DSLRS For The Minimalist

At DPP, we’ve had the same discussion ever since the magazine started. We’ve asked the fundamental question: What makes a camera a pro camera? What if you could get a DSLR with a 4.5-megapixel APS-C sensor, an ISO range of 200-1600 and a three-second startup time at a cost of about $6,500? How about a camera with an 18.7-megapixel APS-C sensor, an ISO range of 100-6400 and instant startup at a cost of about $800? The former is the Canon EOS-1D (introduced in 2001) and the latter is the Canon EOS T3i (introduced in March of this year). When the EOS-1D came on the scene, it was heralded as the ultimate professional DSLR. It had everything, yet in many aspects the EOS T3i is superior to the 1D. We’re not suggesting that the EOS T3i should become every pro’s camera. Rather we’re trying to give some perspective on the definition of a pro camera.

So what are the key criteria? Is it image quality? AF performance? Battery life? Shutter durability? Construction? Onboard processing? Low-light performance? It all depends on you—what you shoot, how you shoot, where you shoot and who are your clients. In all of the debates about what makes a camera a pro camera—in other words, what makes a camera one that a pro could use to make a living—we’ve only come up with a single inflexible litmus test: immediacy. Any discernable shutter lag isn’t acceptable because as professionals, we need cameras to function as fast as we see. Every other aspect of the camera is subject to personal style and individual needs.

Certainly, higher-end cameras offer a host of advantages, but if you’re looking to lighten up on your gear and be more of a minimalist, it makes sense to look at the whole lineup from your selected manufacturer. More and more, we’re talking to professionals who are eschewing the pricier top-end models in favor of having several lower-end bodies in their kit. In this issue of DPP, Brian DeMint discusses his use of DSLRs that are just a couple of steps above entry-level.

The big advantages to the all-out pro cameras are speed, ruggedness and high-ISO performance. But in many cases, all-out pro ruggedness and speed aren’t primary concerns, and the latest mid-level and lower-end models have excellent sensors and image processors to produce image quality suitable for many pro uses. And, of course, these mid-level and lower-end models can use all of the same pro lenses as the pro models.

Certainly, higher-end cameras offer a host of advantages, but if you’re looking to lighten up on your gear and be more of a minimalist, it makes sense to look at the whole lineup from your selected manufacturer.

The big advantages to the all-out pro cameras are speed, ruggedness and high-ISO performance. But in many cases, all-out pro ruggedness and speed aren’t primary concerns, and the latest mid-level and lower-end models have excellent sensors and image processors to produce image quality suitable for many pro uses. And, of course, these mid-level and lower-end models can use all of the same pro lenses as the pro models.

Image Quality

Improvements in technology mean newer mid- and even entry-level cameras can deliver excellent image quality—some recent models offer image quality rivaling that of the pro cameras. For example, dxomark.com’s RAW sensor ratings show that APS-C DSLRs using Sony’s 16.2-megapixel sensor (Nikon’s D7000 and D5100, Pentax’s K-5 and Sony’s DSLR-A580) have overall scores of 80-82—the same as the best pro DSLRs save the $8,000 24.5-megapixel, full-frame Nikon D3X (which scored 88 overall). The pro cameras have an edge in higher ISO performance, although even there the aforementioned lower-priced models do quite well. (Some of the pro models were introduced several years ago, while new lower-end models are being introduced on a regular basis.)


Newer DSLRs at all levels start up and wake up almost instantaneously. For example, Nikon’s $1,199 D7000 starts up in 0.13 seconds, just 0.01 seconds slower than the company’s flagship pro DSLR.

The pro DSLRs do have faster drive rates and bigger buffers, so you can shoot more images in a single burst—important to action photographers, especially those who shoot RAW files. Canon’s EOS-1D Mark IV can shoot up to 28 RAW 16-megapixel images at up to 10 fps, and Nikon’s D3S can shoot up to 40 RAW 12.3-megapixel images at up to 9 fps—both with continuous autofocusing for each shot. Those are the speed champs among today’s DSLRs.

