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D800 vs 5D Mark III
Canon Beats Nikon — This Year
© 2012 KenRockwell.com. All rights reserved.

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Nikon D800 Nikon D800 and D800E


July 2012   Nikon Reviews   Canon Reviews   All Reviews

Nikon D800 Review

Canon 5D Mark III Review

2012 DSLR Comparison Table

Nikon vs. Canon


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I own and shoot both the D800 and 5D Mark III, and have been using them both since March 2012. Exactly like Consumer Reports, I paid full price for each of them out of my own pocket. I don't get anything for free or even get special deals; I'm just a shooter like anyone else and not paid anything by any camera company.

Most of you are Nikon shooters and the world thinks I'm some sort of Nikon Icon, but like any other good horserace, the two contestants sometimes swap positions. Since I'm not paid by any camera companies, I'm always free to say what's true.

My comments come from months of actual shooting with each of these.

I prefer my 5D Mark III for just about everything. It feels better in my hands, is faster and easier to use, and gives me better-looking images. I keep my D800 around mostly as a mule on which to do Nikon lens tests, and prefer and use my 5D Mark III for all of my field shooting.

I leave my original Nikon D3 in my studio, all set up for studio work, and prefer its bigger vertical grip if I don't have to carry it all day, while I use my D800 or 5D Mark III in the field.

(Actually, I use my D800E today instead of the D800. I ordered my D800, D800E and 5D Mark III all the instant each was announced from Adorama, so I got my D800 and 5D Mark III both in March 2012, long before almost anyone else. My D800E didn't arrive until May 2012, at which point my old D800 was donated to charity. The D800 and D800E are the same camera, so my comments apply to each. You can read the minor differences between them at D800 versus D800E; no big deal, comments about either apply to both.)

My 5D Mark III lets me make better pictures faster than I can with my D800E. My 5D Mark III is much more pleasant and fun to use. The D800E and D800 might be better if you are a pixel-counting computer hobbyist who enjoys poring over details in software all day, but as someone who needs to crank-out photos as opposed to an IT professional, the 5D Mark III is the clear winner today, for me.

See also my 2012 DSLR Comparison Table for more details.


Canon moves ahead

The 5D Mark III is significantly better than anything Canon's ever done. Its many little advances all add up to a huge improvement over anything ever from Canon, while the D800 took a few steps backwards from the D700 with clumsier ergonomics and sloppy color balances. Therefore, this year, Canon beats Nikon. It's not every year, but this year, it's Canon.

This year, the Canon 5D Mark III really is much, much better than the Nikon D800 when you actually own both and shoot them every day and produce results for a living — and no camera company is paying you for endorsements so you can speak freely. The little things that bugged me at first about my D800 and D800E still bug me, while the smooth élan with which my 5D Mark III dispatches its tasks continues to make my 5D Mark III the camera I always grab first.

If I only shot on weekends, the differences would be even stronger. Critical to me is how fast I can get either camera set for the task at hand, and the C1, C2 & C3 modes of my Canon get me there in one click, while my D800's idiotic menu banks, which were stupid at introduction back in 2007, are even more awful today since the D7000 shows us Nikon knows how to make it better, but didn't for the D800.

With experience, I now have my 5D Mk III running like a seamless extension of my imagination, while my D800E still gets in my way. My 5D Mk III shoots and plays with one hand, while my D800E still takes a second hand to play — as I set all the limited options on each for my style of work. (I still have reams of notes about all this to add to each camera's review.)

Hey, no one pays me anything to do all these reviews, so when Nikon screws-up some critical points that I have to use every day, like no intelligent save and recall ability, mediocre LCD and sloppy real-world color rendition, if Canon makes a better camera, I'm going to use it and tell you all about it.

Now that I've lived with both of these for a few months, their faults and strengths, like weird habits of a new girlfriend that were forgivable at first but become really annoying with time, become all the more apparent. I don't look forward to shooting my D800, but do if I need an insane amount of resolution and are willing to work for it — but hey, if I'm going to put in extra time and effort for ultimate technical quality, I shoot 4x5." (Film excels not for scanning or online publishing; film excels when you project your slides directly from the film, or are printing optically to Cibachrome for serious exhibition.)

I prefer my 5D Mark III. You might prefer the D800E if you only read online test reports of static image quality from IT hobbyists, but when you have to produce for a living, the 5D Mark III wins. (The Mark III wins even more when you do this for fun; the D800's crummy LCD isn't fun.)



I've got big American hands. My D800 is a bony little thing, with a grip that's too small.

My 5D Mark III feels much better, with a fuller, more rounded grip and everything molding itself better to my hand — and it weighs less. Likewise, the Canon's external edges are all much softer (larger radius). The Canon makes magnesium feel soft and smooth, while my D800 makes its plastic feel hard and uncomfortable.


Multiple Uses

If you need to switch between family and landscapes, kids and sports, or between any other different kinds of photos from shot-to-shot, forget being able to reset the D800 quickly enough to catch the action. The D800, even with its menu banks, can't be reset fast enough from one type of shot to another to catch moving subjects on a whim.

