It’s generally acknowledged that pro DSLRs are the "best," and in many ways, that’s true. What makes them better than less expensive models? We’ll look closely at what distinguishes the most expensive DSLRs, but keep in mind that the higher-end DSLRs aren’t always the best choices, even for those who can afford them. It’s no fun to lug a heavy, bulky pro DSLR around all day, especially if you don’t need the specific advantages it offers. In other words, a less expensive camera actually may be a better choice for your photography.
The top-line pro DSLRs cost a lot: Canon’s new EOS-1D X lists for $6,799; Nikon’s new D4 retails for about $5,999. That’s about twice what the next models down cost: Canon’s new EOS 5D Mark III ($3,499 list price) and Nikon’s new D800 ($2,999 list price). And those models cost about twice what the next models down in the line cost: Canon’s EOS 7D ($1,699 list price) and Nikon’s D300S ($1,699 list price), and these are APS-C cameras, not full-frame models. So there are considerable leaps in price as you move up from enthusiast to professional models.
Following are some of the main ways in which today’s professional cameras differ from enthusiast models.
Higher-end DSLRs tend to be full-frame models, with sensors measuring 36x24mm—the same as a full 35mm film frame. The exceptions among current cameras are Canon’s EOS-1D Mark IV, with an APS-H sensor, midway in size between full-frame and APS-C, and Sigma’s SD1, with its unique APS-C Foveon X3 image sensor.
Larger sensors can capture more photons—more light—and that translates to a better signal-to-noise ratio and, thus, better image quality. Larger sensors also have room for more pixels of a given size or larger pixels for a given megapixel count, both of which translate to better image quality.
The current lowest-priced full-frame DSLR costs $2,199, about the same as the highest-priced APS-C model.
One major factor that separates the top DSLRs from the rest is durability, especially under heavy use or in inclement conditions. The flagship pro models are more rugged, with better weatherproofing and longer-lasting shutters—up to 400,000 cycles for the new Canon EOS-1D X and Nikon D4.
While many of the midlevel models are still quite rugged, they don’t match up to the top models, with lesser weatherproofing and shutters. (Note that the Olympus E-5, Pentax K-5 and Sony SLT-A77, priced about the same as the Canon EOS 7D and Nikon D300S, are weatherproof.) Entry-level DSLRs aren’t weatherproof, generally have shutters rated at 100,000 cycles or less, and really weren’t built for heavy daily use.
Speaking of shutters, the higher-end DSLRs also have a faster top shutter speed: 1?8000 sec. versus 1?4000 sec. for entry-level models.
WEIGHT AND SIZE
The top-line pro cameras are much larger and heavier than middle and low-end models. Also, photographers with small hands may find the big pro cameras uncomfortable to hold (as large-handed photographers will find the smaller cameras).
A typical pro DSLR measures 6.2×6.3×3.5 inches and weighs 42 ounces. A midlevel model may come in around 5.7×4.5×3.0 inches and 27 ounces, while typical entry-level models measure around 5.0×3.8×3.0 inches and weigh less than 18 ounces.
The top DSLRs use larger, higher-capacity batteries. The Nikon D3X can do about 4,400 shots per charge per the CIPA test standard, and the new D4 about 2,600, while the midlevel models can do 950 to 1,600, and the entry-level models last for about 550 to 800 shots. There are similar results for Canon. The EOS-1DS Mark III and EOS-1D Mark IV can do about 1,500 shots per charge per the CIPA test standard (Canon hasn’t issued results for the EOS-1D X), the midrange models last for about 950 to 10,000 shots (except the EOS 60D, which is rated at 1,600 shots per charge), and the entry-level models are in the range of 550 to 800. You can buy an accessory battery grip for many midrange and some lower-end DSLRs to increase shooting capacity, but these add cost and bulk.
Regardless of the camera you use, it’s a good idea to carry at least one spare charged battery and swap it for the one in the camera when the low-battery warning first appears. You can always put the first battery back in if you need its remaining capacity, but you may miss a shot if the battery dies at an inopportune moment.
As you’d expect, the pro cameras have more powerful processors and can deliver faster shooting speeds, better autofocusing and metering performance, and better video. They can handle more megapixels on the sensor and execute more elaborate noise-reduction algorithms for better image quality at all ISO settings.
The EOS-1D X and EOS 5D Mark III feature Canon’s best DIGIC 5+ processors—two of them in the flagship X, one in the 5D Mark III. This processor offers 17 times the power of the DIGIC 4. While Canon’s other DSLRs feature the DIGIC 4 as their only processor, the EOS-1D X uses a DIGIC 4 just to power its metering system.
Nikon’s D4 and D800 feature the company’s latest EXPEED 3 processing versus the EXPEED 2 (D7000, D5100, D3100) or EXPEED in other current Nikon DSLR models.
The newest flagship DSLRs—Canon’s EOS-1D X and Nikon’s D4—have ISO settings up to a remarkable 204,800, much higher than the entry-level and midrange APS-C DSLRs. This, in part, is due to their larger full-frame image sensors, but it’s also due to utilizing the latest technology. Canon’s previous top pro DSLR, the EOS-1Ds Mark III, also has a full-frame sensor, but topped out at ISO 3200; that’s how much the technology has improved in the four-plus years since the Mark III was introduced.
The top DSLRs have the most sophisticated AF systems, with more AF points and advanced algorithms, powered by the most powerful processors. As a result, they will focus more quickly and more accurately on moving subjects than lesser cameras, especially when paired with pro lenses.
