Ah, the U.S. Open. Andre, Roger, Serena, me -- and $24,000 of camera equipment. Tennis, anyone?
Every year I use the U.S. Open as my little testing ground for the latest in digital cameras. I don't go for the tennis. I'm not a big fan of the game; teenagers in short shirts and florescent gym clothes don't do it for me.
I go because as a camera testing lab, the Open has got game, set and match.
The angles from the press pits, courtside and the midcourt schmoozer corporate booths turn even lame shooters like me -- at least for a day -- into the granddaddy of all sports shutterbugs, Walter Iooss Jr.
"With this kind of access and equipment, you simply cannot miss," says Jim Sugar, a freelance professional photographer for
, who is giving Iooss a run for his action-shooting money.
This year, the news in cameras is cheap, digital, single-lens reflex units.
Single-lens cameras are the ultimate photographer's tool. They're portable, fully automatic and, best of all, allow you to see exactly what the camera sees.
A mirror reflects the image straight from the focal plane at the back of the lens up to your eye. No guessing what's where, like in pedestrian point-and-shoot units.
The only problem with single-lens cameras has always been price.
Simple point-and-shoot units were enough for the average Jane to capture the magic of digital photography. Most sane folks (a group that, of course, does not include me) would never drop the several thousand dollars it used to take to snag a digital single-lens camera.
But no more. Thomas Hogan, an independent photo industry and electronics analyst, estimates volume sales for digital single-lens reflex cameras will grow by about 30% in 2006, to almost 5.2 million total units.
And big vendors like
and others are dropping the single-lens prices with abandon to fill that demand: Expect a solid midmarket digital single-lens camera like the Canon 350DX or Nikon D50 to be below $500 by the holidays.
That's a ton of camera for the money, enough to lure even the most budget-conscious camera shopper to the superior qualities of a single-lens reflex camera.
To get a sense of the bang of the digital single-lens buck, I compared a new Olympus E-330 ($999, body only) to a top-of-the-line Canon EOS-1D IIN ($3,999 body only) -- check out
B&H Photo for purchasing info.
The Almighty Olympus
First, the Olympus.
It's a question of what E-330 doesn't have, not what it does.
All the high-end features that were once strictly pro-only are here: fully automated focus and exposure, interchangeable bayonet mounted lenses, automatic integrated flash, a full set of controls, three-frames-per-second exposure and a full range of presets for different shooting situations.
The E-330 even comes with a 2.5-inch diagonal preview screen like the kind you'll find in point-and-shoot cameras. Very slick.
The E-330's image quality and overall usability are solid. At an early match, the Olympus beautifully captured Rafael Nadal's horrible outfits in their full crimson flush. (Who dresses this kid?)
The camera also had plenty of speed. On a long 300-millimeter lens, Nadal's 120-mph serve was frozen in time, just before it nearly blasted me in the head when I was down in the press pits.
At an outer-court match, Justin Gimelstob vs. David Ferrer, I tested the Olympus' other lenses.
The camera handled wide-angle and portrait work nicely. I had nothing to do but wait for Gimelstob to do something worth shooting, which took some time. He's a baseline guy. He just stands there and blasts away. Charge the net please, will ya?
Canon Ball Run
Next, the Canon.
The EOS 1D IIN is the state-of-the-art in top-of-the-line digital cameras for capturing action.
The unit limits resolution at a relatively light 8 megapixels; other cameras in this price range have an insane 16 megapixels of resolution, if not more.
But the Canon can run at 8.5 frames per second for almost 45 exposures, a pace as blistering as Nadal's serve.
The Canon comes in a full metal and rubber housing that could be mistaken for a gym weight. And the unit has every conceivable feature: full video outputs, hundreds of control settings, a 2.5-inch bright liquid-crystal display screen.
Nevermind that I missed the rest of the Serena Williams match because I could not figure out how to work the thing. Or that I was asked to keep out of an outer court match because I made too much of a scene still struggling to figure out how to work the thing. Or that it took most of the rest of the day to finally figure out how to work the thing.
Because when I did figure out how to work the Canon? Oh baby, what a camera.
The Canon EOS is the 82nd Airborne of image assassins: Have the Canon in your hand, you bag your shot. It's that simple.
I could not trip up the EOS. At 30 feet, 60 feet, 150 feet it was all dead-on in-focus exposure. I even got a full-frame of Chris Everett in the CBS Booth. The shot would have been an artful, blurry mess on most rigs, but not the Canon -- it was as if Chris was standing right next to me.
Now, cost aside, these cameras are not without their issues.
Bulk is a big problem. Even the relatively light Olympus weighs nearly two pounds with lenses.
And the Canon? Forget it. Expect to lug around 10 pounds of camera, lenses and other accessories. These cameras are a commitment to carry.
But who cares? The Olympus E-330 is a terrific camera for the money. If you are looking for decent present this Christmas, consider it.
But if you want a terrific camera, a no-compromise "I am going to get that shot no matter what" unit, then the Canon is for you.
I personally can think of no better way to spend a few thousand dollars -- at least, at the moment.
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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.