Owning a second DSLR can really expand your creative potential, and now that ten-million-pixel DSLRs are available for less than £300 they aren’t just for the pros.
Even though most of us own a collection of overlapping zoom lenses, in some situations it can be difficult to decide which particular set of focal lengths to mount.
When shooting sport, for instance, the action often seems to be a bit too far away or a bit too close for the lens that’s mounted. At social events, too, it is hard to choose between a telephoto lens that will help with those fun, candid shots or something a little shorter to capture the general goings-on and posed portraits. Obviously, it’s possible to swap optics throughout the event, but shots are inevitably missed because the wrong lens is mounted. That’s one compelling reason why many professional photographers use two cameras, each with a different focal-length lens mounted.
Another motive is that less frequent lens changing means there’s reduced opportunity for dust and dirt to get onto the sensor. And, of course, if the worst should happen and one camera develops a fault or even breaks down, there’s no need to stop shooting.
Now that new DSLRs are available for less than £300, the luxury of a second body needn’t be reserved for professionals. It’s an option that’s available to many enthusiasts.
Below, I compare the enthusiast-level DSLRs from all five major manufacturers with some of each company’s more affordable cameras that would make suitable second bodies. In some cases there’s little or no difference in image quality if the same lenses are used, but there are variations in the handling characteristics that need to be considered.
Choosing a second body
If you already own a camera, the most sensible option for a second body is one from the same manufacturer, as you can use your lenses and some of your existing accessories on the new camera. But, don’t assume everything will be transferable: a battery-grip for a mid-sized enthusiast camera, for instance, is unlikely to be compatible with a smaller DSLR.
Also, check which battery your prospective purchase accepts and whether it’s interchangeable with the one in your existing camera, as you may have to carry two chargers.
The first reaction when considering memory card compatibility is to look for a camera that accepts the same type as your main DSLR. However, while it may be convenient to have two cameras that use the same media, if your first camera accepts CF and the second is compatible with SD, you’ll always know which images are on which card. Even if the cameras use the same card, once you have two bodies you are likely to take more shots, so you will need another card or two anyway.
Buying a second DSLR – Canon
Canon has an extensive range of DSLRs, which means there is a second body to suit everyone, but the EOS 1000D is the most affordable option.
Canon’s EOS 7D, which sits at the top of the manufacturer’s APS-C-format line-up, is the current object of desire for Canon enthusiasts. Like the EOS 550D, the EOS 7D has a pixel count of 18 million, which is the highest of any of Canon’s sub-full-frame DSLRs, so any second body is going to produce smaller images.
In many ways the EOS 550D is the perfect second body to the EOS 7D, but its street price is in excess of £600, which many may consider a little high for an enthusiast’s second body.
EOS 5D Mark II users, however, may be tempted by the EOS 550D, especially bearing in mind its impressive low-light capability and noise control.
Canon’s EOS 1000D has a more palatable street price of just under £300 (£298.99), and apart from the video controls, it has a very similar layout to the EOS 550D.
Its pixel count, though, is rather low in comparison with the EOS 7D at 10.1 million. This means that 300ppi prints made from EOS 1000D images measure 12.96×8.64in (32.9×21.96cm), while those from the EOS 7D are almost 6in longer at 18.72×12.48in (47.55×31.7cm).
The EOS 1000D is capable of recording lots of detail, especially in raw files, achieving a maximum resolution score of 22 (raw)
and 20 (JPEG) in our tests. This compares with scores of 30 (raw) and 28 (JPEG) with the EOS 7D. However, the differences are much less obvious in images sized for making A3 prints. I recommend avoiding the kit lens, though. Buy the EOS 1000D body-only instead and use the best optics you have available. If large prints are required, stick to the lower sensitivity settings as the higher resolution images withstand interpolation using Genuine Fractals or Photoshop more successfully.
The EOS 7D has a different metering system from the rest of Canon’s DSLR line-up, but this is hardly likely to cause an enthusiast problems when swapping camera bodies. Canon uses the same
white balance system throughout the range, but there are slight differences in the results when using the same picture style.
The EOS 1000D produces JPEG images that are generally a little more vivid and warmer than the EOS 7D. Fortunately, this is easily dealt with by shooting raw files. Alternatively, the Picture Style Editor software allows users to load matching custom styles to
Quick control dials
Image: Canon enthusiast-level cameras have a large Quick Control Dial on the back
Canon uses quite different design principles for its novice and enthusiast-level cameras, and although both control systems work well, switching between the two takes practice.
