Professional Photographer Magazine Web Exclusives

Roundup: High-end Digital SLRs

It takes more than megapixels to distinguish a camera in the field of high-end digital SLRs. Find out what the current crop has to offer.

By Ron Eggers

The digital single lens reflex market continues to expand as new companies enter the ring and the established vendors release new models. But changes are coming more slowly now. Resolution isn't nearly the crucial issue it has been. The emphasis now is on speed and quality.

Maximum resolution for DSLRs has hit a plateau, crowned by the 16-megapixel Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II. The rumored 22-megapixel Canon DSLR remains a rumor; instead, Canon released the EOS-1D Mark III, with a 10.1-megapixel sensor, Integrated Cleaning System, 100 percent viewfinder, 45-point AF and support for Live View technology. 

At one point, Olympus was about the only company making DSLRs with live view, giving photographers the option to compose images on the LCD rather than in the viewfinder. Now Canon and Fujifilm also make live-view DSLRs.

Prices on all digital SLRs are dropping, with some entry-level DSLRs selling for as little as $500. The new Canon Mark III comes with a price tag of $4,495.

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The Canon EOS-1D Mark III (above) is Canon’s first to support live view. This totally redesigned camera comes with a low-noise CMOS sensor. It has sophisticated Digic III image processing, which speeds image throughput, lowers electronic noise and yields higher quality images. It actually has two image processors, significantly enhancing shooting and writing speed, and a  separate AF processing unit for faster focusing response. RAW images are captured in 14-bit color, and analogue-to-digital conversion is done at the full 14 bits rather than 12.

The standard ISO range, 100-3200, can be extended through special functions to 50-6400. According to Canon, the Mark III is particularly effective at shooting at high ISO settings with no image degradation due to electronic noise.

Like the other Mark models, it's fast—rated to capture up to 10 frames per second (fps) at high shutter speeds. It has dual storage media slots, one for CompactFlash, one for SecureData cards. It’s got all the advanced features expected of a high-end pro camera, including 19 selectable focusing points, 63-zone metering system, 57 custom functions and multiple shooting modes. Though they've been out for awhile, Canon's two Mark II models and the 5D are still popular with pro photographers.

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The Nikon D2Xs (above), D2Hs and D200 top the Nikon DSLR line. The D2Xs is the enhanced version of the popular D2X. Capturing images in 12-bit color, it has a 12.4-megapixel DX format CMOS sensor with maximum effective resolution of 4,288x2,848 pixels. It has an ISO range of 100-800, and comes with Nikon's new 3D Color Matrix II advanced light metering system, which intelligently evaluates various elements in the composition beyond the light value. That information is then compared to an onboard database of reference images, so even difficult exposures can be quickly measured and set for dependable, consistent results.

The D2Xs has an 11-area AF system with nine cross-type AF sensors, using the Multi-CAM 2000 AF Sensor Module. Of the 11 sensors, nine are the cross type, positioned in the logical rule-of-thirds array for highly accurate focusing. All nine sensors remain active in the High-Speed Crop mode. For white balance, it has three separate sensors for highly accurate color temperature. White balance options include setting a specific Kelvin color temperature, and bracketing from two to nine frames.

With superb responsiveness, the D2Xs starts up instantly and has a mere 37ms shutter release. It can capture up to 5 maximum-resolution frames per second, 8 fps when images are captured at 6.8-megapixel resolution. It has four-channel data throughput, so it writes the captured data to the CompactFlash very quickly.

The D2Xs features a multiple exposure capability that makes it possible to create a single image from up to 10 exposures. It also has an image overlay function that merges selected RAW/NEF captures stored on the CompactFlash to create a totally new image, in-camera. The Nikon D2Xs sells for $4,245.

Designed for photojournalists and action shooters, the D2Hs has a 4.1-megapixel DX format JFET image sensor LBCAST (Lateral Buried Charge Accumulator Sensing Transistor array) that helps it maintain a burst rate of 8 fps for up to 50 consecutive images.

The Nikon D200, a professional model with a 10.2-megapixel DX-format CCD, has an11-area autofocus system and Nikon’s advanced image processing engine.

