The best full-frame camera out there right now

I have been doing research lately, because I want to purchase a new camera (maybe a couple of them, not sure yet), so I thought I’d put together my thoughts on full-frame cameras available these days. Before we get started, I need to make it clear from the get-go that there is no absolute best camera out there anywhere. There are however, best cameras for various needs. What I’m going to be talking about in this article is full frame cameras available right now, best suited for my needs as a professional photographer and videographer, and I will detail those needs below. Should you not have the patience or the time to read through this entire review, skip to the end for my recommendation.

What I can tell you about me is that I’ve been keenly interested in photography since college (that’s more than 20 years ago). I’ve shot on 35mm film and APS film and when digital cameras arrived on the market, I started buying them and shooting with them, even back when they only offered 3 megapixels and an ISO range of 100-400. If I look in my Lightroom catalogs under the camera metadata, I see over 70 of them listed there (it’s over 100 models actually but there’s some overlap plus some scanners are listed as well, so I’ll say 60-70 cameras just to be on the safe side). Also, my photographs have been published in 10 printed books (recipe books, health books and other literature) and have also been purchased as prints and licensed for commercial use. I am known commercially as a food photographer 😯. Yeah, go figure! Do you see any food photography in my photo streams or on my social media? Nope. It’s in the printed books though.

If this preface makes what I’m about to write here relevant to you, good, read on. If not, by all means, look elsewhere, there are a ton of websites that review cameras out there, and the market for this kind of subject has grown tremendously in the last several years. As a matter of fact, I feel that there are a little too many websites and people giving their mostly unqualified opinions on cameras these days and they’re muddying the waters.

From 2008 onward, I have used (mostly) Canon cameras. I have three Canon DSLRs (a 5D, a 7D and a 60D) plus a PowerShot G10. I have other cameras (Olympus, Minolta, Kodak), but so far, I’ve shot most of my photographs with Canon. In 2007, I fell in love with the original EOS 5D. It may sound strange to fall in love with a camera, but the 5D was (and still is) a combination of beautiful design and features that made it irresistible to me. I thought this camera was the cream of the crop and it truly was, in its time.

I wasn’t the only one to think so, seeing as how Canon has not changed the exterior design of the camera through 4 subsequent generations (Mark II, Mark III, 5DS/5DSr and Mark IV). Why mess with a good thing, right? The design is gorgeous, even after all these years. Have a look at a few photos of my 5D taken last night. Isn’t it a beauty? 😍

My 5D after 10 years of use. I still love it!
My 5D after 10 years of use. I still love it!
My 5D after 10 years of use. I still love it!

I still actively use my 5D. I take it out of my equipment cabinet every once in a while to take photos with it, and then I don’t want to put it back. I want to keep it on my desk so I can look at it as I work. It has performed just as I expected it to perform all these years: superbly. I only had to send it in for service twice: once to replace the shutter (I had taken somewhere between 75,000 – 100,000 photographs with it at the time) and on another occasion, to fix the hotshoe, because the rails had become loose and my speedlites weren’t making proper contact.

Here’s a photo I took yesterday. I love this camera!

Indeed
Stefanel asleep on an armchair

While I’m talking about my love for the 5D, I was once invited to the launch party for the Olympus E-3 flagship DSLR and I brought my 5D along to take photos of the event. The 5D was my best camera at the time and I wanted to make sure I could take quality photographs of the event.

Olympus E-3 DSLR
The Olympus E-3 was dustproof and splashproof

As I was talking with some of the Olympus folks, they asked me what I thought of the E-3. My answer was: “It looked great so far and that I looked forward to reviewing it in the field, given that it was up against some tough competition from my 5D, which I loved.” Yeah, that was a smart thing to say… 😬 To my credit, I had just bought the 5D a few months back and I really did love it. Guess how many more invites to Olympus launch parties I got afterwards? ⛔ When I requested the E-3 for my hands-on review, repeatedly, after I’d already published a preview post, their polite answer was that “there were a limited number of review units and they were all out on loan”. Ouch! 🚪 As the Soup Nazi would say, “No camera for you!” 🙅🏻‍♂️

However… and I think you expected this “however” after the long setup… after 10 years with my 5D and several years with my other DSLRs, I am now at an impass. I need a new professional digital camera that meets the following two criteria:

  1. Takes high-quality, high-resolution images and
  2. Shoots 4K video (proper, high-quality 4K video)

I’m looking at cameras with sensor sizes up to full frame. I don’t want to move to a medium format sensor just yet, for reasons I can perhaps detail in another post. So I have some tough choices to make. If you’re in the same boat, maybe this post can help you decide.

