Big-Time DSLRs Under $1,000

Packed with power, advanced features and high performance, the latest sub-$1,000 ­­HD SLRs are outstanding options for serious nature photographers
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It's hard to believe that the very first DSLR was introduced only 20 years ago, but that's ancient history in the world of digital cameras. Priced at an astronomical $26,000 for the basic color model, the Kodak DCS-100 had a jury-rigged, 1.3-megapixel camera back attached to a Nikon F3 film SLR and a shoebox-sized 200 MB hard drive that slung painfully over your shoulder. By today's standards, the DCS-100 was a real clunker—but the same can be said of any DSLR that's more than five years old, as recent advancements in digital camera technologies have upped the performance ante dramatically in DSLRs from entry level to professional grade. Now, if you're a serious photographer who can't justify spending several grand on a rugged, full-frame DSLR, or even a pro looking for an affordable, lightweight backup camera and one that just happens to record great video, you'll be pleasantly surprised by the features and performance found in DSLRs costing under $1,000.

The Best In Class
There are two distinct classes of true DSLRs in the sub-$1,000 price range, all of which include optical viewfinders and swiveling mirrors. Recently introduced advanced models with more than 15 megapixels include the 18-megapixel Canon EOS T3i (estimated street price of $899 with an 18-55mm kit lens), the 16.2-megapixel Nikon D5100 (estimated street price of $849) and the 16.2-megapixel Sony A580 (estimated street price of $799).


Canon EOS T3i
SENSOR PIXELS: 18.0 MP
LCD SIZE: 3.0"
LCD RESOLUTION: 1040K
LCD TILT: Yes
TOP VIDEO MODE: 1080/30p
AUTO-HDR: No
INTELLIGENT SCENE MODES: Yes
IN-CAMERA EDITING: Yes
SPECIAL EFFECTS: Yes
STREET PRICE: $899

Models with sensors below 15 megapixels are considered more entry-level, and they cost a few hundred dollars less. These DSLR models include the 12.2-megapixel Canon T3 (estimated street price of $599), the 14.2-megapixel Nikon D3100 (estimated street price of $650), the 12.4-megapixel Pentax K-r (estimated street price of $625) and the 14.2-megapixel Sony A560, which is otherwise identical to the A580 (estimated street price of $799).


Canon EOS T3
SENSOR PIXELS: 12.2 MP
LCD SIZE: 2.7"
LCD RESOLUTION: 230K
LCD TILT: No
TOP VIDEO MODE: 720/30p
AUTO-HDR: No
INTELLIGENT SCENE MODES: Yes
IN-CAMERA EDITING: Yes
SPECIAL EFFECTS: No
STREET PRICE: $599

There are also several electronic-viewfinder, interchangeable-lens cameras in the same price range, and their smaller size and unique features may make them attractive alternatives (see the sidebar in this article).

Many of the innovative features found in advanced DSLR models are the direct result of improvements in imaging-sensor, image-processing engine and autofocus-sensor technologies. CMOS imaging sensors found in nearly all DSLRs have come a long way in a very short time. Five years ago, the highest-resolution sensor available was a 16.7-megapixel CMOS sensor in the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, which cost $8,000 for the body alone. Now, for one-tenth the cost of that camera, the new Canon EOS T3i boasts an 18-megapixel sensor, while both the Nikon D5100 and Sony A580 feature 16.2-megapixel sensors. Admittedly, the more expensive EOS-1Ds Mark II featured a full-frame sensor, while all of the sub-$1,000 models mentioned have APS-C sensors with either a 1.6x (Canon) or 1.5x (Nikon, Pentax and Sony) crop factor.


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Had sensor and processor technologies remained frozen over the years, the EOS-1Ds Mark II's larger pixels would outperform the smaller pixels on today's higher-resolution APS-C DSLRs with dramatically lower noise at high ISOs. But thanks to several breakthroughs in APS-C sensor design, several sub-$1,000 DSLRs actually exceed the older EOS-1Ds Mark II in overall image quality ratings and nearly match its high-ISO noise performance based on RAW data comparisons found at www.dxomark.com. The Canon EOS T3i has higher resolution, and thanks to its advanced image-processing and noise-reduction technologies, can be dialed up to ISO 12,800 compared to a maximum ISO 3200 on the EOS-1Ds Mark II, while both the Nikon D5100 and Sony A580 can shoot at up to ISO 25,600. Last, but certainly not least, all three of those APS-C sensors capture full HD 1080p video at 30 fps, while the older EOS-1Ds Mark II didn't even offer a Live View function.


