Today’s pro DSLRs, and even the mid-level models, offer a lot to hard-working pros, including image quality, performance, ruggedness and system accessories. And prices are coming down—while you can still pay over $6,000 for a top pro DSLR, you also can choose from Canon and Nikon full-frame models for just over $2,000, and the APS-C models cost even less.
Which is the right camera for you? Obviously, that depends on what you’re shooting. If you do action, you need a camera that shoots rapidly and has quick AF, for example. But don’t fall into the "best" trap: Some feel they’re not really "pro" if they don’t have the top-of-the-line model, or worry that a client will see them with a mid-level DSLR and say, "Hey, my kid has that same camera." Some need the gravitas that’s implied by a big, top-of-the-line DSLR, which, as strange as it sounds, is legitimate. You don’t want to lose work simply because a client decided that only an amateur would use a certain model of camera. But if you’re not in that situation, here are some considerations to help you make sure you get the camera you need, not one that overperforms where you don’t need it and underperforms where you do.
While you still can’t beat a high-end medium-format DSLR for resolution and image quality at low ISO, full-frame DSLRs offer near-medium-format quality at a fraction of the price and in a more mobile package. Nikon’s D800 and D800E, with their 36.3-megapixel, full-frame sensors, currently top DxOMark.com’s sensor ratings with scores of 95 and 94, respectively. This tops even the best medium-format sensor—a $40,000, 80-megapixel unit—in overall performance, taking into consideration color bit-depth, dynamic range and high-ISO performance.
Leaps In Technology That Translate To Superior Image Quality
In the last few years, we’ve seen a couple of interesting DSLR image-quality advancements. Nikon’s D800E and Pentax’s K-5 IIs do away with the anti-aliasing low-pass filter common to other DSLRs (medium-format cameras don’t have these filters). The photodiodes (pixels) on an image sensor can’t detect color; they just know how much light is striking them. To get color information, conventional image sensors have a grid of red, green and blue filters (called a Bayer array) over the pixels, so that each pixel receives only red, green or blue light. The missing colors for each photosite are calculated using data from neighboring pixels in a process known as demosaicing. This process produces some undesired artifacts (moiré), and these are dealt with by placing the anti-aliasing filter over the pixel array to slightly blur the image.
When pixels get down to a certain size (apparently around 4.8 to 4.9 microns, as these are the pixel sizes for the K-5 IIs and D800E, respectively), the artifacts aren’t so bad, and can be handled in postprocessing. So the D800 and K-5II are offered in two versions—one with a conventional anti-aliasing filter and one without—so the "without" version doesn’t suffer the loss of sharpness caused by the filter, providing even sharper images.
The other image-quality development was the introduction of a higher-resolution Foveon X3 sensor in Sigma’s SD1 DSLR (and, later, in the DP1, DP2 and DP3 Merrill fixed-lens compact cameras). Introduced about 10 years ago, the Foveon X3 sensor doesn’t use a Bayer array to get color data. Rather, it stacks three pixel layers and takes advantage of the fact that light wavelengths penetrate silicon to different levels: blue only so far, green farther and red the deepest. Thus, every pixel site receives light of all three colors, more of the total light striking the sensor is collected, and there’s no need for the blurring low-pass filter. While it’s a bit more complicated than that, the result is that the Foveon sensor delivers resolution well beyond that of a conventional Bayer array of equivalent horizontal-by-vertical pixel count. The new Foveon X3 sensor introduced in the SD1 has three times the pixel count of the previous one.
And on the subject of formats, if you expose at the same shutter speed and ƒ-stop in the same light, a larger sensor’s greater area can collect more photons, and that results in a better photonic signal-to-noise ratio. So, the larger the sensor, the better (assuming equal technology). However, the larger sensor will produce less depth of field at the same settings when using a lens focal length that provides the same framing at a given shooting distance (and, thus, the same perspective). If you want the same depth of field with the larger sensor, you must stop the lens down and either use a longer exposure time to compensate (which could produce blurring with moving subjects or handheld shooting) or use a higher ISO setting to permit shooting at the same shutter speed at the smaller aperture (which results in less light—fewer photons—striking the sensor, largely negating the larger sensor’s noise advantage). Or you just could accept the reduced depth of field, and shoot at the same shutter speed and aperture—for some purposes (selective focus, video), less depth of field is actually a good thing.
