Is it time to upgrade your workhorse? Maintain your competitive edge: The latest top-end DSLRs offer better image quality than ever.
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If you are a seasoned wedding professional photographer, you understand that in this era of fast-changing (and improving) technology, the best camera a couple of years ago may not be able to deliver the combination of image quality and usability that will allow you to keep up with or ahead of the competition. Besides, if you've shot over 100,000 pictures with it, your workhorse camera may be nearing the end of its lifespan. You owe it to yourself to consider upgrading.
While the default answer may be that you should buy the newest version of the camera you already have, you may want to consider either switching systems, upgrading, or going with the most obvious, default option. Things to consider include:
Price. Expect to pay around $2,500-$3,500 for a new primary camera, but be prepared to double that if you want to go for the flagship model.
Dynamic Range. When photographing a bride and groom you need to capture everything from the fine detail of her white dress to the subtle shadows of his black tux. The camera with the widest dynamic range, and the highlight and shadow sliders in post processing of RAW images, are your best friends.
Overall Image Quality. This is of course most important when marketing your keepsake large prints. You will want the lowest noise at the highest ISO option available. This makes full-frame DSLRs pretty much a requirement.
(Note: Image quality scores quoted in this article are based on independent tests performed by DxOMark Labs, and are used with their permission.)
User interface. This is less of an important feature because with experience you can get used to any control layout, and at this level, you can customize your camera to fit your preferences. That said, moving up to the latest version of the camera and brand you already have reduces the learning curve, and many photographers find that to be a big benefit.
Durability. You want a well-made camera with a well-constructed body and a shutter that is rated for hundreds of thousands of clicks, because you'll be taking a lot of pictures.
System. Canon and Nikon have the most extensive lens, flash and accessory systems geared for professionals. Sony is catching up. Pentax doesn't have a full-frame DSLR but it does have a new version of its 645-format digital camera for under $10,000; image quality is extraordinary and while the lenses for this camera are excellent, the system is more limited.
I've also included a lower-cost back-up body for the Canon and Nikon systems, because if there's one thing every professional photographer should have, it's a Department of Redundancy Department.
Here are seven pro-level models worth considering for wedding photography:
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Adorama price: $3,199
At less than half the price of the 1Dx, the 22MP Canon 5D Mark III's image quality test results lagged behind its pricier sibling by just a hair. However,the camera's layout, more compact size, and lower price make it the best choice for many wedding photographers. Improved autofocus, boosted ISO to 102,400 and clean ISO through 2000 are all great results, and the generous buffer size, shutter life cycle claimed at 150,000 clicks, and rugged build make it the Canon DSLR you're most likely to use for wedding work.
Canon EOS 1 Dx
Adorama price: $6,799
Best overall image quality for Canon with clean, noise-free images going well into the ISO 2000 range. This thing's a beast in low light, and is built to handle anything indoors or out. It's great for studio and location portraits as well as candids using existing light. Don't be put off by its 18MP lower resolution sensor. You can still get amazing blow-ups, plus faster processing time (12fps continuous shooting!). Other plusses include improved AF performance and a maximum ISO 51,200 that can be pushed to 204,800. Sensor performance is a significant improvement over its predecessors.
Canon EOS 6D
Adorama price: $1,699
Best dynamic range of any Canon pro DSLR with over 12 stops, outstanding color depth (23.8 bits), high quality construction but not as durable as its pricier siblings, although the positive way of looking at that spec is that it is lighter, which could make a difference during a long wedding assignment. Its low-light high ISO performance is closer to the EOS 1 Dx than the 5D Mark III. Shutter is tested to last through 100,000 cycles, the camera is dust- and weather-resistant and is the only full-frame Canon DSLR with built-in Wi-Fi.
Adorama price: $2,796.95
The highest-scoring full-frame DSLR based on overall image quality, the Nikon D800 offers the best combination of size, image quality, price, and performance. It has a color depth of 25.3 bits, dynamic range of 14.4 stops and 14 bit A/D conversion, which means is should be able to capture pleasing and accurate color and full details of light and dark clothing. (By the way, the D800E is out of contention because its lack of a low-pass filter means you run the danger of moire patterns when photographing fabric—not a good plan when you're trying to capture the details of the bride's dress). At 36.3MP, images are very enlargeable and the 91,000-pixel 3D Color Matrix Metering III system is virtually foolproof. The camera is solidly built, sealed against dust and splashes, and the shutter is tested to exceed 200,000 cycles.
Adorama price: $6,496.95
Nikon's flagship camera, the 16MP D4s is a beast in low light, natively able to produce clean, noise-free images through ISO 3000, while maintaining a color depth of 24.4 bits and a dynamic range of 13.3 stops. ISO can be pushed to 204,800. Nikon says ISO 12,800 is the "standard" speed, making it a good camera in low existing light when flash is prohibited during ceremonies. Unlike the D800, the camera has built-in LAN features although Wi-Fi is accomplished through an additional transmitter. Controls are laid out identically for horizontals and verticals. AF speed is said to be screamingly fast, backed up by an 11fps burst rate and 15 cross-type sensors in the central area. The camera is rugged as all get-go, and let's be honest: If you need to impress your client, this is the camera to use. Is it worth paying twice as much as the D800? If you also shoot sports then the answer is yes. If you only shoot events, you may want to get the D800 and save the difference for a pro lens.
Adorama price: $1,896.95
For price/performance, the Nikon D610 is a winner. It is in a statistical dead heat with the D800 for DxOMark sensor scores, with a 94 overall score, 25.1 bit color depth and 14.4 dynamic range. The camera's low-light high-ISO score of 2925 is almost identical to that of the D4s. The camera has a 24.3MP sensor and a native ISO range of 100-6400, expandable to 25,600. 39 AF sensors, including 9 cross-type sensors and 6fps burst rate, are more than sufficient for most situations. It's the least expensive way to get started in full-frame Nikon photography.
Sony Alpha A99
Adorama price: $2,298
Note: In an earlier version of this article I excluded this very capable camera because the Sony system of lenses and flashes isn't as comprehensive as its competitors, and has not been widely adapted. I heard an earful from wedding photographers who own and love their Sony A99s (you can see some of their comments below)! Apparently, I was mistaken. So, I shall eat crow and now sing the well-deserved praises of the Sony A99.
Sony's flagship camera, the Sony Alpha A99, is the second full-frame DSLR model produced by the electronics giant, and is proof that they've gotten serious about creating a pro-level camera. Unlike its competitors, it is not purely a DSLR but rather uses a high-resolution EVF viewfinder which offers the advantage of never having to move the camera from your face to confirm you got the shot. While the selection of lenses and flashes is more limited than its competition, Sony has teamed up with Zeiss to produce some of the best optics available, and several independent-label flash systems are compatible. The 24MP sensor has the highest DxOMark image quality rating for any full-frame DSLR. Its 25-bit color depth and 14-stop native dynamic range are the best in their respective categories.