There are two main types of DSLRs: Those based on the 35mm SLR form factor and those based on medium-format. In a nutshell, today’s pro 35mm-type DSLRs are extremely versatile do-it-all cameras that deliver a combination of high image quality and performance with action subjects and in low light in a relatively compact package. They also (with one exception) can shoot very good HD video. With their much larger CCD sensors, today’s medium-format DSLRs can produce better image quality than 35mm-type DSLRs at low ISOs, providing many more megapixels and (with most) 16-bit rather than 14-bit images. Of course, the top medium-format cameras cost considerably more than the top 35mm-type DSLRs, but that trade-off might make sense for you if you crunch the numbers and if your clients specifically need the types of images that you can only get from a medium-format digital camera.
With the 35mm-type DSLRs, things are fairly simple: There are a number of models, and each comes with a built-in sensor. The medium-format DSLRs vary. Some cameras are like the 35mm-type models, with built-in sensors, but others can accept a wide range of interchangeable digital backs (which hold the sensor). With the latter, you can choose a body that suits your needs, and a back, and then upgrade either as your needs or the technologies change. Obviously, be sure to check that the back and body are compatible before making purchases. These cameras are huge investments, so renting one before you buy is a good idea. Several medium-format manufacturers have pre-buy demo programs.
In this article, we’ve identified the current top-of-the-line DSLRs, both medium-format and 35mm-type models, and we’ve broken out their key strengths. We’ve also identified cameras that are one rung down, but still have many of the key attributes of the top-of-the-line models. Depending upon your needs, these "also consider" models can do what you need at considerable cost savings.
Each manufacturer incorporates its own design philosophy to create a camera that meets the priorities of its users. Depending on what you shoot, one manufacturer is probably more aligned with your needs than another. There’s no such thing as the perfect camera just like there’s no such thing as the perfect car. And when one attempts to make a car that can do it all, the results are more like a "Homer" (you can look up this somewhat obscure reference to The Simpsons) and less like a Porsche 911. Before making a big purchase of a top-level DSLR, evaluate your needs carefully to make the right decision.
CANON EOS-1D X
Quick Summary: The EOS-1D X is Canon’s flagship pro DSLR, with a full-frame (36x24mm), 18.1-megapixel CMOS sensor and the most rugged construction in the Canon line. The relatively low pixel count makes possible very rapid shooting and excellent high-ISO performance. The camera can use all EF (but not EF-S APS-C) lenses, which currently number around 60, from an 8-15mm fisheye zoom and a 14mm superwide to a 800mm supertelephoto, including many with built-in optical image stabilization, plus four manual-focus TS-E tilt-shift lenses and the MP-E 65mm ƒ/2.8 1-5x macro.
Special Strengths: The EOS-1D X is especially well suited to action, photojournalism and low-light shooting, but is a great all-around camera, too. It can shoot up to 38 RAW or 180 JPEG full-res images at 12 fps with AF for each frame. The AF system is Canon’s best, and can function in light levels as dim as EV -2 and with lens/teleconverter combos as slow as ƒ/8. It’s a great low-light camera; normal ISO range is 100-51,200, expandable to 204,800. The shutter is rated at 400,000 cycles. The EOS-1D X also has pro video capabilities, including All-I and IPB compression and Rec Run and Free Run timecoding (and, of course, the selective-focus depth-of-field control the big full-frame sensor provides). Estimated Street Price: $6,799 (body only).
Also Consider: Canon EOS 5D Mark III. The latest version of the camera that started the full-frame DSLR video craze, the EOS 5D Mark III has excellent video capabilities for a DSLR, along with the highest megapixel count among EOS cameras (22.3). It has the same basic AF system as the EOS-1D X, but with a top drive rate of 6 fps, and 63-zone metering rather than the EOS-1D X’s 252-zone metering. The 5D Mark III is also much smaller and lighter: 6.0×4.6×3.0 inches and 33.5 ounces vs. the 1D X’s 6.2×6.4×3.3 inches and 47.3 ounces. Estimated Street Price: $3,399 (body only).
Quick Summary: The H5D-200MS is Hasselblad’s top medium-format DSLR, with a 49.1×36.7mm 50-megapixel CCD sensor like the one in the H4D-50. But besides doing normal 50-megapixel single images, it can do 50-megapixel multi-shot images, in which four identical shots are made, with the sensor shifted one pixel for each, so that each pixel receives all colors (RGB), with no moiré. In 200MS mode, the camera combines six identical shots, with the sensor shifted 1.5 pixels between them, into one 200-megapixel image.
