Holiday 2012: Professional-Level DSLR Cameras
Professional-grade DSLRs are the most technologically advanced cameras in production and provide the highest-quality imagery possible, while realizing the tools necessary for photographers to gain complete control over their imagery. These cameras seldom incorporate or rely on the "auto" features found in entry-level or intermediate-level cameras, leaving much of the decision-making process to the photographer. They are designed to be rugged for more frequent, repeated use and are built to hold up under the most strenuous conditions.
A professional-grade DSLR is also a more specialized tool and, optimally, is best paired with personal imaging styles or features that match the way one works; some are best geared for fast-paced action photography while others are better designed to render scenes with the most clarity possible without relying heavily on speed. Regardless of the choice, all of these cameras are strong performers, with the essential goal of producing imagery of the highest quality. The incorporation of full-frame image sensors on many of these cameras, and their compatibility with a wide range of the best lenses, enables them to be used for any task at hand and truly allow fine-tuning and honing of one’s craft. Additionally, professional DSLRs are becoming increasingly more accessible in regard to greater affordability and smaller sizes; they are no longer relegated to strictly professional users, but rather to a wider audience of photographers looking for the greatest quality and most control possible.
Canon EOS 7D
Canon has long been a strong contender in the DSLR market, and as a benefit offers several options in the realm of the professional DSLR. The EOS 7D is the most compact offering from Canon, and integrates an 18-megapixel APS-C-sized CMOS sensor paired with dual DIGIC 4 image processors for high-quality images and HD video. This combination of the sensor and dual processors enables a sensitivity range of ISO 100-6400, which is further expandable to ISO 12800 for difficult, low-light conditions. The DIGIC 4 processors help to maintain low noise levels while also aiding in the overall speed of up to 8 full-resolution frames per second in continuous mode. This performance is carried over in making the 7D a highly attractive camera for HD video work, supporting full HD 1080p recording up to 30 fps with other frame rates selectable. Manual exposure, focus and audio level control are possible while recording video, and in-camera editing is also available during playback on the 3.0” 920k-dot Clear View II LCD monitor.
Image sharpness and clarity are assured with the 7D, due in part to the 19-point all cross-type AF system, with dual diagonal cross-type sensors in the center of the frame. This AF system provides adequate coverage across the frame, and specific focus points can be manually or automatically selected depending on the scene in the viewfinder. Exposure metering makes use of the AF system, too, and also takes into account color and overall luminosity to determine exposure settings. The metering system employs a 63 zone, dual-layer sensor for acquiring exposure information, which works effectively in bright, dark or mixed light settings.
Resembling even more advanced cameras, the 7D is constructed from lightweight, rigid magnesium alloy and is sealed along ports and openings to resist dust and water. While this camera does contain a cropped sensor (smaller than full-frame), it can be seen as a positive to numerous photographers who photograph from longer distances or can effectively make use of the 1.6x crop factor intrinsic to the sensor, giving extra reach when using a full-frame lens. Especially when paired with the professional grade, durable design and construction, the 7D proves to be an ideal tool for sports and wildlife photographers.
The 7D is available as a body only, or in a kit with an EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM AF lens. This provides a 35mm equivalent focal length of 44.8-216mm, making it a normal-to-telephoto zoom that is useful for general, everyday shooting. The IS designation refers to optical image stabilization, which helps to reduce the effects of camera shake, while the USM designation refers to an Ultrasonic Motor for faster, quieter autofocusing.
Canon EOS 6D
Stepping up in sensor size from the 7D is the recently announced EOS 6D. The 6D is a relatively compact, full-frame camera featuring a 20.2-megapixel CMOS sensor and DIGIC 5+ image processor. This combination of a full-frame sensor and powerful image processor results in extremely detailed imagery with smooth gradations and overall image quality. It also enables an expanded sensitivity range from ISO 50 to 102400 for use in a great variety of lighting conditions. Exposure metering is handled with the same iFCL Metering system as the 7D, and employs a 63-zone dual-layer sensor to gain information from both color and luminosity in order to deliver more accurate, consistent results. A newly designed 11-point autofocus system is used with this camera, and integrates a center cross-type point to acquire critical focus in an expedited manner. Also like the 7D, the 6D incorporates full HD video capabilities up to 1080p, and furthermore allows the choice between All-I frame or IPB compressions, as well as automatic file partitioning for files greater than 4GB. The 6D supports the use of SD, SDHC and SDXC memory cards.
