The professional DSLR market is an arena, with Canon and Nikon being the most prominent competitors. Only a superb camera with extraordinary features is able to stay on top. Here are five choice models that have dominated the market over the last several years. All of them continue to receive very good scores and have remained a popular choice to this very day.

1. CANON EOS 1D MARK IV

Canon EOS-1D Mark IVImage courtesy of Canon

The Canon EOS 1D Mark IV was released in December of 2009 and it remains a popular choice up to this day. It is the fifth generation of Canon’s professional DSLRs. The Mark IV had to prove its worth: the previous model, the 1D Mark III, was best known for its crippling issues with autofocus, which finally made it lose many users.

The issues were a result of a manufacturing error combined with increased complexity of autofocus customization and the fact that the AF sensor was being overwhelmed by bright conditions. Many Canon fans experienced a change of heart and moved to Nikon after the Mark III.

The new 16 megapixel resolution Mark IV comes with a full frame 27.9×18.6 mm sensor and a new autofocus system with 39 cross-type points sensible in the horizontal and vertical axis. Unlike the autofocus of the Mark III, the new AF system functions flawlessly.

Design, Body and Controls

The consistency of 1D model design is instantly recognizable in the fifth iteration of the model; the two grip factor from the first model launched back in 2001, 4MP EOS-1D, is still here. Even though the camera is big and rather heavy, it fits well into the hand and all key controls are within reach. The magnesium alloy body is also weather resistant, and has 76 seals around various buttons, dials and closures on the body.

Canon EOS Mark IVImage courtesy of Canon

Once you get used to the button setup, the camera becomes very easy and intuitive to use. The key shooting settings are on the right side and within reach of the index finger and thumb. The image processing and details settings are on the left side of the camera. There’s also a second set of controls and a shutter button for vertical shooting, so you won’t have to twist your arm when doing vertical shots.

Display and Menus

The Mark IV high-resolution 3.0 inch TFT LCD monitor with seven brightness levels and anti-reflection surface makes image assessment very easy. You will be able to spot even the tiniest details and make sure the image quality is sufficient.

There are two additional LCD panels on the Mark IV. The top panel holds all status information you are interested in, like the current shooting mode, ISO speed, shutter speed, number of shots you have left, exposure levels and more. Even though the main LCD status panel is more prominent, most users will still use this screen as reference when changing their settings. The rear LCD panel holds information about the digital settings of the camera: folder and file numbers, image quality settings, white balance and memory card status.

The menu system of both entry level and professional Canon cameras shares the same design, so if you have used any Canon camera earlier, you will instantaneously be familiar with the menu. The difference, however, is in the number of options at your disposal; professional grade cameras, such as the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV, have much more options than entry level models. The various sections of the menu are color coded, making navigation even easier. The simplicity of menus and navigation make the Mark IV very user friendly, despite the high degree of reprogramming that is readily available.

The Mark IV menu also holds a multitude of customization options, so you can tune it to your liking and preference. The custom menu has 62 options that are split into four different categories.

The “My Menu” tab is the most useful, according to many users; there you can put the options you change most often so you have quick access to all of them. Any option within the settings can be put here, the custom menu ones included.

Performance

The Canon 1D Mark IV has such a quick startup that many actually complain how difficult it was to measure the exact time during testing. The camera needs under half a second to start up and about 2.2 seconds to shut down. The buffer cleaning time (the time it takes from taking one picture to being able to take another) is from 6 to 10 seconds, depending on the quality and size of images.

The improved algorithms of the 45-point AF sensor deliver outstanding stability and focus. The autofocus shutter response is extremely fast and it takes only a fraction of a second (0.049 to 0.108 seconds, depending on the type of autofocus used) to take a shot. The live view takes longer (0.113 to 1.255 seconds, depending on the settings), but it’s still quicker than in many other cameras. Continuous shooting modes show brilliant performance as well, taking from 9 to 10 frames per second (fps) depending on the type of shooting used.

