Professional photographers generally stick with what works. That’s why most of them still opt for traditional digital SLRs with reflex mirrors and optical viewfinders. Professional DSLRs are holding their own despite inroads from high-end, mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras with electronic viewfinders (EVFs).
Peruse the impressive specs of the digital SLRs we’ve detailed here and we guarantee you’ll come up with your own list of cogent reasons why. However, it all boils down to a few basic facts. All these cameras deliver a full complement of advanced, often unique features along with awesome real-world performance.
Of course, all of them accept the complete range of legacy lenses in the average pro shooter’s arsenal. In addition, their robust, ergonomically contoured, well-balanced, weather-resistant bodies look and feel like “real cameras” with conveniently placed traditional controls.
Indeed, today’s top DSLRs represent the logical evolution of the genre and are classic examples of successful adaptation. The happy result is a superb group of cameras built for the rigors and artistry of professional photography.
A Selection of Top-Notch Professional DSLRs
At the top of Nikon’s echelon of professional DSLRs, the D5 achieves the speed and precision pros demand. It also provides a host of high-end capabilities. Its 20.8 megapixel FX-format (35.9×23.9mm) CMOS sensor works with Nikon’s advanced Expeed 5 image processor. They deliver a rapid full-resolution burst rate of 12 frames per sec for 200 shots with full autoexposure (AE) and autofocus (AF) while shooting lossless 14-bit NEF and 12-bit RAW S files.
Sensitivity settings range from ISO 100 to 102,400 and extend to a mind-boggling ISO 3,280,000. For multimedia content creators, the D5 offers 4K UHD video recording (3,840×2,160) at 30, 25 and 24 fps, plus Full HD video options. 4K time-lapse recording is also possible.
Moreover, a Multi-CAM 20K AF system able to work in near darkness provides 153 phase-detection points. They include 99 cross-type sensors. Pros can select up to 55 points for optimum shooting flexibility. Dynamic-area, group-area and auto-area AF, as well as 3D tracking, are also offered.
Other key features include: a 3.2-inch, 2.36M-dot, touch-screen LCD monitor; dual XQD memory card slots; an AF fine-tune function; a 400,000-cycle shutter; 1,000 Base-T gigabit wired LAN support; and an intelligent scene recognition system using a 3D color matrix, 180,000-pixel RGB sensor. It’s all built into a robust, weather-resistant body with a magnesium alloy chassis, user-friendly controls and an integral textured ergonomic grip. $6,499.95*.
Sony Alpha a99 II
This is the impressively upgraded, pro-caliber successor to the original fixed translucent mirror Sony Alpha a99 (Sony dubs them DSLTs). This new flagship of the Alpha line employs a 42MP full-frame Exmor R BSI CMOS sensor that achieves 14-bit RAW output. It’s coupled to Sony’s advanced Bionz X processor with a front-end LSI. The innovative system dramatically improves the throughput speed of the entire imaging system.
The camera thus provides continuous full-res shooting at up to 12 fps with AF and AE and sensitivity settings that max out at ISO 102,400. Its Translucent Mirror technology also enables full-time AF before, during and after the exposure—especially important when shooting HD movies or high-speed action.
The DSLT also offers 4K UHD video capture at 30 and 24 fps in the XAVC S format with S-Log3 Gamma and custom settings. Other movie functions are Full HD recording and the S&Q (slow & quick) mode that records at 1–120 fps.
In addition, the a99 II features a hybrid AF system with phase- and contrast-detection AF. It combines a 79-point cross-AF sensor with a 399-point focal-plane AF sensor positioned on the image sensor. Moreover, its 5-axis SteadyShot Inside image stabilization provides a 4.5-stop advantage in handheld shooting.
Other features include: flicker-free shooting; a 0.5-inch, 2.36M-dot XGA OLED EVF; a 3-inch, 1.23M-dot, tilting LCD monitor; built-in Wi-Fi and NFC; and a multi-card slot. Sony’s weather-sealed 99 II uses lightweight magnesium alloy for the top and rear covers and chassis. $3,199.99.
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II
The headliner of the Canon EOS system, this top-level, pro DSLR combines state-of-the-art image processing with robust multimedia capabilities. Its 20.2MP, full-frame CMOS sensor is integrated with dual Digic 6+ advanced image processors. They provide a sizzling 14-fps, full-res burst rate (16 fps in live view, 170 RAW files). The DSLR also captures DCI 4K (4,096×2,160) video at up to 60 fps and 800 Mbps, plus Full HD video at up to 120 fps for slow-motion playback.
Canon’s 61-point high-density reticular AF II system and Dual Pixel CMOS AF technology employ 41 cross-type zones for enhanced focusing precision. Moreover, a separate, dedicated Digic 6 processor maintains outstanding AF speed when shooting 4K video and at high framing rates. It also enables movie servo AF for continuous autofocus during video recording.
Other key features include: a 3.2-inch, 1.62M-dot, touch-screen LCD monitor; an intelligent pentaprism viewfinder that provides sophisticated configurable readouts; 8.8MP still grabs when shooting video; native sensitivity settings of ISO 100–51,200, expandable to ISO 409,600; built-in GPS; and dual CFast/CompactFlash slots.
An advanced 360,000-pixel RGB+IR metering sensor integrates with the EOS intelligent tracking and recognition AF system to enhance metering and tracking accuracy. The camera also features a robust, dust- and weather-sealed magnesium alloy body with an integrated ergonomic grip. $5,999.
