When we last looked at full-frame D-SLRs, there were four models. In the ensuing months, one of those was replaced, and two new ones were added, giving us six of these high-tech super-cameras today. As long as there have been D-SLRs, OP readers have been keenly interested in full-frame models. The early models were priced out of reach for the vast majority of us, but as technology marches forward, the costs of that technology consistently come down. Instead of two models listing at more than $6,000, prices today begin comfortably at less than half that amount.
When we’re talking about full-frame D-SLRs, we’re referring to those models with image sensors the size of a full 35mm film frame. The cameras offer a number of advantages to the outdoor photographer: Their big sensors have room for more and/or larger pixels than the popular APS-C-sensor D-SLRs, which in turn, means better image quality for those epic landscapes and macro detail shots. Because the sensors are the same size as a standard 35mm image frame, any lens used on a full-frame D-SLR will frame just as it does on a 35mm film SLR—great for wide-angle fans and those transitioning to digital from 35mm film. The full-frame D-SLRs are rugged and easy to carry into the field, and offer excellent AF performance and shooting speed, making them very well suited for wildlife photography—even birds in flight. The drawbacks are that full-frame D-SLRs cost more and are bulkier than their smaller-sensor counterparts, and don’t provide the focal-length boost enjoyed by wildlife photographers who use the smaller-sensor cameras.
Today we can choose among six full-frame models, with prices starting well under $3,000. Two have 12.1-megapixel sensors. These feature large pixels (the actual photodiodes are comparatively larger than those found on most other D-SLRs) that deliver dazzling high-ISO performance. The other four models feature 21+ megapixels each, enough resolution to handle many tasks that previously required medium-format D-SLRs. (Note: There are D-SLRs based on medium-format cameras that have sensors around twice the size of the full-frame D-SLR sensors we’re addressing in this article, and those models have pixel counts and prices to match—the top 60.5-megapixel model sells for around $45,000.) All in all, the six current full-frame D-SLRs are perhaps the most versatile outdoor photography cameras extant, able to handle everything from landscapes to wildlife action with professional aplomb.
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
Besides superb image quality, the EOS-1Ds Mark III offers Canon’s best pro D-SLR body and AF and metering systems. Canon EOS-1-series bodies have earned a well-deserved reputation for ruggedness and dependability in harsh field conditions, and the Mark III is no exception. Add the Speedlite 580EX II and a pro L-series lens, and you have a whole system that can stand up to the most challenging conditions.
AF performance is excellent, and the camera’s Live View mode provides a large image to examine for careful landscape and macro compositions (and precise manual focusing on a much magnified image). You even can send the live image to a laptop computer and control the camera from there, via provided Canon EOS Utility software. Note that the Mark III doesn’t provide autofocusing in Live View mode, while the newer EOS 5D Mark II provides three Live View AF modes.
There are slots for CompactFlash (UDMA-compliant) and SD/SDHC memory cards, and you can record the same image to both, a RAW image to one and a JPEG to the other, or other combinations. You even can record images to compatible external hard drives.
The EOS-1Ds Mark III was the first full-frame D-SLR to provide built-in sensor-dust removal, employing ultrasonic vibrations to shake dust off the low-pass filter over the sensor assembly. This is a useful feature for photographers who change lenses frequently in field conditions. The battery capacity allows the Mark III to capture up to 1,800 images per charge. This can be an important consideration when you’re on an extended shooting trip in the field. Estimated Street Price: $6,999. Contact: Canon USA, www.usa.canon.com.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Canon’s original EOS 5D was the first “affordable” full-frame D-SLR, debuting in October 2005 at a price less than half that of the EOS-1Ds Mark II, the only other full-frame model in production at the time. The 12.8-megapixel 5D featured terrific image quality, thanks in part to its big 8.2-micron pixels, and was so popular that Canon didn’t replace it until three years later—an eternity, in D-SLR terms.
The new EOS 5D Mark II tops its predecessor in almost every way. The new camera features essentially the same 21.1-megapixel resolution as the top-of-the-line EOS-1Ds Mark III, a 3.0-inch, 920,000-dot LCD monitor (vs. a 2.5-inch, 230,000-dot LCD on the original 5D), Live View capability with three AF modes (no Live View on the original 5D, and no AF in Live View with the EOS-1Ds Mark III), a built-in sensor-dust remover and more—yet the Mark II still lists for less than any other full-frame D-SLR.
The EOS 5D Mark II also is the only full-frame D-SLR to provide video capability—and full-HD 1080p video, at that. While it doesn’t feature all the capabilities of a full-fledged HD camcorder, the Mark II can turn out high-quality video—up to 4 GB worth (about 12 minutes of HD, or 24 minutes of standard 640x480 video). A built-in mono microphone records sound, and you can get stereo sound by plugging a third-party stereo mic into the camera’s mic jack.
