Buyer’s Guide: Entry-Level DSLR Cameras

So many choices, especially when it comes to digital cameras. How to choose the best one for your needs, especially if you’re just breaking into digital photography and/or you don’t have a large budget for expensive gear? We can help.

In this article, Photo.net takes a look at basic, entry level DSLRs from the major manufacturers, namely Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax and Olympus. We’re limiting the selection to DSLRs with true optical reflex viewing and to models that are widely available new at a total cost of less than $550 with a lens. That limits the number of possible choices somewhat but there are nevertheless some interesting and capable cameras available. Sigma also make DSLRs, but no current models are available in this price range.

Just as background, here are a few general comments on the camera features of each manufacturer:

  • Canon – Canon has an extensive system of accessories and lenses and a history of innovation. They had the first lens using an ultrasonic motor, the first lens with built in image stabilization and were the first to use a CMOS sensor. Their crop sensor cameras have a 22.3 × 14.9 mm sensor, giving a “lens multiplication” factor of ~1.6×.
    [View the Photo.net Canon Cameras & Equipment Guide.]
  • Nikon – Like Canon, Nikon has an extensive system of lenses and accessories along with a long history of professional support. They too now have ultrasonic and image stabilized lenses. Current Nikon DSLRs can use many of Nikon’s older manual focus lenses. Nikon crop sensor cameras have a 23.1 × 15.4 mm sensor, with a ~1.5x “lens multiplication” factor.
    [View the Photo.net Nikon Cameras & Equipment Guide.]
  • Sony – Building on the knowledge base of Minolta and Konica-Minolta, Sony has developed an extensive line of cameras. most of which now include image stabilization built into the body of the camera rather than the lens. Sony cameras have the same lens mount as the autofocus Minolta bodies and so can fully use Minolta AF lenses. Their sensors are typically 23.5 × 15.6mm (~1.5x).
    [View the Photo.net Sony Cameras & Equipment Guide.]
  • Pentax – Like Sony, Pentax DSLR bodies now incorporate image stabilization in the body of the camera. Building on their long history, Pentax DSLRs can use any Pentax AF lens, plus earlier manual focus Pentax lenses (an adapter is need for screw mount lenses). Pentax DSLRs typically use 23.7 × 15.7 mm sensors (~1.5x).
    [View the Photo.net Pentax & Equipment Guide.]
  • Sigma – Sigma DSLRs are unique in using a Foveon sensor which measures all three colors (red, green and blue) at each pixel position. Everyone else uses sensors with individual red, green and blue sensitive pixels. Each system has its own set of advantages. Their sensors are typically 20.7 × 13.8mm (1.7x).
    [View the Photo.net Sigma Cameras & Equipment Guide.]
  • Olympus – Olympus chose to go with a “four-thirds” size sensor, approximately 18mm x 12mm, giving a “lens multiplication” factor of ~2×. Most of their bodies now feature built-in image stabilization.
    [View the Photo.net Olympus Cameras & Equipment Guide.]

A factor to consider when choosing a DSLR might be 3rd party lens support. The major 3rd party lens makers (Tamron, Tokina and Sigma) pretty much always support the Canon and Nikon systems. Usually they also support Sony and sometimes Pentax. There’s less 3rd party support for Olympus and only Sigma make lenses which are compatible with Sigma DSLRs. This can be something to consider if you have a need for a particular lens that is only available from a 3rd party lens maker, such as, for example, the tamron_60-nikon, which isn’t currently available in Pentax or Olympus mounts.

Which cameras cost less than $550 with a lens? If you buy from a reputable dealer and you want a new camera (not used or refurbished) there are currently only 6 options (as of March 2011). All (except for Olympus) come with an 18-55mm lens, which gives about the same field of view as a 28-85mm would on a full frame camera. The Olympus E-620 comes with a 14-42mm zoom, but due to the 2x focal length multiplier, it gives about the same field of view (28-84mm in full frame terms).

