Digital replacement for a Nikon 2020?
July 30, 2008 7:16 AM   Subscribe

I'd like some advice about replacing the analog Nikon SLR and Tokina lens I lost 3 years ago with a new/used digital SLR/lens.

20 (or so) years ago, I asked a family friend (a professional photographer) to help me pick out my first SLR. Based on my budget (a grand, give or take) she chose a Nikon 2020 body, and a Tokina lens (SZ-X 287 28-70 f/2.8-4.3). For almost 2 decades, until I lost the camera in a fire about 3 years ago, I was thrilled with the choice, and with the pictures it took. The only complaints I ever had about the camera/lens were:
- it was heavy and somewhat bulky to carry around.
- there was no built in flash
- it wasn't digital (this ONLY became an issue once I entered the digital age and started putting everything on my computer, about 5-7 years ago)

My impression is that the 2020 was not a top-of-the-line camera. Decent perhaps, but not over the top. The fact that I was so happy for so long with the 2020 (I would consider just buying an old 2020 now, if it wasn't for the digital issue) makes me wonder if, although my budget is about the same today, I might be satisfied with something cheaper. I feel that the 2020 didn't have much in the way of bells and whistles, and I don't feel that I need bells and whistles now.

I have a digital point-and-shoot camera that I have been using since the fire (note that I was content without a point-and-shoot camera the whole time I had the 2020), but I find the romance of taking pictures is gone. I used to enjoy composing the shot, making a decision about aperture and shutter speed (often relying on the 2020's "suggestions" in the viewfinder, but never once using the automatic mode), and then manually working the focus ring (again, often using the 'in-focus-indicator" in the viewfinder, but also often ignoring it). I don't take many pictures that require haste -- I was utterly content to take my time and "make my photograph."

My question is: What digital camera will I be happy with? I had a look at the local electronics shop, and the way the cameras now work seems to be different. The 'shutter speed dial' on the top right now appears to be covered in modes, which seem gimmicky to me. I didn't spend a lot of time, but the lenses I saw don't seem to have the 'clicking' aperture selection ring. Ultimately I'd prefer the same 'system' of 'composing' in the viewfinder, and ultimately I think I'd like to stick with Nikon (less stuck on Tokina, I suppose), but I'm pretty confused/open.

I would prefer something that will last. I'm hoping that I'll love my new SLR (almost?) as much as I did my old SLR, and I get a sense that the [constant better and better and better improvements <-- there's a word for this, right?] of digital SLR's has finally slowed enough now that it's possible to imagine I'd use and be satisfied with the new camera for decades as well (wishful thinking?).

I know this is at least somewhat subjective, but what advice can you offer me? Feel free to point out holes in my logic as stated above, and/or point me to other resources. Specific and general suggestions both very welcome.

Thank you kindly for your support.
posted by segatakai to Technology (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would prefer something that will last

Give this up. Expect to replace the body. The image quality of digital cameras of five years from now will be far superior to those of today, and in ten years you may have trouble finding a way to read today's digital media cards. It's not like the analog world, where the basic technology remained the same for decades. The best you can do is to buy nice lenses; those should last. From what I understand there are two major systems of lenses you can invest in: Nikon or Canon EOS, and they're both good.

covered in modes, which seem gimmicky

They are gimmicky, but there's always a manual mode that lets you regain control over the camera. There's usually a thumb dial that can adjust shutter/aperture/etc. according to how you have the camera set up.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 7:51 AM on July 30, 2008

There's a ton of choice out there right now. I'll say that I haven't been keeping up with the developments for about a year or so other than casually glancing at (a great resource for very in-depth reviews) every so often.

The major developments in digital SLRs have been format size, megapixels and ISO sensitivity. When I first started using digital SLRs I bought a Canon 10D which has an APS-C sized sensor - 22mm x 15mm instead of film's 35mm x 24mm. This means a few things:

1. The sensor captures a reduced portion of the lens' imaging circle (commonly known as 'crop factor'), and so, in essence, lenses designed for film cameras behave differently. It's necessary to multiply the focal length of a given lens by 1.6 to achieve the field-of-view of the equivalent lens on a film body. A 28mm lens is a 45mm lens (give or take) on a 10D. This was generally good news for telephoto shooters, and bad, bad news for wide-angle lovers.

