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Does Your Camera Have An Evil Twin?

What’s in a camera’s DNA? We’ll show you the features and technologies that have trickled down from the top-end models to the popular sweet-spot cameras.
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This Article Features Photo Zoom

Many camera manufacturers talk about their upper-mid-range models, those most used by nature photographers, as being inspired by the same technology as their uber-pro models. For most nature photographers, the top-end cameras aren’t practical options, however. They’re often quite expensive, tend to be large and heavy, and might be overbuilt for someone who isn’t as hard on their gear as a typical pro. Camera makers compromise by taking the most useful features from the top models and reworking them for lighter, more compact bodies. While these choices are indeed compromises, they almost always work out in favor of nature shooters like us. The trade-offs are made where we want them to be made. We get many of the benefits of technology built for the most demanding pros, but in a much more user-friendly package.

But how much of that coveted pro camera’s technology trickles down the line? We decided to make some comparisons for ourselves. For Canon and Nikon, we compared their top-end pro cameras to their advanced amateur/prosumer models. For Panasonic/Leica, Pentax/Samsung and Sony, we compared models in their lineups that are more like identical twins. Each manufacturer has cameras that are almost identical beneath the skin—the Sony A350 and A300 are identical except for their image sensors; the Sigma SD14 interchangeable-lens D-SLR and new DP1 fixed-lens compact share the same image sensor, but are otherwise completely different cameras.

Read on. You’ll get a sense of what you gain and what you miss out on between the top-end models and the more modestly priced options. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide which camera will work best for your style of shooting.

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Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III & EOS 40D
Landscape shooters love Canon’s top-of-the-line EOS-1Ds Mark III, with its 21.1-megapixel full-frame Canon CMOS sensor and superb image quality. And it can shoot those big images at 5 fps and uses the same AF system as the Canon EOS-1D Mark III action camera, so it’s very good for wildlife action, too. But it costs nearly $8,000 and weighs a ton (actually, 42.5 ounces without battery, but if you carry it all day in the field, it starts to get heavy).

The Canon EOS 40D costs $6,950 less, yet shares many of the Mark III’s features. A DIGIC III image processor (the Mark III has two of those onboard) and 14-bit A/D conversion optimize image quality at all ISOs, while high-ISO noise reduction produces very good quality even at ISO 3200. The DIGIC III also speeds up camera operation: the EOS 40D actually starts up a little faster than the Mark III (0.15 seconds vs. 0.2 seconds) and can shoot faster (6.5 fps vs. 5 fps). The 3.0-inch LCD monitor features Live-View capability, so you can see the image live at angles of up to 140 degrees for easier high- and low-angle shooting. You even can send the live image to a laptop computer using supplied software and control the camera from the computer. An effective self-cleaning sensor assembly takes the worry out of changing lenses in the field. Highlight Tone Priority improves tones from middle gray through highlights, while Picture Styles let you choose a “look” and fine-tune such parameters as sharpening, contrast and saturation, while 24 custom functions with 62 settings let you tailor the camera to your shooting style.

Of course, the Mark III has its advantages. As a “1”-series Canon pro SLR, it features the most rugged construction, the best weather- and dust-resistance, and a shutter tested to 300,000 cycles (vs. 100,000 for the 40D). And it has that 21.1-megapixel, full-frame CMOS sensor, while the 40D has an APS-C-sized, 10.1-megapixel sensor. The 40D sensor’s 1.6x focal-length factor would seem to give it an advantage for wildlife shooting, but you can crop in on the middle 10.1 megapixels of a Mark III image and get about the same subject framing, with even better image quality, due in part to the Mark III’s larger pixels.

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The Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III is the resolution king. At 21 megapixels, no other 35mm-type D-SLR comes close. The camera is also a marvel of imaging technology and professionally oriented features. The Canon EOS 40D is equipped with a smaller APS-C image sensor and lower resolution, but it shares the same processing engine and several key features.

Bottom Line: The EOS-1Ds Mark III is a superb camera for the landscape, close-up and wildlife photographer who can afford it. The EOS 40D can handle the same subjects very well at far less cost—and is much easier to carry around in the field.

