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Old Nov 24, 2005, 12:12 AM   #1
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The short question: which entry-level DSLR *and* lens combination is the best compromise between performance under poor indoor light, cost, and overall image quality? Also want a cheap indirect or diffusible flash to go with it. Long-winded elaboration follows.

Like everyone else who posts here, I've been going in circles between the various entry-level DSLRs available. I have a fairly good sense of what sets the camera bodies apart, but I could still use some well-informed suggestions to give me a final push. I hope to hear from you even if you're familiar with only one model.

My photography experience is limited to a few years with an Olympus Mu II (Stylus Epic) film P&S and a few months with the exposure and ISO controls of a cheap Kodak CX7430. I'd like to dive right into the "real" photography controls of a higher-end camera and learn as I go. When I first read about the Digital Rebel and saw the output, I thought it was everything I'd ever want at a price I could reach. But the price and unique features of the latest Olympus and K-Minolta models, plus the future directions the EOS 5D and D200 hint at, make me want to hold off another year or two on a long-term commitment to any one system. At that point I could sell what I have (if necessary) and make more informed choices. In the meantime, I'd like to put together a good entry-level camera and lens package that will keep me happy for now. Let's say I'm willing to spend up to roughly $1500, give or take a couple hundred, but would prefer to go lower. I'd also like to have the camera now, before the holidays, for use with relatives; otherwise I'll just put off any purchase for another half a year.

Since the camera is just an image capture tool, I'm willing to sacrifice smaller conveniences such as LCD size and camera weight for the sake of innate image quality, ease of adjustment, and maximum control over settings. My impression is that just about any decent camera can handle ordinary daylight P&S without much trouble. I take a lot of my photos wherever I happen to be outdoors (downtown, parks, trips, etc.), so even an all-in-one camera would work much of the time. I've been giving serious thought to the Panasonic FZ30 because of this. (Also because I *like* the Kodak's mini-movie mode. ) However, I also take many indoor pictures of relatives, especially my very active nephews, in somewhat poor light (as low as 1-2 60W incandescent ceiling bulbs in a 240 sq. ft. room, or 2-3 in 500 sq. ft). I've grown to hate P&S direct flash, but without flash my indoor photos usually contain blur from both subject motion and camera shake. And shaky full-zoom outdoor shots have been too familiar despite my Olympus' 115mm limit. So low-light performance and some form of image stabilization are both desirable, though I don't know how low an ISO setting I'd need for my purposes. I'm also expecting to make heavy use of RAW, which seems to be a particularly weak point of lower-end cameras (14 sec writes would be far too long at times) but makes in-camera color, NR quality, sharpening, etc., less of a purchasing factor.

The other major factor would be lens types and costs. I'm horribly ignorant about the wide range of lens options available for most systems. Even if I can turn up some good review sites, I won't know what to look for until I have some real hands-on photographic experience. The range of the Olympus kit's 28-90 equiv. standard and 80-300 equiv. tele lenses would probably keep me happy for many months while I got used to advanced camera operation. I could see adding a wide and macro lens at some point, perhaps, but I'd prefer not to spend very much on either if I'm not committing to the system.

With all that in mind, what combination of camera and lower-cost lenses (new or used, any brand) do you think might make me happiest? K-Minolta 5D seems to fit many of my needs, though 8MP feels more "right" than 6 for long-term storage. I haven't been able to figure out from the specs what, if anything, puts the 7D $100s above the 5D. In practice, is the low-light noise much better than the E500's, and not too much worse than the 350D's? From my film scanner research, I'm also a little wary of K-M's software and quality control, though I get the sense that most of the big camera brands have shockingly poor service. What would be good standard, tele, and (possibly) wide lenses to pair with it while keeping overall costs below $1500?

Thanks to the price, lens package, and dust remover, E500 looks very attractive despite the reduced noise performance. And I carry some brand loyalty from my faithful Mu II, which traveled quite a long way with me without incident. E500 doesn't seem to have any IS available, though. Think the kit would still suffice for my indoor shots as long as I hold it steady? Is its ISO400-800 noise performance at least an improvement over the typical "super zoom" camera? If the two kit lenses keep me happy for a year or two, the lack of affordable alternatives might not matter. Limited focus control might be a problem, however, since missed autofocus and no autofocus override has been one of the more annoying aspects of the P&S's. Is it really much of a hassle in practice?

350D is always a possibility thanks to pure image quality. But what lenses could I put with it that could match the K-M 5D or the E500 while staying in the same price range? The $1000 lenses just aren't a possibility anytime soon, though I could probably live with just one or two decent few-hundred-dollar IS lenses in place of the kit lens if they're available and versatile enough.

Nikon seems very good too, but similar drawbacks to the Canon and none of the unique features of the lower-cost alternatives. Pentax has me a bit confused...I can't figure out its personality from the reviews. More menu-only adjustments? I think I'd rather have as many camera settings as possible available through dedicated dials.

Apart from all that, I'd like to throw in a serviceable, inexpensive flash that could be bounced off the walls, ceiling, etc., or diffused with a filter. Doesn't need to do more than boost lighting in a small room or perform fill flash from a few feet. Whatever you can suggest for your recommended model.