Special Strengths: The H5D-200MS features improved weatherproofing and a large-capacity lithium-ion battery, and it can be used tethered, so it’s at home in or out of the studio. Exposure times range from 128 to 1⁄800 sec., ISO settings from 50-800. There’s phase-detection AF with True Focus II (which compensates for focus changes when recomposing after focusing) and a big, bright eye-level viewfinder for easy manual focusing (a waist-level finder is also available). The H5D-200MS will accept the 12 HC/HCD high-performance central-shutter lenses from 24mm to 300mm, as well as (via adapter) more than 15 Carl Zeiss V-system lenses. An optional print-ready JPEG at ¼ resolution can be recorded along with a RAW image. Images can be saved on UDMA CompactFlash cards or tethered to Macs or PCs. Estimated Street Price: $42,995 (body and back).
Also Consider: Hasselblad H5D-60. The H5D-60 offers the H5D-200MS’s features, but with a 53.7×40.2mm 60-megapixel sensor and without the multi-shot feature. IS0 range is 50-1600, exposure time ranges from 32 to 1⁄800 sec. All H5D cameras offer Hasselblad’s Digital Lens Correction, which automatically fine-tunes lens performance on the fly, plus digital spirit levels, which appear on the 3.0-inch, 460-pixel LCD display and in the viewfinder. Estimated Street Price: $39,995 (body and back).
Quick Summary: The Leica S is a weather-sealed, 37.5-megapixel, 16-bit medium-format DSLR with a 45x30mm CCD sensor and a "conventional" DSLR form factor (it’s about the same size and weight as a pro "35mm" DSLR).
Special Strengths: The S improves on its predecessor, the S2, even though it was the first in the line, with a new (albeit same pixel-count) image sensor, faster processing, better image quality, double the buffer size (2 GB, so the S can shoot up to 32 full-res RAW images at 1.5 fps), a 3.0-inch, 920K-dot LCD, integrated GPS, new predictive PDAF, ISOs from 100-1600 and more. Leica offers compact lenses designed specifically for the S cameras, as well as adapters for Hasselblad, Mamiya and Pe
ntax medium-format lenses. Estimated Street Price: $21,950 (body only).
Also Consider: Leica M. Okay, it’s not a DSLR; it’s a classic Leica rangefinder camera with a 24-megapixel, full-frame CMOS sensor that can use all Leica M and (via optional adapter) R lenses. It offers live view on a 3.0-inch, 920K-dot monitor, 1080p full HD video, focus peaking, a quiet shutter, 3 fps shooting, a rugged splashproof body and more. There’s even an optional eye-level EVF. The M is perhaps the ultimate "street camera." Estimated Street Price: $6,950 (body only).
LEAF CREDO 80
Quick Summary: The Credo 80 is a digital back that features a 53.7×40.3mm, 80-megapixel Dalsa CCD sensor, and is available on its own or bundled with a Mamiya 645DF+ body. Like Phase One backs, Leaf Credo backs are available for a number of popular medium-format cameras (Phase One now owns Leaf and Mamiya).
Special Strengths: The Credo 80/Mamiya 645DF+ combination is a powerful tool in and out of the studio, with a 12.5-EV dynamic range, exposure times of 120 to 1⁄10,000 sec., ISO settings from 35-800, shooting at 0.7 fps, live view on the 3.2-inch screen, and built-in wireless connectivity to iPad and iPhone. The Credo back is also available in 60- and 40-megapixel versions. Credo backs cost less than Phase One IQ2 backs, but don’t have the latter’s Sensor+ feature. The 645DF+ camera is virtually identical to the Phase One 645DF+ except for the nameplate. Estimated Street Price: $37,995 (body with back and 80mm lens).
Also Consider: Mamiya DM 80. The DM 80 is essentially the same camera, but with an 80-megapixel Leaf Aptus back instead of the 80-megapixel Leaf Credo back, at a cost savings of around $4,000. Aptus backs lack the Credo’s live-view capability. Estimated Street Price: $33,995 (body with back and 80mm lens).
OLYMPUS OM-D E-M1
No, it’s not a DSLR; it’s a mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera. But the new OM-D E-M1 is not only the flagship model in Olympus’ mirrorless line, it’s the replacement for the company’s last pro DSLR, the E-5, and thus, its presence here.
Special Strengths: As a Micro Four Thirds camera, the E-M1 is smaller and much lighter than the other cameras in this article, yet it features a pro-quality, magnesium-alloy body that’s splash-, dust- and freezeproof. It has a state-of-the-art eye-level EVF and a 3.0-inch, 1037K-dot tilting touch-screen LCD monitor. For manual focusing, focus peaking is available. The new 16.3-megapixel Live MOS image sensor features on-chip DUAL FAST AF, with 37-point phase-detection AF used when a Four Thirds System lens is attached and 81-point contrast AF when a Micro Four Thirds lens is attached. (When continuous AF is selected with an MFT lens, then both systems work together to improve tracking performance.)
