Canon 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800 Comparison

I’m really excited to have reviewed both with Canon 5D Mark III and the D800.

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I’m really excited to have reviewed both the Canon 5D Mark III and the Nikon D800. I have been shooting with both of these camera for awhile and have been taking them both everywhere I go trying them side by side in different lighting conditions, cloudy, mixed lighting, extreme low light, swimming pools, silhouettes, even time lapses, comparing skin tones, slow motion, landscapes, and pictures styles, and I think I have found some interesting stuff about these cameras that no one else is talking about.

I’ve been wanting to buy a full frame camera for awhile now and I have been waiting for the Canon 5D Mark III to come out, but now that Nikon has stepped up their game on the video side of things, so there are two cameras to consider now. Are you an amateur like me wanting to step up to a full frame? In this video comparison I will be talking about this from the amateur level.  This is by far my most thorough comparison I have ever done since I will be buying one of these cameras.

How They Are Similar

First off, both have pluses and minuses, they are both full frame, have dual card slots SD and CF, 100% view finder coverage, weather sealed body, both have a somewhat similar Continuous Shoot Speed, both have excellent auto focus systems, and both now have new headphone jacks.

Main Differences

Differences are: Nikon has a built-in flash and the Canon does not, the Nikon has uncompressed clean HDMI which is really nice for monitoring and recording which I will show later, the Canon does not. Nikon has 36 mega pixels and the Canon 22 mega pixels.

The 36 Mega Pixel Sensor!

First off we have to talk about Nikon’s 36mp sensor. You can get some amazing resolving power, looks at the kids on the hill, now let’s zoom in, amazing! I have not done any prints but if you are a landscape person I bet you’ll like this camera. I’m finding that on average the Nikon D800 RAW files are 2 to 3 times larger than Canon’s, so watch out for your hard drive. But on the flip side, the video using the All-I compression with the Canon is much larger than the typical Nikon mov file, Nikon is about ¼ the size of that of Canon’s. So 25MB mov file for the Nikon would be mean 100MB for the Canon.

I know a lot of my audience watches my videos on their phone or an Ipad so I will try to point out what to watch for. This video is in 1080p and available for download on Vimeo if you want to see it before Vimeo or YouTube compresses it.

Canon’s Insane High ISO Performance

Alright so all those mega pixels on the Nikon comes at a price, and that price is noise on the video side. Also when you are in video mode both cameras have equal 1080p resolution so that 36mp does not help in video mode. In fact I think that 36mp sensor on the D800 actually hurts it badly with the low light performance compared to the 5D3. In this shot which I would never even dream of attempting on my Canon Rebel, the 5D3  look very usable and the Nikon looks totally unusable. Now, I pretty much never shoot in the dark like this, but for example when I shot in a adventure rope place I was using ISO from about 1600 to 6400 the whole time because I was shooting for slow motion with a higher shutter speed. Even though it was not super low light it was amazing to shoot at high ISO’s and get great coverage. You can see here that the wall in the bar has a bit more noise from the Nikon at ISO 1600, and a bit more at 4000. And what is amazing is I was not even using the high ISO noise reduction which appears to help out slightly.
Canon 5D Mark III in Camera HDR - Tools By Tom Shop

Nikon’s Dynamic Range or Latitude

While Canon’s low light performance has me very excited in what I can shoot, I got equally excited what I saw from the D800, before I play you the up and down swipe of this next clip I am pausing it first right in the middle, see how the guy in the pool exposure on his skin and the tiles in the sun have a very matched exposure? Now watch this swipe, wow did you see that? Watch it again and look at the wall behind the girl, you can see into the shadows a lot better with the D800. Look at the dynamic range or I believe the correct term is latitude for video from the Nikon! Now look at the tree on the right and look at the shadows. Look at the my black shirt on the D800 and how you can see more detail on it.

Tomatoes in the Window - Canon 5D Mark III

I would rather have good looking flat image that I can grade from than an image where I have to try pulling some shadow detail out of it. To me the D800 has the perfect flat image, it is not super flat which is a bear to expose for and looks like crap on the display, it is just right for an amateur like myself.

OK, you are probably wondering settings I’m using, both cameras are set to a neutral picture style with the contrast turned all the way down.

