Test driving a digital SLR camera

29 Oct

ImageOctober 29, 2007

By Geoff Meeker

In my last column, I offered a primer on digital SLR photography, which combines the convenience of digital shooting with the flexibility of traditional single lens reflex (SLR) cameras.

Two weeks ago, the folks at Nikon were kind enough to lend me a Nikon D80 digital SLR, equipped with a 18-135mm lens and electronic flash.

It’s been an extremely busy two weeks for me, which was the duration of the test drive, and the weather has not been great. However, I did get out for an hour or two of shooting in Bowring Park, where the wind was still and the trees were ablaze in fall colours. Here is a sample image – you can browse more at the link below.

Image

Being familiar with the operation of a 35mm SLR, I thought I’d be able to use the camera straight out of the box. No such luck! There was no obvious shutter speed button on the camera body, and no aperture control on the lens. Fortunately, I had already arranged an interview with the Nikon people, so this was the first question I put to them. As it turns out, the buttons are on the top right and left of the camera body and not clearly marked (one actually has a dual function).

I spoke with Greg Flasch and Mark Cruz, who work in communications and sales with Nikon, for the lowdown on the new D80, which costs about $1400 with lens. They explained that digital SLRs were introduced in the mid 1990s, but were priced out of everyone’s reach. The price has dropped to the point that the cameras are now within reach for most consumers (the D40, the entry level digital SLR, sells for about $500).

Flasch said conventional point and shoot digitals offer ease of use and smaller size, but they also have limitations. “The SLR will give you better quality images,” he said. “They also offer flexibility, because of the changeable lenses, flash units… and features, benefits and functionality of the camera. Quite often people will leave it in the auto mode, and even then you will get exceptional pictures. But when you start getting into the advances that are incorporated into the camera, there is an even greater advantage.”

In addition to the flexibility that comes with full manual control, the digital SLR also offers a larger sensor screen, onto which the image is recorded (imagine a piece of electronic film). The sensors on point and shoot cameras are as much as 80 per cent smaller than those of SLR sensors, which are only slightly smaller than 35mm film, Cruz explained.

“This allows you to capture a better quality image which then enables you to do more down the line with post-processing, if you so desire.”

While the digital SLR doesn’t use film, it does have an ISO (or ASA) setting to adjust ‘film speed’. Slow film, in the 100 to 200 ISO range, is used in bright lighting conditions, while fast film, from 400 to 1000 ISO and higher, is for low light. The greater sensitivity of fast film has a compromise, in the form of grainy images, while slow film offers better sharpness and clarity. This same principle applies with digital SLRs, except that you get ‘noise’ instead of grain on higher ISO settings.

Incidentally, Nikon has overcome the ISO barrier on a new series of pro cameras, the D300 ($2000) and D3 ($5400), which will offer speeds up to 6400 ISO with the quality of 400 ISO.

So how about the camera? There is no question that it takes amazing photos, with razor sharp resolution and breathtaking colour reproduction – and I would expect nothing less from a $1,400 camera. However, I would need to take more time learning its many functions before saying anything more.

As an aside, the 18-135mm lens is heavy and not as good as the 18-70mm lens, which actually costs a little more despite its shorter focal length. It’s just a better build.

I have created a gallery of some of my photos from Bowring Park. You can see them at www.meekermedia.blogspot.com.

Geoff Meeker is public relations consultant who has always had a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about local media, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.


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