This impass is also partly caused by Canon. Just this past week, I tried sending my 5D in for a professional sensor cleaning, because it’s got some dust spots that I just can’t clean off with sensor swabs, only to be told that the 5D is no longer being serviced as of September 2015. Canon no longer provides parts for it and has apparently instructed Canon authorized service centers not to service it, not even to clean the sensors 😡. I’m willing to pay to service my camera but Canon doesn’t want to service it! The camera still works great, but according to Canon, I can just chuck it away. Should something go wrong with it, it becomes e-waste. Thanks a bunch, Canon! 😠

Given that I love my Canon 5D and I like (not love) my 7D and 60D, which are my workhorses these days, and that I’m heavily invested in Canon gear (EF and EF-S lenses, speedlites and transmitters, extra batteries, extra chargers, cable releases, etc.), I naturally would like to get a Canon camera. The more research I do though, the more I realize that it would not be the best option for me right now.

I want a full frame camera. I love the dimensionality and quality of the photos that I get with it. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is that I love about the photographs from a full-frame camera, but they’re good. I know, I’d probably love a medium-frame sensor even more… Maybe at some point in the future…

Let me offer a quick explanation of resolution and sensor size, because it’ll set the stage for some of the choices I have to make. A camera with a full frame sensor can offer more resolution because there’s more surface on the sensor for the pixels. It can also offer a higher ISO range, but there is a trade-off between higher ISO and higher resolution. At the current time, there are limits to both values and it has to do with the surface area of the sensor. If you take a 35mm (full frame) sensor, you can get more resolution from it, but you’ll have to squeeze more pixels in there (hence the term “mega-pixels”). The smaller the area for each pixel, the less light it can see, so that means that you’ll run into limits on the ISO range, because collectively, all those tiny pixels won’t be able to see very well in the dark. You can push the ISO up, but you’ll only get more noise. The algorithms baked into camera processors get better every year and consequently, they can better interpret the signal received from the sensor and you can thus push the ISO range higher, but only so far before you get digital garble. That’s why the Canon 5DS has a 50 megapixel resolution and an ISO limit of 6400, while the Sony a7S II has a 12 megapixel resolution and an ISO limit of 102400.

Canon 5DS Front
The Canon 5DS
Sony a7S II Front
The Sony a7S II

The Sony can literally see in the dark, that’s how good it is. You can sit out in pitch darkness, put it on manual focus, hold it in your hand, take a photo, and the camera will actually see what’s around you! Both are full frame cameras, but since the Sony a7S gives me the same resolution as my current Canon 5D, it’s not my optimal choice. Now, the frame rate also plays into why the a7S and some other cameras offer lower resolution (and higher frame rates), but let’s not complicate matters. I don’t need a camera with an incredibly fast frame rate, because I have no interest in sports photography.

When the Canon 5DS came out, I was speechless. Here was a camera that offered 50 megapixels from a full frame sensor and the quality of the photographs was not questionable. 50 megapixels is medium-frame territory! But did it shoot 4K video? No. It did not meet my second criteria. So if I got it, I would also have to get a separate camera (or cameras) in order to shoot 4K video for our web shows. I don’t know about you, but not only do I not want to have a large inventory of equipment that needs to be mastered, operated and maintained, I also don’t want to spend a small fortune equipping my studio, given how ephemeral digital equipment can be (see what Canon did to my 5D above, it discontinued support even though a LOT of original 5D cameras are still working). Also, different brands require different lenses (this is an aspect that I’ll address a bit further down the page), so not only would I have to get more cameras, but more lenses and accessories for them, and that means an even greater budget.

Then the 5D Mark IV came out. Here was the answer to my dilemma, or so I thought… But Canon decided to give it 30 megapixels (after they had successfully shown that they could offer 50 megapixels two years prior). I am fully aware that 30 megapixels is quite a lot in and of itself, but there are other full-frame cameras on the market which offer significantly more resolution at the same price and same (and some would say better) image quality. And while the camera offers 4K video, it is encoded in Motion JPEG, which is not an ideal video codec. There’s been a lot of discussion online about this (here’s one example). Remember when Nikon first started to offer HD video on their DSLRs, what seems like ages ago? It was also Motion JPEG and people were groaning and complaining about that to no end, while others were saying we should be happy they’re offering it at all. Well, now it’s my turn to groan and complain about this thing, while others are just happy it’s UHD (4K) video instead of FHD (1080p)…

Canon 5D Mark IV Front
The Canon 5D Mark IV DSLR

Also, if someone wants a professional flat color option in video (for proper color grading in post), it is a paid extra. Adding the Canon Log gamma is $100 and if you didn’t buy your camera with it, you have to send it to an authorized Canon service center to get it upgraded. Most camera stores offer you the option of buying it either with Canon Log or without Canon Log. Granted the $100 video upgrade is pocket change when we’re talking about a camera that costs $3,300, but why is it an add-on when other camera manufacturers offer different gamma logs built right into the camera?

