The Year Of Full-Frame DSLRs

The landscape for nature photographers who are in the market for a full-frame DSLR has never been richer
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Landscape photographers, in particular, have some very good reasons for adopting a full-frame workflow. While action and wildlife shooters get some specific benefits from APS-C DSLRs, the full-frame models let us exploit the wide-angle end of the spectrum, and when image quality is of paramount importance, nothing beats a full-frame camera.

If we look at most of the camera manufacturers' lineups in tiers, tier one would be the entry-level DSLRs for under $1,000 and tier three would be the very top-of-the-line models that routinely cost more than $5,000. In between are the cameras that most photo enthusiasts use, like the readers of Outdoor Photographer. That middle tier has some advanced APS-C-sensor cameras, as well as some key full-frame models. The full-frame models are a bit like pure sports cars. They don't have a lot of the über-pro features of the tier-three super-cameras, but like Han Solo says about the Millennium Falcon, they've got it where it counts: the sensor.

For landscape shooters, full-frame cameras offer the very best image quality. In the tier-two price points, you'll sacrifice a certain amount of speed, buffer size and exotic construction materials, but are those aspects of the camera all that important to you? A photojournalist working in a combat zone can make good use of unlimited high-speed burst rates and ultradurable alloys and composites, but landscape photography is generally much more tame.

The three cameras we spotlight in this article represent the pinnacle of DSLRs for nature photographers. They aren't especially cheap, nor are they crazy-expensive. They're all famous for image quality and versatility. They have incredible low-light capabilities, and they can shoot cinematic-quality HD video. In short, these are the ultimate cameras for many OP readers: the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, the Nikon D800/800E and the Sony SLT-A99.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III

Canon's EOS 5D Mark II started the pro HDSLR craze, and the EOS 5D Mark III is a better camera in all areas.

New 22.3-Megapixel CMOS Sensor
One megapixel doesn't seem like a lot, but the 5D Mark III's new 22.3-megapixel full-frame Canon CMOS sensor provides better image quality than its predecessor's 21.1-megapixel unit at all ISO settings. The 5D Mark III has a normal ISO range of 100-25,600, expandable to 50-102,400, and we found 25,600 to be quite usable when needed with our 5D Mark III test camera.

New AF System
One of the main gripes about the EOS 5D Mark II was its "old" AF system. The Mark III fixes that, using the same 61-point high-density reticular AF system as the new flagship pro EOS-1D X—the most sophisticated SLR AF system Canon has ever released. It works in light levels as dim as EV -2, uses the same high-performance AI Servo III AF tracking algorithm as the EOS-1D X and can be configured in a number of ways to suit the shooter. The 21 central AF points serve as cross-types with apertures of ƒ/5.6 or faster—until the EOS-1D X, not even 1-series EOS cameras provided cross-type sensors at ƒ/5.6. Our 5D Mark III test camera handled birds in flight very effectively with EF 300mm ƒ/4L IS USM and EF 400mm ƒ/5.6L USM tele lenses.


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6 fps
The Mark III also improves on the Mark II's drive rate, able to shoot those big files at 6 fps. That and the new AF system make the Mark III a much better wildlife and sports-action camera than its 3.9 fps predecessor.

63-Zone Metering
Improving on the 5D Mark II's 35-zone metering system, the Mark III's 63-zone iFCL (Focus, Color and Luminance) dual layer metering system (introduced in the EOS 7D) takes into consideration brightness, color and data from each of the AF system's 61 zones to provide good exposures in a wide range of shooting situations. As implemented in the 5D Mark III, it also offers center-weighted, partial (which reads the central 7.2% of the image area) and 1.5% spot metering.

HDR Mode
A new in-camera HDR mode merges three bracketed exposures into a single image with more detail from shadows through highlights. An automatic alignment function permits you to do HDRs handheld (although we'd recommend using a tripod).

Proven Battery
EOS 5D Mark II users moving up to the Mark III will be happy to note that the new camera uses the same LP-E6 Li-ion battery—and gets even more shots per charge. This battery also powers the EOS 7D and EOS 60D, good news for upgrading users of those cameras.