Today’s full-frame CMOS sensors tend to have more advanced technology than medium-format CCD sensors, in a number of ways, offsetting the medium-format CCD’s great size advantage. Medium-format scored well in bit-depth at DxOMark.com, taking the top two places, but faired less well in dynamic range (the top medium-format sensor trailed seven full-frame DSLRs and four APS-C models). In high-ISO performance, it’s all DSLRs: Full-frame models took the top 19 spots, trailed by an APS-H, then two medium-format models, then five APS-C models. If you’re looking for a new camera body, check out www.dxomark.com; while there are other important considerations like resolution, AF performance, shooting speed, durability, etc., DxO should be one stop in your research.
If fine details with stationary subjects in good light are your priority, you can’t beat medium-format: 80 megapixels trumps 36.3. But 36.3 megapixels provides a lot of detail; only extreme requirements would find that wanting, and 16 to 24 megapixels are ideal for many pro needs. Also, huge-megapixel images take up lots of space on memory cards, and take time to process—those big medium-format cameras rarely shoot more than one frame per second. If dynamic range is your priority, bearing in mind that practical photographic dynamic range will be somewhat less than DxOMark’s figures, the top cameras of all three formats perform well with all sensor sizes. If low light and high ISO are priorities, you can’t beat full-frame DSLRs.
Four Thirds System
While it has taken a back seat to the mirrorless Micro Four Thirds System (which uses the same 17.3×13.0mm sensor size) in recent years, the original Four Thirds System is still around in the form of the Olympus E-5, a true pro DSLR, rugged and splashproof, with a complete lineup of lenses, many of which
The idea behind the Four Thirds System was to provide lenses designed specifically for digital imaging with a specific sensor size. Other manufacturers essentially adapted their 35mm SLR systems for digital, more recently designing lenses specifically for digital imaging and sensor sizes. By using the smaller 17.3×13.0mm Four Thirds sensor format, the hope was to keep system size down.
Larger-format cameras also have come down in size—the Olympus E-5 is about the size of the Canon EOS 6D, Nikon D600 and Sony SLT-A99 full-frame DSLRs—and it took the mirrorless Micro Four Thirds System to truly realize the size benefits of the smaller sensor. But the E-5 remains a solid pro performer, with quality lenses from a 7-14mm and an 8mm fisheye to a 300mm, providing users with 35mm-camera-equivalent focal lengths of 14-600mm thanks to the sensor’s 2X crop factor.
Notable E-5 pro features include superquick AF, a tilting/rotating, 3.0-inch, 921K-dot LCD monitor, a 100% viewfinder, slots for CF and SD media, multiple aspect ratios and multiple-exposure capability.
If speed is your need, the top models from Canon and Nikon are your ticket. Canon’s EOS-1D X can shoot its 18.1-megapixel images at 12 fps, with continuous autofocusing and 18.1 megapixels at 14 fps with focus locked at the first frame. Nikon’s D4 can shoot its 16.2-megapixel images at 10 fps with continuous AF and 11 fps with focus locked at first frame. Why don’t these flagship pro models have as many megapixels as their manufacturer’s midrange full-frame models? Largely to provide these superquick shooting speeds, and also to provide top low-light capability.
Of course, the EOS-1D X and the D4 have superquick and accurate AF systems that can keep up with these shooting rates. The top APS-C DSLRs also provide fast shooting: 12 fps for Sony’s SLR-A77 (with continuous AF), 8 fps for Canon’s EOS 7D, and 7 fps for Nikon’s D300S and Pentax’s K-5.
The flagship cameras are the most rugged and weather-resistant. But all of today’s top DSLRs are quite rugged, and many pros use mid-level full-frame and high-end APS-C DSLRs in the field, to good effect. Note that none of the DSLRs is warrantied against water damage, something to keep in mind when facing a torrential downpour. Many photojournalists use top Canon and Nikon DSLRs successfully in all kinds of conditions. (Make sure the lens is weather-sealed, too; a sealed body with a nonsealed lens will put you out of business quickly in a heavy rain.) If you have to shoot in the rain, it never hurts to use a protective cover.