Canon EOS Mark IVImage courtesy of Canon

The camera has the widest range of ISO sensitivity: from 100 to 12,800, but it can be expanded to ISO ranges from 50 to 102,400.

Battery life is very good too: you can take up to 1500 shots with the optical viewfinder, but only 270 if using the live view. Still, if you enjoy long photo sessions, it’s not a bad idea to have a spare battery with you, especially if you plan on doing a lot of reviewing or using live view to take the shots.

The Verdict

The Canon EOS 1D Mark IV had a really rough start. The issues that marked its predecessor made the photographic community skeptical about the performances of the new model. Canon needed the Mark IV to be near perfect in order to succeed. Luckily and to everyone’s relief, the Mark IV achieved that goal.

The images taken with the Mark IV have incredible detail and color, no matter what format you record in. The pixel quality is much better when compared to previous models. The images are perfect when taken in sufficient light, but the Mark IV still struggles a little in lower light settings.

The overall handling is comfortable and the design is very user oriented, but the video shooting is still a bit unfriendly; you might end up with an awkwardly twisted arm when shooting videos.

One more downside of the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV is the price tag; at $4999 for the body only, it’s not a piece of equipment everyone can afford.

2. NIKON D3

Nikon D3Image courtesy of Nikon

The Nikon D3 is the eight generation of the model line and was introduced in August of 2007. It has remained very popular up to this day. One downside of the camera is the megapixel count; having only 12.1 MP might make it less appealing to some users, but the D3 comes with quite a long list of improvements that make it a superior choice nevertheless.

Design, Body and Controls

At first glance, the Nikon D3 seems to be almost identical to the D2 model, making the switch to this model very easy for D2 users. Upon closer look, however, you will notice subtle but evolutionary changes.

Its magnesium shell body has robust surfaces, soft rubber on the grips and large buttons that are easy to find and tell apart. All the buttons and controls have seals, making the camera weather resistant and able to withstand various conditions you may come across when shooting.

Even though it’s heavy, it sits comfortably in the hand. The well sized grip with perfect depth and shape make it easy to hold, even over prolonged periods of time. Anyone who used the D2 will instantly be familiar with the controls. All the critical camera settings like white balance, ISO or image quality can be changed quickly and without having to go to the menus. The mode dial on the top left side has a lock button so you don’t end up accidentally changing settings.

Display and Menus

The Nikon D3 has a new 3.0 inch high resolution LCD monitor. When zooming in, you will really appreciate how good the monitor is; the live view is very smooth and detailed. If the image is not how it should be, you will see it immediately after checking it on live view.

Nikon D3Image courtesy of Nikon

The D3 also has two status displays: one is located at the top and the other is at the rear of the camera. Both panels can be illuminated and the information that is displayed on them can be customized according to your needs.

Performance

The D3 is also a very fast camera: it takes only 0.3 seconds from power up to first shot, which is a truly remarkable performance. You can shut it down in less than a second (0.8 seconds, to be exact) and the buffer clears in 12 seconds. The speed it delivers for a full frame camera is outstanding.

With the new Multi-Cam 3500 autofocus with 51 focus points, 15 of them being cross-type, you can get full autofocus in mere 85 milliseconds. Anyone should be satisfied with such great ratings.

The continuous mode performance sits steady at 9 fps. It can go up to 10 fps, but it will lock the exposure before the first shot and won’t track changes in brightness, which might be a problem if you are tracking a fast object that transitions from shade to sunlight or the other way around. Since the D3 is a professional action camera, you will probably do a lot of such tracking, so it’s best to stick to 9 fps. The D3 has great ISO range – from 200 to 6,400, and it can be boosted to ISO 25,600.

Nikon D3Image courtesy of Nikon

The battery capacity of 2500 mAh can handle up to 4300 shots when using the viewfinder, which is an extraordinary performance. A large capacity CompactFlash memory card will deliver the best results.

The Verdict

The Nikon D3 is a state of the art, high performance camera. It is built for speed and delivers unparalleled ISO performance and exceptional image and color quality. Its accurate focus will catch every movement you wish to capture.

