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Canon 5D vs. Nikon D200
© 2007 KenRockwell.com

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January 2007


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I own both a Nikon D200 and a Canon 5D. I've owned my D200 since December 2005 and made 30,000 images with it. I've owned my 5D since November 2006 and made 7,000 images with it.

Which is better?

I'll get into details later, but I prefer my D200 for anything that moves and I use my 5D for things that hold still. Easy.

My D200 works far easier and faster, meaning I get better images of moving things. My 5D has higher technical quality, for things that wait for me to make adjustments.

House on fire? I'd grab my D200, either from my own burning house if I only could grab one camera, or use my D200 to photograph a fire. Test charts, landscapes, studio portraits, lazy tripod shots or ultra-ultra-wide shots? I grab my 5D.

Real Photography      back to top

For photographing life, like the birth of my son Ryan Rockwell, I use my Nikon D200. I never could have made an incredible 23 good shots during the 51 hot seconds of Ryan's birth with my Canon.

I needed ISOs ranging from ISO 100 in 20kW of HMI spotlight, to ISO 1,600 in the dim ambient room light. My D200 set these ISOs automatically as the light changed. If I used my 5D, I would have missed everything changing ISOs manually, or had to shoot everything at ISO 1,600. Regardless of its laboratory supremacy, the 5D would have given me much grainer shots having to leave it at 1,600 for everything, or would have given me time-exposure blurred shots if I left it at the lower ISO setting.

I zoomed from 200mm at three feet for tight baby-head-shots, to 18mm to get everyone and their reactions. My Nikon 18-200mm VR let me do this, without missing everything changing lenses.

My D200 gave perfect exposure in all of the varied light conditions and compositions. My 5D would have necessitated me stopping and setting a different exposure compensation the hard way (trial and error) for each shot, meaning again I would have missed most of everything.

For real photography outside the lab or studio, I prefer my D200 because it's faster, easier and more consistently gets out of my way in creating great images.

My Nikon D40 or D80 would have done as well, except their meters aren't as good and would have required varying amounts of exposure compensation, just like my Canons.

Tripods, Labs, Studios and Test Charts  back to top

Given all the time to set up a static shot, my 5D is sharper even in 18' (50cm) wide prints held close. At 100% on-screen, the 5D looks night-and-day better than my D200. I'll show that later.

My 5D is the king of static photos. For photographing things that wait for you, like test charts, it rules.

For use on a tripod, if everything is behaving in a predictable manner, my 5D wins. The gotcha is that God and nature waits for no one. Light is everything. Even if I'm shooting from a tripod, the world still turns and the clouds still blow in and out. Light and my compositions change so quickly that I don't have the time I'd like, unless I'm shooting something dull like these tests in the middle of the day.

The peak light at dawn or sunset often only lasts for seconds. There is no time for multiple tweaks, and even if there is, the LCD of my 5D is too poor for making critical judgments of color or exposure. All my Nikons (D40, D70, D80, D200) have accurate screens, and except for my D70, all of them have bright, bold, crazy good, super-sharp screens.

Feel and Look      back to top

The D200 feels like a solid brick wrapped in rubber. It's tough.

The 5D is a 20D with the flash ripped off and replaced with a full metal top cover. The 5D doesn't feel very tough. The 5D feels dinkier and is covered in something much slipperier than my D200. The command dials of my D200 are perfect: hard on the inside and covered in sticky rubber. The 5D's dials are dainty, slippery hard plastic.

The in-finder numbers and indications are much more complete and legible in my D200.

My 5D's finder is bigger, but with smaller and dimmer numbers than my D200. It's much harder to see what my 5D is doing while shooting. Even my D40 has much better in-finder indications than my 5D.

Wide Lenses     back to top

Get the Canon 17-40mm L for the 5D or the Nikon 12-24mm for the Nikon.

My 17-40mm L (or 16-35mm L) on my 5D is better than my 12-24mm on my Nikon D200.

My 17-40mm L goes both wider and longer than my Nikon 12-24mm (see Crop Factor.).

Better, the 17-40mm L costs less and has a fat rebate as of January 2007. The 17-40mm L is the bargain of the season.

You can get many fixed-focal-length wide and ultra-wide lenses for the 5D at both reasonable prices or at super-fast apertures, like a Canon 20mm f/2.8 or a 24mm f/1.4. You can't get any of that for Nikon digital: even an 18mm isn't very wide on Nikon digital. (see Crop Factor.).

