Battle Of The DSLRs

Back in the film days, the owner of an entry-level 35mm SLR could use the same film and the same lenses as the owner of a pro 35mm SLR, and thus entry-level and pro models weren’t divided so much by image quality as by construction, features and add-ons. The pro models were beefier, more rugged, could shoot faster, had better viewfinders and metering systems (and AF systems, in the case of AF SLRs), and offered a wider variety of accessories.

Digital complicated things a bit, in large part because with a DSLR, the camera is also your film. In the film era, no one had to buy a new camera just because a new, better emulsion was introduced. But with digital, as sensors improve, so do image quality and high-ISO performance, and the user—especially the working pro user—needs to upgrade his or her camera more frequently to remain competitive.

Full-frame DSLRs, even going back a generation or two, produce better overall image quality than APS-C DSLRs because their larger image sensors can collect more light at a given shutter speed and ƒ-stop. Their larger sensor area’s ability to collect more light also accounts for the full-frame DSLR’s better performance at higher ISOs.

Until recently, almost all full-frame DSLRs were high-end pro cameras. The Sony A850 of a few years ago and the arrival of Canon’s EOS 6D and Nikon’s D600 brought us "entry-level" full-frame DSLRs, with prices not far from those of high-end APS-C models. These lower-cost full-frame models deliver terrific image quality, as you’d expect from current-generation full-frame image sensors. But they lack some features that pro models—and even mid-range APS-C DSLRs—provide. Let’s look into this, and also consider what separates the higher-end APS-C DSLRs from the entry-level cameras.

Image Quality

Everything begins with image quality. From an overall image-quality standpoint, bigger is better, and newer is better. In DxOMark.com’s RAW sensor ratings (which mainly consider noise), the four highest overall scorers are full-frame models introduced in 2012, followed by a $40,000 medium-format camera, another 2012 full-frame DSLR, another medium-format model, then yet another 2012 full-frame camera. APS-C doesn’t appear until positions 12 and 13 (a 2012 model and a 2013 model, respectively).

In DxOMark.com‘s ratings for high-ISO performance, the top 20 positions are held by full-frame cameras. In the ratings for dynamic range, four full-frame models are followed by three APS-Cs, another full-frame, then two more APS-C models. In color bit depth, the top two places are held by medium-format models, followed by two full-frame DSLRs, another medium-format and five more full-frames; the highest-placed APS-C camera in color bit depth is a 2013 model in position 14. (See DxOMark.com for complete sensor ratings of most current DSLRs and many earlier ones.)

There’s more to image quality than the factors DxOMark.com considers, of course, but you get the idea. Full-frame sensors are better (especially for high-ISO work), and newer sensors are better in both full-frame and APS-C. In terms of pro vs. amateur, an entry-level full-frame DSLR rates third overall, and an entry-level APS-C model, 12th overall. Two mid-level full-frame models rank 1 and 2 overall, and the highest-ranking all-out pro model ranks 6th.

Today, you can get very good image quality with DSLRs from high entry-level on up, in both full-frame and APS-C format. If your pro job demands the best possible 80-megapixel images at a low ISO, you need (or need to rent) a medium-format camera. If it requires the best possible image quality at a high ISO, you need one of the newer full-frame DSLRs. Otherwise, in terms of image quality, a lower-priced newer DSLR could serve as a good backup, or even a main camera, for many pros.

Performance

Pro DSLRs outperform lower-end ones, of course. The AF systems are quicker and more accurate, the metering systems are better, and the pro models have more powerful processors that speed operation and can handle more complex noise-reduction algorithms. But the performance gap between pro and some mid-level DSLRs isn’t as great as you might expect. Sometimes the latest technological breakthroughs are introduced in the next DSLR model to be released rather than waiting for the next generation of the highest-end one.

