7 Impressive Full-Frame DSLR Cameras
JANUARY 22, 2013
By Dan Havlik
It wasn’t that long ago that some believed full-frame digital SLRs were on the way out. With their expensive-to-manufacture, 35mm-sized imaging sensors and their (supposed) limited audience of professional photographers, full-frame DSLRs were elite cameras few could afford in a tough economy. That’s all changed over the past year, however, as seven new models have entered the marketplace including two aimed at—surprise, surprise—prosumers.
When you need massive amounts of detail in your images, the 36.3-megapixel, full-frame D800 digital SLR is the camera to turn to. The Nikon D800 and its FX-format (35.9mm x 24mm) CMOS sensor offer so much resolution, it makes a great alternative to expensive medium-format cameras. The D800 sells for the relatively reasonable price of just under $3,000. (Medium-format models with similar resolution retail for over four times that amount.) Yes, it is still a significant investment but whether you’re shooting weddings, beauty work, landscapes or commercial images in the studio, the D800 delivers what you’ll need. The Nikon D800 shares the same EXPEED 3 image processor; Advanced Scene Recognition System; 51-point autofocus system; 921K-dot, 3.2-inch LCD; and 1080p HD video capture at 24/25/30p as Nikon’s flagship DSLR, the D4. Though it’s not as rugged or as fast as the D4, which is designed for sports photographers and photojournalists, the studio-friendly D800 can shoot a respectable 4 frames per second (fps). Considering its individual pixels are slightly smaller in size than the lower resolution D4, the D800 is a surprisingly good low-light camera, with the ability to capture low noise images from ISO 100 to 6400. (The D800 also has two high ISO high settings: 12800 and 25600). The D800’s good low-light skills come from its improved optical low-pass filter and 14-bit A/D conversion, offering a high signal-to-noise ratio for lower noise images, despite the extreme resolution. Read our full review of the Nikon D800 here.
The 24.3-megapixel Nikon D600 is a small and light full-frame DSLR that’s aimed at photo enthusiasts but may also attract pros as a back-up camera body, thanks to its top-notch image quality. At 26.8 ounces, the Nikon D600 is 16 percent lighter than the Nikon D800 and is also slightly smaller physically than that camera. The D600 is $900 cheaper than the D800, selling for $2,099.95 (body only); as a kit with the AF-S Nikkor 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR lens it sells for $2,699.95. Along with its FX-format (35.9mm x 24mm) CMOS image sensor, the D600 offers an expanded ISO range of 50 to 25600; 2,016 pixel, 3D Color Matrix Metering II; full 1080p HD video recording at 30p with 20-level audio control and uncompressed output via HDMI; a 39-point AF system with the new Multi-CAM 4800 AF module; Nikon’s Scene Recognition system; and the EXPEED 3 image processor. The camera offers cropping flexibility, letting photographers shoot in either full-frame FX mode or the smaller, cropped APS-C-size DX mode, both for still images or movies. There’s a similar control layout to the D800 though a new dial on top of the D600 also features two programmable user settings. Read our full review of the Nikon D600 here.
Price: $2099.95 (body only)
Like the Canon EOS 5D Mark III (also mentioned in this story), the 16.2-megapixel Nikon D4 was already tapped in our “8 Cameras That Rock” story in the June 2012 issue of PDN but its another full-frame DSLR that’s still drawing a ton of interest from pro photographers, particularly sports shooters and photojournalists. The D4 features the same tough and well-considered professional camera build as its predecessor, the 12.1-megapixel D3S, but with a lower pentaprism that offers 100 percent viewfinder coverage. The D4 is also speedier overall than the previous model (which was already speedy) and it features a much-needed, high-resolution sensor that allows you to print large or crop in on images. Even with its higher resolution, there’s no sacrifice in image quality at high ISOs despite the extra pixels. We got very impressive results up to ISO 12800, which is incredibly handy for low-light shooting conditions. Read our full review of the Nikon D4 here.
Canon EOS-1D X
The 18.1-megapixel Canon EOS-1D X was easily our favorite DSLR to shoot with last year and that’s saying something, since there was a wave of excellent camera releases in 2012. First off, the 1D X is fast, with its Dual Digic 5+ Image Processors helping it shoot RAW bursts of up to 12 fps, with images being stored to CompactFlash (UDMA-7 compatible) cards in dual slots. When capturing JPEGs, the 1D X fires off 14 fps bursts, which is why this speed demon was so popular with sports shooters at the 2012 summer Olympic Games in London. Another reason why photojournalists like the 1D X is its barely noticeable 60-millisecond blackout period after you press the shutter. The camera’s full-frame (35.8mm x 23.9mm) CMOS sensor has an individual pixel size of 6.95 microns, making it shine in low light: standard ISO range is 100 to 51200, but is expandable to a low of 50 and two high settings: 102400 at H1 and 204800 at H2. Along with the two Digic 5+ processors, the 1D X has a separate Digic 4 Image Processor for metering and autofocus, making this a camera with “three brains.” For autofocus, the 1D X uses a 61-point High Density Reticular AF with 41 standard, cross-type focusing points (for apertures as small as f/5.6) in the central area and five high-precision, cross-type points (for maximum apertures as small as f/2.8). Movie shooters will like the camera’s 1080p video mode, which comes with Movie Time Code recording. For journalists who are out in the field and need to transmit their images or video quickly, the 1D X’s built-in LAN connection with its gigabit Ethernet jack keeps you connected. Read our full review of the Canon EOS-1D X here.
