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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Will Full-Frame D-SLRs Take Over The World?

DPP talks to several photographers who weigh in on the future of full-frame, APS-C and medium-format technology and the potential for professionals

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Since D-SLRs started to meet the needs of professional photographers, there has been a call for full-frame models. Now, as Canon, Nikon and Sony all have models to choose from and with resolutions ranging from 12 to 24 megapixels, it’s time to ask the question: Will the full-frame D-SLR take over as the do-it-all tool for pros? The answer is a definite “maybe.” There are occasions when bigger medium-format sensors are preferred and plenty of opportunities for smaller APS-C and Four Thirds cameras to shine. But something about the full-frame sensors (found in the Nikon D3, D3X and D700 and the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and EOS 1Ds Mark III, as well as the Sony DSLR-A900 and its new DSLR-A850) has hit a sweet spot.

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
What’s So Special About Full-Frame?
Full-frame sensors have several benefits over smaller sensors, especially for pros. The larger sensor area means more room for pixels, creating larger pixels with more breathing room for low-noise performance, all without sacrificing pixels. A low-noise/high-ISO sensor changes the way photographers shoot. What was once a luxury has become a necessity. (For more about pixels, see “Comparing Photosites.”)

What was once cost-prohibitive in digital SLRs—incorporating a large and expensive chunk of silicon into the image sensor—has become increasingly affordable. As cameras have sold well, manufacturers have been able to push the envelope, investing in research and development to make the format exponentially better—driving costs down and selling more cameras.

Cost is a prime consideration. Today’s D-SLRs can be had for under $1,000, with pro versions selling for $3,000 to $8,000, and medium-format versions priced considerably higher. As the price falls for full-frame sensors, so it drops for medium format. The difference, though, is that medium-format manufacturers don’t have the economies of scale of Canon, Nikon, Sony or others. While an expensive medium-format digital system may be more affordable than it was a few years ago, it’s still cost-prohibitive for many.

Nikon D300S
“Certainly in this economy,” says photographer Douglas Dubler, “if I had limited funds and wanted to use the latest technology, and I was the typical commercial photographer whose needs are, let’s say, at the most 8.5x11 for magazine reproduction, I think it would be a moot point. I’d be taking $8,000 and buying a [Nikon] D3X and some good lenses. You could double up on the camera bodies, get all the lenses that you need and still not spend half of the amount of money that you would spend on those medium-format cameras. Economics has a whole lot to do with this. The photographers who don’t think about that are the photographers who don’t stay
in business.”

Photographer Michael Creagh agrees. “My [Hasselblad] H3D is a couple years old now,” he says, “and I cannot imagine reinvesting another $30,000 for a newer model. How do you budget to upgrade every couple years for something that costs the same as an entry-level Mercedes?”


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