Besides speed and accuracy, another AF consideration is sensitivity. The highest-end DSLRs can autofocus in dimmer light than entry-level models. Nikon’s top models (D4, D800/D800E and D600) and Canon’s (EOS-1D X and EOS 5D Mark III with current firmware) can autofocus with lens and teleconverter combinations as slow as ƒ/8, and so can the new $1,199 Nikon D7100. Other current DSLRs can’t autofocus with lens and teleconverter combinations slower than ƒ/5.6.

THE CONTENDERS
Full-Frame Sensor Normal ISO Range Max ISO AF Points (X-Type) Min. AF Aperture Min. AF EV Shutter Cycles Max. fps* Buffer RAW/JPG** AF Fine Adjust
Canon EOS-1D X 18.1 MP 100-51200 204800 61 (to 41) 8 -2 400K 12 38/180 Yes
Canon EOS 5D Mark III 22.3 MP 100-25600 102400 61 (to 41) 8 -2 150K 6 18/65 Yes
Canon EOS-6D 20.2 MP 100-25600 102400 11 (1) 5.6 -3 100K 4/5 17/1250 Yes
Nikon D4 16.2 MP 100-12800 204800 51 (15) 8 -2 400K 10 92/170 Yes
Nikon D800/D800E 36.3 MP 100-6400 25600 51 (15) 8 -2 200K 4(5) 21/56 Yes
Nikon D600 24.3 MP 100-6400 25600 39 (9) 8 -1 150K 5.5 22/57 Yes
Sony SLT-A99 24.3 MP 100-25600 25600 19 (11)*** 5.6 -1 200K 6 15/15 Yes
APS-C                    
Canon EOS 7D 18.0 MP 100-6400 6400 19 (19) 5.6 0.5 150K 8 25/130 Yes
Canon EOS 70D 20.2 MP 100-12800 25600 19 (19) 5.6 0.5 100K 7 16/65 Yes
Canon EOS T5i 18.0 MP 100-12800 25600 9 (9) 5.6 0.5 N/S 5 6/30 No
Canon EOS SL1 18.0 MP 100-12800 25600 9 (1) 5.6 0.5 N/S 4 8/1140 No
Canon EOS T3 12.2 MP 100-6400 6400 9 (1) 5.6 0 N/S 3 5/830 No
Nikon D300S 12.3 MP 100-6400 6400 51 (15) 5.6 -1 150K 7 18/44 Yes
Nikon D7100 24.1 MP 100-6400 25600 51 (15) 8 -2 150K 6(7) 7/73 Yes
Nikon D5200 24.1 MP 100-12800 25600 39 (9) 5.6 -1 100K 5 8/35 No
Nikon D3200 24.2 MP 100-51200 12800 11 (1) 5.6 -1 100K 4 18/80 No
Pentax K-5 II/K-5 IIs 16.3 MP 100-12800 51200 11 (9) 5.6 -3 100K 7 8/30 Yes
Pentax K-50 16.3 MP 100-6400 51200 11 (9) 5.6 -1 N/S 6 8/30 Yes
Pentax K-30 16.3 MP 100-12800 25600 11 (9) 5.6 -1 N/S 6 8/30 Yes
Pentax K-500 16.3 MP 100-51200 51200 11 (9) n/s -1 N/S 6 8/30 Yes
Sigma SD1 Merrill 15.3×3 MP 100-6400 6400 11( 11) n/s -1 100K 5 7/7 Yes
Sigma SD15 4.7×3 MP 100-1600 3200 5(1) n/s 0 100K 3 21/21 No
Sony SLT-A77 24.3 MP 100-16000 16000 19( 11) 5.6 -1 150K 12 13/13 Yes
Sony SLT-A65 24.3 MP 100-16000 16000 15 (3) 5.6 -1 150K 8 13/17 No
Sony SLT-A58 20.1 MP 100-16000 16000 15 (3) 5.6 -1 N/S 5 6/7 No
Four Thirds                    
Olympus E-5 12.3 MP 200-6400 6400 11( 11) N/S -2 150K 5 20/unlimited Yes
*Maximum fps at full resolution with AF for each frame; figure in parentheses is maximum fps in 15.3 MP cropped mode
**Maximum number of RAW/highest-quality JPEG images per burst
***SLT-A99 has a 102-point phase-detection AF sensor overlaying the image sensor, as well as a main 19-point AF sensor
****Price with asterisks is for body with kit zoom lens; otherwise price is for body only
N/S = Not stated by manufacturer