2. The viewfinders of these cameras are noticeably smaller than a film camera's.

This was bad news for people used to their lens systems. The good news is that several new developments have taken place:

1. Lenses for smaller 'crop factor' camera sensors have been developed. For example, Canon developed a 10-22mm lens for their APS-C sensor cameras to mimic the field-of-view of their very popular 16-35mm wide-angle lenses.

2. Cameras with full-frame 24x36 sensors were developed. I have one of these - a Canon 5D. It has the large, bright viewfinder of a film camera as well as the ability to use film lenses as they were originally intended. These are very expensive due to the incredibly high cost of producing large sensor wafers. The 5D is getting cheaper, though.

Your concers about aperture rings and mode dials are more of an issue relating to manual vs automatic cameras. That conversion from autofocus lenses came before the advent of digital. It is possible to get adapters to use older lenses, but it's not generally the best use of the technology.

The modes can be ignored entirely, and are largely limited to the consumer models. The 5D doesn't have any (but it also doesn't have an on-board flash). All models still have a fully manual mode, an aperture-priority mode, a shutter-priority mode etc.

ISO development wil amaze you the most. On the 5D the available ISO range is 50-3200 and even at 3200 the lack of 'grain' (or noise, to be more accurate) is incredible. This is improving all the time as the technology improves.

As for 'composing in the viewfinder' the SLR would be your best choice over a point-and-shoot. The difference between an APS-C SLR and a full-frame SLR in this regard is quite striking and only you can be the judge as to whether it's worth it.

The quality APS-C sized SLRs from Canon (Canon 40D), Nikon (D80) etc are probably the best overall solution for most people, and they make lighter, cheaper lenses specifically for that format. They have built-in flashes, they're half the price of a full-frame camera, have the same magnesium bodies and advanced features as the more expensive professional models etc.

A good start would be to head on over to and have a look at the latest offerings from Nikon, Canon (there really is no significant quality difference between the two, but there is preference regarding available lenses, ergonomics etc) and other companies. I'd maybe suggest going with either Nikon or Canon as they seem to have the best lens selections and the most mature products. Some of the new Nikons are fantastic.

Next step is to go to a store and look through the viewfinder and see what you're most comfortable with. Comfort will allow you to see much better, and take better pictures.
posted by jimmythefish at 8:01 AM on July 30, 2008

I've recently returned to (d)SLR photography after many, many years away from my film days and too many P&S devices. I went with a Nikon D300 and now have four lenses, two of which won't get much use in the future.

The last time I shot film seriously was in the late 70's to early 80's using a Pentax body. As far as I am concerned, the fun is back with the latest generation. Especially with the D300 and the newly introduced D700. There's a learning curve and a relationship to the lenses you purchase to go with it in terms of how much physical manual control you'll have. But, you'll have as much control as you want and have time to learn.

If you want to keep it less expensive, the D200 is an excellent camera that feels and operates as traditionally as you'd like. It's 1.5 generations back now but used to be Nikon's premier Prosumer body. Otherwise, the D40 through D80 series are smaller and have more automatic default modes, albeit with compromises in other areas.