Resources Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III Canon EOS 40D
Sensor: 21.1-megapixel CMOS 10.1-megapixel CMOS
Sensor Size: 36.0×24.0mm (full-frame) 22.2×14.8mm (1.6x)
A/D Conversion: 14-bit 14-bit
Sensor Cleaning: Yes Yes
AF Points: 45 9
Metering: 63-zone, 8.5%, 2.4%, CW 35-zone, 9%, 3.8%, CW
ISO Range: 100-1600, plus 50, 3200 100-1600, plus 3200
Shutter Speeds: 30 to 1⁄8000 sec., plus B 30 to 1⁄8000 sec., plus B
Max. Advance Rate: 5 fps, 12 RAW/56 JPEG 6.5 fps, 17 RAW/75 JPEG
Dimensions: 6.1×6.3×3.1 in. 5.7×4.2×2.9 in.
Weight: 42.7 oz. 26.1 oz.
Estimated Street Price: $7,999 $1,049

Canon EOS-1D Mark III
Most of the technology and features found in the EOS-1Ds Mark III and EOS 40D made their debut in the EOS-1D Mark III about six months earlier, including the dual DIGIC III processors, 14-bit A/D conversion, self-cleaning sensor assembly, Live-View 3.0-inch LCD monitor, extensive noise reduction and Highlight Tone Priority for extended detail in midtones through light tones. The EOS-1D Mark III’s “wow” feature is its ability to shoot its 10.1-megapixel images at 10 per second in bursts of up to 30 RAW or 110 full-res JPEG images. Image quality is superb—better than the EOS 40D’s with the same pixel count, due mainly to the pro model’s much larger pixel size (its sensor is 60% larger than the 40D’s and has a 1.3x focal-length factor). The image quality alone makes the EOS-1D Mark III a great all-around camera, but its forte is wildlife action—many pro bird photographers use it.

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Nikon D3 & D300
These are fraternal, not identical, “twins.” The D3 is Nikon’s top-of-the-line model, its first full-frame D-SLR and its best D-SLR ever in terms of image quality and performance. The D300 is Nikon’s top intermediate model, selling for about one-third the price of the D3. Yet the D300 shares many features with the D3, including excellent autofocusing and metering systems, EXPEED image processing (optimizes image quality and operating speed), your choice of 12- or 14-bit A/D conversion with 16-bit internal processing, a high-res, 920,000-dot, 3.0-inch LCD monitor with both Handheld and Tripod Live-View modes, Picture Controls that let you choose and fine-tune different “looks,” Active D-Lighting (which improves highlight and shadow detail), rugged construction and more. The D300 even includes a couple of features the D3 doesn’t have: Nikon’s first self-cleaning sensor unit (a great boon when one changes lenses in the field frequently) and a built-in flash. And the D300 even has a few more megapixels: 12.3 vs. 12.1.

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After shunning full-frame sensors for years, Nikon introduced its FX-format D3 in 2007. Defining the top end of Nikon’s line, the camera is a quantum leap from earlier Nikon pro models.
Nikon D300
Announced at the same time as the D3, the D300 comes with the same processing technology and a number of the D3’s high-end features.

So what do you get for the extra bucks when you buy a D3? For starters, that full-frame image sensor makes wide-angle shooting much easier since it “sees” the same angle of view as a 35mm SLR. When you attach one of Nikon’s DX-series lenses, which were designed for the smaller APS-C image sensors used in all other Nikon D-SLRs, the D3 automatically switches to DX (Nikon’s name for APS-C) format, recording 5.1-megapixel images with the same 1.5x focal-length factor as other Nikon D-SLRs. The D3’s sensor also has much larger pixels (8.45 microns vs. 5.50 microns), which accounts in part for the D3’s better image quality and higher ISO capabilities.

The D3 can shoot 12.1-megapixel full-frame images at 9 fps and 5.1-megapixel DX-format images at 11 fps, while the D300 shoots its 12.3-megapixel DX-format images at up to 6 fps. The D300 provides ISOs up to 6400, with excellent image quality for each speed, but the D3 goes all the way to ISO 25,600, with even better image quality at each speed. The D3 starts up a little faster (0.12 seconds vs. 0.13 seconds), has slots for two CompactFlash cards and is even more ruggedly built.

Features Nikon D3 Nikon D300
Sensor: 12.1-megapixel CMOS 12.3-megapixel CMOS
Sensor Size: 36.0×23.9mm (full-frame) 23.6×15.8mm (1.5x)
A/D Conversion: 12- or 14-bit 12- or 14-bit
Sensor Cleaning: No Yes
AF Points: 51 51
Metering: 1005-pixel, CW, 1.5% 1005-pixel, CW, 2.0%
ISO Range: 200-6400, plus 100, 12,800, 25,600 200-3200, plus 100, 6400
Shutter Speeds: 30 to 1⁄8000 sec., plus B 30 to 1⁄8000 sec., plus B
Max. Advance Rate: 9 fps (FX), 11 fps (DX) 6 fps
Dimensions: 6.3×6.2×3.4 in. 5.8×4.5×2.9 in.
Weight: 43.7 oz. 29.3 oz.
Estimated Street Price: $4,999 $1,799

