Head to Head: We Test Affordable Digital SLRs

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Digital single-lens reflex cameras aren't exactly mass-market yet, but they're getting there rapidly. Just over a year ago, Canon shipped the first affordable digital SLR: its breakthrough sub-$1000 EOS Digital Rebel. Nikon followed with its slightly more expensive D70--a boon to all of those longtime Nikon film SLR owners with a bag full of lenses. Now Olympus and Pentax have joined in.

The Olympus EVolt E-300 Digital SLR ($1000 with lens) and the Pentax *ist DS ($900 with lens) both come with a slew of creative features and once you master those--particularly the exposure controls--you can take some truly dazzling photos. Digital photographers looking to move beyond a simple point-and-shoot model likely won't be disappointed by either camera, but each has some distinct strengths and weaknesses.

The Olympus is easily the more eye-catching of the two. There's no hump on the top of the camera--the signature mark of all SLRs for the past 45 years. Olympus moved the viewfinder's optical path to the left side of the body, which makes the camera slightly shorter than most other digital SLRs. Though it isn't a significant savings in size, the flat-top design does seem to slide in and out of an overstuffed camera bag more easily. Our shipping Olympus has a polished look and feel. Its solid, bricklike body feels as if you could pound nails with it. The dials turn smoothly and easily, and the body fits firmly in two hands.

The Pentax has a more traditional SLR shape, though its overall body is smaller than those of most digital SLRs (it's about three-quarters of an inch narrower than the E-300). For any photographer with a Pentax film body and late-model lenses, the unit provides an obvious transition to digital. Our shipping unit isn't as finely finished as the Olympus (its dials are stiffer and its controls aren't as sophisticated, for example), but its black body looks more professional than the silver Canon EOS Digital Rebel.

Big Specs, Complicated Controls

The Olympus has the edge on specs: It includes an 8.1-megapixel CCD, whereas the Pentax, like the Canon EOS Digital Rebel and the Nikon D70, has a 6-megapixel CCD.

Both cameras will easily serve photographers of any skill level--convenient for those times when you have to hand your camera to someone who's comfortable with only point-and-shoot models. In addition to full automatic exposure mode, both cameras have a selection of preset scene modes that quickly adjust your settings to specific situations. The Pentax has seven on its mode dial, while the Olympus provides five on the dial and repeats those five plus adds nine more in the menus.

In the past we've praised Olympus cameras for their intuitive menus, but the E-300 takes a slight step backward. The submenus are not as well labeled as those of the Olympus C-8080 we tested previously, and working out the location of the camera's many settings takes some time.

For example, the camera's white-balance controls are spread across three of the five menu sublevels. Unfortunately, the Pentax's menus are no more intuitive--there are just fewer of them. And you can't customize either camera's menus as extensively as you can the Nikon D70's, or even those of some earlier Olympus models.

On the plus side, the Olympus responds more quickly as you use it. Many of the key exposure controls change rapidly with the press of a dedicated button and a spin of the camera's selector dial. Also, I especially like the Olympus's status screen on its 1.8-inch LCD. It's easy to read, with blue letters on a black background, and it tied in nicely to the camera's controls.

Less-Than-Sure Shots

For our formal image-quality tests, we shoot in the camera's default fully automatic mode. It's a good test of a camera's ability to capture details and accurate color, before you add your exposure-correction preferences.

In most of our tests, the Olympus's images were much like those we got from Nikon's D70 and Canon's semiprofessional EOS 20D: a bit underexposed, with colors that were slightly less saturated than the hues of the original subject. (Some digital photographers prefer default settings that produce slightly underexposed images that allow them to make adjustments on a PC without losing details.)

In full automatic mode, the Pentax produced more accurate exposure values than did the E-300. Colors looked bright--even slightly oversaturated, in some cases. It captured pure whites and neutral grays especially well.

In our test photo, the 8.1-megapixel Olympus reproduced better fine-line details than the Nikon D70--in fact, its output was comparable to that of the much more expensive, semiprofessional 8.2-megapixel Canon EOS 20D. Shots from the Pentax were noticeably coarser than the Olympus and slightly less sharp than the Nikon D70's, which has the same 6.1-megapixel count.

In the hands of a photographer who knows how to fine-tune exposure controls, both cameras produce great shots. But if you often crop or enlarge pictures to the practical limits of the images, the Olympus should produce finer results, thanks in part to its larger-capacity CCD.

The Olympus also has an edge over the Pentax when it comes to burst shooting. Capturing images in its second-best JPEG setting, the Olympus fired off a consistent 2.5 frames per second, stopping only when I ran out of space on my CompactFlash card. Burst mode on the SD Card-based Petnax was less consistent, with the frames-per-second speed revving up and down, but averaging 1.5 fps.

The Lens Factor

If the Olympus has a liability, it's the fact that it's a completely new SLR that requires specific lenses. Unlike the cameras from Canon, Nikon, and Pentax, there is no massive base of existing 35mm film camera lenses to choose from. Even if you're starting from scratch, buying clean used lenses can save you a significant amount. And while Olympus's selection of Zuiko Digital lenses is pretty good, it's still a fairly new line and doesn't have nearly the breadth of the competition.

The Pentax does have one distinct advantage over most of today's digital SLRs: While the vast majority--including the Olympus--use proprietary rechargeable batteries, the Pentax uses two disposable CR-3Vs or four AAs. That means you can buy your own rechargeable batteries, and in a pinch you can find replacements easily almost anywhere on the globe.

After two days of head-to-head shooting with these cameras, I lean toward the Olympus. Much of that comes down to personal preference, though. I like the overall feel of the E-300 and I'm more comfortable with its controls, plus I generally preferred the images it produced over those the Pentax shot.

Olympus EVolt E-300 Digital SLR

This rugged, fast, 8-megapixel SLR is hard to beat--unless you're sitting on a stash of old lenses.
Street: $1000 (kit with 28mm-to-110mm zoom lens, 35mm equivalent)
Olympus America

Pentax * ist DS


This story, "Head to Head: We Test Affordable Digital SLRs" was originally published by PCWorld.

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