Olympus’ 5-axis sensor-shift image-stabilization system works with all lenses. Built-in WiFi lets you upload images to your smartphone wirelessly, operate the camera from your smartphone and geotag images using the smartphone’s GPS. The E-M1 can shoot 10 fps (6.5 fps with continuous AF) in bursts of up to 45 RAW or 95 JPEGs in H advance mode. There’s also in-camera HDR, an intervalometer and multiple-exposure capability. Video capabilities include 1080p, 720p and 640×480, all at 30 fps. Sound is stereo via a built-in or an external microphone. Estimated Street Price: $1,399 (body only).
Quick Summary: Nikon’s flagship pro DSLR, the D4 features a full-frame, 16.2-megapixel CMOS sensor, very quick response and the most rugged construction in Nikon’s line. The relatively low pixel count allows for very quick shooting and excellent low-light performance. The D4 can use nearly all F-mount lenses. Nikon currently offers 79 lenses, including 45 AF-S ones from 14mm through 800mm, many with VR optical vibration reduction. There are also three PC-E tilt-shift perspective-control lenses. DX (APS-C) lenses can be used, but the camera will crop to DX format with them automatically to avoid vignetting.
Special Strengths: The D4 excels in action, photojournalism and low-light photography, but is also a great all-around camera. It can shoot up to 92 RAW or 170 JPEG full-res images at 10 fps with AF for each frame (11 fps in DX crop mode). The AF system is Nikon’s best, and can function in light levels as dim as EV -2 and with lens/teleconverter combos as slow as ƒ/8. Normal ISO range is 100-12,800, expandable to 204,800. The shutter is rated at 400,000 cycles. The battery is rated (per CIPA testing) at 2,600 shots per charge. There are slots for CompactFlash and superquick XQD memory cards. The D4 also can produce broadcast-quality video and audio, in three crop formats (full-frame, DX/APS-C and 2.7X), including recording uncompressed 8-bit, 4:2:2 video directly to an external recorder. Estimated Street Price: $5,999 (body only).
Also Consider: Nikon D800E. The D800E features a full-frame, 36.3-megapixel CMOS sensor with OLPF deactivated for optimal sharpness. Almost as rugged as the D4, it features essentially the same AF system, with a shutter rated at 200,000 cycles. Normal ISO range is 100-6400, expandable to 25,600. The D800E ranks first overall in DxOMark.com’s RAW image-quality ratings, and is well suited to a wide range of shooting needs. Estimated Street Price: $2,999 (body only).
Quick Summary: The Pentax 645D is currently the lowest-cost medium-format DSLR, featuring a 40-megapixel 44x33mm CCD sensor.
Special Strengths: The 645D is also a fine outdoor camera, weather-, dust- and cold-sealed. It has a "35mm-DSLR"-type 11-point AF system, an 800-shot rechargeable lithium-ion battery, digital level, sensor dust-reduction, dual SD/SDHC/SDXC card slots and an ergonomic handholdable form factor. It can use a wide range of Pentax 645 lenses, although only the three D FA 645 lenses are designed for digital and are weather-sealed. Pentax has a white paper on its website explaining how to use it tethered to a computer via Phase One Capture One Pro software. Estimated Street Price: $6,995 (body only).
PHASE ONE IQ280
Quick Summary: The IQ280 is Phase One’s latest 80-megapixel digital back, and can be used with a number of popular cameras. Phase One also offers it in a kit with the Phase One 645DF+ medium-format body.
Special Strengths: Eighty is currently the highest pixel count available in a medium-format back (there are other backs with 80 megapixels, including Phase One’s IQ180 and Leaf’s Credo 80 and Aptus 80). Sens
or+ technology bins four pixels into one for 4X better high ISO performance (up to 3200) at ¼ the resolution (still 20 megapixels). The back houses a 53.7×40.4mm CCD sensor (2.5X the area of a "full-frame" 35mm sensor) and a 3.2-inch, 1.15-megapixel touch-screen LCD. The IQ280 provides tethered and wireless capabilities, 16-bit capture and 0.7 fps shooting (0.9 fps in Sensor+ mode). The 645DF+ camera features a big prism finder, 3-point phase-detection AF and a lithium-ion battery good for up to 10,000 captures per charge. It can use Phase One Digital, Mamiya AF and AFD, and Hasselblad V-system lenses, as well as a number of different backs. With leaf-shutter lenses, maximum flash-sync shutter speed is a fast 1⁄1600 sec. Handholding ergonomics are very good. Estimated Street Price: $47,990 (body with back, 80mm lens and Classic warranty).
