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Digital SLR Performance
There are several criteria by which one can judge the abilities of a cheap digital SLR, but none is more important than the quality of the pictures the camera takes. In DSLR reviews, experts and users are adamant that color accuracy and sharp, clear images are essential.
Of course, DSLR reviews also indicate that users want a camera that performs well, with a fast autofocus and a good continuous-shooting mode.
Camera Image Quality.Manufacturers can load a cheap digital SLR with all kinds of features, drop the price through the basement and make the camera compatible with all kinds of lenses, but if it can't take good photos, no one's going to want it. We were somewhat surprised to discover that all the models we looked at earn high marks from users and experts alike. Reviewers shower the Canon EOS Rebel T3 with praise for its image quality. A DSLR review by an expert at CNET says the Rebel T3 has excellent color reproduction as well as good light metering. Experts at Imaging Resource agree that the Rebel T3 produces accurate color, and an expert at DigitalCameraReview is impressed by how sharp photos look even at higher ISOs. The Sony A390 earns chiefly positive feedback from users posting DSLR reviews on Amazon, who note the exceptional detail and generally high quality of the photos.
The Nikon D3000 doesn't win over reviewers quite as readily as our other top cheap digital SLR camera picks, but it seems to perform well enough in DSLR reviews. Best Buy shoppers love the Nikon D3000 for its photo quality. Even the Olympus PEN E-PL1, a model that falls short on other dimensions and is not among our favorites, garners applause for photo quality. DigitalCameraReview compliments the PEN E-PL1's image quality in a DSLR review, and singles out the detail and sharpness of the photos.
Camera User Interface.Entry-level DSLRs should have intuitive, user-friendly interfaces. You should be able to find the settings you want easily, ideally without having to scroll through several pages of menu screens. The simpler and more straightforward the DSLR camera user interface, the better.
For the most part, camera makers have created interfaces that are quick and easy to use. DigitalCameraReview gives the Nikon D3000 a thumbs-up for its menu design in a DSLR review, calling it intuitive and easy to use. The Sony A390 earns praise for its simplicity from several reviewers, including the experts at Digital Photography Review and consumers at Amazon. An expert at CNET doesn't care for the interface Olympus designed for its E-PL1, according to a DSLR review, saying that initial setup, such as setting the manual white balance, can be confusing.
Camera Operation.DSLR manufacturers clearly know how to make a camera that takes good photos, but overall performance varies quite a bit from one cheap digital SLR to another.
The digital SLR reviews we read indicate that users want a camera with a fast autofocus and a fast burst rate. The last thing a photographer wants is to press the shutter button and wait nearly a full second before the camera snaps the picture (a phenomenon called shutter lag).
Some of the DSLR cameras we researched meet these performance expectations better than others. The Olympus PEN E-PL1 struggles to keep up with the best DSLRs on our list. Most notably, the camera's autofocus is slow to lock into and focus on the image. In addition, CNET's expert grouses that the camera's shot-to-shot time is two seconds. The camera has a relatively speedy 3.3 frames-per-second burst rate, but the pokey autofocus can't keep up with photos snapped that quickly. That being the case, CNET says this camera isn't suited for action photos of any kind. Digital Photography Review also addresses this shortcoming, saying that the camera's continuous shooting mode and continuous autofocus don't sync very well -- you get either blurry photos due to the slow autofocus or shots that are in focus but are snapped much slower than the 3.3 fps burst rate.
The Canon EOS Rebel T3, one of our picks for best DSLR in the budget price range, also takes a hit in reviews from outlets such as CNET for its slow continuous shooting speed. The Rebel T3 captures about 3 fps when snapping JPEG images, but that number drops to a painfully slow 1 fps when shooting in the RAW format. On the other hand, Digital Photography Review says the autofocus is fast, locking onto the subject of the photo quickly.
The Sony A390 also sports a quick autofocus and fires up fast, according to Digital Photography Review, although noise appears in images shot at ISO 400 and higher. Furthermore, the camera's continuous shooting mode of 2.5 fps is slow compared with that of the other cameras we researched. In digital SLR reviews at Amazon, users list the slow continuous shooting mode and poor battery life among the few cons of the A390.
The Nikon D3000 performs respectably though not spectacularly, according to digital SLR reviews. Digital Photography Review concludes that photos are slow to show up on the Nikon's LCD after you snap. A reviewer at CNET writes that the D3000 starts up very quickly, but its performance overall is average.
Don't Bother Cheap DSLRs
Olympus PEN E-PL1
Whether you think the Olympus PEN E-PL1 is a good camera or not may turn on whether you consider it a shoestring-budget DSLR or an upscale point-and-shoot that happens to have interchangeable lenses. It takes good pictures, but its performance lags far behind that of other cheap DSLRs. Users don't want a slow camera, especially when taking action shots. Read more »
Nikon D5000 Review
Canon EOS Rebel XS Review
Olympus PEN E-PL1 Review
Nikon D3000 Review
Canon EOS Rebel T3 Review
Sony A390 Review
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