Holiday gift guide: Digital cameras

With many camera's now boasting 12 megapixels, resolution doesn't matter so much now, but what does?

Olympus Evolt E-500

This well-equipped and reasonably priced entry-level digital SLR produces high-quality images. The 8-megapixel camera comes with a wide array of features that establish it as a legitimate challenger to Canon's popular, similarly priced Digital Rebel XT. Regrettably, usability issues prevent me from wholeheartedly recommending it over the XT.

Olympus markets the E-500 in three versions: $700 for the body only, $800 for the body plus a 14-45mm lens (the kit I tested), and $900 for that combination plus a 40-155mm lens. The E-500's body felt sturdy, the rubber grip fit snugly in my hand, and the 2.5-inch color LCD was eye-catching. By contrast, the Canon Digital Rebel XT seems somewhat less rugged, its hand grip is too skinny, and the color LCD is smaller.

For beginners, the E-500 offers 15 scene modes, but its true strength lies in its deep feature set. For example, the exposure lock and autofocus lock functions are highly customizable. And it offers plenty of choices for automatic exposure bracketing, white balance, and in-camera processing. Plus, the E-500 has a dust filter.

I enjoyed using the camera, but I found some aspects of its design and performance a bit frustrating. The camera's response to the control wheel is sluggish, and I struggled a bit when trying to focus the lens manually. Also, images shot at high ISO settings of 800 and 1600 were less than stellar, despite using the noise reduction feature.

The price and quality of the E-500's kits are hard to beat. But old-school photographers who like shooting in manual mode might find this camera a bit too slow to respond, and if you expect to shoot using high ISO settings, the Digital Rebel XT may be a better bet.

Upshot: A large LCD, extensive menus, and a nice price make this camera compelling, but it has a few usability issues.

Eric Butterfield

Canon EOS 30D

It might be logical to assume that Canon's new EOS 30D digital SLR camera, successor to the company's popular EOS 20D, would pack a higher-resolution sensor. But such is not the case. The EOS 30D (US$1499 as of March 21, 2006) provides the same imaging circuitry as its predecessor, but it also includes some much-needed new features for only US$100 more than the 20D.

In many respects, the 30D looks exactly like the 20D. The camera has the same control layout as the 20D, but its 2.5-inch LCD screen is a marked improvement over the 20D's 1.8-inch screen.

The 30D's interface is a model of elegant simplicity: Almost all of the controls that you'd use in everyday shooting are accessible via a button. Yet because Canon doubles up the functions of the camera's buttons, the unit is not overladen with buttons and knobs. As a result, finding the control you're looking for is uncomplicated, and making adjustments with one hand is easy. Still, I wish that there were an external bracketing control, so I wouldn't have to navigate a menu, and that the power switch weren't inconveniently located at the bottom of the back panel.

Canon's menu system is simple and intuitive; you can navigate quickly using the control wheel on the back of the camera. With the larger LCD, menu items are bigger and easier to read. Overall, Canon's interface is the best in the industry.

The most important change to the 30D is the addition of a spot meter. Previous models offered a partial metering mode that read the middle 9 percent of the viewfinder, but the spot meter capably reads the middle 3.5 percent. The evaluative and center-weight averaging metering modes remain available as well.

The picture styles feature, which originally appeared on Canon's EOS 5D model, is another enhancement. It allows JPEG shooters to save up to nine sets of image-processing parameters, each set containing custom sharpness, contrast, saturation, and color tone settings. Though not significantly different from the 20D's parameters feature, the 30D's picture styles feature gives you more sets to customize. JPEG shooters will also welcome the new ability to completely deactivate in-camera sharpening. (For RAW shooters, these additions are irrelevant, since the camera doesn't apply any processing to RAW files.)

Other important new additions include the ability to adjust ISO in increments of one-third stop; an ISO readout in the viewfinder, so you don't have to consult the LCD to change the ISO; an optional slower burst speed, which permits more shots in a single burst; and a more durable shutter. Still missing: the ability to auto-bracket more than three shots (and as few as two), and an easier-to-access mirror lockup feature.

Ben Long

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