Nikon's Settings Banks are idiotic and don't lock. This means it always takes at least ten clicks to recall various banks, and even then, the two banks you need to recall still don't save everything, so you'll still have more individual menu items to reset on the D800 to repurpose the camera from one kind of subject to another!

The 5D Mark III is worlds ahead here: it has three different instant, complete camera-state save and recall positions on its main mode dial! On my Canon, I set C1 for high-resolution, high-saturation, low-speed landscapes; C2 for family and kids at low resolution and moderate saturation and 1/125 Auto ISO slowest speed, and C3 for sports with 1/250 slowest Auto ISO speed. More at C1, C2, C3. My Canon saves and recalls everything at each of those settings, while the Nikon can't even save and recall its own AF settings even after you jack with two separated "banks" settings.

As a family man, I need to snap a kid one moment (C2) then something scenic the next (C1), and then it's off to gymnastics class (C3). If I had to do this with my D800, I'd miss half my shots repurposing the camera!

Yes, it may only take a few minutes to reset my D800, but with kids, fractions of seconds matter, and with the D800, I usually forget something since its banks are incomplete. These banks are a small oversight by Nikon that make a big dent in the usefulness of the D800.


Pixel Count

Pixels are completely irrelevant today. 6 to 10 MP is more than enough for anything, so 16 MP is insane, and either of these cameras has way more than that. Looking at charts in your mom's basement you might see a difference, but not in actual pictures printed anything less than five feet on a side.


Better Colors

While the D800's LCD is a bit yellow-green, worse, its images are also off!

Something I've never had to do before with any other camera is to set a shift in the magenta-green white balance trim.

I get better color from my D800E with M1 WB adjustment. (set this as MENU > SHOOTING > White balance > Auto > Auto1 > (click right) > A3 M1 > OK.)

I've never had to adjust the green/magenta axis before; it's always been OK on every other camera. Nikon is getting sloppy, while my 5D Mk III looks great with my usual settings.

My pictures just look better from my 5D Mark III. Look at what I've shot on Ryan and Katie's websites, and look at the colors and sharpness. My D800E looks about like what I got from my D40: usually pretty good color, but often there's something less magic about them, like a slight green or yellow tint to the final result, where with my 5D Mark III, I'm getting better pictures in actual use in the field.


Bigger, better LCD

The LCD of the 5D Mark III is much better than the D800:


Bigger 3.2" LCD

Both are rated at 3.2," but the images seem much bigger on my 5D Mark III.

How's this? I got out my calipers, and realized that the D800 slightly shrinks the full as-displayed image to fit its LCD, which is the wrong shape!

Here are my measurements:


D800/D800E LCD image area:

Maximum (zoomed image): 49.0 x 64.7 mm (81.0 mm / 3.19" diagonal).

Aspect Ratio: 4:3.

Total area: 3,170 square millimeters.


Full image playback (D800): 42.0 x 63.3 mm (76.0 mm / 3.00" diagonal).

Total area: 2,659 square millimeters.

When actually measured, when you're playing the full image, the D800 image never fills the full vertical or horizontal dimensions of its LCD!


5D Mark III LCD image area:

Total (zoomed image): 45.0 x 67 mm (81.2 mm / 3.20" diagonal).

Aspect Ratio: 3:2.

Total area: 3,038 square millimeters.


Full image playback (5D3): 45.0 x 67.5mm (81.2mm/3.20" diagonal).

Total area: 3,038 square millimeters.


AHA! The 5D Mark III's 3.2" diagonal LCD is the same shape as the image (3:2), so when viewing complete images, the 5D Mark III is 7% bigger in every dimension (14% more area) than the playback on the D800.

When zoomed, each is as big, but when you want to see the whole picture, the 5D Mark III LCD is much bigger. Go compare for yourself.


Better LCD Color

The 5D Mark III's LCD is more color-accurate.

My D800 is a little too green/yellow, a bad first for Nikon.


Better Auto Brightness Control

The 5D Mark III's LCD has very good, usable and adjustable automatic brightness control, while my D800's auto brightness control is useless because it always needs to be reset to manual indoors. Set to Auto, my D800 is too dim indoors, and its Auto setting is not adjustable as is my 5D Mk III.


Better LCD Glass

The D800's LCD is just plain glass, while the 5D Mark III's LCD has an oil-repelling anti-refection coating. This means that the D800 is always covered with nose and finger smudges stuck to the glass, and that the 5D Mark III's LCD can make blacks, while with my D800, I have to juggle my camera to avoid seeing reflections on the LCD. This makes a big difference in use: the 5D Mk III LCD glass is always clean, black and contrasty, while my D800 is usually smudged and loaded with reflections from behind me.

The magic coating of the 5D Mark III keeps the glass looking black, and it really does resist nose oil. My D800E's LCD is just plain glass, so the blacks never look that black outdoors from the reflections, and it's always oily.


