Top Autofocus SLR Cameras
The Cream Of The Mid Range Crop

Walk into a well stocked photo dealer, or scan our mail-order ads, and you'll be overwhelmed by the sheer number of cameras available today. Even when confining the search to 35mm SLRs, you'll find over 70 listed in Shutterbug's Photography Buyer's Guide. Ranging in "street price" from under $200 to over $2000, there's at least one to suit everyone from the snapshooter to the hobbyist and the seasoned professional.

Because the majority of Shutterbug readers are advanced photographers--or developing toward that level--I selected the one autofocus SLR camera from each brand that is most likely to meet most of their needs. These models are the cream of the mid-priced crop, more affordable than their "professional" counterparts, but offering most of the same advanced capabilities.

Glossary For All Camera Specifications
MS: Multi-Segment metering; CW: Center Weighted; S: Spot Metering; PA: Partial Area Metering; EC: Exposure Compensation; AEL: Autoexposure Lock; AEB: Autoexposure Bracketing; P: Program; AV: Aperture Priority AE; TV: Shutter Priority AE; M: Manual; DEP: Depth of Field Program; FEL: Flash Exposure Lock; FEC: Flash Exposure Compensation; FEB: Flash Exposure Bracketing; FEL: Flash Exposure Lock; HSS: High-Speed flash Sync; SS: Single Shot AF; C(P): Continuous Predictive tracking focus; ME: Multiple Exposure; PC: PC cord socket; DOF: Depth of Field preview; DC: Diopter Correction eyepiece.

Contax N1

Contax N1
Now the flagship of the Contax line, the N1 has a new, larger N-mount that's completely electronic and accepts only AF lenses. Most incorporate an ultrasonic focus motor for silent, high-speed operation. With an adapter, it will also accept Contax 645 AF lenses with full AF operation. The Contax N1 has some truly unique features, too, such as fine focus bracketing in manual focus mode. Set a custom function and the camera shoots three frames, each with the point of focus at a slightly different distance, one likely to be ideal.

The AF system has five focus detection points arrayed in an unusual H-style pattern. They're ideally placed for image composition as per the Rule of Thirds for off-center subjects. To aid in fine focusing, the active point is illuminated in red. The central point is an x while the outer points are on a diagonal; the combination assures reliable focus with most any type of subject. Automatic focus point selection is available, but you can also select any focus point (or group of points) with the unique "joystick" control on the camera back. An AF/MF dual focus button on the camera allows for instant manual focus touchup without the need to switch from AF operation.

Contax offers a unique accessory, a 1.5' square (digital) LCD monitor (FE-1) that can be attached to the camera with a cable. You can preview composition and exposure for image, in color or black and white, making adjustments until the picture seems perfect. The FE-1 has a built-in shutter release so the camera can be operated remotely. A data back is also available; it will imprint a great deal of shooting data either on the first two frames or between frames.

The N1 is a large, hefty, and handsome camera that appears to be built like a tank. A die-cast aluminum alloy chassis provides exceptional strength. The body is very well sealed (with o-rings, etc.) against dust and moisture for reliability in extreme conditions. Some controls are traditional and all are large and well marked for maximum ease of use.

Contax N1 Evaluation
Shutterbug Editor-At-Large Bob Shell has extensively tested this camera and found it to be extremely well specified. He considered the N1 to be highly effective in all respects, including its new five zone evaluative meter. He also found its controls straightforward, quick to operate, and logical. More importantly perhaps, the Carl Zeiss T* lenses for this camera have an enviable reputation for superb optical and mechanical quality. While there are only nine AF lenses so far, these should make owning this Contax system highly desirable for the discriminating photographer.

Contax N1
Metering: MS (five zone), CW, S, EC, AEB, AEL
Operating Modes: P, AV, TV, M
Shutter Speeds: 1/8000 to 32 sec
Film Advance Rate: 3.5 fps
Top Sync Speed: 1/250 sec
Built-in Flash (GN In Feet): No
Autofocus Modes: SS, C(P); five point; spot AF
Other Features: 22 custom functions; DOF, ME, PC, DC
Dimensions: 5.9x4.5x2.7"
Weight: 28.4 oz
Power Source: One 2CR5
Comments: Focus bracketing; shooting data imprinting (accessory)

Canon EOS-3

Canon EOS-3
Incorporating the most important features of the "pro" EOS-1 V, the EOS-3 is packed with advanced capabilities including reflex mirror lockup for vibrationless high-magnification photography. Most impressive technically are the 45 point autofocus system with seven cross-type sensors, substantially upgraded Eye Controlled Focus point selection (ECF), and high-speed tracking focus capable of keeping up with a 7 fps film advance rate, when the optional PB-E2 booster is used.

