Professional DSLR


A professional photographer is someone who can take a photograph that's technically and aesthetically right on the money with even the most basic of imaging tools, though few, if any, would bet their reputations on entry-level cameras on a regular basis. That's because as feature-packed as under-$500 cameras are, they're simply not up to taking the pounding pro-quality DSLRs are subjected to on a daily basis. But ruggedness is only part of the equation when it comes to the top guns of DSLR cameras.

Professionals require tools that do their jobs properly, precisely and reliably, regardless of when or where the assignment is and regardless of how hot, cold, dry or damp the environment may be. They're hired as professionals and their tools are expected to back them up as they go about their business. The following cameras represent the very best 35mm-based digital cameras we carry at B&H. All but one are DSLRs and each of them is designed to deliver the goods and perform as advertised. And if you're a professional, you should expect nothing less from your gear, because at the end of the day, that's what your clients expect from you.

 Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III

Canon offers three distinct models in its pro lineup, starting with the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III. As with all Canon Mark-series DSLRs, the 1Ds Mark III and its integrated motor drive is heavily fortified in weather-sealed magnesium-alloy armor. For image capture, the 1Ds Mark III features a full-frame (24 x 36mm) 21.1 MP CMOS sensor that’s driven by dual DIGIC 3 image processors providing 14-bit A/D conversion image files capable of reproducing up to 16,384 brightness levels when opened in Photoshop’s 16-bit color space.

Though it’s the only current Mark-series Canon that does not feature video capture, it does offer Live View for composing imagery on its 3.0” 230,000-dot LCD as an alternative to the camera’s traditional all-glass pentaprism reflex viewing system. (Both viewing options provide 100% view of the total image area.) There’s also an Integrated Dust Reduction System with Dust Delete Data Detection for post-capture removal of dust marks that make it past the first line of defense.

Other pro features found on the Canon 1Ds Mark III include a maximum burst rate of up to 5 frames per second, an ISO sensitivity range of 50-3200, dual memory card slots (UDMA CF Type I/II and SD/SDHC), simultaneous JPEG+RAW still capture, a 45-point AF system with 19 cross-type AF points (plus 26 assist AF points), 57 custom functions in 4 sets, 6 TTL metering options (63 zone Evaluative, 8.5% Partial, 2.4% Center Spot or linked to active focusing point, Multispot or Center weighted), a top shutter speed of 1/8000th-second, a top flash sync of 1/250th (up to 1/8000th in HP mode with Canon Speedlites) and compatibility with all Canon EF-series optics.

Canon EOS 1D Mark IV

For pros requiring faster burst rates without sacrificing image quality, Canon offers the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV, which features a 16.1MP APS-H (1.3x) CMOS sensor that can bang out up to ten 14-bit AD converted frames per second. Identical in profile, construction integrity, weatherproofing and memory-card options to Canon’s 1Ds Mark III, the 1D Mark IV ups the ante by adding a number of technological updates, including dual DIGIC 4 image processors, an expanded ISO range of 100-102,400, a 3.0” 920,000-dot LCD, full HD 1080p video at 30 frames per second, a top flash sync speed of 1/300th-second, 62 custom functions in 4 sets and Live View with Face Detection. (Both Canon 1D Mark-series cameras share the same 45-point AF system).

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

The third pro option from Canon is the camera that put DSLR video capture in the mainline—the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, a lighter-weight DSLR (a power winder is optional) that features the same full-frame 21.1MP CMOS sensor found in the 1Ds Mark III, full HD 1280p video at 30 frames per second, a single DIGIC 4 image processor, 3.9-frame-per-second continuous still shooting, Live View for stills and video and a 3.0” 920,000-dot LCD.

Other features found on the Canon EOS 5D Mark II include an ISO range of 100-25,600, 9 (plus 6 assist) AF points, 4 metering options (35-zone Evaluative, 8% Partial Spot, 3.5% Center Spot, Center weighted), 98% image area viewing through the viewfinder (100% on the LCD), Live View with Face Detection and 25 custom functions with 71 settings. The Canon EOS 5D Mark II features a single slot for UDMA CF Type I/II memory cards.

