Thursday, April 10, 2008

Sony SLR

It's a question I get nearly every day: "I want to step up from a point-and-shoot camera to a digital SLR; should I buy a Canon (CAJ) or a Nikon?"

Glad you asked. The answer just got more complicated thanks to Sony's (SNE) new $799 Alpha A300. This is one terrific alternative, perfect for soccer moms and baseball dads who want to stop action of their kids and get closer to the scene.

Single-lens reflex (SLR) models are the fastest-growing segment of the digital camera market as point-and-shooters look to improve their photography with the same kind of camera that professionals use.

With myriad lenses and accessories available, SLRs are the place to advance to the next level. (And spend more money: SLRs are much more expensive than point-and-shoots.)

Besides the A300 and its companion $899 A350, Canon and Nikon have also just released new models aimed at first-time buyers: the $899 Canon Rebel XSi and Nikon's $749 D60. (Pricing is from the manufacturers.)

All are excellent cameras, but the balance is tipped toward Sony for features that will appeal to average shutterbugs lusting after sharper photos.

The A300 (and the A350, which has a higher megapixel count) has built-in image stabilization (in-camera tools to help steady your hands) and the best focusing I've seen on a digital SLR. Sony calls it "predictive" autofocus.

We've all held the shutter button down halfway to focus, on both point-and-shoots and SLRs. On the A300 and A350, you just point the camera at your subject, and it does the work for you. I tested this feature on a recent trip to Washington, D.C. While a friend drove around, I stuck my head out the car window and quickly took pictures of randomly shifting images. Most were amazingly sharp.

Then there's Live View. If you like using the preview LCD screen on your point-and-shoot - to say, hold it above a crowd to grab a shot - the A300 is for you. Most SLRs don't let you compose on the LCD; you have to use the viewfinder. The A300 lets you do it via the viewfinder or the LCD screen, which tilts up and down.

To access Live View, you simply click a button on top of the camera. Canon's new Rebel XSi also has Live View, but using it is more complicated. You have to go into the camera's menu, and through a bunch of steps, and focusing isn't as seamless as with the Sony.

The drawback to the Sony cameras are accessories and lenses. Shutterbugs look to SLRs to bring them a variety of different views - ultraclose-ups and wide angles made possible with different lenses.

Canon and Nikon offer more than 50 lenses each and hundreds of accessories. When Sony introduced the Alpha in 2006, it had 19 lens available; two years later, the number has increased to just 24.

Most Sony lenses are pricier than - or not as good in low light as - comparable Canon and Nikon lenses.

What to buy

Most shoppers agonize over the Canon vs. Nikon decision, but there is no right or wrong answer. It comes down to personal choice: how the camera feels in your hands. Both Canon and Nikon have made top cameras for decades, and that hasn't changed in the digital age.

Canon's Rebel XSi is a major upgrade from the XTi. It has a smaller body, large LCD screen, Live View, improved manual controls and better resolution.

Nikon's D40 is the choice for many first-time digital SLR buyers, because of its sweet $499 price. The drawback: It has a 6-megapixel sensor (a megapixel is a measurement of a camera's resolution) compared with 10 for Nikon's new D60 and the Sony A300, and 12 for the Rebel XSi.

Both the D40 and D60 can autofocus only with digital-era Nikon lenses. Older lenses can be used, but they must be manually focused.

For first-time Nikon buyers, the D40 is the more logical and economical choice over the D60, unless you plan on cropping a lot and making superlarge blow-ups.

Canon Rebel XSi vs. Nikon D40 or D60? I opt for the Rebel, for the 3-inch screen (Nikon's is 2.5 inches) and extra megapixels.

Overall, though, I'd give the nod to Sony's Alpha A300 for any first-time SLR buyers, as long as they don't need a lot of lenses. The consistent focus makes it a really sharp choice.

Your Ad Here