What makes up the perfect consumer-grade DSLR? Ask ten potential buyers and you're likely to get ten different answers. But there is one thing that a majority of first-time DSLR buyers seem to hope for in these cameras: reduced size and weight. If you're coming up from most point-and-shoot models, your average entry-level DSLR seems downright huge by comparison, and market research conducted by various manufacturers in the last few years suggests that concerns about size and weight are one of the primary reasons cited for choosing not to upgrade to an interchangeable lens camera.
But DSLRs don't have to be so intimidating. Over the weekend, we wrapped up our review of the compact 10.2 megapixel Pentax K2000. We were so impressed with this very manageable DSLR's credentials as a travel camera, in fact, that it only seemed natural to do a little investigating, Head to Head style, as to how this camera stacks up against one of our favorite compact DSLRs of all time – the similarly speced Nikon D60.
Sophistication and Style
The truth is, most bottom-rung DSLRs look and feel a little "blah" to me. Compromised interfaces and built-to-a-price construction details and ergos on many base models are frequent gripes about this class of cameras registered by many a jaded camera reviewer, including yours truly. Which is why I've always been a fan of the Nikon D60. Read the specs sheet and you'll know you're not getting a D300. Pick the camera up, though, and other than the obvious size difference between Nikon's pro and amateur models, nothing in the build quality would give it away.
One of the smaller DSLR bodies currently available, the D60 nonetheless retains a comfortable feeling in hand, making it a pleasure to shoot with. The interface is, not surprisingly, all Nikon, but if the unique-to-Nikon icons and interface structure don't throw you for a loop immediately, you'll quickly come to appreciate the photographer-centric logic that drives Nikon's design process.
Conversely, the Pentax K2000 looks and feels – well – like a Pentax.
Pentax's K models have looked and felt basically the same for awhile, and have a reputation for being rugged and dependable if a bit industrial. To counter this perception and make the K2000 more appealing to entry-level DSLR users, Pentax has reduced the latest K model's footprint – it takes up roughly the same physical space as the compact D60 – and cleaned up the utilitarian (though some have accused it of clunkiness) interface of previous Pentax models. Overall, the camera is smaller and lighter, and its interface is definitely more pleasing to look at than any Pentax that's come before it.
That said, the K2000 still lacks a lot of the nice touches that mark the D60's build and interface – highly polished menus and an eye sensor for automatically shutting the LCD off when you bring your eye to the viewfinder, for starters. And the updates that have been made are a double-edged sword if you're a longtime Pentax shooter as well. Several key interface functions have been relocated from their "usual" spots, leaving veteran Pentaxians fumbling for simple settings adjustments.
At the end of the day, both the D60 and K2000 are nice cameras, but spiffier fit and finish and a great interface and status display screen really seal the deal for the Nikon in this area.
Advantage: Nikon D60
Features and Specs
The fact that a full year separates the release of these cameras might lead you to believe that you'd find vast technological differences "under the hood." But the truth is that there's a surprising amount of shared technology – starting right at the top of the specs sheet with the 10.2 megapixel Sony-developed CCD sensor that shows up in both cameras. Other hardware, while not identical, proves to be quite similar as well: the K2000 sports a five-point AF system, the D60 a three-area sensor. There's a 2.5 inch screen on the Nikon, while the Pentax features a 2.7 inch LCD. In general, the cameras are competitive across the board in terms of specs, but with the K2000's newness earning it an ever-so-slight edge.
For me, the big differentiators in this category come down to choices about lens mount and image stabilization technologies. In a controversial move, Nikon opted to drop support for the older "screw drive" focusing system used in the majority of its lenses until just a few years ago with its lower-cost DSLRs. Hence, the selection of available lenses for the D60 with auto focus support – while much better now than when the original D40 launched a few years back – still has some thin spots. Combine this with the premium you have to pay not only for AF compatibility with the D60, but also for stabilized optics, and the cost difference begins to add up.
By contrast, while the spectre of more limited lens compatibility is looming on Pentax's horizon as well, the K2000 continues to provide broad support for basically the full range of Pentax AF and MF glass. In fairness, there are fewer lenses (especially AF lenses) to go around for Pentax to begin with, and they're sometimes harder to find, but if you like the idea of digging up pawn shop or thrift store bargains on old lenses, the K2000 is infinitely more forgiving in this regard. Plus, Pentax builds their image stabilization – which moves the sensor to compensate for camera shake, rather than shifting an element in the lens – right into the K2000's body, meaning no need to spring for more expensive stabilized lenses if you want IS.
Of course, if you already have Nikon lenses or flash units, the D60 would be an obvious pick. Flash shooting in particular is one area where the D60's definitely got the edge: while the Pentax offers wireless flash control, the ability to interface with Nikon's unrivalled Creative Lighting System of flashguns and accessories scores the D60 big points with aspiring portrait or fine art photographers in particular. This feature isn't enough to swing the balance in Nikon's favor for general shooting in my opinion, but it's definitely worth noting.
Like most every DSLR these days, either model offers the technology needed to take great pictures: there's no wide gulf separating the two in terms of features and performance. But if "latest, greatest" is your thing, or you'd like to explore budget options for sourcing lenses, the K2000 gets the nod.
Advantage: Pentax K2000
Ease of Use
Let's get this out of the way first off: both the D60 and K2000 are extremely intuitive for beginning shooters. If you're the type who just wants to stick to auto or scene modes, either model will be more than happy to oblige, offering a "couldn't be simpler" user experience that may convince you to never go back to a point-and-shoot. The straightforward shooting experience that both of these cameras provide is as much a testament to how far consumer SLRs as a whole have come in the past few decades as anything else. But even so, I really like what both Nikon and Pentax have done in terms of usability with these models, making them standouts in a very good field.
