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The year 2009 was a banner one for D-SLRs, with 17 models introduced by six manufacturers. Here’s a rundown of some of the best for outdoor photographers. Note that the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV and the Nikon D3S were both introduced at press time and are covered in our First Look department in this issue. Extensive specs for these (and many other) D-SLRs can be found on the OP website: www.outdoorphotographer.com/gear/cameras.
Canon EOS 7D
List Price: $1,699 (body only)
The new 18-megapixel EOS 7D features dual DIGIC 4 processors that make possible high-speed shooting and full HD video, along with quicker response and better image quality. A/D conversion is 14-bit, which provides four times the tonal gradations/colors of 12-bit. Auto Lighting Optimizer, Highlight Tone Priority and High ISO Noise Reduction also help improve image quality.
|Access the Canon EOS 7D Live View feature for capturing full 1080p HD video in variable frame rates.|
The 3.0-inch, 920,000-dot LCD monitor provides three Live View AF options: Quick (the same quick phase-detection used for non-Live View shooting); Live (contrast-based, slower but doesn’t momentarily disrupt the live image; great for landscapes and animal portraits); and Face Detection (contrast-based). You also can focus the live image manually, magnifying it five or 10 times—handy in dim light or when using a teleconverter.
The AF and metering systems are completely new, as is a dual-axis electronic level that helps keep the horizon horizontal in landscape shots.
|FULL HD VIDEO: The 7D can record your wildlife and waterfall images with motion and sound via its HD Movie feature. You can shoot 1080p full HD at 30, 24 or 25 fps, 720p HD at 60 or 50 fps and SD 640x480 video at 60 or 50 fps. The 7D provides easy manual control of exposure and focusing, adaptive exposure compensation and even in-camera video editing. You can record mono sound via the built-in microphone or stereo sound via an optional external mic.
8 fps: The quickest wildlife action should present no problems for the fastest APS-C-format D-SLR, which can shoot up to 126 Large/Fine JPEGs at 8 fps.
LENS CORRECTIONS: With 18 megapixels, you really test the limits of your lenses. The 7D lets you fine-tune autofocusing for up to 20 lenses to correct any tendency to front- or back-focus. There’s also built-in compensation for vignetting.
STANDOUT FEATURE: The 7D’s 18-megapixel Canon CMOS sensor provides the highest pixel count in the APS-C format, and with it, the ability to record fine detail and produce huge prints of those epic landscape vistas. You can also shoot RAW images at reduced resolution (10.1 and 4.5 megapixels) when you don’t need 18 megapixels.
ALSO CONSIDER: Canon EOS 50D
If you don’t need video and can live with “only” 6.3 fps, the 15.1-megapixel EOS 50D provides most of the 7D’s other features in a more compact package for around $500 less. List Price: $1,099.
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Canon EOS Rebel T1i
List Price: $899 (with 18-55mm IS zoom)
Canon’s top entry-level model, the 15.1-megapixel EOS Rebel T1i offers the most megapixels in the category and a number of useful features. Very compact, the T1i nonetheless features a high-resolution, 3.0-inch, 920,000-dot
LCD monitor like those in Canon’s pro cameras with Live View capability. Water-repellent, anti-reflection and scratch-resistant coatings help you see images clearly in outdoor conditions, whether in Live View operation or when reviewing images.
A DIGIC 4 processor speeds operation, improves image quality and provides a normal ISO range of 100-3200, with expansion to 12,800.
|The Live View Function for stills and video on the Canon EOS Rebel T1i allows you to apply most camera functions directly to Live View through the menu.|
|HD VIDEO: Like the 5D Mark II, the Rebel T1i offers HD video at 1080p, but at 20 fps instead of the former’s 30 fps. You also can shoot 720p HD video and 640x480p SD video at 30 fps. A movie button on the back of the camera starts and stops video recording. Sound is mono, via a built-in mic.
