Canon EOS-5D Mark III and Nikon D800

by John Rettie

The Canon 5D Mark III and Nikon D800 are quite different yet remarkably similar.

June 01, 2012

Initially I was going to write two separate reviews on the newest mid-range professional cameras from Canon and Nikon. Although the Nikon D800 and the Canon EOS 5D Mark III were announced some months apart, they both became available for review at the same time.

Since I tested the cameras side-by-side, I decided to combine reviews. (Note: I’m not going to answer the question as to which is the better camera—this is a fair and honest review of each. It’s been a couple of years since I have used either preceding camera—the 5D Mark II or the D700—so this is also not a comparison between old and new.)

As a reviewer I am always using different cameras, which can be a disadvantage when I am on assignment for a serious shoot, as each camera has a different layout for controls, and silly things, such as the various ways to turn a lens to zoom. I ended up cursing both cameras at times because of this, mostly when I screwed up a shot due to my lack of instant familiarity with one or the other camera.

First, a brief overview of each camera and the improvements as listed by the manufacturers.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III
The way in which cinematographers adopted the 5D Mark II as a viable camera for shooting high-end films took everyone, including Canon, by surprise. So it’s no surprise that Canon concentrated as much as anything on improving the movie-capturing aspects of the new Mark III. In particular, it added a built-in headphone jack for audio monitoring.

From a still photographer’s perspective, the changes are not quite as extensive. The sensor is still full frame and the number of pixels in the all-new sensor has jumped modestly, from 21 megapixels to 22.3 megapixels (5760x3840). The standard ISO went up from a maximum of 6400 to 25600. The camera can now capture images at 6 fps, compared to 4 fps in the Mark II. More significant is the improved autofocus system, with 61 focus points instead of just nine. The rear 1,040,000-dot LCD monitor is slightly bigger (3.2 inches vs. 3.0 inches) and gives a clearer image. The camera now has two storage card slots—one for Compact Flash and one for SD.

Nikon D800
The D700 was unable to shoot video, so it was no match for the 5D Mark II in that area. Naturally, Nikon did not like to see its rival get ahead with this increasingly important feature of modern DSLR cameras. To this end, the D800 offers full HD video capture capabilities that closely match the 5D Mark III’s abilities.

Still photographers will find that the D800 is substantially upgraded from the D700. The only notable similarity is the use of a full-size sensor. The pixel count has gone from only 12.1 megapixels to a whopping 36.3 megapixels (7360x4912) in one fell swoop. Obviously, this tremendous increase in image file size also caused a decline in speed, from 5 to 4 fps. The standard high ISO rating remains at 6400 though, despite the tremendous increase in resolution. The rear LCD monitor is modestly bigger (3.2 inches vs. 3.0 inches), but the dot count remains the same (920,000). Like the 5D Mark III, the D800 now includes two storage card slots—one for Compact Flash and one for SD.

Bottom Line
During the period I had the Nikon D800 on loan, I had four photo assignments that turned out to be interesting tests for the camera. First was shooting new cars at the New York Auto Show. One morning I had to photograph the as-yet-unannounced prototype Lamborghini Urus in a studio with nothing more than a few LED spotlights for lighting. I did not have a tripod, so I hand-held the camera and shot RAW and JPEG at full resolution. The Nikkor 24-70mm AF-S lens I was shooting with does not have image stabilization (that’s when an in-body IS system would have been useful), so I did end up with some soft images, but on the whole my steady hand and the ability to shoot at ISO 800 meant I had enough images that were usable by the two magazines for which I was shooting. One was able to use the RAW images, while the other was unable to upgrade its software in time to process the RAW images, so I had to resend them as JPEGs!

The other part of my assignment was uploading images for a news service. I shot images using ISO 1600 that gave me enough light to get most shots at 1/400th shutter speed. Occasionally I needed some flash fill, so the pop-up flash on the D800 was a godsend as I did not want to have the baggage of an external Speedlight on the camera all day.

