Review date: 15 September 2005.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


For some people, the choice of digital camera is simple.

You've already got a bunch of EOS lenses? You're not a pro who pumps through hundreds of images a day? Then you want a 20D, or a 350D, or maybe a 300D if you're strapped for cash.

If you're reading this long enough after I wrote it that 5Ds are easy to buy, and you've got the cash to get one, then go ahead and buy that instead; it seems unlikely you'll be disappointed by it.

If you're skint, feel free to look for a good used D60 or 10D for cheap if you like, but you probably won't find one.

Thus far, the choices are not too hard.

People who don't already have a significant investment in one kind of camera system, though, face a pretty confusing collection of options these days, even if they're sure they want a DSLR. And a lot of people who buy DSLRs would actually be happier with something else, just as a lot of people who bought 35mm SLRs probably shouldn't have.

People who're used to little consumer cameras invariably think a DSLR feels like a brick by comparison, and they're right.

With a lens of quite modest dimensions on it, a 20D will easily weigh more than a kilogram. An EOS-1Ds (a big pro cam, used by real professionals and the pathologically wealthy), wearing far from the heaviest lens you can put on it (Behold! Tremble!) will be well over two kilos. Three kilos is easy to hit. That's about the same as fifteen little consumer cameras.

This is the kind of weight that medium format photographers are used to. Most people don't want to get used to it. Bear this in mind.

And, of course, any digital camera is going to be outdated alarmingly quickly, some people's strange opinions notwithstanding.

It'll probably work for a long time, unless you buy a total piece of crap or suffer a misadventure, but wait a few years and you'll be able to get the same specs for far less money, guaranteed.

Given all this, it's hardly surprising that a lot of people just throw up their hands and buy any old thing, and I don't blame them; that's certainly my policy for the purchase of beverages.

I want to do my part to reduce the number of people who don't have any fun taking pictures, though, so here's the quick and dirty guide to What You Might Like To Buy Instead Of A 20D.

First, simplest, cheapest option: No camera.

Cameras are dangerous things. They suck you in. Some people get sucked in very badly indeed, to the point that they obsess over taking pictures of things rather than actually experiencing those things for themselves.

If you travel the world with your camera stuck to your face, you may well end up with scarcely more connection to your experiences than you would have had if you'd just stayed home and looked at other people's photos of the places to which you'd otherwise have gone. You could buy some really nice coffee table photo books for the price of a world tour and a funky photo rig.

If photography has more minuses than plusses for you, don't do it. Sure, you may want or need a photo of something now and then, but a disposable film camera or borrowed digicam will do that job, and not leave you feeling bad because you spent $2000 on a bunch of gear that you don't even like using.

Just the other day I was looking out at The Three Sisters, and standing next to a perfectly nice fellow and his wife. They were visitors from far, far away.

She had a sensible little recent prosumer Canon - a PowerShot G5, I think. He had a 10D with battery grip and unremarkable Canon zoom.

He was taking picture after picture of the Sisters, as the sun went down and the light changed. Nothing wrong with that. He was also using autofocus for every shot, despite the fact that neither he nor the Sisters was moving. There's nothing seriously wrong with that, either, but it does make you look a bit of a tit.

He said, and his wife long-sufferingly confirmed, that he owned more than one L series lens. He opined that he pitied Nikon users, because all Nikon lenses were miserably soft.

I smiled indulgently.

He, clearly, was not actually miserable. But I'll bet you ten bucks that he would have been happier if he had none of that camera crap, and more money in the bank. So would his wife. There wasn't a damn thing about the pictures he was taking that was any better than what his wife's pocket camera (well, OK, large pocket camera) could do. He could have been just standing in the breeze enjoying the serenity.

People like him can be found in all walks of life - I dare say he's spent a lot less than most of the people who tweak their cars to make them slower. He may, however, have spent more than many people with a kitchen full of Damascus and laminated steel knives that hold an edge better than any other blades in the world, on account of the fact that they're never used to cut anything.

Retailers make these people very welcome. They may be tiresome to talk to, but they sure do prop up the bottom line.

Second option: A nice little consumer point-and-shoot digital camera.