14-BIT A/D CONVERSION: Unusual for an entry-level D-SLR, the T1i provides 14-bit A/D conversion, which means it theoretically produces four times as many tonal or color gradations as cameras that use 12-bit conversion. The result is smoother tones and more accurate colors in your nature photos.
LIVE VIEW OPERATION: Like the 5D Mark II, the T1i provides Live View with Quick (phase-detection) and Live (contrast-based) autofocusing, as well as manual focusing using the magnified live view. Live operation is especially handy for tripod-mounted landscape and macro work, and for manually focusing when using light-stealing teleconverters.
STANDOUT FEATURE: That 15.1-megapixel Canon CMOS sensor provides the most megapixels of any entry-level D-SLR, handy when you want to photograph detailed landscapes and make large prints.
ALSO CONSIDER: CANON EOS REBEL XSi
Budget-minded photographers who don’t need video capability can try the EOS Rebel XSi, which provides very good AF performance on moving wildlife and 12.2 megapixels for landscapes at a reduced cost. List Price: $599.
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List Price: $1,799 (body only)
Nikon’s popular D300 offered a lot to the nature photographer, including excellent image quality and autofocusing on action subjects. A more powerful EXPEED processing system improves on this and makes possible HD video recording. The 12.3-megapixel CMOS sensor has been “tweaked” for even better performance and video capture.
Retained from the D300 are the 3.0-inch, 920,000-dot LCD monitor with Live View (now more easily accessed via a new Live View button), a sensor-dust reduction system, 1005-pixel 3D Color Matrix Metering II, choice of 12- or 14-bit A/D conversion and a normal ISO range of 200-3200 with 100 and 6400 available.
Besides HD video and faster performance, the D300S adds a second memory-card slot; the camera can record to CompactFlash or SD/SDHC cards in a variety of combinations.
|The Nikon D300S includes quick access buttons for menu controls like autofocus and auto exposure locks.|
|7 fps: The D300S can shoot up to 7 fps (8 fps with the optional MB-D10 battery pack), plenty fast for any wildlife action.
IMPROVED ACTIVE D-LIGHTING: Active D-Lighting effectively improves detail in bright and dark areas of high-contrast scenes. You can select any of four levels, let the camera do it automatically or even shoot a bracketed series using various levels.
RUGGED BODY: Featuring a magnesium-alloy body with advanced moisture and dust protection, the D300S can stand up to the outdoor environment. The shutter has been tested to 150,000 cycles.
ELECTRONIC VIRTUAL HORIZON: Picked up from the all-out pro Nikon D-SLRs, the Virtual Horizon Graphic Indicator makes it easy to keep the camera aligned with the real horizon, even when it doesn’t appear in the frame. This feature can be activated in both Live View and SLR viewfinder operation. You also can activate gridlines in both Live View and viewfinder modes.
STANDOUT FEATURE: Not available in the original D300, the D300S lets you record nature subjects in action, thanks to the new D-Movie feature. You can shoot 720p HD video or 640x424 or 320x216 standard video, all at 24 fps, with mono sound via a built-in microphone or stereo sound with an optional external mic. You even can use contrast-based AF while shooting.
ALSO CONSIDER: NIKON D90
For about half the price, you can get the same basic image sensor, different but still excellent autofocusing on action subjects, HD video, a 3.0-inch, 920K-dot LCD monitor and more—in a more compact, albeit somewhat less rugged camera. List Price: $899.
