The New Breed Of DSLRs

Canon, Nikon, Sigma and Sony are pushing into new territory with their latest high-end camera models
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A number of new high-end DSLRs have been introduced in recent months. From the 2011 unveilings of the Canon EOS-1D X, the Sigma SD1 and the Sony SLT-A77 to the 2012 introduction of the Nikon D4, advanced amateurs and professional photographers now have several up-to-date options to choose from. Better low-light performance, fixed translucent mirror technology, dramatically improved video capabilities and whole new advanced metering and AF systems figure into these DSLRs. Despite the numerous challenges of earthquakes, tsunamis and a near nuclear meltdown in Japan, the manufacturers appear to be back up to full speed, and we photographers are the beneficiaries.

Canon EOS-1D X
Canon’s long-awaited successor to the full-frame flagship EOS-1Ds Mark III was announced in fall 2011, and the EOS-1D X is expected to go on sale in March 2012; it turns out to be a replacement for the APS-H-format EOS-1D Mark IV, as well. The 18.1-megapixel, full-frame EOS-1D X is faster than the EOS-1D Mark IV action camera, much faster than the EOS-1Ds Mark III, and should deliver better image quality than either—and at higher ISOs. While some were expecting more megapixels than the EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon went with 18.1 to provide an optimal balance among image quality, shooting speed and high-ISO performance.

The specs tell the tale. The EOS-1D X can shoot full-res, 18.1-megapixel raw files at 12 fps with phase-detection AF for each frame, and it can shoot JPEGs with the mirror locked up (no AF during shooting) at 14 fps. It has a normal ISO range of 100-51,200, settable in 1⁄3-stop increments, which can be expanded down to ISO 50 and up to an amazing 204,800. That performance is significantly better than the Mark III’s 5 fps and even the action-oriented Mark IV’s 10 fps. The EOS-1D X also beats the 1Ds Mark III and the 1D Mark IV ISO capabilities—a normal range of 100-12,800 with a high of 102,400 for the Mark IV and a normal range 100-1600 with a high of 3200 for the Mark III. Importantly, image quality is touted to be better than that of either predecessor.

Also boosting performance are new-generation DIGIC 5+ processors, each 17x more powerful than the DIGIC 4s found in the EOS-1D Mark IV (which, in turn, are 6x more powerful than the DIGIC IIIs in the EOS-1Ds Mark III). Besides speeding camera operation, this makes it possible to use new higher-performance noise-reduction algorithms, on-the-fly chromatic-aberration correction and an improved video codec.

A totally new High Density Reticular AF system features 61 points, 41 of them cross-types with lenses of ƒ/4 or faster and 20 cross-types with lenses of ƒ/5.6 or faster (versus no cross-types at ƒ/5.6 with previous cameras). There are even five central dual cross-type points for lenses of ƒ/2.8 or faster. The 61 points cover 52% of the frame area (vs. 41% for previous EOS-1 cameras), and you can select any one of them manually. A new AI Servo II tracking algorithm promises the best performance yet in an EOS camera. Unfortunately, lost in all this is the ability to autofocus at ƒ/8 as previous EOS-1 cameras could do. If you rely on teleconverters, this will be an AF limitation.

The metering system also is all new, with a 100,000-pixel, RGB-metering sensor and its own dedicated DIGIC 4 processor. The system provides 252 metering zones for general shooting and 35 zones for low light. Intelligent Subject Analysis uses face detection and color recognition for added accuracy. The X also includes partial and spot metering, as well as center-weighted average metering.

When it comes to video, the EOS-1D X can shoot 1920×1080 full HD at 30, 25 and 24 fps; 1280×720 HD at 60 and 50 fps; and 640×480 SD at 30 and 25 fps. For the first time in a DSLR, you can choose All-I or IPB compression, and Rec. Run or Free Run timecoding. You can now record up to 29 minutes, 59 seconds per clip, with automatic splitting of longer files.

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As a 1-series EOS camera, the EOS-1D X has a rugged magnesium-alloy cover and chassis, with 76 gaskets and seals to keep out moisture and dust. The accessory Speedlite 580EX II, Wireless File Transmitter WFT-E6A and GPS Receiver GP-E1 also are sealed against weather and dust, as are many of the L-series EF lenses. A new Ultrasonic Wave Motion Cleaning (UWMC) system provides more effective sensor-dust removal than previous EOS cameras. The shutter is rated at an amazing 400,000 cycles.

