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Excellent entry-level DSLR
on 6 March 2008
I wished to buy a DSLR in February for under £500. In addition to the D60 the options available were the Nikon D40/D40X, the Pentax K10, the Sony A200, the Olympus 510 and the Canon EOS 400. The Canon EOS 450 is often touted as the main rival to the Nikon D60 but its RRP is £150 higher than the D60 and therefore a rival to Nikon's mid-range D80 rather than the D60. I had previously tried out the Nikon D40X and the Canon 400 and preferred the former, so I discounted the Canon. I chose the D60 rather than the Pentax, Olympus or Sony because it received such favourable reviews, because it was supplied with a particularly good kit lens, because I had liked the D40X, and because I can always be assured of a wide range of accessories for a Nikon or a Canon. I am aware that manual focus must be used on any Nikon lens that is not AF-S but Nikon have introduced a new range of AF-S lenses for its DSLRs. It is a problem only for those with an existing stock of Nikon lenses, and these people are unlikely to be buying an entry-level DSLR.
The D60 has been criticised for being too similar to the D40X and at first sight this seems true. The body is almost identical, and the tickbox types point out that there is no change in sensor resolution, LCD size, and burst mode (3fps). More importantly it lacks Live View and its autofocus has only three points. The former is not a deal breaker for me and the 3-point autofocus system is found wanting only when taking photos of fast moving objects as in sports. In fact I find the focus system on the D60 to be very good in almost all situations. However, though headline features such as resolution and LCD size remain the same, closer inspection reveals numerous other changes, some taken from Nikon's most advanced cameras. For example, the D60 uses the Expeed image processor introduced in the D300, and also has its Active D-lighting to preserve details in the shadow and highlight areas of high-contrast scenes, that can be used both before and after shooting. There is even a dedicated Active D-lighting button. The usual method of shaking dust off the sensor is reinforced in the D60 by a new Airflow Control system to direct dust away from the sensor. Of course, only time will tell how this dual anti-dust system performs in practice. Another first is the Nikon 18-55mm VR lens. VR stands for Vibration Reduction, the Nikon name for image stabilization. Both Nikon and Canon apply image stabilization to each lens rather than have it in the camera, as do their main rivals, a consideration if one wants to buy several lenses because one will have to pay for image stabilization in every lens. Image stabilization is not vital for a 3x zoom but it is certainly useful to be able to use slow shutter speeds in low light situations. Some DSLR purchasers who do not do their homework are disappointed to find that the standard kit lens for most entry-level DSLRs is a 3x or 4x zoom. Of course, one can buy extra lenses and there is a new Nikon 18-200mm (11x zoom) VR lens now available as well as a reasonably priced 55-200 VR lens. The 18-55 lens (35mm film equivalent 27-82.5) supplied with the D60 is more than adequate for indoor shots, portraits and landscapes. If you want a D60 with a VR lens then take care in comparing suppliers. Many offer it with the cheaper non-VR lens, so look for VR in the kit description. Even more important, if you buy extra zoom lenses get the new VR lenses.
Other new features are less important but can be useful and/or fun, including the power-saving de-activation of the screen when one's eye is placed near the viewfinder, a feature to create an animated mini movie from up to 100 JPEG images, a rangefinder to indicate distance when using manual focus, and an information display that rotates as the orientation of the camera changes.
I have been using the D60 intensively for more than a week and have taken hundreds of photos. Images are sharp and vibrant with relatively little noise even at ISO 1600. The camera's merits relative to a good compact are most clearly seen in low light situations. Although it is fully featured for the serious amateur, albeit lacking exposure bracketing, it is designed to make life easy for those upgrading from compacts. It is small and lightweight (for a DSLR!), very quick and responsive, and is easy to use. The Help function offers lots of useful advice. After shots have been taken there is scope for editing the images in camera, including RAW images where one can even merge two of them into a single image. One of the cameras I own is a "prosumer" Minolta 7Hi. It is feature-rich but has a very steep learning curve. By comparison the D60 is remarkably intuitive and it is relatively easy to get to grips with its advanced features.
In many ways I think the D60 is the ideal camera for those it seeks to target - compact camera owners who are upgrading. The only thing a compact camera user might miss is the ability to use the LCD screen to frame a photo, something the D60 shares with all cameras in the under-£500 class except the Olympus. Live View is particularly useful for macro shots and to take photos over the heads of a crowd, and I always take a compact in my pocket even when I have my D60 with me. Enthusiasts and professionals have always preferred viewfinders, but if you really cannot do without Live View then you should either wait for the next generation of entry-level DSLRs (for I think Live View will become the norm) or pay extra for a camera such as the Canon EOS 450 or the Sony A300/350. However, all the existing DSLR Live View systems have problems and are far from perfect. The other side of the coin is that screens are difficult to use in bright light. I was using both a Panasonic TZ3 compact and the D60 on a recent visit to a wild life reserve. I could barely see the screen on the compact but I had no problems in using the large bright viewfinder on the D60.
For those who take the plunge and buy a DSLR there are several excellent entry-level models available for less than £500. In terms of pure bangs for bucks the Nikon D40 surely cannot be beaten. With the new cashback scheme that started in February it can be bought for less than £250. Amazing value. If one wants more megapixels and bells and whistles there are the Pentax K10, Sony A200 and Olympus E510 plus the D60 - all of which have their merits. I recommend reading the expert reviews of these cameras and if possible try them out. For my part the Pentax and the Sony are larger and heavier than the Nikon, and the Pentax does not offer the helping hand to first-time SLR users that the Nikon does. The Olympus is almost as compact and lightweight as the Nikon, has Live View and has had excellent reviews, but I am not entirely convinced about the 4/3 type sensor. Of course, I do not know which camera is objectively "the best". It is a matter of taste. What I can say is that I am pleased with my D60, enjoy its features and ease of use, and believe it would be difficult to find superior image quality at this price level.
UPDATE on 25/10/2011
A year ago I purchased a Nikon D7000. However, I could not bring myself to sell the D60 because I had become attached to it and still think it is a very good camera. The D60 does not have LiveView (but I never use it on the D7000); the D60 does not have video (not important for many); and the D60 is not as good as the D7000 in low light, albeit no slouch. However, in ordinary light there is relatively little difference between the cameras. Some 3.5 years after I bought the D60 I still use it from time to time and I still believe it to be an excellent camera that is easy to use and takes high quality images.