In each case, the zoom provides the range from wideangle to short telephoto and is useful for anything from wideangle shots to travel and portraits. None are really long enough for sports and wildlife work.

The camera/lens kits are:

  • canon_rebelxs_kit
  • nikon_d3000-kit-1
  • olympus_e620-kit
  • pentax_kx-black-kit
  • sony_a290
  • sony_a390

Photo.net’s partners have these camera kits available. Their prices are fair and you help to support photo.net.

Canon EOS Digital Rebel XS (EOS 1000D)

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The canon_rebelxs_kit is Canon’s most basic and least expensive DSLR kit. It was introduced in June 2008. The XS is a good starter camera with most of the functions a newcomer to DSLRs is likely to need. It has a full set of automatic and manual exposure modes, good image quality from the 10MP CMOS sensor and good control over noise. Possible limitations are a maximum ISO setting of 1600, no spot metering and only 7 AF zones. There is also no video mode (in fact the Pentax K-x is the only camera with video capability in this group). The Rebel XS uses SD/SDHC memory cards. It is supplied with a Li-ion battery and charger.

The Rebel XS offers DOF (depth of field preview), exposure bracketing over a +/- 2stop range and exposure compensation over a +/- 2 stop range

The Rebel XS can record both JPEGs and RAW images and Canon supply their Digital Photo Professional (DPP) RAW conversion software at no charge. DPP is actually a very good RAW converter with good control over most shooting parameters along with image rotation, image cropping, vignetting correction, chromatic aberration correction and distortion correction (when a compatible Canon lens is used).

The XS kit comes with the Canon EF-S 18-55/3.5-5.6 IS lens. Not a bad lens and the image stabilization is excellent. One of the strengths of the Canon system is the wide selection of lenses from both Canon and 3rd party lens makers.

Nikon D3000

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Nikon’s offering in this range is the nikon_d3000-kit-1. The D3000 was introduced in July 2009. Like the Canon Rebel XS it has a 10 MP sensor (10.2 MP to be exact). Image quality is good, especially at lower ISO settings and the 11 point AF system works very well. Possible strikes against the D3000 are the lack of any Live View modes and the lack of video capability. Whether a newcomer to DSLRs needs either of these features is a matter of debate. I rarely use either Live View or video myself, but I suspect that users upgrading from a P&S digicam may miss the ability to view and compose images on the LCD screen rather than looking through the optical viewfinder.

The D3000 also lacks depth of field preview and exposure bracketing. While these aren’t essential features for the newcomer, they can be useful.

Nikon supplies their 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S DX VR Nikkor Zoom with the D3000. Like the Canon’s lens the Nikon has image stabilization built into the lens.

Olympus E-620

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The olympus_e620-kit is something of an “odd man out” in this group since it uses a slightly smaller “Four-Thirds” sensor, while the other DSLRs use the slightly larger “APS-C” sensor. However, despite using a sensor that is physically smaller than that of the other cameras, at 12 MP the pixel count is higher than that of the Canon XS and the Nikon D3000 (10 MP). The E-620 is still available new and there are also some refurbished systems around.

Unlike the Canon and Nikon camera systems which use image stabilized lenses, Olympus put their image stabilization system in the camera body. There are pluses and minuses to this approach. The biggest plus is that you get image stabilization with any lens you mount on the camera body. In principle, non-stabilized lenses should be a little less expensive because they don’t require the added complexity of the motion sensing gyros and motors to move the lens elements around. On the minus side the body stabilized systems may not be quite as effective as the lens based systems.

The AF system of the E-620 is quite advanced with 7 AF zones of which 5 are cross type sensors. Cross type sensors respond to both vertical and horizontal lines in the subject and so may be able to lock focus on targets that simple linear sensors have trouble with.

The E-620 has a 2% spot meter, exposure bracketing (but only over a +/- 1 stop range) and a +/- 5 stop exposure compensation range.