And that my dear reader, the price, is the final rub. I get that the DSLR market is shrinking and companies making sophisticated, higher-end cameras end up selling less of them and making less money. It’s logical, isn’t it? Most people now rely on their phones to take photos; they’re sufficient, and in the case of some phones like the iPhone 8, iPhone X, Google Pixel 2 and Samsung S8, the cameras are more than sufficient, they’re outstanding given their tiny sensors and lenses. Most people don’t need a complicated DSLR or mirrorless camera because they don’t need all those myriad options, they’re intimidated by them, they don’t appreciate the quality of a large-surface sensor and they think they’re heavy and expensive. If you’ve just shelled out $700-800 for a new phone, it’d better take good photos, right?

Well… those of us who take photos professionally need more than a mobile phone when we take photos (although I’ll tell you a secret, I managed to sneak in a photo taken with my iPhone into a book 😏) and we also need decent pricing, durability, reliability and top-notch features on the expensive equipment that we we purchase.

We’re also affected by this market crunch, aren’t we? I’ll give you just one example: Adobe Stock. Adobe has been marketing their new stock image service heavily in recent months. I submitted several photos to it last year and sold a few. Do you know how much I made per photo? Around 40-60 cents! Those are microstock profits and they mandate a ridiculously high volume of sales. You can only submit RF (royalty free) and at those payouts it’s not worth my time. I’ve been with Alamy for years and their payouts are much better, plus they offer the option of RM (rights managed) licensing, but they’re killing me with their keywording requirements (¡Ay, caramba!), so I haven’t submitted a lot of photos to them.

I wonder how many of you have sat down to do the math and get a grand total for what it takes to be able to take high-quality photographs. It’s not just the initial costs, it’s the upkeep: the ever-increasing storage needs, the backups, the software, the work involved in managing, editing and keywording the photos and videos, the upgrades to the computers, the displays, the cameras, etc. By the way, if you want to put me in hell, make me keyword photos for a stock photography website. Or make me take wedding and birthday party photos. That’s true torture for me! I’d rather be horse whipped. But the dirty truth is that wedding photography is how a lot of photographers make their money and buy their gear… I digress…

If I’m going to plunk down $3,400 for a brand new camera and maybe $1,000-3,000 more for lenses and speedlites and such, that camera had better be amazing. It had better give me what I need. Actually, since I live in Romania (which is in Eastern Europe), I’m going to pay much more for the camera. Instead of $3,400, I get to pay $4,460 (16.999 lei). Yeah, that’s how things are when you’re not in the US…

That’s what Canon and the other camera manufacturers out there need to understand. Now that the market for their mid to high-end products is shrinking, they need to offer more value to their customers.

You know who’s innovating and who’s trying their hardest? It’s the companies with smaller market shares: Sony, Olympus, Panasonic and Fujifilm. Canon’s sitting on top of the heap with the largest market share and it doesn’t have a fire burning under its derrière, so to speak. It can afford to slow down the whole production cycle. Nikon was in the same situation and it chose to turn things around. People are very excited about the D850 right now, but they were angry with Nikon for some time because it wasn’t innovating.

Nikon D850 Front
The Nikon D850 DSLR

While I’m on the subject of the Nikon D850, wouldn’t it be the best option for me right now? After all, it’s got a high-resolution sensor that offers 45 megapixels and wonderful 4K video encoded in H.264. I love its design. I have to say, I’ve been tempted to switch to Nikon every now and then, but that lull in their product development cycle that lasted years, while other companies like Sony and Olympus and Panasonic were busy creating amazing cameras, dissuaded me from it. There’s also the not-insurmountable but large obstacle of having to buy all-new glass, speedlites and other such accessories. There are no adapters on the market for Canon EF lenses to Nikon FX lens mounts. Metabones makes the best full-featured adapters for this sort of application (using different brands of lenses on different brands of camera bodies) and if they don’t make one, it’s not available and not worth getting (no, they’re not paying me to say that).

We’re coming to the reveal now, aren’t we? What camera is best for my stated needs right now and whyHere it is, it’s the Sony a7R III.

Sony a7R III Front
The Sony a7R III

It’s got a full-frame sensor that offers a resolution of 42 megapixels and beautiful 4K video encoded in one of two formats, XAVC S or AVCHD, with a choice of two professional ready-to-use gamma profiles, S-Log3 and HLG (at no extra cost) and best of all, Super 35mm 4K oversampled from 5K, which means it’s higher quality video than regular 4K video. It’s also got pixel shift multi shooting, an interesting technique that offers much higher detail at 1:1 view (see this video).

An important feature that sets it apart is its 5-axis optical in-body image stabilization. The Canon 5D Mark IV and the Nikon D850 don’t have it; they rely instead of the optical IS (or in the case of Nikon, optical VR) built into the lenses themselves. In-body IS doesn’t preclude optical IS built into the lenses either, so that’s another plus.