The Intelligent Viewfinder shows 100% of the actual image area, with a superimposed LCD display similar to that of the EOS 7D. For live-view and video, the 3.2-inch Clear View II external LCD monitor features 1,040,000-dot VGA resolution.

While its predecessors offer slots for CompactFlash and SD memory media, the EOS-1D X has two CF slots, each accepting Type I and Type II cards and compatible with UDMA 7 cards (recommended for high-speed still and video shooting).

The EOS-1D X can use all Canon EF and TS-E lenses, but not EF-S lenses (which were designed specifically for Canon’s APS-C-format DSLRs and would vignette on a full-frame camera). Currently, these number about 60, from the 8-15mm ƒ/4L fisheye zoom and 14mm ƒ/2.8 super-wide-angle to the 800mm ƒ/5.6L supertelephoto, including macro and tilt-shift lenses, plus 1.4x and 2x teleconverters.

Nikon D4
Nikon announced its long-awaited flagship pro D4 camera at the CES show in January. It will replace the 12.1-megapixel D3S, but as of press time, we’re not sure whether it will also replace the 24.5-megapixel D3X.

The D4 features an all-new Nikon-designed, 16.2-megapixel, full-frame CMOS sensor and EXPEED 3 image processing. It can shoot full-resolution images—JPEG or NEF (RAW)—at 10 fps with autofocusing and metering for each shot. It also can shoot full-res images at 11 fps with focus and exposure locked at the first frame.

A new RGB 3D Color Matrix Metering III system features a 91,000-pixel RGB metering sensor (vs. 1005-pixel for the D3S). Normal ISO range is 100-12,800, expandable down to 50 and up to 204,800, with all settings available for both still and video shooting.

The AF system in the D3S was excellent. The system in the D4 promises to be better. The new AF system still has 51 points, but an improved AF module can now focus in light levels down to EV -2. And it provides AF at ƒ/8 and faster—up a stop from previous Nikon pro DSLRs. This means the D4 can autofocus with any current lens and teleconverter Nikon makes. Fifteen of the AF points are cross-types at ƒ/5.6; one is cross-type at ƒ/8 (surrounding points become line sensors at ƒ/8). There’s a new totally silent shutter-release mode, in which the camera can shoot 2-megapixel images at 12 or 24 fps.

Of course, the D4 is rugged and sealed against the elements, like its predecessors. It features a 3.2-inch, 921K-dot LCD monitor that can automatically adjust to ambient light levels. More controls are provided for easier vertical-format shooting. Many buttons are illuminated, so you can find them in light levels requiring ISO 204,800. There are two memory-card slots, one for CompactFlash (UDMA 7-compliant) and one for the new XQD cards, which are 25% to 30% faster. The Virtual Horizon now covers roll, pitch and yaw axes.

Video resolutions include 1920x1080p at 30 and 24 fps and 1280x720p at 60 fps. You can adjust the shutter speed, aperture and ISO independently. A built-in microphone provides mono sound; there also are jacks for an external stereo mic and headphones. B-frame compression makes for more detailed output with reasonable file size. The low-pass filter over the image sensor has been optimized to minimize video artifacts.

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You can shoot video at three crop settings: FX (full-frame), DX (APS-C, 1.5x crop) and 2.7x crop. Since maximum video resolution is 1920×1080, there’s no loss of resolution when you crop for movies as there is when you do it for stills. These modes provide lots of focal-length/framing flexibility with each of your lenses. If you have the 70-200mm ƒ/2.8, it effectively becomes a 105-300mm in DX mode and a 189-540mm in 2.7x mode—all at full HD resolution.

The D4 can use all current AF and AF-S Nikkor lenses and most old ones. If DX Nikkor lenses, which are designed specifically for DX/APS-C format, are used, the camera will automatically crop to DX format. Currently, the lens lineup comprises 71 (including manual-focus and DX lenses), from a 14mm ƒ/2.8 super-wide-angle and 16mm ƒ/2.8 fisheye to a 600mm ƒ/4 supertelephoto, including macro and tilt-shift lenses, plus 1.4x, 1.7x and 2x teleconverters.