So where are points of distinction to be found? To really find noteworthy usability differences, you have to move outside of the auto modes in both cases and dive into the cameras' respective auto focus and metering systems. On the AF front, although Pentax equips the K2000 with a more well-specified five-point focus sensor, the speed and overall reliability of the D60's basic but proven system are really hard to match – and it shows in the small but clear difference in focusing speed. Admittedly, it's a distinction between fast and very fast at this point by consumer camera standards, but that doesn't change the fact that the D60's just a little faster, smoother, and more tolerant of taxing shooting situations like low light than the K2000.
As for metering, again it's a case of good versus excellent. We had no trouble with the K2000's metering technology beyond a few blown highlights, but the D60's pro-derived matrix metering is quite possibly the most unflappable exposure control system on a consumer DSLR. And if you're moving up to a DSLR for the first time, this kind of dependability is key.
Finally, there's the power source debate. The D60 gets decent (circa 500 shots per charge) battery life numbers out of a proprietary lithium-ion pack, while the K2000 can come in close to those numbers on its alkaline AA power – or hit 1000 shots or more on lithium cells. So which is better? That's a debate been raging for a long time, and those who feel strongly about one side or the other are entrenched and not likely to be persuaded. So there's not going to be one "better" choice for all shooters, but it's definitely worth thinking about your particular preference if you're considering these two cameras. Personally? I'll take the grab-and-go convenience of a single, high powered lithium-ion pack over those pesky AAs – even lithium ones – any day.
All in all, the learning curve for each camera's interface is roughly the same. That being the case, more consistent metering, more universally reliable auto focus, and the lithium-ion power source ultimately tip this one in the Nikon's favor in my book.
Advantage: Nikon D60
If the K2000 and D60 share a sensor, image quality should be a neck-and-neck race, right? In practice, of course, it's not that simple: while there are obvious similarities in the amount of detail captured and the level of high ISO noise, for instance, marked differences in processing give each model's respective image the distinctive look for which these brands are known. More than any other area, this is the one that comes down to the preference of the photographer, and to how you choose to define image quality in the first place.
Comparing our studio samples from both cameras, the difference in processing is obvious:
The Pentax shot is silky smooth, with great colors but more restrained contrast. Conversely, Nikon bumps the contrast right off the bat, and while transitions at both the highlight and shadow ends of the spectrum aren't as smooth, the D60's shot is definitely punchier out of the gate.
On detail capture, it's again a pretty close race. To my eye, Pentax has finally figured out their processing when shooting JPEGs: gone are the days of watery, soft straight-from-camera JPEGs that earned Pentax a bad name among pixel peepers. In general, though, Nikon's excellent kit lens and slightly more aggressive sharpening give the D60 the edge when it comes to the amount of detail being resolved. But Pentax's kit lens, while not as nicely built or as universally strong, optically, as the Nikon 18-55mm, is no slouch either. At middle distances and relatively narrow apertures, in fact, it's impressively sharp as well.
Not surprisingly, there's a similar building of noise and grain in both cameras as sensitivity increases. But again, differences in processing yield some slightly different results in spite of the shared sensor, and in this case I think Pentax takes the honors with its more aggressive (and adjustable, if you'd like it less so) noise reduction. While the D60's showing more detail in textured areas at ISO 3200, this comes at the expense of more grain and noise than the super-smooth Pentax.
Nikon D60, ISO 3200, 100% crop
Pentax K2000, ISO 3200, 100% crop
That's my take, but there's certainly no need to take my word for it. Our full reviews of both models have a detailed image quality breakdown with lots of shots for comparison; check them out if you need more info.
Obviously, either camera is more than capable of taking some great looking images. Given my preferences and the way I work, I would probably tend toward the Pentax: I like its less obvious processing and smoother images throughout the the ISO range. Plus, it's hard to beat the K2000's tweakability if you're the kind of photographer who likes to fiddle with processing options (not to mention its built-in filters). But for a family snapshooter looking to grab shots in auto mode and send them straight to print, the D60's workflow advantages are hard to beat.
Advantage: Pentax K2000
Price and Value
If there's one area where the older D60 gets an age-based edge, this is it. Because it's been on the market for a year, there are simply more deals to be had on the D60 than you're likely to find on the brand new K2000. The K2000 is certainly competitively priced, and if some of the advantages in its favor appeal to your, there's obviously no reason not to spend the extra cash for the Pentax. But if you're still looking for a reason to pick one over the other, the D60 gets tapped as the value leader in this comparison.
Advantage: Nikon D60
I end up making this statement a lot around here, but I think the foregoing comparison is just another reinforcement of its truth: DSLRs these days are, basically without exception, all quite good. Sure, some do certain things better than others. But if taking great images is your chief concern, there's no need to fret over your SLR decision. The results you'll get from either of the cameras evaluated today – or similar options from Canon, Olympus, and Sony – shouldn't fail to impress.
Of course, there are reasons – mostly considerations of how you like to use your camera, or what you want to do with it – to choose one over the other. If you're looking for a camera that you can grow into and explore settings with, or a camera that lets you experiment cost-effectively with various lenses, the K2000 is a fantastic new option and a great value besides, given all the new tech it packs in. If you're wanting a DSLR to ease the transition from your point-and-shoot – a rock solid performer that does its thing without fuss – the D60 is probably the compact DSLR for you. Whichever you prefer, with one of these options you're basically guaranteed a capable camera that's easier to tote around than your typical SLR and easier on your wallet.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.