Pro DSLRs start up and wake from "sleep" mode very quickly. But these days, so do mid-level and even many entry-level DSLRs. Shutter lag (the brief time between the moment you fully depress the shutter button to take the shot and the moment the exposure is actually made) also isn’t all that far apart these days.

Where the all-out pro DSLRs have a clear advantage over the lower-end models is in burst speed and capacity. The Canon EOS-1D X can shoot at 12 fps at full resolution with AF for each frame; the Nikon D4 shoots 10 fps at full resolution with AF for each frame. One reason why these cameras have sensors with 8 and 16 megapixels—fewer than their mid-level full-frame and even entry-level APS-C DSLRs—is to obtain these frame rates. Affordable technology doesn’t currently exist to process 36-megapixel images at 10 per second. There are also limits on how quickly a DSLR can raise and lower the SLR mirror.

Mid-range full-frame DSLRs have top shooting rates in the 4 to 6 fps range. In APS-C, the Canon EOS 7D has 18 megapixels, and it can do 8 fps with AF for each frame, Nikon’s 12.3-megapixel D300S and the 16.2-megapixel Pentax K-5 series, 7 fps. Sony’s 24.3-megapixel SLT-A77 has an electronic viewfinder and a fixed-mirror system, and it can do an amazing 12 fps with continuous AF. Nikon’s 24.1-megapixel D7100 can do 7 fps in 15.3-megapixel 1.3X DX crop mode (in which a 300mm lens frames like a 600mm on a full-frame camera). All of today’s DSLRs but the entry-level models can do at least 5 fps.