Fisheye and Ultra-Ultra-Wide-Angle Lenses

If you want fisheye or ultra-ultra-wide shots, full-frame cameras win. Nikon has nada in oversize-sensor cameras.

Ultra - Ultra - Wide - Angle Lenses      back to top

Home Expo

Looking Forward and Up! Canon 14mm on Canon 5D.

I just bought a Canon 14mm f/2.8L for my Canon (14mm equivalent on full-frame).

The widest rectilinear (straight) lens made by Nikon for digital cameras is my Nikon 12-24mm, which is only a 19mm equivalent when actually measured.

My Nikon 12-14mm can't see in two directions at once. A 14mm lens on a full-frame camera sees 104 degrees - horizontally! It sees all of the left wall, all of the right wall, and even more on either side. It can make this ordinary straight staircase seem curved.

That's what ultra-ultra wide's are all about. They are not for "getting it all in." They are for getting you, and therefore your viewer, all the way into the middle of something exciting. A 14mm lens is a rub-your-nose-in-it lens. Used properly, its purpose it to create exaggerated, forced perspective and/or to bring your viewer into the middle of something.

Stairs 14mm

Boring, ordinary staircase made almost spiral. Canon 14mm on Canon 5D.

Ryan Rockwell weigh-in

So close you're going to get hit ! I'm only inches away, and it looks it.
(Canon 14mm on Canon 5D.)

Yes, you can slum with off-brand lenses on each. The widest off-brand lens for Nikon is the Sigma 10-20mm, which is equivalent to about a 15 or 16mm lens on a full-frame camera. (see Crop Factor.)

If you pull the slum card with Canon, you can get the Sigma 12-24mm, which is a 12mm equivalent. You also can get the Sigma or Tamron 14mm fixed lenses, each of which is a 14mm equivalent on a 5D.

Due to the crop factor, Nikon makes no ultra-ultra wide lenses for its digital cameras. The Nikon 9mm f/2.8 DX is an unfulfilled dream.

DxO Optics Pro correction software works wonders on either maker's fisheye images, giving the same field of view equal to a 12mm rectilinear equivalent and leaving no residual distortion.

Fisheye to rectilinear conversion

Fisheye to Rectilinear Conversion. Roll mouse over to compare.

DxO Optics Pro correction software converted this with less residual distortion than a conventional ultra-wide lens. The only reason the lines on the ceiling are slightly tilted is because I didn't have the camera completely square.

Fisheye Lenses      back to top

Both Nikon 10.5mm and Canon 15mm fisheyes give the same angles of view, used properly.

The Nikon 10.5mm gives the same view on every Nikon digital camera. The Canon 15mm only gives the proper 180 degree view on full-frame cameras (1Ds and 5D).

My Canon fisheye is much better than my Nikon fisheye. Both are sharp at all apertures. My Nikon has bad chromatic aberration on the sides (magenta and green color fringes). My Canon doesn't.

The Canon 15mm fisheye has a metal lens cap, metal integrated hood and metal outer barrel. My Nikon has a plastic cap, plastic integrated hood and a plastic outer barrel.

My Canon has a 5-bladed diaphragm which makes 10-pointed sun stars. My Nikon has a 7-bladed diaphragm which makes magnificent 14-pointed sun stars.

My Nikon focuses closer; although either focuses more than close enough.

Both have metal innards.

Both require you slide a switch for manual focusing. Neither has full-time override.

The Canon fisheye costs less than the Nikon, and costs about the same as junky third-party fisheyes. Getting the Canon fisheye is a no-brainer. Its performance is consistently spectacular.

Image Quality      back to top

My Nikons excel in the cold streets of reality and windy deserts of rapidly setting suns peeking out after hours of clouds. Even my cheap Nikon D40 has Auto ISO and Auto Contrast, huge Color Histograms I can navigate with the D40 held in one hand and a fantastic LCD that gives me workstation accuracy in the field. With it I can catch images that I'd lose fiddling with my 5D and its dim, misleading LCD.

My Canon 5D is better in the lab if you have the time to set the ISO, contrast and more that the Nikons set automatically, and then babysit its awful, dim LCD which requires me to retire to my computer to evaluate the 5D's images.

