The Best Digital SLR of 2006

At the beginning of the year it looked like selecting the best digital SLR of 2006 was going to be a snap.

Around June there weren't all that many different camera models in the running and it didn't look like too many new cameras were going to be released before the end of the year.

Toward the end of 2006, the camera manufacturers changed all that.

By the time the year came to a close, 13 new consumer digital SLR cameras were released. This has made the task of selecting the best digital SLR of 2006 significantly harder.

But hey, I'll give it a shot.

The Contenders

Here's a quick list of all the digital SLRs released in 2006, so you know which cameras were in the running.

Olympus E-330January7.5
Canon 30DFebruary8.2
Samsung GX-1SApril6.1
Samsung GX-1LApril6.1
Sony DSLR-A100July10.2
Pentax K100DJuly6.1
Nikon D80August10.2
Pentax K110DAugust6.1
Panasonic DMC-L1September7.5
Canon Rebel xTiOctober10.1
Pentax K10DDecenber10.2
Nikon D40December6.1

And The Winner Is...

My pick for the best digital SLR of 2006 is the Sony ALPHA DSLR-A100.

This 10 megapixel digital SLR camera offers up a grab-bag of features that are really useful to amateur photographers and make it versatile to use under a wide range of lighting conditions.

One of the drawbacks to the camera is that it is the FIRST true digital SLR made by the Sony corporation, and it appears that there are still a few kinks to be worked out.

However, Sony plans many more ALPHA digital SLR cameras in the future, and the A100 is definitely a decent start.

Quick Feature Run-Down

I won't go into great detail about all of the features of the Sony A100 here, but I do want to provide you with a quick summary so that you can see just how many features this camera offers.

Built-in Anti-shake Even minute camera motion can lead to blurry photos. Anti-shake systems compensate for the minor movements a camera makes when you're holding it in your hands, resulting in clearer photos.
Self-cleaning Sensor Microscopic dust particles can get on your digital SLR sensor when you remove the camera lens. This dust shows up in every photo that you take. Self-cleaning sensors vibrate to prevent and eliminate digital SLR sensor dust.
Eye-start Autofocus Most autofocus systems engage when you press down halfway on the shutter release button (pressing down all the way takes the shot). With the Sony, the autofocus engages the moment you bring the camera up to your eye.
Extended Dynamic Range Dynamic range is a limitation of both film and digital SLR cameras. Simply put, the camera can't capture the same range from light to dark that your eyes can see. Extended dynamic range is an attempt to produce better detail in shadows without washing out highlights.

Comparative Analysis

A100 vs. Canon Rebel xTi

The closest competing digital SLR camera (based on features and price) is the Canon Rebel xTi.

While the Canon shares a lot with the Sony A100 (including a brand new self-cleaning sensor), it's missing one immensly helpful feature: anti-shake.

Part of the issue here is that Canon also sells pricey anti-shake lenses to go along with their digital SLR cameras. If they put anti-shake into the camera, no one would buy these high end Image Stabilization (IS) lenses.

The omission of anti-shake is what took the Rebel xTi out of the running for me.

A100 vs. Olympus E-330

Another camera with a good shot at becoming the best digital SLR of 2006 was the Olympus E-330.

This camera features a huge innovation in the world of digital SLRs: a live view LCD. For those not aware, you cannot compose photos with most digital SLR cameras using the LCD panel on the back of the camera (a feature that is quite commonplace on every compact digital camera).

When you compose photos with a digital SLR you must look through the viewfinder.

The Olympus E-330 was the first digital SLR to also include a live preview mode so that you could use the LCD in addition to the viewfinder. On top of this, the LCD flips out and away from the camera body, making it easy to take high and low-angle shots without crouching into uncomfortable positions.

This innovative LCD makes the E-330 extremely appealing.

The only problem is that the E-330 - like the Canon xTi - does not include anti-shake. Since camera shake is more pronounced when you compose photos at arm's length (which you can do with the live view LCD) there's a much higher chance of getting blurry shots with the E-330 than there is with the Sony A100.

A100 vs. Nikon D80

The Nikon D80 was a much-hyped camera that arrived with a fanfare and has so far received rave reviews.

This would all be well and good if digital SLR cameras were the same now as they were a year ago - excellent cameras, but without any extras.

Put simply, the D80 doesn't include ANY of the new features being added to digital SLRs: no live view LCD, no self-cleaning sensor, no anti-shake.

Can the D80 take beautiful photos? Of course it can!

My point here is just that the Sony A100 offers the everyday photographer a little something more.

While most professionals have no use for all these whiz-bang extras (they already know how to get the most out of their camera), the average consumer can leverage all of them to take better photos.

A100 vs. Pentax K100D

Don't get me wrong - I like the Pentax K100D.

It's affordable, versatile and comes with the anti-shake feature that I have already mentioned a number of times.

I can say that the K100D is the best digital SLR of 2006 for those on a budget, since it's one of the most inexpensive digital SLR cameras you can buy.

But for the extra price of the Sony A100 you get 4 more megapixels (10.2 instead of 6.1) and the addition of the self-cleaning sensor and eye-start autofocus, which it why it just barely squeezes out the K100D as my selection for camera of the year.

The Others

All the rest of the cameras in the list above simply aren't as feature-rich as the Sony A100. Both of the Samsung cameras are entry-level, as is the Pentax K110D. These low-price cameras simply don't have everything that the A100 offers.

I think that the Panasonic DMC-L1 is overpriced for what you get (there are many comparable cameras for much less money) and the Canon 30D - an exceptional camera in its own right - didn't earn the title of best digital SLR of 2006 because it doesn't include any significant innovations like the Olympus E-330 or Sony A100. While it improved some of the functionality of the Canon 20D, it did not add any new "wow" features to the mix.

The Cons

Since I have selected the Sony ALPHA DSLR-A100 as the best digital SLR of 2006, you might also assume that I am recommending that you rush out and buy one.

Not quite.

Even though I am impressed by the features that Sony managed to pack into their very first digital SLR camera, there are some aspects of the A100 that you should be aware of before you plunk down your hard-earned cash.

  1. This is new technology - Sony does not have a proven track record of reliability yet like Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Olympus. Time will tell how well this camera holds up.
  2. More features means more glitches - the more features a camera includes, the more failure points there are. Camera's from the 1950's still work just fine - we'll see if the A100 lasts even 5 years. Even though the A100 was released in late 2006, I have already read several reviews where users complain of technical breakdowns.
  3. Not for the tech-phobic - learning what all the buttons do on the A100 will take some time. It's not the easiest digital SLR to start snapping photos with.

Overall I would say this about the camera: it's definitely worth a look if you are a first-time digital SLR buyer. The plentiful features are all designed to improve the quality of day-to-day photos.

However, if you're already are familiar with SLR controls, or don't want to affiliate yourself with a new technology that hasn't been tested by time, then consider one of the many other digital SLR cameras made by the established companies like Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Olympus.

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