The E-620 has live view, but like most of the other cameras in this group, lacks video capability. A nice feature is that the 2.7" LCD can be swung out from the camera (“Tilt and swivel”) This enables easy low angle and overhead shooting when used in conjunction with the Live View mode.

The Olympus E-620 is supplied with the 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Zuiko Lens. Since the smaller sensor results in a larger “lens multiplier” factor, the coverage of this lens on the Four-Thirds sensor is very similar to the coverage of the 18-55mm lenses on the cameras with APS-C sensors.

Pentax K-x

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In a number of respects, the pentax_kx-black-kit (introduced in September 2009) stands out from other cameras in this group. It’s the only one with video capability and has a significantly greater ISO range (100-12800) than the others. It features spot metering, built-in image stabilization and the fastest shutter speed of 1/6000s (the others top out at 1/4000s). On the downside, it doesn’t come with batteries and a charger (it uses AA batteries) and the chosen AF zone(s) is not displayed in the viewfinder when the camera is allowed to chose from the available options, so you don’t quite know what the camera has focused on. In fact, the location of the 11 focus zones isn’t shown in the viewfinder. Of course, if you select to use the center zone, then you know what the camera is focusing on. To me, not knowing which AF point was used would be a significant drawback, but others may not find it as much of a problem as I would.

The large ISO range, ISO 200 to 6400 with expansion to 100 and 12800 is a very nice feature. Even better is the fact that pretty good image quality is maintained across the range (though 12800 is best reserved for absolute necessity). Even at higher ISO settings the images retain good detail.

Built-in image stabilization is also useful, but truth be told it’s not quite as efficient as some other systems and doesn’t really perform as well as the stabilized lenses of Canon and Nikon do. Still, any stabilization is better than none and it stabilizes the image of any lens attached to the camera.

The K-x also has a HDR (High dynamic range) mode in which three images are shot at three different exposures and then combined in-camera to give an image with increased dynamic range. If the subject moves between the three images, then there can be problems, but for static scenes it can be useful.

The Pentax K-x kit includes a Pentax 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AL lens.

One more pretty unique feature of the K-x is that you can get it in black, red, white, green or blue!

Sony Alpha A290 and Alpha A390

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Sony has two DSLR kits in this group: the sony_a290 and the sony_a390. These are essentially the same cameras (same sensor, same electronics, same AF, same metering etc.) with just a couple of feature differences. The A390 has live view and a tilting LCD, while the A290 has a fixed LCD, no live view and a slightly larger viewfinder (0.83x vs. 0.74x). Note that the tilting LCD of the A390 is tilt only, no swivel. In live view the AF operation is relatively fast compared to most other DSLRs, so this is an advantage if you anticipate doing a lot of Live View shooting (though be warned that battery consumption is higher in Live View mode).

The A290/A390 have the highest pixel count sensors in this group (14 MP) and both have in-body based image stabilization. Both feature the same 9-point AF sensor system (the center AF zone is a cross type). Exposure compensation over a +/- 2 stop range is possible and there is a small autobracketing range (up to +/- 2/3 stop).

ISO range is 100-3200. Performance at low ISO settings is good, but image quality drops off as ISO is raised, probably more so than some of the competitor cameras.

The A290 and A390 camera kits include the Sony 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 SAM DT lens.

Which is the best?

All of these cameras will produce excellent images under typical shooting conditions. With sensors much larger than any P&S camera they will capture images that can be used to make larger prints with lower noise. If you just want good images shooting in good light, they will all do a good job.

All of them allow the photographer lots of control over exposure modes and focus modes and they all will shoot and focus much faster than most, if not all, P&S digicams.

The differences among them come down more to what features they leave out than what features they include, and that may be where the decision lies as to which one is “best” for a given photographer.

For example, if you want video, you have one choice – the Pentax K-x. You also get very good low light performance and a high frame rate. However, what you lose out on is that the image stabilization system isn’t as good as some of the other choices and you can’t see which focus zone the camera picks when you shoot in automatic AF zone selection mode. It also doesn’t come with a Li-ion battery or charger and uses AA batteries. However, that can be a plus since you can find AA batteries almost anywhere.