My 5D excels if you're a tripod guy and take the time to set it up, like a view camera. My Nikons excel at getting in, getting the shot, and getting out. If I can take the time I'm astounded by what my 5D can do. If I can't, I get better results with my D40 and certainly with my D200.

Here's an example. Roll your mouse over to compare Canon to Nikon.

I didn't think anything of contrast when I shot this, with several cameras and many lenses. I thought the light was rather soft anyway.

Looking at the results I realized the light was much harsher than I realized. We had Devil winds which blew out all the dust, leaving crystal-clear air. That's why we use spot meters and the zone system with film: our eyes compensate contrast automatically so we can't see it as our film always does.

Trees. Roll mouse over for a comparison.

Nikon cameras are smart enough to see this and compensate as our eyes do. It's in Optimize Image: Tone Curves (Nikon's gibberish for contrast). Look in your Nikon DSLR: it defaults at AUTO. Canons have no comprehension of auto contrast; they stay locked into whatever setting you used last. (To Canon's credit they make it very easy to select among several contrast settings on the run.)

While shooting I couldn't see anything on the dim, color-shifted LCD of my 5D. My Nikon's images looked great on its LCD.

When I got back and looked at them on the big screen I realized that the light was very harsh. The shadows on the Canon images went black and the bright reflected highlights from the shiny red leaves washed out to white in many places.

My Nikon D200 was smart enough automatically to see the high contrast and set a lower contrast without me even noticing. The lowered contrast of the Nikon filled the shadows in with color, and let the red tree retain its color in its highlights.

Yes, blown up to five feet wide the 5D smokes the D200 if you're counting pixels, but the picture from the D200 is better. I can't count to 12.7 million.

If I had turned down the contrast on the 5D I could have gotten a much better image, but I couldn't tell until I returned. This is called experience, and a real photographer learns from this for next time. I've only been doing this 40 years and I learn new things every day.

Sharpness      back to top

Sharpness means nothing if the exposure and color aren't dead perfect.

Here are crops from the two above images at 100%. I enlarged the D200 image to the same image size as the 5D, I also applied some color and contrast masks to the D200 image to make it match the 5D image. Otherwise the D200 image was more colorful and less contrasty.

5D vs. D200 at 100%. Roll mouse over to compare.

This is what you'd see if printed 44" (1.1m) wide.

Yes, as I said, my 5D totally smokes my D200 for huge prints if you've got the time to set it up correctly.

These two cameras are in completely different worlds of resolution and sharpness, just as different as they are in terms of usability of their LCD monitors. My Canon's LCD is so bad that I only can guess at what I've shot while I'm still in the field. Most people are perfectly happy with it, but not if you compare it to any of Canon's or Casio's point-and-shoots or any of the modern Nikon DSLR LCDs.

High ISOs      back to top

I shoot at high ISOs, I own both these cameras, and I've never been so bored as to bother doing a shootout.

This is because the both look good, but a little grainy, at ISO 1,600. They both look perfect at ISO 100. They both look gritty at ISO 3,200.

I'm sure there are small differences if I did a run-off (and I shall some day), but the differences in everything else swamp any small differences in noise.

More important than any noise difference, is that the Auto ISO of my D200 allows me to shoot at lower ISOs in real-world conditions of varying light, while I need to leave my 5D cranked up since it's not smart enough to crank itself back down when pointed at something brighter.

No one shoots in a studio with dim light. Dim light in nature and metropolitan areas is constantly varying. If you're in a night club, a city street or on a stake out, you'll be pointing your camera to and from darker and lighter areas. These brightnesses will vary by many stops. I prefer my Nikon's Auto ISO which lets me tell my camera the slowest preferred shutter speed, and as the light gets darker my Nikons crank up the ISO to ensure that the shutter speed doesn't fall below my preference. The Nikons keep cranking the ISO until they reach the highest ISO to which I've allowed it to rise, and only then extend the shutter speed to longer times as the light dims further.

My Nikon D200 can set a different Auto ISO for each of its 5 frames per second.


Specifications    Performance    

Are you a tripod guy or do you live for lenses wider than 19mm? Get the Canon 5D.

For everyone else, get the Nikon D200.


If you find this as helpful as a book you might have had to buy or a workshop you may have had to take, feel free to help me continue helping everyone.

Thanks for reading!



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