Building a top-flight pro DSLR may earn a manufacturer bragging rights, but it's at the other end of the size and cost spectrum – among small, light, and inexpensive entry-level interchangeable lens cameras – where the camera makers are really doing battle at the moment. And if you're looking for the absolute smallest and lightest DSLRs currently available, you'll find the Olympus E-420 closely followed by the Nikon D60 at the bottom of the size ladder.
Almost small enough to pass for large ultrazooms, these cameras have redefined the standard for just how compact a consumer DSLR can be. Using review notes, test results, and staff observations, we pit these two key players in the entry-level SLR segment against each other in this month's Head to Head comparison.
Sophistication and Style
Look up "basic DSLR" in the dictionary, and you'll find a picture of the Nikon D60. Okay, so maybe it's not entirely true, but from an ergonomic and visual standpoint, it doesn't get much more straightforward in an entry-level DSLR these days than the long-running Nikon D60 (which represents the latest model in a line that's been largely unchanged since the D40).
Canon may have launched the consumer DSLR revolution, but Nikon wasn't far behind, and their consistently solid camera designs have played a huge role in pushing the segment forward and making interchangeable-lens cameras seem accessible to casual photographers again.
The D60's composite body is pleasantly compact and lightweight, though the optically excellent 18-55mm kit lens that comes with the latest version is quite large and heavily built by kit lens standards. Next to Olympus's tiny, thinly built kit zoom, the well-made Nikon 18-55mm looks and feels like optical heavy artillery, and makes the whole setup seem much larger than the compact D60 body would suggest.
Basic, well-built, and competent are themes that Nikon seems to be emphasizing repeatedly in the D60's layout and styling cues. As reviewer Howard Creech noted in putting the D60 through its paces, "The D60's rather conventional looks may not turn a lot of heads, but it is tough enough to go just about anywhere and capable of absorbing some fairly substantial punishment in the process without any diminution of capability." In the same way, simple, logical control placement and few extraneous buttons or embellishments give the Nikon a presence that's reassuring and easy to follow, if a bit bland and unassuming.
The contrast to the Olympus E-420, with its loads of dedicated controls and unusual overall form factor, could hardly be more pronounced.
Although there's really not a lot separating the two devices in terms of size, the E-420 looks and feels significantly smaller than the D60, thanks in large measure to an ergonomically controversial decision to move the camera body back to a more classic, squared shape and eliminate the large, protruding grip common to most digital SLRs.
If you're a classic camera fan, it's hard not to be drawn in by the E-420's almost iconic look: in spite of its entry-level positioning and diminutive size, the camera looks like it means business. Add Olympus's optically average but stylistically and functionally chic 25mm "pancake" prime (one of the E-420's kit lens options) and you get a setup with definite old school appeal and a form factor small enough to tuck into a jacket pocket.
Whereas looking at or holding the D60 isn't a particularly memorable experience, the E-420 has undeniable personality. And while none of this will necessarily help you take better pictures, the Olympus's fine-tuned compactness, impressive control array (which, it should be noted, doesn't necessarily work in its favor where ease of use is concerned), fixed focal length mindset seemed to do more all around to help get our creative juices flowing.
Advantage: Olympus E-420
Features and Specs
This one's a closer call in my mind. Both camera's offer a similar level of basic specification, with 10 megapixel sensors, three-point phase detection AF systems, and moderately large 230,000 dot LCD displays. The Nikon has a slightly faster, slightly more consistent focusing system according to our test numbers, but unless you're doing lots of action shooting the difference really isn't earth shattering. On the whole, both models largely carry over the majority of their key specs from previous models, and in light of the fact that both cameras have in essence been around the block a time or two, it's hardly surprising that Nikon and Olympus have refined their respective entry-level formulas to compete almost point for point in a specs sheet comparison.
Things get complicated, however, in light of the fact that each camera has what is arguably and for some users a different critical advantage. For the Olympus, it's live view: the E-420 allows shooters to use the camera just like a point-and-shoot model, composing images on the LCD instead of through the viewfinder only. There are some key limitations to the technology, especially as regards focusing speed and consistency, but overall, Olympus has developed one of the more polished live view systems, and it's a technology that some DSLR first-timers moving up from compact cameras may feel that they can't live without.