If your motto is "always bring your camera", you'll find it a lot easier if your camera genuinely does fit in a pocket, and there are lots of good options even at the cheap end of the consumer market, these days.

Never mind the megapixels. Despite what the colourful stickers on the cameras want to make you believe, they hardly matter at all for consumer cameras; they don't even cost you lots of extra money for storage, now that Flash memory cards of all kinds are cheap enough that any schmuck can keep a few 2Gb cards handy.

In this category what you actually want is a great user interface first (because many of these cameras are very small, even auto-everything operation can be harder than you might think; don't get an ultra-mini fashion-accessory camera unless you've got unusually nimble fingers), a good price second, and a decent lens third (zoom range being about as important as low chromatic aberration and geometric distortion).

Modern consumer digitals still aren't magic. They won't tell you not to take flash photos of fireworks or alert you if you're taking a picture in which a palm tree appears to be growing out of Uncle Larry's head. But, for less than 1% of the average Western wage (including the decent-sized memory card and rechargeable batteries that the bloody camera companies still don't put in the box), you can get a camera which really does do everything most people need, and which also fits only somewhat uncomfortably in a pocket.

There are about a million products in this market segment, of course, but as a starting point you might like to weigh up the Panasonic DMC-LZ2 (currently about $US250 ex delivery), or a Nikon Coolpix 4800 ($US350).

Or, as far down into the bargain basement as it's wise to go, a Canon PowerShot A510 or Sony DSC-S40. They're both selling for around the $AU285 mark from local dealers here in Australia at the moment, and you won't pay a whole lot more for rechargeable AAs, charger and memory card.

Third option: A "prosumer" integrated-lens camera, the fancier versions of which are sometimes known as Fixed Lens Reflex cameras, or FLRs.

There are scads of options here, and the category's no longer very tightly defined; you can pay as much for a prosumer camera as for a basic DSLR with lens, but you definitely don't have to. The Olympus C-8080 Wide Zoom, for instance, can do everything that most people do with a pro camera, but costs considerably less than the cheapest DSLR body (the older C-7070 Wide Zoom's under $AU665 locally).

You're not quite stuck with the standard lenses on these cameras, either; most prosumer cameras have threads on the end of their lens that let you screw on telephoto (which can be a tad cumbersome), close-up or wide angle adapters. The adapters are often pretty optically decent, for the money.

Special mention should go to the veritable hordes of cameras with 10X zoom lenses and image stabilisers (so you can actually use their 300mm-or-more-equivalent zoom without a tripod). That sort of thing used to be highly remarkable and leave you either with questionable optics or a camera the size of a trench mortar, but now you can get things like Konica Minolta's magnificently UFO-ish DiMAGE Z5 for under $AU720 locally, or Sony's Cyber-Shot DSC-H1 for not much more. Nikon's slightly more normal-looking Coolpix 8800 is fancier, and goes for $AU1690 locally (or $US850 or so in the States).

Fourth option: Some other DSLR. Some other big names have come up with their own Unique Selling Points in the somewhat-affordable-DSLR market, upon which they like to expound at great length.

Canon's advantages can be summed up as "low noise, EF lens compatibility", and the 5D's going to sell like blazes to people who've never been able to afford a full frame DSLR before (I'm guessing 15% of buyers), pros who want another body to go with their bigger full-frame Canons (maybe another 10%), and aimless enthusiasts (the rest).

Nikon's recently released 6MP D50 is cheap ($US800, $AU1430 with a lens), also has excellent noise performance, has a big LCD screen and, of course, works with Nikon lenses, which have remarkable forward and backward compatibility. New Nikon lenses work on old cameras, old lenses work on new cameras. If you've got a bunch of nice Nikkor glass, you obviously don't want a Canon DSLR.

Pentax's 6MP *ist DS (the name could be worse, but they'd have to work at it) is similarly inexpensive (only about $AU975 with a lens!), is small and light (for a DSLR), and also has good noise performance, a big screen, and 0.63X viewfinder magnification - only an eighth better than the 20D, but still worth having. And it takes Pentax K mount lenses.

The 6MP, $US1200 Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D has, wait for it, a Minolta A-type lens mount, so... you know the rest. The Maxxum mount standard has been around since 1985; there are plenty of them kicking around out there.

