We reported over the weekend on a study out of the U.K. suggesting that DSLR sales have continued to grow even as the average price of entry-level DSLRs has edged up. Initially, this bit of data surprised me a bit – not that consumer DSLR sales have continued to grow, but that average prices for new entries have increased. It's seemed to me lately that getting huge amounts of performance for little money in the entry-level DSLR market is getting easier than ever, anecdotally suggesting just the opposite of rising prices. In truth, it really depends on where you look in the market.
This is nice...
In general, I believe that over the past year we've entered a veritable "Golden Age" in the consumer DSLR world. Initial forays into consumer-grade digital SLRs by Canon, Nikon and others were still fairly expensive in light of their sometimes quirky performance. With the form largely perfected several years ago, though, the second generation (in large-level terms) of DSLRs was capable of speed and performance that rivaled advanced amateur and professional models, and changes since this time have been for the most part incremental. The Canon Rebel XSi is very much the logical outcome of ideas that were well established in the Rebel line by the time the XT hit the market all the way back in 2005.
...but this may be a much better deal
To further emphasize the point, compare the slight differences between the XT and the XSi to the gaping performance gulf that stands between the Canon PowerShot A410 (released around the same time as the XT) and the latest entry-level PowerShot, the A470. I picked up an XT over the weekend, and while the screen seems small by modern standards and it doesn't pack the XSi's excellent new sensor, the older camera feels completely modern for all intents and purposes where its performance is concerned. By contrast, the A410 had what would almost certainly feel like hours of shutter lag by any contemporary standard, and on the basis of resolution and sensitivity increases there simply wouldn't be any comparison to A470. In terms of resolution, especially, there's certainly a law of diminishing returns in effect, and the difference between the A410's three megapixels and the A470's seven is much more significant for everyday shooters than the eight-to-twelve megapixel gap seen in the Rebel models.
You might not think about buying a three-year-old compact (I certainly wouldn't) given the huge performance gains during that time, but the difference between a DSLR from 2005 and a DSLR from 2008 is much, much smaller. The longer lifecycles of SLRs ultimately mean that there are some absolutely phenomenal deals to be had out there on previous-generation models. Thus, even as prices on new models have inched up in an attempt to make new feature additions more profitable for the company and more apparently valuable for the consumer, most of the basic performance equation hasn't changed: though the latest consumer offerings are bringing the latest (read: expensive) bells and whistles down from the advanced amateur models as well as most of the gadgetry we've come to expect in a point-and-shoot, XTs and D60s and E-410s and K100s all for under $500 represent a price-to-performance ratio like none we've ever seen before in this market.
On the one hand, then, we can probably expect the prices on "latest, greatest" DSLR technology at the consumer level to continue to edge up slightly, as more resolution and more features push this segment of the market ever closer in price and performance to the once clearly separate advanced amateur/semi-pro class. On the other, it also seems likely that prices of last year's models are going to continue to fall in equal measure. While it's an overused phrase to be sure, there's a lot of truth in the idea that if you can live without face detection and live view in your DSLR, now really may be a better time than ever to get into a phenomenally powerful camera interchangeable-lens camera for less than the cost of an expensive ultrazoom.
Round Up is a regular editorial column published twice weekly on DigitalCameraReview.com.