The Canon Rebel XS does everything pretty well, has a good user interface, good exposure and focus capabilities and comes with excellent software – but it has the lowest pixel count (10MP), the lowest maximum ISO rating and no spot meter. It does however give you access to Canon’s extensive lens range, plus just about every lens made by the 3rd party manufacturers.

The Olympus E-620 also generates very high quality images. It does use a somewhat smaller sensor, which can result in slightly lower resolution than the other cameras here and the viewfinder is the smallest of any of the cameras in the group. It also pretty much locks you into Olympus lenses since there isn’t a lot of support for the Four-Thirds mount by 3rd party lens makers.

The Nikon D3000 is another good performer, but like the Rebel XS it has a lower pixel count sensor than the Sony, Pentax and Olympus offerings, plus it doesn’t have a Live View mode which all of the other cameras in this group have.There’s no depth of field preview or automatic exposure bracketing either. However, it does give you access to a huge number of lenses from Nikon and all the 3rd party lens makers.

The Sony A290 and A390 have the highest pixel count sensors (14 MP) and the A390 has a tilting (but not swiveling) LCD screen which can be useful in combination with live view for low and high angle shooting. However, the image quality at high ISO settings may not be the best in the group. The viewfinder of the A390 is also the smallest of any of the APS-C cameras in this group. The default JPEGS from these cameras may also be a little softer than the other cameras, though the RAW files can be converted into sharper JPEGs.

Which one would I choose? Well, without having them all side by side to test it’s a tough call to make, but based on specifications and features the first one I’d look at would probably be the Pentax K-x. In red, if I could find one (the red ones seem to be harder to find and priced higher for some reason).

The bottom line is that it’s not surprising that, given their price point of under $550 with a lens, none of these cameras offers everything you could possibly want and your decision would have to be based on what is important to you. Note that all these manufacturers make DSLRs with more features – but at a higher cost of course.

Brief Specification Comparison

Sensor Pixels Sensor Size ISO Range Video Frame Rate Exp Comp Body IS
Canon Rebel XS 10.1 MP APS-C 100-1600 No 3.0 fps +/- 2 No
Nikon D3000 10.2 MP APS-C 100-3200 No 3.0 fps +/- 5 No
Olympus e-620 12.3 MP Four-Thirds 100-3200 No 4 fps +/- 5 Yes
Pentax K-x 12.4 MP APS-C 200-12800 720p HD 4.7/2 fps +/- 3 Yes
Sony A290 14.2 MP APS-C 100-3200 No 2.5 fps +/- 2 Yes
Sony A390 14.2 MP APS-C 100-3200 No 2,5fps +/- 2 Yes

Where to Buy

Photo.net’s partners have these camera kits available. Their prices are fair and you help to support photo.net.

  • canon_rebelxs_kit
  • nikon_d3000-kit-1
  • olympus_e620-kit
  • pentax_kx-black-kit
  • sony_a290
  • sony_a390

More

Original text ©2011 Bob Atkins.

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    •  

      Hi Bob,

       

      Seems like the new Nikon I just bought, the D3100 has been making the most entry-level news in the DSLR business, and your article noticeably neglects the D3100. What happened?

       

      Tony

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    • Hi,

      this is a fair and reliable article. No futile information, just the important stuff. Begginers, read it carefully!

      However the phrase "current Nikon DSLRs can use many of Nikon's older manual focus lenses" is somehow misleading: a cheap Nikon DSLR does not even recognize when such lens is installed...there is no focus confirmation or metering. You're saying the same for Pentax, where you have focus confirmation and metering (plus image stabilizations in body). I think this difference worth the mention.

      Best regards,

      Valentin

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    • Hi Tony, The Nikon D3100, while a great option as an entry-level camera, is out of the price range of the qualifications Bob set for the article ($550 or less). Hannah
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