Top Digital SLR Cameras for Summertime Shooting

For a photographer, there is little worse than the sinking feeling that you've just missed the shot. You know the one--the shot that you have a millisecond to capture, be it of your toddler running across the lawn, of your buddy's home-run swing at the company softball game, or of the jet swooping above you at a summertime air show.

If missing pictures is a frequent lament of yours, then you're probably ready to graduate from a digital point-and-shoot camera--and its seemingly interminable shutter lag--and explore the wider realm of digital SLR (single-lens reflex) models. Fortunately, the latest digital SLRs come with a host of features aimed at helping newcomers make the transition from a point-and-shoot.

We tested Canon's EOS Digital Rebel XSi ($899 with kit lens), Nikon's D60 ($750 with kit lens), and Sony's Alpha DSLR-A300K ($700 with kit lens), and discovered that each camera has its own appeal for the crossover crowd.

One of the chief shooter-friendly additions to digital SLRs is a Live View mode, which lets you compose an image within the camera's LCD just as you would with a point-and-shoot digital camera. Live View has been making its way into digital SLRs steadily over the past year. Both the Canon and the Sony we review in this story offer Live View; they're the first sub-$1000 digital SLRs we've evaluated to have the feature. Other models we've tested with Live View include Canon's $1499 EOS 40D, Nikon's $2200 D300, Olympus's $2650 E3, and Panasonic's $1000 Lumix DMC-L10K.

The Sony Alpha DSLR-A300K's Live View mode works particularly smoothly compared with competing implementations of the feature. This model uses two imaging sensors, one to preview the image on the LCD in real time and another to capture the image. Sony's uncommon approach to Live View results in a speedy, highly responsive mechanism (in contrast to the more sluggish operation found on rival cameras).

Canon's EOS Digital Rebel XSi, on the other hand, uses the same imaging sensor for both preview and image capture. Even so, this model's Live View worked fairly well--you can check on the focus in specific areas.

Canon EOS Digital Rebel XSi
The 12.2-megapixel Canon EOS Digital Rebel XSi boasted the best image quality of the three models we tried; its imaging, coupled with a strong feature set, was good enough to help propel this unit to first place on our Top 5 Digital SLR Cameras chart. In the PC World Test Center's evaluation, the XSi produced evenly exposed shots, with excellent sharpness.

Various preset and manual controls are chief among the XSi's strengths. Although navigating through its deep menu options can be daunting, the useful My Menu feature (previously seen on the pricier EOS 40D) can help you organize your oft-used settings into a single shortcut screen. Another boon to folks who are accustomed to point-and-shoot cameras is the A-Dep feature, which optimizes images of small groups by adjusting the depth of field so that all of the image's subjects are properly in focus.

Nikon D60
The relatively lightweight, 10-megapixel Nikon D60 will appeal to anyone who wants the benefits of an SLR but not the heft. This model just missed our Top 5 chart, however, landing in seventh behind its sibling the D300. Its exposures were just slightly off, which hampered its image-quality score; it also lost points due to its comparatively smaller LCD (2.5 inches, versus the Sony A300K's 2.7 inches and the Canon XSi's 3 inches), as well as its lack of exposure bracketing and white-balance bracketing.

The D60 (body only) weighs 16.1 ounces--0.7 ounce less than the Canon XSi. The camera feels small and lightweight in the hand, yet sturdily constructed. Although this model lacks the Live View mode found on the Canon and on the Sony, it has plenty of other enticing features, the most notable being its in-camera editing effects and nifty stop-action-animation mode (which creates an AVI movie from a series of JPEG images). The animation function is the closest thing so far to having a movie mode in a digital SLR--and while it's no replacement for making an actual movie clip, it is a compelling and creative alternative means of capturing a moment.

The D60's Active D-Lighting extends the dynamic range and compensates exposure to pick up lost detail in shadows and highlights. And if you're stuck on how to use a feature and you don't have your manual in your pocket, no worries: The D60's in-camera help screens walk you through many of the unit's functions.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A300
If you're still learning about camera exposures, the intuitively designed, 10.2-megapixel Sony Alpha DSLR-A300K will help you explore the process with its Exposure Shift setting. Exposure Shift creates several shots that are equivalent to the one you first captured, but with different exposures, thanks to varying combinations of shutter and aperture speeds.

The A300K also features in-camera image stabilization, which means that any additional lenses you buy will benefit from the camera's ability to produce sharper images in low-light conditions. Plus, this model has a tilting LCD screen--as some point-and-shoot digicams do--which, together with the Live View mode, lets you get unusual angles without having to perform any gymnastic feats.

A digital SLR may not fit in your pocket the way a point-and-shoot digicam does, but if you take the plunge, you'll find a world of new images available for you to capture. What better time to explore than this summer?

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