But the lighter and much less costly mid-range models aren’t far behind. Canon’s EOS 7D can shoot up to 8 fps, while Nikon’s D300S and Pentax’s K-5 can shoot up to 7 fps with autofocusing. (The entry-level models aren’t the best choices when speed is a prime need. Besides much slower maximum shooting rates, the entry-level models tend to have small buffers, meaning you can’t shoot very many images in a burst. For example, if you shoot RAW images as most pros do, Canon’s EOS T3i can shoot up to 6 shots at 3.7 fps.)

If you’re not an action specialist or a photojournalist who relies on rapid-fire shooting, any current DSLR should be quick enough for your needs.

AF Considerations

Today’s mid-level DSLRs offer excellent AF performance, and even most entry-level models can handle challenging moving subjects, so unless you specialize in sports or wildlife action photography, any of these cameras will meet your autofocusing needs. If you specialize in action work, the pro DSLRs provide better AF performance than lower-priced models from a given manufacturer. Even when they feature the same AF system, as is the case with the Nikon D3S and D300S, the pro camera’s more powerful processor results in better AF performance. This is a vital concern for pro sports and bird photographers, less so for studio and landscape specialists.

Newer pro and mid-range DSLRs provide AF fine-tuning, which allows you to adjust the camera to compensate for consistent front- or back-focusing with a given lens. This is a feature many pros use, and it’s not available on the entry-level DSLRs.


Pro models like Canon’s EOS-1D Mark IV and EOS-1Ds Mark III, and Nikon’s D3S and D3X are prized for their ability to stand up to tough shooting conditions. But today’s mid-range DSLRs can handle a lot. Mid-level models like the Canon EOS 7D and Nikon D300S feature good dust and moisture resistance, and we once shot more than 400 images in a driving rainstorm with the cold-, dust- and weather-resistant Pentax K-5 with no ill effects. Just make sure the camera and lens are stated to be weather-resistant before trying that. (No DSLR is waterproof.)

The entry-level DSLRs aren’t well suited for especially severe conditions, but can certainly handle "normal" conditions such as indoor and fair-weather outdoor use. If you don’t shoot in rugged conditions, you don’t need to pay for and lug around an all-out pro camera.


Interestingly, video performance and capabilities seem to be more related to newness than to the level of a DSLR. Nikon’s entry-level D5100 has better video capabilities than the pro D3S (the top-of-the-line D3X doesn’t even have video), and Canon’s entry-level EOS T3i has better video capability than the $2,600 EOS 5D Mark II—in both cases because the entry-level model has newer technology.

If you’re buying a DSLR primarily to make videos, you’re
probably making a mistake; but if you just want the added capability, newer DSLRs are better pretty much across the spectrum.


You’d expect pro DSLRs to have better LCD monitors than lower-end models, but the age of the design comes into play here, as well. For example, Canon’s four-year-old, $6,999 EOS-1Ds Mark III has a 230,000-dot LCD monitor, while its top entry-level model, the much newer $799 EOS T3i, has a 1,040,000-dot monitor that even tilts and swivels. None of the $5,000-plus pro DSLRs offers a tilting LCD monitor. If you do a lot of high- or low-angle photography or video, a tilting monitor can make life easier and may steer you toward a lower-end DSLR that has one (the pro-spec, mid-level Olympus E-5 has a swiveling LCD monitor).

The pro DSLRs have better optical viewfinders than lower-end DSLRs, especially the entry-level models. Pro finders feature glass pentaprisms that are bigger and brighter than the pentamirror finders used in entry-level cameras, and the pro viewfinders show 100% of the actual image area for precise compositions. Some of the mid-range models also have glass pentaprism finders with 100% coverage.


Most top-of-the-line DSLRs are full-frame models, with sensors measuring 36x24mm—the same as a full 35mm film-image frame. This provides some advantages; lenses frame just as they do on 35mm SLRs for photographers coming to digital from long experience shooting film.