In-body 5-axis image stabilization
In-body 5-axis image stabilization

This is important because you have to remember this is a full frame sensor. There’s a lot of data that gets captured with it, every single second, and that data needs to be processed. Camera sensors suffered from something called rolling shutter not so long ago when they recorded video. When Canon first offered 1080p video on its 5D (it was the Mark II), there was pronounced rolling shutter. People called it jellocam and was a lot of discussion online about how to minimize it if you wanted to shoot professional video. You see, the larger the sensor, the more data that needs to be processed when the camera is moving and the more prone the camera is to show the rolling shutter effect. When you stabilize the sensor optically, in-camera, you provide a tremendous amount of help in reducing video shake and rolling shutter from the get-go. You don’t have to fix it so much in post-production.

And there’s another feature that sets it apart: 399 phase-detection AF points covering approx. 68% of image area width and height plus 425 densely positioned contrast-detection AF points, plus something that Sony calls 4D Focus. Compare the sheer number of AF points with the cameras from Nikon and Canon and once again the a7R III stands out.

Another good little thing the Sony a7R III offers (that may be important to some) is a USB 3.1 Gen 1 compatible USB Type-C port. This is good for charging or various accessories that need that sort of connection.

Finally, here’s the deal clincher: I can use my Canon glass on the a7R III! Remember Metabones, the company I mentioned above? They make an adapter that will let me use most of Canon’s EF and EF-S lenses on the Sony camera. It’s called the Canon EF Lens to Sony E Mount T Smart Adapter (Mark V). It supports all of the functions of Canon’s lenses, such as full aperture control, full AF, and IS for both photos and videos (see this for the details).

Metabones Canon EF and EF-S Lens to Sony E Mount T Smart Adapter
The Metabones Canon EF and EF-S Lens to Sony E Mount T Smart Adapter (Mark V)

And if that’s not enough, they also have something called the Canon EF Lens to Sony E Mount T Speed Booster ULTRA 0.71x II (Mark V), which does all of the above, increases the aperture by 1 stop and makes the lens 0.71x wider (see this for the details).

Canon EF Lens to Sony E Mount T Speed Booster ULTRA 0.71x II
Canon EF Lens to Sony E Mount T Speed Booster ULTRA 0.71x II (Mark V)

I can buy the Sony a7R III and the Metabones adapter and get right to work using my Canon lenses. I can always buy Sony lenses later.

 

 

best-sony-a7r-iii-lenses.jpg
A lens line-up for the Sony a7R III

There are things that the a7R III could do better:

  • There is no built-in GPS. This is a pet peeve of mine. Tons of cheaper cameras have built-in GPS. Most cameras made nowadays offer it standard, as a matter of fact. It’s an amazingly useful feature. Canon offers it on the 5D Mark IV. Nikon offers it on the D850.
  • Another useful feature that’s missing is the built-in intervalometer which lets you shoot timelapses. The 5D Mark IV has it and so does the D850. On the a7R III, you’ll need to purchase an external intervalometer.
  • Also, it seems that its video quality could improve (see this post) although from what I’ve seen so far online and I’ve looked plenty, the a7R III video is pretty great, with sharp focus, definition and color, even at long focal lengths. Ideally, it could offer interla 10-bit 4:2:2 4K video at 60 fps, although I haven’t seen that feature on the other full frame contenders.

So there you have it, the Sony a7R III may not be the best camera out there, but it’s the best camera for my stated needs, right now.

There are also some additional things I’d like to submit for your consideration. One is the aesthetic of the mirrorless camera sporting a long, bulky lens. It looks something like this.

This is the Canon EF 70-300 mm lens mounted to the body of an Olympus E-PL1 mirrorless camera
This is the Canon EF 70-300 mm lens mounted to the body of an Olympus E-PL1 mirrorless camera

Mirrorless cameras have their own aesthetic, which has evolved for particular reasons: they’re smaller, lighter, easier to carry, but those very advantages that make them great for travel or simply great for lugging around also make them look prety funny when they’ve got a big lens attached. Imagine a large, full frame, 400mm or 600mm lens attached to a small mirrorless camera and things get even funnier.

While it was Epson who invented mirrorless cameras when they introduced the RD1 (see this post), it was Olympus who made us go, “Oh yeah, I get it now!” when they started making them. A mirrorless camera with a micro four-thirds (MFT) sensor is a tiny thing that takes tiny lenses: they’re smaller in diameter and thus much lighter and they look in proportion when mounted to those cameras.

Years ago, when I heard that Sony had introduced a mirrorless camera with a full frame sensor, my first reaction was, “Huh?” In my mind, it defeated the purpose of a small, easy to carry camera and lens kit. A full frame sensor requires larger diameter glass and even though the camera is small, the lenses are going to be big. In that sense, the a7R III is a strange animal, sort of like a giraffe with a normal head and neck, but a tiny little body. You’re not really holding onto the camera when you use a bigger lens, you’re holding onto the lens and the camera is just sort of there like a lens attachment. Now, be that as it may, I’m not going to argue with results. The a7R III is a fantastic camera and that’s that.

I’d also like to take a step back, put the budgetary concerns aside and talk hypothetically about the ideal equipment for those two stated needs of mine (high resolution and great 4K video), because it’s worth talking about. Clearly, it’d be better to separate the two tasks and then focus on the equipment that does each of those two things best. If I were to have a much larger budget to play with, what would I do?

