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Best Digital SLR for Action Shots in Low Light Conditions

John Fetcho , Dec 14, 2007; 07:55 p.m.

I take a lot of action shots in low light conditions. This would include marching band competions at night (and indoors), indoor musical and theatrical productions and ice skating competions in indoor arenas. Up until now I've just always used a film camera (Pentax ZX-30) with a 80-300mm zoom lens (4.5- 5.6). I need to use a shutter speed of least at 1/90th, so I've been using 1600 speed print film.

I have been very satisified with the results that I've been getting with film, but I would welcome the flexibilty of a digital camera. I would like to stay at a price point of $800 or less. That being said, if there was something at $1,000 that was clearly head and shoulder above everything else, I would certainly consider it.

Not knowing much about digital SLRs, is it realistic to expect that a digital camera in the price range I've suggested can deliver images equivalent to film (realtive to graininess/noise) given the conditions I've described? Has anyone shot in conditions similar to what I've described with a particular digital SLR that has given them good results? Is there something in particular that sets one camera apart from antoher in its ability to produce images in these conditions (with the least amount of noise) that I should be looking for? (For my questions, assume all cameras are using an eqivalent lens; the lens should a constant and not be variable in this equation.)

If anyone has any suggestions or comments, I would appreciate hearing them. Thank you.

Responses

Matt Laur , Dec 14, 2007; 08:02 p.m.

John: I'm sure you'll get a lot of this, but... faster lens! If you can go to f/2.8, you're WAY ahead on the need for such a high ISO, or on the noise you should expect to tolerate. If you're OK, results-wise, with 1600 speed film and a 4.5-5.6 max aperture, then you'll REALLY be OK with ISO 800 and a f/2.8 lens. My Nikon D200 is quite tolerable at 800, and such noise as does appear there is easily dealt with in post-production.

The new D300 (and VERY clean at 1600) is outside of your budget, but the D80 should behave quite nicely. And, with an APS-C sized cropped sensor, you should be OK with a lens that only hits 200mm on the long end. Still, you're in for more than $1000 to do it in a tolerable way... but it doesn't have to be a new D3 to very nicely handle your requirements, given your existing threshold of noise pain.

Harvey Edelstein , Dec 14, 2007; 08:21 p.m.

You need a fast tele like an 180mm f2.8 and D80 if you want Nikon gear. Forget the Zoom a Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 costs way more. The 80-200mm f2.8 is no match for the prime lens I mentioned which is one of Nikons best primes.

I don't know Canon but the last generation 30D I think works fine at iso 1600 and I am sure you can get some prime in the same range with IS that will give you an extra 2 f-stops.

David Haas , Dec 14, 2007; 08:21 p.m.

John -

For around $800 you can get the digital body (new D80 or Used D200) but not the lens. For low light you're going to want one of the prime lenses and for those you're looking at $1000 + just for the lens.

The D200 has acceptable noise levels up to ISO 3200 (with some post processing in Photoshop) I've never used a D80 (no reason to), but I've heard that the noise on the D80 becomes unusable after ISO 800.

For really low noise look at either the Canon Digitals or the new Nikon D3 / D300 (both of which are out of your price range.) Until Nikon introduced the D3/D300 Canon kicked Nikon in the low noise market.

For the record - I use Nikons and wouldn't switch. But I also believe in being fair.

Dave

Robert Budding , Dec 14, 2007; 09:02 p.m.

I use a D200, but the Nikon D80 noise level looks pretty good at ISO 800:

http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/nikond80/page18.asp

Add a 50mm f/1.8 lens for $100 and you've got a good starter setup for low light.

Others will chime in with recommendations on the Canon side.

Tommy Lee , Dec 15, 2007; 09:14 a.m.

Beside the latest more expensive DSLR (Nikon D3, d300, Sony A700, Olympus E3 and etc) Canon's older Digital Rebel (350D and 400D) are good at 1600 ISO. BTW: 1/90 is kinda low for ice skating, best use a 70-200/f2.8 zoom and higher shutter speed. May be you can find a lower cost ~$500 Sigma, Tokina and Tamron version. If you don't underexpose, the pentax K10D is OK too. But pentax's fast tele are expensive and hard to find.

Stuart Moxham - Finland , Dec 15, 2007; 03:29 p.m.

I think most dslr are much better in terms of noise compared to 1600 ISO film. Looking at the dpreview reviews the d80 may be slighty better than the d200. As for the canon vs nikon I can't really say that nikon was so much worse than canon the d70 was said to be as good as the 300d in terms of noise and the 300d was as good as the 10d. I can print 8x10 images from my nikon d1h at ISO 1000 and they are no worse than ISO 800 print film. Noise with digital get bad real quick if you under expose but most of the modern DSLR camera are really rather good. Just don't underexpose them.

Jochen Schrey , Dec 16, 2007; 12:01 a.m.

Since you are shooting Pentax and also seem fine enough with your current lenses on ISO 1600 film why not simply buy a K10(0)D? - They are within your price range. - I never owned any film AF body beyond the SFXn but shot a couple of concerts with the old *istD + f2.8 primes side by side with a pair of rangefinders Fujicolor 1600 and a moderate f2.0 lensline. My concert photography will surely benefit from the K100D's shake reduction feature combined with fast primes (Pentax 50mm f1,4 and Sigma 24mm f1.8), since I didn't always get into handholdable shutterspeeds at highest ISO wide open. The Pentax AF is called slow and quite challenged with that kind of subject but OTOH faster than me (it might surely outperform my manualfocussing skills even if I picked some film SLRs. - I really don't get along with them) and memory cards are dirtcheap compared to fast film. So in the end my digital results were just better because the probability to capture a moderate sharp not shaky frame with subject in focus is much higher if I snap 300 digital captures compared to maybe 74 frames on film. - Don't tell me dim concerts were anything else than spray and pray.

I usually don't suggest Pentax to somebody willing to burn lots of money for gear. Nikon seems to currently have some edge in the low light and action market. OTOH their top camera + the 200mm f2.0 VR and similar lenses are way above your budget, the entire package will cost as much as a new car. A EOS 5D system might be a bit cheaper.

If the mentioned $1000 are all you like to spend on gear during the next few years: Get a Pentax and shoot it as good as you can. If you could afford f2.8 VR/IS zooms too, go for Canon or Nikon. But prepare yourself that you'll want their best gear /fastest bodies too some day.

You'll find endless discussions about K100D vs K10D vs waiting for the next on the Pentax forum. - My K100D's user interface sucks slightly and I'll surely add a 3rd body some day. Pentax also don't offer a great long lens. Their fast line currently ends at 135mm. - OTOH they might be the cheap entry for you and you can always get a Canikon next.

Sorry for not mentioning image quality. I'm shooting thumbnails for webhosting or newspaper printing and that's it. - If I needed a sharp and detailed 8x10" print from ISO 1600+ BW, I'd grab at least MF, since 35mm film is too grainy for my taste. - I have no idea how it might compare to color.

Johannes Borgström , Dec 17, 2007; 08:31 a.m.

At your budget, the Canon 400D probably has the best AF system for low light, or a used Canon 20D if you want better ergonomics. Both have very good noise characteristics at 1600, better than 35mm film and most/all the digital competitors (at the same price). Upgrading your lens may be more important than the body you choose, though.

http://www.clarkvision.com/imagedetail/film.vs.digital.1.html

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