Is Now The Time For Full-Frame D-SLRs?

With more options, state-of-the-art technology and lower prices, D-SLRs are worth a careful look for serious outdoor shooters
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Nature photographers now can choose from among four full-frame D-SLRs, thanks to Nikon’s new D700 joining the D3 and Canon’s EOS-1Ds Mark III and EOS 5D.

With sensors the same size as a full 35mm image frame, full-frame D-SLRs provide the same angle of view as a 35mm SLR with any given lens. This is a big advantage for wide-angle fans, as it doesn’t require special extremely short-focal-length lenses to do wide-angle photography. Because smaller sensors “see” less of the image produced by any lens, cameras employing them require shorter focal lengths to produce a given angle of view (see Figure A, p. 66).

A related full-frame-sensor benefit is less diffraction. When you stop a lens down to increase depth of field, diffraction starts to affect image quality adversely. The smaller the lens opening, the greater the diffraction, and the worse the image quality. Because they produce a given angle of view with a longer lens, full-frame sensors yield less diffraction at any given ƒ-stop: A 24mm lens stopped down to ƒ/22 has an aperture diameter of 24/22 or 1.09mm. The 16mm lens needed to produce the same angle of view with an APS-C sensor has an aperture diameter of just 0.72mm at ƒ/22 (16/22). Of course, the shorter lens produces more depth of field than the longer one, so you don’t have to stop down as much to get the same depth of field. But the super-short focal lengths also tend to produce more distortion and vignetting.

Wide-angle photography isn’t the only advantage of full-frame sensors. You also get better image quality because larger sensors have room for more and/or larger pixels. More pixels mean finer detail, and you can blow up the images bigger. Larger pixels gather light more efficiently than smaller pixels, yielding a wider dynamic range and less noise at any given ISO setting. There are technological tricks camera manufacturers use to maximize image quality even from small pixels on small sensors, but all other things being equal, bigger pixels and more pixels are better.

Full-frame D-SLRs do have a few drawbacks. For one thing, they cost a lot more. Full-frame sensors are much more difficult to produce than smaller sensors, and they use a lot more material (an eight-inch silicon wafer might yield 200 APS-C sensors, but only 20 full-frame ones).

Another drawback is that wildlife photographers don’t get the “free focal-length boost” provided by smaller-sensor cameras. A 300mm telephoto lens on a full-frame D-SLR frames just as it does on a 35mm film SLR. On an APS-C D-SLR, the same 300mm lens frames as a 450mm lens does on a 35mm SLR. On a Four Thirds System D-SLR, a 300mm lens frames as a 600mm lens on a 35mm SLR. A smaller, lighter lens takes you a lot further with a smaller-sensor camera.

A final drawback of the full-frame sensor is that it tends to collect more dust than a smaller sensor, an especially critical factor when you’re frequently changing lenses in the field. Canon’s EOS-1Ds Mark III and Nikon’s D700 counter this by incorporating sensor-dust-removal systems.

We should point out that 35mm “full-frame” sensors aren’t the largest image sensors used in D-SLRs. The “medium-format” D-SLRs (those based on medium-format film cameras rather than 35mm SLRs) use sensors that are much bigger than “full-frame,” generally with a lot more pixels. As we write this, Hasselblad just announced the H3D II/50 medium-format D-SLR with a 49.1×36.8mm 50-megapixel Kodak CCD sensor that’s twice the size of a full-frame 35mm sensor. But that camera costs nearly $40,000—the 35mm-based models are far and away the most popular and the most affordable D-SLRs.

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
The current “king” of the 35mm-form-factor D-SLRs, at 21.1 megapixels, Canon’s EOS-1Ds Mark III is a do-it-all camera that can handle everything from epic landscapes to quick wildlife action. Dual parallel-processing DIGIC III image processors optimize image quality and operating speed (the camera can shoot those huge files at up to five per second, in bursts of up to 56 Large/Fine JPEGs or 12 RAW images), and reduce energy consumption (the Mark III can make up to 1,800 shots with a freshly charged battery—very handy when out in the field).