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List Price: $679 (body only)
Sharing many of the popular D90’s features for some $200+ less, the 12.3-megapixel D5000 combines excellent image quality with a number of features of interest to the outdoor photographer. A self-cleaning sensor unit uses four-frequency ultrasonic vibrations to remove dust from the image sensor each time you switch the camera on or off. Multi-level Active D-Lighting improves shadow and highlight detail in high-contrast scenes. In-camera editing lets you correct distortion and control perspective.
|The articulating LCD monitor of the Nikon D5000 allows you to frame shots from above or below.|
While the D90 and higher Nikon D-SLRs have AF motors in the camera body, the D5000 does not; thus, autofocusing is available only with Nikkor lenses that have focusing motors: the AF-S and AF-I series. Those lenses include focal lengths from 10-600mm, however (equivalent to 15-900mm on a 35mm camera), so it’s a concern only to those who have a collection of older Nikkor lenses; they should opt for the D90 or higher-end model.
|EASY LIVE VIEW: You can enter Live View mode simply by pressing the Lv button on the camera back. The image then appears on the LCD monitor in real time. You can use contrast-based AF off the image sensor or focus manually on a magnified portion of the live image.
VARI-ANGLE LCD: While not as deluxe as the D90’s 3.0-inch, 920,000-dot LCD monitor, the D5000’s 2.7-inch, 230,000-dot monitor offers one huge advantage: It tilts and swivels, making odd-angle shooting in Live View and D-Movie modes much easier.
D-MOVIE: The D5000 features essentially the same HD video capability as the D90. You can shoot up to 5 minutes per clip of 1280x720p HD video or up to 20 minutes of 640x424 or 320x216 SD video at 24 fps.
STANDOUT FEATURE: The D5000 features the same highly rated, 12.3-megapixel CMOS sensor as its D90 “big brother” and produces similar fine image quality for an APS-C-format D-SLR.
ALSO CONSIDER: NIKON D3000
Nikon’s newest low-end D-SLR is a great choice for the economy-minded D-SLR newcomer, featuring 10.2 megapixels and easy operation. List Price: $599.
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List Price: $699 (with 14-42mm and 40-150mm zooms)
The E-450 is Olympus’ entry-level model, with many of the E-620’s features in an even more compact body at an even lower price. It’s sold as a package, with Digital Zuiko 14-42mm and 40-150mm lenses, providing focal lengths equivalent to 28-300mm on a 35mm camera.
Features include a 10-megapixel Live MOS image sensor, three Art Filters (Pop Art, Soft Focus and Pin Hole) and even wireless off-camera flash capability with accessory FL-50R and FL-36R flash units.
|DUST-REDUCTION SYSTEM: The E-450 incorporates the Olympus Super Sonic Wave Filter sensor-dust remover (but not the sensor-shift image stabilization found in higher-end Olympus D-SLRs and the E-P1).
SHADOW ADJUSTMENT TECHNOLOGY: Also found on higher-end Olympus D-SLRs, Shadow Adjustment Technology compensates for extreme contrast. Perfect Shot Preview lets you preview this effect and those of other camera settings.
SIMPLE USE: In Live View mode, the E-450 operates just like a compact digital camera. Compose on the 2.7-inch LCD monitor, and push the button. You also can control everything manually when desired.
STANDOUT FEATURE: A handy and compact package deal—a body and two zooms for under $700.
List Price: $699 (with 14-42mm zoom)
This compact, 12.3-megapixel Four Thirds System D-SLR provides quick autofocusing (especially with Olympus Digital Zuiko SWD lenses) and a wide range of features. Introduced in the E-30, the E-620’s six Creative Art Filters make it easy to create special-effects images. The Pop filter creates super-saturated colors, the Soft Focus filter, dreamlike effects, the Grainy Film filter, high-contrast black-and-white, Light Tone, a high-key effect, Pale and Light Color, a pastel effect, and Pin Hole, the effect of peeking through a pinhole.
Despite its small size, the E-620 provides two memory-card slots, one for CompactFlash and one for xD-Picture cards—handy for extra shooting capacity in the field.
|SENSOR-SHIFT STABILIZATION: The sensor-shift image-stabilization system effectively counters camera shake and works with any lens—especially helpful when handholding a long lens or shooting in dim light.
VERSATILE MULTIPLE EXPOSURE: You can shoot an image and then superimpose another over it, bring up an already-shot image and superimpose a new image over that, or combine up to three already-shot RAW images in-camera.
