By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
It’s the best of times for serious photographers, as top camera makers introduce a storm of improved, high-end models. After a few quiet years in which no new, full-frame cameras were introduced, we now have four new models, two each from Canon and Nikon, along with persistent rumors of new, full-frame cameras from Sony and Pentax.
Given their relatively high cost and bulk, full-frame cameras are marketed to professional photographers and other serious photographers who require the best possible image quality. Despite that, I’ve been surprised at the relatively high number of local photographers who use full-frame models.
Full-frame digital cameras use large sensors with the same dimensions as classic 35-mm film, 24-by-36 mm. In contrast, almost all dSLR cameras are based on the smaller, APS-C sensor, whose area is slightly less than half the size of a full-frame sensor.
Full-frame models have three important advantages: 1. When used with excellent lenses, full-frame cameras can capture exceptionally fine detail. 2. Images made with them can be printed larger without noticeable loss of image quality. 3. They’re more usable in very low light and at high ISO settings, with a roughly one-stop advantage over the best dSLR cameras built around APS-C-size sensors. Their major disadvantages are high cost and greater bulk and weight.
Because full-frame cameras use such a large sensor, they require bulky, expensive lenses capable of sharply covering that larger sensor area. Affordable zoom lenses, and zoom lenses intended for midrange dSLR cameras, typically are not sharp enough for best results. Instead, you’ll need to buy several single-focal length “prime” lenses. Upgrading your lenses is a major hidden cost, usually costlier than the camera’s initial purchase price. Using low-grade lenses with a full-frame camera is rather like running a Ferrari on low-octane gasoline. You’ll probably make it to your destination, but certainly not experience the car’s full potential.
Let’s first look at Nikon’s new full-frame models, the D4 and the D800, both of which replace models now several years old. Those earlier 12-megapixel models, the D3 and D700, remain highly competent cameras and are excellent buys if you can find closeout sales at a reasonably discounted price.
- Nikon’s D4 ($6,000) is a 16-megapixel pro model that’s intended for high-speed action, like sports, and for very low-light conditions, excelling in both applications. Nikon’s D800 is a 36-megapixel, general-purpose camera whose exceptional potential sharpness can be realized only if you use meticulous technique — mounting the camera on a sturdy tripod rather than handholding it, locking up the mirror, very fast shutter speeds, low ISO settings and top-grade (read, “very expensive”) lenses set to their optimum aperture.
- Compared to dSLR cameras using smaller, APS-C sensors, the D800 is arguably expensive, $3,500 for the body without lens, but it provides good value and is relatively affordable, at least if you’re willing to put off buying that new boat motor for another year. In addition to its class-leading resolution and top-rated sensor, the D800 is the least-expensive full-frame model. In many ways, the Nikon D800 competes most directly with the very expensive medium-format cameras used by professionals, such as the Pentax 645D (which starts around $10,000), the Leica S-2 ($22,000) and various Hasselblad models (I’m not sure that I can count that high). Medium-format cameras are built around 40-megapixel to 80-megapixel sensors roughly twice as large as those used in full-frame cameras. Viewed against its competition, the $3,500 D800 is a real bargain. I expect that the medium-format market will be rather upended by this lower-cost challenger. Up to ISO 800, the D800’s resolution of fine details and overall image quality is quite comparable to far more expensive medium-format cameras, like the Pentax 645D and Leica S-2. By ISO 1,600, full-frame cameras usually show better image quality than medium-format models, an expected result for the larger sensors used in medium-format cameras intended mostly for studio use.
Canon’s new full-frame models are the 18-megapixel EOS-1D X and the 22-megapixel 5D Mark III. Like Nikon’s comparable D4, the EOS-1D X ($6,800 body only) is aimed at pros working in very low-light conditions and high-speed action. Both Nikon’s 16-megapixel D4 and Canon’s 18-megapixel flagship camera are built around low-megapixel sensors optimized for very high-ISO sensitivities. The 22-megapixel 5D Mark III ($3,500 body only, $4,300 with 24- to 105-mm lens) is an evolutionary development of Canon’s highly regarded 5D Mark II and directly competes with the comparably priced Nikon’s D800.
After examining detailed RAW enlargements from all of these cameras, I came to a few conclusions. Although the 5D Mark III’s image quality seems slightly better than the preceding Mark II, I don’t believe it’s sufficiently improved to justify upgrading to the newer model. While the D800 seems to resolve noticeably finer detail than other full-frame cameras, it’s not overwhelmingly better. In fact, although very highly rated by DXO, the D800’s packed 36-megapixel sensor does show some color noise (easily corrected) even at low ISO sensitivities. That surprised me.
Through ISO 800, the sensor performance and image quality for all four new full-frame cameras are extremely close, with one exception. Even though more tightly packed, the D800’s 36-megapixel sensor shows about 2.5 stops better dynamic range compared to Canon’s 5D Mark III. That higher dynamic range is a significant plus for the D800. Between ISO 1,600 and 6,400, all four full-frame cameras produce quite comparable results, except that the D800 starts to falter a bit, showing more image noise than the others, again an expected result.
In most instances, a serious amateur photographer will be as well-served, at less cost, by a top-end APS-C camera, like a Pentax K-5 and a few excellent lenses. Comparative images made simultaneously with a new Canon 5D Mark III and a Pentax K-5 were virtually indistinguishable. Unless you’re already heavily invested in full-frame Canon optics, my sense is that Nikon’s D800 is the preferred route for serious photographers upgrading to prograde, full-frame cameras. Canon’s newest full-frame cameras are very competent but Nikon’s seem to provide better long-term capability and value.
The new crop of Sony and Nikon cameras using Sony’s 24-megapixel APS-C sensor are less inspiring. Nikon’s newest entry-level camera, the D3200, uses Sony’s new 24-megapixel APS-C sensor, but the D3200’s image quality is definitely unimpressive, even compared to its 14-megapixel predecessor. There’s too much noise and loss of detail, even at low ISO sensitivities. I was, in fact, shocked at the extent to which the D3200’s fine detail was blurred, even at low ISO speeds. I suspect that’s due to the need for heavy noise reduction. Perhaps a firmware upgrade will help.
Similarly, Sony “pro” NEX-7 compact-system camera uses the same Sony 24-megapixel sensor as the D3200. Compared to the D3200, the NEX-7 produces sharper images. However, the NEX-7’s overall sharpness and image quality seems lower than that of Sony’s less-expensive NEX-5N, built around the same excellent 16-megapixel sensor used in the Pentax K-5 and Nikon D7000. Compared to the NEX-5N, the NEX-7 shows more noise and lower resolution of fine detail. In turn, the mirrorless NEX-7 produces slightly sharper, lower-noise images than Sony’s “pro” SLT-A77 and A65, whose translucent mirrors compound the problem by diverting about 30 percent of the light entering the lens.
Olympus’ tiny challenger, the Micro Four-Thirds OM-D (E-M5) plays David to these high-megapixel Goliaths. Preliminary tests suggest that this small, relatively inexpensive 16-megapixel camera produces images whose quality approaches that of the new full-frame cameras.
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 website, http://www.kashilaw.com.