The 2009 B&H Holiday Buyers Guide
A Tale of Two Formats
Pro-level DSLRs come in two format - 35mm-based and medium-format - which in the digital world means anything between 36x36mm through 60x45mm (a.k.a. 645). In terms of price, the 35's go for between $2000 and $8000. Medium-format backs (minus a body and lens) start at about $8000, and continue on upwards of $30,000-plus for a camera/lens/capture back package. Why you would choose one format over another is dependent on what sort of work you plan on doing.
The viewing systems on most
pro-level DSLRs are all glass (as opposed to the less-efficient pentamirors
used on less-expensive DSLRs) and most display
100% of the image area. The exceptions are Nikon's D700 (95%), Sony's Alpha
a850 (approx 98%), and Canon's 5D Mark II (approx 98%). Most of the top DSLRs
also feature 3" LCDs with 900,000-plus dots of resolution. Along with a
selection of exposure and AF options, the shutter speeds on most all pro-level
DSLRs range from 30-seconds through 1/8000th-second, with sync
speeds up to and beyond 1/250th-second, enabling creative fill-flash
Optically, 35mm-based pro DSLRs offer the widest variety of lens options ranging from fisheye—circular or full-frame—through extreme telephoto, and they are available as fast, fixed focal-length lenses or in a variety of zoom options. Medium-format cameras offer a narrower choice of optics, ranging from an ultra-wide 28mm which—depending
on the size of the imaging sensor—approximates the angle of view (94°) of a
21mm lens on a 35mm camera, through telephotos in the range of 200 to 300mm.
Depending on the manufacturer, you can add to this list a modest choice of
macros and zooms.
If speed and snappy response
times are among the requirements for the work you do, you'd probably be better
off sticking with a 35mm-based digicam. Though they're certainly not slouches,
the AF systems found on medium-format backs are noticeably slower and somewhat
restrictive compared to their 35mm counterparts. This is due to the fact that it
takes more torque to run the AF motors on the heftier medium-format optics, and
unlike 35's, your autofocus parameters are restricted to a single AF point
located dead-center in the frame. Burst-rates are also underwhelming when
shooting with medium-format backs, usually in the neighborhood of 1.5 frames
per second if you have a strong tailwind. So while capturing action is quite doable
with medium-format DSLRs, it takes a bit more foresight and a far more
While designed for use in
the studio or on location, medium-format backs are particularly fit for
photographing intricate patterns or textures common to textiles, industrial,
and fashion applications. Because of the larger physical size of medium-format
imaging sensors (up to 2.5x larger than full-frame 35mm sensors) and the higher
number of pixels (up to 60Mp), pesky moiré patterns, artifacting, and color
aberrations are reduced—in most cases—to non-issues. ISO ratings are also more
restrictive on the medium-format capture backs, compared to their 35mm
counterparts. While the ISO ratings on the Nikon D3S and Canon's 1D Mark IV can
be set as high as a quite-usable ISO102400, medium-format backs cap out at a
modest ISO 800.
Integrity and Dependability
The top-gun DSLRs from
Canon, Nikon, and Sony are superb imaging machines, and they each offer much
bang for the buck. Nikon's D3-series cameras and Canon's 1D-series cameras are
particularly robust and are the toughest and most precise imaging machines
available today. The shutters on the pricier DSLRs are rated beyond 300,000
exposures, a claim that is reinforced by the precision 'clicks' they sound off
when you fire them. If your itinerary includes industrial environments,
bouncing over miles of unpaved roads, dust, heat, humidity, nasty weather,
and/or incoming enemy fire, these are the cameras you want to pack.
full-format 35mm DSLRs from Sony (Alpha a850 & Alpha a900), Nikon (D700),
and Canon (EOS 5D Mark II) all take terrific, pro-quality photographs, but
aren't built to take the same levels of use and abuse as the Nikon's D3 and
Canon's1D-series cameras. But then again, they cost thousands of dollars less
than their beefier brethren.
