American Photo Editor's Choice 2009: Semi-Pro DSLRs

Canon’s successor to the EOS 5D would break new ground in any class.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

History will remember this 21.1-megapixel model as the first still camera capable of capturing full 1080p, 30fps high-definition video, with stereo sound. The hybrid camera has arrived, yes? Even better, shooting video with a full-frame D-SLR and lens lets you create much shallower depth of field, and nicer-looking out-of-focus areas, than you can get with standard camcorders.

A near-twin of its 12.7-megapixel, midsized predecessor in shape, size, and weight, the new model features a weather-protected magnesium-alloy body, updated controls, and a new three-inch LCD that's super sharp. Onscreen we found a more stylish menu system and the new joystick-adjusted Quick Control interface.

The Mark II's 24x36-millimeter CMOS image sensor achieves the same ultrahigh 21.1-megapixel resolution as Canon's much bigger EOS-1Ds Mark III flagship, and at 40 percent of that model's price. In our estimation its image quality rivals the clarity of 6x4.5cm medium-format film, allowing huge prints and, if necessary, considerable cropping without sacrificing sharpness-assuming your optics and technique are up to the task. The camera is also supremely light-sensitive: It let us capture beautiful noise-free images under virtually any illumination, with less noise than either its predecessor or the EOS-1Ds Mark III.

Unlike the first EOS 5D, the EOS 5D Mark II incorporates Live View mode, allowing you to compose shots on the back-of-camera LCD. It's also Canon's first full-frame model with Live View autofocus. Its Live View is simpler to activate, ready quicker, and quieter in operation than any of its full-frame competitors.

All that said, we wish the Mark II would follow-focus in video mode. Once you've locked in the AF, you have to refocus manually if you or your subject changes distance during the clip. But at 2.1 million pixels per frame, our "footage" was visibly sharper than the 720p of the earlier Nikon D90, with more fluid motion and smoother real-time autoexposure response.

Quick Stats:

  • 21.1 MEGAPIXELS/CMOS IMAGE SENSOR

  • 1.0x FOV CROP (full frame)

  • 3.0-INCH LCD (920K dots)

  • IMAGE STABILIZATION: IN-LENS

  • TOP ISO: 25,600 3.9FPS

  • LIVE VIEW: YES

  • VIDEO: 1080p HD

  • ABOUT $2,700

Nikon D700
Transplant the 12.1-megapixel, full-frame CMOS image sensor used in last year's heavyweight Nikon D3 into a medium-sized chassis nearly identical to that of the Nikon D300, and the result is the lessobtrusive Nikon D700. Eliminating the D3's built-in vertical grip slims the D700 by 1.4 inches in height and 8.5 ounces in weight, but its rubberclad magnesium-alloy body felt like an indestructible solid block in our hands. Extensive O-rings and seals provide protection from dust and moisture on par with the new Nikon D3X.

The super-bright, razor-sharp view through the D700's eyepiece is at least 20 percent larger than the D300's, though it doesn't offer the D3's 100 percent subject coverage. It's perfect for manual focus with nearly any Nikkor lens back to 1959-and you get the lens's full, intended angle of view.
Although the D300 has essentially equivalent resolving power at low ISOs, the D700's larger pixels gather light much more efficiently. As a result, ISO 3200 on the D700 looked nearly the same to us, in terms of noise, clarity, and tonality, as ISO 800 on the D300. Even ISO 6400 is perfectly usable on the D700, and a staggering top speed of ISO 25,600 allows available-light shooting essentially anywhere, anytime.

None of the foregoing exacts a compromise in start-up time, shutter lag, or framing rate, the latter a brisk 5fps in all modes, including 14-bit RAW.

Quick Stats:

  • 12.1 MEGAPIXELS/CMOS IMAGE SENSOR

  • 1.0Xx FOV CROP (full frame)

  • 3.0-INCH LCD SCREEN (920K dots)

  • IMAGE STABILIZATION: In-LENS

  • TOP ISO: 25,600

  • 5FPS

  • LIVE VIEW: Yes

  • VIDEO: NO

  • UNDER $3,000

Sony Alpha 900

When it arrived earlier this year, the Sony Alpha 900 boasted more megapixels than any other 35mm-style digital SLR before it. It now shares that distinction with the Nikon D3X. But it is still the first fullframe D-SLR to stabilize images by shifting its sensor rather than lens elements-an in-camera system that lets you handhold the camera at shutter speeds up to four stops slower using any Alpha-mount lens, including old Minoltas.
Though the Alpha 900's squared-off magnesium-alloy body is comfortably shaped and solidly constructed, it lacks the extensive weatherproofing found in some competitors. However, the Alpha 900's viewfinder, which takes user-interchangeable screens and shows 100 percent of subject coverage, is the biggest, brightest, and clearest in its class. It is enhanced by a unique mechanism that slides the reflex mirror in as it swings it up, which shortens blackout and allows a downsized mirror box.

The Alpha 900's 24x36-millimeter chip beats the like-sized sensor in Canon's EOS-1Ds Mark III by 3.5 megapixels. The A900's pixels are slightly bigger than those in the 12.2-megapixel Sony Alpha 700, and so, with the help of image-processing improvements, produce less noise. The level of detail we saw in our A900 images was dazzling, equalling that of the $8,000 Nikon D3X and edging into medium format territory. Fortunately, Sony keeps introducing more high-resolution Zeiss lenses to keep pace with that resolving power, and their AF is swift and sure, ably supporting the Alpha 900's 5fps framing rate (as fast as the way costlier Nikon D3X) and ample burst depth (up to 12 RAW files or 285 JPEGs).

Quick Stats:

  • 24.6 MEGAPIXELS/CMOS IMAGE SENSOR

  • 1.0Xx FOV CROP (full frame)

  • 3.0-INCH LCD SCREEN (922K dots)

  • IMAGE STABILIZATION:IN-CAMERA

  • TOP ISO: 6,400

  • 5FPS

  • LIVE VIEW: NO

  • VIDEO: NO

  • ABOUT $2,700

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