Models from the EOS 50D upwards have a large Quick Control dial with a central ‘Set’ button on the back, which can be used for scrolling through the menu, selecting setting options and adjusting the exposure. There’s also a mini-joystick-type Multi-controller which, as well as providing an alternative method for navigating the menu and adjusting settings, is very useful for selecting the AF point quickly.
Image: Canon entry-level models have navigation and shortcut buttons on the back
Models below the EOS 50D (the EOS 550D, EOS 500D, EOS 450D and EOS 1000D) make use of four navigation buttons, which also have shortcut options rather than the dial and Multi-controller. There are also shortcut buttons on the EOS 7D, but they are predominantly arranged on the top-plate, rather than on the camera back.
Other buttons, such as the Menu, Picture Style, Review, Information and Delete controls, are also in different positions, which takes some getting used to. Unlike the EOS 7D, EOS 50D, EOS 500D and EOS 550D, the EOS 1000D doesn’t have an interactive control screen that could offer a means of standardising setting adjustments.
Owners of full-frame cameras, such as the EOS 5D Mark II, who are looking for an APS-C-format DSLR to act as a second body need to bear in mind that the smaller sensor crops the view they normally see through their lenses.
This focal length magnification factor can be very useful when shooting distant subjects, but it isn’t so helpful when wideangle views are required. It makes sense, then, to use the full-frame camera for wideangle shots and use the smaller format camera with a longer lens to capture more distant subjects.
When shooting fast-moving sport, if the full-frame camera has a better AF system than the APS-C model, it is better to use the larger format camera for most of the shots and the other DSLR to record action that is either closer to or further away (depending upon the lens mounted).
Although Nikon and Sony full-frame DSLR users can mount APS-C-format lenses on their camera, Canon users cannot.
|EOS 5D Mark II||EOS 7D||EOS 550D||EOS 1000D|
|Date tested||17 Jan 2009||7 Nov 2009||27 Mar 2010||2 Aug 2008|
|Pixel count||21.1 million||18 million||18 million||10.1 million|
|Max sensitivity range||ISO 100-25,600||ISO 100-12,800||ISO 100-12,800||ISO 100-1600|
Buying a second DSLR – Nikon
Nikon users can expect consistent results across the manufacturer’s DSLR range and the D3000 makes a great small second body.
As it has a street price of around £298, the D3000 is the most obvious candidate for a second body for Nikon users, but it doesn’t feature Live View or video technology. If either of these is important, then the D5000 is a better choice, although it costs around £170 more.
This camera also has an articulated screen that is especially useful when shooting from a high or low angle. However, if you are looking for a small DSLR that has all the fundamental controls required for digital photography, the D3000 is an excellent choice.
One of the great things about the current Nikon DSLR range is that the key systems are the same or similar. So, although the D3000, for example, has 11 AF points rather than the 51 of the D300S, 3D Tracking is still available in addition to the Single-point, Dynamic area and Auto-area options. Nikon’s Scene Recognition System, which helps inform the AF, white balance and exposure systems, is found in every Nikon DSLR. This means that white balance and image colour are generally consistent across the Nikon DSLR range.
Nikon has stuck fairly stubbornly to 12-million-pixel sensors for its DSLRs, with only the D3000 (10.2 million) and the D3X (24.5 million) varying from this. For D300S and D90 owners, shooting on a D3000 means a drop of just 1.4in from the length and 0.85in from the width of prints made at 300dpi.
One reason Nikon has continued with 10- and 12-million-pixel sensors when other manufacturers have pushed the pixel count higher is that it enables the cameras to produce comparatively clean images that contain plenty of detail.
Interestingly, while the D300S, D90 and D5000 have the same 12.3-million-pixel sensor, the 10.2 million-pixel D3000 can resolve a similar amount of detail. The raw files from all four achieved a maximum resolution score of 22 on our test chart, but the D3000 images require a little more sharpening.
As with the Canon range, there are major differences in the build and handling characteristics of Nikon’s entry- and enthusiast-level DSLRs.
The D300S, although referred to by Nikon as a professional-level camera, is a firm favourite with enthusiasts and has a much more solid build than the entry-level D3000. This is hardly surprising given the difference in their street price is in excess of £800.
Image: Nikon’s enthusiast-level cameras have a front dial that speeds up exposure adjustment
D3000 and D5000
Both the D3000 and D5000 have far fewer buttons than the D300S, so there is greater reliance on the menu and interactive information or Graphic User Interface (GUI) screens for making adjustments to settings.
Unlike the D300S and D90, the D3000 and D5000 have only one control dial, located on their backs above the thumb rest, so this must be used in combination with the +/- button to set exposure. This may take some getting used to by those working with more advanced cameras.