Sigma SD1
Sigma’s DSLRs have always been unique. Besides having a reputation for simplicity, the Sigma DSLRs exclusively use the Foveon X3 image sensor. Thephotosensitive “pixels” in image sensors detect how much light strikes them, but can’t detect its color. To get color information, conventional sensors are covered with a grid of red, green and blue filters, so each pixel records light of one primary color. The other colors for each pixel are produced via sophisticated interpolation using data from neighboring pixels. This process (known as demosaicing) creates image artifacts, which are mitigated by placing a low-pass filter over the sensor. The Foveon sensor (Sigma bought Foveon in 2008) takes advantage of the fact that light penetrates silicon to different depths, depending on wavelength: short (blue) wavelengths penetrate the least, green wavelengths somewhat deeper and red wavelengths the deepest.

The Foveon sensor stacks three layers of pixels, the top layer recording (mostly) blue light, the middle layer, green, and the bottom layer, red. Thus, each pixel site records all three primary colors, so there’s no need for a filter grid, demosaicing or a low-pass filter. As a result, Sigma maintains that the Foveon sensor delivers a resolution equivalent to that of a conventional sensor of a somewhat higher pixel count. Exactly how much more is subject to debate, but around 2x is a common figure. This would give the SD1’s sensor a lines-per-image-height resolution roughly equal to that of a conventional 24- to 28-megapixel sensor. The Foveon sensor also delivers a unique color rendition. Sigma’s TRUE II (Three-layer Responsive Ultimate Engine) image processor optimizes output from the X3 sensor.

Camera-wise, the SD1 is a solid, pro-oriented, magnesium-alloy body that’s sealed against moisture and dust. It has a 3.0-inch, 460K-dot LCD monitor (but no live-view or video capabilities), and the eye-level SLR finder shows 98% of the actual image area. There’s an 11-point AF system with twin cross-sensors (you can select any of the points manually, if desired), and a 77-segment evaluative metering system with center-weighted and spot capability, as well. The single card slot takes Type 1 CompactFlash cards (UDMA-compatible).

Twin control dials provide direct access to exposure modes (program, shutter-priority, aperture-priority and metered manual), drive modes and user-chosen custom settings—and you can even activate mirror prelock without going into LCD monitor menus. There’s also a built-in flash, which is a rarity on a pro DSLR. The hot-shoe takes dedicated external flash units, and a PC connector attaches to studio flash systems. Maximum flash-sync shutter speed is 1⁄180 sec.

Sigma offers more than 40 lenses for the SD1, from a 4.5mm circular fisheye and 8-16mm superwide zoom to an 800mm supertelephoto, including macro lenses. With the SD1’s 1.5x focal-length factor, this gives you access to focal lengths equivalent to 12-1200mm on a 35mm camera, not counting the circular and full-frame fisheyes. Teleconverters of 1.4x and 2x are available.

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Sony SLT-A77
At the end of summer 2011, Sony introduced several new cameras, including the advanced A77. This pro-grade DSLR provides continuous phase-detection autofocusing even during live-view and video shooting, thanks to its unique translucent-mirror system. In conventional DSLRs, the SLR mirror rests in the “down” position for composing and focusing, then flips up out of the light path during exposure so light can reach the image sensor. A major drawback is that the phase-detection AF system can’t function when the mirror is in the “up” position because light can’t reach the AF sensor. The mirror must be up for live-view (and video) to function, so phase-detection AF usually isn’t possible in these modes.

With Sony’s SLT technology, the mirror is translucent and fixed in the down position. It reflects a small portion of the light coming through the lens up to the phase-detection AF sensor, while transmitting most of the light to the image sensor. Thus, the phase-detection AF system can function at all times, even for live-view and video shooting.

Full-time phase-detection AF isn’t the A77’s only major asset. The 24.3-megapixel APS-C image sensor delivers 6000×4000-pixel images in RAW or JPEG form. A new Bionz imaging engine can process all that data quickly enough to permit shooting full-resolution images (RAW or JPEG) at 12 fps with continuous autofocus (albeit with the lens at its widest aperture and exposure locked at the first frame). It also can shoot at 8 fps at any aperture, with exposure set for each frame.

