Nikon, Canon, and the Pentax K100D

Week of June 25, 2006

Q:   I want to buy a digital SLR and I am torn between the Nikon D50 and Canon Rebel XT.     For the same money I can get the Nikon with two lenses, or the Canon with only the 18-55 kit lens.   I go back and forth and since I’ve never worked with a digital SLR.   Which is the best overall, and does one have better lens then the other?   Is the Nikon plenty good for most consumers?   Should I hold out for the 8MP over the 6.1 MP, or get another camera altogether?
-Cindy Weldon, Cannon Falls, MN

A: Your question is very timely!   I get a ton of questions about digital SLRs and yours brings up some valid points to consider.   I am going to address them first before getting to my recommendation.

Either camera will do a fabulous job for almost anyone not engaged in demanding pro work.   The difference between 8MP and 6.1MP is small, but there nonetheless.   I would not let the megapixel difference sway you too much.   In the final equation, they are only one piece of the puzzle and not necessarily the most important one when determining image quality.

Two critical factors for image quality are the quality of the lens and the steadiness of the camera at time of exposure.   Sometimes I have a hard time answering questions about digital SLRs from consumers on a budget because I know I am not bringing good news.   Most inexpensive zoom lenses sold with digital SLRs are not very good, and most people do not use a tripod or have the steadiness of hand necessary to use a long zoom lens effectively.   Combine a   soft telephoto lens with an unsteady hand and you get lousy pictures.

Though I discuss gear and gadgets quite a bit in the column, the real reason the column exists is to help everyday folks get great results and great enjoyment from whatever they own, use or buy.   To me, the best digital SLR for consumers is the one that is going to help them get top-quality pictures reliably, consistently, and easily.

That said, I believe the best digital SLR setup for consumers is going to be the new Pentax K100D, available in July with a Pentax 18-55mm   lens for $699.   There are three reasons for this: my prior experience with Pentax in general and their digital SLRs in particular, the quality of their lenses, and the Shake Reduction (SR) system built into the new body.

Over the past year I have been testing a 6.1 MP Pentax *ist DS with the 18-55mm kit lens and have been very pleased with the quality feel of the camera and the beautiful images it produces.   A criticism of the camera has been that its jpgs look softer than competitors; this is said to be much improved in the new K100D. (By the way, the DS and the K100D use the same sensor as the D50.)

The Pentax 18-55 is the best of the kit lenses sold with digital SLRs, and unlike competitors it has a metal lens mount instead of cheap plastic.   The Pentax 50-200 lens was recently called the very best of all telephoto kit lenses by Popular Photography magazine, producing results that rival expensive pro zoom lenses.   It sells for under $200.

Finally, the K100D has a Shake Reduction system built into the sensor, rather than in specific lenses.   This makes every lens you own a stabilized lens and helps ensure sharp pictures.

Combining two fabulous lenses with a good camera body incorporating Shake Reduction, selling for a total of $900 street price- what a combination!   I can’t think of any other outfit that will be able to match the quality of the images this camera will produce for the money.   You will give up some pixels compared to competitors but unless you are making posters I don’t think you would know they are missing… and even then, the quality optics and anti-shake will make more difference in a poster than extra pixels will.

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