Specifications

Image Sensor: 22.3-megapixel (effective) CMOS
Sensor Size: 36x24mm (full-frame)
Lens Mount: Canon EF
Image Stabilization: In IS lenses
LCD Monitor: 3.2-inch, 1,040,000-dot
Viewfinder: 100% SLR
Video: 1920x1080 at 30p/25p/24p; 1280x720 at 30p/50p; 640x480 at 30p/25p (MPEG-4 AVC/H.264)
AF System: 61-point
Shutter Speeds: 1⁄6000 to 30 sec., B; X-sync up to 1⁄200
Flash: TTL auto via external flash unit
ISO Settings: 100-25,600 in 1/3-step increments, expandable to 50-102,400
Continuous Firing Mode: 6 fps with AF for each frame
Recording Format: JPEG, 14-bit RAW, RAW + JPEG
Metering: 63-zone, CW, 7.2% partial, 1.5% spot
Storage Medium: CompactFlash and SD/SDHC/SDXC
Power Source: Rechargeable LP-E6 Li-Ion battery
Dimensions: 6.0x4.6x3.0 inches
Weight: 30.3 ounces
Estimated Street Price: $3,499 (body)
Contact: Canon, www.canonusa.com

Durable Body
The 5D Mark III is more rugged than its predecessor and better sealed against weather. The sensor-cleaning system has also been improved. The shutter still carries a 150,000-cycle rating.

Video Features
The 5D Mark III offers two compression modes: IPB (for smaller files and thus more "footage" per memory card) and ALL-I (for easier editing). It can do 1920x1080 full HD at 30p and 24p (25p PAL), 1280x720 HD at 60p (50p PAL) and 640x480 SD at 30p (25p PAL), with adjustable mono sound via a built-in microphone or stereo via an optional external mic. There's also a headphone jack. You can use AF before you start to shoot, or focus manually, but there's no continuous AF while shooting video.

Dual Memory Card Slots
The 5D Mark III can save images on CompactFlash (UDMA-compatible) and SD/SDHC/SDXC cards, thanks to two card slots.

Lens Flexibility
The 5D Mark III can use all Canon EF and TS-E lenses for both still and video shooting—more than 60 lenses, from an 8-15mm fisheye zoom and a 14mm superwide-angle to an 800mm supertele, along with 1.4X and 2X teleconverters. (EF-S lenses designed for APS-C sensors can't be used.)

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Nikon D800

Anticipated as the replacement for Nikon's D700 "economy" full-frame DSLR, the D800 instead fits in the lineup above it, with not only three times the pixel count of the D700, but better high-ISO performance as well—and costing about the same as the D700 when it came out more than four years ago.

36.3 MP Full-Frame CMOS Sensor
Of course, the big feature of the D800 is its 36.3-megapixel FX-format (full-frame) CMOS sensor—50% more pixels than any other DSLR (as of this writing), and more than some medium-format digital cameras. The full-frame images measure 7360x4912 pixels for greatly detailed landscapes and close-ups, and you still get 3600x2400 pixels in DX crop mode (automatically activated when a DX lens is attached, but also can be activated with full-frame lenses)—15.4 megapixels with a 1.5X focal-length "boost" when you want it, handy for wildlife portraits.

D4 Metering Technology
Sharing with the D4 Nikon's latest 3D Color Matrix Meter III system, the D800 features a newly designed 91,000-pixel RGB sensor that analyzes each scene and takes into consideration such things as color, brightness and subject position in the scene to optimize exposure. The meter works in conjunction with the AF system to provide face detection AF in both Live View and optical viewfinder modes.

D800E
The Bayer-filtered sensors used in most DSLRs can produce moiré (false colors) when photographing fine patterns, so most have an anti-aliasing low-pass filter on the sensor to combat that. The low-pass filter slightly blurs the image, however. When the pixel count is high enough and the pixels are small enough, the low-pass filter really isn't needed, and sharper images can be obtained without one. So Nikon offers the D800 in two versions: standard D800, with the low-pass filter; and D800E, with a special filter that cancels the anti-aliasing properties. The latter produces even sharper images and costs $300 more.

Quick AF
Like the D4, the D800 features a quick 51-point AF system (15 cross-type points) that works in light levels as low as EV -2, and it handled birds in flight very well with our AF-S 300mm ƒ/4 tele lens. And like the D4, the D800's AF system can function with lens/teleconverter combinations as slow as ƒ/8—great news for wildlife photographers.

Excellent Low-Light Capability
While conventional thinking says that high pixel counts/small pixels result in poor high-ISO performance, the D800E and D800 scored second and fourth in Low-Light/High-ISO performance in DxOMark.com's RAW sensor ratings—nicely bracketing the third-place 16-megapixel Nikon D4. (The D800E and D800 scored first and second overall in DxO's sensor rankings.)

Durable Construction
The D800 is ruggedly constructed of magnesium alloy, and sealed against dust and moisture. The shutter has been tested to 200,000 cycles. A built-in sensor cleaner helps keep the sensor dust-free, handy when changing lenses frequently in the field.