Also Consider: Phase One IQ260. This back provides similar features to the IQ280, but with 60 megapixels, the ability to make exposures as long as one hour (vs. two minutes for the IQ280) and 1 fps shooting (1.4 fps in Sensor+ mode). Estimated Street Price: $43,990 (body with back, 80mm lens and Classic warranty).
SIGMA SD1 MERRIL
Quick Summary: Sigma’s flagship DSLR, the SD1 Merrill features the unique Foveon X3 APS-C (23.5×15.7mm) image sensor, which records all three primary colors at every pixel location. Conventional Bayer-filtered sensors used in other DSLRs record just one primary color at each pixel location, acquiring the missing colors for each pixel by interpolating data from neighboring pixels via a "demosaicing" process that produces unwanted artifacts, which are minimized by use of an anti-aliasing filter over the sensor that reduces sharpness at the pixel level. The Foveon sensor doesn’t need the anti-aliasing filter, so it produces better resolution than conventional sensors for equivalent horizontal-by-vertical pixel count.
Special Strengths:The SD1 Merrill’s main strength is the image quality its Foveon X3 sensor can deliver. It’s also a straightforward camera, easy to use, with few bells and whistles. Mirror prelock is easily accessed via a dial (there’s no live view or video). Sigma offers a wide range of lenses for the camera, from circular fisheye to 800mm supertelephoto (including the 200-500mm ƒ/2.8 zoom, the world’s fastest 500mm). The SD1 Merrill is particularly well suited to studio and travel photography. Estimated Street Price: $2,299.
Also Consider: Sigma DP1, DP2 DP3 Merrill. If you can live without interchangeable lenses and eye-level viewing, you can get the same Foveon X3 sensor in a pocket-sized, fixed-lens camera for less than half the price. The DP1, DP2 and DP3 Merrill models come with built-in wide-angle, normal and short telephoto lenses, respectively, and are fine walking-around cameras. Estimated Street Price: $999 (each).
SONY SLT A99
Quick Summary: Sony’s flagship interchangeable-lens camera, the SLT-A99 features a full-frame (35.8×23.9mm), 24.3-megapixel CMOS sensor, rugged construction and unique TMT (Translucent Mirror Technology) that provides full-time phase-detection AF and eye-level viewing for live view and video.
Special Strengths: Conventional DSLRs have to use contrast-based AF off the image sensor in Live View and Video modes because their quick phase-detection systems don’t work with the mirror in the "up" position (as it must be for live view to operate with these cameras). This causes two problems: Contrast AF (as implemented in DSLRs) is much slower than PDAF and not suitable for moving subjects; and in Live View mode, the eye-level SLR finder blacks out, so you have to use the LCD monitor to compose. The TMT system solves these problems by transmitting most of the light to the sensor while simultaneously directing a portion to the AF sensor. So you get quick PDAF and (via electronic viewfinder) eye-level viewing for still and video shooting. Estimated Street Price: $2,799 (body only).
Also Consider: Sony SLT-A77. Essentially the A99’s APS-C "kid brother," the A77 offers pretty much the same feature set, but with a 24.3-megapixel APS-C sensor. It can shoot up to 13 full-resolution images at 12 fps with AF for each frame, and can even do sharp videos of birds in flight once you get the hang of tracking them with the electronic viewfinder. Estimated Street Price: $899 (body only).
Will Reflex Cameras Continue?
| Reflex camera systems, that is, cameras with some sort of mirror to direct imaging light from a lens to a viewfinder, have been the mainstay of photography since their initial development. The obvious advantage of these systems is that what you see is what you get. (In the case of twin-lens reflex, there’s a separate composing lens and picture-taking lens.) Reflex systems have the added advantage of being very fast. You can watch the action take place in the viewfinder and press the shutter button at exactly the right time to catch the definitive moment.
These systems still endure for most pros because of their combination of WYSIWYG and speed, but for how long?
In their new OM-D E-M1 pro-grade mirrorless camera, Olympus has signaled that they’re unlikely to develop more reflex models. Can other manufacturers be far behind? If the main advantages are, in fact, immediacy and WYSIWYG viewfinders, EVF technology has all but completely caught up to the mirror systems. Seeing the image reflected on ground glass versus looking at an electronic viewfinder with a screen is still preferable for many photographers, but how long will that be the case? And without their complicated mechanical mirror rigs, pro 35mm-sized and medium-format digital cameras can get smaller and more robust since they will be closer to solid-state devices. The future is coming.