Sigma SD1 Merrill
Sigma’s pro/enthusiast top-end digital SLR uses a 46MP, full APS-C-format version of the company’s unique three-layer Foveon X3 sensor. The sensor works like film to deliver full color information at each pixel location. The SD1 additionally offers: a Dual True II image-processing engine; an 11-point, twin-cross AF sensor; a 3-inch, 460K-dot LCD; and a pentaprism viewfinder.
Its main specs include a maximum 5-fps burst rate, ISO 6,400 sensitivity and shutter speeds to 1/8,000 sec. While the SD1 doesn’t offer live view, video capture or a tethering capability, it does deliver professional features like micro AF adjustment, three custom mode settings in the exposure mode (PASM) and an easily removable IR filter for infrared shooting.
Where the Sigma SD1 really sparkles is in its imaging performance, especially at low ISOs, where it delivers film-like images with exquisite detail and superb color rendition. It also sports a magnesium body with O-ring-sealed buttons and enhanced weatherproofing. $1,799.
This widely heralded upgrade of the popular Nikon D810 is quite a triumph. It’s the first of the breed to combine a 45.7MP backside-illuminated (BSI) full-frame sensor with no optical low-pass filter. It also uses a cutting-edge Expeed 5 processor. The combo delivers a full-res burst rate of 7 fps that captures up to 51 compressed, lossless 14-bit RAW files with full AE and AF. They also achieve sensitivity settings up to ISO 102,400 and 4K UHD video recording at 30, 25 and 24 fps in full-frame or DX crop-sensor framing.
Other key features include: a Multi-CAM 20K 153-point AF system with a choice of 24-, 72- and 153-point dynamic-area AF zones; fine-focus tuning; 8K time-lapse mode; a focus-shift mode that allows sophisticated focus stacking of up to 10 image layers; and a 180K-pixel RGB sensor. The D850’s large 3.2-inch, 2.36M-dot, tilting, touch-screen LCD is complemented by a bright optical pentaprism viewfinder with 0.75x magnification and a wide field of view.
Moreover, for convenience, a negative digitizer optimizes conversion of film negatives and slide images to high-resolution digital files. The D850 also provides full SnapBridge connectivity, including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Faster wireless transfer is possible using the optional WT-7a wireless transmitter. In addition, it’s all housed in a robust, dustproof, weatherproof body with a magnesium alloy chassis. $3,299.95.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
This is the newest adaptation of Canon’s hugely successful EOS 5D series DSLRs that are extensively used by professionals and serious enthusiasts. It achieves exceptional image quality and fine detail due to its 30.4MP, full-frame CMOS sensor and cutting-edge Digic 6+ image processor. The pair provides DCI 4K (4,096×2,160) video capture at 30 and 24 fps plus 4K, 8.8MP full-frame still grabs.
A native ISO range of 50–32,000 is extendable to ISO 102,400. In addition, it claims a full-res burst rate of 7 fps, with images storable on both CF and SD cards. Also notable are a 61-point high-density reticular AF system with an AF-area select button; Dual Pixel CMOS AF technology with enhanced subject tracking; movie servo AF options; and Dual Pixel RAW technology that enables shooters to fine-tune image parameters, including bokeh shift and micro focus adjustment after the image is captured.
Other features include: a 3.2-inch, 1.62M-dot, touch-screen LCD monitor; a bright pentaprism-type, eye-level optical viewfinder; and built-in Wi-Fi connectivity with NFC and GPS. Its durable body has enhanced ergonomics that include a front-mounted N3 remote port, upgraded weather resistance and a mirror vibration control system to maximize sharpness in handheld exposures at low shutter speeds. $3,499.
Pentax K-1 Mark II
Pentax’s recently released top-of-the-line full-frame K-mount DSLR offers enhanced image processing and imaging capabilities compared to the previous K-1. It incorporates an ultrahigh-res 36.4MP CMOS sensor and a Prime IV processor. Together they capture detailed low-noise images at sensitivity settings up to ISO 819,200 and deliver a 4.4-fps, full-res burst rate. The DSLR also employs a AA filter simulator that minimizes moiré patterns but omits the standard antialiasing filter to ensure the sharpest possible images.
Moreover, an advanced wide-pattern SAFOX 12 AF sensor covers nearly the entire full-frame area and has 33 AF points. They include 25 cross pattern and three f/2.8-luminance points that operate in light down to -3 EV. In addition, its unique 3.2-inch, cross-tilt LCD monitor tilts upward 90º, down 44º and 35º laterally.
Other features include: dual SD slots; Full HD 1080p video capability at 30 fps in full-frame or APS-C crop modes; and a built-in 5-axis shake reduction system that boasts a 5-stop advantage in minimizing the effects of handheld camera shake. In addition, it now enables Pixel Shift II technology that merges sequential frames to achieve greater resolution and color detail.
The Mark II retains built-in Wi-Fi and GPS with an astrotracer function to minimize star trails during long exposures. It also adopts the previous model’s LED-illuminated body points positioned on the lens mount, card slots, back of the LCD and at the cable switch to facilitate low-light operation. The Mark II also sports a robust body with a stainless steel chassis and magnesium alloy outer shell that’s weather sealed in 87 places and operates down to 14ºF. $1,999.95.
* All prices are body only.