For photography, I’d separate the cameras even further into studio photography (or let’s call it local photography) and travel photography, particularly hikes through nature, for sheer weight considerations.

For studio or local photography, I’d probably go with the Canon EOS 5DSr or the Nikon D850. The 5DSr offers 50 megapixels of resolution while the D850 offers 46 megapixels. It’s the same ballpark and it is medium-format territory (in terms of resolution). Under controlled lighting situations or on a tripod, where I don’t have to push the ISO range to its limits, I would get crisp and clear high-resolution images (the highest resolutions available from full frame sensors today).

Canon EOS 5DS R
The Canon EOS 5DS R

If I did a lot of hiking and travel photography, I’d probably go with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II or the OM-D E-M5 Mark II. Even though the E-M1’s regular resolution is 20 megapixels, it has a high resolution shot mode where it takes eight consecutive photos while shifting the sensor and stitches them together in camera to give you a 50 megapixel photograph. You’ll have to use a tripod, but this is great for studio, architectural or landscape photography. It’s the same with the E-M5: it offers 16 megapixels but using the same high res shot mode, it can give you a 40 megapixel photograph.

An even lighter alternative is the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III. It offers 16 megapixel photos, it has no high res shot mode but instead gives us the unexpected gift of 4K video at 30p. And it is adorably small. You can’t realize how cute and lovable that little camera is until you see it in person! 😍 Put it together with a few light MFT lenses and you’re good to go just about anywhere! ✈

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III
The Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III

Now let’s talk about video. I’ll point out a couple of cameras that offer amazing 4K video, and they are (no surprise here) the Panasonic Lumix GH5 and its newer brother the Lumix GH5s, which is better suited for recording video in low light situations.

Panasonic Lumix GH5
The Panasonic Lumix GH5

The differences between the two cameras are eloquently explained in this video put together by the great staff at B&H Photo.

Of course, the best video you can get comes from professional video equipment and one company whose products I like is Blackmagic Design. Check them out, you might be pleasantly surprised by their product offering and their prices.

Well, there you have it! I hope this post of mine has been enlightening 😇, I hope I’ve explained my thought process in a way that helped you understand the challenges involved in choosing the best camera suited for the two needs stated at the start and if you liked this, please share it with your friends who are trying to decide what camera to get. Cheers! 👋

Camera preview: Nikon CoolPix S570

The Nikon CoolPix S570 digital camera is small — just about the same size as the Canon PowerShot SD780 IS camera — so it invites a comparative look. I looked at it side-by-side with the SD780 recently, and here’s what I think.

The design is good, but not as good as that of the SD780. I like the beveled lines and the metal accents, including the protruding camera strap anchor, but I think the CoolPix logo is badly placed, and ruins the clean look of the camera. Think about it, would you want your brand logo to be smaller than the line logo? It makes no sense, yet that’s what Nikon’s done. They’ve emphasized CoolPix over the trustworthy Nikon name. Canon hasn’t made this mistake. Have a look at the SD780 IS and you’ll see they know how to do this right. Another thing that bugs me is the annoying font chosen for CoolPix. Nikon, please, if you’re going to keep using CoolPix as a line name, then please use a decent font or at least make the writing smaller.

When it comes to features, there are more of them overall than on the Canon SD780 IS, but right off the bat, one can see the S570 lacks HD video capabilities. That may or may not be an important criteria for you, depending on your needs. The S70 certainly offers other wonderful selling points, such as a 5x Zoom and a very nice maximum aperture of f/2.7, not to mention that the price is about $50-75 less than that of the Canon SD780 IS.

  • 12.0 megapixels resolution
  • Ultra Thin and Compact
  • 5x Nikkor Zoom Lens
  • Bright, 2.7″ LCD
  • Scene Auto Selector
  • Smart Portrait System with Advanced Face-Priority Technology, Smile Timer, Blink Proof function, Blink Warning, Active D-lighting and the new Skin Softening function
  • 4-way Image Stabilization with Vibration Reduction, Motion Detection, High ISO (up to 3200) and Best Shot Selector
  • Quick Retouch
  • Standard Definition video recording (640 x 480 @ 30 fps)

Other differences between this camera and the Canon SD780 IS include:

  • The new Skin Softening functionality, which offers three levels of in-camera smoothing, allowing you to diminish age lines or imperfections from your subjects’ faces right in the camera
  • Lack of optical image stabilization, which is compensated by the presence of electronic Vibration Reduction and Best Shot Selector (the SD780 includes the equivalent of Motion Detection and also goes to 3200 ISO)
  • Wider field of view (28 mm equivalent vs. 33 mm equivalent on the SD780 IS)

The Nikon CoolPix S570 digital camera can be purchased from Amazon or B&H Photo.

Photos used courtesy of Nikon.