Where the 6D dramatically strays from other Canon EOS DSLRs is with the inclusion of a built-in Wi-Fi transmitter and GPS receiver. The Wi-Fi transmitter enables you to transfer images wirelessly, directly from the camera to the CANON iMAGE Gateway cloud service, which then further permits you to relay these images directly to social networking sites. Sharing can also be accomplished between other Wi-Fi-enabled Canon cameras or to iOS or Android mobile devices when using the EOS Remote app. This app for both smart phones and tablets permits remote control of your camera directly from the wireless device. The GPS receiver can automatically receive locational data—including latitude, longitude, elevation and time—and embed this information into the metadata of your images. With this information tied to your files, you can plot virtual maps of your travels with precise accuracy, pinpointing the locations of where your images were taken.
As mentioned before, the 6D was designed to be as compact as possible while still containing a full frame image sensor and powerful processor. Aside from these technologies, a 3.0” 1,040k-dot Clear View LCD monitor is also incorporated, allowing for high resolution live view monitoring and image review. The 6D is available as a body only, or with a 24-105mm f/4L IS EF USM AF lens. This lens ranges from wide angle to portrait length and is image-stabilized to reduce the appearance of camera shake when working in low light or at longer focal lengths. It also incorporates one Super-UD glass element and three aspherical elements to help minimize image distortion and aberrations throughout the zoom range.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
The EOS 5D Mark II is a revolutionary camera in how it essentially transformed the way video was incorporated into DSLRs and how a DSLR is now a highly viable tool for producing professional-quality video. Contributing to this concept significantly is the 21.1 megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor and DIGIC 4 image processor. As with the 6D, the combination of a powerful processor and full-frame sensor results in richly detailed imagery and video with notable image quality. A sensitivity range from ISO 100-6400 (expandable to ISO 50-25600) permits photographing in a broad spectrum of conditions, while a continuous frame rate up to 3.9 frames per second helps to ensure that fleeting moments are captured. A 9-point autofocus system, including a central cross-type point, help to gain sharp focus in any lighting conditions, while a 35-zone TTL exposure metering system helps to determine the proper overall exposure settings.
In regard to HD video recording, the 5D Mark II is able to capture full HD 1080p video with automatic file partitioning for file sizes greater than 4GB. Direct output of video is possible through the HDMI output port, allowing instant viewing of footage on an HDTV. Live view monitoring while recording, and for review of images and videos, is done on the 3.0” 920k-dot Clear View LCD monitor, featuring an anti-reflection and water-resistant coating as well as a brightness sensor for automatic adjustment, contingent on the ambient lighting conditions.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Succeeding the 5D Mark II is the EOS 5D Mark III, which continues along the same path as the Mark II but adds refinements to the overall performance in several regards. An increased resolution of 22.3 megapixels, combined with a DIGIC 5+ image processor and full-frame sensor, contribute to expectedly impressive image quality and detail in both still and moving images. An expanded sensitivity range runs from ISO 50 to 102400, making this camera ideal for working in a variety of situations from bright outdoor locations to dimly lit indoor settings. In addition to a wide sensitivity range, the DIGIC 5+ processor also allows for fast continuous shooting up to 6 full-resolution frames per second. An improved 61-point High Density Reticular AF system with an Offset Array Sensor helps to place AF points across the entire scene for enhanced subject tracking and precise focus in any lighting situation. Five central dual cross-type points, 21 central cross-type and 20 outer cross-type points reinforce this coverage and enhance focusing in low light. Benefitting from the immense AF system, the 5D Mark III utilizes the aforementioned iFCL 63-layer dual-layered metering sensor for exposure metering and permits exposure compensation by five steps, for more personalized tuning of the final output.