Ok both of these are the Canon, on the left you can see Canon’s neutral style, and on the right is the CineStyle which is designed for the Mark II. Now on the right you can see I added contrast back into the shot to make it look more like the D800’s neutral style which I like. Here is the same thing but zoomed in 400%, while Cinestyle is doable, it comes at a cost of some slight noise on the right side. I would rather have Nikon’s image in terms of latitude right off the camera than spending a lot of time getting it right in post. Finally let’s compare the Cinestyle treated with the D800’s neutral style, I think I got them close and as you can see the 5D has more noise and it took more work to get there. Big win for Nikon here.

Canon 5D Mark III in Camera HDR

I also took a few photos from that night shoot, this first set is the RAW photos for both cameras, when I zoom in I have to give the level of detail to Nikon on this one, just look at the tiles on the roof. And this next set is both cameras in jpg mode, to see how the camera does with the compression, again the Nikon is the winner.

Also I have never been a fan on how Canon is more saturated in the reds, perhaps it gives it better skin tones but sometimes you need to grab a 2nd color corrector to fix over saturated shirts, I know my daughter red shirt is much more faded than what Canon is showing here.

White Balance Issues

Next we really have to talk about Nikon’s WB balance issues, since that is the biggest thing you will notice when comparing the two. The auto white balance on the Canon appears to be a far superior. While Canon tends to go more magenta, the Nikon goes way too far to the greens for my taste. I shot the same digital calibration target with both cameras and set a custom white, I noticed that the Nikon’s display had a green tint so I also did another shot but this time I shifted the white balance away from green. When I brought the shots in Lightroom and use the White balance eye-dropper tool the Canon was really close, but Nikon’s first shot was way too green and I had to correct for it, and the second shot from the Nikon was much closer. So as you are looking at these images that is why they look so different in terms of color.

When it comes down to it you can’t really shoot with both cameras on a project since it would be hell in post to match them.

I also took both cameras to the worst lighting place I know of, my girls gym. It has so many different types of nasty lights in it, ya the kind that if your shutter is too fast you get nasty yellow banding. I had no problem custom white balancing with the Canon but the D800 just couldn’t custom white balance correctly and I had to spend a long time changing both the Kelvin and the WB shift. Here are both after I finally got the D800 set somewhat correctly, but I still didn’t get it as well as the Canon.

I also gave my friend Jake Nielson who shoots weddings both Canon and the Nikon to play with for a while and he also had the same WB issues I was having with the greenish tint.

Sharpness Needs To Go Down

Before I talk about sharpness I want to tell you I have a 3 free bonus videos that are only on my site, such as 7 Tips for Getting Tack Sharp DSLR Video. So check them out.

Next we need to talk about Sharpness. I quickly found out that you need to turn the sharpening all the way down on the Nikon because of the aliasing, look at all these trees lighting up with aliasing, just plain nasty. If you are watching this on an iphone you might not be able to see this. So all my tests the sharpness was all the way down for both cameras and I added equal sharpen back in post.

In this shot you can see which one the clear winner is the Canon in terms of aliasing and moire.

I did a corporate video with the 5D, a lot of b-roll shots in the data center had metal mesh in the rack which normally would make this shot very difficult with older Canon cameras but I felt this footage was actually usable. You need to watch this in 1080 to really see what I am talking about.

In terms of which image has more sharpness even with in camera sharpening all the way down, I’m not sure I can comment on that since I was using two different lens in the same price range, I tried to use the same lens with an adapter but I had a scary experience with that so dropped that idea.

Awesome Auto Focus

I shot a lot of pictures with my girls on the swings at f1.4 behind them so they were moving in and out of focus a lot, and I gotta say the success rate for both were about the same, maybe the Canon was a little better. This shot I actually did while I was walking. I ran a focus speed test in low light, not so low that the Nikon Light Assist turned on, and they were about the same which is something I noticed just in general picture shooting. However I only tried a few of the advanced focusing modes so my conclusion on this are not that well defined.

The HDMI Advantage

Hands down the Nikon wins when it comes to monitoring or even recording the HDMI signal, I’m not sure someone at my level would record the signal externally, that does not fit with my run and gun style but I can say that since I am doing for collaborative videos, that having an external monitor situation is very nice. If you like you can watch that whole test here.

