Nikon D800e vs Canon 5D Mark III camera

Red brick chimney stack against brilliant blue skyNikon D800e camera and Nikon 16-35mm f4 lens @ 35mm. Exposure Details: 6 seconds @ f10 ISO 400.

I'm in the process of upgrading my DSLR camera system. I'm moving from Canon over to Nikon. The camera that has won me over is the new Nikon D800e. But it wasn't a decision that was made easily. The problem for me is that, after almost 7 years (this time around) as a Canon user, it's a big decision to change brands. In my case I had a Canon 5D Mark II camera, 7 excellent Canon lenses and 2 Canon 580EXII flash units all of which I'm now in the process of finding new homes for.

I can summarize the reasons I'm making the change as follows:

The Sensor

The Nikon D800e contains a full frame 38 megapixel sensor. The extra resolution produced by this sensor reveals more detail and provides the ability to make larger prints.

Dynamic Range

The extended dynamic range of the D800e camera sets a radical new benchmark. Used in conjunction with Adobe Lightroom 4, with it's amazing shadow and highlight sliders, the ability to record open, detailed shadows and subtle highlight textures is greatly enhanced. For a landscape photographer this is a game changer. As I do a lot of landscape and an increasing amount of architectural photography I don't feel I can say no to the benefits I believe this new technology will bring to my work.

Its true that excellent quality can now be achieved when photographing at high ISO with the new Canon 5D Mark III camera. This was not the case, at least by today's standards, with its predecessor the Canon 5D Mark II. Likewise the ability to make more than 3 images in a sequence for HDR is also offered by the Mark III - finally! What's more it looks like Canon have dramatically improved the speed and accuracy of their auto focus system with the introduction of the 5D Mark III. I've seen photos made outdoors, at night, handheld at ISO 6400 with negligible noise on the new Canon. Amazing!

Given these facts it would have been relatively simple and very cost effective for someone in my position, with a relatively significant range of Canon lenses, to move up from a 3 1/2 year old Canon 5D Mark II to the new Canon 5D Mark III? But the higher resolving power and, in particular, the greater dynamic range offered by the Nikon D800e was too much of a temptation for me, given the kind of work I do.

Now the Caveats  

However, all that glitters is not gold, at least not always straight out of the box. There are a few concerns I've got with the new Nikon D800e which, hopefully, will be fixed in an upcoming firmware update.

White Balance

The Nikon produces files that are a little more green under mixed lighting where one or more of the light sources are artificial (e.g. sodium vapor, fluorescent and mercury vapor). These light sources cycle at different rates, with each tube being switched on and off numerous times during an exposure. As the color of the light source can vary with the intensity of the light emitted variations in color balance, from frame to frame, could be produced when photographing action with the camera set to continuous shooting mode under artificial lighting.

Its possible that the faster frame rate and potentially more accurate artificial light white balance associated with the Canon 5D Mark III may result in more consistent color from frame to frame.

Are you a sports or events photographer? If, like me, the answer is no then this issue is unlikely to be a problem, particularly if you photograph in RAW mode. It's a relatively straightforward procedure to achieve a decent white balance, on the desktop, with photos made with the camera set to RAW. The same is not always the case for folks photographing in JPEG mode.

So while I haven't been able to do a direct, side by side comparison with the two cameras, it appears that the Canon 5D Mark III may have superior Auto White Balance (AWB) which would offer a significant advantage for many folks photographing in JPEG mode. Hopefully Nikon will resolve this issue with an upcoming firmware update.

Focus Tracking

A very handy feature for sports, wildlife and wedding/portrait photographers alike focus tracking helps the camera's auto focus system keep up with a fast moving subject. Assuming you can achieve an appropriate shutter speed and frame rate focus tracking should deliver a higher percentage of sharp pictures when photographing fast moving action sequences.

The engineers at Canon seem to have placed emphasis on resolving past problems associated with focus tracking and noise. With previous models ahead of the pack, at least in relation to noise and focus tracking, Nikon's R&D seems to have invested significant resources into producing files of high resolution and substantially larger dynamic range. And for my landscape and architectural photography that's very exciting.

The frame and buffer rate on the Canon 5D Mark III is, apparently, faster than that on the Nikon D800e. This fact may help give the Canon an advantage when tracking fast moving subjects.

This is simply not an issue for the vast majority of the work that I do. While I do photograph birds in flight, on occasions, the capability of the Nikon D800e is just so much better in this regard than what I had to put up with on my old Canon 5D and 5D Mark II cameras that I'II probably be very happy with most of the action photography I'm likely to do over the next few years.