Redundancy is another
hallmark of pro-level DSLRs. Dual memory slots, dual image processors, and dual
lock releases on battery doors and card slots are frequently featured on these
cameras to speed up the workflow while simultaneously ensuring 'Ooops' moments
don't bring the show to a screeching halt. Battery grips, usually offered as an
option with most DSLRs, are integral parts of Nikon's D3-series and Canon's 1D-series
cameras, and the batteries are measurably larger than the batteries that power
Despite the number of high-performance
features and cutting-edge technologies built into today's top-shelf DSLRs, one
feature you seldom see is a pop-up flash. Fewer, seamless body panels translate
into tougher structural integrity and better weatherproofing (as anybody who's
ever owned a convertible can attest to). And when you're shooting in a less
than camera-friendly environment or a blowing, sleety rain, the last thing you
want on the upper leading-edge of your camera is a hinged cap.
Interestingly, the only
camera included in this guide that has a pop-up flash is also the priciest of
the lot—the Hasselblad H-series cameras—which, when set to Program mode, makes
H-series cameras one of the coolest point-and-shoot cameras ever. But then
again, if you're thinking of spending upwards of $30,000 for one of the meanest
imaging machines available today, you darn well deserve a pop-up flash. Right?
size, Pixel size, and Bit depth
Medium-format DSLRs from
Mamiya and Hasselblad, while not as quick and nimble as their 35mm-based
counterparts, raise the stakes dramatically in terms of tone and resolving
power. The sensors used in medium-format capture backs are physically larger,
and typically contain larger pixels compared to the pixels found in 35mm-based
The size of the
light-gathering portion of pixels (a.k.a. photosites) varies greatly from one
camera to another. As examples, the photosites in the 24.5Mp Nikon D3x are 5.49
microns (µm) across as compared to the size of
the photosites in the 12.1Mp Nikon D3S (8.45 µm).
As comparisons, Hasselblad's H3DII-31 & 39 contain pixels that are 6.8 µm across, while the denser-packed sensor in the
Hasselblad H3DII-50 contains pixels that are smaller—6 µm
across. Other pixel sizes are as follows: Canon EOS 1D Mark III (7.38 µm), EOS 7D (4.3 µm),
EOS 5D Mk II (6.4 µm), Nikon D700 (8 µm), Sony Alpha a850 (5.9µm)
and Alpha a900 (5.9 µm).
In general the larger the
pixels, the wider range of color and tone in your final images. And when you
combine larger pixels with true 16-bit color, you end up with image files
containing far greater color depth, greater highlight and shadow detail, and
resolving power that nips at the heels of well-exposed 4x5" transparencies.
As a point of reference,
most basic consumer cameras capture and process images at 8-bits, which
translates into about 256 reproducible shades of color (or tone).Better digicams output 12-bit color (4,096
tones), while many advanced digital cameras output color at 14-bits, which
translates into 16,384 reproducible shades of color. Medium-format backs
capture and process 16-bit color, which translates into a staggering 65,536
discernable shades of color, which pushes the limits of print and display
is a card-carrying war machine built to the toughest of construction standards.
Encased behind magnesium-alloy body panels sealed against the elements by a
battery of silicon seals is a 12.1
Mp FX (36x23.9mm) CMOS sensor that captures full-volume JPEGs, RAW, RAW+JPEG,
as well as uncompressed TIFF files. The D3S is also the first D3-series Nikon
to offer 720p HD Video @ 24fps, with sound and in-camera trimming. The buffer
on the D3S can handle up to 48 RAW files or up to 130 large JPEGs at burst-rates
up to 9 frames per second (11 frames per second in DX-format). In addition to
the D3S's moisture and dust seals, the D3S is also
protected against electromagnetic interference when shooting via remote
control, and an advanced Dust-Reduction System addresses any stray dust
particles that do manage to sneak by.
