Spotlight: Digital SLRs
At a Glance
Noise--speckling or mottling, most often visible in broad planes of color, such as sky--is an inevitable fact of digital photography. We saw noise in photos taken by all of the cameras, although most of the time these blemishes were barely noticeable. The Nikon D100 showed the most noise, but we wouldn't say it has a big problem: The images it produced still looked great when enlarged, with the noise being only just visible at lower ISO settings. The Olympus E-1 has a noise reduction mode in which the camera takes the photo and then takes another with the same settings but with the shutter closed. Finally it subtracts this noise-only image from the first, eliminating much of the noise (see "Noise Reduction," on next page).
The downside of the creative control these cameras offer is that they can be much more difficult to use than a conventional point-and-shoot digital camera. The Canon EOS 10D's body, for instance, has a total of 17 buttons, two switches, and three dials, and it takes some time to learn which button does what. The Canon EOS Digital Rebel and the Pentax ist D are the easiest to use: Neither requires a huge amount of button pushing to access its settings. The Olympus E-1 puts controls you'd want to use while looking through the viewfinder (such as exposure lock and the focus point selector) under your right thumb for easy access, while the Nikon D100 offers two dials for shutter speed and aperture near the shutter button.
All of the cameras proved to be quick at focusing in good light, although in low light the Digital Rebel often spent several seconds trying to focus. All of the models also offer several user-selectable focus zones. The Digital Rebel and the Pentax have nine zones, which cover most of the frame, while the Olympus gives you three in the center of the frame. The Canons provide an automatic depth-of-field mode, and this is very useful for getting both a nearby object and a distant one in focus.
The cameras we tested have a variety of metering modes, as you'd expect, including spot, center-weighted, and automatic. The Pentax and Nikon provide a dedicated dial, instead of buttons or a menu, for switching between metering modes.
Photos a la Mode
The cameras all offer modes such as aperture-priority, shutter-priority, full manual, and program, but the Canon Digital Rebel and 10D also include scene modes (such as sports and portrait) that set the camera up for the subject. For instance, the sports mode enables the camera to take photos in quick succession and keep quick-moving subjects in focus.
Most of the models connect to a PC over a USB 1.1 interface, and copying the large files these cameras produce takes a long time. The 1-Ds provides a FireWire interface, while the Olympus E-1 includes both USB 2.0 and FireWire. Both of these faster connections make the process of transferring images much quicker.
While the Digital Rebel is the standout camera of the group, there are several other attractive options. The Olympus E-1 is easy to use and takes great images, but it can't take existing Olympus lenses. The Pentax ist D is the smallest and lightest of the group, but the images were not as sharp as the others. The Nikon D100 is a very flexible camera, but the others have more accurate colors and less noise.