THE CONTENDERS
Full-Frame Metering Points Pop-Up Flash Viewfinder Type/Coverage LCD Monitor Dimensions Max Weight MSRP
Canon EOS-1D X 100,000 No PP/100% 3.2-in., 1040K fixed 6.2×6.4×3.3 in. 47.3 oz. $6,799
Canon EOS 5D Mark III 63 No PP/100% 3.2-in., 1040K fixed 6.0×4.6×3.0 in. 30.3 oz. $3,499
Canon EOS-6D 63 No PP/97% 3.0-in., 1040K fixed 5.7×4.4×2.8 in. 23.8 oz. $1,999
Nikon D4 91,000 No PP/100% 3.2-in., 921K f 6.3×6.2×3.6 in. 41.6 oz. $5,999
Nikon D800/D800E 91,000 Yes PP/100% 3.2-in., 921K f 5.7×4.8×3.2 in 31.7 oz. $2,999
Nikon D600 2016 Yes PP/100% 3.2-in., 921K f 5.7×4.8×3.2 in. 31.7 oz. $2,999
Sony SLT-A99 1200 No EVF/100% 3.0-in., 1229K t/s 5.8×4.4×3.1 in. 25.9 oz. $2,799
APS-C              
Canon EOS 7D 63 Yes PP/100% 3.0-in., 920K fixed 5.8×4.4×2.9 in. 28.9 oz. $1,499
Canon EOS 70D 63 Yes PP/98% 3.0-in., 1040K t/s touch 5.5×4.1×3.1 in. 23.8 oz. $1,199
Canon EOS T5i 63 Yes PP/95% 3.0-in., 1040K t/s touch 5.2×3.9×3.1 in. 18.5 oz. $899****
Canon EOS SL1 63 Yes PP/95% 3.0-in., 1040K touch 4.6×3.6×2.7 in. 13.1 oz. $799****
Canon EOS T3 63 Yes PP/95% 2.7-in., 230K fixed 5.1×3.9×3.1 in. 17.4 oz. $449****
Nikon D300S 1005 Yes PP/100% 3.0-in., 921K fixed 5.8×4.5×2.9 in. 30.0 oz. $1,699
Nikon D7100 2016 Yes PP/100% 3.2-in., 1229K fixed 5.3×4.2×3.0 in. 23.8 oz. $1,199
Nikon D5200 2016 Yes PP/95% 3.0-in., 921K t/s 5.1×3.9×3.1 in. 17.8 oz $799
Nikon D3200 420 Yes PP/95% 3.0-in., 921K fixed 5.0×3.8×3.1 in. 16.0 oz. $699****
Pentax K-5 II/K-5 IIs 77 Yes PP/100% 3.0-in., 921K fixed 5.2×3.8×2.9 in. 23.3 oz. $1,099
Pentax K-50 77 Yes PP/100% 3.0-in., 921K fixed 5.1×3.8×2.8 in. 20.8 oz. $699
Pentax K-30 77 Yes PP/100% 3.0-in., 921K fixed 5.1×3.8×2.8 in. 20.8 oz. $599
Pentax K-500 77 Yes PP/100% 3.0-in., 921K fixed 5.1×3.8×2.8 in. 20.8 oz. $599****
Sigma SD1 Merrill 77 Yes PP/98% 3.0-in., 460K fixed 5.7×4.4×3.1 in. 24.7 oz. $2,299
Sigma SD15 77 Yes PP/98% 3.0-in., 460K fixed 5.7×4.2×3.2 in. 24.0 oz. $989
Sony SLT-A77 1200 Yes EVF/100% 3.0-in., 921K t/s 5.6×4.1×3.1 in. 23.0 oz. $899
Sony SLT-A65 1200 Yes EVF/100% 3.0-in., 921K t/s 5.2×3.8×3.1 in. 19.1 oz. $649
Sony SLT-A58 1200 Yes EVF/100% 2.7-in., 461K tilt 5.1×3.8×3.1 in. 17.3 oz. $549****
Four Thirds              
Olympus E-5 49 Yes PP/100% 3.0-in., 920K t/s 5.6×4.6×2.9 in. 28.2 oz $1,699
*Maximum fps at full resolution with AF for each frame; figure in parentheses is maximum fps in 15.3 MP cropped mode
**Maximum number of RAW/highest-quality JPEG images per burst
***SLT-A99 has a 102-point phase-detection AF sensor overlaying the image sensor, as well as a main 19-point AF sensor
****Price with asterisks is for body with kit zoom lens; otherwise price is for body only
N/S = Not stated by manufacturer

The pro DSLRs not only are faster than lower-end models, but they also have bigger buffers, allowing you to shoot longer continuous bursts. Lower-end DSLRs have much smaller buffers—in some cases, a few RAW files will fill the buffer. With these, you’ll either have to settle for brief bursts or shoot JPEGs. The Nikon D4’s buffer can hold 92 12-bit lossles
sly compressed RAW files or 170 Large Fine JPEGs, while the D800’s can hold 21 RAW or 56 Large Fine JPEGs, and the D7100’s buffer, 7 RAW files or 73 Large Fine JPEGs—one reason why Nikon pro action shooters like the D4. Note that the lower-end DSLRs aren’t likely to be able to maintain focus on a fast-moving subject for more than a few frames, so big burst capacity isn’t really needed.

Ruggedness And Reliability

Pro DSLRs are built for professional photographers, designed to withstand the rigors of full-time field use. Entry-level DSLRs are built for users who don’t shoot a lot and don’t put their cameras through the wringer. The all-out pro models have more magnesium and less engineering plastic in their construction, entry-level models, mostly plastic, and mid-level models, somewhere in between.