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Nikon D700
Nikon’s new D700 is the D3’s “kid brother,” offering the D3’s full-frame image sensor and much of its technology in a much more compact and lower-priced package that’s easier to carry for long spells in the field. It uses the same sensor and EXPEED processing as the D3 and provides the same wide range of ISOs, so image quality should be similar (i.e., superb). The metering and AF systems are the same, as are the 3.0-inch, 920,000-dot LCD monitor and two Live-View modes. The D700 even has two features the D3 doesn’t have: a sensor-dust removal system and a built-in Speedlight flash unit. The D700’s shooting rate is slower, 5 fps vs. 9 fps (and the D3 can do 11 fps in DX mode), but it’s an excellent choice for the outdoor photographer who wants full-frame capability, but doesn’t want to lug a bulky camera into the field (or whose budget doesn’t allow for the D3).

Bottom Line:
Both cameras are excellent outdoor D-SLRs, with the D3 providing better image quality, a full-frame sensor and faster shooting capability at a cost of more bulk and purchase price. Obviously, the D3, with its full-frame sensor and much larger pixels, is an outstanding all-around camera, but the D300, which produces 12.3-megapixel images with a 1.6x focal-length factor, shares many of the D3’s technology and features at a fraction of the price. The D300 also is an excellent choice for shy wildlife and birds (when you crop the 12.1-megapixel D3 images down to the same DX-format framing, they’re only 5.1 megapixels).

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Sigma SD14 & DP1 These cameras are twins in that they use the same unique Foveon X3 image sensor. The SD14 is a D-SLR; the DP1 is a compact, all-in-one digital camera with a huge sensor compared to its competitors and a built-in 16.6mm lens (equivalent to a 28mm lens on a 35mm camera with the image sensor’s 1.7x focal-length factor).

The DP1 features a new Three-layer Responsive Ultimate Engine (TRUE) image-processing engine developed specifically for the DP1’s sensor; the SD14 has a previous-generation imaging engine also designed for the Foveon sensor.

While other imaging sensors record just one primary color at each pixel site, producing data for the other colors by interpolating data from neighboring pixels via complex proprietary algorithms, the Foveon X3 sensor used in the SD14 and DP1 records all three primary colors at every pixel site, functioning much like color film. The Foveon sensor takes advantage of the fact that different light wavelengths penetrate silicon to different depths: red the deepest, green a bit less and blue least of all. Thus, three pixel layers are stacked, the top recording blue light, the middle one green and the bottom one red. The advantages? Every pixel site records every color, so no colored filter array is needed over the pixels, no interpolation of missing colors is needed and no image-softening, anti-aliasing filter is needed.

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Sigma SD14
The Sigma SD14 is well known for its use of the Foveon X3 image sensor. The Foveon technology captures all color data on each pixel. The sensor has 4.7 million pixels, but since all color data is captured in each pixel, Sigma prefers to refer to it as a 14-megapixel sensor.

Sigma DP1
Unlike most of the cameras in this article, the DP1’s primary inheritance from the SD14 is the Foveon X3 sensor. The fixed, non-zoom lens is attached to a solid body, making it an interesting second camera for many shooters.

Bottom Line: As a D-SLR, the SD14 is the more versatile “twin,” providing TTL viewing with a wide range of interchangeable lenses. The compact DP1 is a fine “take-anywhere” camera that fits in a large pocket. Both have the same Foveon X3 sensor.

Sigma SD14 Sigma DP1
Sensor: 4.7×3-megapixel Foveon X3 4.7×3-megapixel Foveon X3
Sensor Size: 20.7×13.8mm (1.7x) 20.7×13.8mm (1.7x)
Processor: Sigma TRUE
A/D Conversion: 12-bit 12-bit
Sensor Cleaning: No No
AF Points: 5 9
Metering: 8-segment, CW, center-area Evaluative, CW, spot
ISO Range: 100-1600 100-800
Shutter Speeds: 30 to 1⁄4000 sec., plus B 15 to 1⁄1000 sec., plus B
Max. Advance Rate: 3 fps 3 fps
Dimensions: 6.3×6.2×3.4 in. 4.5×2.3×2 in.
Weight: 43.7 oz. 8.8 oz.
Estimated Street Price: $850 $799

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Pentax K20D & Samsung GX-20
( “Identical” Twins ) Electronics giant Samsung and longtime SLR-maker Pentax formed a partnership late in 2005 to jointly develop digital SLR cameras. The Pentax K20D and Samsung GX-20 are the most recent results of that venture. At the heart of these cameras is a new CMOS image sensor developed by Pentax and Samsung and manufactured by Samsung. It’s the highest-resolution, APS-C-sized (1.5x focal-length-factor) sensor as of this writing and the first CMOS (and first non-Sony) sensor used in a D-SLR from either company.

