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Pro-Level DSLRs

The 2009 B&H Holiday Buyers Guide

By Allan Weitz

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 possibilities.

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 disciplined trigger-finger.

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.

Structural 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.

The less-expensive 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 consumer-level DSLRs.

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?

Sensor 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 DSLRs.

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 technologies.


Nikon D700 Nikon D3x  Nikon D3S

Nikon's D3S 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.

Bucking 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 this camera.

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 D3x, 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.

Like 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.

The Nikon D700, 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).

Additionally 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.

Note: 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 area.

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 function in-camera.

Other features found on the Canon EOS-1D MkIV 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.

Sony Alpha a900 Sony Alpha a850

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, and 50Mp, 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 , 35mm/3.5 HC, & 50mm/3.5 HC) through fast telephotos (100mm/2.2 HC, 150mm/3.2 HC, 210mm/4 HC, and  300mm/4.5 HC) . Hasselblad also offers a superb macro lens (120mm/4 HC) and 2 zooms (35-90/4.5-5.6 HCD Aspherical and 50-110/3.5-4.5 HC). 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.

The Hasselblad 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 in kit 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.


Mamiya's 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 (both optional).

Leica S2

As you read this, we expect to start seeing the first of the long-awaited Leica S2's. 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.

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