Without wasting too much of your time, what are your gut recommendations? I appreciate that there's no "right" answer here; I'm looking for advice, not instructions. I'm not hoping for National Geographic quality, just quality that reflects the $1000+ investment, is good value, and is a real improvement over what I could get from a $500-700 all-in-one camera. I'm sure that for at least the first couple of years, I'll be a much greater limiting factor than the camera design. So I'm not expecting anything close to a "perfect" camera package, just a solid set of tools and a learning path to produce excellent photos with sufficient care and attention. I should also add that I haven't put my hands on any of the bodies except a powered-off Rebel but am well aware that it's a necessary step before deciding. I want to go in armed with feedback from this post.

Thanks for whatever thoughts you can offer.
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Old Nov 24, 2005, 3:47 AM   #2
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As you know there are no wrong choices here, all the manufacturers make good entry-level kit.

If you go the Canon route I'd go for:

1. Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT (a.k.a. 350D) 8.0 Megapixel, SLR, Digital Camera (Black) with Canon 17-85mm EF-S IS USM Lens ($1250)
2. Sigma Zoom Telephoto 70-300mm f/4-5.6 APO DG Macro Autofocus Lens for Canon EOS ($220)

Total = $1470 from B&H.


The internal flash will give reasonable results for many purposes, so if I were you I'd try it first - I somtimes just balance my Stofen diffuser over my 20D popup flash. But if you find you really want a bounce flash (and I hardly ever use mine) then I'd try...
Sigma EF-500 DG Super E-TTL II Shoe Mount Flash (Guide No. 165/50 m at 105mm) for Canon EOS with E-TTL II ($240)

If you're happy to wait a bit you might be able to get hold of the Nikon D50/D70s with the new 18-200 VR lens for around that price point too. If you're lucky you might be able to get hold of one of those lenses before the holidays, but you will probably have to wait until early next year.

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Old Nov 27, 2005, 2:00 PM   #3
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Thanks for the lens tips. Now I have a baseline for comparison. The Sigma would work for both normal long-range shooting and macro work, correct? Sounds like the two lenses would meet most of my beginner needs. Would it be useful to throw in one of the cheap but sharp Canon 50mm fixed lenses for certain situations, or would the 17-85 IS be about as good by itself?

I got my hands on the Maxxum 5D, the E300, the D50 (or maybe D70) and the 350D and 20D yesterday. Took a little while to figure out SLR shooting, but afterwards it felt very much like what I've been looking for in a camera minus real-time display and video functions. Loved twisting the focus and zoom rings around by hand. Unquestionably the way to go. Stripped-down 350D was a bit of a letdown after the 20D, which was tricky at first but very quickly felt *right*. Maxxum 5D was cheap and very easy to handle...might well end up going with it. I wonder whether the Sigma zoom would match well with the 5D's anti-shake system. I noticed that at ISO1600 under store lighting, the 350D did *exceptionally* well at producing the sharp, blur-free no-flash short-range images I was hoping for, even when I shook it...maybe IS isn't an absolute requirement after all.

Also tried out the FZ30 and Kodak P850. FZ30 was a dream to handle; pity it can't do clean low-light photos.

Since the one long post hasn't gotten much traffic, I'll probably repost my lens question in shorter posts targeted at the Canon and Minolta models. Thanks again for giving me a good starting point.

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Old Nov 27, 2005, 10:20 PM   #4
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Now just to make you more confused, let me give you a slightly different opinion:

Peripatetic is suggesting you spend nearly $1500 for a Rebel XT and two lenses.

If I had $1500 to spend, I would get the Canon 20D with a cheap kit lens.

Then I'd wait six months or so until I scratched up more money, and buy a few decent lenses.

The 17-85 is a pretty good lens, which you could either get right away, or use the kit lens and look at the 17-85 later.

Peripatetic is offering you good advice, but personally I'd hold off on the 70-300 lens as it's pretty "slow" and second quality.

Save your cash and if you really need a long lens one day, get a 70-200 F2.8 lens, either a Sigma or Canon or whatever you can afford.

Better to buy the best quality body you can afford, then as you get a better idea of the focal lengths you will need, save up and buy a decent lens.

Forget the Olympus and Minolta. You need a top quality sensor to work with, to get the best image you can capture, especially at high ISO's.

The Rebel XT or the 20D are going to do it for you. The Rebel XT is somewhat plasticy but still kicks butt with it's 8mp sensor.

The 20D is a serious photographic tool that can take you to the next level and beyond.

The choice is yours, but make one that hurts a little financially. The quality remains long after the price is forgotten!

-- Terry
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Old Nov 28, 2005, 11:53 AM   #5
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Personally I think unless you really need the 8MP I think the 6MP Nikon or Minolta will be fine, as their sensor are not better or worse the the Canon other than the power consumption level due to the differing design. 4/3 system like the Oly can have real issue with noise at low-light high ISO scenario. I am perfectly satisfied with my KM 5D and the 8x11 prints I've made are excellent in quality and I've had no issue with the 2 "missing" megapixel...

D50 Does have the photography tutorial thing built in, I thought that was neat...

As for the AS function with Sigma, in the manual it was stated that they maynot work 100% with 3rd party manufacturer. So far the issues I've heard are mainly with the older model lens. The newer ones should be alright...

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Old Nov 28, 2005, 9:23 PM   #6
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I've definitely noticed the difference between 6mp and 8mp images when I'm out on PBASE.

Anybody says they want to give up the two mp's, I say "why?".

Basically it comes down to the sensor, and I think the Canon CMOS is a class leader.

The only sensors I see comparing to the 8mp CMOS is in some of the higher end Nikons, and now finally the D50 turns out a pretty good image too.

Your right about noise. I don't think the Minolta or the Oly can crank out decent images at ISO3200.


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