A Challenge: The Nikon D800 vs. Canon 5D Mark III

The Nikon D700 and the Canon 5D Mark II were two of the most popular full-frame digital cameras on the market for a number of years, as they were both excellent professional grade cameras.  At home in the studio and the field, both cameras were very close in performance and produced high-quality images, even when high ISO settings were used.  However, as technology improved, higher resolution CMOS sensors began appearing on consumer grade cameras and soon the market was demanding an upgrade to the D700 and 5D Mark II.  After years of delay, Nikon and Canon responded in 2012 with the highly anticipated introduction of the D800 and the 5D Mark III.  Immediately the D800 and 5D Mark III became very popular and soon Nikon and Canon were locked in a product war, with follow-up cameras being launched one right after the other.  These new cameras feature minor changes to the original D800 and 5D Mark III, which started it all!

The Similarities

The D800 and 5D Mark III are both professional grade cameras and share many features that are important to professional photographers including build quality and storage redundancy.  One of the most significant similarities is in build quality, as both cameras have a magnesium alloy body and extensive weather sealing to prevent moisture and dust from entering the camera.  In addition, they both have dual memory slots, one for CF cards and one for SD, SDHX or SDXC cards, so images can be back up and will not be lost if the card fails.

Other similarities include a 3.2” fixed rear LCD, as well as a viewfinder that provides 100% coverage.  As with all professional grade cameras, there are no “scene” modes on either the D800 or the 5D Mark III; instead, the photographer must use the traditional exposure settings, which include Aperture Priority (A), Manual (M), Program (P) or Shutter Priority (S).

The Differences

The largest differences between the D800 and the 5D Mark III is the resolution between the two cameras.  The D800 is a very high-resolution camera, with it having 36.3 megapixels, compared to 22.3 megapixels found in the 5D Mark III.  It is important to keep in mind that high resolution is just one of many important features!

Although Nikon has incorporated user-defined settings on less expensive cameras, the D800 does not have the ability to save the settings and recall them instantaneously by turning the dial.  However, the 5D Mark III has the capability to save up to three user-defined custom settings and have them recalled by simply turning the camera’s top knob to C1, C2 or C3.

Another difference between the two cameras relates to the native ISO range, which is 100-6,400 on the D800, while the 5D Mark III has a range of 100-25,600.  In addition, while the D800’s ISO can be expanded to 25,600 in the Hi-2 setting, the 5D Mark III can be expanded to 102,400 in the H2 settings.  Both cameras have the ability to have their ISO settings stepped down to 50 in their Lo-1 settings.

Other differences include the number of autofocus points in each camera with the D800 having 51, while the 5D Mark III has 61 points.  The D800 also has a flash, while the Mark III does not have one.  Both cameras have video capability, the D800 shoots in various formats, including the 1,280 x 720 format at 24-60 frames per second, while the 5D Mark III can shoot at the larger 1,920 x 1,080 format, at 24-30 frames per second.  The D800 is significantly slower than the 5D Mark III only having the capacity to shoot at 4 frames per second compared to the 6 frames per second found on the 5D Mark III.

While both cameras are large, well-balanced and easy to hold for extended periods of time, the 5D Mark III is slightly bigger, measuring 6.0” x 4.6” x 3.0”, compared to the D800, which measures 5.7” x 4.8” x 3.2”.  The Mark III is also slightly heavier at 33.5 ounces compared to the D800’s 31.7 ounces.

The Pros and Cons

As with all cameras, the D800 and the 5D Mark III are not perfect by a long shot.  Each has their own strength and weaknesses and the consumer considering either of the cameras will need to determine how these strengths and weaknesses factor into the type of photography that they do.

As far as the D800 is concerned the biggest positive feature is the very high resolution of the camera.  At 36.3 megapixels, it is a good choice for photographers making big prints, where resolution is important.  However, it is important to keep in mind that when shooting high-resolution images, it is critical to be using high-quality lenses, because with this type of resolution, it is going to be obvious how good or bad your glass is! Best get top-of-the-line Nikkor lens and leave the 3rd party lenses alone.

There are a number of negative features about the D800 including the speed of the camera, which is somewhat slow and when compared to the 5D Mark III or the older D700.  Other “cons” include the omission of the U1 and U2 preset dial on the very popular D7000 consumer grade camera, which was released earlier than the D800.  Many of these negative features were corrected in the follow-up D810, which was released in 2014, however, Nikon still does not include the U1 and U2 dial on the D810 despite consumers wanting it!

The biggest “pro” of the 5D Mark III is the resolution, which at 22.3 megapixels is a significant upgrade in resolution compared to the Mark II, but is not so great that it degrades the overall performance of the camera.  In addition, Canon was able to provide the Mark III with very good low light capabilities, as seen with the native ISO range of 100-25,600, with the ability to be decreased or increased from there.  Another positive feature of the camera is the incorporation of the C1, C2 and C3 settings, which are incredibly useful and make the shooting experience better.