Nikon's crucial tech advantage comes in the form of its decision to make the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Vibration Reduction lens the new kit optic. This means that Nikon users who start out with the kit (as most new DSLR buyers tend to do) have optical image stabilization on their side from the start – an advantage that used to have a somewhat steep price premium in Nikon's system, and one that you can't get from Olympus's basic kit setups (as the E-420 doesn't offer the in-body image stabilization of some of Olympus's more advanced cameras, and the company doesn't build optically stabilized lenses). Optical image stabilization may not be as flashy as live view, but the advantages for shooting hand held or at lower ISOs in situations where it once would have been basically impossible to get sharp shots is still a considerable advantage that has tangible benefits in indoor shooting, especially.
We've never awarded a category tie in a Head to Head comparison, but the D60 and the E-420 came as close to earning one as any two models we've ever side-by-sided. These cameras have specs that nearly mirror one another save one key advantage for each particular model. As good as Olympus's live view system is, it's certainly not flawless, and the opinions among our review staff about whether the technology was refined enough to qualify it as a serious tool rather than a marketing gimmick remain mixed. By contrast, offering VR in what was already a very good kit lens from an optical standpoint provides the D60 kit with a crucial low-light shooting advantage, especially, over it's already somewhat high-sensitivity hobbled rival from Olympus.
Hence, I'm giving this one to Nikon by the slimmest of possible margins, though if you're seeking a compact DSLR and live view is a key consideration for you, much of the foregoing reasoning may not apply. With that caveat in mind...
Advantage: Nikon D60
Ease of Use
Putting aside live view as a possible ease of use consideration for the moment, usability features for both the E-420 and the D60 hit their target market nicely. Like most consumer DSLRs, both cameras walk novices through the shooting process with a bevy of auto-exposure modes custom tailored for just about any shooting situation. Taking the novice-friendly user experience beyond point-and-shoot style scene presets, however, both cameras also offer copious explanatory information about settings and shooting modes if you want it – though to be fair, Nikon's very refined guide mode is the more generally useful and impressive of the two. In short, though, both models give first time DSLR buyers the kind of experience that they'll be looking for in a camera – plenty of scene presets and guide functions on both cameras provide ample "hand holding" all around for shooters just learning the ropes of an interchangeable-lens digicam.
With both cameras offering the full range of shooting modes that users shopping in this class of cameras seek, the big difference between the two comes down to a difference in approach in designing physical layouts and user interfaces. At one end of the spectrum, there's the E-420. Without a top-side status LCD, the slender E-420 relocates most of a user's interaction with the camera to its main 2.7-inch display.
For more advanced shooters, having all (and in the case of the E-420, I mean all) of that exposure information on a single screen can be great: it's like the "ultra" version of the top-panel display on larger SLRs. But more than one of our testers have complained about how hard it is to both tell at a glance what's going on with basic parameters and to make simple adjustments like changing ISO settings when they're intermingled with every other conceivable exposure and processing option – frequently changed or not. Moreover, for everyone who's not an advanced shooter – which likely includes the majority of this entry-level DSLR's customer base – the fact that the E-420 shares its basic interface layout with the professional Olympus E-3 may not be a point in its favor.
The nearly as tiny D60 relies on a similar setup, eschewing a top-side LCD to save size and moving all exposure information to its rear-deck display. Where ease of use is concerned, however, the Nikon simply does a better job than the Olympus of presenting information that casual shooters will need to know in an innovative, easy-to-read layout that's even customizable to boot.
In a market segment that operates largely on drawing less experienced shooters up to DSLRs from their familiar point-and-shoots, the approachability of a given camera's interface is of great concern. In this regard, it's really no contest: Olympus puts up a good fight, and offers an arrangement that more experience shutterbugs seeking a first or second SLR body will love, but a back panel teeming with buttons and information may confirm the worst fears of many casual family photographers about how intimidating DSLRs can be.
By contrast, the D60 is poised, polished, and clutter-free, striking a nice balance between advanced usability and information overload in its interface. For that feat, it walks away with this category handily in our book.
Advantage: Nikon D60
Given the rather considerable difference in sensor size, and the important role that the related concept of pixel density plays on several fronts when considering overall image quality, it's been argued that direct image quality comparisons like the one undertaken here are hardly fair, as the result is basically a foregone conclusion.