DPReview is a good place to start reading (not linking to specific manufacturers or models intentionally)

Also, I agree with you. Nothing beats composing a shot through the viewfinder.
posted by michswiss at 8:07 AM on July 30, 2008

consider these two reviews: canon 40D and canon 1000d.
posted by krautland at 8:40 AM on July 30, 2008

Given your requirements and budget, I think you might be surprisingly happy with a Nikon D40 or D60, assuming you're willing to make some compromises -- the APS-C sensor size, lower resolution (6mp, I think?) and in the D40's case, its autofocus and light-metering will only work with Nikon CPU lenses. I personally own a D80 body and the 18-55mm kit lens. In hindsight, I wish I'd bought a less expensive body and more lenses. I've shot on the Nikon F/1.8 50mm AF lens before (borrowed it from a friend who uses it with his D40X sans-automation) and loved that, but it's fixed-focal-length and not designed for APS-C sensors, so it really acts more like a 70mm or so lens.
posted by Alterscape at 9:26 AM on July 30, 2008

seems to me that almost any entry level dslr will do except for the interface issues. if you want to set shutter speed and aperture via a dial and ring then you have problems. i think only the expensive models can read aperture rings (that was certainly the case for nikons a while ago) because it's a support thing for old lenses - many new lenses (especially the lower price ones) don't have the ring! and i can't think of a current body with a shutter speed control knob.

actually, there is one camera that has both those (aperture ring and shutter speed knob), but it's now discontinued and you may be able to find it cheap - the panasonic L1. maybe other older models do too?

take the above with a grain of salt - i know most of this from reading reviews rather than using cameras.
posted by not sure this is a good idea at 9:39 AM on July 30, 2008

also, if you go with a new camera, don't forget pentax, olympus and sony (who bought minolta). note that olympus has a smaller detector than the others (which gives a smaller camera, but limits what you can do with depth of field). oh, and the panasonic above is (iirc) with a similarly small detector (it's the "4/3 system").
posted by not sure this is a good idea at 9:44 AM on July 30, 2008

While I think that memory, card readers, and other digital paraphernalia will be around to support older digital cameras for dozens of years, it's true that dSLRs are rated with a shutter life and simply arent as tough as vintage cameras or workhorse film SLRs. Repairs are typically not worth it, since they're hyper-specialized components that only the factory can fix and the cost to replace/upgrade will be much closer to the repair price.

If the idea of building a dSLR lens stable and upgrading bodies every 5 years doesn't hold any appeal, you may want to look into digital rangefinders. You can get one or two vintage lenses and then have a compact manual focus powerhouse. They also tend to be more expensive but have very high build quality.
posted by cowbellemoo at 9:45 AM on July 30, 2008

I'm pretty happy with my Nikon D40 that came with a standard 18-55mm lens. Picture quality is very good, and the camera feels good in my hands. I bought it about a year ago, so if I were looking again, there is a new Nikon D40X which has more megapixels. I've also considered getting a Nikon 55-200mm lens.

By the way, everything on the Nikon D40 can be controlled manually, but not in the way that you are describing with the rings, so there might be a tiny learning curve, but it's not a big deal in my opinion.

The one catch about the Nikon auto-focus lenses is that the auto-focus motor is built into the lens, not the camera. This brings the cost for the body down, but makes each auto-focus lens more expensive. Of course, the camera will still use Nikon standard manual focus lenses.

There is also a new Canon Rebel digital DSLR worth considering.
posted by jerryg99 at 9:48 AM on July 30, 2008

I think you'd be well served with the Pentax K10D. Unique to the Pentax K10D and K20D models is a shooting mode called Hyper-Program that lets you switch between shutter priority and aperture priority simply by turning the front or rear dial which is great for composing in the viewfinder without having to manually switch exposure modes. In effect, it's like having separate shutter and aperture control knobs with a reset button.
posted by junesix at 10:43 AM on July 30, 2008

You're right that shooting "modes" or whatever those icons of mountains and flowers and people on the dial on top are pretty much useless. As mentioned above, it'll probably be worthwhile learn the new control systems; as a longtime nikon f3 user, it took me a little while to get used to the thumb wheel for aperture control and the finger wheel for shutter speed. However, I find these wheels indispensable now; much easier to maneuver in a fast-moving situation or when one of your hands is tied up (especially useful with a flash on a synch cord, for instance). There are things to dislike about these dials; on my 5d, the thumb wheel always gets turned off (I never turn my camera off, so I never double check that switch) and the finger wheel always rubs against my hip (when I carry the camera on my shoulder, lens inward), which throws the shutter speed way off. Not uncommon for me to take my camera to my eye in the middle of the day after walking around and find my camera on a 30second exposure.

