Six new DSLRs have been announced for the fall season, and a seventh should come out from under wraps in mid-October. Of the known six, two are in the top price range, the remaining four in the mid-range (a touch on either side of $1,500). What must we know to present these to the market? Let's start with the two dramatic high-end models, one each from Canon and Nikon.
A brawl was readily perceived between Canon and Nikon, for at least three reasons. First, there's always been one. Second, their formal announcement dates were just days apart: August 20 for Canon, the 23rd for Nikon. Third, they came out swinging. "Eight years after Nikon's D1 camera changed professional digital photography forever," stated Nikon's lead, "Nikon today introduced the D3." Three days before, Canon claimed their "EOS-1D series has dominated the 35mm-based professional Digital SLR market for the past six years." One changed photography and the other dominated it? It's more complicated than that.
Canon's new top-of-the-line uses a full-frame sensor (same size as a 35mm negative) to break the 20-megapixel barrier. Nikon also announced a full-frame model, putting them into this format for the very first time-a realm almost exclusively Canon's since 2002 (Contax dabbled in a full-frame DSLR which showed promise, but was not distributed; Kodak's splendid SLR/n and SLR/c full-frame models were discontinued in ‘06, terminating the line that actually started the DSLR market eighteen years ago).
This left Nikon with something of a rhetorical challenge, more than a technical one, as reporters on the photo beat asked one another, "Didn't Nikon say they would never go full-frame?"
Those who remembered best quoted Richard LoPinto, Nikon's encyclopedic marketing director during the early years of their DSLRs, to the effect that "Nikon would not go full-frame until the market warranted it." That might have seemed a slim distinction at the time, but it's reiterated in the D3 press release: "There is an increasing demand among professionals for a digital SLR camera that features higher ISO sensitivity, wider dynamic range and offers the same relationship between picture angle and depth-of-field that were the hallmarks of the 35mm film format. Responding to this demand, Nikon has developed the D3 as its first digital SLR camera that features the Nikon FX-format CMOS sensor." FX-format, of course, refers to an imaging chip of 23.9x36mm, almost an exact match of the 35mm frame.
We agree with the thesis underlying the full-frame imager-it should permit a larger pixel, which could theoretically reduce picture noise-even for a comparatively small pixel count like the D3's 12.1 million. And yes, as things are shaping-up, 12-megapixels is starting to look small, as astounding as that may sound (we remember when 6MP looked big). But the new Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III has 21.1-megapixels. Since Hasselblad has offered a 39MP product for a couple years (albeit on a larger chip), we have every reason to expect that even more pixels are in our future.
Who Needs More Pixels?
We all know that the number of pixels constitutes only a part of the formula that leads to a picture's resolution, or ability to reproduce fine detail. But it's an important part. The smaller the tiles in the mosaic, the subtler the shapes and forms it can recreate (the new Canon divides the scene into 5632x3750 "tiles" with 14-bit color depth). After a point, a really high-res picture begins to show a dimensionality and a presence that by itself is striking. You won't see the difference on a website, but in a large print or poster for advertising or decoration, a truly high-res picture shouts where anything less just mumbles.
Both Canon and Nikon cite fashion photographers as beneficiaries, "where bulkier, medium-format cameras previously reigned," in Canon's words. Both cite the use of the large live-view monitors-230,000 pixels on a 3-inch screen for the Canon, 920,000 "dots" on the Nikon screen of the same size-as an improved means for framing and composition, as opposed to peeping through an eyelevel viewfinder.
Tradition is on their side, for a large image viewed by both eyes was always among the advantages claimed for medium-format rollfilm cameras and, indeed, studio view camers with ground-glass screens. "Additionally," says Canon, "the LCD-viewed image can be magnified by five or ten times in order to ensure that the shot is optimally focused."
One reason the manufacturers cite studio photography for their full-frame cameras probably has to do with the rate of processing so many pixels in the camera. It's a lot more work for a 12- or a 21-megapixel camera than it is for a 6. So if you were a photojournalist, say, or even a sports photographer, you'd be happy to trade some of that picture-resolution for a rapid framing rate. Right? Wouldn't you?
Then again, both Canon and Nikon cite new processing engines-Digic III for Canon, Expeed for Nikon-that permit appreciable bursts despite huge picture sizes.
The 1Ds Mark III can do 5 fps for 56 21MP frames at top-quality JPEG settings, or for 12 frames in raw mode. Nikon's 12MP picture goes through the camera at a rate of 9 fps, for 56 frames in JPEG, or 17 frames in NEF (Nikon's raw format) at 14-bit color.
Even 5 fps is pretty fast, more than adequate for most non-sports photojournalism. And we're reminded that the Associated Press has standardized on Canons. Indeed, once they get past their positioning statements, both Canon and Nikon confess that their products are built for conditions a lot tougher than most studio settings inflict. They both claim a 300,000-cycle shutter life, and boast of ruggedized, weatherproofed, sealed construction. Inside these full-frame fashionista cameras is a rugged documentary tool struggling to get out.
Choices of Lenses
One of the factors that seemingly reinforces Nikon's turnabout on the full-frame question, particularly for those who entered the business after the LoPinto era, is the company's devotion to digital-specific lenses for digital cameras. They've long argued that besides their compactness, DX-Nikkor lenses had optical properties of special importance to the best digital photography.