The 5D Mark III also closely follows the Mark II’s path in the realm of video and supports full HD video recording up to 1080p and allows for full control over exposure, focus and audio while recording. File partitioning and a choice of All-I frame and IPB compressions give greater control over the output of your video files, and the inclusion of a dedicated headphone jack also permits live audio monitoring for greater control over the final product. Review and live view monitoring can be done on the 3.2” 1,040k-dot TFT LCD with a wide 170º viewing angle.
In line with many professional-grade cameras, the 5D Mark III features magnesium-alloy body construction for increased rigidity, as well as a 150,000-cycle-tested shutter and extensive gasketing also contribute to well-rounded durability. For greater versatility, this camera also accepts both CompactFlash and SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards via a dual card slot. The EOS 5D Mark III is available as a body only, or with the same 24-105mm f/4L IS EF USM AF lens found in the 5D Mark II and 6D kits.
Canon EOS-1D X
The flagship DSLR from Canon is the EOS-1D X; their most full-fledged professional model, designed for the utmost speed and image quality in a highly robust package. It features a full frame 18.1-megapixel CMOS sensor that works in harmony with dual DIGIC 5+ image processors for an exceptional amount of speed and clarity, with a native sensitivity range of ISO 100-51200, which is even further expandable up to ISO 204800 for photographing in near-dark situations. Also greatly benefitting from the speed afforded by two image processors, the 1D X is capable of recording up to 12 full-resolution RAW+JPEG files per second, or up to 14 fps when shooting JPEGs alone.
Similar to the 5D Mark III, the 1D X utilizes a 61-point High Density Reticular AF system for a broad analysis across the scene when metering. A 100,000-pixel RGB metering sensor also contributes to the autofocus performance by improving subject tracking of quickly moving subjects. Color and face detection methods are also used to round out the overall determined exposure. The metering sensor makes use of its own DIGIC 4 processing engine to bolster performance and ensure quick, accurate readings regardless of the lighting conditions.
Full HD 1080p recording is possible with the 1D X, and follows the same suit as the 5D Mark III regarding resolution and compression options available. Time coding is also possible while recording, for greater ease when using multiple cameras during a shoot. When working with video, live view is possible using the 3.2” 1,040k-dot Clear View II TFT LCD, which can be customized to display grid lines or a dual-axis electronic level for aiding in composition. When shooting still imagery, the 100% field of view optical viewfinder provides a bright, clear image that is complemented by a superimposed LCD for display of exposure and focus information.
As demanded by professionals, the 1D X features ultra-solid build quality in the form of a magnesium-alloy body with ergonomically designed grips. The shutter is equally durable and has been tested to maintain 14 fps performance for up to 400,000 actuations. The camera also features extensive gasketing around all ports and connection points for weather and dust resistance.
Nikon is the other main player in the professional DSLR market, providing a wealth of impressive options for all types of photographers. The D300s is Nikon’s compact professional body, featuring an APS-C or DX sized 12.3-megapixel sensor and EXPEED image processor. This combination affords high image quality and fast speeds, which account for its ability to record up to 8 full-resolution frames per second (when used in conjunction with an optional battery pack, otherwise the figure is 7 fps in standard configuration) and sensitivity from ISO 200-3200 (expandable to ISO 6400). A Multi-CAM 3500DX AF sensor helps to gain precise focus due to its 51-point configuration, which blankets the entire frame. This coverage ensures quick focusing, ideal for use with fast-moving subjects. In regard to exposure metering, the Scene Recognition System employs a 1,005-pixel RGB sensor for intelligently gathering focus, exposure, flash and white balance information in order to determine a suitable exposure value. HD video recording is possible at 720p with a frame rate of 24 fps, which is further enhanced by the ability to use an external stereo microphone for greater audio quality while recording video. When recording video or shooting in live view, monitoring can be done on the 3.0” 921k-dot LCD with 170º viewing angle.