Specifications

Image Sensor: 36.3-megapixel (effective) CMOS
Sensor Size: 35.9x24.0mm (full-frame)
Lens Mount: Nikon F Image Stabilization: In VR lenses
LCD Monitor: 3.2-inch, 921,000-dot LCD
Viewfinder: 100% SLR
Video: 1920x1080 at 30p/25p/24p, 1280x720 at 60p/50p/25p
AF System: 51-point phase-detection
Shutter Speeds: 1⁄8000 to 30 sec., B; X-sync up to 1⁄250
Flash: Built-in TTL unit, plus hot-shoe and PC connector
ISO Settings: 100-6400 in 1/3-step increments, expandable to 50-25,600
Continuous Firing Mode: 4 fps
Recording Format: JPEG, 12- or 14-bit RAW, RAW + JPEG
Metering: 91,000-pixel, CW and spot
Storage Medium: CompactFlash and SD/SDHC/SDXC
Power Source: Rechargeable EN-EL15 Li-ion battery
Dimensions: 5.7x4.8x3.2 inches
Weight: 31.7 ounces
Estimated Street Price: $2,999 (D800 body); $3,299 (D800E body)
Contact: Nikon, www.nikonusa.com

Pro Video Capability
With its big full-frame sensor, the D800 provides cinematic selective-focus control, and much better low-light capability than conventional pro camcorders, and even can record uncompressed files to an external device via HDMI. You can shoot videos with the same wide range of Nikkor lenses available for still photography, with full-time contrast-based AF. The D800 can do 1920x1080 full HD video at 30p and 24p (25p PAL), and 1280x720 HD video at 60p and 30p (50p PAL), in H.264/MPEG-4 AVC (MOV) format. B-frame compression provides clip lengths up to 29 minutes, 59 seconds. A built-in mono microphone provides Linear PCM sound, and there are jacks for headphones and an external stereo mic.

Multiple Media
The D800 has slots for CompactFlash (UDMA 7-compatible) and SD/SDHC/SDXC media (UHS-I-compatible).

Lens Capability
The D800 can use virtually all Nikkor lenses, providing best performance with AF-S G and D lenses. The current line-up ranges from a 14mm superwide-angle to a 600mm supertelephoto, plus 1.4X, 1.7X and 2X teleconverters. (DX lenses designed for APS-C sensors can be used, but the camera automatically will crop to DX format when a DX lens is mounted.)

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Sony SLT-A99

The long-anticipated successor to Sony's original flagship full-frame DSLR (the DSLR-A900, introduced in 2008 and discontinued some time ago) isn't a traditional DSLR. Like the company's APS-C-format SLT cameras, the new full-frame SLT-A99 features Sony's unique TMT (Translucent Mirror Technology) concept, which replaces the DSLR's moving mirror, focusing screen and pentaprism optical viewfinder with a fixed semitranslucent mirror and an eye-level electronic viewfinder.
Translucent Mirror Technology
The Bayer-filtered sensors used in most DSLRs can produce moiré (false colors) when photographing fine patterns, so most have an anti-aliasing low-pass filter on the sensor to combat that. The low-pass filter slightly blurs the image, however. When the pixel count is high enough and the pixels are small enough, the low-pass filter really isn't needed, and sharper images can be obtained without one. So Nikon offers the D800 in two versions: standard D800, with the low-pass filter; and D800E, with a special filter that cancels the anti-aliasing properties. The latter produces even sharper images and costs $300 more.
EVF
Replacing the conventional DSLR pentaprism eye-level viewfinder with an electronic viewfinder reduces camera bulk, but the main advantage is that you get convenient eye-level viewing for both still and movie shooting. While electronic viewfinders have historically been inferior to SLR pentaprism finders, especially for low-light and action shooting, the A99 has a latest-generation XGA OLED EVF, with 2,359,000 dots of resolution and quick refresh. We haven't seen the new A99 yet, but the older EVF in Sony's previous top SLT model, the A77, let us do stills and videos of birds in flight. The EVF shows 100% of the actual image area with 0.71X magnification (50mm lens at infinity), has built-in dioptric correction from -4.0 to +3.0 (more than DSLR finders provide) and can display lots of information when you want to see it.
HD Video With Phase-Detection AF
One drawback of HDSLRs is that they have to be in Live View mode to do video, and that means using the external LCD monitor to compose and relatively slow contrast-based AF. The A99's TMT technology provides convenient eye-level viewing and full-time phase-detection AF for both still and video shooting—a tremendous advantage for wildlife videos. While the A99 wasn't available for testing at press time, we were able to do nice videos of birds in flight with last year's A77 model and the Sony 70-400mm G zoom. The A99 can do 1920x1080 full HD at 60p (also 60i and 24p) in AVCHD v2.0 format, plus 1440x1080, 1280x720 and 640x480 MP4 video at 30p, all with stereo sound via a built-in microphone or an external mic.