The Canon EOS 5D Mark II is available as a body only or with a 24-105mm/f4L IS lens, and like the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III and 1D Mark IV, is compatible with the entire line of Canon EF-series optics.

Nikon D3x

Nikon also has three distinct full-frame (24 x 36mm) DSLR options for working pros, and like their Canon counterparts, they’re ruggedly constructed of weather- and dust-sealed magnesium-alloy components, capture 14-bit A/D converted JPEG+RAW stills and offer flexibility and versatility that go well beyond the abilities of their film-based predecessors.

Nikon’s D3X features an EXPEED-powered 24.5MP CMOS sensor with continuous shooting capabilities of up to 5 frames per second, a 3.0” 921,000-dot LCD, a 51-point AF system with 4 Dynamic AF modes and 3D Focus Tracking, an incredibly accurate 11,005-pixel 3D Color Matrix metering system and dual Live View shooting modes, including 27x magnification in Tripod mode, for critical-focus confirmation.
Other advanced features include dual CF memory card slots, a digital Virtual Horizon line for leveling your camera on the fly, 100% image viewing in the camera’s viewfinder and on the LCD, Active D-Lighting (4 levels plus Auto), a top shutter speed of 1/8000th-second and a top flash sync of 1/250th-second (1/8000th-second in FP mode with Nikon Speedlights), in-camera retouching, up to 4400 exposures per battery charge, HDMI connectivity and geo-tagging when using a Nikon GP-1 GPS unit (optional).
The D3x also features a Picture Control System that allows you to store up to nine custom settings in the D3X and export up to 99 custom settings to your CF memory cards in order to share these custom settings with other D3x camera bodies.

In addition to full compatibility with all Nikon AF and AF-S optics, the Nikon D3x can also be used in a cropped-format mode when used with Nikon DX-format optics. When shooting with DX lenses, the outer parameter of the viewing area is grayed out to indicate the "live" area of the frame, making it easy to compose images in the reduced-size imaging format.

Nikon D3S

Image files captured by the 12.1MP, full-frame CMOS sensor found in the Nikon D3s are often described as being the "lushest" in its category. With an ISO range of 200-102,400, a continuous capture rate of 9 frames per second for up to 82 fine JPEG or 36 14-bit RAW files and 720p video capture at 24 frames per second, Nikon’s EXPEED-powered D3s is a top performer regardless of your area of specialty.

Like the Nikon D3x, the D3S contains a number of pro-quality features, including a 3.0” 921,000-dot LCD, a 51-point Multi-CAM 3500x AF system with 4 Dynamic Modes, 15 cross-type sensors and 36 horizontal sensors, a 1005-pixel 3D Color Matrix Metering II system, a Dynamic Integrated Dust Reduction System, One-button, up to 4200 exposures per charge and dual-mode Live View for studio or remote shooting with a 27x magnifier for fine-tuning your focus.

As with the Nikon D3x, the Nikon D3S features an integrated motor drive, dual CF Type I/II card slots and is compatible with all Nikon AF, AF-S and DX-format Nikon optics.

Nikon D700

Nikon’s D700, like Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II, is a lighter weight, though very capable pro-quality DSLR containing the same 12.1MP CMOS sensor and EXPEED image processor used in the workhorse Nikon D3. The D700 is capable of capturing up to 5 frames per second out of the box and up to 8 continuous frames per second when coupled to an optional Nikon MB-D10 Multi-power battery pack.

Additional pro features found within the Nikon D700 include an ISO sensitivity range of 100-12,800, a 3.0” 921,000-dot LCD, dual Live View shooting modes, a 512-point AF system with 3D focus Tracking, a Dynamic Integrated Dust Reduction System, magnesium-alloy body panels with silicon seals, up to 1000 exposures per battery charge and a 1005-Pixel 3D Color Matrix Metering System.

