Price: $700(approx street)
The way in

THE LOW-DOWN: This entry to Nikon’s DSLR range comes with a 24 megapixel sensor (also used by Sony and Pentax) and a Nikkor 18—55mm kit lens (27—82 film equivalent). The optical low pass filter has been removed to improve sharpness, as is becoming common on DSLRs. The 921k dot LCD has good brightness and contrast. The “info” panel is useful, though not as good as on mirrorless cameras. The camera will not auto-focus legacy lenses, only the newer lenses with inbuilt focus motors. Ergonomics, as on most Nikons, are excellent. The camera is small and light. There is a good 120 page printed manual.

LIKE: Nikon jpegs, straight from the camera, are always good and this is no exception, even though saturation is a little over done. That is easily corrected in camera settings. RAW image quality is second to none, helped by a decent kit lens. High ISO performance is also good.

DISLIKE: While the price is attractive, undercutting some compacts, it is up against stiff competition from mirrorless system cameras which we think offer better value for the money.

VERDICT: Assessing cheap DSLRs always comes down to the familiar bottom line: you are buying into a system, whether it is Nikon, Sony, Canon or Pentax. At this price the camera body is not expected to last a lifetime, but the lenses and accessories that you buy will. And in time you may buy a better body and go on using your lenses. Buying into the Nikon system is a smart move. If you never aspire to higher things you will still have a good camera, and if your ambition is high then you have a good equipment foundation. At the time of writing Nikon are offering a cash-back incentive on the D3300.

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It’s probably not true that the best things in life are free – at least where digital photography is concerned. However a surprising number of useful applications can be downloaded and used for absolutely no cost.

One thing missing from both Windows and Macs is a decent photo file viewer. The basic requirement of a photo viewer is that it displays thumbnails of all the pictures in a folder and then gives access to other functions – full sized display, editing, setting as wallpaper, changing file form – with one click of the mouse button.

On the Windows PC we use Irfanview (irfanview.com) a free file viewer with some editing functions that has been around for as long as we can remember, just getting better and better. It is lightning fast in opening and displaying images in any form, including RAW (with the right extensions installed).

For the Mac there is PhotoscapeX. (x.photoscape.org). This is also a quick photo viewer with even better editing functions. Run the program, select a folder of photos, right-click on a thumbnail and you are presented with an array of options including edit, set as wallpaper, copy, rename, change format and so on.

The Mac comes with iPhoto, which is just about all the photo editing power that most people will need. The Windows Photo Gallery is not an acceptable alternative. The version of Photoscape for Windows (www.photoscape.org) doesn’t have the same attractive interface as the Mac version but it is still a useful viewer and editor.

If you think it is time that you asserted your existence with a presence on the interweb then Windows has it all over the Mac for free, must-have applications.

If you blog, using services such as WordPress, Blogger or Typepad (we use the WordPress service on www.dpexpert.com.au) then Windows Livewriter, part of the MS “Live” suite, is indispensable. Livewriter is a blog content manager, which means it is used to update the blog with new words, pictures and links, which we do weekly. It is WYSIWYG and drag and drop, just like Word. One click on the Publish button uploads the content to the designated server.

If you create a web page from scratch, or by using a template (google “free web templates”) then Microsoft comes to the party again with an amazing piece of software: Microsoft Expression Web 4. This is a viable alternative to Adobe’s expensive Dreamweaver, but like Dreamweaver it is not intuitive. You need a guide. And that is also free at tinyurl.com/6o7rsln as a pdf set up to look beautiful on a pad/tablet.

Who are these generous people who give us so much good stuff for nothing?

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Price: $1390 body (street price)
The best of both forms

THE LOW-DOWN: This is the latest manifestation of Sony’s unique “single lens translucent” technology which uses a fixed, semi-transparent mirror in the viewfinder optics. The mirror passes some light to the 24 megapixel APS-C sensor and some to the very high resolution electronic viewfinder. The proximity sensor switches between the fine, swivelling LCD and the EVF when it detects an object – usually the eye – close to the finder. This means that, compared with other DSLRs, there is constant “live-view” on the LCD, just as on a mirrorless compact. It also improves auto-focus, particularly in movie mode. There is both WiFi and NFC connectivity and the camera can be controlled from a smartphone with the Sony app. The construction quality, built around a magnesium alloy chassis, is rugged and luxurious and ergonomics are excellent.

LIKE: This is a fabulous piece of gear that is much more versatile than the competition DSLRs. Image quality is excellent with consistent exposure and focus. We were supplied with the 16–50mm constant f2.8 lens which is optically and mechanically superb.

DISLIKE: The weight. This is a very heavy camera, particularly with this lens. We guess that this is what Americans demand – it’s a pity.

VERDICT: One of the advantages that mirrorless compact system cameras have over DSLRs – apart from the weight – is the sheer wealth of information displayed in viewfinder and LCD. And the simultaneous subject view through LCD and finder. Well the Sony a77II gives the best of both worlds, at least in the information view department. This is simply a lovely camera to use. Sadly there is a huge difference in the Australian and US price – we pay 35 percent more than Americans.

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Sony is a company with a curious sales strategy. It makes great digital single lens reflex cameras and then tells you not to buy them.

Remember Sony’s “idiot photographer” TV commercials from a year ago? Remind yourself here: tinyurl.com/nayc2k6 See the poor dope big-noting with his cumbersome DSLR, making a total ass of himself, when what he really needs is a sweet little Sony NEX mirrorless system camera. We assume that the drongo is not using a Sony DSLR, like the a77II reviewed today – it must be a Canon or a Nikon.

It may be argued that there is a fundamental difference between a DSLR and a compact system camera (CSC) and they are not really comparable, but this week we have been able to compare two Sony cameras that are natural competitors with each other.

In the Big corner, weighing in at 726g we have the a77II, while in the Small corner we have the Sony a7 CSC, a fly-weight at 474g. There is a similar difference in the weight of the kit lenses.

We didn’t plunge the cameras into water to compare their volume displacements so you will need to take our word for it that the a77II is bulky and the a7 is petite. And they are a similar price if we factor in Sony’s current cashback offer on the a7.

There is a big difference, however, in the internals. The compact a7 sports a 24 megapixel full frame sensor while the a77II has a 24 megapixel APS-C receptor, half the area of full frame. So the much smaller camera has a much larger sensor.

The only thing you do not get in the a7 that is in the a77II is the mirror.

Sales figures show a bias by the average customer towards the DSLR, perhaps because that is what they know. It is a safe buy. No one will look at a Nikon, Sony or Canon single lens reflex and say: “What on earth is that? Why did you buy it?”

Nikon, Canon and Pentax DSLRs with optical viewfinders are still considered by many to be the best way to compose and assess a photo. But, to be blunt, we think they are old fashioned.

We reckon the future is mirrorless – but then we are the one who would have said: “It’ll never fly, Orville.”

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