The D300s stands out among other DX-sized DSLRs largely due to its rugged build quality: its magnesium-alloy body, built for additional rigidity, still retains the appealing light weight of this size camera. The shutter is equally as durable as the body, and is tested to at least a 150,000-cycle lifespan. The D300s is available as a body only, or in a kit with an 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II AF-S DX NIKKOR lens. This lens provides a 35mm equivalent focal length of 27-300mm and incorporates VR vibration reduction to lessen the appearance of camera shake that can become especially noticeable in dim lighting or when working at longer focal lengths.
Next in line from Nikon is their most recently released DSLR, the D600. This camera combines a 24.3 megapixel full-frame image sensor with a powerful EXPEED 3 processing engine for high image quality, detail and tonality. The D600 is the smallest, most lightweight full-frame DSLR available from Nikon, and serves as a first step into the full-frame professional DSLR realm when transitioning from APS-C-sized intermediate or entry-level cameras. The combination of the image sensor and processor affords a native sensitivity of ISO 100-6400 (expandable to ISO 50-25600) and a continuous shooting rate of up to 5.5 full-resolution frames per second. This performance is balanced by the Multi-CAM 4800 AF sensor, which utilizes a high-density 39-point AF system that includes nine centrally located cross-type sensors. This AF system works in conjunction with the Scene Recognition System that uses a 2,016-pixel RGB sensor to provide accurate metering and gives way to improved subject tracking and identification. Additionally, the Scene Recognition System is able to analyze the situation at hand in order to determine white balance, exposure and i-TTL flash settings for attaining consistently well-exposed images.
The D600 is capable of recording full HD 1080p video at 30 fps in the H.264/MPEG-4 AVC format. When recording video, you can also make use of the full-frame sensor’s size in order to gain greater control over selective focus, or opt to utilize only a DX portion of the sensor for gaining greater depth of field with less out-of-focus portions. Also enhancing video recording possibilities, an optional external microphone can be used to record audio closer to your subject, and a dedicated headphone jack permits live monitoring of the audio being recorded. For outputting and viewing the resulting video, an HDMI port enables direct transfer of files to an HDTV. This connection also enables a tethered connection between the camera and a high-definition monitor for direct, real-time viewing on an auxiliary screen. Lastly, the HDMI port does make it possible to record uncompressed movie live view data directly to an external recording device prior to it being written to an SD card.
A 3.2” 921k-dot LCD provides an adequate monitor for reviewing imagery and for use when working in live view. This screen features an integrated structure of glass and panel to help reduce reflections and provide more vivid imagery under brighter conditions. Another viewing option, when used in conjunction with the optional WU-1b Wireless Mobile Adapter, is the ability to view live imagery directly on your smart phone or tablet through the Wireless Mobile Adapter Utility app (for iOS and Android).
Arguably, however, the most appealing aspect of the D600 is its compact and lightweight form, while still containing a full-frame sensor. Regardless of its light weight, it still features magnesium-alloy covering for increased durability and weather resistance. The D600 is available as a body only, or in a kit with a 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR AF-S NIKKOR lens.
One step beyond the D600 is the D800, which also features a full-frame image sensor and EXPEED 3 image processor. Where the D800 begins to differ significantly from any other current professional DSLR is in its outstanding 36.3-megapixel resolution, offering superb detail and a wide dynamic range for tremendous image quality. The combination of the highly detailed image sensor and powerful processor enable a wide sensitivity range, from ISO 100 to 6400 (expandable to ISO 50-25600), and a continuous shooting rate of 4 full-resolution frames per second (or 5 fps in DX crop mode). The expanded sensitivity range is complemented by a 51-point autofocus system that is able to accurately acquire precise focus in low-light situations in an expedited manner, and is enhanced even more so due to the 15 centrally located cross-type points, for greater subject tracking and identification. Exposure metering is handled through Nikon’s proprietary Scene Recognition System, which utilizes a 91,000-pixel RGB sensor for meticulous analyzing of the entire scene in order to determine the best exposure settings. This includes the ability to monitor white balance, subject tracking, highlight analysis, face detection and light source identification to truly produce an exposure value capable of registering a wide dynamic range.
