Having finally had the opportunity to play with the new batch of “affordable” full frame cameras I wanted to write down my thoughts on all of them. They’re all impressive cameras in their own respects, each with particular strengths that make them stand out among the rest and I enjoyed using and handling all of them at the recent photo expo.
I’m basically just going to go through the pros and cons of each camera separately, and then wrap up with my “gut” feeling at the end.
Sony A900: the newbie
Since Sony is relatively new in the DSLR area (in spite of having taken over Minolta’s line) I think this camera certainly is an interesting new item worth keeping an eye on. It is a very unique looking camera, with one of the bulkiest looking prism housings I’ve seen on any 35mm SLR type camera made in at least 20 years. This definitely gives it a retro look. It’s well put together and ergonomically the grips seem pretty comfortable although the rear of the camera definitely looks pretty busy. Aesthetically I don’t think this camera wins awards but the general consensus is it feels pretty well sorted.
I personally don’t consider the old Minolta Maxxum lens system to be a great selling point. There are lots of older manual lenses available but there’s a relatively limited selection to choose from for lenses from the past 6 to 8 years as Minolta started to fall behind Canon and Nikon (although one could argue against Canon for abandoning their FD mount entirely). Still, the new “pro” 24-70 2.8 zoom is a pretty unique piece of equipment and probably will prove to be a solid performer so I think they’re working hard to make sure there’s a lens system to justify the camera. The best part about this camera was the viewfinder which is simply gorgeous, but the biggest drawback appears to probably be its noise performance.
Nikon D700: the surprise
Everybody knows this camera by now. It’s a great feeling camera with a proven imager that produces stunning images and great high ISO performance. It supports the huge Nikon lens system and even has a popup flash, unique among the full frame cameras. It also sports the best still framerate and the most advanced AF system. So what are the downsides’ The D700 has the worst viewfinder coverage of the bunch, and the lowest resolution. That resolution both helps and hurts depending on what you want from it though, as the loosely packed sensor is a major reason this camera performs so well at high ISO. At the same time, it isn’t going to record the amount of detail the other two cameras are capable of.
There’s really not a lot to say about this camera at this point. It’s arguably the most versatile of the bunch in many ways (still photography only, obviously) with its good – but not class leading – resolution, great AF and motor drive, and great high ISO performance.
Canon 5D Mark II: comeback kid?
This is the camera that so many people were anticipating. Many were hoping it would be a Canon clone of the D700 and I’m glad it isn’t. I appreciate the resolution bump although it’s more than I really had expected (I was rooting for 16-18 megapixels at most). This camera has a viewfinder and resolution which sits between the other two cameras. The 5D Mark II doesn’t deviate too far from other Canons in design, featuring a largely magnesium case with environmental seals of some sort (people still pointlessly debate how it’s sealed). Build quality overall between these cameras seems pretty similar.
You won’t find a fast motor drive here or groundbreaking AF, the AF system goes largely unchanged from the three year old 5D. Some other features still remain weak on this camera, like the range of exposure compensation or auto bracketing available (+/- two stops, are you joking Canon?). On the other hand, you will find noise performance which so far looks to be quite good (the only RAW samples I’ve seen make it look like it’ll maybe give the Nikon’s a run for their money, even with the higher resoution). The 5D Mark II is also the only one with a base ISO of 100 and ISO 50 available, something I definitely appreciate. The most unique feature on the 5D Mark II in this group (and of any DSLR) is full 1080p 30fps video capability which from preliminary samples also looks to be very good.
I’m still not sure how to classify the Sony. The D700 is a well rounded camera that I think tries to do as much as it can for any kind of shooter. That jack of all trades approach leaves it a bit on the weak side for certain types of shooters who want to be able to capture more detail (pixel peepers can debate these two cameras forever I’m sure). The A900 seems similar to the Canon, going for great resolution for studio or landscape work, however it doesn’t look like it will keep up at higher ISOs. If the 5D Mark II’s noise performance is as good as it appears, then that certainly blurs the line further between it and the D700 for shooters not looking for advanced AF systems or high frame rates.
I suppose I should consider myself lucky that the cheapest camera of the bunch (the 5D Mark II) and the only one compatible with my current system is also the one that spends most of its effort doing the things I want and need right, while not trying as hard to do things I don’t need like framerate or fancy AF. HD video mode notwithstanding, I doubt that required any significant changes in hardware and I am very curious to try it.
Update: With the recent price drops for the D700 where does that leave Canon and Sony’ I’m not sure it changes a whole lot for them, but with prices on the 5D Mark II going up in Canada (don’t know about the Sony) I think both of them have to be conscientious of the D700′s price slides. With the markets rolling around and the D700 having already been in the market for a bit, there may be arguments for and against the Canon and Sony models costing more.