While the Canon 1DX and Nikon D4 flagships slug it out for camera supremacy on the top end of their respective model lines, the real battle for the hearts, minds and wallets of visual journalists will be between those cameras’ “little brother” models – the Canon 5D Mark III and the Nikon D800/D800E. These cameras manage to pack a sizable punch at a much friendlier price tag ($3500 for the Canon and $3000 for the Nikon) – and in some ways out-spec the pricier models ($6800 for the 1DX and $6000 for the D4).
In a way, this isn’t all that different from the previous generations – there’s always the “halo” camera that by its mere existence bestows greatness on a brand, but then there are the workhorse models below it – the one most working professionals actually buy. Canon had this with the 1DS Mark III and the 5D Mark II. Nikon did this in their last generation with the D3/D3s and the D700.
This generation sees both workhorse cameras (that’s what I’m going to call them now) from each company taking the same approach to level off the weaknesses each previous model had – megapixels (Canon was already there with the 5D Mark II, Nikon wasn’t), Autofocus (Canon was lacking here, Nikon wasn’t) and a healthy dose of video smarts (Canon had basic, but awesome looking video in its 5D Mark II. Nikon had none – but this generation catches up fast). Everyone wins, right?
Some other things to add to the table for consideration – both are as serious video cameras as they are still cameras, being the first generation of video SLRs to add headphone jacks (to monitor audio) and VU meters for audio. I want one yesterday.
So why should we care? APS-C vs. Full Frame
So both of these cameras continue the tradition of the major players offering a “budget” large-sensor camera.
What does that mean? Large-sensor camera? Aren’t these things all just big black boxes with lenses poking out of them?
One of the things I don’t address in my journalism classes is APS-C vs. full frame cameras. Most of the students are adding visuals to their toolbox while placing their focus elsewhere (writing, most of the time) and so to get into such details would be an inefficient use of class time and would probably send more than a few people to sleep – all cameras take pictures, and that’s the important thing.
My usual answer (excluding video from the equation entirely) is for students to stick with what they have and buy lenses. If you only have so much money to play with lenses are more important – they’ll stay with you as bodies come and go.
But here’s a more nuanced answer – if you’re playing in APS-C class cameras (in Canon, the T3, T2i, T3i, 60D, and 7D; in Nikon, the D3000, D3100, D5100, D7000, and D300s), stay there. Don’t sweat upgrading, because unless you’re upgrading to one of the cameras in the first paragraph of this post (or their direct predecessors, the 5D Mark II or D700), you won’t see too much of a difference.
Here’s why – the APS-C cameras all use a sensor that’s smaller, roughly 23x15mm compared to 36x24mm for full-frame cameras. For another comparison, the average Canon Powershot point-and-shoot camera 6×4.5mm sensor. While most camera manufacturers have adopted this terminology (dating back to film-era conventions), you will hear Nikon refer to the smaller format, APS-C, as a “DX” camera and the larger format as an “FX” camera.
This is not to be confused with megapixels – which refers to the size of the actual image file itself, not sensor size. A 14-megapixel point-and-shoot won’t produce better images than a 12 megapixel APS-C or full-frame DSLR because there simply isn’t as much real estate to take a picture with. Bigger is better when it comes to sensor size, which is why DSLRs are still so popular. Anything above 10 megapixels is plenty large for almost all journalism applications.
Which brings me back to the question of upgrading – A good time to upgrade is when you’re switching classes of cameras – going from APS-C to full frame. That’s when you’ll notice the difference.
I’ll try to put it into simpler terms – you know that Canon T2i you’ve got right now? It has the same sensor as the 7D. I own a T2i and I went through 2 7Ds. When it comes to picture and video quality, they’re exactly the same because they have the same guts – the only difference is the outer shell you’re holding in your hand and some of the bells and whistles.
In what will probably sound like a Ken Rockwell moment, I’d say I actually get better pictures out of my T2i because it has Canon’s tried-and-true 9-point autofocus system, vs. the new 39-point system on the 7D that (for me, on 2 copies anyway) only worked when it felt like it. What are you getting for the $1200 price difference? A fancier, weather-resistant body with slightly better controls and burst rate. If you’re going to spend that kind of green, it’s time to save just a little bit more and move up to a used 5D Mark II or Mark III – that larger sensor (and accompanying higher image quality and better low light performance) is worth the money where a fancier body is just gilding the lily for your T2i.
Another thing to consider with upgrades is whether or not you plan to upgrade to a full-frame camera in the future. Canon and Nikon both make lenses dedicated to the smaller APS-C format (EF-S lenses for Canon, DX lenses for Nikon). Full frame lenses will work on APS-C bodies, but in Canon, it won’t work the other way around, and in Nikon, you have some limitations. In short, the money and weight you save buying EF-S or DX lenses is fine if you’re planning to stick with APS-C bodies, but won’t scale up easily to full-frame bodies. It’s simple physics, really – the smaller format lenses weren’t designed to cover a larger sensor with a photo. When I went from a Rebel XTi to a 5D Mark II, all of my EF-S lenses were useless and I had to sell them at a loss to by EF lenses designed for my larger sensor camera.
Another consideration is crop factor – for a reason involving some amount of physics, the smaller sensors magnify the focal length by about 1.5x – meaning that a 18mm lens is really a 27mm lens. For this reason, it’s harder to get good wide-angle action on an APS-C body without very specific lenses. On the flipside, this helps you when you need that extra reach – a 200mm lens becomes a 300mm lens, for instance. Great for sports.
Depth of field is also affected by sensor size – the smaller the sensor, the harder it is to blur out a background when you’re trying to achieve shallow depth of field. APS-C cameras can do this reasonably well, but full-frame cameras can do it better.
If you’re looking to future-proof your purchases, should you go full-frame, stick with EF (Canon) or FX (Nikon) lenses and you can be sure they will work on anything.
The new standard
That said, the designation “full-frame” is a bit misleading – it implies that anything that is not “full-frame” means you’re not getting the whole picture (something I’ve heard salesmen in some stores tell people to upsell them into more expensive cameras).
The majority of the DSLRs sold today are APS-C format cameras. In a way, these cameras have become the new 35mm film, because of the widespread adoption of this format. They provide most of the quality you will find in a full-frame model, at much lower price points. Full-frame cameras are on the fringe as specialist cameras reserved for working professionals and well-heeled amateurs.
The technology driving APS-C cameras has become so good, that my Rebel T2i or Nikon D7000 can easily match the image quality of the Canon 5D (the original one) that I was shooting with in grad school in 2008. Scary how much of that fancy technology has trickled down from the halo models.
Shoot ‘em if you got ‘em
So if you’re going to ask me about upgrading, I’ll probably point you to this post right here. If it’s too long for you to read, I’ll sum it up:
Don’t sweat your camera body too much, just keep shooting.