Canon, Sony and Nikon have all announced new HD DSLR cameras that record 1920x1080 video, each with interesting new features.
The new Nikon D3100 is its first DSLR with full HD, but the Sony A580 and A560 models will be the company's first DSLRs to do video of any sort, while the Canon 60D merely fills the gap between its existing EOS 550D and 7D video-friendly models. Sony has also announced two Single Lens Translucent cameras (DSLRs without the reflex), which use a pericle mirror to deflect some light up to a fast phase-detection auto-focus sensor while still letting about 70% of the light through to the image sensor.
All the cameras have some advantages over existing HD DSLRs, but lots of compromises too.
Sony offers transparency
The 16.2 megapixel A580 and 14.2mp A560 use Exmor APS-C HD CMOS sensors with enhanced Bionz processors. Both have 3-inch pivoting LCDs and good low-light capabilities (up to ISO 25,600). The €900 A580 will be available in October and the €800 A560 ships early next year.
The fixed, semi-transparent mirror SLT A55 and SLT A33 means that they can use their faster, more accurate phase-detection AF sensor all the time, including video mode, whereas HD DSLRs can only use it in stills mode (while the mirror is down), because the mirror has to be locked up for video, which requires switching to slower, less accurate contrast detection AF (which isn't even available during recording on some cameras and is almost unusable on others).
As they don't have to retract the mirror to take stills, they can also be used at high frame rates for photography (up to ten frames per second on the A55), and the cameras are significantly smaller than DSLRs. Although less light gets through to the CMOS sensor, this reduction is only the equivalent of about half a stop.
The 16.2mp A55 ($749 October) and 14.2mp A33 ($649 September) have a 3-inch articulated LCD, and go up to 12,800 ISO.
All four Sony cameras record 1080 50i/60i (25p/30p capture on the sensor), using AVCHD at only 17mbps. All have HDMI output and mini-jack stereo microphone input, but they have limited control during video recording (aperture only).
Nikon goes full on
Nikon D3100 is its first full 1920x1080 HD DSLR (although it was the first to release an HD DSLR two years ago, the 720p D90 – a replacement for which is rumoured to arrive soon). However, it is only 24p (or 1280x720 recording at 24, 25 and 30 fps).
It has auto-focus while recording, plus face detection and auto tracking, so that it can follow a face in a shot and keep it in focus (in our limited test with a pre-production model these seemed to work well). It draws a box around the face, or faces it has selected and can prioritise up to 35 faces - so long as they are looking in your general direction, trying to select the best focus settings to suit as many as possible. As DSLR lenses typically have narrow focus wheels with limited travel, having to focus manually while recording usually lacks precision, which is why add-on focus wheels or follow-focus systems are recommended for any serious work, so auto focus that works as well as this could be useful.
It records MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 .mov files, instead of Nikon's previous Motion JPEG AVI files, which should make it more edit friendly – it comes with video editing software and users can do simple trimming in the camera. It only records mono audio, but serious HD DSLR users tend to use a separate audio recorder anyway, and doesn't have a mic input. Our tests indicated a variable bit rate around 20Mbps.
It is the replacement for Europe's best selling DSLR, the D3000, costing £500 (body only) or £580 (with 18-55mm kit lens), undercutting Canon's entry-level 550D.
Canon more of the same
The new EOS 60D is essentially another 550D/7D, with a few of new features: an articulating LCD; full manual control of video settings; and manual audio controls with the ability to turn off automatic gain control (it also has a stereo mic input).
Otherwise, the picture quality (stills and video) is unchanged from the 550D/7D. It is a less expensive 7D without the tank-like build quality and a couple of features useful for stills, or a more expensive 550D with extra features and better build quality.
It records 1920x1080p HD video at 24, 25 and 30fps or 720p video at 50 and 60fps onto SDXC cards, using the MPEG-4 AVC, H.264 codec (.mov files) at 44mbps. It will list at $1,100 (body only) or $1,400 (with 18-135mm kit lens).
Canon has also announced an updated version of its EOS E1 plug-in for Apple's Final Cut Pro with support for the 60D. It converts recording into ProRes 422 at least twice as fast as Apple’s standard conversion and allows logging with timecode, reel names and metadata. It also provides support for multi-core processing, for faster conversations on higher-powered Macs. It already works with the 5D Mark II, 1D Mark IV, and 7D.