|Full-Frame||Sensor||Pixel Size (microns)||Normal ISO Range||External Monitor||Top video||AF Points||Max fps*||Memory||Dimensions (inches/ounces)||List Price**|
|Canon EOS-1D X||18.1 MP||6.9||100-51,200||3.2 in., 1040K||1080/30p||61||12||2CF||6.2×6.4×3.3/47.3||$6,799|
|Canon EOS 5D Mark III||22.3 MP||6.3||100-25,600||3.2 in., 1040K||1080/30p||61||6||CF, SD||6.0×4.6×3.0/30.3||$3.499|
|Canon EOS-6D||20.2 MP||6.5||100-25,600||3.0 in., 1040K||1080/30p||11||4.5||SD||5.7×4.4×2.8/24.0||$2,099|
|Nikon D4||16.2 MP||7.3||100-12,800||3.2 in., 921K||1080/30p||51||10||CF, XQD||6.3×6.2×3.6/41.6||$5.999|
|Nikon D800||36.3 MP||4.9||100-6400||3.2 in., 921K||1080/30p||51||4||CF, SD||5.7×4.8×3.2/31.7||$2,999|
|Nikon D800E||36.3 MP||4.0||100-6400||3.2 in., 921K||1080/30p||51||4||CF, SD||5.7×4.8×3.2/31.7||$3,299|
|Nikon D600||24.3 MP||6.0||100-6400||3.2 in., 921K||1080/30p||39||5||2SD||5.6×4.4×3.2/26.8||$2,099|
|Sony SLT-A99||24.3 MP||6.0||100-25,600||3.0 in., 1228K tilt/rot.||1080/60p||19+102||6||CF, MS||5.8×4.4×3.1/25.8||$2,799|
|Canon EOS 7D||18.0 MP||4.3||100-6400||3.0 in., 920K||1080/30p||19||8||CF||5.8×4.4×2.9/28.9||$1,599|
|Nikon D300S||12.3 MP||5.5||200-3200||3.0 in., 921K||720/24p||51||7||CF, SD||5.8×4.5×2.9/30.0||$1,699|
|Pentax K-5 II||16.3 MP||4.8||80-51,200||3.0 in., 921K||1080/25p||11||7||SD||5.2×3.8×2.9/23.3||$1.199|
|Pentax K-5 IIs||16.3 MP||4.8||80-51,200||3.0 in., 921K||1080250p||11||7||SD||5.2×3.8×2.9/23.3||$1,299|
|Sigma SD1||15.4×3 MP||5.0||100-6400||3.0 in., 460K||No video||11||6||CF||5.7×4.4×3.1/24.7||$2,299|
|Sony SLT-A77||24.3 MP||3.9||100-16,000||3.0 in., 921K tilt/rot.||1080/60p||19||12||SD,MS||5.6×4.1×3.2/23.0||$1,399|
|Olympus E-5||12.3 MP||4.3||100-6400||3.0 in., 460K tilt/rot.||720/30p||11||5||CF, SD||5.6×4.6×2.9/28.2||$1,699|
|* Maximum frame rate at full resolution with AF for each frame
** List price for body only
Higher-end DSLRs also have sturdier shutters. The Canon EOS-1D X and Nikon D4 units tested to 400,000 cycles. But in the grand scheme of things, shutter replacements aren’t horrendously expensive, and we’ve found that other parts of DSLRs (electronics) tend to fail first.
While amateur photographers (and pros, in film days) may tend to keep the same camera body for a number of years, most pros will replace a DSLR when a new model comes out with notably better image quality or AF performance. Thus, day-to-day reliability may be more important than years-long life. Any of the DSLRs in our chart should meet this requirement.
All of the full-frame DSLRs in our chart can shoot 1080 full HD video at a pro level. The Nikon D4, D800/D800E and D600, and Sony SLT-A99 can output uncompressed video to an external recording device (or an external monitor) via a built-in HDMI connector. Canon’s EOS-1D X, EOS 5D Mark III and EOS 6D let you choose All-I or IPB compression and Rec Run or Free Run timecoding. (When the firmware update for the Canon EOS 5D Mark III comes out this spring, it will be able to record uncompressed to an external recorder via HDMI.) The A99 can shoot 1080 video at 60p; the others top out at 30p. And thanks to its Translucent Mirror Technology, the A99 also provides full-time phase-detection AF and eye-level viewing, if desired, for video, something the others can’t. (The APS-C A77 provides these features, too.) The A77 and EOS 7D are the most capable APS-C DSLRs, from a pro standpoint, but all the cameras in our chart except the Sigma SD1 can shoot video. All can record stereo sound via an optional external microphone and a few via a built-in stereo mic (the others have built-in mono mics). Pro cinematographers generally focus manually, but the Sonys provide usably quick AF for video.
