Nikon D800e or Canon 5D Mark III - What's Right for You?

A stand of trees in the lake, at days end, in Glenorchy, New Zealand.

I'm in the process of upgrading my DSLR camera system. I've moved from Canon over to Nikon. The camera that has won me over is the new Nikon D800e.

All photos in this post were made with my new Nikon D800e camera on a trip to the spectacular South Island of New Zealand.

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.

I had a Canon 5D Mark II camera, 7 excellent Canon lenses and 2 Canon 580EXII flash units all of which I had to sell.

I can summarize the reasons I made the change as follows:

The Nikon D800e Sensor

The Nikon D800e camera 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.

Making huge prints is not an issue for most folks, but it’s important to me. As a consequence of such large files an increase in storage capacity will be required sooner than would have been the case with my previous Canon system.

Magnificent view over Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown, New Zealand.

The Extended Dynamic Range Of The Nikon D800e

The extended dynamic range of the D800e camera sets a radical new benchmark for photographers.

Used in conjunction with Adobe Lightroom, with its 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 just couldn't say no to the benefits I believe this new technology will bring to my work.

Mountain Track on the Road to Wanaka, New Zealand

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What About The Canon 5D Mark III Camera?

It’s 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 year old Canon 5D Mark II to the new Canon 5D Mark III?

However, 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 upcoming firmware updates.

God rays above the spectacular Milford Sound on the South Island of New Zealand.

White Balance on the Nikon D800e

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.

This phenomena happens so quickly that we can't see it, believing that the light emitted is of a constant and consistent intensity and color. But it's not.

No wonder in the days when I was prone to migraines that large fluorescent lit environments, such as Target or K-Mart, used to spin me out.

As the color of the light source can vary with the intensity of the light, variations in color balance, from frame to frame, might be produced when photographing action when the camera is set to continuous shooting mode under fluorescent lighting.

It’s possible that the faster frame rate and potentially more accurate white balance associated with the Canon 5D Mark III may result in more consistent color, from frame to frame, under such circumstances.

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).

This offers a significant advantage for folks photographing in JPEG mode under certain types of mixed lighting conditions. 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 department seems to have invested significant resources into producing files of high resolution and substantially larger dynamic range.

Given the relatively high percentage of landscape photography I do 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.

However, that’s 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.

Sure I'd like a faster frame rate and larger buffer but, as a travel photographer specializing in landscape, portrait and architecture, its just not a big issue for me.

A spectacular scene as light illuminates clouds in front of a mountain top above Milford Sound, New Zealand.

Noise Reduction Software

An interesting proposition that I haven't been able to confirm through my own tests 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.

It’s 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 the same size sensor and a lower pixel count.

For most folks this is largely academic. What's more some folks choose to battle the ravages of noise, purely on the desktop, in programs such as Adobe Lightroom.

What's more a tradeoff exists between noise and sharpness.

By minimizing noise it’s likely that a loss in sharpness will result. Photography remains a game of trade offs.

But let's not get to wrapped up in such debates.

It’s worth noting that appropriately exposed files from both the Nikon D800e and Canon 5D Mark III cameras produce excellent results and very low levels of noise, even at relatively high ISO's.

A pair of ducks, moving in for a closer look, on Lake Hayes near Arrowtown, New Zealand.

Why Buy A New Camera System?

It's a huge decision to buy a new high end DSLR camera, particularly when that purchase involves changing brands. The costs associated with buying new lenses, flash 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, you might say. But, for some loyal standing Canon users, 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 usual landscape and portrait 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 is a bonus and the camera's ability to produce files with substantially higher dynamic range is simply remarkable. 

I'm looking forward to expanded options for HDR photography; the ability to make larger prints with enhanced shadow detail and more subtle highlight texture; even more character-revealing, life-like portraits; and shape-defining architectural images.

Together with a range of processing options I feel like a new world of opportunities is opening up before me. The future looks bright and full of creative experimentation and fun.

Looking back down a narrow pier towards beautiful Autumn color on Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown, New Zealand.

Conclusion and Recommendations

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 accessories.

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 or, alternatively, you may love it. Only time will tell whether it’s 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, the 38 Megapixel file size associated with the Nikon D800e 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 own computer features the very latest and highest speed drives and components and you have an abundance of RAM and USB 3 or Thunderbolt storage space then you should be able to manage these big files without too much trouble.

Add to that ultra fast memory cards and card reader and you're traveling well and shouldn't have too much trouble with the large Nikon files. Heck, it's only money!

However, 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’re 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.

The process of actually making photos and the photos we produce should always be more important than the camera gear used to make them.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru