Photo Opportunities

Digital Cameras

Generation 8: I'm Looking Through You (2004)

A lot has changed in the year since my last upgrade. Some of the differences are exactly what we would expect and hope for: higher pixel counts, better lens quality, better storage (4 GB Microdrives and memory cards!), longer lasting batteries. But one difference took at least me by surprise: the emergence of affordable (okay, we can argue about that) Single Lens Reflex digital cameras. And I'm not talking about fixed lens SLRs like the Olympus D-500L I got back in '98 or the higher quality versions that followed. No, these are the real thing: cameras that have all the capability of film cameras. And the kind of accessories that would make a Barbie fanatic envious: lenses, flash units and a whole lot more.

The first volley in this particular skirmish was fired by Canon, when they released their Digital Rebel. I was all set to buy one, having read all the reviews and convinced myself that I just had to get a real camera if I wanted to be taken seriously. (I do own film SLRs. They're collecting dust even as we speak.) But I waited too long. And before I could act, Nikon complicated matters with the release of their slightly more expensive but, if the reviewers were to be believed, superior D70.

Understand that the choice of an SLR camera is easy if you've been a serious photographer long enough. Just look at your collection of lenses. If they use the Canon mount system, you either buy a Canon digital or go out and get all new lenses. And the same would be true for a Nikon owner. Sadly for me, the few lenses I have are Minoltas. And Minolta isn't playing in this particular war. Not yet, anyway.

So I dithered and hoped that something would help me decide. Finally I took the coward's way out. I went to my local high end camera store, asked their advice and took it. And a few minutes later I was the owner of a brand new Nikon D70 and the 18-70mm lens Nikon sells with it.

I haven't had much chance to play with the camera yet. So what you see below is the result of my first experiment: a comparison with my year old Olympus C-5050Z rangefinder. I wanted to compare image detail, color and lens coverage between the two cameras. What you see below are shots of a building next to San Jose Airport, taken from my office's sixth floor balcony. The first column was taken at each camera's full wide angle, with the viewfinder centered on the building's address. The second is at full telephoto. And the third is a full resolution clip of the building numbers.

Nikon D70

What can we see from these pictures? First, the standard lens on the Nikon extends a little further than the Olympus in both wide angle and telephoto. Second, there's a difference in aspect ratio; the Olympus has a 4:3 aspect at 2560x1920 pixels, while the Nikon is 3:2 with 3008x2000. (I've scaled the thumbnails and the full size pictures to match heights: 96 pixels for the thumbnails and 480 pixels for the linked images.) Third, there are some color and contrast differences. The sky in the D70 shot is more blue, with more contrast in the grass in front of the building.

I found the detail clips at far right the most interesting. The Nikon produces much finer detail at full resolution. Notice the reflection to the left of the number; it's hard to see any detail in the Olympus shot. And the Nikon produces much smoother tone. The 5050 is rough and noisy unless I scale the image down.

Another interesting difference between the cameras is their sensitivity to light. Given the huge difference in size between their lens assemblies, one would expect the Nikon to gather a lot more light. And so it appears to be. One of the many virtues of digital cameras is their ability to record all kinds of interesting detail along with their pictures. The Olympus picture was shot at 1/250th of a second at F3.6; the camera's best quality is the equivalent to ISO 64. The Nikon image was 1/200 at F7.1, a film equivalent of ISO 200. In plain language, the Nikon needs a lot less light for the same picture, so it uses a much smaller lens opening. Which I'm hoping means good results in situations my little rangefinder can't handle.

There's one thing I'm certain of, a difference from all my other camera purchases: this new camera won't quite replace my old one. The D70 has all the benefits of an SLR and all the drawbacks. It's big and it's heavy, which the 5050 is not. Carrying the Nikon will be a conscious decision and a commitment to taking pictures. I'll keep the Olympus with me for all those times when something interesting might happen. Just in case, you understand...

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California