For those who care about taking images a cut above the average snapshot, investing in a digital SLR (DSLR) is a must. The better picture quality is partly down to larger sensors than compact cameras, and the fact that the build of the lens, which can be swapped to best suit the subject, is much improved.
There are also a wide variety of lenses available – hundreds in the case of Canon or Nikon – delivering different focal lengths and effects. Typical choices include wide angle for landscapes and group shots, telephoto for getting closer to action, zoom lenses for combining the properties of both in the one optic, plus macro lenses for close up detail. Then there are a plethora of creative filters, adaptors and accessories.
There are further benefits to DSLR ownership. Using a 35mm camera lens on its digital equivalent commonly provides an advantageous 1.5x magnification factor, because the typical DSLR sensor size is smaller than a frame of film (with the exception of ‘full frame’ models like Canon’s 5D or EOS 1Ds Mark III). So, a 200mm lens becomes equivalent to a 300mm, pulling the action even closer to you.
The exceptions to this rule are Canon DSLRs (1.6x magnification factor), Sigma’s SD14 (1.7x) and the Four Thirds system cameras from Panasonic and Olympus, such as the latter’s E-510 reviewed here, which boast a 2.0x magnification factor. This is down to the unique property of the 4/3-type sensor, which has a diagonal size around half that of a 35mm film frame. Hence its modest 14-42mm kit lens becomes equivalent to 28-82mm in 35mm terms.
To avoid unwanted particles sticking to the internal sensor when changing lenses, most DSLRs also feature sophisticated dust reduction systems, that both encase the chip in an anti static coating and vibrate it free of undesirables when switching on or off. Some even have anti-shake features built into the body – moving the sensor to compensate for external hand wobble (mechanical image stabilisation) – so that even low light images come out sharply focused, while others have this feature built into the lens itself (optical image stabilisation). Both systems have their benefits.
Faster overall operation and speed of capture is another reason for making the swap to a digital SLR, with entry level models featuring continuous shooting rates of two to three frames-per-second and more professional models typically five to 8fps. Then there’s a greater choice of file formats – with the ability to shoot highest quality, memory hungry RAW files alongside or instead of compressed JPEGs, the former acting as an unadulterated ‘digital negative’. Want more good news? While they continue to ramp up the level of specification, DSLRs just keep getting cheaper.
So let’s take a look at six of the current offerings. For the sake of comparison, in each case we took a general selection of images, plus the same daylight portrait and low light close up shots, shooting all at the highest resolution offered and utilising the camera’s default settings.