The photographic community embraced the D3 quickly and with almost no negative feedback. One negative point many mention is its body only price tag of $4999, which is rather expensive.

Even though its primary focus is speed and delivering performance at sporting events, the D3 is also a surprisingly good landscape and studio camera. Many praise it as the most well-rounded professional DSLR out there.

3. CANON EOS 5D MARK III

Canon EOS 5D MARK III Image courtesy of Canon

The Canon EOS 5D Mark III is a full frame DSLR camera with capabilities that amaze video and photography shooters alike. In comparison with its predecessor, the Mark III is essentially a completely new model: every major system has been updated and upgraded, with the autofocus system being the biggest single upgrade.

The 5D Mark III achieved a superstar status rather quickly after it was announced in 2012, especially when compared to the original 5D model. The original model produced brilliant images thanks to its 12.8 megapixel full frame 36x24mm CMOS sensor. The third iteration of the model comes with a 22.3 megapixel full frame sensor, a new 61 point AF system with customizable AF presets and a set of upgrades, and raises the game for everyone.

Design, Body and Controls

The Canon EOS 5D Mark III has a sturdy magnesium alloy body and is very close in size to the previous Mark II model, but it also shares quite a number of similarities with the 7D model lineup.

All in all, the camera is well designed: it’s comfortable, provides a safe grip (although the grip might be a bit too large for small hands) and all the controls will instantly be familiar to existing Canon users. The buttons and controls are easily reachable and properly placed. All the important shooting settings can be found within reach of the right hand, so you will be able to easily make adjustments while using the viewfinder. The power button has a new location, which will come as a relief to many Mark II users who had issues with accidentally turning off the camera because of the awkward power button placement.

Display and Menus

The 5D Mark III has a large 3.2 inch LCD display with brightness adjustment, outstanding resolution and 100% coverage, so working with live view is quite enjoyable. The viewfinder also provides 100% coverage, as opposed to 98% coverage of the previous model. Achieving the perfectly aligned horizon will be much easier with the optional grid overlay.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IIIImage courtesy of Canon

The menus are color coded for easier navigation and offer plenty of customization options. The once overcrowded custom menu is downsized and cleared out. Many options were moved to the shooting menu and autofocus section, offering an improved and simplified layout that makes it easy to navigate through. Once you have set up your camera, you will rarely have to visit the menus, especially because of the “My Menu” function where you can put all the options you need to change frequently.

Performance

The 5D Mark III is quick: it takes half a second from hitting the power button to a successful shot, and you can shut it down in even less time (0.3 seconds). If sensor cleaning is enabled, the camera shuts down in 2.3 seconds. The buffer clearing times are outstanding and it takes only 2 to 4 seconds, depending on the size and quality of the images.

The autofocus shutter response is rated at 0.12 seconds with single point AF settings and 0.142 seconds with full 61-point AF settings. Continuous shooting produces about 6 frames per seconds (6 fps), which are great results for large files. The ISO range measures from 100 to 25,600 standard, and is expandable to 50 – 102,800.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IIIImage courtesy of Canon

A full charge of the battery can handle about 950 shots with the optical viewfinder and around 200 with the live view. Picking up a spare fully charged battery is not a bad idea if you plan to use live view or shoot movies.

The Verdict

Ever since the first model was released back in 2005, the Canon 5D series was and still is very popular with professional and enthusiast photographers alike. The newest iteration of the model, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, is a completely new camera that comes packed with improvements and upgrades. Its magnesium alloy body makes it a high quality product that is able to withstand a wide range of weather conditions.

When looking at single upgrades, even with the excellent 61-point AF system, they don’t seem to be big steps forward when compared to the Mark II. However, when you take all these upgrades and put them into a single camera, you realize why the Canon EOS 5D Mark III remains so popular up to this very day: the performance it delivers is exactly what’s expected from top professional DSLR cameras. Combine that with a price tag of $3499 for body only, it’s definitely a must have.