Image: The D5000 has an articulated screen, Live View and video
Telephoto lenses on small bodies
Smaller DSLRs often feel unbalanced when a long telephoto lens is mounted, especially if the body has a very shallow grip. Even with quite light lenses it is difficult to get a steady shot without some form of support for the lens. A tripod is ideal, but in many cases it is just a question of holding the camera differently, with the main weight being taken by a hand under the lens rather than on the camera. With larger lenses the weight can even damage the camera’s mount if the optic is not supported properly.
The best way to deal with these problems is to hold the lens rather than the camera between shots, and avoid carrying the camera on a strap. If the lens has a collar with a tripod bush this often makes an ideal carry-handle and it keeps the weight off the camera’s mount.
|Date tested||23 Aug 2008||26 Sept 2009||25 Oct 2008||30 May 2009||5 Sept 2009|
|Pixel count||12.1 million||12.3 million||12.3 million||12.3 million||10.2 million|
|Max sensitivity range||ISO 100-25,600||ISO 100-6400||ISO 100-6400||ISO 100-6400||ISO 100-3200|
|Memory card||CF||CF, SD/SDHC||SD/SDHC||SD/SDHC||SD/SDHC|
Buying a second DSLR – Olympus
Its compact form, Super Control Panel and attractive sub-£300 price makes the E-450 a good second-body option for Olympus E-3, E-30 and E-620 users.
With street prices in the region of £740 for the E-30 and £499 for the E-620, these models are unlikely to find a home in any enthusiast’s camera bag alongside an Olympus E-3 (£977).
However, in addition to a newer 12.3-million-pixel Live-MOS sensor, these two cameras offer Olympus’s Art Filters, which aren’t featured on its now two-and-a-half-year-old top-end model.
Fortunately, Olympus is habitually generous with the features it gives its lower-end DSLRs and even the entry-level E-450, which is available for £298.99, has three Art Filters (Pop Art, Pin Hole and Soft Focus).
Unlike the rest of the Olympus DSLR range, the E-450 doesn’t have in-camera image stabilisation (IS), but this needn’t be a major concern if it is usually married with wideangle optics while the first body is used with telephoto lenses. Those who cannot bear the thought of a second body without IS may prefer to spend a few pounds more and opt for the E-520, which is available from around £315.
One downside of the E-450 is that with an effective of pixel count of 10 million, it has around two million fewer pixels than Olympus’s other DSLRs. Fortunately, this makes little practical difference to the size of images when they are prepared for printing.
Examining our resolution chart images from the E-30, E-620 and E-450 also confirms that it makes very little difference to the amount of detail that is visible in images. Interestingly, when the high-sensitivity noise reduction is set to its default value, the JPEG images are much noisier than comparable files from the E-620 and E-450 – both of which produce pretty similar amounts of noise across the sensitivity range.
At ISO 1600 JPEG images from the E-30 have around twice as much noise as those from the E-450 and E-620. This is likely to be the result of the older E-30 having the TruePic III image processing engine, while the E-450 and E-620 have the newer TruePic III+ engine.
E-3 users may miss the articulated screen when they switch to an E-450 or E-520.
Neither the E-450 nor the E-520 has an articulated screen, so E-3, E-30 and E-620 users will find their existing cameras are the best choice for low-angle shots.
Olympus doesn’t skimp on the build quality of its entry-level cameras, so the E-450 won’t disappoint. Nevertheless, it weighs just 380g and is one of the lightest DSLRs around. It’s also only a little bigger than the mirrorless Panasonic Lumix DMC-G2, so it makes a good choice for Four Thirds devotees looking for a small, highly portable camera.
However, the lack of any meaningful fingergrip makes the camera better suited for use with shorter optics rather than with telephoto lenses.
Although it has comparatively few buttons and dials, the four navigation controls on the back of the E-450 can be set to provide shortcuts to some of the most commonly used features. With the exception of the function (Fn) button, however, these controls have no markings so the photographer must remember their role. If this is an issue, again the E-520 may be a better choice.
Image: The E-450’s Super Control Panel provides a quick way to check and change settings
Super Control Panel
Like Olympus’s other DSLRs, the E-450 and E-520 have a Super Control Panel display on the LCD screen that is interactive, and allows users to check and adjust a larger number of the camera settings. This makes it relatively easy to switch between using different cameras within the range.
Different AF systems
Using a camera with a slower AF system or one that has fewer AF points than your main camera can take a little getting used to, but it is still possible to get top-notch results.