The exposure system is extremely sophisticated, with new Multi-Spot metering, 21 zone evaluative metering system, 17 zone flash meter with E-TTL flash control, and more. With an EX series Speedlite, the EOS-3 automatically switches into high-speed sync to prevent ghosting (motion blur) with moving subjects and to allow for wide apertures to be used in close-up photography on bright days. Flash Exposure Compensation and AE Lock for flash are available, too; use the 550EX, and you also get Flash Exposure Bracketing (FEB) and wireless off-camera TTL flash, too.

Bearing a strong resemblance to the EOS-1 V the EOS-3 is about the same size and sports similar controls, mostly buttons plus two dials. All are extremely well marked, with a few hidden behind a small door. Anyone familiar with the EOS-1 series models will find the transition to an EOS-3 seamless. Lighter than the EOS-1 V, the EOS-3 is quite resistant to shock and moisture but has more glass-fiber reinforced polycarbonate components. Still, it feels sturdy and hefty, befitting a camera that's often used by pros as a backup to the EOS-1 models.

Canon EOS-3 Evaluation
Designed to entice the professional, the EOS-3 system will definitely appeal to advanced photo enthusiasts, too, particularly those who want the latest technology, extra features, and super fast response. Far more than a series of high capacity computers, the camera's many options and problem-solving capabilities offer great flexibility in real world photography. Their additional creative options should augment the photographer's ability to make exactly the desired images or to capture the decisive moment.

Canon EOS-3
Metering: MS (21 zone), CW, S, Multi-Spot, PA, EC, AEB, AEL
Operating Modes: P, AV, TV, M, DEP
Shutter Speeds: 1/8000 to 30 sec
Film Advance Rate: 4.3 fps; seven with accessory
Flash Features: Wireless TTL with some flash units; FEC; FEB; FEL
Top Sync Speed: 1/200 sec; HSS with some flash units
Built-in Flash (GN In Feet): No
Autofocus Modes: SS, C(P); 45 point; spot AF
Other Features: 18 custom functions; DOF, ME, DC, PC
Dimensions: 6.3x4.7x2.8"
Weight: 27.5 oz
Power Source: One 2CR5; AA with accessory
Comments: Reflex mirror lockup; Eye Controlled Focus

Minolta Maxxum 7

Minolta Maxxum 7
Over the past few years, the terms "unique," "innovative," and "state of the art" have lost their true meaning due to overuse. Occasionally, however, a manufacturer releases a product that deserves all those accolades. The new Maxxum 7 and its accessories fall into this category, with technology and features that earn it several "firsts" in the industry. Most significant is the Navigation Display system: a 1x1.5" dot matrix LCD panel on the camera back.

The panel provides a great deal of data--including specifics about each of the 35 custom functions in simple text--but you can ignore anything not of immediate interest or scroll to other screens. The single most useful item for outdoor photographers is the unique depth of field bar graph, available only with the new D lenses. It provides specifics on the zone of sharpness at any aperture and focused distance, the simplest and most effective system currently available.

Other notable features include a unique Smooth Trans Focus mode that produces defocused image areas without a special lens, and exposure data memory for seven rolls of film. All this may sound complicated, but the standard features of the Maxxum 7 are simple to understand and easy to access with oversized knobs and familiar input dials. Other controls are adequately large and well marked, with less frequently used controls hidden under a small door.

The new autofocus system is impressive. Its unique "dual (x and +) cross-hair" central sensor and eight others canted at various angles offer reliable focus on any type of subject pattern. Any of the nine points can be selected with the rear mounted thumb pad or you can simply set the camera for automatic focus point selection. The active point lights up in red on the viewing screen. Focus can be manually touched up when desired, a first in the Maxxum system.

Minolta introduced a new D-series of AF lenses offering several advantages, including a distance encoder for more accurate flash exposures with Advanced Distance Integration, when using the built-in flash or the new D-series flash units. With the latter and any AF lens, the Maxxum 7 offers flash sync to 1/8000 sec, even in wireless off-camera TTL flash photography. Other flash options include Flash Exposure Compensation and Bracketing, a first in any Minolta camera.

Minolta Maxxum 7 Evaluation
There's a great deal more of course, including reflex mirror lockup and 35 custom functions. Considering its lengthy list of features--and the exceptional performance of the autofocus and exposure systems--this camera is highly competitive with some pro-level models, except for slower film advance and fewer metal parts. Granted, some of the high-tech capabilities do require a thorough study of the Owners Manual.

