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Nikon D800 vs Canon 5D2 and 5D3
While Canon has kept the 5D around twenty megapixels, Nikon has jumped from 12 to 36 mp: the result is the D800, one of the most controversial SLRs on the market. The Canon 5D3 promises to be a more all around camera than the 5D2, while the D800 is more focused on landscape, portrait and still life, unlike the "all around" D700.
The first question that comes to mind is if 36 megapixels are really needed. In my opinion, they are welcome if they don't compromise the image quality at high ISO; my biggest fear with the D800 was that Nikon had created a great "low ISO" camera, with great image quality between ISO 100 and 1600 but a lot of noise at the highest settings. With the 5D3, instead, I expected to see a big improvement in high ISO, considering that the resolution is the same of 5D2 and in three years the technology has advanced.
Thanks to my friends Max R. and Sandro T., I have tested all three cameras side by side; the RAW files had been converted with neutral settings and here you can see 100% crops from the unprocessed files. The first crop is always from the D800, the second it from the 5D3 and the third is from 5D2. The test photos had been taken with Nikon 14-24 @ 24mm and Canon 16-35 @ 24mm; manual focus and aperture f/9.
At ISO 100, the Nikon D800 shows a clear advantage in terms of resolution; it also has slightly less shadow noise than the Canon SLRs.
At ISO 400, all cameras are excellent, there is very little noise and the only difference that can be seen is the higher resolution of the D800.
Even at ISO 1600, there is no difference in terms of noise between the three cameras. In spite of the smaller pixels, the D800 is on par with the 5D3!
At ISO 6400, the 5D3 is slightly better than D800 and 5D2, but the difference is truly minimal: I'd say that the advantage is about 0.3 or 0.5 stop.
ISO 25600 is over the top for all the three cameras; I don't consider them fully usable at this setting, except for particular situations. Here the 5D3 shows again a little advantage of about 0.5-0.7 stop.
Image quality and post processing
The previous test shows 100% crops, unprocessed. Let's see what it happens if you compare three crops from these cameras after resizing them all to 22 megapixel, plus sharpening and noise reduction. These are crops from ISO 3200 photos.
If you resize all the image at the same resolution and apply identical post processing, the Nikon D800 is the winner: a little more sharpness and slightly lower noise than 5D3 and 5D2 (I'd say 0.3 stop better than 5D3 and 0.7 stop better than 5D2).
In terms of image quality, the Nikon D800 is the winner: after post processing, you get images with more detail and slightly less noise than 5D3 and 5D2. Overall, the difference in terms of noise between the three cameras are minimal. This is an impressive result for the D800, considering that it has much smaller pixels than 5D3 and 5D2.
The image quality of the Canon 5D Mark III is good, but it is disappointing if you compare it with the previous 5D2: considering that three years have passed and that the 5D3 is much more expensive than 5D2, I expected at least 1.5 or 2 stop less noise. Instead, there are no real differences up to ISO 1600, and from ISO 3200 to 25600 the 5D3 shows a little of advantage, but it is something near 0.5-0.7 stop, that is much much less than expected.
For landscape, macro, still life, portrait and other "static" genres of photography, I don't see many reasons to upgrade from 5D2 to 5D3, while if you are a Nikon user the D800 is a good upgrade from the D700 - the jump from 12 to 36 megapixels is huge to say the least.
If, instead, you take sport or wildlife photos and you use the 5D2, you may consider the 5D3: even though the image quality is about the same, the 5D3 is faster than its predecessor; AF and continuous shooting have been improved. If you use Nikon, you have to trade a lot of speed to get the great image quality of the D800, so for some users the D700 may still be a better choice.
In conclusion, both cameras have their pros and cons. The 5D3 is a better all around camera, while the D800 is the winner for the "static" genres of photography: you have to choose the one that best fits your necessities. Personally, I think that the perfect camera would have been a 5D3 with the sensor of the 1DX: similar resolution to the 5D2 but a truly improved high ISO performance.
In the next weeks, I'm going to add some full size sample of the Nikon D800 for download. Other than that, I plan to test the 1DX and the Nikon D4, to see who is the new high ISO king!
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