the trend of squeezing ever-so-more pixels into the same 24x36mm image area,
the D3S contains a sensor that contains about half the number of pixels found
in most other pro-caliper DSLRs (including the 24.5Mp Nikon
D3x), but they are larger pixels
capable of capturing a much wider breadth of dynamic range. The resulting
images are rich in color, and contain noticeably more detail in the shadow and
highlight areas. Low-light shooters will also appreciate the shadow-piercing
abilities of the Nikon D3S. Starting at a native ISO 200, the D3S offers
low-light shooters the option of tweaking the ISO as high as a very-usable ISO
102,400, which is about 7 times more sensitive than the human eye. (And yes,
the picture quality is downright astounding at the highest ISO settings)
Metering on the D3S is accurately
determined by a 1,005-pixel Nikon 3D Matrix II system. For optimizing still exposures
shot in contrasty lighting environments, the D3S features Nikon's acclaimed
D-Lighting technology, along with D-Movie for optimized video capture. The
camera's Multi-CAM 3500FX AF system is equally up to par, and features 51
focusing points with 15 cross-type sensors. Between the D3S's metering and AF
systems, you can easily say it takes a concerted effort to miss a shot with
In addition to the camera's bright
viewfinder, the D3S also features a 3", hi-res (920,000-dot) LCD with Live
View, and both the finder and LCD offer 100% of the image area.
Other features found on the D3S
include an advanced dust-reduction system, Picture Control for customizing your
shooting parameters, wireless camera control (using the optional WT-4A Wireless
Transmitter), GPS technology (using the optional GP-1 image-tagging device),
and compatibility with a wide range of Nikkor optics. There's also a Quiet mode
for firing the shutter in noise-sensitive environments; a self-diagnostic
shutter; a selection of in-camera editing tools; and for maintaining level
horizon lines, an Electronic Virtual Horizon display that enables you to
straighten your camera by simply eyeballing the LCD.
The Nikon D3S features dual CF slots,
which enable longer, uninterrupted shooting sequences, or the option of onboard
image backup on the fly. It's also worth noting that the D3S can squeeze up to
4,200 exposures out of a single battery charge.
The close cousin to the D3S
is the Nikon
and it's a dead-ringer to the new flagship model. Battle-ready body aside, the
D3x contains a 24.5Mp FX-format (full-frame) CMOS sensor and the ability to
bang out up to 5 frames per second in FX-format, or up to 7 frames per second
in DX-format. Driven by an EXPEED image processor, the D3x has an ISO range of
100-1600, and is geared towards shooters for whom resolving power and file size
are of maximum importance.
the D3S, the D3x is designed and built to take a lickin', and includes among
its features a 3" (920,000-dot)
LCD with Live View (though no video capture), an advanced Scene
Recognition System, a Virtual
Horizon Indicator, dual CF card slots, a choice of shooting JPEG, RAW,
JPEG+RAW, or TIFF files, and 14-bit A/D color conversion. Remote shooting, as
well as GPS recording, are also possible with the Nikon D3x when using the
optional WT-4A Wireless Transmitter and GP-1 image-tagging device.
available as a body only or with a Nikkor 24-120mm VR lens, steps you up to the advantages of shooting to a
full-frame (23.9x36mm) imaging sensor. Designed around Nikon's original
full-frame 12.1Mp FX-format CMOS sensor, the D700 also sports dual Live View
(hand-held or tripod mounted), a 3" (921,000-dot) LCD, a 1,005-pixel
Nikon 3D Color Matrix
Metering II system with Scene Recognition, a 51-point AF system, a top shutter speed of 1/8000th-sec
(1/250th/1/320th flash sync), a TTL pop-up flash,and burst-rates up to 5 frames per second (or
8 frames per second in DX-format).
the D700 has an HDMI Video port for playing back images on
your HDTV, and ISO sensitivity up to ISO 6400 (expandable to ISO 25,600) in a
solid, dust- and water-resistant magnesium-alloy body. The D700 records images
onto Type I & II CompactFlash cards.