The innovative Navigation Display system makes this a truly unique model that will initially attract younger photographers and anyone who appreciates high-tech gear. However, even long-time photographers should appreciate this camera because of its dependable automation and versatility. These make the Maxxum 7 highly suitable for effectively capturing the most difficult subject or situation.

Maxxum 7
Metering: MS (14 zone), CW, S, EC, AEL, AEB
Operating Modes: P, AV, TV, M
Shutter Speeds: 1/8000 to 30 sec
Film Advance Rate: 4 fps
Flash Features: Wireless TTL with some flash units; FEC; FEB
Top Sync Speed: 1/200 sec; HSS with some flash units
Built-in Flash (GN In Feet): Yes; GN 29
Autofocus Modes: SS, C(P); nine point; spot AF
Other Features: 35 custom functions; ME, PC, DOF, DC
Dimensions: 5.6x3.9x2.6"
Weight: 18.4 oz
Power Source: Two CR123A; AA with accessory
Comments: Eye Start automation; exposure data memory; dot matrix LCD monitor; reflex mirror lockup

Nikon F100

Nikon F100
A suitable alternative to the large, heavy, and expensive F5, the Nikon F100 has become the camera of choice for numerous hobbyists as well as many professional photographers. Featuring many of the same capabilities, and very similar technology, the F100 sports less traditional controls, reminiscent of those on many other Nikon AF bodies. The F100 is highly shock and impact resistant, thanks to extensive use of lightweight magnesium alloy in the chassis; it's also well protected against moisture and extremes of temperature.

The focus point selector thumb pad on the camera back was borrowed from the F5, and both models offer Dynamic autofocus. The F100 has five focus detection sensors--three cross-hatched and two vertical/tilted for reliable focus acquisition. High-Speed Tracking and "Lock-On" are also available: the system continues to track the original subject even if focus detection is momentarily interrupted. Tracking focus is very successful with fast action subjects moving in any direction; for lightning fast tracking, consider one of the AF-S (Silent Wave) Nikkor lenses with an ultrasonic focus motor.

Few mid-priced cameras offer more light metering options and overrides. The 3D Matrix metering system is highly advanced. The microcomputer considers a complex array of factors, including brightness, contrast, selected focus area, and distance to the subject. Intelligent Multi Sensor Balanced Fill Flash is available, too, as are Flash Exposure Compensation and Bracketing plus wireless off-camera TTL flash (with an accessory) and high-speed sync with certain speedlights.

Nikon F100 Evaluation
The F100 includes all the capabilities that most photographers will ever need. It offers impeccable autofocus, metering, and flash performance. The diversity of Nikon lenses and accessories should satisfy every photographic specialty; compatibility with manual focus Nikkor lenses (with some limitations) is a bonus. Especially when equipped with one of the many AF Nikkor lenses and an SB-28 Speedlight, the F100 should make your creative or technical photography more effective, providing an excellent return on investment.

Nikon F100
Metering: MS (10 zone), CW, S, EC, AEL, AEB
Operating Modes: P, AV, TV, M
Shutter Speeds: 1/8000 to 30 sec
Film Advance Rate: 4.5 fps; five with accessory
Flash Features: Wireless TTL with some flash units; FEB; FEC
Top Sync Speed: 1/250 sec; HSS with some flash units
Built-in Flash (GN In Feet): No
Autofocus Modes: SS, C(P); five point; spot AF
Other Features: 20 custom functions; DOF, ME, PC, DC
Dimensions: 6.1x4.5x2.6"
Weight: 28 oz
Power Source: AA
Comments: Also accepts manual focus lenses

Pentax MZ-S

Pentax MZ-S
Because this is a brand-new model, a production sample of the MZ-S was not yet available as we went to press. However, I did get a chance to handle it extensively at the PMA show. Entirely different in shape and controls than the older PZ-1p, the new camera is loaded with all the same capabilities. However, it also takes advantage of more advanced technology and entirely new controls.

The SAFOX VII autofocus system is far more sophisticated, featuring six focus detection sensors instead of a single wide area sensor. This is certainly preferable for off-center compositions. The user can select any desired point--by pressing the AF button and turning a dial--or allow the camera to do so automatically. Apparently, its overall performance--including predictive tracking focus--is also superior.

Other new amenities include high-speed flash sync and wireless off-camera TTL flash with the AF360FGZ flash unit, built-in data back for printing exposure data between frames, and an illuminated lens mount index for convenience in low light. There's also a feature not mentioned in Pentax literature: reflex mirror lockup with the 2 sec self-timer. The top film advance rate is 2.5 fps. This is a handsome camera with a unique, rounded style. Moderately small and lightweight, its major components are made of light but rigid magnesium alloy. The "direct-access" control dials and LCD data panel are slanted backward so they're easy to see with a slight shift of the eye from the viewfinder. Their operation should require only a quick review of the Owners Manual, and overall, the MZ-S appears to be less complicated than the PZ-1p.