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Specifications

Image Sensor: 24.3-megapixel (effective) CMOS
Sensor Size: 35.8x23.9mm (full-frame)
Lens Mount: Sony A
Image Stabilization: Sensor shift in camera body
LCD Monitor: 3.0-inch, 1,229,000-dot LCD
Viewfinder: 100% XGA OLED EVF
Video: 1920x1080 at 60p/60i/24p; 1440x1080, 1280x720 and 640x480 at 30p
AF System: 19-point phase-detection
Shutter Speeds: 1⁄8000 to 30 sec., B; X-sync up to 1⁄250
Flash: TTL via hot-shoe or PC connector
ISO Settings: 100-16,000 in 1/3-step increments, expandable to 50-25,600
Continuous Firing Mode: 6 fps (7 fps APS-C))
Recording Format: JPEG, 14-bit RAW, RAW + JPEG
Metering: 1200-zone, CW and spot
Storage Medium: SD/SDHC/SDXC and Memory Stick PRO Duo and PRO-HG Duo
Power Source: Rechargeable NP-FM500H Li-ion battery
Dimensions: 5.8x4.4x3.1 inches
Weight: 25.8 ounces
Estimated Street Price: $2,800 (body only)
Contact: Sony, www.sonystyle.com

Big LCD
If you prefer to use the external LCD monitor, it's a good one, a 3.0-inch 1,229,000-dot unit with a 16:9 (HD) aspect ratio and the ability to tilt 140 degrees up, 180 degrees down, 180 degrees clockwise and 90 degrees counterclockwise—great for video, macro and odd-angle shooting. Like the EVF, the LCD can display lots of shooting information when you want it, including a digital level gauge to keep those horizons truly horizontal.

New 24.3-Megapixel CMOS Sensor
While the resolution is about the same as the DSLR-A900's, the SLT-A99's 24.3-megapixel Sony Exmor HD CMOS sensor is several generations newer. (Sony's storied 16-megapixel APS-C sensor surpassed the original A900's full-frame one in DxOMark.com's RAW sensor ratings, and that was two years ago; imagine what two more years of development has done for a larger full-frame sensor.)

Sweep Panorama
Sony's Sweep Panorama mode was introduced in point-and-shoot compact digicams, but this simple and useful feature has now made it into the flagship SLT model. Just sweep the camera across the scene, and it will take a bunch of frames and stitch them into a wide panoramic image in-camera.

6 FPS
Despite the size of 24.3-megapixel image files, the A99 can shoot full-res images at 6 fps (7 fps in APS-C crop mode) with phase-detection AF. This is plenty for lots of outdoor action, including birds in flight.

Super SteadyShot Stabilizatio
Like all Sony DSLRs, the SLT-A99 features Super SteadyShot sensor-shift image stabilization, which works with any lens you mount on the camera. All your lenses are stabilized when you use this camera.

Focus Peaking
In manual-focus mode, you can activate focus peaking, which clearly indicates where focus is in your scene or subject, especially handy for macro work and landscapes.

Auto HDR
Auto HDR automatically combines three quick bracketed exposures in-camera to create a final image with more detail from shadows through highlights. You can choose the increments (1-6 EV) or let the camera do it. DRO (Dynamic Range Optimizer) extends shadow and highlight detail in a single shot, and is also auto or adjustable.

Lenses
Like all Sony DSLR and SLT cameras, the A99 can use all Sony A-mount lenses, as well as legacy Konica Minolta Maxxum lenses. Currently, the Sony lenses range from a 16mm full-frame fisheye and a 16-35mm superwide zoom to a 500mm supertelephoto, plus 1.4X and 2X teleconverters. (DT lenses designed for APS-C sensors can be used, but will vignette.)

3 Comments

    I really like the Canon 6D compared to the price of the 5D III. One thing I wish the article said was the difference of the sensors.
    The first page talked about the 1 megapixel difference being so much better. It isn’t the amount of pixels but the remake of the better quality sensor.
    I teach in my photography classes that the size of the sensor AND the generation of the sensor are two of the biggest important quality factors in digital photography.

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