Price: $6,799 (body only)
Canon EOS 6D
At the time of this writing, we hadn’t had a chance to fully test the 20.2-megapixel Canon EOS 6D but spent some hands-on time with a pre-production model and came away impressed. The baby brother to the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, the smaller and lighter 6D is ostensibly aimed at photo enthusiasts but has enough imaging firepower to appeal to pros as well. The 6D is 20 percent lighter than the 5D III, weighing in at just over 24 ounces (body only). While it looks very similar to its stablemate, the 6D is about 7 millimeters shorter in height and a few millimeters thinner. To help create this slimmer profile, the 6D has no built-in flash. Along with being a full-frame DSLR, the 6D offers Wi-Fi and GPS functionality. It also features a brand new autofocus system with 11 focusing points and one cross-type point in the center; and Canon’s tried-and-true iFCL 63-zone dual-layer metering system. The camera is powered by a Digic 5+ Image Processor and can fire off 4.5 fps in continuous mode. The individual pixels on the 6D’s newly developed (36mm x 24mm) CMOS sensor are slightly bigger than the 5D Mark III at 6.55 microns, which should help this camera perform well in low light. ISO range is expandable from 50 to 102400. According to Canon, the 6D’s sensor is a full stop more sensitive in low light than any previous EOS model. The camera has a 3-inch Clear View, 1.04-million dot, flat (aka non-articulating) screen on back with 100 percent coverage and an optical viewfinder with 97 percent coverage. The 6D’s video skills are on par to the 5D Mark II, with 1080p HD shooting at 24/25/30p; a choice between All i-frame or inter frame (IPB) compression; time code; and manual audio and exposure controls. The 6D’s built-in Wi-Fi is 802.11 B/G/N capable with a range of 100 feet. For its built-in GPS, the 6D records longitude, latitude, elevation and universal time code, and has GPS logging function. The 6D is made with an aluminum chassis inside but the outer body is polycarbonate, making it a touch less sturdy than the magnesium alloy-bodied 5D Mark III.
Price: $2,099 (body only)
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
We already covered the Canon EOS 5D Mark III in our “8 Cameras That Rock” article from last year but the impact of this full-frame DSLR is still being felt. While it may not be the game changer its predecessor, the EOS 5 Mark II, was, the 22.3-megapixel, full-frame 5D Mark III is a better camera in many ways. Here are the major improvements we discovered from testing the 5D Mark III last year: Image and HD video quality are better overall; it has a more comfortable and durable, weather-resistant camera build; it’s faster, with a 6 fps burst speed; and the 5D Mark III has a vastly improved autofocus system. So what’s not to like? Read our full review of the Canon EOS 5D Mark III here.
Price: $3,499 (body only)
Sony Alpha a99
One of the most pleasant surprises in the full-frame DSLR category has been the return of Sony with the 24.3-megapixel Alpha a99 (model number SLT-A99V). The a99 is the long-awaited follow-up to its previous full-frame camera, the a900 from way back in 2008. While the a99’s full-frame (35.8mm x 23.8mm) CMOS Exmor sensor actually has a tick less resolving power than its predecessor, the chip itself has been totally redesigned to produce less noise at high ISOs. (ISO range on the new camera is 100 to 25600.) Like other recent cameras in Sony’s SLT lineup, the a99 uses the company’s Translucent Mirror Technology, which simultaneously directs light to both the image sensor and the phase-detection AF sensor for faster speeds. On the downside, the technology prevents placing an actual optical viewfinder in the camera but there is Sony’s crisp 2,359K-dot, XGA OLED electronic viewfinder, which is clear and accurate. You can also compose shots using the tilting, 3-inch vari-angle, 1,228,800-dot LCD screen. The a99 boasts a dual autofocus system with 19 points (11 cross points) plus an additional 102 points if you need them. It can shoot at 10 fps with a maximum shutter speed of 1/8,000 of a second. Other still features include 14-bit RAW output and a new multi-segment low-pass filter. For movies, the a99 can capture full 1080p HD at super-smooth 60p and record sound via a built-in stereo microphone. Images and videos can be recorded to two memory slots for SD and/or SD+MS cards. All these features are housed in an extremely light, weather-sealed magnesium alloy body.