I knew I would suffer from a slow Internet connection and I also knew they would not need really high-resolution images. So—some would say this was sacrilege­—I chose the option of using the smallest reduced-size setting on the D800 to capture 9-megapixel images (3680x2456), where the JPEG files averaged 6 MB instead of 22 MB, produced by a full size 7360x4912-pixel image.

The next two assignments were to cover a couple of motorsports events. The first took place at the dry, dust-free Grand Prix of Long Beach, where I took action shots of cars as they raced around the streets of Long Beach. Here I had use of both cameras and I found them both to be equally up to the task. Both cameras were able to autofocus fast enough to get a good, sharp image as the race cars came toward me at anywhere from 40 to 90 mph or more.
I had use of a Nikkor 70-200 VR zoom with a 2X teleconverter for the D800, which proved to be a good combination for close-ups of cars in action. Unfortunately, I did not have the use of such a long lens for the 5D, so I could not compare the autofocusing, which is obviously critical in a situation like this.

My third assignment was shooting off-road racers in Baja at the NORRA Mexican 1000 rally. Both cameras and the combination of lenses worked well there, as I was able to get far-closer, at times within feet of a car racing by. Again, fast focusing was essential. I’d say both cameras were about equal. Although there was some dust, it was not nearly as bad as I’ve experienced before.

While in Baja, I had the opportunity to chat with several photographers and even a couple of cinematographers. Canon still photographers were pleased that the mode control dial now has a lock in the center, so it cannot be accidentally turned. This has been a major complaint for some time and one Canon 7D shooter was particularly pleased with the fix. He told me he was contemplating upgrading to the 5D Mark II, but was disappointed when he discovered that, unlike the D800, it does not have a built-in pop-up flash. I agree with him that this is a serious shortcoming.

I watched four cinematographers shoot a campfire scene using a couple of RED cameras with Canon lenses and two Canon 5D Mark IIs with Leica lenses. The two Canon shooters were anxious to get their hands on a Mark III and told me they were so pleased that the new camera has better audio connections and the rolling shutter problem has been lessened, if not totally eradicated. Both complained that neither the 5D nor the D800 have rotating rear screens. They, like me, consider that to be an essential requirement for a DSLR that can record video, and wonder why Canon and Nikon insist on not including them on pro-level cameras.

Of course, the bottom line is image quality. I tried some shots using both cameras side by side, using similar lenses and the same settings. Despite the apparent large difference in pixel count, there is not a lot of apparent difference in quality. So much of the final quality of an image is dependent on settings such as increased dynamic range or using a scene setting. Anyone who shoots RAW can tweak images—in the end it’s like comparing different film emulsions from days gone by. That is to say some will like the Canon look while others will like the Nikon. Others, like me, are more than happy with either.

So why would anyone want a camera like the D800 with 36 megapixels? After using it for these assignments, I describe it as good ‘backup’ function. If you find yourself without a long enough lens, you can manually set the camera to the DX format, which gives you a 1.5X crop factor and delivers a 15.4-megapixel (4800x3200) image. I did this several times when I was shooting with the 70-200 zoom and 2X converter to get the equivalent of a 600mm lens.

During the couple of weeks I had the cameras for review, I was unable to do a serious shoot with a model, so I cannot comment on the suitability of either device as a wedding or portrait camera. I’m pretty confident though in saying that every reader who uses either system will be more than happy with the new models. For those who shoot video, both cameras are must-have upgrades from their predecessors. If you only shoot stills and are happy with the quality you’re getting from the Canon EOS-5D Mark II or the Nikon D700, the decision is perhaps a little more difficult to make. Both are good, evolutionary—but not revolutionary—cameras.

Check out photos taken on these two cameras in a gallery on John Rettie’s Web site, www.johnrettie.com.    


John Rettie is a photojournalist who has been covering digital photography since its earliest days. You can contact him via e-mail: john@johnrettie.com

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