When used with Nikon DX-format optics, the D3S, D3X, and D700 automatically
crop the image to the smaller live area, which is clearly masked in the
viewfinder to enable shooting accurately-framed imagery in the APS-C format.
|Canon EOS 5D Mark II
||Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III
||Canon EOS 1D Mark IV
Starting with the
top-of-the-EOS line Canon
EOS-1Ds Mk III, Canon's EOS 1D-series cameras (like Nikon's
D3-series cameras ) are about as serious as it gets when it comes to tough,
quick, and nimble imaging machines. Beneath the 1Ds Mark III's silicon-sealed
magnesium-alloy body armor resides a full-frame 21.1Mp CMOS sensor, which is
driven by dual DIGIC III image processors.
The 1DS Mk III is capable of
capturing up to 5 frames per second in the form of JPEGs, RAW, sRAW (a space-conscious,
uncompressed 5.2Mp format), RAW+JPEG, or sRAW+JPEG. The Mk III's buffer can
handle up to 12 consecutive RAW files, or up to 56 full-res JPEGs. Though not
video-enabled, the 1Ds Mk III features Live View, a total of 57 Custom
Functions, 45 focusing points (including 19 cross-type points and 26 Assist AF
points), an advanced Dust Reduction system, and 14-bit A/D conversions for
robust image files.
If speed and agility are
important to you, the Canon
EOS-1D Mark lV is well worth a close look. Designed around
a 16.1Mp APS-H format CMOS sensor (27.9x18.6mm, 1.3x), the EOS-1D Mk IV employs
dual DIGIC 4 image processors that enable continuous shooting at speeds up to
10 frames per second at full resolution for up to 121 JPEG images, 28 RAW, or
20 RAW+JPEG combos. And sports and low-light shooters will kvel over the
ability to push ISO sensitivities up to a nose-bleeding high of 102,400. It's
not an exaggeration to say the Canon EOD-1D Mk IV enables you to shoot stills
and HD 1080p video in near-total darkness.
The 1D-Mk IV's shooting abilities
are further advanced through the use of a 45-point AF system (including a
notable 39 cross-type AF points!) that allows you to select specific AF points
manually or automatically. Once established, designated AF points are
maintained when switching back and forth between horizontal and vertical
shooting positions. Along with the camera's bright reflex viewing system, you
also have the choice of composing and reviewing images on the camera's
3.0" (920,000-dot) Clear View II LCD, both of which offer 100% viewing
If the type ofwork you do requires remote firing of your
camera, you'll certainly be interested in the optional WFT-E2 IIA* Wireless
File Transmitter, which enables full functionality complete with Remote Live
View for remote, hands-free shooting using any number of hand-held devices. The
WFT-E2 IIA* Wireless File Transmitter also makes itpossible to remotely fire up to 10 'slave'
cameras via wireless LAN.
For even illumination across the frame
and minimal falloff towards the edges of your image files, the EOS- 1D Mk IV
features a Lens Peripheral Illumination Correction function that corrects light
falloff based on pre-registered data for about 40 Canon lenses. Though better
results can be obtained if you run this function post-capture using Canon's DDP
software, about 70% of the same results can also be obtained by running this
Other features found on the Canon
include Selectable Video Exposure and frame rates, a Self-Cleaning Sensor, a
63-zone TTL metering system, up to 1/300th-second flash sync, a
Silent Shutter mode for shooting in sound-sensitive environments, and stereo
sound (via optional external mic).
The Canon EOS 5D Mark II,
the first DSLR to offer 1080p HD video, is
available as a body only,
or with a 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens. It features a full-frame (24x36mm) 21.1Mp
CMOS sensor, and can capture strikingly-sharp 1080p HD video. Other features
include a Live View mode with Quick, Live, and Face Detection AF modes, a 3.9
frames-per-second burst rate, a top shutter speed of 1/8000th (flash
1/200th), and a 3" (920,000-dot) Clear View LCD. Images can be
recorded onto Type I & II CompactFlash (CF) cards as JPEGs, RAW, RAW+JPEG,
as well as compressed sRAW1, and sRAW2 file formats.