SENSOR-DUST REDUCTION: Olympus introduced sensor-dust reduction to the D-SLR with its first, the E-1, back in 2003, and all Olympus D-SLRs have offered it. It’s very effective, and the latest version is present in the E-620. This feature is especially useful to those who change lenses frequently in the field.
STANDOUT FEATURE: The E-620’s 2.7-inch LCD monitor swivels to just about any angle, greatly enhancing the Live View feature.
ALSO CONSIDER: OLYMPUS E-P1
The E-P1 isn’t an SLR, but it essentially puts the E-620’s features into a much more compact Micro Four Thirds body. List Price: $799.
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List Price: $1,199 (body only)
Featuring the same 14.6-megapixel resolution as its K20D predecessor, the new K-7 provides enhanced image quality, thanks in part to sensor improvements and a new PRIME II imaging engine. You can shoot RAW images in either Pentax’s PEF format or Adobe’s “universal” DNG format, and switch between RAW and JPEG shooting at the touch of a button.
The K-7 improves on the K20D’s LCD monitor, featuring a 3.0-inch, 921,000-dot unit with improved Live View and even HD video recording. You can shoot 1280x720p HD video in 16:9 format or 1024p video in 3:2 format, both at 30 fps, with stereo sound via an external microphone.
The K-7 features the latest iterations of Pentax’s sensor-shift Shake Reduction and sensor-dust removal systems. Shake Reduction works with any lens you mount on the camera, while the dust-removal system is handy on a camera whose lenses will be changed in the field on a regular basis.
|AUTO LENS CORRECTION: When you use a DA-series Pentax lens on the K-7, the camera automatically corrects for distortion and lateral chromatic aberrations.
EXCELLENT WEATHERPROOFING: Like the K20D and K10D before it, the K-7 features excellent dust- and weather-resistance, but adds cold-resistance to the mix, making it a fine outdoor photography body.
COMPACT SIZE: The K-7 is the most compact “serious” D-SLR, handy when you want to travel light.
STANDOUT FEATURE: The K-7 can shoot three bracketed exposures and combine the best of each in-camera to produce an image with better detail from shadows through highlights.
ALSO CONSIDER: PENTAX K20D
Now selling for just over half of the K-7’s price, the 14.6-megapixel Pentax K20D features the same resolution, excellent weather- and dust-resistance, a Shake Reduction system, a sensor-dust remover, two RAW formats, very good AF performance and more. List Price: $1,099.
List Price: $649 (with 18-55mm zoom)
Pentax’s newest D-SLR, the K-x offers a lot of features at a low price. A new 12.4-megapixel CMOS sensor and PRIME II imaging engine provide normal-range ISO settings from 200-6400, expandable to 100-12,800. Quick for an entry-level camera, the K-x can shoot at 4.7 fps and has a top shutter speed of 1⁄6000 sec. Images are stored on SD cards, including the high-speed SDHC variety.
Other handy features for the outdoor shooter include Live View with phase-detection or contrast-based autofocusing (or manual focusing on a magnified image), the ability to shoot in either of two RAW formats, sensor-shift Shake Reduction that works with all lenses and a sensor-dust removal system.
|AA BATTERIES: While rechargeable lithium-ion batteries used by most D-SLRs have their advantages, the K-x operates on four AAs. Lithiums are recommended or rechargeable NiMH units, but in a pinch you can run the camera on AA alkalines, which can be bought just about anywhere—convenient when you’re in a remote location with no camera stores nearby.
IN-CAMERA HDR: Like its big brother K-7, the K-x can shoot three bracketed exposures and merge the best of each into a High Dynamic Range image, useful when you encounter a high-contrast scene.
VERY COMPACT: The Pentax K-x shares “most compact D-SLR” honors with its K2000 kid brother, but packs in more features and performance. The design allows for one-handed operation, great for getting those exotic angles.
STANDOUT FEATURE: The K-x is the lowest-priced D-SLR to offer HD video capability. It can shoot 1280x720p HD and 640x416p SD video at 24 fps.