 4. NIKON D800

Nikon D800Image courtesy of Nikon

The D800 is a versatile camera that can be utilized and achieve great results in a various number of settings. Compared to its predecessor, the D700, the Nikon D800 brings many advanced features, especially in terms of its video capabilities. With 36.3 megapixels, it’s the highest megapixel DSLR in the lineup.

Design, Body and Controls

The D800 is similar to the earlier model with its design and dimensions, but a number of styling decisions were taken from the D4 model, making it a bit rounder and more streamlined. This makes it very easy to handle. The key functions on the camera are easily accessible and it’s designed with video photographers in mind as well.

The D800 has plenty of external controls, with those that are most important during shooting being within reach when standing in a shooting position. The arrangement of controls didn’t change much when compared to the earlier model, except in the back, where they have been reshuffled. Video enthusiasts will be happy to see an addition of the direct movie shooting button within reach of the index finger. One thing that’s a bit awkwardly handled is the ISO button: it’s on the top left side of the camera and you can’t really reach it while you are supporting the lens.

Its body is weather-sealed, but it’s not as weather resistant as some other models. While it is able to handle various weather conditions, it would be wise not to test the elements too much.

One thing that’s lacking in the D800 design is the vertical grip, but you can purchase an accessory battery grip that will add vertical controls to your camera, and the accessory battery will also expand its performance too.

The D800 comes with dual card slots and any of them can be the primary storage card, while the other can be configured to either save images once the first card is full or record the same image as on the primary.

Display and Menus

The viewfinder offers 100% coverage. The 3.2 inch LCD monitor with ambient lighting sensor adjusts the brightness according to its surroundings, but what’s really special about it is that it doesn’t change brightness levels only; it changes gamma levels, saturation and contrast as well, so that the image in live view is as close to the one you captured as possible. With such an option, you will quickly spot any problem in your captured images. On top of that, the monitor has a special layer that solves the problem of fogging when the temperatures shift quickly.

Nikon D800Image courtesy of Nikon

One great thing you will like about this camera is the “virtual horizon” mode that can be found in live view and viewfinder; it is very similar to the horizon sensor in aircrafts and it indicates the position of the camera; once the camera is properly placed horizontally or vertically, the reference lines will become green. Say goodbye to tilted images!

Performance

The D800 is very quick and responsive. The camera is ready to shoot in less than half a second. The shutter response, however, is a bit sluggish when compared to the other models, so taking an image in full single point autofocus takes 0.209 seconds and 0.306 seconds when 51-points AF is used. What’s surprising with D800 is that prefocused and continuous autofocus share almost identical results (0.43 and 0.44 seconds), which are very good. The continuous shooting, when compared to other models, is a bit lower; the D800 handles 4 frames per second and can go up to 6 fps when using the accessory battery grip.

Nikon D800Image courtesy of Nikon

The ISO span ranges from 100 to 6,400 and is expandable to 50 to 25,600. The camera produces brilliant images with excellent dynamic range and color. It can handle about 900 shots on a single battery charge when using the optical viewfinder.

The Verdict

The Nikon D800 is a solidly built camera with good proportions that will allow you smooth handling even during lengthy photo sessions. The camera isn’t the fastest in terms of continuous shooting performance and can handle only 4 fps without the accessory battery grip, but it’s not built to be a fast camera.

The D800 produces pleasing images with excellent colors and dynamic range, and its noise reduction and metering are impressive. The performance is amazing in both natural and artificial light settings.

The D800 is best suited for landscape, portrait, studio and product photography. With a price of $2999.95 for body only, it’s a great pick for those who don’t want to stretch the budget too much or have a high speed camera and are looking for the perfect portrait or studio camera.

5. PENTAX K-3

Pentax K-3Image courtesy of us.ricoh-imaging.com

Pentax cameras are known for being a bit different from Canon and Nikon, the two giants of DSLR. Even though it’s hard to battle them, Pentax succeeded to take its rightful place among them. Pentax cameras often come packed with features that can otherwise only be found in cameras that cost much more money, which makes them a great pick for those who are just starting their journey towards professional DSLRs. The Pentax K-3 comes with a 24.4 megapixel CMOS sensor and an autofocus system with 27-points (25 of those are cross-type points) and shows some extraordinary performance.

