By Peter Elstrom
My brother, sitting next to me at the dinner table, waves his hand in my general direction.
"Hey, let me give that a try," he says.
I'm snapping a few photos of family and friends with a new Canon camera, the EOS 30D. It's a digital version of what's known as an SLR camera, for single-lens reflex. These digital SLRs are a big step up from the point-and-shoot digitals that have taken over the camera market in recent years, and many experts have predicted that SLRs will become increasing popular in the years ahead. But there are potential barriers to broader popularity, including the cost of SLRs and their complexity.
I figure this is a perfect time for an experiment in determining whether SLRs are too complicated for most consumers. My brother has never laid hands on one before. He gets no manual, no instructions. I simply hand it over and let him start shooting.
The result? No problems. He quickly figures out the basics of the Canon, pausing only momentarily to ask why the LCD screen on the back of the camera doesn't show what he's shooting. On most point-and-shoot cameras, the image does show up on the LCD screen, but with the Canon, he has to look through the lens of the camera, just like the old-fashioned analog ones. Seconds later, he's snapping off respectable photos of our little gathering. He's certainly not using the EOS 30D to its full potential (more on that later), but he manages to accomplish what most consumers will want when they buy a high-end camera.
It's one example of why SLRs look poised to make their way into the mainstream, beginning this year. The digital camera market is projected to rise 15%, to 89 million units, this year worldwide, according to market-research firm InfoTrends. Digital SLRs are expected to hit 5 million units, on growth of 25%. Canon (CAJ) has the top market position in both the digital SLR market and the digital market overall (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/3/06, "Canon Camera's Pretty Picture"). It's facing increasing competition from rivals such as Sony (SNE) and Matsushita (MC).
Canon's most popular digital SLR is the Rebel line, updated this fall with the XTi (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/15/06, "Canon's Rapid Rebel XTi"). The 30D is a more expensive entry for the company, at $1,125 without lens at Amazon.com (AMZN) compared with about $800 for the Rebel XTi. It pushes the boundaries of the consumer category and is used by some professionals.
The 30D is an update of Canon's 20D camera. The new version has a redesigned body and a larger LCD monitor, at 2.5 inches. It feels solid and substantial, worlds away from the point-and-shoot digitals that people yank from their pockets or purses. It weighs in at 1.5 pounds, which can make it a bit much to carry, especially for longer periods.
The 30D also has a number of features its predecessor lacks. For continuous shooting, you can now choose between three or five frames per second. It also has ISO settings, for light sensitivity, that increase in smaller increments. On the 20D, you would have to choose between ISO 800 or ISO 1600. Now, you've got the choice of 800, 1000, 1250, or 1600, allowing for greater fine-tuning in variable light.
The key question is whether these kinds of features are important enough for people to pay for. One complaint is that the 30D offers little more than the 20D does. Separately, most amateurs considering an SLR for the first time may wonder whether the extras on the 30D are worth the additional money, compared with the Rebel. In most cases, the answer is probably no.
Still, the EOS 30D provides a window into how the most serious photographers approach their craft. There are settings for everything from portraits to landscapes to black and white. My brother didn't have enough time to experiment with the various ISO settings, from 100 to 3200. Would he have noticed the difference?