ALSO CONSIDER: PENTAX K2000
The K2000 lacks Live View and video, but offers simple operation, an equally compact body, a 10.2-megapixel sensor with the dust-removal system, sensor-shift Shake Reduction and more—at a price around $150 less than the K-x. List Price: $599 (with lens kit).
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List Price: $1,999 (body only)
Sony’s DSLR-A900 was the first full-frame D-SLR to go below the $3,000 barrier, and now the DSLR-A850 does the same for the $2,000 barrier. The new model features the same 24.6-megapixel, Sony Exmor CMOS sensor and most of the A900’s features in a more affordable package.
Retained from the A900 are the rugged magnesium-alloy body shell with good weather sealing, the 3.0-inch, 921,000-dot LCD monitor, SteadyShot INSIDE sensor-shift image stabilization that works with every lens, dual Bionz image processors, 40-segment multi-pattern metering, fast 9-point AF system with 10 assist points, sensor-dust remover, AF micro-adjustment and more.
What you give up for the $700 difference in price between the A900 and the A850 is basically shooting speed—the A900 can shoot at 5 fps, the A850 at 3 fps. The A850 also has a viewfinder that shows just 98% of the actual image versus the A900’s 100% finder. But image quality and AF performance should be the same for the two cameras. Note that neither has a Live View mode or video capability.
|INTELLIGENT PREVIEW: While it lacks a true Live View mode, the A850 provides Intelligent Preview. You can preview the effects of shutter speed, aperture, Dynamic Range Optimizer and white balance before taking the shot.
DRO: Sony’s Dynamic Range Optimizer improves shadow detail while maintaining highlight detail. It does this automatically, or you can select one of five correction levels. There’s even DRO bracketing, which shoots three shots at different DRO levels.
DUAL CARD SLOTS: The A850 can save images on CompactFlash or Sony Memory Stick Duo media.
STANDOUT FEATURE: A 24.6-megapixel, full-frame D-SLR for under $2,000!
ALSO CONSIDER: SONY DSLR-A900
If you want to shoot at 5 fps, need a 100% viewfinder or just like to have the top of the line, check out the A900. List Price: $2,699.
List Price: $949 (body only)
Replacing Sony’s top-of-the-line DSLR-A700 “APS-C” model, the new DSLR-A550 features an all-new, 14.2-megapixel Sony Exmor CMOS sensor that provides enough resolution to produce large prints of landscapes with good detail. Sony’s newest Bionz image processor improves image quality further and speeds operation.
The A550 incorporates sensor-shift image stabilization that works with all lenses, along with an effective sensor-dust removal system. Like all Sony D-SLRs, the A550 will accept Minolta Maxxum, as well as Sony SLR and Zeiss lenses designed specifically for Sony’s D-SLRs.
|AUTO HDR: You don’t need a computer to do High Dynamic Range photography with the A550. In Auto HDR mode, the camera will take two bracketed shots and automatically merge the best of each into a single image with more detail in bright and dark areas. Sony’s Dynamic Range Optimizer also improves detail in high-contrast scenes.
ISOs TO 12,800: With a normal ISO range of 200-1600, expandable to ISO 12,800, the A550 can handle those dawn and dusk shots when wildlife is most active (and the light most attractive).
7 fps: The A550 can shoot up to 5 fps when using the SLR viewfinder (up to 7 fps in Speed Priority mode, with exposure and focus locked) and up to 4 fps with Quick Auto Focus Live View—fast enough to handle most wildlife action.
STANDOUT FEATURE: The A550 provides Live View operation, but a bit differently. Because it uses a second sensor to provide Live View with quick phase-detection AF, there’s no disruption of the live image. The high-res, image sensor-based Live View mode doesn’t provide AF; rather, you use the magnified high-res image to aid manual focusing. The 3.0-inch, 921,000-dot high-res LCD monitor tilts up and down—great when you’re shooting low-angle close-ups or have to shoot over tall brush.
