Simply Sophisticated Cameras

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1996

Simply Sophisticated Cameras

Single-lens reflex cameras give photograhers of all abilities the power to choose
By Glenn Randall

In this age of drive-thru espresso stands and the world news minute on local TV, it's no surprise that point-and-shoot cameras have become standard issue. They're inexpensive, light, and easy to operate. But if you've ever dreamed of using an ultrawide-angle lens to capture a soaring stone arch and then switching to an extreme telephoto to magnify the image of a distant desert bighorn, sooner or later you'll want something more: a single-lens reflex camera. With an SLR, what you see is what you get, since you're viewing your subject through the lens, and that lets you manipulate the shot in almost any way imaginable. Even snapshots can turn out much better than those from a simpler breed.

Autofocus cameras have dominated the SLR market since the late eighties, and now the weighty decision facing prospective buyers is not whether to go automatic or manual, but what quality of autofocus you want--and can afford. Manual cameras are still available, but even inexpensive autofocus SLRs can get a sharp shot much faster.

With sophistication comes expense. Whereas more affordable autofocus cameras have just one small sensor, which may only detect vertical lines in the center of the viewfinder, better models have larger or multiple autofocus sensors that read both vertical and horizontal lines, making it a snap to lock onto the target quickly. Higher- quality camera bodies also have a feature that makes them more adept at tracking a moving subject: Called predictive autofocus, it allows the camera to actually forecast where a moving subject will be at the moment of exposure.

Like autofocus, some type of multisegment light metering mechanism should be a standard feature on any SLR you consider. Multisegment meters--termed evaluative, matrix, segmented, or honeycomb by various manufacturers--divide the picture area into sections and analyze the light coming from each to select the right exposure. Some camera bodies also offer a spot meter, which measures the light coming from a very small aspect of the scene so you can ensure that the most important part of that scene--say, the face of a musician on a spotlit stage--is exposed properly.

A built-in flash is another standard feature. The better systems will prompt you to use the flash in high-contrast lighting situations, and the most refined even offer something called flash exposure compensation, which allows you to vary the flash output to achieve the effect you want. For example, you might want to increase the flash to render a white wedding dress truly white on film.

If a modern SLR's panoply of features sounds overwhelming, take heart. All the cameras reviewed here have an "idiot mode" that renders your fancy SLR as easy to operate as a point-and-shoot. In full idiot mode, more politely called program mode, the camera will automatically focus, adjust shutter speed and aperture, and control the flash. In addition, all these cameras offer partial idiot modes, allowing you to control either the aperture or the shutter speed or to override the camera's sensors altogether and select both settings manually.

Herewith the best starter SLRs on the market. The suggested retail prices are merely that; it's never necessary to pay full freight for a camera, so shop around and you'll save at least 25 percent. One final note: Weights and prices are for the camera body only.

Minolta Maxxum 400si
The Maxxum 400si ($513) has everything a beginner needs in a lightweight (15 ounces), compact, relatively inexpensive, and easy-to-use package. And it's not as intimidating as a devout point-and-shooter might fear: To select an exposure mode (program, aperture priority, etc.), just press a button on the top deck and use your forefinger to spin a dial conveniently located near the shutter release. You can also choose from five "subject modes," which tip the programmed exposure in favor of situations typical of certain subjects: sports, landscape, portrait, close-up, and night portrait. In sports mode, for example, the camera favors fast shutter speeds to stop action. At this price, you don't get a spot meter, multiple autofocus sensors, or particularly effective predictive autofocus--features that would allow a budding photographer to hone his or her technique--but you do get a basic SLR that will turn out great pictures from most common situations.

Nikon N70
Like a sophisticated software package, Nikon's N70 (one pound, six ounces; $745) is at first confusing. But once you learn to navigate the surfeit of icons on the LCD display, it quickly becomes a well-mannered tool that offers an astonishing array of advanced abilities. For example, it has rear-curtain sync, a feature that fires the flash just before the shutter closes, rather than as it opens, which keeps the blur of a moving subject streaking behind it, rendering the action more natural. The N70 is also the only camera reviewed here that handles with great accuracy every difficult lighting situation I can devise, thanks to a sensor in Nikon's new D-series lenses that tells the camera how far away the subject is and sets the flash output accordingly. As for its predictive autofocus, the N70's ability is superior. Plus, it allows automatic exposure bracketing, which clicks off three frames at varying exposures to ensure that one will be perfect, with either ambient light or flash. This is a lot of camera and will satisfy all but the most demanding of users--just don't leave home without the 127-page instruction manual.

Canon Elan IIe
The Canon (one pound, six ounces; $800) has many standout features, but what's unique is its eye-controlled autofocus. It sounds too good to be true, but simply look at one of the three autofocus sensors in the viewfinder and the camera focuses on that point. It manages this by tracking the position of your pupil with infrared light, and it works remarkably well--even if you wear eyeglasses. The advantage? If you want to frame a subject off-center, there's no need for the usual rigmarole of centering the subject in the viewfinder, locking the autofocus, and then recomposing before you shoot; move your eye instead of the camera. You can even use eye-controlled autofocus to set depth of field: Just focus on the nearest point you want sharp, then the farthest point, and fire away. The Elan IIe also offers flash exposure compensation, multiple exposures on one frame of film, and automatic exposure bracketing. Another benefit is its extremely quiet film handling, which is important if you're photographing wildlife. All told, it's an abundantly talented and smart camera that will give you more keepers than a less-expensive model.

Pentax ZX-5
If you're stepping up from a manual SLR, the simple dials and levers that control Pentax's ZX-5 ($698) will put you at ease. They're the most intuitive in this review--you don't have to memorize a sequence of button-pushing to find a certain mode--yet this lightweight camera (one pound) still offers plenty of sophistication. For starters, it
has three light-metering modes (multisegment, spot, and center-weighted) and two autofocus modes (a wide three-sensor array and spot). It also gives you a choice--even in midroll--of standard picture format or panoramic format. The compromise in performance compared with more expensive models is in the flash metering system, which forces you to be more careful in composing shots, and in its focus-tracking capabilities, which aren't as deft and may force you to burn a few more frames to get the action shot you want. But this is a beautiful camera, elegant in its simplicity, that will take a beginner a long time to outgrow.

Glenn Randall, a frequent contributor to Outside, is a professional photographer who concentrates on landscapes and wilderness sports.
Photographs by Clay Ellis

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