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Monday, January 7, 2008

D-SLR Wars: Episode III

Resolution always will be a buzzword for digital cameras, but the current crop of professional-quality D-SLRs is about much more than advances in megapixel counts

And so is the current lineup of D-SLRs on the following pages. Just as in our previous “SLR Wars” articles, we've divided models by performance and price. Leading off are the industry-leading high-end cameras from Canon and Nikon. The 21.1-megapixel EOS-1Ds Mark III and the 12.1-megapixel D3 both have image sensors that match the size of 35mm film—36x24mm. The advantages here are in image quality and no magnification factor to deal with. A 24mm is a 24mm.

Next, we'll look at mid-level cameras. With the exception of the Canon EOS 5D, these D-SLRs all have sub-full-frame sensors so they all have a lens magnification factor that ranges from 1.5x to 2x. For telephotos, that can be good news because a 200mm will perform like a 300mm (1.5x) or a 400mm (2x). At the wide end of things, a 20mm will look like a 30mm or a 40mm. That's why we're seeing more digital lenses designed for smaller sensors now, with very short focal lengths of 7mm, 10mm, 14mm and so on. 

We finish up with what we've designated as backup D-SLRs. These  cameras can be a great complement to mid-level and high-end cameras. They all have at least 10 megapixels of resolution and many of the features you'd typically find on more expensive cameras, only they're lighter and more compact, which can be a real benefit if you have assignment work that demands a lot of time on your feet. Over a 12-hour day, a few pounds less in your bag can make a huge difference to your shoulder and back.

Click here to see a complete spec chart of all the cameras we cover here.

canonCanon EOS-1Ds Mark III Canon has long led the way in resolution and full-frame sensors in 35mm form-factor D-SLRs. Now it's nearing the resolution of some Hasselblad medium-format D-SLRs with the 21.1-megapixel, full-frame sensor of the new EOS-1Ds Mark III. Not only does this camera offer 26% more megapixels than any other D-SLR in the category, but it's a rugged, handholdable model equally at home in the studio or in the field.

Accomplished celebrity portrait photographer Greg Gorman says what first caught his attention was the terrific 14-bit files. “The capture seems slightly soft, probably due to the IA filter,” says Gorman, “but the images will res up and clean up just beautifully. Then you have this amazingly large, bright viewfinder and live LCD, which is extraordinary for someone like myself who's going blind. And I love the new lighter battery that's good for twice as many frames. Because I shoot with such long lenses, the net result is that the camera is lighter than the Mark II, which is also a real benefit for me.”

Commercial and editorial photographer Vincent Laforet also cites the viewfinder as a big improvement. “It's noticeably brighter and clearer than its predecessor and makes a noticeable difference when focusing in low light,” he says. “The live LCD function offers me so many fantastic opportunities for critical focusing—either in macro photography, remote-control photography and even group portraits. Also, at high ISOs, the performance is much better. Previously, I shied away from shooting the Ds Mark II much higher than ISO 500. Now, I think I'll be prone to taking this body to ISO 1000 to 1600 much more often.”


21.1-megapixel CMOS sensor
36x24mm, full-frame
14-bit A/D conversion
Dual DIGIC III image processors
5 fps or 3 fps, full resolution
JPEG, RAW and sRAW formats
3.0-inch LCD monitor with Live View
EOS Integrated Cleaning System
63-zone metering linked to AF points
1⁄8000 to 30 sec. shutter speed
ISO 100-1600, plus 50 and 3200

  • Dimensions: 6.1 x 6.3 x 3.1 inches

  • Weight: 42.5 ounces

  • Estimated Street Price: $7,999

  • nikonNikon D3 It only has taken five years, but Nikon finally has answered Canon's domination of the full-frame market that began in 2002 with the release of the EOS-1Ds. The 12.1-megapixel D3 features an Expeed image processor, the new 51-point Multi-CAM 3500FX autofocus system, selectable 12- or 14-bit NEF RAW output and recording of up to 9 fps at full resolution!

    Says Joe McNally, veteran photographer for National Geographic, “It's a tremendous camera—sharp edge to edge, and the resolution is astounding. The color engine renders scenes with clarity and color pop I had not thought possible. I've made prints already at 24x30 inches, and the sharpness and detail is even better than I remember from the Kodachrome days. Also, the clean detail of the files at high ISO opens new doors, especially for shooting low light or stage light, as I often do when I shoot dance. The meter, the quickness of the autofocus, the dual card slots, the improved auto white balance—all in all, the most responsive, adaptable camera I've ever had in my hands. It's the camera I want when I have those high-pressure, ‘can't get 'em back again' kind of jobs.”

    So it's no surprise that John Iacono, a staffer for Sports Illustrated, uses a D3 for his assignments. “It has 12 million pixels, which is more than enough resolution for any job I do,” he says. “Also, I love the crop modes that make it easier to get the range that I need quickly. Depending on the situation, I can simply put the camera into the DX mode and use an extender to get really close.”

    Adds Iacono, “As a sports photographer, each passing day and each venue bring different lighting, and that's why I love the high ISO capability of the D3. While I was photographing the World Series, people were looking over my shoulder at that huge screen on the back of the D3 and were amazed to find out it was shot at ISO 2000. I shot the World Series in Denver at ISO 1600, with a 1.4x extender, at 1⁄800 sec. at ƒ/4, and the quality was amazing. I blew up the frames later on and was amazed to discover, even at ISO 1600, there was virtually no noise!” 


    12.1-megapixel CMOS
    36x23.9mm, FX format
    14-bit or 12-bit A/D conversion
    Expeed image processor
    9 fps, full resolution
    51-point AF system
    3.0-inch VGA with Live View
    1⁄8000 to 30 sec. shutter speed
    ISO 200-6400, up to ISO-equivalent 25,600

  • Dimensions: 6.3 x 6.2 x 3.4 inches

  • Weight: 43.2 ounces

  • Estimated Street Price: $5,000


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