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Makers of Digital SLR cameras long ago settled on the APS-C sensor, named after a small film format that came in the late nineties and disappeared soon after. APS-C sensors have an area less than half that of a 35mm frame – about 16 x24mm compared with 24 x36 for full frame. Kodak and Canon were the first to use full-frame sensors in 2003 but the prices of these cameras were quoted in 5 figures.
Advances in sensor technology, along with greatly improved yields, have driven the cost of full frame sensors down while megapixels went up. Nikon took until 2007 to release its first full frame DSLR, the D3. Both the D3 and the D700 that followed it made do with 12 megapixels, where Canon went as high as 21 for the big SD1 Mk III and the new 5D MkII.
Sony had jumped into the full frame market as well with the A900 late in 2008 and then the A850, both delivering 24 megapixel detail. At US$2000, the Sony A850 became the cheapest full frame DSLR on the market, and offered 24 pixels.
Much like laptops, digital cameras are good for about 18 months after release, when they tend to drift into rapid obsolescence. And, just like laptops, DSLRs follow Moore’s law and double their grunt or halve their prices every year or two. Sony forced the issue because Sony wanted to muscle in on this lucrative market, and because Sony had the technology – it makes the full frame sensors for Nikon.
So here we are with what look like several affordable choices, at least on paper: the 12mp Nikon D700, the 21mp Canon 5D MkII and the 24mp Sony a850, all for around US$ 2,500.
Only a year ago, Nikon launched the D3x with its version of Sony’s 24mp sensor and a US$8,000 price tag, and a chorus of voices shouted ‘rip-off’.
Shouting is easier than switching with these ‘system’ cameras, as there are strings attached in the form of expensive lenses which only fit one brand. That explains why Nikon guru Thom Hogan penned a piece called Sony Envy, where he offered us some ‘cold-shower’ advice along the lines that we should focus on our shooting skill not on our shooting kits.
Make no mistake, these cameras are serious kit. You know that from the moment you pick one up. The three contenders pictured above each weigh a kilo without lenses attached, or two kilos with batteries and pro-grade metal-lenses. Their bulked-up bodies tell the world that you’re a dead-serious photo geek since no one else would cart around a camera this big.
These things are loaded in other ways too: they offer more features than a thousand faces and give you more menu options than a Chinese restaurant. They let you shoot umpteen frames a second at a sports carnival, and shoot without flash on a moonlit night. What they don’t let you do is walk easy or travel easy.
I managed to get my hands on a Nikon D700, a solid lump made from magnesium alloy, not plastic. It’s not too big in my long-fingered hands, but it makes me nervous holding a camera that costs as much as this. Clearly it’s too expensive for shooting the grand kids if it involves rolling around the floor with them, or frolicking in the sand on the beach. And just as clearly, the D700 is too big for taking on leisurely walks around the harbour.
This is a serious camera for serious photography, and it belongs to a good friend who’s a pro shooter. For him, the D700 is a bargain because it cost half as much as a Nikon D3. The Nikon D700 is a D3 in a more compact body, relatively speaking.
It misses out on a few tweaks like the 4:5 aspect ratio option, a second memory card slot and 8 frames/sec continuous shooting. Instead, the D700 gets a built-in flash, sensor cleaning and LiveView. You can read the gory details in these excellent reviews here and here.
Fewer pixels on a bigger sensor are a good omen for minimising digital noise, and the D700 is proof of that concept. Not long ago, ISO 3200 was a silly boast on a camera’s menu but it’s become a realistic default option on the D700, and even ISO 6400 produces images with very little noise. This means that you can take shots at a dimly lit dining room table with a shutter speed fast enough for handholding.
Nikon isn’t resting on its laurels. The new D3S has three ‘Hi’ settings – ISO 25,600, 51,200 and 102,400 – which means we’re talking about shooting in total darkness, taking photos of objects our eyes would never see. The D3X with 24mp is not in the same low-light class.
High ISO isn’t just good for low light, of course. It lets you shoot much faster in all kinds of conditions without reaching for the tripod: in dark forests, under stormy skies and in dim churches. And inside sports stadiums, where the D700 shines with a continuous frame rate of 5 per second. Regardless of the file type you choose – raw, JPEG or TIFF, 12-bit or 14-bit, ten shots take about ten seconds to store in flash memory. Of course, the buffer will accommodate far more JPEG files than raw ones.
?To me, the Nikon D700 looks like the perfect all-round camera, from landscapes to sports. 12 megapixels may be a limitation for pro shooters who have to shoot prints that cover the side of a bus, so they’d need to reach for a Canon or Sony or Nikon’s new 24mp D3X or a Hasselblad.
The heft of full-frame cameras is an obvious issue for amateur shooters, and Canon’s and Sony’s contenders aren’t any smaller or lighter than Nikon’s. Size may be an acceptable trade-off for those of us who still own Nikon film lenses, which are full-frame by definition and which are granted a new lease of life by these cameras.
If you’re starting from scratch, APS-C sensor cameras literally stretch your dollar further because the bodies are cheaper. Then there’s the 1.5 crop factor of what Nikon calls ‘DX’ lenses vs ‘FX’ for full frame. FX tele-zooms get seriously expensive over 300mm but, because of the crop factor on a DX camera, a cheap Sigma 70-300mm FX lens becomes a 105-450 lens. It’s a different story at the super-wide end where the crop factor works against the smaller sensor.
If you’re eyeing off a 21 or 24mp DSLR, you should also allow for practical considerations: for one, your PC hardware will feel the strain, from your chipset to your storage and backup systems. A 14-bit RAW+JPEG image will take 30MB or more of memory card or disk space, and suddenly you need to buy double or triple everything. These cameras give you the option of shooting in APS-C mode, but that’s not what you bought them for.
The Nikon D700 is an envy-inducing device, a camera of breathtaking all-round competence. It’s hard to think of anything you could improve here, and that includes Nikon’s class-leading ergonomics with logical menus and enough buttons to assign your favourite functions to, and everything else falling to hand readily. We could argue that you don’t have to be much of a photographer to shoot great photos with a camera like this, and that the camera isn’t the most crucial ingredient for good photography, but we could also argue that a camera like this opens greater creative possibilities.
It’s hard to argue with the price, though, and it will come down some more once the D700X (or whatever the new model is called) is announced in February 2010. The real question is: do you need a camera this serious and this competent? And do you want to lug around a camera this heavy? Unless you’re a pro shooter or a very serious amateur, the answer is probably NO.
There’s an interesting piece in Mike Johnston’s blog about the Sony a850 he tested recently, where he says that ‘the Sony A850 should be thought of as a medium-format digital camera in a conventional SLR form-factor body.’ ?
The photo shows Mike holding a 20 x 30″ test print made on a wide-format printer by a colleague who thinks ‘it looks better than a 20×30 print from 6×7 cm film.’ Mike adds: ‘I just can’t see a 30″-wide print needing to look better, for almost any conceivable application.’
I assume that means commercial applications involving large format image reproduction, which has been the traditional domain of Hasselblad and other $40,000 cameras with larger than full frame sensors and 50mp.
It will be interesting to see what impact these 24mp DSLRs will have on the professional market. Bear in mind that you can get Sony’s body for $2,000, but some of the excellent Zeiss lenses cost almost as much again so you’ll end up spending close to 5 figures for a full system. One issue is that Sony can’t yet offer the same wide choice of lenses Canon or Nikon does, but neither can Hasselblad.
The Nikon D700 is priced at Amazon at $2,399.95 (Body Only) or $2,952.98 with 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G ED IF VR Nikkor Zoom Lens.