Better Playback Logic

It takes two hands with multiple button presses to play, zoom and change zoom on my D800, but takes just one tap with one hand on my 5D Mark III.

I program my Mk 3's SET button to be the ZOOM button. One tap of SET, and my 5D Mark III instantly plays and zooms-in. On my Canon, flicking the top dial then changes the zoom, while my D800 demands a second (left) hand to diddle with multiple pushes of the dopey (+) and (-) buttons exactly like my old D40!


Autofocus: Tie

The D800's AF is clairvoyant in selecting the correct AF sensor automatically, but my final results seem better more often from my 5D Mark III. This might be because more often I have to revert to forced-AF-area-selection with my 5D III, but not always.

Both AF systems are complex. The D800 offers no way to simplify it, while my 5D Mk III allows me to de-select unused AF modes so I can select the ones I do use much faster. Out of about six different AF-area selection modes on my 5D Mk III, I only use two, so I only see those two while shooting.

My 5D Mark III saves, locks and recalls everything about my AF system settings as part of its three total-recall memories, while my D800 offers no way to save and recall any of it! Every time I shoot something new, I flick the dial and my 5D3 is exactly where I need it, while on my D800, I have to stop and fiddle with the AF system.


Automatic Lens Correction

Both do this, while the D800 does it better, faster and easier.

The D800 automatically corrects lateral color fringes for any lens, from any maker, all by itself, always. The 5D Mk III only corrects this if you've loaded a lens profile into your camera, and lens profiles are only available for some, but not all, lenses. (Some common new lenses are loaded into the 5D Mk III at the factory, so you may be good to go.)

The D800 can correct for distortion in-camera with almost all Nikon AF lenses made in the past 20 years, no profiles needed. The 5D Mark III cannot correct any lens for distortion in-camera, unless you shoot as raw and then manually process each file in-camera afterwards one-by-one in the camera's raw file conversion utility.


Better in Low Light

At normal image sizes as opposed to the insane blowup sample images I shared months ago, my 5D Mark III cranks out very usable images at ISO 25,600, while the D800 and D800E are much noisier in actual use in the dark. The D800 might be sharper at stupid ISOs, while the actual images from my 5D Mark III are perfectly smooth and usable at ISO 25,600.

Pop Photo Magazine found the same thing in its June and July 2012 issues where they tested the D800, D4 and 5D Mark III.

Agreeing entirely with my own real-world experience, is that the 5D Mark III is better than D800, and even better than the D4 at high ISOs. To keep their advertiser Nikon happy I presume, they didn't run the D4 test in the same issue as the 5D Mark III, but since I had them both in my lap at the same time, I saw that the D800 had "moderate" noise at ISO 3,200, the D4 made it to ISO 6,400 at "moderately low" noise, while the 5D Mark III made it to ISO 25,600 at the same "moderate" noise level!

At ISO 25,600, at which I shoot my 5D Mark III with action in the dark with a slow zoom, the 5D Mark III is rated as having "moderate" noise, while both the D4 and D800 are rated as UNACCEPTABLE even down at ISO 12,800!

My 5D Mark III is so good at high ISOs that it renders f/2.8 zooms obsolete. Lightweight and even plastic f/4-5.6 zooms are fast enough at the ISOs I can now use, and if I need shallow depth of field, I use a lightweight and even faster fixed lens for even better results than an f/2.8 L zoom.

Just like when megapixels went insane and rendered long lenses obsolete since you can crop and the camera makers suddenly shut up about that, you probably won't hear Canon telling you to Adorama your L zooms, buy the plastic midprice EF lenses of the 1990s that they don't make anymore instead, and pocket the cash. No longer do we need fast lenses for low-light with the Mark III; f/1.4 wide lenses are now obsolete except for 35mm shooting.


Recommendations         top

Intro   Specs   Performance   Compared   Usage   Recommendations   More

If you're only getting one of these cameras, duh, the 5D Mark III smokes the D800 and D800E for practical shooting.

You can ignore pixel-pushers and other "online experts" who share tons of irrelevant static "image quality" data, but don't know what's actually important when it comes to making a good picture.

If you're a pixel-counter, sure, the D800 has more than the 5D Mark III, but that doesn't matter to real shooters if those pixels aren't the right pixels. My 5D Mark III lets me make the right pixels faster than my D800, and either has at least twice as many pixels as any real shooter needs for anything.

The D800 and D800E are swell for people shooting only one thing at a time very carefully, while the 5D Mark III is for most people who have more than one kind of thing to shoot. Got Aspergers or live on a tripod? Are you an engineer, programmer or IT professional? Get the D800E. Are you a photographer, artist, musician, have a family or appreciate a well-thought out product that moves as fast as you do? Get the 5D Mark III.

I prefer my Canon. I only keep my D800E around for testing Nikon lenses. Big deal, you may prefer the D800 if you're an NEF-shooting software-intensive pixel counter. We're all different, thank goodness — but I prefer my 5D Mark III.

No big deal, but I get a lot of questions from people about which I prefer and why.

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