.1 18.0 17.0 17.0
LCD (in. diag.) 2.5 2.5 1.8 2.5 2.5 2.5
Extras Dust filter, smallest DSLR Dust filter, image stabilz., grip N/A Dust filter Low price, help system, grip Help system, grip
Price (camera body only) $539 $704 $457 $605 n/a $600
Price (with lens kit) $630 $764 $520 $705 $498 $657

HOW December 2007