Pentax MZ-S Evaluation
The MZ-S accepts manual focus KA and K-mount lenses with some limitations, and they will even autofocus with an optional adapter. With a highly durable body and full complement of capabilities and overrides, the MZ-S should satisfy some professional photographers, although faster film advance may be required by some. The PZ-1p was a highly capable camera, but the MZ-S is even more desirable thanks to the additional features, more advanced autofocus system, and larger/simpler controls.

Pentax MZ-S
Metering: MS (six zone), CW, S, EC, AEL, AEB
Operating Modes: P, AV, TV, M
Shutter Speeds: 1/6000 to 30 sec
Film Advance Rate: 2.5 fps
Flash Features: Wireless TTL with some flash units
Top Sync Speed: 1/180 sec; HSS with some flash units
Built-in Flash (GN In Feet): Yes; GN 39
Autofocus Modes: SS, C(P); six point; spot AF
Other Features: 19 custom functions; ME, DC, DOF
Dimensions: 5.4x3.7x2.5"
Weight: 18.3 oz
Power Source: Two CR2; AA with accessory
Comments: Reflex mirror lockup; shooting data imprinting; also accepts manual focus lenses

Sigma SA-9

Sigma SA-9
Still the only independent lens manufacturer to offer SLR cameras, Sigma recently released their latest high-end model, the SA-9. This camera is expected to be a price leader in its category, in spite of the wealth of capabilities intended for serious photography. Resembling the earlier SA-5 with a larger handgrip, the compact SA-9 sports an oversized film drive selector knob and (conventional) shutter speed knob, a single command dial, plus well marked exposure control buttons. Most functions appear to be intuitive, making for simplicity of operation.

Although it uses the same single, cross-type autofocus sensor as the SA-5, the algorithms have been upgraded. In the low light of the PMA trade show, response was quick. According to a Sigma rep, its tracking focus system has also been improved.

The SA-9 is also loaded with virtually every capability and override, as noted in the specs. Some of the most significant include reflex mirror lockup, eight segment evaluative metering, built-in data back, and high-speed flash sync plus wireless off-camera TTL flash with the new EF-500 Super flash. Its fully electronic SA mount accepts any of the vast range of Sigma lenses, from 8-800mm, adequate to satisfy most every need. Many of the newer lenses include a Hypersonic Focus Motor (ultrasonic) for silent and fast operation.

Sigma SA-9 Evaluation
Because a test sample was not yet available, a full assessment is not possible. However, I did test the earlier SA-5 and found it to be competent in overall performance. With superior autofocus and more flash capabilities, the SA-9 should be even more successful. A multi-point autofocus sensor might have made it even more desirable, but Sigma cameras are designed for pinpoint focus accuracy instead of a point-and-shoot approach to composition. The SA series of cameras have all offered high value for the money, allowing most anyone to be well equipped without blowing the limit on his or her credit card.

Sigma SA-9
Metering: MS (eight zone), EC, AEL, AEB
Operating Modes: P, AV, TV, M
Shutter Speeds: 1/8000 to 30 sec
Film Advance Rate: 3 fps
Flash Features: Wireless TTL with some flash units
Top Sync Speed: 1/180 sec; HSS with some flash units
Built-in Flash (GN In Feet): Yes; GN 40
Autofocus Modes: SS, C(P); one point; spot AF
Other Features: DOF, ME, DC
Dimensions: 5.6x3.8x2.7"
Weight: 15.3 oz
Power Source: One 2CR5
Comments: Reflex mirror lockup; date back

Mid-Range AF-SLRs
All of the autofocus SLRs covered include numerous capabilities and advanced technology, but study our specs closely for any features that are particularly important to you. This should help narrow the field, allowing you to select the models that would meet all of your current and future needs. Take the time to check out each camera, to ensure that its controls and operation seem logical and quick to you.

Manufacturers/Distributors

Canon U.S.A. Inc.
(516) 328-5000
www.canon.com

Contax Division of Kyocera Optics Inc.
(800) 526-0266
(732) 560-9221
www.contaxcameras.com

Minolta Corp.
(201) 825-4000
fax: (201) 423-0590
www.minoltausa.com

Nikon Inc.
(631) 547-8500
fax: (631) 547-8518
www.nikonusa.com

Pentax Corporation
(303) 728-0212
fax: (303) 790-1131
www.pentaxusa.com

Sigma
(631) 585-1144
fax: (631) 585-1895
www.sigmaphoto.com

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