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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

DSLRs For Low Light

The combination of improved sensors, advanced processing engines and powerful algorithms makes the current lineup of pro DSLRs capable of a whole new kind of low-light photography

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
Canon produced the first really successful full-frame D-SLR (the original 11.1-megapixel EOS-1Ds, in 2002), continued to lead the way with the 16.7-megapixel EOS-1Ds Mark II two years later and still led when the 21.1-megapixel EOS-1Ds Mark III was introduced in late 2007. While we wait for the EOS-1Ds Mark IV (no clues as to when at this time), the Mark III is still an excellent pro tool, even though it now has some serious competition—even from Canon.

With a normal ISO range of 100-1600 and expansion “only” to 3200, the EOS-1Ds Mark III might not be the first camera to come to mind for low-light photography. Nonetheless, it’s one of the higher-rated DSLRs in terms of high-ISO performance in DxO Labs’ RAW-image testing (see the sidebar). Canon’s top-of-the-line pro camera, the EOS-1Ds Mark III is rugged and well-sealed against the elements, with a shutter tested to 300,000 cycles.

Because it came out so (relatively) long ago, the EOS-1Ds Mark III seems a bit dated in some areas (its 3.0-inch monitor has 230,000 rather than the now-common 920,000 dots, there’s no autofocusing in Live View mode, and there’s no video mode, for example), but the Mark III is a solid performer. While primarily used for still subjects, the EOS-1Ds Mark III can shoot those big 21.1-megapixel images at 5 fps (for up to 12 RAW or 56 Large JPEGs), and with excellent AF performance, it works very well for action photography, too.

Among the Mark III’s assets are slots for both CompactFlash and SD memory cards, 14-bit A/D conversion (a feature shared with newer Canon DSLRs), a 100% viewfinder, dual DIGIC III processors and the EOS Integrated Cleaning System to minimize dust spots on the image sensor. Like the other full-frame Canon DSLRs, the Mark III can use all EF lenses (but not EF-S lenses, which were designed specifically for the smaller-sensor APS-C cameras).

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
The EOS 5D Mark II features a full-frame Canon CMOS sensor with the same 21.1-megapixel count as the EOS-1Ds Mark III, but with sensor improvements and the newer DIGIC 4 processor that’s more powerful than the twin DIGIC IIIs in the Mark III. These advances allow the 5D Mark II to provide a normal ISO range of 100-6400, with expansion to 50 and 25,600 when needed. This represents an improvement of two full stops over the EOS-1Ds Mark III in both normal and expanded ISO range.

The first full-frame DSLR to incorporate video capability, the 5D Mark II created a new niche in the marketplace: A relatively low-priced camera with excellent still image quality and full HD video. The full-frame sensor is much larger than the sensors in even pro-level HD camcorders, so depth of field is far more limited. This, combined with a wide range of superfast Canon EF lenses, gives the 5D Mark II user a cinematic “look” that’s desired by many video-makers. The big sensor also provides much better image quality at higher ISO settings. Note that while the Mark II has been and is being used for professional video work, like all video-capable DSLRs, it lacks some of the versatility of a dedicated HD camcorder as a video device.

The EOS 5D Mark II can shoot 1080p full HD video at 30 fps. Recent firmware upgrades provide enhanced video capability (although not to the level of the new EOS-1D Mark IV or EOS 7D). It’s better suited to studio and low-light still photography than action photography, due to its 3.9 fps maximum drive speed, although that rate is sufficient for some action work. AF performance on action subjects with our test camera seemed to be on par with pre-7D mid-range EOS cameras. The EOS 5D Mark II offers Live View operation with both phase-detection and contrast-based AF, with a 3.0-inch, 920,000-dot LCD monitor (the EOS-1Ds Mark III’s Live View mode is manual-focus only, and it has a 3.0-inch, 230,000-dot LCD monitor). Of course, the EOS-1Ds Mark III is an all-out pro model, rugged and weather- and dust-proofed, with a 300,000-cycle shutter (vs. 150,000 for the 5D Mark II).


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