Pro DSLRs are well sealed against moisture and dust, and have proven themselves in harsh field conditions for years. We’ve also heard many reports of pros successfully using mid-range models like the Canon EOS 7D and Nikon D300S in such conditions. But there are also a few less costly DSLRs with good weather-sealing. Pentax touts their current DSLRs (except the K-500) as being "weather-resistant," and one staff member has successfully used his K-5 in the rain numerous times (with the DA* 300mm ƒ/4 SDM lens, which is also marketed as weather-resistant). The Sony SLT-A99 and SLT-A77, Olympus E-5 and Sigma SD1 Merrill also incorporate weather-sealing measures. It’s wise to protect even "weather-sealed" cameras from rain as much as possible, and bear in mind that many DSLR lenses aren’t weather-sealed.

Today’s entry-level models generally have shutters tested to around 100,000 activations (Canon EOS 6D, 70D and 60D, Nikon’s current DSLRs from the D5200 down) or don’t have shutter-cycle ratings. Sigma’s SD1 Merrill pro DSLR features a rugged body, but with a 100,000-cycle shutter.

Pro DSLRs also have more rugged shutters. The all-out pro Canon EOS-1D X and Nikon D4 have been tested to 400,000 cycles. Mid-range models have staunch, but less hardy shutters: Nikon’s D800/D800E and Sony’s SLT-A99 have shutters tested to 200,000 cycles; 150,000-cycle shutters are found in Canon’s EOS 7D and 5D Mark III, Nikon’s D600, D300S, D7100 and D7000, Olympus’ E-5 and Sony’s SLT-A77.

The takeaway here is that higher-end DSLRs will work longer in harsher conditions than lower-end ones, and pro models are the most rugged.

Does Full Frame Give You Less Depth Of Field?

If you shoot at the same shutter speed and aperture with a full-frame DSLR and an APS-C model, from the same distance, and use a focal length on each camera that results in the same framing, the full-frame image will have less depth of field. If you want to have the same depth of field in the full-frame shot, you’ll have to close the lens down 1.3 stops, which, in turn, means you’ll have to use a longer shutter speed to keep the same amount of light striking the sensor (if lengthening the exposure time won’t result in blur due to camera shake or subject motion). If you increase the ISO to maintain the same shutter speed with the aperture stopped down 1.3 stops instead, less light will fall on the sensor and image noise will increase.


Viewfinders

Pro DSLRs have big, bright pentaprism viewfinders that show 100% of the actual image area. Mid-range models have bright viewfinders, but they don’t always give you 100% coverage. Lower-end DSLRs often have pentamirror finders, which are dimmer and show less of the actual image area. Sony’s SLT cameras have high-resolution OLED electronic viewfinders rather than SLR optical finders. This, with the SLT fixed semitranslucent mirror design, allows the cameras to provide continuous phase-detection AF at all times, even for video, with eye-level viewing. Some love electronic viewfinders, some don’t, especially for action subjects.

Higher-end DSLRs are more likely to offer interchangeable focusing screens and viewfinder angle adapters that make low-angle shooting easier. Of course, with a digital camera, you can always use the external LCD monitor to compose odd-angle shots (assuming your DSLR offers live-view operation, which almost all do today).

Pro DSLRs have big (3.2- or 3.0-inch) state-of-the-art external LCD monitors with 921,000- to 1,229,000-dot resolution, but so do many mid-level and even higher entry-level DSLRs. None of Canon’s or Nikon’s higher-end cameras has a tilting/swiveling monitor, while some of their entry-level models do. The Olympus E-5 and all of Sony’s SLT models have tilting or tilt/swivel monitors. The vari-angle LCD monitors are especially handy for low- and high-angle shooting.

Memory

The advantages of multiple card slots with today’s high-megapixel cameras include more total memory. You can set the camera to switch to the second card when the first one fills, or you can save RAW files to one card and JPEGs to the other, still images to one card and video to the other, or the same file to both cards as backup. When using two cards, some cameras will have read/write speed limited by the slower card. This can be an unwelcome surprise if, for example, you have the camera set up to save video to a very fast card while you’re using an older, slow card for still photos. Before you mix and match fast and slow cards, check your DSLR’s manual to see if you’ll have any problems.

