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Picture That!

Eight boundary-busting digital cameras hit the market with features that include ultra-zooms, low-light sensitivity, better flexibility, new connectivity choices, superior durability and even 3-D images
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Matthew McConaughey, March/April 2011

Your local electronics superstore has shelves full of digital cameras that are decent but unexceptional (oh look, it’s a pink one!). If you know where to look, however, there are truly remarkable models on the market, cameras that pull off tricks that weren’t possible just a few months ago. Some of them will change the way you take pictures. Some are more novelty acts than center-stage performers. But all of them open up new photographic opportunities in eye-opening ways.

Nikon D3S

The professional-grade Nikon D3S is a top-of-the-line performer across the board, with quick, accurate autofocus, a blazing-fast nine-shots-a-second burst rate and in-depth customization options that let finicky photogs tailor the camera’s performance precisely to their preferences. It’s also built to take a beating, with heavy-duty weather seals and a rugged magnesium-alloy body.

The knockout feature, though, is the camera’s extraordinary ability to see in the dark.

The stat that measures a camera’s sensitivity to light is the ISO level—the higher the number, the less light you need to take a picture. Most of the consumer-grade digital SLRs top out at about ISO 3200. Some go to ISO 6400, and a handful push the upper limit to ISO 12,800, though the amount of grainy noise you get at that setting makes shooting impractical. At its highest setting, the Nikon D3S achieves ISO 102,400. Here again, you’re not likely to use the top setting for anything but a Hail Mary pass in the pitch dark. But keep the level just a few notches below the maximum and you’ll find amazing flexibility to shoot in low light without blasting a flash.

In practical terms, that means I can shoot the cat in a room illuminated with a single 60-watt bulb, with the D3S set at ISO 6400, at a very hand-holdable 1/40 second shutter speed and get a photo with every whisker razor-sharp and the dark background smooth and clean. When shooting in an even darker room, I can point into an area where I can see just about nothing at all with the naked eye and get a shot that reveals all the furniture and hanging artwork in the room. It’s pretty damn close to magic.

Of course, this level of technological bravado comes at a cost, and I’m not just talking about the $5,000+ sticker price (that’s without a lens). The D3S is a bit of a beast to lug around; nearly five pounds with the admittedly bulky 24-70mm lens I used for my review. Still, as someone who loves shooting in natural light, I have to say the D3S is worth every penny and every pound. Wonder if Nikon will take the cat in trade?


Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5

The low-light champion among compacts is the sleek little Panasonic LumixDMC-LX5, an excellent second-camera choice for SLR shooters looking for a carry-everywhere alternative. The headline bit of hardware here is the Leica lens. One key measure of how well a camera will function in low-light conditions is the size of the lens’s maximum aperture—with a smaller number translating into better performance.

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