Even photographers with cameras that have tens of AF points often use the central point for the vast majority of their photography, preferring to use the focus-and-recompose technique. When the subject is off-centre, this can often be faster than using the navigation controls to activate one of the outer AF points.
The central AF point is also usually the most sensitive so it can make focusing quicker, especially in low light.
When photographing moving subjects with a lacklustre AF system, it can be helpful to pre-focus. With a cyclist, for example, focus on the point they will occupy when the composition is perfect before they arrive there, then begin firing as they approach to ensure the moment is captured. You should also consider using a smaller aperture than you might normally as the greater depth of field will help conceal some focus inaccuracy.
|Date tested||21 Feb 2009||18 April 2009||5 July 2008||20 June 2009|
|Pixel count||12.3 million||2.3 million||10 million||10 million|
|Max sensitivity range||ISO 100-3200||ISO 100-3200||ISO 100-1600||ISO 100-1600|
|Memory card||CF, xD||CF, xD||CF, xD||CF, xD|
Buying a second DSLR – Pentax
The K-x is the natural choice for Pentax users who are looking for a second DSLR to augment their K20D or K-7.
Pentax appears to have been preoccupied with producing small DSLRs since the K20D was launched, and the K-7 is considerably smaller than the Nikon D300S and Canon EOS 50D that it is
designed to compete against. The K-x, Pentax’s entry-level model, is even smaller and lighter, but it still has a pronounced, comfortable fingergrip.
Thanks to their extensive weatherproofing, the K20D and K-7 have a reputation for being cameras that can be used almost anywhere. As the K-x isn’t quite so well sealed against the elements, K20D and K-7 users need to bear this mind when planning to use it as a second body in bad weather.
Although the K-x has around 2.2 million fewer pixels on its APS-C-sized sensor than the K-7, there is only a small drop in the resolution of the images it produces. Pentax tends to major on detail resolution with its enthusiast-level DSLRs, and in the past this meant high-sensitivity images were noisy.
Raw files from the K-x have quite a lot of chroma noise from ISO 1600 onwards, but they also have plenty of detail and the coloured speckling is fairly easily controlled using Adobe Camera Raw’s controls. Chroma noise is much less visible in JPEG files captured in the default noise-reduction settings than it is in comparable images from the K-7. This probably explains why Pentax felt confident enough to allow the K-x a sensitivity expansion setting equivalent to ISO 12,800 whereas the K-7 tops out at ISO 6400.
Given the wide compatibility of the cameras’ DNG raw files (PEF is also an option with the K-7 and K-x), and the fact that JPEG files from both cameras usually benefit from an application of Unsharp Mask, I recommend shooting images in this format whenever possible.
One of the stand-out features of the K-7 is its self-levelling sensor. While the K-x doesn’t have this, or a digital level, most enthusiast photographers understand what is required to ensure the horizon is straight. The Pentax Dust Removal (DR), Shake Reduction (SR) and HDR systems, however, are present.
Image: In HDR mode, the K-7 and K-x automatically combine three images
As it takes globally available AA batteries, the K-x is a great choice for remote shoots where it can be difficult to access a power point to charge a lithium battery.
Pentax isn’t really known for its AF systems, but the K-x is equipped with one of the best we have seen. The SAFOX VIII module appears very similar to the SAFOX VIII+ unit in the K-7 and features 11 individually selectable AF points, nine of which are cross-type.
Focus is achieved quickest with Pentax SDM (Supersonic Drive Motor) lenses.
Image: Like the K-7, the K-x has an interactive shooting menu for quick settings changes
One of the criticisms levelled at the K20D was that it has a pretty poor implementation of Live View. Fortunately, this was addressed along with the addition of 720p (1280×720-pixel) video recording for both the K-7 and the K-x, and this makes the K-x a particularly good second body option for K20D users.
However, while the K-7 has a 3in, 920,000-dot (307,000-pixel) LCD screen, the K-x has a slightly smaller 2.7in unit with just 230,000 dots, which means details aren’t quite as clear and it may take a little longer to be certain that the focus is exactly where it should be.
Although the K-7 has a 100% viewfinder, it is rather tunnel-like and the eye needs to be dead centre and straight-on as it is easy for the housing to obscure the corners of the scene. This means that dropping down to a viewfinder with 96% coverage isn’t a huge drama, although K-x users need to take care to avoid including unwanted elements around the edges of the frame.
There are obvious advantages to owning two cameras that accept the same batteries. For a start, you can swap the batteries around and continue to shoot on your preferred model once its cell is depleted. It’s also only necessary to carry one charger when you are away from home for an extended period.
