How to Choose a Professional DSLR
The top performers in our review are the Nikon D750, the Gold Award winner; the Nikon D4S, the Silver Award winner; and the Nikon D810, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a camera to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 cameras.
Barring medium format and other specialized and ultra-high resolution cameras, professional DSLRs are the largest, most expensive and complicated digital cameras that you can buy. They also happen to capture the highest quality images in the most diverse situations.
Professional DSLRs offer higher quality sensors, a larger selection of lenses and more robust controls than any other category. While this means they're also much more complicated than your typical point and shoot, they're not too difficult to figure out. With a little time and patience, anyone can become familiar with even the most complex DSLR.
Like most camera categories, professional DSLRs are available in varying sizes, price points and applications. While some features and designs are vastly more expensive than others, the more expensive DSLRs are usually only better for the specific task for which they're built.
Sports shooters, for example, might require a $6,000, full-frame, double-gripped behemoth, while a wildlife photographer might prefer a simple and small $1,200 APS-C camera. The important thing is that you find a combination of features that suits your price range, shooting style and size constraints. To learn more about these cameras, read our other articles related to professional DSLR photography.
Professional DSLRs: What We Evaluated, What We Found
If you're in the market for a professional DSLR camera, chances are you're somewhat familiar with the features to look for. To make things a little easier for you, we've compared some of the best professional DSLRs to see which ones offer the most impressive combinations of features.
We rate cameras based on overall performance. We considered complicated factors, like dynamic range, and simple ones, like battery life. So while our top-rated camera may not be the best in every category, it represents the most advanced multiuse option for professional photographers.
Image Quality: Replicating Real Life
Image quality is all about reproducing moments in an accurate, detailed and appealing manner, and it can be difficult to measure and compare between DSLR cameras of this caliber. This is in part because image quality is generally so good, but also because no two cameras are equal, and some are more appropriate for certain applications than others.
The attributes that have the greatest effect on the outcome of your images are color depth, dynamic range and low-light performance, which are characteristics of your camera's sensor. Your application will determine which of these is most important to you.
For example, your camera might have outstanding low-light performance and allow you to shoot noise-free at high ISOs. Such a camera would be adept at shooting with high shutter speeds for crisp sports shots. But if you were a portrait photographer working in a studio setting, you wouldn't benefit from it. Instead, you'd want to shoot with a camera that has good color depth that can precisely reproduce colors for lifelike and accurate portraits. As a landscape photographer, you'd want find a camera that can capture the most detail in highlights and shadows – an attribute known as dynamic range. This way, you could capture a shadowy foreground without losing details in a bright sunset.
Our metrics on color depth, low-light performance and dynamic range come from DXOMark.com testing. Although these are very important features to consider, many pro-level DSLRs perform very well in all three. For this reason, different camera models often require a look at other attributes that may also affect image quality.
Sensor size has a dramatic effect on image quality in professional DSLRs. Although the quality of smaller APS-C sensors continues to increase, 35mm sensors still have an edge. These sensors, also called full-frame, tend to deliver the most detail, dynamic range and low-light performance.
Images produced with full-frame DSLRs also have a much larger field of view than APS-C equipped cameras when shooting with lenses of the same focal length. This is because smaller sensors effectively crop the image. Additionally, larger sensors produce shallower depths of field, making it easy to achieve appealingly blurred backgrounds in your images.
Though not quite at the same level as full-frame cameras, many APS-C equipped options are still very capable of producing professional-quality images. They're also typically smaller, lighter and cheaper than a full-frame DSLR. For some, these characteristics make the slight dip in image quality a worthwhile tradeoff.
Another thing that can notably affect the abilities of your camera's sensor is the presence of an anti-aliasing filter. Anti-aliasing filters help to reduce the effects of moiré, a strange patterning effect that can cause issues when photographing intricate, repeating details that exceed the resolution of your camera. While this can be useful, anti-aliasing filters also reduce the sharpness of you photos.
As resolution increases, cameras are more capable of accurately reproducing the details of repeating patterns, which greatly reduces the need for an anti-aliasing filter. Because of this, many models are now leaving it out entirely. Forgoing the filter may increase the chances of moiré, but the prospect of sharper and more detailed photos may make it worth the risk.
In the earlier days of digital photography, megapixel count was widely considered synonymous with image quality. Since earlier digital cameras only produced 3- to 4-megapixel images at best, it's pretty easy to understand why. These low-resolution images were small, and with any cropping or enlarging, you'd end up with an obviously digital pixelated mess.
Today's professional DSLRs capture images with anywhere from 18 to 36 megapixels, sometimes even more. Don't get too hung up on megapixels though; 18 is more than enough resolution for the overwhelming majority of applications. Plus, once you're in that range, the quality of your sensor and lens is going have a much greater impact on your images.
Although they began as still-only devices, professional DSLRs have grown into powerful video-recording tools – so much so that many videographers use DSLRs exclusively to capture content. Regardless of your profession, video-capture performance has an impact on the kinds of projects you can work on.
As with still photography, the overall quality of your videos will be heavily influenced by the quality of your lens and the performance of the sensor that sits behind it. Even if you only shoot video, it's wise to consider the quality of a DSLR's stills in regards to color depth, low-light performance and dynamic range.