And like the D3x and D3S, the D700 is compatible with the full line of Nikon AF, AF-S and Dx-format optics. The Nikon D700 is available as a body only, or with a 24-120mm Nikkor VR lens.

Sony Alpha a900

Sony’s entry into the pro DSLR market is the Sony Alpha a900, which is designed around a full-frame 24.6MP Sony EXMOR CMOS sensor, which thanks in part to dual BIONZ image processors, can bang out up to 5 full-resolution frames per second. The a900’s magnesium alloy-clad body features Sony’s SteadyShot INSIDE technology that enables in-camera image stabilization with all Sony Alpha a-series optics as well as all Minolta AF optics.

Other features found on the Sony Alpha a900 include Adjustable DRO (Dynamic Range Optimizer), which maintains the highest levels of detail in the shadows and highlight areas of your stills, dual memory card slots (CF and Memory Stick Pro Duo) and an Intelligent Preview function that shows you the effects of your exposure adjustments on the camera’s 3.0’ 921,000-dot LCD.

The ISO range of the Sony a900 goes from 100-6400, and like other cameras in this class, image files can be captured as JPEGs, RAW or a combination of the two. You can also view 100% of the image area through the a900’s optical viewfinder as well as on the camera’s LCD. According to the specs, you can expect to fire off approximately 880 exposures per battery charge.

Leica M9

While assembling our list of pro-quality DSLRs, we unanimously agreed that the Leica M9—despite not being a DSLR— really should appear in our roundup of professional 35mm digital cameras.

An unmistakably direct descendent of the Leica M3, a rangefinder camera first introduced in 1954, the Leica M9 is amazing in the fact that unlike any other digital camera derived from a film-based camera, it has maintained the same form and functionality that has endeared it to three generations of photojournalists and avid shooters. The shape of the M9, including the layout of the control dials, is uncannily similar to the original "M" and remarkably, even the earliest M-mount lenses will work on the M9, albeit without the data communication made possible by the 6-bit coding found on the current Leica M lenses.

(Note: Older Leica M-mount lenses can be updated with 6-bit coding contacts by Leica for a nominal charge.)

As for the technical details, the M9 contains a full-frame 18MP CCD imaging sensor that can produce 14-bit A/D converted JPEG or RAW files at a rate of up to 2.5 frames per second, or about as fast as a seasoned pro can manually wind through film with an M3. The M9's 2.5" LCD contains 230,000 dots, and images are recorded onto SD or SDHC memory cards.

As for optics, Leica glass is undisputedly the best you will ever shoot with, and there are currently 22 lenses in the Leica M lineup ranging from 21mm to 135mm. Among these truly fine optics are an incredibly fast 21mm f/1.4 ASPH, a 16-18-21mm tri-focal length Elmar, a 50mm f/.095 Noctilux and the 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH, which just may be the finest lens ever made for a 35mm camera.

The Leica M9 is available in Black and Steel Gray.

Professional Digital Cameras
  Sensor LCD Burst Rates Image Processor Bit-depth ISO Shutter Range Video / Frame Rate Memory Weight
Canon EOS 1Ds Mk III 21.1MP 24x36mm CMOS 3.0"  (230,000-dot) Max 3fps

Dual    DIGIC 3

14-bit A/D Conversion 100-3200 30sec-1/8ooo (1/250 Sync)  None CF I/II SD/SDHC 42.5 oz (1205g)
Canon EOS 1D Mk IV 16.1MP APS-H (1.3x) CMOS 3.0" (920,000-dot)  Max 10fps