As a landscape camera, the Mark III provides 45% more pixels than any other 35mm-form-factor D-SLR (and 65% more than any other full-frame D-SLR). Its 14-bit A/D conversion can recognize 16,384 tonal or color gradations (vs. 4,096 for 12-bit conversion) for smoother, more detailed images.

The three-inch LCD monitor provides Live-View capability, which makes it easier to shoot low- and high-angle images. You even can send (using provided software) the live image to a laptop monitor and run the camera from there.

You’d expect a 21.1-megapixel full-frame D-SLR to be a great landscape camera, but the EOS-1Ds Mark III is a fine wildlife camera, too, featuring virtually the same AF system as the EOS-1D Mark III action camera. It’s true that you lose the “telephoto” factor of a small-sensor D-SLR when you use a full-frame D-SLR, but with the Mark III’s 21.1-megapixel images, you can crop in on the central portion of the image, increasing the effective focal length, and still have lots of megapixels. Also, the Mark III’s central AF point functions down to ƒ/8, so you can add a teleconverter to get back the “lost” focal length. One of our editors captured some excellent in-flight shots of various birds using our Mark III test camera with a 300mm ƒ/4 lens and a 2x teleconverter, a combination that won’t autofocus at all on the more compact EOS 40D.

Of course, as an EOS-1-series camera, the Mark III features Canon’s most rugged construction, with a magnesium-alloy chassis, external covers and mirror box, excellent dust- and weatherproofing, and a 300,000-cycle shutter. The EOS Integrated Cleaning System (including a grounded low-pass filter over the image sensor that vibrates ultrasonically each time you switch the camera on or off) helps keep the big sensor dust-free.

The Mark III can use all EF Canon lenses, but not EF-S lenses (which were designed specifically for the smaller-sensor cameras). This provides focal lengths from 14mm super-wide-angle and 15mm full-frame fish-eye to 800mm super-telephoto, including zooms from 16-35mm to 100-400mm, true 1:1 macro lenses and three manual-focus tilt-shift lenses.

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The EOS-1Ds Mark III is the top of Canon’s line and the current leader in the megapixel category with 21.1 total. The camera has an SD and CF memory card slot, which can be accessed on the rear LCD panel. As a state-of-the-art professional camera, every feature is quickly accessed and viewed on the LCD panel on top of the body.


Image Sensor: 21.1-megapixel CMOS AF System: 45-point
ISO Settings: 100-1600, plus 50 and 3200
Continuous Firing Mode: 5 fps, 3 fps
Metering: 63-zone evaluative, 8.5% partial, 2.4% spot, center-weighted
Storage Media: CompactFlash (UDMA-compliant), SD/SDHC
Power Source: LP-E4 rechargeable lithium-ion battery
Dimensions: 6.1×6.3×3.1 inches
Weight: 42.5 ounces
Estimated Street Price: $7,999
Canon USA, (800) OK-CANON,

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Nikon D3
Nikon’s first full-frame D-SLR, the D3 features a 12.1-megapixel CMOS sensor and the biggest pixels in a current AF D-SLR. Those 8.5-micron pixels (vs. the 5.5-micron pixels in a 12-megapixel APS-C D-SLR)—along with Nikon’s new EXPEED image-processing concept, your choice of 12- or 14-bit A/D conversion and excellent noise reduction—enable ISO speeds up to an incredible 25,600 (image quality is excellent at 6400). Dynamic range is also excellent, especially when using four-level Active D-Lighting, which expands highlight and shadow detail. This is an especially good camera for contrasty or low-light landscapes.

The high-res, 920,000-dot LCD monitor provides two Live-View modes, one with standard 51-point phase-detection AF for handheld action shots and one with focal-plane contrast-detecting AF on a desired point for tripod-mounted work. An Electronic Virtual Horizon can be displayed on the monitor to help you level the camera for landscape and architectural shots. Using optional Camera Control Pro 2 software, the live image can be shown on a laptop computer screen while the camera is operated from there.