Design, Body and Controls

This mid-sized DSLR comes with a weather-sealed magnesium alloy body and a large grip that lets it sit securely in hands. Some might be put off by its impressive weight of 800 grams / 28.2 Oz when fully loaded, which comes close to weights of large DSLR cameras.

The K-3 doesn’t lack external controls; the buttons are scattered all over its body and this might be a bit overwhelming at first, but having a button for almost every important function right beneath your fingertips is something you will learn to love quickly. Because of the many external controls, the button customization options are somewhat limited.

Hitting the “Info” button will bring forth the function menu that holds the quick access to settings that are often changed, like highlight and shadow, lens correction and anti-aliasing filter. The Auto ISO implementation in the K-3 is one of the best on the market: you can set the maximum and minimum ISO and choose from three different shutter speeds (slow, regular and fast).

Display and Menus

The Pentax K-3 comes with a viewfinder that offers 100% coverage and a magnification of 0.95, marking it as one of the best in its class. The 3.2 inch LCD display found on the rear comes with brightness, saturation and color adjustments, but struggles when it’s overly bright outside.

Pentax K-3Image courtesy of us.ricoh-imaging.com

The menu system is based on the previous Pentax systems and offers a somewhat overwhelming number of features. The menu is split into five sections that are presented as tabs at the top of the page. There are more than 90 options in four of those tabs and the fifth tab is reserved for Custom Functions. Here you can put all the functions you will access frequently.

Performance

The K-3 is fast and very responsive, taking less than a second from power up to first shot. Shutting down, however, is lightning fast (0.2 seconds). Buffer clearing time is a bit slower, with 24 to 37 seconds after a set of shots, depending on the format and size of images. The ISO span ranges from 100 to 51,200, making it versatile in a number of settings.

The shutter response times are excellent, with 0.138 second for single area full autofocus and 0.157 seconds for 27 AF points. The live view takes a bit over a second (single and multiple AF points), but only 0.2 seconds when prefocused.

The continuous autofocus maintains its focus very well on moving objects as long as they stay at the same distance. If the object is approaching the camera, there will be some issues with refocusing it.

Pentax K-3Image courtesy of us.ricoh-imaging.com

The Pentax K-3 also shows excellent results in continuous shooting, measuring 7 frames per second (7 fps). When using the optical viewfinder, one full battery charge is enough for 560 shots.

The Verdict

The Pentax K-3 model is a big step forward for the company. Its focusing abilities, although there are some issues with approaching objects, are much better than in the previous model, and the overall performance of the camera makes it a suitable pick for professionals and enthusiasts alike. The dynamic range, especially in low ISO settings is superb and many still photographers will enjoy the numerous features the Pentax K-3 offers.

Despite being split into four (plus one) categories, the menu system is still overwhelmingly big. It might take you some time getting used to it and setting the camera up.

The Pentax K-3 is best suited for still photographers who are just getting into the business. With a price tag of $1299 for body only, it costs only a fraction of the price of Canon and Nikon models, which makes it a good starting point camera.

 

Resources:

The-Digital-Picure.com – Canon EOS 1D Mark IV Review
http://www.the-digital-picture.com/Reviews/Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-IV-Digital-SLR-Camera-Review.aspx

Nikon USA – D3 from Nikon
http://www.nikonusa.com/en/Nikon-Products/Product-Archive/Digital-SLR-Cameras/25434/D3.html

Imaging Resource – Canon 5D Mark III Review
http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/canon-5d-mkiii/canon-5d-mkiiiA.HTM

Ken Rockwell – Nikon D800 & D800E
http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/d800.htm

Photography Blog – Pentax K-3 Review
http://www.photographyblog.com/reviews/pentax_k3_review/