If, however, you have cameras that take two different batteries, it is worth considering investing in a universal charger such as the Ansmann Digicharger Vario Pro (£49) that has adjustable pins to allow it to be used to charge a wide range of different camera batteries as well as more common AA and AAA cells.
|Date tested||12 April 2008||15 Aug 2009||5 Dec 2009|
|Pixel count||14.6 million||14.6 million||12.4 million|
|Max sensitivity range||ISO 100-6400||ISO 100-6400||ISO 100-12,800|
Buying a second DSLR – Sony
If Live View isn’t important, the Alpha 230 is a low-cost option for a second body for Alpha 700 users. If it is important, the Alpha 380 is only around £70 more.
Enthusiast Sony (and Konica Minolta) users may have been feeling a little frustrated of late, as the company appears to have been neglecting them and concentrating on bringing out a collection of very similar cameras for less experienced photographers.
This does at least mean there are cameras that make suitable second bodies for those using the Alpha 700. At £298.99 in the shops, the Alpha 230 is perhaps the most attractive option. This camera has an effective pixel count of 10.2 million, so the images it produces are only a little smaller than those from the 12.25-million-pixel Alpha 700.
When the Alpha 700 is set to 2sec self-timer and is triggered using the supplied wireless remote, the mirror automatically flips up and locks before the exposure to reduce vibration. The Alpha 230 doesn’t have mirror lock-up and isn’t supplied with a remote but, fortunately, it is compatible with the RMT-DSLR1 that comes with the Alpha 700.
We have found that the violent mirror movement in some Sony Alpha cameras can cause noticeable camera shake, and in the absence of a mirror lock-up facility there is a slight decrease in image resolution. This isn’t a problem if the shutter speed is kept over around 1/125sec.
If longer exposures are required, placing a heavy beanbag over the camera on a solid tripod can help dampen the vibrations. Alternatively, selecting a much longer exposure to minimise the proportion of the exposure that has vibration can help.
As the Alpha 700 doesn’t have Live View technology, those looking for a second body may wish to buy a camera that allows images to be composed on the LCD screen. The Alpha 230 isn’t Live View-enabled, but the Alpha 380 – which costs only around £70 more – does have it, along with a tilting screen that makes it easier to compose from high or low angles. This camera also offers the advantage of a 14.2-million-pixel sensor, although neither it nor the Alpha 230 has sensitivity settings beyond ISO 3200.
Alpha 700 users will appreciate the fact that the Alpha 230 and 380 offer sensor-shifting image stabilisation and dynamic range optimisation options, but the DRO Levels setting found with the enthusiast camera is not present.
Build and handling
Both the Alpha 230 and 380 are much smaller and lighter than the Alpha 700, but they still feel pretty well made. The shorter grips are deep enough to provide a firm hold. As usual, there are fewer buttons on the entry-level cameras, but shortcuts are provided to the essentials such as the drive, flash and AF options. Helpfully, all three cameras have an information screen that enables camera settings to be checked quickly.
Although a manufacturer’s current flashguns are usually compatible with its entire DSLR range, a small camera may feel unbalanced when a large flashgun is mounted on it. If you regularly use flash and need a flashgun to accompany a new second body, it may be worth considering buying a smaller unit more in keeping with the proportions of the back-up camera.
Sony’s HVL-F20AM (around £120) is small, yet it has a GN of 20m @ ISO 100 and an adjustable bounce angle. It also folds flat when not in use, so it’s easy to transport. While its size makes it a good match for the Alpha 230 (its pop-up flash has a GN of 10m @ ISO 10m), it is also a handy for use with the Alpha 900, which does not have a built-in flash, and it can act as a wireless trigger.
|Alpha 700||Alpha 550||Alpha 450||Alpha 380||Alpha 230|
|Date tested||3 Nov 2007||21 Nov 2009||20 March 2010||27 June 2009||Not tested|
|Pixel count||12.25 million||14.2 million||14.2 million||14.2 million||10.2 million|
|Max sensitivity range||ISO 200-6,400||ISO 200-12,800||SO 200-12,800||ISO 100-3200||ISO 100-3200|
|Memory card||CF, Memory Stick PRO Duo, Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo||SD/SDHC, Memory Stick PRO Duo, Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo||SD/SDHC, Memory Stick PRO Duo, Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo||SD/SDHC, Memory Stick PRO Duo, Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo||SD/SDHC, Memory Stick PRO Duo, Memory Stick|
|Battery||NP- FM500H||NP- FM500H||NP- FM500H||NP-FH50||NP-FH50|