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Nikon answers Canon with full-frame SLR

The $5,000 D3 will be Nikon's first digital SLR whose sensor is the size of a full frame of 35mm film. Photos: Nikon's full-frame SLR

Nikon will become the first company to challenge Canon in the high-end realm of digital SLR cameras with image sensors the size of a full frame of 35mm film.

Nikon's D3, a 12.1-megapixel professional model set to go on sale in November for $5,000, employs an FX-size sensor whose height is only 0.1mm shy of 36x24mm film frame. Such sensors mean camera lenses behave optically as they do on film SLRs and that sensor pixels can be made larger and more sensitive.

The move is a major philosophical and technological departure for Nikon.

Nikon has been gaining SLR market share against Canon, but the latter has years of experience in the full-frame market. Canon introduced its first full-frame camera, the EOS-1Ds, in 2002. On Monday, Canon announced its second successor, the $8,000 EOS-1Ds Mark III. In 2004, it introduced a lower-priced alternative for enthusiasts, the EOS 5D, which now costs about $2,600.

Nikon's announcement on Thursday is a major shot in the arm for the full-frame format for 35mm cameras. The more expensive medium-format cameras--which, despite the name, use film or sensor sizes that are significantly larger than 35mm film--are in use almost exclusively by professional photographers. And larger formats are even rarer.

Previously, with only Canon supporting full-frame format digital cameras, there was a possibility that the format would be relegated only to a very high-end niche.

"There will be a lot of others," Lyra Research analyst Steve Hoffenberg said regarding the full-frame trend. "The big question is whether it's going take two or four or eight years to get there."

Even with Nikon and potentially others, it's likely that the mass SLR market will stick with smaller sensors. The sensors and matched lenses are considerably less expensive to manufacture.

The D3 isn't the Nikon's only news. The company also announced the $1,800, 12.3-megapixel D300, which like its D200 predecessor, uses a smaller DX-size sensor. If the D3 is an answer to Canon's 1Ds Mark III, the D300 is an answer to another Canon model announced Monday, the $1,300 EOS 40D.

Full-frame complications
A full-frame sensor is a feature that some Nikon fans jealously eyed in Canon 35mm models. But adding it poses complications, especially for higher-end enthusiasts who've invested in Nikon lenses that support only the smaller DX size or who are considering new lens purchases. DX lenses will work only in a limited 5.1-megapixel mode on FX cameras, and the two formats can pose confusing compatibility and performance issues for consumers.

One issue: Nikon DX camera owners buying new lenses will have to consider whether to buy DX models or FX alternatives that likely will be bulkier and more expensive. The DX models will work on their current camera, but will they want to upgrade to a full-frame model in the future? Buying a $5,000 professional model is out of the price range of even serious enthusiasts, but it's possible Nikon will add lower-end full-frame cameras, as Canon did with the 5D two years after its first full-frame model.

Nikon didn't answer whether it plans lower-end full-frame models, but Hoffenberg believes the company will. "It's inevitable, eventually, but it's not short term," he said.

Nikon will offer both FX and DX-only lenses in the future, the company said in a statement: "Both Nikon FX and DX formats provide their own advantages, and Nikon recognizes that both formats are necessary in order to satisfy its diverse customer demands. Based on this recognition, Nikon will strengthen its digital SLR lineup with the addition of the D3 FX-format SLR camera and a broadened assortment of Nikkor interchangeable lenses, while continuing to develop and market high-performance DX-format cameras and lenses."

Smaller sensors "see" a narrower field of view than full-frame sensors, so what a photographer sees through the viewfinder is different. For example, a lens with a 75mm focal length on a Nikon full-frame FX camera has the same field of view as a 50mm lens on Nikon DX. That "field of view crop factor" of 1.5 for Nikon and 1.6 for non-full-frame Canon SLRs with the "APS-C" sensor means that film photographers moving to digital SLRs often had to buy new wide-angle lenses.

Nikon also announced five new high-end lenses that the full-frame sensor, all due in November: a $1,800 14-24mm F/2.8 zoom and $1,700 24-70mm F/2.8 zoom, a $8,800 F/2.8 400mm fixed telephoto, a $7,900 500mm F/4 fixed telephoto and a $9,500 F/4 600mm fixed telephoto.

Other full-frame competition is possible, most likely from Sony, which entered the SLR market by acquiring the assets of Konica-Minolta. One Sony enthusiast site, Photoclub Alpha, reported in July that Sony's forthcoming professional SLR will be a full-frame model and will be accompanied by several compatible lenses. Sony announced the model in March but offered no details.

Two other SLR contenders, Olympus and Panasonic, aren't in the running for the foreseeable future. They've both opted to use the Four Thirds system, whose sensor is a notch smaller than that found in the Nikon DX and Canon APS-C.

Through a partnership, Four Thirds lenses from one maker, or from a third-party company such as Sigma, will work any Four Thirds camera body. That lens-camera body compatibility stands in contrast to the incompatible lens mounts used by Canon, Nikon, Sony and Pentax. Each of those companies' lenses can't be used on other companies' lens bodies.

The D3 and D300 share a range of new features. Among them are live view shooting modes to compose pictures with the LCD rather than just the viewfinder, a newly branded Expeed image processing chip; a 3-inch LCD with a whopping 920,000 pixels; a 51-point autofocus system; D-Lighting to improve tonal details in shadows or highlights; and compatibility with the new WT-4A wireless transmitter to connect to wired or wireless 802.11a, b and g networks and to permit remote control of the camera.

Among the D3-specific features:

• It can shoot up to nine frames per second, compared with five for Canon's 1Ds Mark III and 10.5 for Canon's photojournalist-oriented 1D Mark III. With DX lenses and the 5.1-megapixel mode, it can shoot up to 11 frames per second.

• Its regular ISO sensitivity ranges from 200 to 3,200, with extended range modes that reach to 100 and 25,600. Its sensor is made using complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) manufacturing--a change from the charge-coupled device (CCD) sensors used in previous Nikon SLRs--and the chip features 14-bit image data compared with earlier 12-bit designs. Greater bit depth permits finer shades between light and dark in images and a better ability to print and edit photos.

• Its Scene Recognition System combines Nikon's exposure and autofocus systems for more sophisticated control over both aspects of shooting.

• Its shutter is rated for 300,000 cycles.

• It accommodates dual CompactFlash cards with high-speed Ultra Direct Memory Access (UDMA) transfer technology.

• Its viewfinder covers "virtually" 100 percent of the sensor's view at a magnification of 0.7 in FX mode.

The D300 also has several notable features: image-cleaning technology to shake dust off the sensor; a viewfinder with 100 percent coverage at a magnification of 0.94; an optional battery pack, MB-D10, that can bump up the maximum shooting rate from a regular 6.5 frames per second to eight frames per second; a 14-bit CMOS sensor; a magnesium alloy chassis with many waterproofing seals; and a shutter rated to 150,000 cycles.