The AF system on the 5D Mark II contains 9 AF
points (1 cross type) and 6 AF-assist points. ISO ranges on the 5D Mark II
range from a native ISO 100 through 6400
(expandable to ISO 12,800) and shutter speeds go upwards of 1/8000th
(flash sync 1/200th). The 5D Mark II is constructed from rugged
magnesium alloy and is shock-, dust-, and weather-resistant.
Sony produces 2
similar-yet-different full-frame DSLRs, the Sony
Alpha a900 and Sony
Alpha a850. Both of these cameras contain a 24.6Mp Sony EXMOR CMOS
sensor, dual BIONZ image processors, a 3" (921,000-dot) XTRA Fine LCD,
weatherproof magnesium-alloy construction, a Dynamic Range Optimizer
(Adjustable DRO) for maximizing shadow and highlight details, and SteadySHOT
INSIDE in-camera image stabilization, which enables smoother sailing with all
Sony and Minolta AF-mount lenses.
Along with dual image
processors, both cameras also feature dual memory cards slots (CF Type I &
II and MemoryStick Duo) and the ability to shoot JPEG sequences limited solely
by the capacity of the memory cards.
The key differences between
the cameras include burst-rates (5 frames per second for the a900 and 3 frames
per second with the a850), frame coverage (100% on the a900, and about 98% on
the a850), and in the case of the a850, the bragging rights for being the first
pro-quality DSLR with a price tag under $2000. Both cameras also accept
the optional VB-C90AM battery grip.
Some of the cooler features
found on both of these full-frame Alpha DSLRs include an Intelligent Preview
function, which allows you to preview on the camera's LCD any in-camera
adjustments you make to color, contrast, white balance, or exposure. There are
also 13 Image Styles, designed to automatically set proper exposure and color
responses for a variety of shooting scenarios. If you plan on using a Sony
HVL-F58AM Speedlight, both cameras also enable advanced lighting effects for
greater creative results.
Along with being fully
compatible with all Sony and Minolta AF-mount optics, both the Alpha a850 and
a900 can also be used with all of the premium G-series Sony optics (plus 2
teleconverters), as well as 5 Carl Zeiss
optics made specifically for Sony Alpha-series cameras
Long the gold standard for
medium-format film shooters, Hasselblad continues maintaining its standing in
the pro world through its digital-ready H-series cameras. Available in 3
flavors, 31Mp, 39Mp,
the modular H3D Hasselblad takes digital capture to the limits of current
digital technologies. And though physically larger than pro-level 35mm DSLRs,
the basic Hasselblad H3DII-31 SLR Digital Camera Kit with 80mm Lensactually
weighs less than a similarly-equipped Nikon D3-series or Canon 1D-series DSLR.
Available as body-only or as a kit with an 80mm normal
lens, Hasselblad's H-series cameras are designed for use indoors and out, and
should feel comfortable in the hands of anyone who has experience with a 35mm
DSLR. The menus and camera controls are laid out in a similar fashion, and
ergonomically, it's a well-balanced work tool. If electronic flash is part and parcel
of your usual workflow, the flash sync on H-series 'Hassy's' is a quick 1/800th-second,
which—depending on the make and model of your flash system—can be faster than
the duration of your actual flash exposures. (Be forewarned on this one!) The
ISO levels on H-series Hasselblads range from a finely-detailed ISO 50 through
ISO 800 (expandable to ISO 1600 in the H3DII-31).
The TTL prism on the H3D is removable without sacrificing
the metering system, and there's a waist-level finder that makes shooting from
ground level or a high vantage point much easier, albeit only in horizontal
mode. Like advanced 35's, the Hasselblad H3D can be customized to fit your
personal shooting style, and optically, Hasselblad offers an extensive line of
Fuji-designed AF optics ranging from well-corrected wide-angle lenses (28mm/f4
through fast telephotos (100mm/2.2
. Hasselblad also offers a superb macro lens (120mm/4
and 2 zooms (35-90/4.5-5.6
HCD Aspherical and 50-110/3.5-4.5
And to better ensure edge-to-edge image sharpness, Hasselblad H-cameras feature
automatic correction for chromatic aberrations, distortions, and vignetting.