For the uninitiated, the E-420 (and all of Olympus's current DSLRs) use an open-format lens mount and sensor technology known as Four Thirds, which has a 4:3 aspect ratio (rather than the more common, wider 3:2 ratio seen on most DSLRs) and uses a sensor that's smaller than a typical consumer-grade DSLR sensor while still being significantly larger than the imager used in compact cameras. With the same amount of pixels (around 10 megapixels in both cases) fitted into a physically smaller space, it's fairly well documented that Olympus's sensors are more prone to noise at higher ISOs and show slightly less dynamic range than competitive devices from the likes of Nikon and others.
While all of this jives with the findings of our reviews on an academic level, in real world shooting there's always more to it than that. Whatever its shortcomings when pushed to or examined at its extreme limits, the E-420 proved to be perfectly capable of rich, vibrant image capture that would stand up to printing at sizes larger than most shooters would ever even consider.
Default processing is smooth, not overly harsh, and well suited to landscapes or other outdoor scenes with its vibrant blue/green reproduction.
The D60's 10.2 megapixel CCD sensor is very much a known quantity as well, currently finding its way into DSLRs from Sony (who manufacturers the imager) and Pentax, as well as Nikon's entry-level cam. With some excellent processor-side choices in the D60 implementation, the Nikon's sensor outshines even some of its similarly speced competitors in capturing subtle texturing and extremely fine detail.
As noted, there's also been a lot of noise made about noise when shooting at higher ISOs. The D60 has an extra stop of sensitivity when compared to the E-420 (topping out at ISO 3200 versus ISO 1600), and a side-by-side look at detail crops shows the Nikon to be just a bit cleaner across the board from ISO 400 or so on up when the light gets scarce.
Nikon D60, ISO 1600, 100% crop
Olympus E-420, ISO 1600, 100% crop
That said, unless you're dealing with large patches of dark, solid colors in the images you're taking, you'd have to look extremely closely at 8x10s from both at ISO 1600 to spot the difference in noise control performance.
For more sample images and a detailed breakdown of image quality for each camera, take a look at our full reviews:
At the end of the day, in absolute objective terms the D60 takes top honors in this category, with better fine detail resolution and better noise performance than its Four Thirds equipped rival. In practical terms, things are much less clear, with both cameras offering a performance that's clearly superior to even the most advanced compact cameras (the Sigma DP1 potentially excepted). Given both Nikon and Olympus's storied traditions in building fantastic optics, though, if you're buying bodies only, the Nikon may have a slight initial advantage but the E-420 could make it a close race with the right lens.
What really seals the deal for the D60 if we compare kits, however, is the fantastic performance of its kit lens that we keep coming back to again and again in this analysis. What the Olympus 25mm prime has in compactness and uniqueness as a composition tool, the Nikon 18-55mm kit zoom counters with flat-out optical quality that's arguably the best of any current entry-level kit lens.
Advantage: Nikon D60
Price and Value
In terms of price alone, Olympus has a lock here: whereas the D60 remains stuck in the mid-$600s pretty much across the board, the E-420 is currently sitting just under $600 at most retailers, and much closer to $500 at a few sellers when comparing zoom-lens kits for both models.
As seen in this analysis, the D60 offers a few crucial advantages, and if those advantages align with your photographic needs, the extra $100 will probably be money well spent. If you're on the fence, however, it seems that the E-420 is clearly offering more bang for your buck at the moment, potentially freeing up some more cash to upgrade lenses or add a nice telephoto right from the get go.
Advantage: Olympus E-420
As always with Head to Head, the point of this comparison is not to pick a winner, but rather to highlight the crucial differences between two competitive models and make it easier for potential buyers to decide which model best fits their particular needs. In this case, the E-420 has styling, personality, and value all wrapped up, while the less compelling but generally more competent D60 came roaring back when considering performance, ease of use, and image quality. For those who demand the best possible picture taker, it would seem that this standoff is an open and shut case in favor of the Nikon.
Of course, it's not that simple. The E-420 offers some key advantages that the D60 doesn't provide (most notably, live view), sports a control arrangement that will appeal more strongly to serious shooters looking for a camera in this range, and provides a level of image quality that's high enough to run in the same race with the D60, at least, if not always win it. And on intangibles, at least around here, the E-420 largely wins out as well.
It's a close race in this market segment, and I certainly don't envy consumers faced with choosing between these two (and other competitive) models. We've done the heavy lifting and laid out advantages and disadvantages each way: the final choice is yours.
Head to Head is a monthly camera overview and comparison column showcasing competitive cameras and discussing their relative strengths and weaknesses. If there are two or more cameras that you'd like to see compared in a future story, send us an email at email@example.com.