Instead of an SLR’s pentaprism or pentamirror optical viewfinder, the A77 has an OLED Tru-Finder. This remarkable XGA (2.4-million-dot) eye-level electronic viewfinder performs better than previous EVFs. In fact, we were able to track birds in flight with it with our preproduction test camera. The finder shows 100% of the actual image area, at a 1.09x magnification (with a 50mm lens at infinity), and provides dioptric eyepiece correction from -4.0 to +3.0, which is more than typical DSLR finders. It also can show extensive shooting information, if desired, as well as previewing exposure compensation, white balance and Creative Style settings. You can display three types of grids, which are especially helpful for keeping the horizon horizontal in landscapes.

Auto HDR quickly shoots three bracketed exposures and merges the best of each into an image with detail from shadows through highlights—even for handheld shooting. Dynamic Range Optimizer improves shadow and highlight detail with a single shot. Handheld Twilight shoots a six-shot burst at different settings, then uses proprietary Sony digital compositing technology and noise reduction to produce a single image with suppressed blur and noise. A built-in GPS unit automatically geotags your images as you shoot (with latitude, longitude and altitude). The camera uses that data to determine where a specific image was shot. Sweep Panorama makes it easy to create dramatic stitched panorama images in-camera simply by sweeping the camera across a scene. There’s even a 3D Sweep Panorama mode.

The A77 is well sealed against moisture and dust, and the rugged magnesium-alloy body has a shutter tested to 150,000 cycles, and there’s a sensor-dust removal system. The DT 16-50mm ƒ/2.8 SSM kit zoom, VG-C77AM vertical grip and HVL-F43AM flash unit also are sealed against weather and dust. The camera automatically corrects for vignetting, chromatic aberration and distortion, and offers AF fine-tuning.

The camera has a new AVCHD Progressive 2.0 codec, which provides 1920×1080 full HD video at 60p, 60i and 24p for a cinematic look. The A77 also can shoot 1440×1080 and 640×480 MP4 video at 30p. And you get eye-level viewing and full-time phase-detection AF while shooting. The camera has a 3.0-inch, 921,000-dot LCD monitor that tilts 150° up and 180° down, as well as 180° clockwise and 90° counterclockwise. You can record stereo sound via built-in microphones, and plug an external microphone into the provided jack.

Like all Sony DSLRs, the A77 has the Sony SteadyShot INSIDE sensor-shift image stabilization. Because this stabilization system is in the body, it’s compatible with all lenses.

The A77 can use all Sony A-mount lenses and legacy Konica Minolta Maxxum lenses. The Sony lineup currently numbers 30, from an 11-18mm superwide zoom to a 70-400mm zoom, including a 16mm fisheye and three macro lenses, plus 1.4x and 2x teleconverters.

New-Breed DSLRs: Key Features
  Canon EOS-1D X Nikon D4 Sigma SD1 Sony SLT-A77
Sensor 18.1 MP CMOS 16.2 MP CMOS 14.8×3** 24.3 MP CMOS
Max. Image Size (pixels) 5184×3456 4928×3280 4704×3136 6000×4000
Sensor Size 36x24mm 36×23.9mm 23.5×15.7mm 23.5×15.6mm
op Video 1920×1080/30p 1920×1080/30p None 1920×1080/60p
AF System 61-point 51-point 11-point 19-point
Shutter Speeds 30 to 1⁄8000 sec. 30 to 1⁄8000 sec. 30 to 1⁄8000 sec. 0 to 1⁄8000 sec.
Normal ISO Range 100-51,200 100-12,800 100-6400 100-16,000
Expanded ISO Speeds 50-204,800 50-204,800 None 25,600
Metering 252-zone, CW, spot 91,000-pixel, CW, spot 77-segment, CW, spot 1200-zone, CW, spot
Max. Drive Rate* 12 fps 10 fps 5 fps 12 fps
Storage Media Dual CF slots XQD & CF CF MS & SD/SDHC/SDXC
Power Source LP-E4N Li-ion EN-EL18 Li-ion BP-21 Li-ion NP-FM500H Li-ion
Dimensions 6.2×6.4×3.3 in. 6.3×6.2×3.6 in. 5.7×4.4×3.1 in. 5.6×4.1×3.2 in.
Weight TBA 41.6 oz. 24.9 oz. 23.0 oz.
Est. Street Price TBA $5,999 $6,899 $1,399
*Maximum drive rate at full resolution with autofocusing.
**The SD1 has a Foveon X3 sensor, with three 14.8-megapixel layers, so total pixels = 14.8×3 = 44.4 megapixels; image size is 4704×3136 pixels. See text for more details.