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Nikon D3X vs. Canon 5D Mark II
Sharpness Comparison

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January 2009        

NEW: Far more detailed sharpness comparion  

Nikon D3X Review     Canon 5D Mark II Review

More Nikon Reviews      More Canon Reviews

These are equal-sized crops from the middle of much larger images. If each complete uncropped image was printed at this same high magnification, each would be 40 x 60" (100 x 150cm).

Roll your mouse over to compare the two. (Sorry iPod Touch readers, you have no mouse. Wait for my 4-way comparison including the D3 and old 5D for this.)



Analysis      top

It's obvious: even though the specifications are the same, Canon 5D Mark II looks crappy by comparison.

Why? Simple: Too much noise reduction attempting to smooth over textures that need to be left alone. The 5D Mark II is smudging over softer textures left alone by the D3X.

Canon tends to do this: files from its cameras are more heavily processed. They usually look sharper than Nikon files, but they also more often have sharpening haloes around edges and differential texture smoothing, meaning that fine textures are screwed with.

Big prints from the Canon 5D and 5D Mark II look great, but still have these digital processing artifacts which are visible to skilled eyes.

The files from Nikon cameras may not be as sharp, but have few if any of these digital defects which scream "DIGITAL CAPTURE" to trained eyes in big prints.

In this case, the D3X has plenty of resolution for a change and it is sharper than the 5D Mark II, so it's purer (less screwed with) image completely trounces the image from the 5D Mark II.

Unlike where the old Canon 5D was sharper than the Nikon D3, the Nikon D3X is clearly superior to the Canon 5D Mark II.


Technik      top

These are crops from the center of each image. The full image at this magnification would print 60 inches (1.5 meters) wide.

Each camera was at its defaults, although I had saturation cranked up.

I use specially grown reference trees at a regional arboretum (tree museum) instead of man-made objects like star targets, classified ads or buildings precisely because an educated eye can see far more with natural targets. Trees have a fractal nature, meaning that there is detail at every level, every resolution, every amplitude and in every direction. Artificial target edges only have detail at odd-harmonic series, at discrete amplitudes and only in some directions. Test targets miss a lot of things that become obvious with appropriate natural targets. There was no wind and no heat shimmer.

Each lens was picked to be far better than the camera being tested. For instance, on the Nikon, I also tried the 55mm f/2.8 AF Micro-NIKKOR and the Nikon Zoom-NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8 AF-S. Each gave the same result as each is far sharper than the 24MP resolution of the D3X. I used the fixed 50mm to keep the same framing as the 50/1.4 USM on the Canon.

The 5D Mark II was at firmware v. 1.0.6. Firmware 1.0.7 only addresses the black dots and vertical banding, not throttling back the noise reduction to human levels. It's you turkeys who obsess about noise who are responsible for this, not Canon.

Each image came directly from each camera. I did not use any external raw processing software, as each and every piece of software (Adobe Camera Raw, Phase One, Capture NX, etc. etc.) uses different processing. If I shot raw, we'd be comparing the variations in how any given piece of software processed images from different cameras instead of getting a clear view of what each camera actually does when processing an entire image to completion as a JPG.

If you want to twiddle with raw software, you'll undoubtedly get different results. The Nikon looks great shot as JPG. The Canon looks crappy and might benefit greatly if you have nothing else better to do than screw in front of a computer just to get the images you need.

These results repeated themselves with other lenses and subjects. I've already done these tests with the same lens sample on both brands, nothing changed. Don't try to Monday-morning quarterback "but what if Rockwell..." to try to change the results. The D3X wins, which is too bad, because it's so much more expensive.

If you shoot raw, then please do this test yourself and share the results as I do so we all can benefit. Even if I did shoot raw to do this test, I'm not going to buy the latest version of Photoshop just so I can open the files. Do you raw shooters really like having to upgrade Photoshop every week? I have a copy of the full CS4 suite, and I'm too busy shooting to have bothered even to unwrap it, much less install it and reload all my plugins and actions. I'm perfectly happy with CS2, which I use all day. Where do you people find time? I'm still trying to pull away from my computer long enough so I can edit the images I shot in Yosemite and New Mexico the last two months into real galleries for you.

Maybe if you're real nice I can shoot raw and one of you folks can volunteer to turn the raw files into images for me to analyze. Something you'll discover fast is that few, if any, programs are updated yet to read D3X raw files. The hamsters who spin in their little wheels to power this website prefer not to have to power 20MB files for download.

Does anyone who shoots really care? I know many people sit bored at their office jobs researching purchases they'll never make, but is anyone really wondering whether to buy this Canon versus this Nikon, realizing that along with it you have to buy all the lenses, batteries and everything that goes along with a system? Are you just curious (as I am, too), or do you have a real need to know?

Another huge benefit of the D3X is handling. It just goes, it feels great, and great pictures come out. The ergonomics of the Canon are awful. It hurts to use since the buttons are made of cheap materials and put in the wrong places, as I explained in its review. The D3X is a serios pro camera, while the 5D Mark II is just another consumer electronics product. It's not like the two cameras are identical in all other aspects, in fact, the only thing they share in common is pixel count and sensor size.

Far more important than sharpness is color and tone. I had to work to try to make that match here. In reality, the D3X has a much broader range of possible settings if you like to shoot in color as I do. That alone is more important visually than any of this microscope stuff.

Except that I cranked up the colors in-camera, everything else like NR and sharpening was left at defaults.


Boycott      top

The D3X wins, but I wouldn't actually buy one unless you have money to earn with it right now. The price will undoubtedly come down as a result of the boycott, and even if you do break the boycott and buy one, when the D700x comes out, you're going to want one instead for its better handing, design, size and weight.

You people know who you are, but almost no one needs this many pixels. My pals who earn their livings through photography know that 10MP is more than enough for almost any paying job they get, and they all shoot JPG, too.

If you've got eight grand today and don't mind the stigma of breaking the boycott and screwing all your buddies out of the price drop we deserve, go right ahead.

See also Is It Worth It.



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