By Joseph Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
Nearly 200 new digital cameras have been recently announced in time for the Christmas conspicuous consumption season. That’s probably enough to help you forget that we’ve been in a serious global recession.
Most are shiny me-too clones and knockoffs that frequently don’t improve upon last year’s models, but are more expensive without any discernible improvement in image quality.
Some are genuinely interesting, innovative or unusually good deals.
Over the next several weeks, we’ll look at new cameras that stand out because of their good value or very high quality.
This week, we’ll start with the top of the line, full-frame digital cameras, and over the next few weeks, compare them with less-expensive models from the same manufacturers to see what gives you the best image quality, most convenient usability and best value.
Full-frame cameras use a sensor that’s the size of a 35-mm film negative. A full-frame sensor is between two and four times larger than the Four/Thirds and APS-C sensors used in consumer and semipro-grade digital SLR cameras.
Making a high-resolution, full-frame sensor is costly, and full-frame cameras need expensive top-of-the-line lenses to bring out their full potential. All full-frame dSLR cameras are aimed at the very top tier of photographers, usually professionals and advanced amateur sports and fine-art photographers.
Sony’s just changed the full-frame game, offering its full-frame, 24-megapixel A850 body for under $2,000. That’s about $700 lower than the street price of the least expensive Canon and Nikon full-frame cameras. It’s only $200 higher than the semipro Canon 7D and Nikon D300s, both of which use a smaller APS-C sensor. The equivalent Nikon D3x, which uses the same 24-MP Sony sensor, costs more than four times as much for the body without any lens. Sony’s new price point really is a game changer in the upper end.
But why bother?
All other things being equal, for a given megapixel resolution, larger sensors will have measurably better image quality, especially in low-light and high-contrast situations. The direct relationship between large sensors and better image quality still holds true, and that’s why full-frame digital cameras are prized.
Four manufacturers have announced new full-frame models as of today: Canon, Sony, Nikon and Leica. Obviously, we’re working with most of the top photo equipment vendors. Only Pentax, Olympus and Panasonic are missing from this elite full-frame group. These vendors, instead, currently focus upon making their top-end semipro cameras more compact.
Nikon currently has three full-frame models, the 12MP D700, the 12MP D3 and the 24MP D3x. Canon offers the 5D Mark II and the 1Ds III. Sony likewise has two full-frame models, the A850 and the A900, both of which use the same 24-MP sensor that powers the Nikon D3x. These are all excellent cameras, but with wildly varying price points and subtly different features.
Sony’s two full-frame models are the 24-MP A900, introduced in 2008 and currently selling for $2,700 at Amazon, and the 24-MP A850, which was just introduced at a $2,000 list price.
There’s virtually no difference in image quality between these cameras, both of which use the same 24-MP sensor, a comparable auto focus and image stabilization system, and the same internal image processor. There are a few trivial downgrades that allowed Sony to introduce the A850 at a remarkably low list price. Many highly respected fine-art photographers swear by these Sony full-frame models.
Leica should announce their M9 full-frame digital rangefinder camera today. As something of a compromise, Leica is using an 18-MP, full-frame sensor, a size that steers a nice middle course between high resolution and low noise.
Many traditional photographers really like how a compact rangefinder-type camera handles and appreciate Leica’s impeccable optics and unrivaled build quality. Unfortunately, we’re talking about a camera that will probably cost about $9,000 with one nonzoom lens. That leaves Nikon and Canon.
Nikon’s D700 currently sells on Amazon.com for $2,432.85, body only without lens, and $2,938 with a decent though not spectacular Nikon 24-120 mm zoom lens. Images from Nikon’s D700 show virtually no image noise and do particularly well in very low light. That’s because using only 12 MP on a full-frame sensor allows Nikon to include much larger pixels that gather more light.
The $4,999 Nikon D3 uses the same 12-MP sensor, but is built to a higher standard, can take more photos each second, and includes a built-in vertical grip and second set of batteries. This is a bulky and heavy camera. The D3 and the D700 are probably the best cameras of all for very low light conditions. Finally, Nikon’s 24-MP D3x sells for $7,318. It’s basically the same camera as the D3, except for the larger 24-MP sensor also used by Sony.
Canon has two full-frame offerings, the 21-MP Canon 5D Mark II aimed at upper-level consumers and pros who need to watch their costs, and the 1Ds III, which uses the same sensor but lists for twice the price, body only. The best deal is at http://www.bhphoto.com, which currently sells the 5D Mark II body for $2,700, nearly 25 percent off list price.
The sensor and digital processor are the heart of any digital camera, and these can’t be replaced. If you want a new sensor and processor, then you need to buy a new camera, so real differences in image quality, if any, would be critical when making a purchase decision. At this point, most “entry level” full-frame cameras use the same sensor and processor as each vendor’s most expensive model.
Precise objective tests conclusively demonstrate that there’s little difference in image quality, even though there may be a several-thousand-dollar price difference.
Were I to purchase a full-frame dSLR today, I would go for the least expensive models, the Canon 5D Mark II or the Sony A850, and put the cost savings toward some really good lenses.
Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his Web site, http://www.kashilaw.com.