Why I don't have a DSLR

Glaskowsky examines the pros and cons of digital SLRs.

Glaskowsky taking a picture of himself, his camera, and an unnamed woman at SeaWorld Peter N. Glaskowsky

A few days before Apple started selling the iPhone, I decided I wasn't going to buy one, and I said so here. I still don't have an iPhone, but my Treo is increasingly flaky; I may end up needing to replace it before improved iPhones show up.

But sometimes I make up my mind even farther in advance of a buying opportunity. In 1996, I saw the writing on the wall for film cameras; digital photography was going to wipe out that market eventually. I was in the market for a high-quality camera to supplement the point-and-shoot models I used to carry around, but I decided I wasn't going to buy a 35mm SLR. I also knew I didn't want to wait for affordable digital SLRs.

See, at that point, Apple had been selling the QuickTake family for a couple of years, and I knew how to run the Moore's Law calculations as well as anyone. The QuickTake cameras had about 0.3 megapixels, and the math said that number would double every two years or so. Indeed, they have, though more recently some of the semiconductor complexity has been used to improve per-pixel quality rather than merely increasing the pixel count.

The standard of comparison, the 35mm film SLR, had somewhere around 10 or 12 megapixels of equivalent resolution under ideal real-world conditions. Moore's Law said I'd have to wait until 2004 to get that kind of quality from a DSLR, and I just didn't want to wait that long.

So I bought a film camera--but not a 35mm. I wanted something that would hold its quality advantage over digital cameras for at least 10 years. I started out thinking about getting a Hasselblad setup, but those cameras--even used--were outside my price range.

After considerable research and hand-wringing, I got a Pentax 67 medium-format camera. (And, later, a series of digital point-and-shoots, from the Nikon Coolpix 900 to the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3, my current "everyday" camera.)

The "67" refers to the size of the Pentax's negative in centimeters. The film is 60mm (2.3 inches) tall, and a single frame is 70mm wide. (Actually, the imaged area is 56mm x 69.5mm because of the edge markings on the film and the space between adjacent images.)

It's a huge thing; the usual description is "a 35mm SLR on steroids." You can see pictures of the 67 on Mine has the wooden grip, which makes it quite practical as a handheld camera.

Here's one of my favorite pictures, a self-referential shot from SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla. (To answer the most common questions, I don't know the woman who was sitting beside me, and the color bands are scanning artifacts from the ShamuVision display.) You can see how large the camera is.

The 67 was also an expensive camera, but wow, it took great pictures. The lenses were excellent, and with negatives that large--like the palm of a man's hand--every bit of detail available was recorded faithfully. My favorite lens was a 45mm wide-angle lens. Yes, with a medium-format camera, 45mm is a wide angle-- roughly comparable to a 22mm lens on a 35mm camera. I also bought a few other lenses, scaling up to a 300mm telephoto and a 2x tele-extender; that combination was impressively large but tough to hold steady.

Anyway... why am I bringing up all of this now? Because finally there are digital SLRs that are better in every way than my Pentax, and I'm thinking about buying one. Several new models from Canon and Nikon are all over the news this week.

From Canon, there's the EOS-1Ds Mark III and EOS 40D (see the CNET photo gallery here). Nikon introduced the D3 and the D300 (CNET photos here).

This won't be an easy decision. My Pentax lenses won't fit any of these cameras (although I'd be tempted to design a shift adapter for the 45mm lens for architectural photography), and my friends are on both sides of the fence, so I have no particular preference for either brand.

A full kit won't be cheap, but hey, it's been over 10 years since I bought the Pentax. It's about time to upgrade.

Please consider this an official invitation to try to influence my decision. Let me know why I should choose Canon over Nikon, or Nikon over Canon, and whether it's worth buying the more expensive model in each of those pairs-- or whether it'd be smarter to buy one of the previous-generation models, sure to be on sale this fall. I'd appreciate the advice. And if anyone wants to buy my Pentax 67 setup--it's still in great shape--please consider this a for-sale ad!

[Updated to remove a totally brain-dead reference to sprocket holes! Sorry. --png]