The K20D and GX-20 share a number of fine features, including first-rate autofocus (in good light) and metering performance, built-in sensor-shift image stabilization that works with all lenses, dust-reduction systems that include a mechanism to vibrate dust off the sensor assemblies, excellent weather-resistance and dustproofing thanks to 72 strategically placed seals, Live-View capability on their 2.7-inch LCD monitors and a handy RAW button that lets you switch from JPEG to RAW recording at a touch. Both cameras incorporate the unique sensitivity-priority AE (in which you can set the ISO instantly by rotating a dial and the camera sets the appropriate shutter speed and aperture for correct exposure at that ISO) and shutter/aperture-priority AE (in which the camera automatically sets the appropriate ISO for a user-selected shutter-speed/aperture combination). Both cameras feature multiple-exposure capability and in-camera RAW (to JPEG) conversion.

Probably the biggest difference between the cameras is that the K20D’s Pentax PRIME image-processing engine lets you choose from two RAW formats—Pentax’s own PEF or Adobe’s “universal” DNG—while the GX-20 provides only the DNG RAW format. Other differences: The buttons on the K20D are round, while many of those on the GX-20 are not. The handgrips and top-left corner of the bodies have slightly different shapes (so the accessory battery grips aren’t interchangeable between cameras), and the menus on the LCD monitor are different.

Both cameras can use all Pentax K-mount lenses (and even old Pentax screw-mount and medium-format lenses, with adapters), although best results will be with current Pentax and Samsung/Schneider lenses, especially the new Pentax SDM series.

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Pentax K20
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Pentax K20
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Samsung GX-20
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Samsung GX-20
The Pentax K20D and the Samsung GX-20 are almost indistinguishable cameras. Developed as part of a joint project between the companies, they share the same sensor and feature set. Externally, there are some subtle differences, and the Pentax allows you to choose from two RAW formats while the Samsung has only Adobe’s DNG RAW format.

Features Pentax K20D Samsung GX-20
Sensor: 14.6-megapixel CMOS 14.6-megapixel CMOS
Sensor Size: 23.4×15.6mm (1.5x) 23.4×15.6mm (1.5x)
Processor: PRIME Samsung
A/D Conversion: 12-bit 12-bit
Sensor Cleaning: Yes Yes
AF Points: 11 11
Metering: 16-segment, CW, spot 16-segment, CW, spot
ISO Range: 100-1600, exp. to 6400 100-1600, exp. to 6400
Shutter Speeds: 30 to 1⁄4000 sec., plus B 30 to 1⁄4000 sec., plus B
Max. Advance Rate: 3 fps 3 fps
Dimensions: 5.6×4.0x2.8 in. 5.6×4.0x2.8 in.
Weight: 25.2 oz. 25.2 oz.
Estimated Street Price: $1,299 $1,399 (with 18-55mm zoom)

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Sony DSLR-A350 & DSLR-A300
These models are identical except for their image sensors: the A350 has a 14.2-megapixel CCD (the highest-resolution CCD in a current 35mm-form-factor D-SLR), while the A300 has a 10.2-megapixel CCD. The A350 also has a slightly slower 2.5 fps maximum shooting rate (vs. 3 fps for the A300) due to its larger image files.

The 2.7-inch LCD monitor provides Live-View capability (via a second image sensor) with 2 fps shooting possible in Live-View mode. The monitor also tilts for easy high- and low-angle shooting. Other features of both cameras include Super SteadyShot sensor-shift image stabilization that works with all lenses, a sensor-dust remover, Eye-Start AF activation, ISOs from 100 to 3200, several metering options (40-segment, center-weighted, spot and, in Live-View mode, 1200-zone), an effective multi-level Dynamic Range Optimizer, eight Creative Style settings (which you can tweak as desired) and Sony’s Bionz imaging engine.

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Sony DSLR-A350

Sony DSLR-A350
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Sony DSLR-A300
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Sony DSLR-A300
Sony has an interesting take on the twins concept. The A300 and A350 are identical cameras except for the image sensor. The A300 houses a 10-megapixel CCD while the A350 has a 14.2-megapixel CCD. Due to the different sensors, there are other differences you’ll notice while shooting, but the actual features between the cameras are otherwise the same.

