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Yet Another 5D Mark III vs D800 Comparisons Round-up (5D3 clear winner regarding AF, ISO performance)


Let’s go into another round of what is starting to look as a Battle of the Giants.

Canon’s EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon’s D800. Both full-frame, the Nikon having a 36MP sensor, Canon a 22MP, and costing respectively $2,999 (Nikon) vs $3,499 (Canon). Announced and released more or less at the same time, these two cameras are heating up the discussion in dedicated forums and allover the web. Which one is better? Which camera has the better AF? Which one has better ISO performance, and so on and so forth.

It’s obviously never really an easy issue to compare cameras – do you prefer mere technical specification (are you engineering-oriented?), or do you like field-tests (do you prefer real-world performance analysis)? And it’s is even more difficult if the cameras you want to compare are similar, both the most advanced in their league, and perform both very good. Sure, the D800 has some features that make it shine out: lower price tag, high-res sensor, very good performance at lower ISOs (and more). The Canon, on the other side, comes with a sensor that has a surprisingly “low” resolution, given the high-res-sensors-run most camera manufactures have embraced (but then: 22MP is not low-res, it’s high resolution but not the MP champion the D800 is). The Canon shines out with an advanced Auto-Focus system, well controlled moire and aliasing, and very good high ISO performance. I don’t think you can state one is better than the other. Sure, they have different strengths (and weaknesses), and at the very end it is up to your preferences and needs. Are you mostly a studio shooter, do you need to make extreme crops, do you need a 36MP to earn your living (or simply have lots of Nikon lens)? – Then the D800 may be better suited for your needs. On the other hand, if you are a wedding photographer,  need a camera that adapts to many different situations, are you mainly shooting in low-light and (and have lotsa Canon lens)? – Then the 5D Mark III may be your choice of default. In this post I concentrate on the AF system and on noise performance. How do the cameras compare?

Let me start with the Auto-Focus system. I think the EOS 5D Mark III is scoring here. This is not to say that the AF sported on the D800 is not good. But personally I am thrilled by the 41 high-sensitivity cross-type points (on 61) of the AF system featured on the 5D Mark III (heritated from the EOS 1D X). The D800 has 15 high-sensitivity cross-type points (on 51, heritated from the D4). However, Canon’s new AF system seems to be an intimidating beast, since even Ken Rockwell – after having touted that the 5D Mark III is the «best camera ever made by Canon» – is very disappointed and writes:

I’m not happy with the Mark III’s new autofocus system, which is about the same as Nikon’s old D300 AF system of 2007. Its added complexity and inferior, obstructive LCD finder display is getting in the way of my pictures. I can’t see my subject under the ugly black AF-area squares, and its added complexity demands that I stop what I’m doing to set it. By comparison, the simple, fast AF system of my 5D Mark II and original 5D never required more than one click to adjust, and my eyes never had to leave my subject.

Well, sounds a little harsh to me (the whole list of critics clicking here). An articulated answer to KR can be read here. Sure, Canon’s new AF is a sophisticated beast, and to tame it you have to acknowledge how it works, and especcially how to set it for your purposes. Maybe that’s the reason Canon published a detailed guide about its new AF system (right click here and save as) However, it is almost a common opinion (in the meantime) that Canon’s AF (if you know how to use it) is snappier than the one of the D800.

Ok let us start with the first in-depht review video, comparing the D800 to the 5D Mark III. And yes: 36MP are amazing and can render a huge amount of detail. The first part focuses on AF of both cameras, which are analyzed by a Nikon shooter (Nathan Elson). The verdict is that Canon’s AF snaps in faster and is very very precise. And even if Canon’s 22MP sensor does not have Nikon’s resolution the amount of details captured is still amazing, quoting: «it doesn’t mean that you are loosing any of the actual details». In other words: 22MP is more than enough most people need. I wont anticipate the whole video, just say that Canon outperforms Nikon with AF and high ISO performance :-). The whole review is well made and pleasant to watch, but if you are in a hurry: conclusion starts at 15:45 of the video.

Ok, the other point where I think the 5D Mark III outperforms Nikon’s D800 is noise, while the D800 outperforms the 5D Mark III on detail resolution at low ISOs. cameralabs posted a long and detailed noise comparison using JPGs. Some excerpts from the review:

At 400 ISO though, those noise textures on the D800 have become a little more obvious, and while a minor patchiness is also now appearing on the Mark III, the Canon is definitely cleaner at this point. That said, the D800 is still out-resolving it on fine detail.

In terms of detail-resolution the D800 outperforms the 5D Mark III until ISO 800-1600. That said, increasing ISO makes appear Nikon’s weak point: noise.

