Full Frame Choices

In my previous post I discussed how much I missed my DSLR while at the same time stating that I’m probably going to upgrade it. The most natural progression for me would be to a full frame camera especially if it offers all advantages I outlined. I truly feel that I need to rent one and test it out before making a final decision but before that happens I need to do some research in terms of what I’d even get.

The Obvious Choices

Canon EOS 6D

The most logical choice would be to purchase another Canon since I already have compatible lenses, a flash, and other accessories; all I need is the body. The EOS 6D is positioned as the natural upgrade to my 7D, with a 20MP full frame sensor, WiFi, and GPS for $1,400 ($1,100 refurbished). Unfortunately that’s where the advantages end – it’s a significant step down from my 7D in every other way. It has a measly 11 autofocus points compared with my 7D’s 19, only achieves a 4.5 fps continuous shooting rate (vs 8 fps), and lacks an LCD in its viewfinder to display clear autofocus points and grid lines. It shares much of its basic technology with the 5D Mark II from 2008, adds a derivative of the sensor from the 5D Mark III (2012), and tosses in WiFi and GPS. It also lacks a built-in flash, meaning that I’d need to buy an additional remote in order to use my flash off-camera

My other choice is the pro-grade EOS 5D Mark III. It includes a 22MP sensor, 61 focus points, an LCD viewfinder, 6 fps continuous shooting, higher ISO sensitivity, and a better screen to boot. It also includes an HDR mode that can output RAW files (the 6D is limited to JPEG) and has a larger and more useful depth of field button. It costs significantly more – $2,400 ($2,100 refurb). It’s more sturdy than the 6D but weighs more and lacks WiFi and GPS. It also does not include a flash so I’m in the same boat as the 6D with off-camera options.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III

Either of these bodies would work with my existing 24-105mm and 70-200mm f/4 L lenses so I could upgrade for the cost of the bodies alone. I would keep my 7D around for a while until I decided if full frame would work in all scenarios, but if I eventually sold it and my two crop lenses I could recoup nearly half of the cost of the 5D and all of the 6D. Unfortunately both cameras were released in 2012 and are ripe for replacement soon. The 5D may be updated this quarter while the 6D would probably wait until September. The MSRP of camera bodies falls as they age but new models start back at the top. An updated 5D will probably cost around $3,200, putting it out of my budget. A 6D would probably cost $2,000 which would be fine assuming it included all or most of the features I needed.

Other Considerations

Choosing a camera is not an easy decision and a lot of factors have to go into it. In addition to price, viewfinder, autofocus points, and continuous shooting speed, I’m also interested in dynamic range, autofocus ability, and connectivity.

Dynamic Range & Shadow Recovery

Dynamic range is the maximum difference between light and dark areas that an image sensor can handle. The higher the dynamic range the more color information captured. This allows photographers to pull detail out of blown highlights and deep shadows by processing the RAW files in a tool such as Adobe Lightroom. I process all of my DSLR images as RAW and it provides a significant advantage.

The sensor determines how much can be done. Outside of dynamic range, sensors also differ in how cleanly details are pulled out in post, especially from shadows. Some sensors provide a lot of noise while others provide very clean data that barely looks like it was dark in the first place. An extreme test would be to deliberately take a photo that was severely underexposed so that it was nearly black and then increase the shadow exposure by 5 stops in post production. A sensor with high dynamic range and smooth shadow recovery produces a clear image with little noise that looks like it was correctly exposed. A sensor without these qualities produces a noisy, grainy mess.

This is an extreme example but it illustrates differences between various sensors. Full frame DSLRs often produce better images than crop cameras and while most perform admirably at high ISOs, they differ in terms of post-processing latitude. Some might say that real photographers don’t need these features but I see them as more another tools at my disposal. Plus I never claim to be a real photographer 🙂

Autofocus & Subject Tracking

Autofocus speed and accuracy were the reasons I stopped using Pentax cameras. Focus speed on my *ist Ds was abysmal, rarely catching the subject when I needed it to and often focusing on the wrong area when it did. My 50D was a huge upgrade in speed and accuracy and my 7D with 19 focus points was even better. Where my 7D struggles is with fast motion subject tracking and scene interpretation. It does not always judge depth correctly, making it difficult to follow moving subjects across the frame and will generally focus on whatever is closest, even if it isn’t the intended subject. As a result I prefer to choose my focus point explicitly and rarely use the continuous focus feature.

