Digital Cameras For Hot Shots

The latest high-performance digital cameras are a snap to use and afford

Photo enthusiasts who bought into the digital revolution early sacrificed the speed, flexibility, robustness and image quality that they had grown accustomed to with 35-millimetre single lens reflex cameras. In fact, many shutterbugs weren't willing to make the sacrifice and stuck with their film SLRs. But disappointed early adopters and film holdouts alike now have options–superb new digital SLR kits (camera body plus zoom lens) priced at about where consumer film SLRs were 15 years ago. Here are three of the best–along with the first digital rangefinder camera, the Epson R-D1.

Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT
MSRP: $1,300

You can buy the eight-megapixel Digital Rebel XT, successor to the groundbreaking 6 MP Digital Rebel introduced in 2003, with or without a lens, as with all the SLRs here. If you already own Canon lenses, you might want to buy without, but the lens adds only $150. It's an 18-55-mm zoom (equivalent to 28-90 mm on a 35-mm camera), and, for the price, remarkably good quality.

The camera's 8 MP CMOS sensor delivers larger, more detailed images than the XT's nearest rival, the 6 MP Nikon D50, but also slightly more noticeable electronic noise in low-light shots and when using high ISO (light sensitivity) settings. The resolution advantage means you can make bigger print enlargements with your best XT pictures. Apart from the noise problems, unnoticeable in most circumstances, image quality–sharpness, level of detail, colour accuracy–rivals that of the D50, the best of the bunch in that category in my estimation.

One big kick against point-and-shoot digicams was slow power-up, auto focus and shutter lag–all of which made it difficult to capture fleeting moments. The Rebel XT eliminates those problems. It is also the smallest, lightest of the cameras here, and if you're used to a diminutive point-and-shoot digicam, size matters. That said, some have found the XT's hand grip too small. Compact flash rather than secure digital for storage means slightly better selection and pricing for memory cards.

Epson R-D1
MSRP: $4,000 (body only)

The Epson R-D1's bloated price tag means it's really a viable option for only well-heeled camera collectors and possibly professionals. While the R-D1 is a nicely engineered photographic tool, you wouldn't want one as your only camera. Its main appeal is the vintage 1930s rangefinder styling–thinner body, more mechanical controls, shorter lenses–and the quality of construction. Camera snobs will also appreciate the quality of the more than 200 vintage and modern Leica-mount lenses that fit it.

Rangefinder cameras were common from the 1930s to 1970s, but the emerging SLR format, with its superior design features, pushed them aside. The rangefinder uses a separate mechanism for estimating distance to the subject. In original designs, you found the range, then manually adjusted a ring on the lens to set focus. In more recent designs, you find the range and adjust focus in one step, by bringing together a split image in the viewfinder. It's still a manual process–you move a ring on the lens–which is one more reason modern photographers will likely take a pass on the R-D1.

Epson included a fixed focal length Voigtlander lens with the test unit. Cosina Voigtlander makes lenses that fit Leicas, the classic cameras used by mid-20th-century photojournalists, after which the R-D1 is modelled. Some of our test images, when we managed to focus accurately, were superbly sharp and detailed, but were not noticeably better than images captured with the SLRs.

Nikon D50
MSRP: $1,180

The D50 is a completely new product from Nikon, designed to beat the Canon digital SLRs at their own game. It is significantly smaller and lighter than the D70, which Nikon introduced last year to compete with the original 6 MP Canon Digital Rebel and upgraded earlier this year with the D70s. The D50 is only marginally bigger and heavier than the Rebel XT, but appears more solidly constructed. It also feels more comfortable in your hands than the XT because of the larger, more contoured, rubbery hand grip.

The D50 includes a new sensor, but it's still 6 MP to the Rebel XT's 8 MP. Nikon will rightly argue that sensor resolution is only one factor determining image quality: lens quality and in-camera image processing are also critical. In my testing, the D50 consistently produced excellent images. Sharpness, level of detail, colour and exposure accuracy all appeared as good as or better than with the Canon and Olympus cameras. That said, when you're making big enlargements or cropping a small part of the frame to use, the 25% larger image from an 8 MP sensor will yield better results.

The kit lens, the AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 18-55 mm, offers a slightly wider angle of view than the XT lens. Nikon is also offering the matching AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 55-200 mm, similar in size and weight and at an excellent price of $300. Our sense was that the D50 was a hair faster than the XT, but the difference was too small to measure. One disappointment: Nikon has switched to SD format for storage.

Olympus Evolt E-300
MSRP: $1,350

While the test pictures we took with the Olympus Evolt rivalled those from the other SLRs for image quality and colour and exposure accuracy, and while the 8 MP sensor and CF card storage are pluses, this is probably my least favourite of the models tested–mainly for reasons of look and feel, though I also found the auto focus marginally slower in some situations.

Olympus has made some curious design decisions. The body is shorter than the traditional SLR, but longer and thicker. It is a little heavier than the Canon and Nikon models. The Evolt also dispenses with a separate monochrome LCD control panel; camera settings are displayed instead on the rear colour LCD used for image preview and menus. No doubt this is something one could become accustomed to–like the oddly uncomfortable hand grip–but it's hard to see what Olympus gained by these decisions.

In its favour, the Evolt is clearly the most solidly built of the three SLRs. Olympus also claims it is the only camera of its kind guaranteed to be dust-proof. In 10 years of working with digital cameras, I have not known dust getting into the works to be a major problem, but for heavy users, including professionals, especially those who need to photograph in harsh environments, this is a definite advantage.