The story continues at 12800 and 25600 ISO, the maximum for the D800. I’d say at these higher sensitivities the Mark III enjoys around a two stop advantage over the D800 when both are shooting at their maximum resolutions and viewed at 1:1. Certainly the 12800 sample of the Mark III is quite usable at smaller sizes, whereas the D800 is looking pretty ropey at this point.

Final verdict:

So this test panned-out as expected: the D800 wins on detail at low sensitivities, while the 5D Mark III wins on noise levels and cleaner output at higher sensitivities. The important question is where that cross-over point is? Judging from the crops below, I’d say it’s at 800 ISO. At 50-400 ISO the D800 remains sufficiently clean for most people and manages to out-resolve the Mark III. At 800 ISO and above though, the D800 becomes noticeably noisier than the Mark III. I’d say the Mark III is very usable at 1600-6400 ISO with impressively clean results, whereas the D800 has become very noisy in comparison.

Read the article and check samples to judge for yourself.

Let’s have a break and have a look at two post by new 5D Mark III owners. Not comparison, and focused solely on the 5D Mark III. Wedding photographer David Ziser is enthusiastic about his new 5D Mark III high ISO performance and writes about it in an article titled HIGH ISO Nirvana!!! Shooting at 25,400 ISO and Beyond!!! That’s a clear and definitive statement, and comes with a series of samples for your pixel-peeping pleasure. If you want to read another enthusiastic new 5D Mark III owner then THE NEW 5D MKIII – A LOVE AFFAIR! by wedding photographer Christine Tremoulet is the post you should read. The final praise (or poem):

Oh Canon, once again you make my heart sing. I feel as full of joy about this camera body as I did when I bought my very first Canon 20D years ago. It is finally a camera body worthy of the wonderful L series lenses that you make. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I can’t wait to use it at the wedding I’m photographing tonight […]!

Ok, back to serious analyses. Do you know that DPreview provides a handy tool to compare IQ of different cameras? I played with this tool for some time and my conclusion is that regarding ISO performance from ISO 800 upwards there is no story: 5D Mark III clear winner.

ISO 800 – 5D3 right, D800 left

Noise sensitivity of the D800 becomes really worse at ISO 6400:

ISO 6400 – 5D3 right, D800 left

Use the comparison tool clicking here (JPGs and RAWs and be downloaded for more pixel-peeping madness :-) ).

Swiss site compared the 5D Mark III vs D800 vs D4. They do not deliver a final verdict but lots of samples and crops (Google translated).

Finally…some humor. The video below makes fun of the rivalry between the 5D Mark III and the D800. Be aware that the video may not be suited for everyone. There’s a fake murder, cursing, strippers, and lot of weird fun.

Ok, that’s all for now. More to follow. I think it is reasonably to state that Canon has an advantage over Nikon regarding ISO performance above ISO 800 and that Canon has the better and more advanced AF system. The 36MP sensor of the D800 allows for great details and below ISO 800 noise is not really a problem on the D800. Nikon’s D800 maintains very good detail resolution even at higher ISOs when noise becomes more apparent. However, the 22MP sensor of the EOS 5D Mark III captures an amazing amount of details even having around 14MP less than its sibling. The disadvantage in terms of resolution of the 5D mark III may only be a limiting factor in given settings (e.g. studio shooting, or when you need extreme crops), while not being even notable in real life photography. Finally, I think the EOS 5D Mark III is the better all-round camera.

To see the latest pics shot with a 5D Mark III and uploaded to Flickr click here.

The following shops have the EOS 5D Mark III in stock and ready to ship:

  • Amazon: 5D Mark III w/24-105mm f/4 L $4,299 – click here
  • Canon store: 5D Mark III w/24-105mm f/4 L $4,299 – click here
  • B&H: 5D Mark III body $3,499 – click here
  • J&R: 5D Mark III body $3,499 – click here
  • J&R: 5D Mark III w/24-105mm f/4 L $4,299 – click here (NOTE: shows up as out of stock, should be in stock in a few hours)
  • Adorama: 5D Mark III body + free photo-book $3,499 – click here
  • Adorama: 5D Mark III w/24-105mm f/4 L $4,299 –click here
  • DigitalRev: 5D Mark III body – location-based price, different kit options, ships in 24h – click here
  • DigitalRev: 5D Mark III w/24-105mm f/4 L – location-based price, different kit options, ships in 24h – click here

World-wide EOS 5D Mark III price and availability check (click on the shop name): Amazon DE, Amazon UK, Amazon IT, Canon IT, WEX Photographic, Canon FR, Canon UK, Canon DE

Have a nice day, or night…

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