I’m mostly a RAW shooter, I don’t shoot sports that much so I hardly ever use just JPG. Using the same SD card and shooting RAW I tested how many photos I could take in a row and what the buffer was like, first up is the Nikon and it took 16 shots in 4 seconds. I could not take another shot for 2 minutes until the green light turned off which I think means the buffer cleared. Next up is the Canon, 15 shots in 5 seconds, a bit slower but listen, it keeps going and going, and then finally stops, but if I waited just a few seconds it would start up again on with the very slow shots every 3 seconds. Now I using a 2 year old class 6 card, so new cards might not have this issue, but I thought it was worth pointing it out.

Canon’s HDR

I loved the new HDR mode on the Canon which uses three shots, I really like the first two presets. It does an awesome job combining the images even handheld. I suck at using photomatix so for me this is a big win for the Canon. The Nikon’s HDR is OK but not as good as Canon’s HDR mode.
Eben G. Fine Park - In the Rafters

Preamp Noise – Call it a Tie but they both need to improve

The Canon wins ever so slightly on preamp noise over the D800, I will actually call it a tie. But when you compare it to a cheap $99 external device they are both still very noisy. If you like you can listen and watch that whole test here.

Rolling Shutter is a Joke

I almost don’t want to talk about rolling shutter since both are still really bad, how bad, just look how these $3k cameras compare to my iPhone. Ya, I not sure there much different.

For all these test I have used All-I compression, while I found that the IPB compression does a great job at creating small file sizes and works well up to ISO 1600, after that it become noisy.

If you punch in zoom a lot to focus then you will like the Canon much better because the Nikon has some weird refresh rate or jitter issue with the display which can be very distracting. You can watch that full test here.

The Nikon you can’t change the audio levels while recording like you can with the Canon.

A couple of minor items: Not a fan of the mode dial lock with the Canon and I’m also not a fan on how to switch modes on the Nikon either. And worse yet, I am not a fan of where they placed the video record button on the Nikon.

I shot with these cameras side by side a lot and I can tell you not only do the batteries last about the same for video they also recharge in about the same time as well.

Since the light leak issue has been fixed by Canon on the models now being shipped, I didn’t run any tests on this. However it sounds like they just used some black tape to fix the issue.

At the time I am publishing this video, Nikon has confirmed that the D800 has focus/viewfinder issues, I gotta say I never had any of those with my D800.

Conclusions

So in conclusion on the Canon side, having the aliasing issue fixed is nice and the low light performance is insane, I am really enjoying the headphone jack, but I wished they gave us 1080 at 60fps, and a tilt out screen.

For the Nikon I really like the amount of latitude I get from their neutral picture style, but I’m not crazy about the high ISO performance or the white balance issues.

Both camera are excellent, no need to swap if you already invested in one over the other in terms of glass. I’m really not that invested in Canon glass, I got this one for $100 and this one used for $250, I have not purchased any really good glass yet because I have been waiting for these full frame camera to come out to decide.

Before I tell you which I’m going to buy, if you want to help me make more videos like this please use the links off my site when you are buying equipment, it doesn’t cost you anything extra. For those worried about me upgrading to a full frame don’t worry I’m pretty confident that I will own the T2i or some form of a crop sensor for awhile.

Which One I am Going To Buy

After I had finished all my testing and I was heading out the other day to capture one of my girls activities, I grabbed the Canon instead of the Nikon, the main reason I grab it was the low light performance where I was headed, my style of shooting is mostly using available light, so for me I am going to buy the 5D3 since I can push ISO’s without worrying, and also I don’t have to worry deleting shots with nasty aliasing.

Mid-Air Adventures - Daisies

Also I just didn’t have time to play with the custom white balance on the Nikon. I loved the neutral style of the Nikon, but in the end I can come really close using the CineStyle. If I shot in control lighting situations where I didn’t have to push the ISO’s I would have picked the Nikon.

Lake Shore Swimming - Canon 5D Mark III

As for price the Canon is $500 more at $3500. That price really bothers me since I thought it would be around $2500 to $2700. It’s really hard for an amateur like me to justify the cost, but I have been doing more paid work lately so I guess that helps me justify the cost.

Bad Experience with the Cinevate Canon/Nikon Adapter

I used the Cinevate Canon/Nikon Adapter and half way through my review when I tried to use the apdapter the Nikon lens would not come off the Canon body! It was not a good experience, I was freaking out. I am guessing that adapter was not built for the 5D3. I finally got it off after a few phone calls and I really had to muscle it off which caused slight damage to the Nikon lens.

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