Full HD video recording is possible up to 1080p at a 30 fps rate. Similar to the D600, the D800 is able to record in either full-frame or DX formats, depending on the look you desire in regard to focus quality. Sound recording is also handled similarly; you have the option to use an external microphone and monitor audio levels via the dedicated headphone jack. The HDMI port enables you to output uncompressed HD video to an external recorder for even higher-quality video, when compared to writing directly to either an SD of CF memory card. The built-in rear 3.2” LCD features 921k-dot resolution and controllable brightness settings for enhanced monitoring in a variety of conditions.
Magnesium-alloy construction provides durability and ruggedness, yet still allows for a comparatively lightweight body. The D800 is fully weather and dust resistant, and the shutter has been tested to more than 200,000 actuations.
|Nikon D800||Nikon D800E|
In addition to the standard D800, a more specialized version, the D800E, is also available for even greater sharpness and resolution. The D800E removes the internal optical low-pass filter in order to gain the greatest sharpness possible, allowing you to take greater advantage of the 36.3 megapixel image sensor. However, when this filter is removed, imagery becomes more susceptible to moiré and false colors that are inherent to digital imaging. In order to maximize the potential of the D800E, it is best to work with the RAW (NEF) file format and be in control of your lighting in order to reduce the effects of moiré. For a more in-depth comparison between the D800 and D800E, refer to this article that highlights the benefits of each individual camera.
Similar in aim to the D800, the D3x is a high resolution, full-frame DSLR that is best suited for studio and controlled photography situations. This camera features a 24.5-megapixel CMOS sensor and EXPEED image processor for great detail, and a sensitivity range from ISO 100-1600 (expandable to ISO 6400). The EXPEED processor affords fast 14-bit A/D conversion and 16-bit image processing for helping to improve overall noise reduction that becomes more helpful in the higher the ISO ranges. This processor also enables a fast shutter lag time of 0.04 second and a continuous shooting rate of 5 fps in FX mode and 7 fps in DX mode.
A 51-point Multi-CAM3500FX autofocus system works in conjunction with 3D focus tracking and customizable focus point groups to best suit your shooting requirements in regard to precision and speed. Similarly, the Scene Recognition System utilizes this autofocus information and combines it with a 1,005-pixel RGB sensor for determining exposure settings based on subject lighting, color and shape. Fine-tuning and analysis of focus points and metering settings can be done when working in live view while photographing, and monitoring is possible on the 3.0” 921k-dot monitor.
The D3x is housed within a highly durable magnesium-alloy body that provides weather and dust protection, rigidity and strength to the entire system, and houses a shutter mechanism rated up to 300,000 cycles.
The flagship DSLR from Nikon is the D4, which takes many of the components from both the D3x and D800 and blends them into a camera capable of recording extremely detailed, clear imagery at exceptionally high speeds. A full frame 16.2-megapixel CMOS image sensor and EXPEED 3 image processor combine to provide impressive image quality while retaining the necessary speed for capturing up to 11 full-resolution images per second with a shutter lag time of just 0.042 second. The image processor also creates an extensive native sensitivity range from ISO 100 to 12800, which is then further expandable to ISO 50 to 204800. Much of this increased sensitivity and image quality is attributed to the reduction of effective pixels, compared to previous models, which allows for a larger photosite size and greater light-gathering ability.