Nikon’s Picture Control feature lets you select a “look” for each image (standard, neutral, vivid or monochrome) and then modify such things as sharpness, contrast, brightness, saturation and hue, as desired. You can save and recall favorite settings, and even transfer them between compatible Nikon cameras.

The D3 starts up in just 0.12 seconds and has a minimal 37ms shutter lag time (both D-SLR bests), and can shoot up to 18 RAW or 52 highest-quality JPEG, full-frame, 12.1-megapixel images at up to 9 fps. It also features Nikon’s best AF system, so it’s a terrific wildlife/action camera, even in low-light situations. While the full-frame sensor doesn’t provide a smaller sensor’s telephoto factor, AF performance remains good when a teleconverter is used. If you attach a DX Nikkor lens (designed specifically for the DX-format/APS-C image sensors used in all previous Nikon D-SLRs), the D3 automatically switches to cropped DX mode and can shoot the resulting 5.1-megapixel images at up to 11 per second (up to 28 RAW or 130 highest-quality JPEGs).

As Nikon’s top-of-the-line pro model, the D3 is the company’s most rugged D-SLR, with a magnesium-alloy chassis, external covers and mirror box, extensive O-ring sealing against weather and dust, and a 300,000-cycle shutter. The proven rechargeable battery is good for 4,300 to 4,700 shots per charge, so you won’t have to carry a lot of batteries with you into the field.

The D3 can use all AF Nikkor lenses, automatically switching to a cropped DX mode when a DX Nikkor lens is attached. Focal lengths currently run from 14mm super-wide-angle and 16mm full-frame fish-eye to 600mm super-telephoto for full-frame shooting, including three 1:1 macro lenses and three tilt/shift perspective-control lenses.

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The Nikon D3 is the company’s first full-frame-sensor camera (Nikon calls it FX format). With 12.1 megapixels, the ISO can be set up to 25,600, a function of the sensor and the EXPEED image-processing engine. Twin CF slots handle plenty of on-board memory. Controls are easy to access, and the top LCD panel shows all relevant camera settings.


Image Sensor: 12.1-megapixel CMOS
AF System: 51-point
ISO Settings: 200-1600, plus 100, 12,800 and 25,600
Continuous Firing Mode: 9 fps (FX), 11 fps (DX)
Metering: 1005-pixel 3D Color Matrix II, center-weighted, 1.5% spot
Storage Media: CompactFlash (UDMA-compliant), 2 slots
Power Source: EN-EL4a lithium-ion battery
Dimensions: 6.3×6.2×3.4 inches
Weight: 43.2 ounces
Estimated Street Price: $4,999
Contact: Nikon USA, (800) NIKON-US,

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Canon EOS 5D
Introduced in 2005 as a lighter and less costly alternative to the EOS-1Ds models, the EOS 5D has been a popular model for three years—quite a lifespan in the D-SLR arena. While its specs pale compared to the EOS-1Ds Mark III’s (12.8-megapixel Canon CMOS image sensor vs. 21.1 megapixels, single DIGIC II processor vs. dual DIGIC IIIs, 12-bit A/D conversion vs. 14-bit), the 5D costs nearly $6,000 less, turns out high image quality and does surprisingly well with action subjects.

As a landscape camera, the EOS 5D is excellent, handling contrasty scenes well and producing accurate colors. The 12.8-megapixel images are crisp and can render big prints with good detail. And the full-frame sensor retains the bokeh designed into Canon EF lenses (i.e., the pleasant appearance of the out-of-focus background and foreground areas in images shot at wide apertures).

As an action camera, the EOS 5D starts up in a quick 0.2 seconds and can shoot up to 17 RAW or 60 Large/Fine JPEG images at 3 fps, which is plenty fast for most wildlife subjects. The AF system features nine primary AF points, plus six invisible supplementary AF points, and our test camera tracked flying birds better than our EOS 30D. ISO speeds range from 100 to 1600, with extensions to 50 and 3200; image quality is excellent for the speeds at all but 3200 (which is quite usable).