DSLRs and video to converge

On September 24, 2007, I published my review of the Olympus E-510 DSLR, one of the first prosumer cameras on the market to feature Live View (TTL video preview, directly off the same CMOS sensor used for photographs). Unless people were to jump to conclusions, I wanted to make it clear that it won’t let you record videos — but I knew that market forces were aligning to bring some sort of video capability to DSLRs.

I myself was opposed to that idea. I thought it would bastardize a DSLR to make it record video. After all, a DSLR takes great photos, and it should only do that. I also thought that video camera manufacturers would squeeze photo-taking capabilities into video cameras, which would result in crappy photos being taken by gadgets that should have stayed video cameras. Well, I was wrong. I forgot all about how the market delivers what the consumer wants, and has a way of sometimes exceeding expectations.

Behold the Nikon D90. It is the first DSLR that takes video, and it’s not some low-res video that you can get from a point-and-shoot digicam; it’s 720p HD video. What’s more, it lets you control depth of field by manually adjusting the focus while shooting. Best of all, you’re already using a sensor that takes great photographs, and the expensive glass you already paid for. You don’t need to spend yet more money on a dedicated video camera. You get the best of both worlds: the interchangeable lenses of a DSLR, and the quality of a decent video camera.

I am truly blown away by the D90’s specs. If I hadn’t already invested in the Canon 5D and Canon lenses, I would be sorely tempted to get the D90. I crave (badly) the ability to take quality photos and video with a single device, but unfortunately, up to this point, that was not possible unless I carried both a DSLR and a video camera.

As good as the D90 is though, it will soon be eclipsed. Why? Market forces. How long do you think it will be before we’ll have a DSLR that can record 1080p HD video? Or how about an even smaller and thinner DSLR than currently possible? How about a DSLR that looks and weighs about the same as a point-and-shoot, but gives you photo quality that’s equivalent to (or exceeds) today’s DSLRs? It’s all coming.

Let’s look at what’s currently available. First, we have the new Canon 50D. You may think it’s been eclipsed by the D90 or the D300, but you’d be wrong. You see, Canon took things further than I thought possible with it, by giving us 15 megapixels in a cropped (1.6x) sensor that also shoots (natively) up to 3200 ISO. I didn’t think that was possible on a cropped sensor. I thought 12 megapixels was the max at that sensor size. I was wrong.

You know where else I’ll be proven wrong? Back when I attended the Olympus E-3 launch party, I talked about the camera’s (somewhat) limited 10 megapixel resolution, and I thought they had reached the limitations of the Four Thirds 2x cropped sensor. I thought the sensor’s surface area was too small to get more resolution out of it. But now that Canon has proven you can get 16 megapixels out of a 1.6x cropped sensor, I don’t see why you can’t get 12 megapixels or more out of a 2x cropped sensor.

Here’s where I get to the last part, smaller and lighter DSLRs than currently thought possible. Currently, the smallest DSLR on the market is the Olympus E-420, pictured below. Do you know what the Four Thirds consortium has come up with? It’s the Micro Four Thirds standard, which allows for thinner, shorter lenses, and thinner, shorter camera bodies. A Micro Four Thirds camera will look and weigh just about the same as a point-and-shoot camera with a decent zoom lens.

Wait, it gets even better. The current aspect ratio of Four Thirds cameras is 4:3. The aspect ratio of Micro Four Thirds cameras will be 16:9. That’s the same aspect ratio used in movies. Where do you think that’s going? It means your photos and your videos will have the same aspect ratio, and the line between photography and videography will get even more blurred, and it’s quite possible that in the near future, we’ll have 1920x1080p HD video recorded by a tiny little DSLR with a tiny little lens on it.

That’s just what seems logical to me, and I’m a fairly conservative estimator. You wait and see what the market will do. We’ll have some very interesting DSLRs to play with in the next few years.

[Images used courtesy of Canon, Nikon and Olympus. ]

What I did in 2007

I made a concerted effort to write consistently and with substance in 2007. Product reviews are one of the foundational pieces of my site. I enjoy doing them, and people seem to enjoy reading them. I thought I’d highlight the most important ones from 2007 below.

Camera reviews (in chronological order)

The thing to keep in mind about my camera reviews is that for all but one of the reviews marked “full”, I used those cameras as my primary cameras for at least a month. That means they went with me wherever I went, so my understanding of how they work in real-world conditions is more than can be gotten from a lab review.

Lens reviews (in chronological order)

I also started reviewing lenses in 2007. Since I had to rent them in order to do this, I couldn’t very well keep them for a whole month, like I did with my cameras, but I did my best to make sure I put them through most conditions you’d encounter outdoors.

Hardware reviews (in chronological order)

I started doing hardware reviews as well, motivated by the problems I kept having with the products I had purchased. I wanted to tell people what to watch out for, and it looks like they appreciate hearing about it.

These were just a few of the articles I wrote during 2007. To browse through all of the posts from that year, use the Archives. Don’t forget to subscribe to my feed so you can find out about all of my new posts in 2008.