If the aperture ring is a priority, though, I think the only option is Nikon; their old lenses are usable with almost all of their digital bodies (I think there's a problem with some of the body/lens combinations where the rear element runs into the mirror...) You'll lose the in-camera meter going this route, though, because the camera's computer can't adjust for the aperture settings on a non-computerized lens. The other problem with this route, when shopping on a budget, is that you'll be limited to older nikon digital bodies, which are pretty bad. I used a d2h at a newspaper I worked for and the besides being a huge box, the files were generally unusable above 400iso. I managed to pull out an 11x17 print of one of the files at 500iso or maybe one stop higher iso, but it was pretty ugly... I also used a d2xs (I think that's the right name) and the built in color management was pretty bad and the little actuator just inside the lens ring on the body that triggers the aperture on the lens kept bending out of alignment causing random un-apertured shots. I have heard that the new nikons are a dream to work with in low light situations, but I imagine they're out of your price range.

I can't speak about other brands of cameras, but if you pick a canon, be aware that a lot of the dials and zoom and lens attachment are backwards from nikon's system. This is surprisingly difficult to overcome if you've got one system ingrained as instinct.
posted by msbrauer at 11:00 AM on July 30, 2008

Given your take your time and take the photograph style, I think that picking up a D40 (used or new) would be a great option for you. You can pick one up for ~400 used, with the kit lens. Put the camera in manual mode and don't even think about it from there. Changing shutter speed and aperture will become second nature although if you want the click of an aperture ring, I got you covered.

With the D40 and D60 you can use every old lens made for nikon, without modification and given your shooting style you'll get the best quality of image for the cost.

I use old nikon manual lenses (aperture ring, manual focus) on my d40 almost exclusively and its a great option especially if you know film photography. You will not have automatic exposure but using the lens' aperture ring to correct is simple and effective (you change the shutter speed with the ring): you take a picture look to see on the back the general exposure change your settings and reshoot. It's second nature for me and many others at this point.

Old lenses are reviewed here and can be found on ebay as well as many camera websites. Enjoy the digital age!
posted by stratastar at 5:24 AM on July 31, 2008

Yes, if you're really set on the manual shutter speed dial and aperture ring, the discontinued Panasonic L1 is the only choice for digital. My impression of the L1 was that it was a good camera with a great lens, but was a little too expensive and quirky to compete with more mainstream cameras.

I'd recommend just trying to get used to the new shutter speed/aperture method. It is easy to use.

One warning about the Nikon D40/D60 - they do not have a focusing motor in the camera body, which means you will not have autofocus if you decide to use any old lenses (you may not care if you like to focus manually).

As for how to spend the money, I'd avoid any of the bottom-end SLRs from any manufacturer - they generally have some compromises in order to get the price point down. For the most part, they are transitional cameras, the price point is set so low enough to be attractive enough for P&S buyers to step up to the SLR systems (and then upgrade once they are hooked).

You are right that the advancement of DSLR technology has slowed, particularly in the middle of the price range. Your budget of $1000 is enough to step up to the Nikon D80 with 18-135 lens. I don't think it will last for decades, but it is certainly good enough to last for a long time, especially if you don't keep visiting electronics shops to see what is new :) The current crop of cameras will take great pictures with few technological compromises.

You'll get the most bang for your buck if you buy online from Amazon or B&H Photo, which is one of the best and largest online photo retailers.
posted by kenliu at 2:30 AM on August 1, 2008

Recommending the Nikon D80, which I own, or its big brother, the Nikon D300. These cameras don't have the exact configuration of controls you want (such as the aperture ring), but I don't think you'll find those on any modern digital camera. I would pay a visit to a good camera store such as B&H and try out the different models in your hands and see which one feels best for you.
posted by lsemel at 10:45 PM on August 2, 2008

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