One of our favorite features of higher-end Canon D-SLRs is the ability to set exposure compensation just by rotating the big dial on the camera back—no need to fumble around for an EC button first. The 5D provides this capability.

The 5D introduced Canon’s Picture Styles, which let you start with a basic “look” (standard, portrait, landscape, neutral, faithful or monochrome) and adjust such parameters as sharpening, contrast, saturation and color tone (color images only) and filter effect and toning (monochrome images only). This gives you control akin to selecting a specific film for a specific need. Picture Styles are incorporated in all recent Canon D-SLRs.

While not as rugged as the far more costly EOS-1Ds Mark III, the EOS 5D is quite sturdy—our EOS 30D, a 5D contemporary in age and build, has spent its life in the field photographing wildlife during many hikes and is still going strong after more than 70,000 shots.

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The Canon EOS 5D has been in the line for several years. The groundbreaking camera gives nature shooters a lower-cost body than the EOS-1Ds Mark III. A favorite of landscape photographers, the 12.8-megapixel camera produces a very low-noise image. The body is about the size of the EOS 40D rather than the heavy, bulky EOS-1Ds Mark III, making it much easier to carry in the field.


Image Sensor: 12.8-megapixel CMOS
AF System: 15-point (9 main, plus 6 assist points)
ISO Settings: 100-1600, plus 50 and 3200
Continuous Firing Mode: 3 fps
Metering: 35-zone evaluative, 8.0% partial, 3.5% spot, center-weighted
Storage Media: CompactFlash
Power Source: BP-511A rechargeable lithium-ion battery
Dimensions: 6.0×4.4×3.0 inches
Weight: 28.6 ounces
Estimated Street Price: $2,199
Contact: Canon USA, (800) OK-CANON,

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Nikon D700
The new D700 offers the same 12.1-megapixel-image CMOS sensor as the D3 and many of that camera’s other fine features in a much smaller and lighter (yet still rugged) package for about $2,000 less. The smaller size and lower weight make the D700 an easier camera to cart around in the field all day, while you still get the superb image quality and AF performance of the D3.

Shared with the D3 along with the image sensor are EXPEED image processing, 12- or 14-bit A/D conversion, excellent AF and metering systems, amazing ISO range, excellent noise reduction, a high-res, three-inch LCD monitor, dual Live-View modes, industry-best 0.12-second startup, electronic virtual horizon, Active D-Lighting and Picture Controls. The D3 does offer a more rugged (and bulkier) body, a 300,000-cycle shutter (vs. 150,000 for the D700), a higher-capacity battery (4,300 shots per charge vs. 1,000), faster shooting (9 fps vs. 5 fps, although that can be increased to 8 fps with the optional Multi-Power Battery Pack MB-D10), a 100% viewfinder (vs. 95%), interchangeable focusing screens and two CompactFlash-card slots (vs. one).

The D700, however, actually offers a few items of interest to outdoor shooters that the D3 doesn’t, including a built-in i-TTL flash unit (the D700 is the only full-frame D-SLR with a built-in flash) and Nikon’s Integrated Dust Reduction System. The built-in flash is handy for close-up work, filling in harsh shadows and adding catchlights to nearby wildlife subjects’ eyes, and can serve as a “commander” for off-camera wireless flash setups. The dust-reduction system helps keep the sensor (and your images) dust-free, an especially valuable feature on a camera used in the field.

Color information from the camera’s 1005-pixel RGB metering sensor is applied not only to 3D Color Matrix Metering II, but also to auto white balance, and even helps with AF focus tracking of moving subjects. An on-board database of more than 30,000 actual shooting situations helps Nikon’s Scene Recognition System provide excellent exposures and AF performance. The 51-point AF system includes 15 central cross-type sensors that provide full functionality with all AF Nikkor lenses (not just superfast ones).