Dual    DIGIC 4

14-bit A/D Conversion 50-102,400  30sec-1/8ooo  (1/300 Sync)  1080p@24f/p/s  CF I/II SD/SDHC 41.6 oz (1180g) 
Canon EOS 5D Mk II 21.1MP 24x36mm CMOS  3.0" (920,000-dot)  Max 3.9fps DIGIC 4 14-bit A/D Conversion 50-25,600 30sec-1/8ooo  (1/200 Sync)   1080p@30f/p/s  CF I/II   28.6 oz (810g) 
Nikon D3x 24.5MP 24x36mm CMOS   3.0" (921,000-dot)   Max 5fps (7fps in DX Mode) EXPEED  14-bit A/D Conversion 100-1600  30sec-1/8ooo  (1/250 Sync, Auto FP up to 1/8000)     None Dual CF I/II  43 oz 
Nikon D3S 12.1MP 24x36mm CMOS   3.0" (921,000-dot)   Max 9fps EXPEED 14-bit A/D Conversion  100-102,400  30sec-1/8ooo  (1/250 Sync, Auto FP up to 1/8000)  720p@24f/p/s   (Mono sound w/ stereo input jack)  Dual CF I/II   44 oz
Nikon D700 12.1MP 24x36mm CMOS 3.0" (921,000-dot)   

Max 5fps    (up to 8fps with optional MB-D10 Winder)

EXPEED  14-bit A/D Conversion  200-6400 30sec-1/8ooo  (1/250 or 1/320th Sync, Auto FP up to 1/8000)  None CF I/II   35 oz
Sony Alpha a900 24.6MP CMOS  3.0" (921,000-dot)  Max 5fps Dual BIONZ 12-bit 100-6400 30sec-1/8ooo  (1/250 Sync)   None  CF I/II     Memory Stick Pro Duo  30 oz (850g)
Leica M9 18MP CCD 2.5" (230,000-dot)  Approx 2fps  NA 12-bit 80-2500  32-1/4000 (1/180 Sync)  None  SD/SDHC 19.8 oz (585g)

Add new comment

 I believe that the Nikon D700 has the same sensor as the D3, not the D3s.

I have owned a D700 now for three weeks and wish I had purchased it SOONER.

What a great camera.  We use it for sports action shots(day and night).

This Spring we will use it at Track Meets and baseball games.

I had 5DMarkII but sold it some unpleasant autofocus faults and weak body... For a semipro user like D700 was a great option and I got it... Now mostly not following camera world anymore... D700 a Superb camera, very very less purple fringing, artifacting than Canons even in Jpegs...

Nikon Inc. repair department does not consider the D700 a professional camera.

It appears that, in your opinion, there is no Olympus offering that is competitive with any of the above-noted cameras.

You noted that a power winder is optional for the Canon EOS 5D Mark II.  What does it wind, then? 

Has anyone used the LUNIX DMC-GH2 ? I am interested in one of them. 

Where can I find the power winder for my Mark II? My chip needs winding. Does B&H employ a proof reader for the copy? We become annoyed over errors like this, and any real advise gets lost.

great article, thanks for the info :)

Pentax 645d anyone? 

Check this out

I have had the Sony alpha 900 from B & H for approximately 9 months.  I shoot it with a Carl Zeiss Zoom lens.  Impeccable quality.  Of the offerings, discussed in Alan's writing, I feel that this one offers by far the most "bang for the buck".

I own a half dozen digital cameras and as many film cameras. I am an "advanced amateur", i.e., I don't sell my work.  I shoot thousands of exposures per year.  One thing I learned a long, long time ago is an expensive camera does not make one a good photographer. It is the individual behind the camera.  One can make a great photo with a "point and shoot" if they are a good photographer.

A downside with the high quality professional cameras and professional lenses is they are heavier than the mid-grade and entry level products, but that is a small price to pay for ensuring perfect images.

Another great write-up, Alan!

Very helpful.  

According to many (Canon included), the EOS 7D is a professional DSLR, albeit with an APS-C sized sensor.

Canon 5D mark II, I have 2 of them...and hoping to get the with the battery grip moulded into the body like the EOS Mark III 21mp camera body and add  a few mp. more and afordable by keeping  a reasonably low  price . Come on Canon.. set the trend !

What was the primary reason for leaving the Canon 7D off the list? 

What was the primary reason for leaving the Canon 7D off the list? 

What was the primary reason for leaving the Canon 7D off the list? 

 Oops! Sorry about the three posts.  Must have been a 3 frame burst.