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Canon fights back with two SLRs

A new $8,000 flagship and $1,300 mid-range model give the top SLR maker better answers to the likes of Nikon and Sony. Photos: Canon's new camera lineup

Facing new competition, top camera maker Canon announced two SLR cameras Monday, a top-end model with a whopping 21.1-megapixel sensor and a 10.1-megapixel model for advanced amateurs.

The $8,000 EOS-1Ds Mark III, available in November, is geared for professionals such as studio photographers. The company is positioning it not just against rival single-lens reflex (SLR) models, but also against "medium-format" cameras from companies such as Hasselblad.

Facing stiffer competition, though, is the EOS 40D, a model one step above the entry-level Rebel XTi. It costs $1,300 alone or $1,500 with a 28-135mm image-stabilized lens. It's a better answer to Nikon's D80 and D200 models than the previous Canon prosumer model, the 8-megapixel 30D.

"Nikon is catching up," said IDC analyst Ron Glaz, adding that it still has a ways to go though. But Canon is more worried about the arrival of , which quickly entered the SLR market by acquiring Konica Minolta's camera assets. Sony offers the A100 today, but two more models in its Alpha SLR line are due in coming months.

"I know Canon is always worried about Sony. Sony is a powerhouse in Japan," Glaz said. Sony makes its own image sensors and image processors, making them--like Canon--an integrated business. "They have a lot of technology in-house. They're very similar to Canon, except more diverse."

The 40D can shoot as many as 6.5 frames per second, has better sealing against the elements than its predecessor, employs the newer Digic III image processing chip, and has an overhauled autofocus system that Canon says is faster and more sensitive. "The new autofocus sensor detects most subjects more readily than before. Additionally, the Digic III processor in the EOS 40D helps to increase its AF speed by 30 percent compared to the EOS 30D camera," Westfall said.

As with Canon's photojournalist-oriented high-end 1D Mark III announced in February and now on sale, photographers can compose and shoot pictures using the 40D or 1Ds Mark III's 3-inch LCD, not just the viewfinder. With the 40D, though, they can use autofocus during the process.

SLR cameras, which compared with compact models feature a broad array of interchangeable lenses, faster performance and better sensitivity, are a hot market. Digital camera shipments grew 15 percent overall in 2006, but digital SLR shipments increased 39 percent, according to IDC.

The 1Ds Mark III is, along with Canon's 12.8-megapixel EOS 5D, one of only two new SLRs to employ a relatively large "full-frame" sensor the size of a 35mm film image. Manufacturing such sensors, which measure 24mm by 36mm, is more expensive, but it gives cameras the optical performance film camera users often grew accustomed to and lets camera makers use larger individual pixels.

Pixel size is a key feature in camera performance. The smaller each pixel, the more electronic noise it produces, which shows up in images as multicolored speckles. And with the race to increase megapixel counts, pixels are shrinking in general. Bigger pixels mean cleaner images and better performance in dim conditions.

The pixels on the 5D, introduced in 2005, and the 1Ds Mark II, a 16.7-megapixel full-frame model introduced in 2004, are 8.2 microns square. But the 1Ds Mark III pixels are 6.4 microns square--significantly smaller. Chuck Westfall, Canon's spokesman and tech guru, though, said sensitivity is "about the same" on the Mark II and Mark III and the latter has better overall quality.

"Despite the smaller pixel size of the EOS-1Ds Mark III compared to the EOS-1Ds Mark II, the image quality of the 1Ds Mark III is superior to that of the 1Ds Mark II due to improvements in CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) sensor design as well as image processing in the camera with dual Digic III (chips)," Westfall said. "Specifically, shadow noise on the 1Ds Mark III is lower, and tonal gradation is better because of the 14-bit analog-digital conversion."

The 1Ds Mark II has 12-bit analog-digital conversion, meaning that each color had 4,096 shades between bright and dark. With 14-bit digital data of the Mark III, there are 16,384 shades of tonal variation.

The 40D's sensor is based on that of the lower-end Rebel XTi, but it uses new microlenses over each pixel so that more light can be gathered. Its sensitivity reaches 3,200 compared with 1,600 for the XTI.

Canon also announced two new SLR lenses due to arrive in October: the $2,200 professional-oriented EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM wide-angle lens, which improves optical quality over its predecessor, and the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS, a $199 entry-level lens similar to the basic model that ships with most Rebel XTi cameras but that adds up to four F-stops' worth of image stabilization help to counteract camera shake.

Canon also announced a raft of compact models:

• The $500 PowerShot G9, due in October, resembles last year's G7 but boosts pixel count from 10 to 12.1 megapixels, improves face detection for better focus and exposure, and restores earlier G-series support for raw images that preserve more information than JPEG but require photographers to process the shots with a computer.

• The PowerShot SX100 has a 10x zoom lens and can record as much as an hour of video. It's on sale in October for $300, a notch cheaper than the S5 IS available for $400 or so for those who want a 12x zoom and an electronic viewfinder but are willing to carry a bulkier model.

• Two high-end Digital Elph models, the $450 12.1-megapixel PowerShot SD950 IS and the $400 8-megapixel SD870 IS. The former has an optical viewfinder and 2.5-inch LCD; the latter no viewfinder but a 3-inch LCD. Both should go on sale in September.