But I have children and I love to take photos of them! Children move! A lot! Wouldn’t it be nice if I had a better autofocus system that could track them for me? Thankfully such systems exist. They take advantage of pixel-based metering implementations to evaluate the and track the subject. They can even recognize and follow faces (even eyes!) as they move across the frame.

WiFi and GPS

DSLRs are finally starting to catch up to cell phones when it comes to being connected. A few models now include WiFi so they can upload images directly to the web or be remote controlled by an app. Some include GPS to geotag images just like phones. Welcome to 2007 DLSRs.

Things that Don’t Matter

There are a lot of things that matter to me when deciding what camera to purchase next and there are several that don’t. They may matter to others with different needs, but generally relate to features that I don’t use. These are the following:

  • Megapixels – Like Megahertz, higher is not necessarily better. Existing densities provide plenty of resolution. Detail, color, dynamic range, recovery, and ISO performance are what matters.
  • Video – DSLRs can shoot great video but it’s a pain in the ass. I’m not a videographer; I’ll just use my phone.
  • Flash Strength – I never use on camera flash so I don’t care how powerful the flash is. I care that it is included because that means it can trigger off-camera flashes which I do use on occasion.
  • Memory Card Type – I only own one CF card so it would be easy to switch to SD. I’m not a pro so either is fast enough.
  • Touch Screen – Touch screens are showing up on DSLRs now but they are pretty limited. If my camera has one then fine, but I prefer buttons in most cases anyway.
  • JPEG Rendering – I shoot all of my photos in RAW so I don’t care how well a camera renders JPEGs.

My Conundrum

If Canon met all of my needs I would have chosen a model and stopped writing after the first section. Unfortunately it doesn’t and may not in the near future. While Canon’s color, detail, and noise are competitive with its competitors, dynamic range is lower, and shadow recovery is atrocious in comparison. I’d be fine if I thought that new models would rectify that gap but there is little to indicate that such a change will come with the next releases. Canon’s 5DS and 5DSr released last fall have very similar dynamic range and recovery to the four-year old 5D Mark III. The brand new 1Dx Mark II is supposed to sport improved dynamic range but nobody has verified yet. Even if Canon does improve dynamic range and recovery in the 1D X, there is no guarantee it will trickle all the way down to the 6D, and I’m not paying $3,400 for a 5D Mark IV.

Canon comes closer to its competitors in terms of autofocus. Its latest 7D Mark II and 1D X include its Intelligent Tracking & Recognition (ITR) technology – which allows it to evaluate scenes and track faces. It is better than non-iTR autofocus but still can’t match the accuracy of its competitors who have had implementations for several years. Unfortunately this feature is only available in its $5,000 full frame and $1,500 crop sensor cameras. Hopefully it will come to the upgraded 5D and 6D when they arrive later this year, but there is no guarantee.

If I knew upgrades were coming then I might be able to wait, but things aren’t looking very good, especially on the dynamic range front. The lack of progress on the Canon side means I’ll have to settle, wait, or investigate other options. Maybe it’s time to look at another system.

What Are Nikon’s Options?

Nikon D610
Nikon D610

After all of the investment I made in full frame Canon lenses, flashes, and accessories why would I even consider buying into another system? That’s the point isn’t it? Buy a system, get their stuff, and upgrade the bodies over time. The lenses stay just as great as they were when you bought them. It is a bit crazy but for me dynamic range, shadow recovery, and autofocus are just too big to ignore. I don’t want to buy a camera and regret it for the next 6 years because its shadows are crap and it can’t follow a moving subject accurately. I also don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on something with four-year-old technology in it. If I knew Canon would have something soon then I wouldn’t bother, but I’ve looked on the other side and its very enticing.