And the 7D's quite small, and it's got a great big LCD. But it, like various other current Konica Minoltas, also has the best Unique Selling Point out there right now - an optical image stabiliser built into the body, not the lens.

So every lens on a 7D has image stabilisation.

The only down side is that because the stabiliser moves the sensor, behind the mirror that bounces the image up to the viewfinder, you can't see it in action. If you want to see that fun "oily" look as you jiggle the lens, you'll have to buy some stabilised binoculars and look through those.

That aside, the integrated stabiliser a big deal, and has resulted in the 7D (and not-quite-on-sale-yet 5D; way to keep the names un-confusing, guys) getting love from the curmudgeons who've resisted the charms of previous DSLRs. OK, it's only six megapixels, but a sharp stabilised 6MP image beats the heck out of a blurred unstabilised 12MP one.

Further diverging from the if-you-own-these-lenses-you-should-buy-this-camera theme is Olympus' Four Thirds System, named for its consumer-cam-type 4:3 image aspect ratio.

Four Thirds hardware can be made by any number of lens and camera manufacturers, but so far it's is pretty much an Olympus-only show, with only the 4.9MP $US1000 E-1 and newer 8MP only-$US800-with-a-decent-lens E-300 "EVOLT" DSLRs to choose from (and, some time soon, the E-500, giving enthusiasts yet another chance to play the waiting list game). Both of them have Olympus' magic dust-rejecting vibrating sensor, though.

Four Thirds defines smaller-than-35mm-sensor DSLRs and lenses to match, so that everything can be smaller and lighter and cheaper than hardware with full-frame compatibility. On the downside, it's incompatible with everything else in the world. If you've got no lens collection at the moment, though, that doesn't much matter, and there's a decent range of Four Thirds lenses out there now. You still only have approximately one choice for any particular job, but when that choice is a good one, who cares?

(And yes, you can put silly lenses on Four Thirds cameras with adapters.)

The E-300's a particularly attractive option for anyone who's only got a nice-prosumer-camera amount of money to spend at the moment.

What else is out there in the vaguely-affordable department?

Well, there's the Sigma SD10, which is for weirdoes.

And the 6MP, $US3000 (bear with me here) Epson R-D1, which is also for weirdoes, and not actually a DSLR, but which is still a much more defensible purchase than the Sigma.

The R-D1 takes standard all-manual Leica lenses (no autofocus, no auto aperture, no girlymen allowed; even ancient screw-mount lenses can be used with an adapter), and it behaves surprisingly like a classic Leica rangefinder camera, right down to requiring you to rack a "film advance" lever to "cock" it for the next photo. Which, if you ask me, is exactly as stupid as consumer cameras that play a tinny "motor wind" sound when you take a picture.

The R-D1 is expensive for what it is (a less silly alternative for people who just want the cool rangefinder style is the integrated-lens Leica Digilux 2, sold cheaper as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LC1), but nothing else lets you use a lens that's 72 years older than your camera. Or a really good lens that's 29 years older than your camera.

If you buy any kind of interchangeable-lens digital camera, though, remember that it is incumbent upon you to learn how to use it.

I'm rather stern about this.

If you're a regular subject-always-in-the-middle-of-the-frame, direct-flash, I-don't-know-why-my-photos-are-so-often-blurry happy snap photographer, buying a DSLR is a brilliant step on the way to becoming a good photographer - or, at least, one decent enough that your happy-snapping relatives reckon you're a genius.

Once you get past the purchase price hurdle and the inconvenience of a (relatively) big camera, all you need do is read a book and do some shooting, and before you know it you'll be winning friends and influencing people with your luvverly artistic achievements. Or, at least, chimping in a very professional manner.

The rest of this review:
Introduction Resolution Lenses Strengths Confusion

Review EOS-20D kindly provided by Dirt Cheap Cameras.

Australian digital camera shoppers should check out

Shoppers from the USA might prefer DealTime.


See also


The first page of this review is here.

If the photo-jargon in this review baffles you, my photo tutorial may help.

Or perhaps you'd prefer a book.

Give Dan some money!
(and no-one gets hurt)