Thanks!

Camera preview: Nikon D3 and D300 DSLRs

On August 23, 2007, Nikon introduced two new DSLRs to the market: the full frame D3, and the D300, an upgrade to the D200. I’m late with this bit of news — I meant to publish the post sooner, but I was out of the country and I had less access to the internet that I’d hoped. Still, since I went to the trouble of getting nice studio pics for the two cameras, I thought I’d write about it anyway, late or not.

First, a few photos. There’s the D3 below, and the D300 is right after it.

These two cameras have gotten plenty of coverage already. What else is there to be said? Well, remember the big CCD vs. CMOS arguments that went on and on for years? Hmm, let’s see, who was it that argued for CCD? Why, it was Nikon, of course. What have they just done? They’ve switched to CMOS entirely for their new DSLRs.

There was another argument thrown around, also by Nikon and its supporters. Um, yes, I remember now, it had something to do with full-frame vs. cropped sensors. I’m paraphrasing here, but Nikon people were saying something along the lines of “full-frame isn’t needed for digital, it’s useless — we can accomplish everything we want with a cropped sensor.” So, what just happened? Nikon put out a full-frame DSLR.

Short of holding my brother’s D70s in my hand, changing the lens, cleaning its sensor and taking a few photos, I don’t have a lot of hands-on experience with Nikon cameras. I considered buying the D200 this past spring, but opted for the Canon 5D instead. I can tell you what my brother says about his D70s — and believe me, it’s not flattering… It turns out there was a ridiculously high rate of factory defects with that camera, particularly when it came to autofocus. His camera can’t autofocus to save its life. He’s had to use manual focus ever since he bought the camera. He’s finally going to pay to repair it, after more than one and a half years of use. He’d have sent it to Nikon for repair while the warranty was still good, but there are no official Nikon reps in Romania, which is where he lives and works.

We sat there comparing on-screen menus between his D70s and my Canon 5D. He couldn’t believe how easy it was to navigate the menus on my 5D, and to get the settings that he wanted, the first time, right away. He kept mumbling under his breath about how pathetic the D70s was, and how he could never find stuff when he was pressed for time. Heck, I tried to help him find the sensor cleaning mode and gave up after several minutes. We just couldn’t find it. We ended up putting the camera in mirror lock-up mode, pressing the shutter and cleaning the sensor that way. That’s pretty pathetic from a UI (User Interface) point of view.

On the other hand, I’ve heard some people praise Nikon’s controls. I don’t get it. Perhaps if you’ve been a Nikon guy for years, the stuff is just easier to find, but they sure don’t make it easy for someone who picks up the camera and wants to use it. Canon does make it easy, and that’s one of the reasons I like them.

There’s another thing I can say for Nikon in general. Their PR people gave me the run-around when I tried to get a D200 for review. On the other hand, Olympus and Canon were responsive and willing to send me review units. I’ve also heard of really bad customer support experiences from Nikon users.

Take these experiences for what they’re worth. They may have been isolated incidents — or not. I’m certainly willing to forget my bad experience with Nikon PR if they are interested in sending me a D300 or D3 for review. I’ll do what I usually do, which is to use it as my primary camera for one month, then write an honest, detailed review of the experience.

From a design point of view, these two new cameras look really nice. I can’t tell you how they feel in my hand, since I haven’t had the chance to hold them (yet).

I do want to point out that Nikon has more high-res photos for its cameras than Canon. That’s nice. It gives people a chance to get a closer look at them, and it’s an added convenience. You can see the rest of the photos below.

Here’s that troublesome CMOS that Nikon people used to badmouth in the past. It’s the sensor that does what a CCD cannot, which is to enable Nikon to go all the way to 6400 ISO natively on the D3 and 3200 ISO on the D300 (and even all the way up to 12,800 and 25,600 ISO in expanded mode on the D3).

Yes, ISO-wise, Nikon one-upped Canon, but they haven’t managed to get the same amount of resolution from the full-frame sensor that Canon can get. My 5D has roughly the same resolution as the D3 (12.8 vs. 12.1), while the Canon 1Ds Mark III has 21.1 megapixels — but only goes up to 1600 ISO natively. So there’s a certain give and take here that has to do with the physical limitations (at least to date) of the medium.

If you squeeze more pixels out of the same surface area, the pixel pitch decreases and you end up more prone to noise. If you keep the pixel pitch large, you can get more low-light sensitivity, but you don’t have the resolution. Nikon chose to go for low-light sensitivity with their two newest cameras, which I think is an interesting choice. Perhaps they did it to silence the Nikon critics who kept harping on their noise-prone CCD sensors. Whatever the reason, I’d love to see just how one of these two cameras does in low light with a nice fast lens like a 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.2.

Till then, I’ll leave you with more information:

Should I get Canon or Nikon?