Power

Pro DSLRs use bigger batteries, providing more shots per charge (2,600 shots per charge for Nikon’s D4, 1,120 for Canon’s EOS-1D X, per CIPA testing standards), especially handy when covering fast-breaking events. Mid-level DSLRs provide around 1,000 shots per charge, and entry-level models give you about 500 shots per charge. Sony’s higher-end SLT models get around 500 shots per charge because they only have Live View mode or the EVF, both of which can consume a fair amount of power. Newer higher-end DSLRs can tell you what percentage of battery life is left, which is convenient when you have multiple batteries.

Flash

Top-of-the-line pro DSLRs usually don’t have a built-in pop-up flash despite the fact that many pros would love to have the convenience of one for a variety of situations. Of course, all DSLRs accept shoe-mount flashes, but a pop-up can be ideal at times, and just about all APS-C DSLRs have them. A pop-up doesn’t replace the power and control of an accessory flash, but it sure can save the day. Higher-end DSLRs—full-frame and APS-C—generally also have a PC connector for hooking up wired studio flash systems; lower-end cameras generally don’t have that feature.

Lenses And Focus Adjustment

Pro DSLRs are produced to more exacting standards than entry-level models, so mismatches between camera body and lens due to manufacturing tolerances are less likely. They do occur, so higher-end DSLRs offer AF fine-tuning, which allows you to compensate for slight mis-matches between body and specific lenses. Few lower-end DSLRs offer this capability.


Motion Capture & Hybrid Cameras

At their core, even the very best HDSLRs are still cameras that have a motion feature. What about true motion cameras that can shoot stills?

The RED SCARLET and RED EPIC are the best examples of motion cameras that can take high-quality stills. RED’s DSMC (Digital Still & Motion Camera) concept is centered on the notion of having top-level image quality and high resolution whether you’re shooting a full-motion feature or a highline fashion ad. Most DSLRs have significant limitations in terms of shooting duration, dynamic range and
video compression primarily because they’re built around a core mission of still photography. The RED cameras don’t have the same limitations. And using their REDCODE file format, you retain the ability to pull high-resolution still frames from the video footage.

So does that mean that RED cameras are the perfect do-it-all hybrid cameras? It depends on how you shoot. The RED SCARLET and the EPIC are larger and less ergonomic than the typical DSLR. They’re well suited to a studio environment or similar shooting situations. Cutting-edge photographers like Mark Seliger, Markus + Indrani, Greg Williams and Inez + Vinoodh have produced covers for Vogue, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and other leading magazines.

RED’s new DRAGON sensor can deliver 6K images. That translates to over 19 megapixels, which, of course, is ample for many situations. RED cameras with the DRAGON sensor can shoot up to 100 fps at 6K and much higher at other resolutions, and as long as you have the appropriate storage attached, the buffer is almost unlimited.

There’s a lot of chatter about photographers being replaced by video shooters who can simply shoot constantly and then pull the still frames from the motion stream. It’s not quite that simple. Yes, you can pull any still frame from a RED camera’s motion stream, and if you’re shooting with a DRAGON sensor, it will be a 19-megapixel still. However, just because it’s high resolution, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be sharp without pairing that with proper camera technique.

For motion projects, filmmakers typically select a shutter angle (analogous to shutter speed) that will give a little softness to the footage. Slight blurs from frame to frame give the viewer a sense of fluid motion. You can pull a 19-megapixel still frame from such a stream, and it will have a slight motion blur, which may not be acceptable. If you want sharp, high-res still images, you need to shoot the motion footage like you’re working with a regular still camera and set your shutter accordingly. The trade-off is that the footage may not look right as a motion clip. A RED camera can give you the best of both worlds as long as you have it set up properly.

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