Nikon D5100
SENSOR PIXELS: 16.2 MP
LCD SIZE: 3.0"
LCD RESOLUTION: 921K
LCD TILT: Yes
TOP VIDEO MODE: 1080/30p
AUTO-HDR: Yes
INTELLIGENT SCENE MODES: Yes
IN-CAMERA EDITING: Yes
SPECIAL EFFECTS: Yes
STREET PRICE: $849

For most photographers, the main benefits derived from improved image-processing engines found in these models are lower noise at high ISOs and the ability to process data from high-resolution photo bursts up to 7 fps on the Sony A580, for example, and HD video and sound. But they also enable exciting new features, including Auto-HDR, Multi-Frame NR, Advanced Scene Recognition, in-camera photo and video editing, Sweep Panorama shooting and a wide variety of creative effects. Let's take a closer look at these features.

AUTO-HDR: For years, DSLRs have included controls to expand or optimize dynamic range in high-contrast scenes. Canon calls it Automatic Lighting Optimizer, Nikon calls it Active D-Lighting, and Sony calls it DRO (Dynamic Range Optimization). While all three of these controls optimize the shadows and highlights from a single exposure, newer Auto-HDR and in-camera HDR features combine data taken from two (Nikon) or three (Sony) bracketed exposures. The result is an improved JPEG image that can provide better shadow and highlight details than you could possibly achieve from manually processing a single RAW image file, and may rival the results you get from manually combining several exposures using HDR software. The Sony A580 even has the ability to auto-align each of its three exposures to compensate for slight hand movement during the sequence, so you don't need a tripod.


Nikon D3100
SENSOR PIXELS: 14.2 MP
LCD SIZE: 3.0"
LCD RESOLUTION: 230K
LCD TILT: No
TOP VIDEO MODE: 1080/24p
AUTO-HDR: No
INTELLIGENT SCENE MODES: Yes
IN-CAMERA EDITING: Yes
SPECIAL EFFECTS: Yes
STREET PRICE: $650

MULTI-FRAME NR: For improved low-light performance, the Sony A580 can quickly capture six images of a scene and combine the images to reduce noise, especially in shadow areas. This is best performed when the camera is tripod-mounted, and it allows the camera to be set to ISO 25,600 with amazing results.


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ADVANCED SCENE RECOGNITION: Several DSLRs offer advanced or intelligent exposure modes enabled by the processors' analysis of the scene, including subject distance from the camera just prior to exposure. For example, the Canon EOS T3i combines five technologies into its EOS Scene Intelligent Auto mode: Picture Style Auto, Automatic Lighting Optimizer, Auto White Balance, Autofocus and Automatic Exposure. In one shot, the camera optimizes colors and skin tones if it spots a face in the scene, as well as shadows and highlights in a high-contrast scene, and simultaneously adjusts shutter speeds when motion is detected. There's also a Basic+ mode that lets you select "shoot by ambience" or "shoot by lighting and scene type." Additional capabilities are found in the Sony A580's Auto+ mode, which also can choose Auto-HDR or Multi-Frame NR depending on movement and light levels in the scene. Nikon's Scene Auto Selector analyzes the scene and automatically chooses the appropriate Portrait, Landscape, Close Up or Night Portrait modes.


Sony DSLR-A580
SENSOR PIXELS: 16.2 MP
LCD SIZE: 3.0"
LCD RESOLUTION: 921K
LCD TILT: Yes
TOP VIDEO MODE: 1080/60i
AUTO-HDR: Yes
INTELLIGENT SCENE MODES: Yes
IN-CAMERA EDITING: No
SPECIAL EFFECTS: No
STREET PRICE: $899

IN-CAMERA PHOTO AND VIDEO EDITING: Why wait until you get back to your computer to crop or adjust image quality on your still photos, or fill up your memory card with unwanted video content? Thanks to its EXPEED 2 image processor, the Nikon D5100 can trim video clips, resize and apply creative effects to RAW files, and correct lens distortion on still photos. The Canon EOS T3i's Video Snapshot feature, powered by its DIGIC 4 processor, can record several video clips (in 2-, 4- or 8-second lengths) and combine them into one clip, while its Movie Digital Zoom function can be set to magnify the center of a scene by 3-10x while producing full HD 1080p video.

SWEEP PANORAMA MODE: The Sony A580 takes advantage of its fast burst capabilities and BIONZ image processor in its Sweep Panorama and Sweep Panorama 3D modes. Just point the camera at the scene and hold down the shutter button while sweeping the camera from side to side (either horizontally or vertically). Then, the camera automatically stitches the sequence into a single, 23-megapixel panoramic JPEG image. Sure, you can create higher-res panoramic images by capturing a sequence of 16.2-megapixel images and stitching them together in a number of programs, but that takes much more time and effort. On the other hand, it's nearly impossible to create a 3D panoramic image, which the Sony does by offsetting frames and combining them into a file that can be shown in 3D on compatible TVs and devices.