I’ve gotten asked this question a few times lately, and it’s probably a good idea to share my thoughts publicly. Here’s an email conversation I had earlier today:

B.T.: “Simply put, is the Canon 30D or the Nikon D80 the best way to go? […] Was about to get the Nikon D40, but then got a piece of advice that said that Canon might be better in the way of sports photography. I’m not sure if this was a “standard” or a perceived notion. Anyhow, now I’m trying to decide between the D80 and 30D. I know once I buy into either the Nikon or Canon “family” I’m pretty much there because of accessories and lenses.

So… what was it that made you choose Canon? I knew you were considering the D200 for a bit. […] But what are you thoughts on overall image quality between the two given the different types of image sensors (CCD vs. CMOS)? And I’ve actually thought of going ahead w/ the D40 as a stepping stone to the D200. To be honest, I’ve been back and forth a few times… but wondered about your opinion. […]”

My reply, with some additional edits:

I’m always hesitant to give brand-specific advice, because what works for me might not work for you. I have not used Nikon DSLRs yet. People that use them love them. By the same token, people that use Canon DSLRs love them as well. And people that use Olympus DSLRs love them too. And Sigma, and Fuji, etc.

What I can tell you is to try out the camera. Inquire locally, perhaps at your local camera shop, and see where you can rent the camera you’re interested in buying, even if it’s only for a day or two. Then rent the camera from the other brand, and compare. Even if it costs you up to $200 for the total cost of renting them, it’s well worth it considering you’ll be spending thousands on the equipment and will own it for several years or more, particularly the lenses.

When it comes to the 30D and D80, I tried out the 30D for a whole month. Then I went to the store and examined the D80 closely. I liked the grip and feel of the 30D better than that of the D80, but that’s just me, and my hands are different from others’.

What I can also tell you is that it seems the Nikon cameras have a little more noise and they lose some of the detail in low light when compared to Canon. But if you plan to use a tripod for longer exposures or a flash — and both of these devices will allow you to use a lower ISO — the difference in photo quality is going to be difficult to see, so don’t hang your entire purchase decision on this issue alone, unless shooting mostly hand held in low light is going to be one of the main reasons you want the camera.

Once you get above a certain level (you graduate from a point-and-shoot to a DSLR), the brand or the camera itself doesn’t matter that much. It won’t be the camera that takes the great photos, it’ll be you. To a certain extent, the lenses that you use will matter more than the camera body. You can get great photos with any brand of camera, provided you know its strengths and weaknesses and know just how to use it.

One last thought: the CCD vs. CMOS sensor arguments are pretty useless all around. Don’t forget, Nikon itself — while praised for its CCD sensors — uses a CMOS sensor for its flagship model, the D2X. It doesn’t matter what sensor is inside the camera, as long as the camera manufacturer uses it well. It seems Canon makes pretty darn good use of its CMOS sensors, while Nikon makes great use of their CCD and CMOS sensors as well. And after trying out an Olympus DSLR, I was pretty happy with their CCD sensor as well (except in low light). The Fuji Pro line has some pretty interesting sensors as well. And Sigma is doing groundbreaking work with the Foveon sensors in their SD line. The SD14 is a pretty amazing camera, and I would have bought it instead of my 5D if its effective resolution wasn’t 5 megapixels. (Note: the SD14’s advertised resolution is 14 megapixels, because it has three stacked sensors at 4.7 megapixels each, but the effective resolution is still about 5 megapixels.)

The point is to find out what works for you, and know how to use it well. You can only do that when you’ve held the equipment in your hand and researched the field thoroughly. It really helps when you sit down in front of a spreadsheet and add up all of the stuff you want to buy: camera body, lenses, filters, tripods, batteries, bags, sensor and lens cleaning equipment, editing software, etc. You’ll quickly find out what your ceiling price is, and you’ll know what camera body and brand you can afford. And if you compare your choices that way, you’ll have the information you need to make an educated, logical choice. The decision will be all yours, and believe me, you’ll enjoy your equipment a lot more that way.

Videos about photography

I thought I’d share a few of my favorite videos about photography with you. The first video is called “Miniature Earth”, and the photos used in it are really powerful.

This next video took two years to make. It’s called “Koya Moments”, and chronicles the changing weather, light and seasons over Edinburgh, Scotland.

Dove put out a video showing the transition that takes place in makeup and Photoshop to make a model look good. It’s pretty sad really, to see that beauty is not only skin-deep but also quite elusive.

I believe this time lapse video was done by a French director, who drove across America with a friend of his in a convertible.

This is a beautiful time lapse video of the 2006 Reno Balloon Race:

Here’s how a typical fashion photo shoot takes place. The subject of this shoot is Martin Scorsese.

Holger Eilhard, a fellow photographer, put together this great time lapse video of one of the Berlin gates. It’s a whole day, from dawn to dusk.

These are a couple of the “take a photo every day” projects:

This is a humorous look at the rise of a photographer. He’s a Nikon guy and I shoot Canon, but I won’t hold that against him… 🙂