The most important video-specific components to consider are resolution, framerate and the available combinations of these two. Most professional DSLRs top out at a maximum resolution of 1080p and include multiple lower-resolution options as well.
Framerate varies a little more, with some offering a max of 30 fps (frames per second), and others doubling that at 60 fps. Recording at higher framerates creates smooth shots and fluid slow-mo. Since you can usually select from several different framerates, there's no downside to having the 60fps option.
You'll also want to make sure that the camera you choose has all of the appropriate connection points for microphones, headphones and video output.
Performance: Capturing Moments with Precision
As any photographer well knows, a camera's ability to capture the right moment at the right time also influences the quality of your photos. When the pressure is on, a missed focus can mean a missed opportunity. Consider each camera's focus types and points very carefully, as this will help you determine how quickly and accurately your camera can lock onto subjects. There are two focusing types in professional DSLRs: phase and contrast detection. Theoretically, greater numbers of focus points lead to faster and more accurate focusing.
Contrast detection is more accurate and reliable and is always used as a reference for your camera, even when utilizing phase detection. The problem is that it isn't particularly fast and is therefore unsuited for use in action or sports photography.
Phase detection, on the other hand, can be used to focus on moving subjects very quickly, and often utilizes many more focus points than contrast detection. Unlike contrast detection, however, it requires calibration and isn't as reliable. Still, it's not as if you're going to have consistently out-of-focus photos just because you're using phase detection.
Another important aspect of a professional DSLR is battery life. Whether it's catching the moments at the end of a wedding reception or shooting during an extended stay in some remote location, long battery life allows you to create more and with less interruption. Battery life is measured in shots per charge using a testing standard created by the CIPA (Camera & Imaging Products Association). Professional DSLRs typically average about 1,000 shots per charge, with a few outliers on either side.
Most professional DSLR manufacturers do not feature built-in image stabilization in their camera bodies, opting instead for stabilized lenses. This is because lens stabilization has been around longer, performs better in low light and typically works more effectively at longer focal lengths.
Cameras with built-in stabilization, however, allow you to stabilize any lens that you can put on your camera. Whether it's a 35mm prime or a 500mm zoom, you'll be able to take advantage of the same image-stabilization performance.
As you can see, both sides have their pros and cons, and neither is particularly dominate. Whether you prefer in-body or lens stabilization is up to you.
Design: Mobility and Features
Cameras come in just about any size and shape that you can imagine. Some camera models have designs focused on reducing overall size and weight, which can reduce the physical controls, features and battery life of your camera. Others go the other way and include seemingly every feature under the sun. Although they produce excellent photographs, the resulting cameras are comparatively large and unwieldy.
Professional DSLRs tend to lean toward this end of the spectrum. There are, however, some variances among them. Some models offer hulking bodies brimming with advanced features and controls. Others take a more streamlined approach, offering the benefits of reduced size and weight.
For those who like to occasionally shoot from the hip or over the head, an articulating screen can be invaluable. Although they've been relatively slow on the uptake, major Pro DSLR manufacturers are beginning to include them in their high-end offerings.
A built-in flash is often too direct for professional photography and so many models simply don't include one. Despite the flat look that they can generate, however, a built-in flash can allow you to take photos in circumstances that you otherwise could not. And unless it replaces some other vital component, having one doesn't hurt.
Additional Features: Nice Add-Ons, Not Deal-Breakers
Additional features are a secondary consideration for most professional photographers and, although they can be useful, they won't likely influence your actual shooting.
One such feature is Wi-Fi. Cameras with built in Wi-Fi allow you to connect with a smartphone or tablet to transfer photos or adjust settings remotely. This can be useful for taking self-portraits or editing and uploading photos on the go.
GPS is another up-and-coming feature of professional DSLRs. Using this feature, you can tag your photos with geographical data, map out where you shot and search based on location.
Other features to be aware of include HDR, panorama and time-lapse modes. HDR combines several differently exposed images for surreally rich details in highlights and shadows, while panorama stitches photos end to end for ultra-wide landscape shooting. Time-lapse modes create video clips by combining photographs taken at user-defined intervals over a predetermined period.
Compact Digital Cameras: Our Verdict and Recommendations
Choosing a professional DSLR is about more than just finding the camera with the best technical specs. It requires an intimate knowledge of the type of work you aspire to create and an understanding of the features that will help you get there.
Nikon's D810 is an excellent choice for photographers seeking the utmost in image quality and resolution. With 36.2 effective megapixels, its images are larger than anything else we reviewed, and in sensor testing, nothing performed better.
Feature-savvy shooters, however, will probably prefer the Nikon D750, which performed nearly as well in testing, and offers a significantly lower price and many more features.
Sports photographers, on the other hand, will likely reach for the Canon 1D X – a large double-griped camera that captures a blazing 12 frames per second and facilitates quick shooting in any orientation.
Just remember, there is as much variation among photographers as there is among cameras. To find the camera that’s best for you, begin with a foundation of knowledge, but don't be afraid to make a subjective choice in the end.