Nikon’s full frame options are the D610 ($1,500 new; $1,050 refurb) and the D750 ($2,000 new; $1,700 refurb). They match Canon’s offerings pretty well in price while providing more features. The D610 is older, released in late 2013, while the D750 is fairly new, released in late 2014. Both have 24 MP resolution with the D610 providing 39 focus points and 6 fps continuous shooting, and the D750 providing 51 focus points and 6.5 fps continuous shooting. The D750 has a higher maximum ISO and adds an articulating screen and WiFi as well. Both have dual SD card slots, 3D focus tracking, built-in flash, and the ability to use crop lenses.

Nikon D750
Nikon D750

While there is a still maybe a decision on the Canon side between the 6D and 5D, the choice on the Nikon side is clear – D750. It provides the autofocus tracking that I want, has more focus points, has an articulated screen, and includes WiFi. Image detail, dynamic range, and shadow recovery between the two is similar.

Buying a new system means buying new lenses, so regardless of the feature set, the whole thing is going to cost more. Nikon’s lens lineup isn’t an exact match for Canon’s at each price point but the two main zooms that I’d want are near Canon’s in price. The Nikkor 24-120 f/4 ED VR is comparable to my Canon 28-105mm f/4L IS USM lens and costs about the same – $1,100 ($900 refurbished). The Nikkor 70-200mm f/4G ED VR is about $300 more expensive than Canon’s EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM at $1,400. Both are very sharp and should be similar to my Canon lenses in performance. That’s an additional $2,400 in just lenses. I found a $2,300 kit for the D750 that includes the 24 – 120 mm lens, but even with that we’re looking at $3,700, about $300 – $600 more than the price of a 5D Mark IV that I already wasn’t willing to pay.

Other Considerations Part II

There is more to consider than just cost. While Nikon and Canon both produce very fine equipment, each company focuses on different areas. I’ve been reading a lot of “Nikon vs Canon” information lately to try to determine what the differences are. The good news is that they are both great and one will always leapfrog the other in certain areas, but the other will catch up. It’s just a matter of who is excelling at the things you need at the time and how long you are willing to wait.

Canon is widely regarded to have the better ergonomics and layout of the two with smoother, wider hand grips, easy-to-reach buttons, and its famous scroll dial. That dial is the main reason I chose my Canon EOS 50D over a Nikon D90 six years ago. Canon has tends to focus on professional video and has high end features like dual pixel focusing and uncompressed HDMI output. Canon’s autofocus systems often have more cross type auto focus points that are sensitive to both vertical and horizontal differences instead of just horizontal. Canon seems to have more zoom lenses with quality glass and quality metal parts. They can often be found refurbished.

Nikon has had better dynamic range, 3D focus tracking, and RGB pixel metering in its SLRs for years. This has given it time to perfect the technology through generations. It tends to spread its feature sets out over models more evenly than Canon, resulting in more “bang for your buck” and less of a feeling that a lower end model was crippled only to drive sales to more expensive models. There are more buttons, no scroll dial, and more menus, which can be frustrating, at least to Canon users. Nikon was originally a lens company, so its glass is of high quality. Many of Nikon’s recent lenses include a lot of plastic that can make them seem less durable than metal lenses from other companies but the optics inside are still high quality. There are fewer zooms at fewer price points but there are lots of primes. There are also tons of quality manual focus lenses on the used market because Nikon’s lens compatibility reaches much further back than Canon’s.

Moving to an entirely new system is not what I envisioned when I bought my Canon. It’s expensive and cumbersome to buy into and learn a new system, but there are benefits as well. Having experience with both systems helps me determine what I truly like. If I decided to buy a Nikon, I’d have the option to sell off my Canon to reduce the financial impact, potentially bringing the total cost down to what I would have spent on a Canon. If I decided to keep the Canon I’d be even better positioned for the future. I’d have enough lenses so that my next camera could be either brand.

Next Steps

I’ve done a lot of research online; now it’s time to do it in person. I’m going to visit Best Buy and try out some of the DSLRs on display. I want to see how they feel, understand where the buttons are, look through the menus. As I start leaning toward one option or the other I’ll rent it for a week and take real photos with it. That will let me get acquainted with the camera and process some of the images to see if they truly have the qualities I’m looking for.

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