Sony DSLR-A350 Sony DSLR-A300
Sensor: 14.2-megapixel CCD 10.2-megapixel CCD
Sensor Size: 23.6×15.8mm (1.5x) 23.6×15.8mm (1.5x)
Processor: Bionz Bionz
A/D Conversion: 12-bit 12-bit
Sensor Cleaning: Yes Yes
AF Points: 9 9
Metering: 40-segment, CW, spot 40-segment, CW, spot
ISO Range: 100-3200 100-3200
Shutter Speeds: 30 to 1⁄4000 sec., plus B 30 to 1⁄4000 sec., plus B
Max. Advance Rate: 2.5 fps (2 fps Live-View) 3 fps (2 fps Live-View)
Dimensions: 5.1×3.9×2.9 in. 5.1×3.9×2.9 in.
Weight: 20.5 oz. 20.5 oz.
Estimated Street Price: $699 $599 (with 18-70mm zoom)

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Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1 & Leica Digilux 3
After Olympus introduced the first few Four Thirds System digital SLRs, Panasonic and Leica joined the party, working, in part, with one another. Panasonic’s first D-SLR, the Lumix DMC-L1, and Leica’s first, the Digilux 3, are twins under the skin, featuring the same lens mount, mirror box, viewfinder chamber, AF and metering sensors, and 7.5-megapixel Panasonic Live MOS image sensor. The body configurations are near-identical, too, with a Leica look and all controls in the same locations. Each camera is even sold with the same Leica D Vario-Elmarit 14-50mm ƒ/2.8-3.5 ASPH zoom with Panasonic’s Mega O.I.S. optical image stabilization. (Olympus’ out-of-production E-330 also shared much of this technology and basic configuration, although it incorporated a second Live-View sensor and a tilting LCD monitor.)

The DMC-L1 and Digilux 3 feature Live-View shooting via their 2.5-inch LCD monitors (with manual focusing or phase-detection AF), the effective Supersonic Wave Filter sensor-dust reduction system introduced by Olympus, a built-in pop-up flash (ISO 100, guide number 10, in meters), three image aspect ratios (4:3, 3:2 and 16:9), a proprietary lithium-ion battery good for about 450 shots per charge, a top shooting rate of 3 fps, 49-zone metering (256-zone in Live-View mode), storage on SD or SDHC cards, ISOs from 100 to 1600, eye-level porro-mirror viewfinders, 3-point phase-detection autofocusing, shutter speeds from 60 to 1⁄4000 sec., plus B, and straightforward operation. Shutter speeds are set directly via a shutter-speed dial, and apertures are set via the lens’ aperture ring (Four Thirds System lenses lacking aperture rings also can be used.)

There’s a major price difference, the Leica appealing to the sort of photographer who prefers Leica film cameras, while the lower-cost DMC-L1 appeals to the more budget-minded photographer who likes the look, features and performance of the camera.

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Panasonic might not be well known in the U.S. for cameras, but the rest of the world is aware of its high-quality models. The Lumix DMC-L1 marks the company’s first foray into interchangeable-lens D-SLRs. A partnership between Panasonic and Leica yields both high-quality optics and Leica’s Digilux 3, which is identical to the Lumix DMC-L1 beneath the surface. A partnership between Panasonic and Leica yields both high-quality optics and Leica’s Digilux 3, which is identical to the Lumix DMC-L1 beneath the surface.

Features Panasonic LumixDMC-L1 Leica Digilux 3
Sensor: 7.5-megapixel Live MOS 7.5-megapixel Live MOS
Sensor Size: 17.3×13.0mm (2.0x) 17.3×13.0mm (2.0x)
Processor: Venus Engine III Leica
A/D Conversion: 12-bit 12-bit
Sensor Cleaning: Yes Yes
AF Points: 3 3
Metering: 49-zone (256 in Live-View) 49-zone (256 in Live-View)
ISO Range: 100-1600 100-1600
Shutter Speeds: 60 to 1⁄4000 sec., plus B 60 to 1⁄4000 sec., plus B
Max. Advance Rate: 3 fps 3 fps
Dimensions: 5.7×3.4×3.1 in. 5.7×3.4×3.1 in.
Weight: 18.7 oz. 18.7 oz.
Estimated Street Price: $1,299 (with 14-50mm zoom) $2,499 (with 14-50mm zoom)

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