What Defines A Pro DSLR?

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.

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