Noise Reduction Software

An interesting proposition that I haven't been in a position to confirm relates to noise at high ISO. Indications are that the Canon 5D Mark III may produce images with lower levels of noise at high ISO when in-camera noise reduction is switched off. Conversely its said that the Nikon D800e may produce better high ISO files when in-camera noise reduction is switched on.

Its important to understand that the higher pixel count and associated improvements in resolution associated with the D800 and D800e cameras should make it more susceptible to noise than would be the case with a camera with a lower pixel count.

For most folks this may well be largely academic. And there are those that choose to battle the ravages of noise purely on the desktop in programs such as Adobe Lightroom 4. What's more a tradeoff exists between noise and sharpness. Minimizing noise will likely result in a loss of sharpness. Photography remains a game of trade offs.

But let's not get to wrapped up in such debates. Its worth noting that appropriately exposed files from both the Nikon D800/e and Canon 5D Mark III cameras produce excellent results and very low levels of noise, even at high ISO's.

Detail of window and graffiti laiden wall in North Fitzroy, MelbourneNikon D800e camera and Nikon 16-35mm f4 lens @ 35mm. Exposure Details: 1/15 sec f11 ISO 100
So Why Do It?

It's a huge decision to buy a new DSLR camera, particularly when that purchase involves changing brands. The costs associated with buying new lenses, flash/s and accessories is substantial to say the least.

The new Canon 5D Mark III camera offers significant improvements over its predecessor. Many of those improvements won't attract the publicity they deserve, partly due to the relative lateness of their introduction and Canon's seeming belligerence in the face of customer complaints and requests for improvements over recent years. Better late than never, sure. But, for some folks, faith and loyalty have been severely tested.

As Nikon already offers a very good focus system and excellent quality image files at high ISO, my move across to Nikon is based largely upon a pretty substantial increase in pixels and a major improvement in the sensor's Dynamic Range. It really is that simply. The work I do simply demands it.

What I photograph varies with the trip or assignment in question. Overall the mix is probably spread evenly between portrait and landscape though, over recent years, my adventures have included quite a lot of architectural and wildlife photography. What's more particular trips or assignments may push the mix 90/10 one way or the other.

The Nikon D800e provides me with the ability to record so much more detail than was the case with any other camera I've owned over my 30 plus year photography career. The capability to make significantly larger prints will be a bonus and the camera's ability to produce files with substantially higher dynamic range is simply remarkable. 

Larger prints with enhanced shadow detail and more subtle highlight texture; even more character-revealing, life-like portraits; and shape-defining architectural images open up a new world of opportunities for me. And it all starts this coming Sunday when I head off to the South Island of New Zealand for a 7 day photography adventure.   


Changing from one camera brand to another is a huge decision for most folks, particularly when there's already a big investment in glass and associated kit. All I can say is make your decision carefully and don't feel there's any rush to do so.

Try to get your hands on the other camera in question, perhaps by hiring one for a weekend, and spend time with it. Try to understand its logic, where buttons are positioned and how the menu system is laid out. You may hate it. Only time will tell whether its for you or not. Did you know that focus, zoom and aperture controls move in opposite directions on Nikon and Canon cameras? Yikes!

Still looking for a recommendation? Perhaps you don't already have a bundle of lenses and accessories in your kit.

At this price range, when comparing the two cameras in question, I'd give the nod to the Canon 5D Mark III for sports, wildlife, photojournalism and wedding/portraiture. For most folks, including many professionals, a 38 Megapixel file may be more trouble than its worth.

For landscape and architectural photography I'd say the case for an upgrade to the new Nikon D800 or D800e is very compelling indeed.

If your computer/s feature the very latest and highest speed drives and components and you have an abundance of RAM and USB 3 or Thunderbolt storage space then fine. Add to that ultra fast memory cards and card reader and you're traveling well. Heck, it's only money!

But, if you're not so well endowed on the technology front, beware. It takes a lot of grunt to download and work with files from the Nikon D800e and you may need to expend significantly more money than what's required to buy the camera if you want to base your new kit around this amazing piece of technology. 

At the end of the day photography must be about so much more than the gear you use. They are just tools to get us out and about so that we can explore the wonders of our natural world and its people, to comment on what we see and to connect with the sublime beauty that lies just outside of our everyday experience.

Copyright All Rights Reserved
Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru