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February 2, 2009

2008 DSLR Review - The Hits and Misses of the Year

2008 was an interesting year for DSLR's and photographers in general, even if you ignore the ultra-high end announcements from Leica, Hassleblad and Red. The three main players in the DSLR space (Nikon and Canon each with around 40% market share, and Sony with around 10%) all launched milestone cameras. Below we'll detail their hits, and misses.
After their groundbreaking releases in 2007 with the Nikon D3 and D300, they set the bar high for 2008, but in general didn't disappoint with four new bodies:
Nikon D60
While not revolutionary, the Nikon D60 replaced the D40x in Nikons consumer lineup, in a smaller, better package, becoming one of the smallest and lightest DSLR's ever made.
Nikon D700
Coming almost as a complete surprise, the Nikon D700 was launched mid summer, containing the 12 megapixel full frame sensor out of the flagship D3, but with a body similar to the D300. At $3,000, this camera showed Nikons commitment to FX, and the camera instantly became the choice for many pros that didn't need the weather sealing or the advanced features of the D3 (for example wedding photographers).
However within months of its release, the Sony A900 came out with a 24 megapixel full frame sensor for the same MSRP, and the Canon 5D Mark II came out with a 21 megapixel full frame sensor and 1080p HD Video, for $2,700.
While the D700 remains the most complete package (best autofocus, arguable the best metering, and for the vast majority 12 megapixels is plenty), it has come under severe pressure from its higher megapixel rivals. Just four months after its release, the street prices have dropped 25%, down to the $2,300 range for a USA model.
Nikon D90
Replacing the D80 in Nikons lineup, the Nikon D90 took the sensor from the respected D300, improved on it slightly, added video, and packaged it in a smaller, lighter body with scene modes and a more basic autofocus and metering.
The Nikon D90 was also the worlds first DSLR to feature HD Video capture, with its 720p/24 f.p.s. mode. However, a few weeks later Canon announced a much more comprehensive video offering with it's Canon 5D Mark II, and video remains the weakest feature on the D90, lacking autofocus and giving very little control over key elements like exposure.
At $999, this helped firm up Nikons consumer lineup, by creating an outstandingly capable advanced consumer DSLR in the Nikon D90.
Nikon D3x
After years of rumor, Nikon finally announced it's high megapixel camera, the 24 megapixel Nikon D3x.
The camera immediately caused a backlash with its $8,000 price point, which at the time of release was about double the street price of the Nikon D3. This the uproar was only fuelled further, when it was revealed the only significant differences between the D3 and the D3x were the sensor and a slightly improved EXPEED processor, combined with the fact Sony can produce a DSLR with the same size/megapixel sensor for a mere $3,000.
This camera is aimed squarely at the studio/landscape photographer, and initial tests have shown that the sensor is cleaner at high ISO's than the Sony (but comparable to the 5D Mark II, which has fewer megapixels). So while it's clearly an impressive camera, it remains to be seen how many photographers can actually justify the price tag.
In addition to some entry level DSLR's, can had two big releases in 2008.
Canon EOS 50D
Replacing the 40D, the Canon 50D featured a 15 megapixel 1.6x crop sensor, making it the highest pixel density available today (equivalent to a 39 megapixel full frame sensor).
However the initial reception hasn't been especially positive. Because of the high pixel density, the camera suffers more from the effects of diffraction, doesn't have the high ISO ability many hoped it would, and shows up issues with lenses more than any previous model. Despite this, it remains a solid camera at its current street price of just over $1,000.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Probably the most significant release of the year, the Canon 5D replacement features a 21 megapixel Full Frame sensor, ISO capabilities similar to the new Nikon D3x, and it became the first DSLR to feature full 1080p HD Video capture. Despite some initial problems (like the infamous "black dot" problem), for $2,700 Canon provides an amazing feature set, and appears to have hit a home run with what is arguably the best prosumer package on the market today.
After solidifying its consumer lineup, Sony went after the prosumer market with the Sony A900 featuring a 24-megapixel full frame sensor for under $3,000.
Sony A900
The camera lacks basic features expected on today's DSLR's like Live View, but the next camera available with 24 megapixels is the $8,000 Nikon D3x. However it's biggest competition comes from the Canon 5D Mark II, which has a slightly lower resolution at 21 megapixels, but more than makes up for it with its lower $2,700 price tag, full 1080p HD Video mode and features like Live View.
While clearly an impressive camera at a solid price point, unless you really need the extra resolution, it would be very hard to pick the Sony over the Canon.
With groundbreaking cameras in the Nikon D3x, Nikon D90, Canon 50D and Canon 5D Mark II, 2008 solidified full frame sensors in the marketplace, witnessed a continued push towards higher megapixels, and saw the introduction of video on DSLR's.
Looking forward, 2009 should be an interesting year. With negative economic conditions and fierce competition for market share, we should see prices drop, and features like video mature making for some interesting, if not groundbreaking cameras in the near future.
Steve Denton has been a Photographer using Nikon equipment for over 20 years, since he bought his first Nikon F Photomic.
He also runs the web site, a web site dedicated to DSLR photography, covering the latest news from the major manufactures including Nikon, Canon, Leica and Hasselblad, as well as equipment reviews, articles, travel and galleries.
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