All H-cameras feature a 3" LCD, and the option of
shooting to CF cards or Hasselblad's larger-capacity Image Bank II. Images are
captured tethered or un-tethered in the form of 16-bit 3FR (RAW) or DNG files,
as well as TIFFs at up to 1.2 frames per second.
H3DII-31 is available as a kit only and contains a 'smaller' 31Mp
CCD sensor that measures 33x44mm (and a 1.3x crop factor with all Hasselblad HC
lenses). The H3DII-39 (39Mp, body-only or kit)
and H3DII-50 (50Mp, body-only or
form with an 80mm lens ) both contain sensors measuring
36.8x49.1mm. The H3DII-39 can capture images at up to 1.4 images per second,
and the H3DII-50 can capture images at up to 1.1 images per second.
DM-series cameras are particularly affordable options for
gaining entry into the world of medium-format imaging starting with the Mamiya
DM-28 digital back, which is compatible with Mamiya's 645AFD,
645AFDIII, and 645DF camera systems. The DM-28 contains a 28Mp, 44x33mm CCD
sensor that pumps out 16-bit image files, which can be recorded to CF memory
cards or to your computer via FireWire connection. When not shooting tethered,
images can be viewed and edited using the DM-28's large, easy-to-read 6x7cm
LCD, which features touchscreen menu controls.
If you need higher resolving
power, you can also look into the Mamiya
DM33 digital back (48x36mm, 33Mp) and Mamiya
DM56 digital back (56x36mm, 56Mp), which can be set to ISO
ranges of 50-800 and 80-800 respectively. It should be noted each of these
capture backs can be fitted to Mamiya RZ/RB, as well as many 4x5-format cameras
via adapter plates (optional).
If you're looking for a
complete kit (camera, back, and lens) you can order the Mamiya
DM33 Digital camera system, which includes a Mamiya 645AFCIII
body, an 80mm/2.8 lens, and a 33Mp (48x36mm) capture back with an ISO range of
50 through ISO 800.
As for optics, Mamiya offers
an extensive selection of glass, including zooms, macros, ultra-wides, and
telephotos. For studio shooters, Mamiya recently announced a series of
leaf-shutter optics (55mm/2.8, 80mm/2.8, and 110mm/2.8) that enable flash sync
at shutter-speeds up to 1/1600th-second.
For running the show, each
of these capture backs comes with Capture One and Leaf Capture software. Image
files from the DM-28 can also be processed in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop
As you read this, we expect
to start seeing the first of the long-awaited Leica
Featuring a 37.5Mp (30x45mm) CCD imaging sensor, the Leica S2 is a breakaway
design concept from one of the most respected names in the business.
Designed for use in the
studio or on location, the S2 is as elegantly and functionally Teutonic as
Leica's classic M-series cameras. As large as it seems, it actually fits quite
securely in the hand, is well balanced, and is actually smaller than some of the
full-sized 35mm-based DSLRs. The camera body is constructed from die-cast
magnesium-alloy, and is heavily sealed against the elements.
ISO ranges can be set from a
native 80 to a high of 1250. Shutter-speeds range from 32 seconds to 1/4000th-second,
and the top flash sync is 1/125th-second with the standard S2
lenses, and up to 1/500th-second when using any of the optional
S-series leaf-shutter lenses available for the S2. (A high-speed sync (HSS) of
1/4000th-second is possible when using a Leica SF-58 TTL flash)
The S2's bright optical
finder allows for approximately 96% of the total image field, while the
camera's 3" (460,000-dot) TFT LCD allows for 100% viewing of the total image
area. Images—JPEG or DNG (RAW)—can be captured at speeds up to 1.5 images per
second and can be recorded to both SD and CF memory cards. To facilitate a
quick workflow, the S2 has a 1-gig buffer to juggle files as they pass through
the S2's MAESTRO image processor.
Aside from the
aforementioned leaf-shutter lenses, Leica is also rolling out an extensive
line-up of S-series lenses, including a 35mm
ASPH wide-angle, a 120mm
APO macro, and 180mm
APO portrait lens.