The smaller-sensor mid- and lower-end cameras offer benefits, however. They’re much smaller and lighter than full-frame models, and their smaller sensors crop into the full image produced by a full-frame lens, decreasing the angle of view and turning a 300mm lens into a 450-480mm equivalent. This lets the smaller-sensor camera user get those dramatic close-ups with much lighter, less costly gear. A 300mm ƒ/4 lens costs around $1,500; the 500mm ƒ/4 required to provide equivalent framing with a full-frame DSLR costs four to five times as much and is much bulkier.

In days gone by, the smaller-sensor user was at a disadvantage when it came to wide-angle work because that same crop factor effectively turns a 28mm wide-angle lens into a 42mm normal lens. But today, all the camera manufacturers and major independent lensmakers offer true wide-angle lenses designed specifically for the smaller sensors, including some pro-oriented ones.


All entry- and mid-level DSLRs have built-in flash units, which come in handy in a pinch. Many also offer similar capabilities as the pro cameras when using external flash units, including wired and wireless off-camera TTL operation. None of the $5,000-plus pro DSLRs has a built-in flash unit.

Pro and mid-level DSLRs have built-in PC terminals to connect studio flash units, which the entry-level models lack. So if you do studio work with corded studio flash units, the entry-level DSLRs aren’t ideal (although they work well with hot lights and can trigger studio flash systems via an accessory trigger). All DSLRs offer a wide range of white-balance adjustments (and full control in postprocessing if you shoot RAW files), so this makes them all excellent for a wide variety of lighting situations—a big advantage over film.

Battery Life

Pro DSLRs will make a lot more shots on a single battery charge than lower-level cameras—4,000 or so, compared to 1,000 to 1,200 for a mid-level model and 500 to 600 for an entry-level camera. But this is a big concern only if you shoot on location where you can’t recharge batteries easily. And many mid- and even entry-level DSLRs have accessory battery holders available, which provide more heft and more battery life.


The top pro cameras start at $4,999. If you need their specific advantages, they’re worth it. If you don’t need all of those assets, however, there’s not really much reason to pay for them. A DSLR doesn’t have to last 10 years; it will be technologically obsolete long before that. But another consideration is client perception. It sounds silly, but it’s absolutely true—if your client is going to be there when you shoot, you may get some flak about using a "lesser" camera for the job. The distinct looks of your pro-series lenses should reduce any whispering behind your back, and if you do get some sideways glances, you always can tell the client that being a gear minimalist helps you focus on the shot instead of the camera.

Lenses For Minimalists

If you’re thinking about being a DSLR minimalist, the lens is an equalizer. In the film era, many pros would have argued that the lens was much more important than the camera for making top-quality photographs. While digital cameras do a lot more than film SLRs ever did, the importance of the lens in the image-making chain hasn’t diminished.

A mid-range DSLR such as the Canon EOS 7D or Nikon D300S and a fast pro lens likely will give you better results than a top-of-the-line body (the Canon EOS-1D series or Nikon D3 series) with a lesser lens. That’s because the pro lenses offer more highly corrected optics, are more rugged and have better AF motors. Pro supertelephoto lenses also have AF-lock buttons and AF-range limiters that can speed operation.

There are some advantages to using a higher-end body with the pro lens. For one thing, the pro body may provide features or performance you need. For another, many higher-end DSLRs have AF sensors that are optimized for use with fast pro lenses. An ƒ/2.8 lens provides the system with a wider beam of light than an ƒ/4 or ƒ/5.6 lens, and the higher-end cameras have sensors that can provide added AF precision when ƒ/2.8 or faster lenses are used. When you put the ƒ/2.8 pro lens on a lower-level DSLR body, you get its benefits of better optics and an AF motor, but you don’t get the added precision of the wider-based AF sensors, since lower-end cameras don’t have such sensors. Many mid-range DSLRs do have at least one ƒ/2.8 AF sensor, but no entry-level DSLR does.

Also, newer pro lenses tend to perform better on DSLRs than older ones. That’s partly because older lenses were designed for use with film and partly because lens technology has come a long way in the ensuing years. So buying an older used pro lens may not produce a great advantage over a newer mid-range lens that was designed for use on a DSLR.

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