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The Fujifilm FinePix S5 Pro (above) with Nikon F-mount lens compatibility is a solid piece of professional gear. The FinePix S5 Pro features Fujifilm-proprietary Super CCD technology, in which the sensor captures both S-pixels and R-pixels simultaneously. There are only 6.17 million sensor positions, yet the sensor has effective resolution of 12.34 megapixels.

Another enhancement in the new S5 Pro is the RP (real photo) Processor Pro. Its two-cycle post-image processing is designed to reduce electronic noise, resulting in a wider dynamic range, smoother gradients and more natural looking colors. It has a broad ISO range of 100 to 3200.

The S5 Pro is rated to shoot at 3 fps. It has multiple focusing modes with 11 selectable focusing areas. Focusing is handled through a precise TTL phase detection system with an assist light for low-light. It supports live view, displaying the image for 30 seconds on the LCD for framing. The S5 sells for $1,900.
Fujifilm has also released a modified version of the FinePix S3, the FinePix S3 Pro UVIR, designed to capture ultraviolet and infrared images.

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Leica was slow to enter the pro digital arena, but its Leica Digilux 3 (above) is an interesting camera. The stylish silver and black retro design is in keeping with the traditional look of Leica's film cameras, and it's the first model in the Digilux line that takes interchangeable lenses. It has a four-thirds format bayonet mount and comes paired with a Leica D Vario-Elmarit f/2.8-3.5 14-50mm ASPH lens with built-in image stabilization for low light shooting.

The Digilux 3 has a 7.4-megapixel LiveMOS sensor and is able to shoot in three different aspect ratios: 4:3, 3:2 and 16:9. In 4:3 format it has maximum resolution of 3,136x2,352; in 3:2 format, 3,136x2,080; in 16:9 format, 3,136x1,760. The Digilux 3 can shoot up to 3 fps in a burst up to 6 frames when shooting in the RAW format. The ISO range is 100 to 1600, and the shutter speed extends from 60 seconds to 1/4,000 second. It also has live view preview capability. In the live view mode, it supports 256-zone metering; when framing with the viewfinder, it uses a 49-zone metering system.

The Digilux 3 has precise white balance controls, including manual Kelvin setting, and a special adjustment that lets you set color bias for fine-tuning color temperature. The Leica Digilux 3 Kit with lens sells for about $2,500.

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Sigma is primarily a maker of affordable high-quality lenses that fit other  company’s camera bodies, but it also makes cameras. It had 35mm SLRs on the market and has introduced several digital models. The Sigma SD14 is the second highest resolution camera available. Its Foveon X3 direct image sensor is unique because it captures not one, but three pixels of data per pixel position. With only 2,652x1,768 effective pixel positions, it can still take a 14-megapixel image. Because of the way different wavelengths of light pass through silicon, the chip can capture individual RGB values at different depths.

Sigma SD14 ISO settings range from 100 to 800, with 1600 available in the Extended Mode. It can capture images at maximum resolution at 3 fps, up to 6 frames. Like most pro models, it can capture images in the RAW format, and it writes images to CompactFlash.

The SD14 features the TTL Phase Difference Detection system with five focusing points, selected automatically or manually. For light readings, it uses an eight-segment TTL full-aperture metering system with evaluative, center and center-weighted metering options. Evaluative metering reads all eight segments for even exposure calculation across the frame. White balance includes a standard setting and a custom option. When used with 35mm lenses, the SD14 has a 1.7X coverage conversion factor. It lists for $1,599.

Now that pro DSLR resolution capacity can meet most any output requirement, the technology is likely to expand in other ways, including enhanced image stabilization and noise reduction, a wider dynamic range, and faster capture and processing speed.

Despite Canon's denials, the company probably is developing a 22-megapixel model. To stay competitive, it’s likely that Nikon is also looking into ways to boost the resolution and capture rate of its DSLRs. Olympus, which hasn't released a pro DSLR since the E-1, has reaffirmed its commitment to the pro market and showed a prototype of its next professional release earlier in the year.

A second DSLR overview installment, to be published next month in the Web Exclusives, will cover entry-level DSLR models.