Sony DSLR-A560
SENSOR PIXELS: 14.2 MP
LCD SIZE: 3.0"
LCD RESOLUTION: 921K
LCD TILT: Yes
TOP VIDEO MODE: 1080/60i
AUTO-HDR: Yes
INTELLIGENT SCENE MODES: Yes
IN-CAMERA EDITING: No
SPECIAL EFFECTS: No
STREET PRICE: $749

CREATIVE MODES AND SPECIAL-EFFECTS FILTERS: Thanks to increased processing power, these cameras can apply a wide variety of sophisticated special effects and styles to images and movies you capture. The Nikon D5100 lets you modify or remove selective colors in a scene, create high-key or low-key images, or produce a "miniature effect" that makes a subject appear as a miniature-scale model. You also can turn a picture into a color sketch, and with movies this effect creates a series of drawings that play back as an animation. The Canon EOS T3i includes five in-camera Creative Filters—Soft Focus, Grainy Black and White, Miniature Effect, Toy Camera (mimicking a plastic lens) and a Fish Eye Effect. Faster processors also enable more advanced slideshow transitions and the ability to output full HD slideshows and movies via each camera's mini-HDMI port.


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Convenience + Performance
Not all of the top features found in sub-$1,000 DSLRs are the result of image sensor and processor advancements. Some are mechanical, and others combine mechanical and processor advancements. Most notably, several models include high-resolution, 3-inch color LCD monitors for live preview, movie composition, menu access and image playback. The Canon EOS T3i's Vari-Angle monitor features 1.04 million dot resolution and a reflection-reduction coating, with a left-side hinge that lets you swivel the screen around and tuck it against the camera for protection. The Nikon D5100's 921,000-dot, 3-inch LCD monitor has the same swiveling arrangement, while the Sony A580's 921,000 dot, 3-inch screen can be tilted 90º up or down, allowing you to shoot from the waist or overhead. Several cameras take advantage of the size, resolution and brightness of their LCD monitors, allowing you to easily view multiple image thumbnails in playback, and add easy-to-read tutorials and in-camera guides with information that was once buried in the camera manuals.

Memory card read and write speeds also have increased as a result of in-camera processing and improved card technologies. Most cameras can read and write at high speeds to the latest SDXC cards, and are backward-compatible with older SD cards. In addition, many DSLRs are compatible with Eye-Fi wireless cards, allowing you to automatically transmit image and movie files to your computer via high-speed Wi-Fi.


Pentax K-r
SENSOR PIXELS: 12.4 MP
LCD SIZE: 3.0"
LCD RESOLUTION: 921K
LCD TILT: No
TOP VIDEO MODE: 720/25p
AUTO-HDR: Yes
INTELLIGENT SCENE MODES: Yes
IN-CAMERA EDITING: Yes
SPECIAL EFFECTS: Yes
STREET PRICE: $625

Wireless control functions are also built into the pop-up flash units of both the Canon and Sony models (surprisingly, the Nikon D5100 lacks a Commander mode for its pop-up flash). So you can adjust the output of the pop-up flash, as well as control external flash units available from both companies—a good thing since none of these cameras includes a PC sync jack.

The Bottom Line
The increased performance and features now available in at least three DSLRs priced under $1,000 may soon have pros wondering whether to buy a single high-priced pro body or two advanced-class bodies—plus a few lenses and flash units—for the same price. But serious photographers on a budget, or those looking to move up from an entry-level DSLR or sophisticated point-and-shoot, will find value in the sub-$1,000 category.


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Electronic-Viewfinder, Interchangeable-Lens Cameras

They may look like smaller versions of traditional SLRs, and even accept the same lenses as their true DSLR counterparts, but cameras like the Sony NEX-5, NEX-3 and NEX-C3, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 and the Samsung NX10 are a different breed. Instead of including an optical viewfinder and a swiveling mirror, these cameras feature a high-resolution electronic viewfinder (EVF) with no swiveling mirror. The space saved by losing the mirror and viewfinder optics allows camera designers to make a smaller camera and circumvent a few of the problems found in true DSLRs. Although the NEX-5, NEX-3, NEX-C3, Lumix DMC-G3 and NX10 utilize contrast detection AF technology, the AF system never loses track of the subject.

Sony also has introduced a series of cameras with stationary translucent mirrors that don't swing out of the way to take a picture or shoot video. The Alpha A55, A35 and A33 channel a percentage of the light to a phase detection AF sensor while the remainder lands on the image sensor. Phase detection is a faster AF method than contrast detection AF, and it's potentially even faster than DSLR phase detection AF because the AF sensor is never blocked, but some low-light sensitivity is lost due to the redirected light. Using the phase detection AF system full time makes these cameras particularly quick-focusing in video mode.

Electronic viewfinders used to be frustrating to use in low light and with moving subjects, but improvements have mitigated those shortcomings, and these EVF cameras have some considerable benefits beyond video shooting. In all of the EVF cameras, the fully electronic viewfinders allow you to monitor and change exposure settings, and even play back images and videos without ever taking your eyes from the viewfinder. EVFs also can mimic under- and overexposures before you take the picture. They're definitely worth a look.

Michael J. McNamara has decades of experience in imaging technology. See more of his reports on trends and technologies on his McNamara Report website at www.mcnamarareport.com.

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