ALSO CONSIDER: SONY DSLR-A700
You can still find the A700 at dealers for about the same price. The A700 offers a more rugged build, but fewer megapixels (12.24), no Live View and a nontilting LCD monitor. List Price: $899.
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The DSLRs Of 2009
|Micro Four Thirds
The Micro Four Thirds System came into being to fulfill the promise of the original Four Thirds System: create smaller interchangeable-lens digital cameras. While the original Four Thirds cameras weren’t that much smaller than conventional APS-C D-SLRs, the Micro Four Thirds cameras are—due, in large part, to the elimination of the SLR mirror box and pentaprism. These models provide the features of a D-SLR, including interchangeable lenses, but without the bulky SLR finder.
With no TTL optical finder, Micro Four Thirds cameras provide viewing via the full-time Live View LCD monitor like a compact digital camera. The first two Micro Four Thirds System cameras, Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-G1 and DMC-GH1, also provide an eye-level electronic viewfinder so you can use the camera like an SLR when desired.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1
List Price: $899 (with 14-45mm zoom)
The new 12.1-megapixel Lumix DMC-GF1 is the smallest and lightest system camera, marginally smaller than the Olympus E-P1 and some 35% smaller in volume and 26% lighter than Panasonic’s original Micro Four Thirds model, the DMC-G1. As with the Olympus E-P1, you can purchase an optional Live View eye-level finder for the GF1, but that increases bulk. Note that the GF1 has a built-in flash, missing in the rival Olympus E-P1.
|QUICK CONTRAST-BASED AF: Those who think that term is an oxymoron will be surprised when they try the GF1. Although not as quick as a top phase-detection system, the GF1’s contrast-based AF is quite functional, much faster than rival contrast-based systems.
HD VIDEO CAPABILITY: The GF1 can shoot 720p HD video in two formats—AVCHD Lite (for long duration and viewing on Viera TVs) and Motion JPEG (for editing and viewing on computers) with mono sound.
SENSOR-DUST REMOVER: Because the GF1’s shutter (like those of all Micro Four Thirds System cameras) remains open when power is switched off, its sensor is exposed even more than sensors in D-SLRs each time you change lenses, so the camera’s effective built-in SSWF sensor-dust removal system is especially valuable to those who change lenses in the field.
STANDOUT FEATURE: The GF1’s clean, flat design makes it easy to carry anywhere—ideal for getting shots in those tough-to-access outdoor locales.
List Price: $799 (with 14-42mm zoom)
Olympus put a D-SLR-sized image sensor in a truly compact interchangeable-lens camera body and created a whole new class of camera in the process. Like previous Micro Four Thirds System cameras, the 12.3-megapixel E-P1 gets its small size by doing away with the traditional SLR mirror box and pentaprism, instead using its 3.0-inch, 230,000-dot LCD monitor for composing and manual focusing. But unlike those cameras, the E-P1 doesn’t incorporate an eye-level electronic viewfinder, thus reducing size even more. The E-P1 looks terrific and is loaded with features. (An optional optical finder that attaches to the camera’s accessory shoe is available.)
Like Olympus’ D-SLRs, the E-P1 provides sensor-shift image stabilization, which works with all lenses (handy when you don’t want to cart a tripod into rough country with this little camera) and effective Super Sonic Wave Filter sensor-dust reduction.
|SIX ART FILTERS: The E-P1 features the same Art Filters as the E-620, but in the E-P1, they can be applied to RAW images and even movies.
HD VIDEO: The E-P1 can shoot 720p HD video clips up to seven minutes long and SD clips up to 14 minutes long, with pro-quality stereo sound via built-in microphones.
DIGITAL LEVELER: A digital leveler allows you to level the camera even when the horizon doesn’t appear in the frame.
STANDOUT FEATURE: A truly compact interchangeable-lens camera with D-SLR image quality.