Canon’s EOS-1D X features an all-new AF system with 61 points, 41 of them being cross-types able to read both vertical and horizontal detail. But you also get this system in the EOS 5D Mark III for about half the price. The EOS-1D Mark IV has a 45-point AF system, with 39 cross-types (with lenses of ƒ/2.8 and faster and some ƒ/4 lenses), but no cross-types at ƒ/5.6 or slower. The EOS 5D Mark II has a 9-point AF system, as do all other current EOS models below it except the EOS 7D, which has a 19-point system.
In Nikon’s lineup, the D4 and D800 have a 51-point AF system like their predecessors (and all recent Nikon DSLRs from the D300S up), but now include 15 cross-types, 9 of which work at ƒ/5.6 and one at ƒ/8 (these are the first Nikon DSLRs that will autofocus with ƒ/8 lenses of lens/converter combinations). The EXPEED 3 processing and new AF algorithms result in even better performance. Nikon DSLRs below the D300S have fewer total AF points: 39 for the D7000 and 11 for the D5100 and D3100.
The new higher-end models also have more sensitive AF systems. The Canon EOS-1D X and EOS 5D Mark III and Nikon D4 and D800 have AF systems that can function in light levels as dim as EV -2 (ISO 100). That beats the longtime pro standard of EV -1, and some lower-end DSLRs require even more light than that to function.
the pro cameras have more sophisticated metering systems, powered by their more powerful processors. Canon’s pro EOS-1D X has a new 100,000-pixel RGB metering sensor that provides 252-zone evaluative metering (35-zone in low light) linked to the 61-point AF system. Previous 1-series EOS cameras (and current lower-end models) have 63-zone evaluative metering and less processing power. As previously mentioned, the EOS-1D X uses a dedicated DIGIC 4 processor just for the metering system.
Nikon’s entry-level D3100 and D5100 DSLRs use 420-pixel metering. The D300S, D700, D3S and D3X use the company’s long-proven 1005-pixel RGB metering. The newer D7000 introduced 2016-pixel metering. In all cases, metering was linked to the AF points for greater accuracy. The D4 and D800 feature a new 91,000-pixel 3D Color Metering III system linked to the AF system for the most accurate metering yet.
Here, the top DSLR models have a large advantage over the lower-end ones. At the extremes, Canon’s top-of-the-line EOS-1D X can shoot full-resolution, 18.1-megapixel RAW images at 12 fps (or full-res JPEGs at 14 fps with focus locked at first frame), while the entry-level EOS Rebel T3 can shoot RAW images at 2 fps and JPEGs at 3 fps. The differences, in part, are due to the pro camera’s more powerful processor, better shutter and larger buffer (which holds image data as it’s being written to the memory card). Intermediate models fall in between. The EOS 5D Mark III can shoot its 22-megapixel images at 6 fps, the EOS 7D can shoot its 18.1-megapixel images at 8 fps, the 60D can shoot its 18.1-megapixel images at 5.3 fps, and the Rebel T3i can shoot its 18.1-megapixel images at 3.7 fps.
In Nikon’s line, the top pro D4 can shoot full-res, 16.2-megapixel images at 10 fps (11 fps with focus locked at first frame) and 2-megapixel images at 24 fps in Silent mode, while the entry-level D3100 can shoot its 14.2-megapixel images at 3 fps. In between, the 36.3-megapixel D800 can shoot full-res images at 4 fps (5 fps in cropped DX mode), the D300S can shoot 12.3-megapixel images at 7 fps, the D7000 can shoot 16.2-megapixel images at 6 fps, the D5100 can shoot 16.2-megapixel images at 4 fps, and the D3100 can shoot 14.2-megapixel images at 3 fps. Again, the higher-end cameras have more powerful processors, better shutters and bigger buffers.
It’s worth noting here that Sony has done something rather remarkable with its Translucent Mirror Technology. Instead of using a moving mirror like those in most DSLRs, these cameras employ a fixed mirror that transmits most of the light to the imaging sensor, but also reflects part of the light to the phase-detect AF sensor. With this unique approach, these cameras can achieve not only continuous phase-detect autofocus—even while shooting video—but also incredible drive speeds. The top Translucent Mirror model, the Sony a77, can capture 24.3-megapixel images at up to 12 fps, competitive with the fastest pro models, but for under $2,000. Even the modestly priced Sony a57 at $799 can capture 16.1-megapixel images at up to 10 fps. Innovations like these can make an enthusiast camera stack up against the professional models quite favorably. Learn more about Sony’s Translucent Mirror Technology on our website at dpmag.com/cameras/slrs/translucent-tech.html.
LCDS AND VIEWFINDERS
Today, a 3.0-inch LCD monitor with 921,000-dot resolution is pretty much de rigueur, with some entry-level models (and even a few higher-end DSLRs) having lesser units. Some newer DSLRs have 3.2-inch monitors with more than one million dots. Few DSLRs offer tilting/swiveling monitors; among higher-end models, only the Olympus E-5 offers one.
The big difference between pro DSLRs and lower-end ones in terms of viewing is in the eye-level SLR viewfinder. The pro cameras offer large, bright pentaprism viewfinders that show 100% of the actual image area, while midrange APS-C models have smaller finders, and lower-end cameras use smaller, dimmer pentamirror finders. There’s a definite advantage to the higher-end cameras here.
DO YOU NEED A PRO SLR?
The answer for most photographers is probably no. Even serious professionals who make their livings exclusively through photography may find that their needs are well met by upper-tier enthusiast models—especially those who work in a studio and aren’t shooting action, like portrait or product photographers. Photojournalists and sports photographers who deal with the rigors of the seasons and fast action will appreciate the durability and speed of the flagship cameras, but the capabilities of today’s entry-level models blow away the performance of the most powerful pro cameras of just a few years ago. The good news is that the features and technology found in today’s top cameras likely will find their way into enthusiast models within a generation or two.