Canon and Nikon offer an extensive line of lenses and accessories for their DSLRs, and Olympus, Pentax and Sony provide enough lenses and accessories to handle most pro needs. If you already have a DSLR (as a great many pros do), it’s probably cost-effective to upgrade to that manufacturer’s body so you can use your current lenses and accessories. If you’re looking at your first DSLR, consider the entire system, as well as the camera body, to be sure it can do what you want to do with it.
Canon and Nikon each offers about 60 lenses that can be used with full-frame and APS-C cameras, and 10 or more designed specifically for APS-C. (When a Nikon DX lens is attached to a full-frame body, it automatically crops to DX format; you can’t mount Canon EF-S lenses on a full-frame body.) Canon’s full-frame lenses range from a 14mm superwide-angle and an 8-15mm fisheye zoom to an 800mm supertele, including four tilt-shift lenses; the widest EF-S (APS-C) lens is a 10-22mm zoom. Nikon’s full-frame lenses range from a 14mm superwide-angle and 16mm fisheye to a 600mm supertele, plus three tilt-shift lenses; the widest DX (APS-C) lens is a 10-24mm zoom.
Sony’s full-frame lenses range from a 16-35mm zoom and 16mm fisheye to a 500mm supertelephoto; the widest DT (APS-C) lens is an 11-18mm zoom. Sigma’s SD1 is an APS-C camera, so it can use all Sigma lenses with a Sigma mount; these range from an 8-16mm superwide-angle zoom and a 4.5mm fisheye to an 800mm supertelephoto, including the world’s fastest 500mm DSLR zoom, the 200-500mm ƒ/2.8. Pentax DSLRs are also APS-C; lenses range from a 12-24mm superwide-angle zoom and 10-17mm fisheye zoom to a 560mm supertelephoto, but virtually any K-mount lens (and even medium-format Pentax lenses, with adapter) can be used with Pentax DSLRs.
Accessory power grips hold an extra battery and provide more shots between chargings (handy in the field) and more heft (especially handy when using long
lenses with smaller DSLRs like the Pentax K-5). Most also provide a second set of primary controls for more comfortable vertical-format shooting.
Canon and Nikon have the most extensive flash systems, but all of the cameras in our chart feature wireless off-camera flash capability with dedicated flash units. All of the APS-C models listed have built-in flash units, as do the Nikon D600 and Sony SLT-A99.
What About RED?
The introduction of HD video capability into DSLRs late in 2008 popularized the "one camera does pro-quality stills and video" trend, and today almost all DSLRs include full HD capability. But on the other side of the aisle, there’s RED, the company that produces manual-focus modular pro DSMCs (Digital Still & Motion Cameras) that can deliver both 4K and 5K video, and pro-quality stills. The RED EPIC can shoot 5K (13.8-megapixel) stills at up to 120 fps and 4K (8.8-megapixel) stills at up to 150 fps. The lower-priced RED SCARLET-X shares the same sensor and much of the same technology, shooting 5K at up to 12 fps and 4K at up to 30 fps. Both cameras also can do smaller video formats (3K, 2K, 1080p, etc.) at a variety of speeds, including the "standard" 23.98, 24, 25, 29.97, 47.96, 50 and 59.94 fps.
A RED consists of the "Brain" (the body, with a 27.7×14.6mm Super-35-format Mysterium-X CMOS sensor and electronics), to which you add a lens mount (Canon, Nikon, Leica M or PL), viewfinder, memory unit and power supply to suit your needs. 5K is full-frame (about a 1.3X crop compared to a full-frame DSLR), 4K is 1.6X, 3K is 2.0X, and 2K is 3.25X—at 5K, a 100mm lens frames like a 130mm lens on a 35mm SLR or full-frame DSLR; at 2K, a 100mm lens frames like a 325mm lens on a 35mm SLR.
The Mysterium-X sensor in the EPIC and SCARLET-X has a normal dynamic range of 13.5 stops, which can be expanded to 18 stops using the HDRx feature. This records both a normally exposed track and a second track exposed 2 to 6 stops darker (your choice), which can be combined in post to increase highlight detail. RED cameras use the proprietary REDCODE RAW codec, which employs "visually lossless" compression and allows for nondestructive image adjustments (white balance, gamma, ISO and more) in post.