The Best Digital SLR Cameras

New models from Canon and Sony land at the top of PC World's rankings, bolstered by such additions as a live-image preview on the LCD to help compose images.

The Best Digital SLRs

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 a jet plane swooping above you at a summertime air show.

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

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 compact digital camera. Live View has been making its way into digital SLRs steadily over the past year. Both the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XSi and the Sony highlighted in this article offer Live View; they're the first sub-$1000 digital SLRs we've evaluated that have the feature.

A digital SLR may not fit in your pocket the way a compact point-and-shoot digital camera does, but if you take the plunge, you'll find a world of new images available for you to capture.

1) Canon EOS Digital Rebel XSi Digital SLR Camera

The 12.2-megapixel EOS Digital Rebel XSi boasts great image quality and a strong set of features. In our PC World Test Center evaluations, the XSi produced evenly exposed shots, with excellent sharpness. Various preset and manual controls are chief among the strengths of the XSi, which costs about $899 with kit lens. Though navigating through the camera's deep menu options can be daunting, its useful My Menu tool can help you organize the settings you use frequently into a single shortcut screen. Another boon to folks who are accustomed to compact cameras is the A-Dep feature, which optimizes images of small groups of people by adjusting the depth of field so that all of the image's subjects are in focus.

2) Sony Alpha DSLR-A300 Digital SLR Camera

The Sony Alpha DSLR-A300K is one of the first sub-$1000 digital SLRs we've evaluated to have Live View mode. Live View lets you compose an image within the camera's LCD just as you would with a compact point-and-shoot camera. Live View has been makings its way into digital SLRs steadily over the past year. Live View mode in the Sony Alpha works particularly smoothly compared with competing implementations of the feature. The Sony Alpha A300 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 our PC World Test Center tests, the Sony Alpha earned a score of Superior for its overall image quality, including its excellent flash exposures. This camera, which costs about $700 with a kit lens, has a tilting LCD screen that lets you take pictures at unusual angles without having to perform any gymnastic feats. In general, the A300K is an uncomplicated and fun-to-use digital SLR.

3) Olympus Evolt E-510 Digital SLR Camera

Unlike some digital SLRs in its class, the Olympus Evolt E-510 has a great many features built in. For example, in addition to offering exposure bracketing--the ability to take multiple versions of a picture at different settings, thereby increasing your chances of capturing a properly exposed image under difficult lighting conditions--this model can bracket shots for flash and white balance. You also get two levels of image stabilization to minimize camera shake, a depth-of-field preview button, multiple metering modes (including a spot meter), and a dust-removal feature that vibrates the sensor when you turn the camera on. At lower ISO ranges, the Evolt E-510's images show very little noise; as you reach and exceed ISO 800, color noise begins to appear, though it's no worse than on other cameras in the price range of this $600 model.

4) Canon EOS 40D Digital SLR

If you want to step up from an entry-level digital SLR, you have to get something that has at least a little extra oomph. The Canon EOS 40D delivers outstanding image quality at a price ($1300 body only, or $1500 with a 28mm to 135mm lens, as of November 2, 2007) that's within the reach of photo enthusiasts and professionals alike.

The EOS 40D received a score of Superior for image quality in our PC World Test Center tests. Images were well balanced, with good color saturation and accuracy under both flash and natural light.

One of the EOS 40D's advantages is that it has enough high-powered features to appeal to enthusiasts as well as to professionals seeking a second camera. It has many of the same capabilities, in fact, as its higher-end cousin, the $4500 Canon 1D Mark III, which the company introduced in the spring. The two models share a 3-inch, live-view, 230,000-pixel LCD; Canon's Digic III image processor; highlight tone priority for preserving the details in bright areas of an image; and similar menus and controls.

On the whole, this is a powerful, scalable, 10.1-megapixel camera. If you're moving up from a Rebel-series digital SLR, you'll appreciate this model's versatility, which will help the camera grow along with you. And if you're a more advanced shooter or a pro looking for something smaller and less costly than Canon's top-tier cameras (the 1D and 5D series), the EOS 40D is perfect for you.

5) Olympus E3 Digital SLR Camera

The Olympus E3 is a big, heavy, 10.1-megapixel digital SLR with extensive advanced controls. The E3's flexibility starts with its bright, 2.5-inch color LCD, which swings away from the camera body and swivels. The E3 also has highly customizable controls. Dual selector dials--one on the back, one on the front--are now commonplace on digital SLRs. But you can reassign the E3's dials in a number of useful ways. You can, for example, set one of the dials to adjust the f-stop and the other to change the shutter speed.

You have to be serious about your photography, though--and have plenty of arm strength, too--because the bulky E3 body alone costs about $1700 and weighs just under 2 pounds. Adding the lenses adds to both the cost of the base camera ($1700 or so) and the heft: The 12mm-to-60mm (24mm-to-120mm, 35mm equivalent) zoom I received with the E3 costs around $900, and the body and lens together tip the scales at an arm-fatiguing 3.25 pounds.

Overall, the E3 feels comfortable to hold, and its magnesium body looks and feels durable--and ready for extensive time in the field. Operating the controls is quick and efficient. And unlike with many cameras, I could read the color LCD even while wearing dark sunglasses.