There's a bundle of easy as pie first-time DSLRs out there but for those who've already ditched their compact cams, Canon and Nikon have just laid out some seriously tempting upgrades.
At a whopping £1300 without a lens, Nikon's 12.3MP D300 is the priciest but for around £500 less you could slip into the new 10.1MP Canon 40D and have cash to spare for some rather nice glassware.
The Nikon's a shade taller and heavier but otherwise they're fairly similar in size. On paper the D300 has the higher megapixel count, a higher-res LCD and a superior autofocus system – winning by a 51 point to 9 point rugby score. It also has HDMI out for hooking up to an HD telly, while the Canon makes do with bog-standard composite cables.
But the 40D fights back with a speedy Digic III processor that just shades the Nikon's 6.0fps burst speed, scoring a sports-friendly 6.5 frames per second. Both have a live view option and dust reduction but if you're looking for image stabilisation you'll have to fork out for Canon's expensive stabilised lenses or opt for Sony's Alpha 700 which has it on body.
As with the rest of the Canon range, the controls on the 40D are well laid out. Pros will appreciate the top deck LCD for quickly viewing shooting info. They'll also warm to the three custom settings modes and the two control wheels, for hastily shifting shutter speed and aperture in metered-manual mode. Beginners will gravitate more towards the fool-proof preset modes.
Build-quality is top-notch, featuring a solid magnesium chassis and a magnesium alloy body. If you ever tire of taking pictures it makes an excellent hammer.
Keep it in the family
We were a little worried after hearing that the 40D shares the same sensor as the entry-level 400D, but we needn’t have been. Canon's sensor monkeys have been hard at work fitting it with the same top-quality microlenses as the far more expensive 1D Mark III and tweaking it to give a superior 14bit output. The result: blurry JPEG problem solved. We got great results all round.
Autofocus was particularly impressive, locking on faster than an F-22 on a missile silo even in low light. The new Digic III processor also ensured high ISO shots in dim-light without flash still came out looking great – and that was with the kit lens.
Canon's bundled EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM is a respectable piece of glass. It combines a handy zoom range of an equivalent 27-136mm plus in-lens image stabilisation for blur-free shots. As it's built for the smaller sensor sizes of digital SLRs, it's also nicely compact. It's best suited to well lit conditions or using flash but will hold its own in most situations.
So why would you spend £500 more on the Nikon? There are some advantages. The 51-point autofocus handles fast-moving sports better. The higher res LCD will help with checking that shots came out focussed and then there's that HDMI output for ogling your handiwork on the big screen. But the 40D is no budget compromise and, if you've already bought a bunch of Canon lenses and don't want to change, you won't be disappointed with the results.