As with the previously mentioned Nikon DSLRs, the D4 also makes use of the Scene Recognition System for carefully determining exposure settings in regard to a host of variables, and does so using a 91k-pixel RGB sensor, the image sensor and the Multi-CAM 3500FX autofocus sensor. This AF sensor features 51 AF points for acquiring precise focus in quick fashion, and is additionally complemented by 15 center cross-type sensors for greater distant-subject tracking. The D4 also integrates the same HD video capabilities exhibited in the D800 and D600; supporting full HD recording up to 1080p and permitting uncompressed video output to an external recorder via the HDMI port. On-camera monitoring can be done through the 3.2” 921k-dot anti-reflective LCD.
In regard to design, the D4 features fully sealed construction that offers protection against weather, dust and electromagnetic interference. The body is constructed from magnesium alloy for overall durability while still maintaining relative light weight. The ergonomics of this camera support comfortable horizontal and vertical grip, with controls easily accessible in both orientations. Another innovative feature found on the D4 is the inclusion of an XQD memory card slot, in addition to a CF card slot. The D4 is the first DSLR to support this burgeoning memory card type, which provides a read/write speed of 125MB/sec.
Sony Alpha SLT-A99
Sony’s newest addition, the Alpha SLT-A99, is their new top-of-the line, professional DSLR featuring an image quality and performance value that greatly exceeds their previously set standards. This camera features a full frame 24.3-megapixel Exmor CMOS sensor and BIONZ image processor for excellent image quality in regard to detail, clarity and tonal gradation. A native sensitivity range of ISO 100-6400 is expandable to ISO 25600, which is benefitted by Multi-frame NR noise reduction for maintaining image clarity at high effective ISO values. The BIONZ image processor also enables a fast continuous shooting rate of up to six full-resolution frames per second, or up to 10 fps when shooting at a cropped 10-megapixel resolution.
The most notable technology incorporated into the A99 is the use of Sony’s Translucent Mirror Technology, which effectively sets the mirror in a fixed position and utilizes its unique translucent design to simultaneously direct light to both the image sensor and AF sensor. This allows for full-time-continuous autofocus when shooting movies, or in live view, and also significantly aids in subject tracking when photographing at high continuous frame rates. A beneficial consequence of having a fixed mirror permits the inclusion of an XGA OLED viewfinder, as opposed to a standard optical viewfinder, for eye-level live view use. The same information that is shown on the rear LCD is also shown in the viewfinder, which means you can previsualize exposure settings and view exposure information without having to oscillate between LCDs. If your preference is to work from the rear 3.0” 1,228,800-dot TFT LCD, there is the benefit of tiltable design for enhanced low- and high-angle viewing. This screen is able to tilt 140º upward, 180º downward, 180º clockwise, and 90º counter-clockwise.
The continuous autofocusing in all modes afforded by the Translucent Mirror Technology also leads to the first dual autofocus system, which employs both contrast and phase-detection methods to acquire focus as fast as possible without sacrificing precision or subject tracking. The entire contrast-detect system uses 19 points, with 11 cross-type, which then works with a 102-point phase detection system that effectively blankets the entire field of view. By combining both of these technologies, focus can stay locked on moving subjects even if visual disruptions occur that would typically throw off conventional focusing systems.
The SLT-A99 is capable of recording full HD video in 1920 x 1080 format, at 60p, 60i and 24p frame rates. When recording in 60p or 60i, you can even output uncompressed video to an external recorder. Also greatly aiding the overall quality and control of HD video, an optional XLR adapter and microphone kit is available for balanced audio recording.
The SLT-A99 is also notable in regard to its design, especially because of how light it is. Due to the lack of a swinging-mirror mechanism and large pentaprism, the total weight of the body with battery and memory card is only 812 grams. Even at such a light weight, the SLT-A99 still features highly durable magnesium-alloy paneling and weather sealing for ensured protection against dust and water.
Professional grade DSLRs incorporate some of the most compelling technology available, and are becoming more efficient machines for all-around performance. The barrier between speed and image quality is negligible now, with all cameras exerting consideration into providing tools that can accurately render scenes in a highly effective yet controllable manner. These cameras provide the tools necessary for experienced photographers to truly depict scenes in accordance with their vision, yet the cameras also offer support when needed in an unobtrusive, intuitive manner.