Like the D3, the D700 can use the full range of current AF Nikkor lenses, automatically switching to 5.1-megapixel cropped DX mode when a DX Nikkor lens is attached. The D3 also offers a 5:4 format, which matches the aspect ratio of common 8×10 and 16×20 photos, but the D700 doesn’t offer 5:4 (for such prints, you can just crop the long side of the image; that’s essentially what the camera does).

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At press time, the Nikon D700 is the newest member of the exclusive full-frame club. Following on the successful launch of the D3, the D700 has the same 12.1-megapixel sensor as its sibling. In fact, the D700 shares many of the D3’s specs, but in a less bulky and much less expensive package.


Image Sensor: 12.1-megapixel CMOS
AF System: 51-point
ISO Settings: 200-1600, plus 100, 12,800 and 25,600
Continuous Firing Mode: 5 fps (FX), 11 fps (DX)
Metering: 1005-pixel 3D Color Matrix II, center-weighted, 1.5% spot
Storage Media: CompactFlash (UDMA-compliant)
Power Source:
EN-EL3e lithium-ion battery
6.3×6.2×3.4 inches
Weight: 43.2 ounces
Estimated Street Price: $2,999
Contact: Nikon USA, (800) NIKON-US,

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A Brief History Of Full Frame
The first full-frame D-SLR was a prototype shown by Pentax at the 2001 PMA show. That 6-megapixel MZ-D model never reached production. The first full-frame D-SLR to go on sale was the Contax N Digital, back in the spring of 2002. It featured the same Philips 6-megapixel CCD sensor as the Pentax, but never gained wide popularity and was discontinued after about a year.

The first full-frame D-SLR to really catch on was Canon’s EOS-1Ds, which came out later in 2002 and featured a Canon 11.1-megapixel CMOS sensor. That model was followed by the 16.7-megapixel EOS-1Ds Mark II late in 2004 and the current 21.1-megapixel EOS-1Ds Mark III in 2007, all featuring Canon CMOS sensors. Canon also introduced a much lower-priced, full-frame model, the 12.8-megapixel EOS 5D, in 2005.

Kodak introduced the 13.5-megapixel DCS Pro 14n in 2003, followed in 2004 by the DCS Pro SLR/n (Nikon mount) and DCS Pro SLR/c (Canon mount, made by Sigma) in 2004. These, too, soon disappeared.

Thus Canon produced the only really successful full-frame D-SLRs until Nikon introduced its first full-frame model, the D3, late in 2007. Nikon followed that top-of-the-line model with the $2,000-lower-priced D700 in 2008.

Looking To The Future
Early in 2008, Sony announced the development of a 24.81-megapixel, full-frame CMOS sensor with on-chip A/D conversion, so it’s reasonable to expect new top-of-the-line D-SLRs from Sony and Nikon (long a user of Sony sensors) featuring this unit. And Canon’s fine EOS 5D, by far the lowest-priced, full-frame D-SLR, is getting a bit long in the tooth, having been introduced some three years ago, so we look forward to a 5D replacement, too.

The angle of view produced by a given lens depends on the size of the image frame. The smaller the image sensor, the smaller the angle of view, since the smaller sensor “sees” less of the image produced by the lens.

A lens for a 35mm camera produces an image circle of 43.2mm because that’s the diagonal measurement of a full 35mm image frame (A). The 36x24mm full-frame 35mm image thus “sees” pretty much the whole image produced by the lens (B).

A smaller APS-C sensor sees only the central portion of the image produced by the lens (C). This “telephoto” effect is great for long-lens users because it effectively makes their lenses longer by a factor of 1.5: A 100mm lens used on an APS-C D-SLR produces the same cropping as a 150mm lens on a 35mm camera. This isn’t so good for wide-angle fans, however: A 28mm wide-angle lens used on an APS-C D-SLR frames like a 42mm lens on a 35mm camera—not very wide-angle.