The biggest “con” of the Canon 5D Mark III is the lack of a built-in flash, which is definitely inconvenient.  While the high ISO settings can somewhat offset the lack of a built-in flash, there is no ability to use fill-in flash unless the photographer is carrying an external flash.

Just the Facts, A side-By-Side Comparison

While most serious photographers look at image quality over technical specifications, many feel that the specifications are equally important.  The Nikon D800 and the Canon 5D Mark III both have excellent image quality, as well as technical specifications, which are shown in the table below.

Item Nikon D800 Canon 5D Mark III
Year Introduced 2012 2012
Format Full Frame Full Frame
Megapixels 36.3 22.3
Sensor Type CMOS CMOS
Processor EXPEED 3 Digic 5+
Image Format RAW or JPG RAW or JPEG
Sensor Size 35.9 mm x 24 mm 36.0 mm x 24.0 mm
Sensor Cleaner Yes Yes
Auto-focus Points Up To 51 Points 61, Including 41 Cross-Type Points
Modes Aperture Priority (A), Manual (M), Program (P), Shutter Priority (S) Aperture Priority (A), Manual (M), Program (P), Shutter Priority (S)
Metering TTL Exposure Metering Using 91,000 – Pixel RGB Sensor TTL Metering With 63 Zone SPC
View Finder Coverage 100% 100%
Live View Yes Yes
Frames Per Second 4 6
ISO 100 – 6,400 100 –25,600
Lowest Expandable ISO Lo-1 (ISO 50 Equivalent) Lo-1 (50)
Highest Expandable ISO Hi-2 (ISO 25,600 Equivalent) H1 (51,200)

H2 (102,400)

Shutter Speed Range 1/8,000 – 30 Seconds 1/8,000 – 30 Seconds
Built In Flash Yes No
Card Slots 2 2
Card Type SD, SDHC, SDXC and CF SD, SDHC, SDXC and CF
LCD Size 3.2” 3.2”
LCD Fixed or Swivel Fixed Fixed
Video Yes, Full HD Yes, Full HD
Video Type / Speed 1,280 x 720 At 30 – 60 FPS; Other Types As Well 1,920 x 1,080 at 25.0 – 29.97 FPS; Other Types As Well
Video Format MOV MOV
Internal Autofocus Motor Yes No
GPS Optional Accessory No
Wireless Optional Accessory No
WIFI Optional Accessory No
Battery EN-EL 15 LP-E6
Unique Features High Megapixel Count, Professional Build C1, C2 and C3 Settings, Magnesium Alloy Body
Size Without Lens 5.7” x 4.8” x 3.2” 6.0” x 4.6” x 3.0”
Weight Without Lens 31.7 Ounces 33.5 Ounces
Manufactured In Japan Japan
Body Only or with Kit Lens Both Options Available Both Options Available
Included Accessories EN-EL 15 Rechargeable Battery, MH-25 Battery Charger, UC-E14 USB Cable, BM-12 LCD Monitor Cover, BF-1B Body Cap, BS-1 Accessory Shoe Cap, DK-17 Viewfinder Eyepiece, AN-DC6 Strap, NikonView NX2 CD ROM Lp-E6 Battery, LC-E6 Battery Charger, Eyecup, AVC DC400ST Stereo AV Cable, IFC-200U USB Interface Cable, EW EOS 5D Mark III Wide Neck Strap, Software Disk, Software Instruction Manual
Cost, Body Only $2,695.00** (For the latest prices and discounts.) 2,799.00*** (For the latest prices and discounts.)
Cost With Kit Lens (Various Lens Options Available) Varies Depending On Lens Varies Depending On Lens

*Information from both Nikon’s and Canon’s websites, including pricing.

** The Nikon 800 has been discontinued and replaced by the D810, but it is still available form select retailers.

*** The Canon 5D Mark III has been discontinued and replaced by the 5D S, but it is still available from select retailers.

The Final Frame: My Overall Recommendation

The D800 and 5D Mark III are both excellent cameras, my preference is for the 5D Mark III for a number of reasons.  The main reason is that the Canon 5D Mark III is simply a much better camera and this is coming from a long time Nikon user!  I also like the C1, C2 and C3 settings on the Mark III and find them so useful and such a time saver in the field.  Now that I am used to them, I do not think I could ever own a DSLR that did not include them!  While the D800 has a much higher megapixel count, resolution is not everything to me.  In my style of photography, I need a great all around camera with reasonable resolution, high ISO capabilities and excellent handling features and the Canon 5D Mark III meet those requirements almost perfectly!

The Camera Guide Team
 

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