The EOS 5D Mark II has a new DIGIC 4 processor that’s more powerful than the dual DIGIC IIIs used in the EOS-1Ds Mark III, a much higher-resolution LCD monitor, Live View AF capability, even better image quality, a much higher ISO range (100-6400 normal vs. 100-1600 for the Mark III, extendable to ISO 25,600 on the 5D Mark II vs. 3200 for the Mark III) and, of course, that HD video capability. The EOS 5D Mark II has more useful small-RAW capability, adding a 9.9-megapixel option to the Mark III’s 5.2-megapixel sRAW resolution. Also, the Mark II uses the same AF and metering systems as the original EOS 5D. Estimated Street Price: $2,699. Contact: Canon USA, www.usa.canon.com.
Nikon’s first full-frame D-SLR, the D3 offers terrific image quality and performance at amazingly high ISO settings. While image quality with any digital camera will be better toward the lower end of the ISO range, the D3’s ISO 6400 images are excellent—and you can go all the way to ISO 25,600 if necessary. This incredible high-ISO performance is enabled by the large pixels made possible by the relatively low pixel count (12.1 megapixels) on the big, full-frame sensor.
The super-quick AF system responds beautifully. Its Group Dynamic AF with focus tracking is ideal for fast-moving wildlife, and spot AF (your choice of 51 points) works well for subjects against busy backgrounds. The 1005-pixel 3D Color Matrix II metering system also is excellent. The D3 starts up in 0.12 seconds and has a minimal 37ms shutter lag time—both D-SLR bests. The camera is made to catch the action!
Both landscape and macro shooters will love the camera’s Live View capability, which offers a Handheld mode (with quick 51-area phase-detection AF) for easy odd-angle shooting, as well as a Tripod mode (with contrast-based AF off a desired point within a specific area and no disruption of the live image during focusing). The Nikon D3 also offers precise manual focusing via a highly magnified live image on the outstanding 3.0-inch, 920,000-dot LCD monitor.
As a pro-level Nikon D-SLR, the D3 continues the tradition of super-rugged construction, with excellent sealing against the elements and a shutter tested to 300,000 cycles. The battery provides up to 4,300 shots per charge, and the camera can use all AF Nikkor lenses, automatically switching to cropped DX mode when a DX-format lens is attached. Estimated Street Price: $4,399. Contact: Nikon, www.nikonusa.com.
The D700 features essentially the same sensor, ISO range and image quality as the D3 in a lighter, more compact and less costly package. It also uses the same AF and metering systems, and is a great choice for the outdoor photographer who wants to travel light or is on a tighter budget.
Besides the smaller, slightly less-rugged body, differences with the D3 include no 5:4 format (the D3 and D3X can shoot images in 5:4 “magazine cover” format; with the D700, you’ll have to crop your cover shots yourself), a viewfinder that shows about 95 percent of the actual image area (the D3 and D3X show approximately 100 percent) and a maximum shooting rate of 5 fps (up to 8 fps with the optional MB-D10 Multi-Power Battery Pack) versus 9 fps for the D3. The D700 has a convenient built-in manual pop-up flash unit (neither the D3 nor the D3X has one), as well as a useful self-cleaning image sensor (also absent on the D3 and D3X) that uses four different resonance frequencies to remove dust from the low-pass filter that covers the sensor.
Like the D3 and D3X, the D700 features a 3.0-inch, 920,000-dot LCD monitor with Handheld and Tripod AF modes and an Electronic Virtual Horizon that makes it easy to level the horizon in landscapes. The D700’s battery is the same as the one in the D300, and the D700 gets up to 1,000 shots per charge per the CIPA measurement standard. The shutter is tested to 150,000 cycles.
The D700 is sure to be a huge hit with nature photographers for its combination of a robust feature set and a reasonable price. Because it has so much in common with the D3, many will inevitably think of the D700 as the little sibling, but the fact is that the D700 has an identity all its own. Estimated Street Price: $2,499. Contact: Nikon, www.nikonusa.com.
The D3X has arrived and answered the critics of the D3’s less aggressive 12.1-megapixel resolution. Essentially a D3 with double the resolution, the D3X features an impressive 24.5-megapixel CMOS sensor, which is similar to the one in Sony’s A900, but with a number of Nikon tweaks, including 14-bit A/D conversion, which gave it the highest rating ever in DxO Labs’ DxOMark RAW sensor performance ratings.
The much larger file sizes do slow down shooting a bit, and the D3X has a top firing rate of 5 fps (7 fps in cropped DX mode) versus 9 fps (11 fps in cropped DX mode) for the D3—still plenty fast for all but the most specialized action photography. One side benefit of the greater megapixel count is that the D3X’s cropped DX images are 10.5 megapixels versus 5.1 megapixels for the D3’s, meaning you can have 24.5 megapixels when you need them, and still have a very respectable pixel count with the 1.5x DX crop factor when you need that for distant wildlife shots. (Of course, if you’re using a non-DX lens, you’ll have to apply the crop yourself when processing the image. And you can’t shoot full-frame with a DX lens, but you can use your DX lenses.)
The other major difference between the D3X and D3 is the ISO range. Because it has much smaller pixels, the D3X has a lower ISO range—100-1600 normal, expandable to 50 on the low end and up to 6400 on the high end, compared to the D3’s normal range of 200-6400, expandable to 100 and 25,600. If much of your shooting requires very high ISO settings, the D3 might be a better choice; if you rarely go above 1600, the D3X will give you outstanding image quality. Of course, if you need to make huge prints or you think you’ll be cropping your images frequently, the D3X’s 24.5 megapixels are a huge advantage.
Surprisingly, the D3X manages to eke more shots per charge out of the same battery despite its larger file sizes and requires greater processing power—an amazing 4,400, per the CIPA measurement standard, versus 4,300 for the D3.
So, here’s a super-rugged camera with excellent AF performance and priced just under $8,000. Not for everybody, but certainly a great camera for all outdoor photography. Estimated Street Price: $7,999. Contact: Nikon, www.nikonusa.com.
Sony’s first full-frame model, the A900 features a Sony-produced, 24.6-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor in a rugged, no-nonsense pro body for just under $3,000 (Sony calls it 24.6 megapixels; the images actually measure 6048x4032 pixels, or 24.386 megapixels—in any event, that’s a lot of pixels).
As one would expect from a 24-megapixel camera, image quality is excellent at the lower ISO settings. Dual Sony Bionz image processors contribute to both image quality and operating speed. AF performance was good with the Zeiss 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 zoom provided with our test camera, but we couldn’t evaluate super-tele AF performance for want of a long lens.
Probably the simplest full-frame D-SLR to use, the A900 offers straightforward controls and intuitive operation. The bright pentaprism viewfinder shows 100 percent of the actual image area for accurate framing. The 3.0-inch, 921,000-dot LCD monitor is excellent. Slots for CompactFlash cards and Sony Memory Stick Duo/PRO media are provided.
Sony’s five-step Advanced Dynamic Range Optimizer is quite effective with high-contrast scenes, and the 40-segment honeycomb metering performed very well in our test camera.
The A900 is the only full-frame D-SLR with built-in image stabilization. Canon and Nikon offer lenses with stabilization (Canon IS models, Nikon VR models), but you need those lenses to get stabilization. Sony’s SteadyShot INSIDE sensor-shift system works with all lenses; the drawback is that it stabilizes only the recorded image, not what you see in the viewfinder. But it’s still a great feature, providing sharper handheld shots at all focal lengths. The A900 also includes a mechanism that shakes dust off the image sensor—a vital feature for a full-frame D-SLR.
The A900 is the only current full-frame D-SLR that doesn’t provide Live View shooting. It does provide an Intelligent Preview feature, however, which lets you check the effects of exposure value, shutter speed, aperture, white balance and Dynamic Range Optimizer before you take a shot. Estimated Street Price: $2,999. Contact: Sony, www.sonystyle.com.
It’s not a coincidence that the top six spots in DxO Labs’ DxOMark RAW sensor performance ratings are occupied by the six current full-frame D-SLRs. Big sensors provide room for more and/or bigger pixels, both of which enhance image quality. (You can see the full list and explanations of how the ratings were determined at www.dxomark.com.)
The highest-resolution APS-C camera is 15.1 megapixels, while four of the six full-frame models provide more than 21 megapixels. And the largest pixels on a current D-SLR are found on the two 12-megapixel full-frame models—along with the best high-ISO performance. The full-frame D-SLRs definitely are the image-quality kings.
With full-frame D-SLRs, you get more than just top image quality and easy wide-angle capability. Full-frame D-SLRs tend to be rugged cameras well suited to the rigors of outdoor photography. Four of the full-frame D-SLRs are all-out pro models designed for hard pro use, and the other two are more rugged than most midrange D-SLR models.
If you work in tough outdoor conditions, these are cameras you can count on. Full-frame sensors require more powerful processors, and those more powerful processors also mean quicker autofocusing and better metering performance. For example, while Nikon’s midlevel D300 offers the same AF and metering features as the D3X, D3 and D700, the full-frame models’ more powerful processors provide quicker AF performance and faster metering calculations. Canon’s EOS-1Ds Mark III employs 45 AF points vs. 9 for Canon’s midrange D-SLRs, plus 60-zone metering (vs. 35-zone), while its dual DIGIC III processors provide faster performance with these more elaborate systems. Likewise, Sony’s A900 employs dual Sony Bionz processors to speed operation vs. a single Bionz unit in the midlevel A700. Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II has the same AF system as its predecessor and essentially the same 35-zone metering system as Canon’s midrange models, but its DIGIC 4 processor improves performance. The Canon, Nikon and Sony midrange D-SLRs offer excellent performance, but the full-frame models are better.