You'll never really know the truth about a camera until you get your hands on it and take it out into the field…and once you start printing your images there's nowhere to hide.
I had high expectations for the new Canon 5D Mark III. Don't get me wrong. My current 5D Mark II has been amazing. I love my lenses especially the tilt and shift ones, but I am always searching for bigger and better things. So, after almost four years when Canon finally announced the released a new full-frame SLR, I couldn't wait to see what this new body was capable of.
That was until I found out about the new Nikon D800 hitting the market at around the same time. Sure Canon has made some great improvements, but it just didn't seem geared towards landscape shooters like me.
This new Nikon promised a 36MP Exmor sensor, which would rocket the industry like nothing we had ever seen before. I literally lost sleep thinking about the possibilities for my photography if I started shooting with Nikon instead. After years of investing in Canon glass, how would this new Nikon sensor change the tonal range, colors, and small details in my prints? Would it be worth the switch?
There was only one way to find out. I packed my gear, and armed with both cameras, side by side, I was determined to test them in the real world. My destination - Yosemite National Park, one of the most beautiful and challenging places for a landscape photographer.
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My first impression, was that both cameras seemed similar in build. Pictures just don't do it justice. Once I picked up the cameras, I noticed the
new 5D Mark III had greatly improved the grip. It felt like a mini-1D series. The battery door is rubberized throughout, and there are no more squeaks when applying pressure to the camera. It's definitely more solid than the old version and it's been bulked up just enough to feel like it was molded for my hands.
Nikon's body comes with a reputation for being built to last. This new D800 does not disappoint. Even though I did not have a D700 to compare it to, I could tell that Nikon meant business. I felt like this was a nice, solid piece of equipment that I could depend on when out in the elements.
Both cameras have the added feature of dual card capability, which gives you peace of mind, because you can use two cards at once and back-up your images as you go.
Assuming I would see some wildlife, I ran a few tests to check out Canon's continuous shooting buffer. Although it seems similar to the Canon Mark II, there is a noticeable difference. The new camera takes advantage of UDMA7 compact flash cards. This allows the camera to hold up to 18 RAW images on the buffer (depending on your ISO setting) instead of 13. However, these cards can be pricey, and the Lexar 1000x UDMA7 is currently the only card I found capable of achieving these results. I tested out the Transcend UDMA7 64GB and there was no noticeable difference.
The Nikon D800 performed similarly. I was even able to squeeze in a few extra shots on the buffer. With the Transcend UDMA7 64GB I held 16 RAW images before the buffer was full. I would assume that with a capable card you could do even better.
When I finally arrived in Yosemite, I went straight to my favorite spot nearby Valley View. The skies were bald, the clouds were a no-show, but it was almost sunset so I still had high hopes for decent lighting. I pulled out the Canon and got to work. First of all, I really liked the fact that I was able to frame my shot through the viewfinder. This gave me 100% coverage, something that was not possible with the previous version. A welcomed improvement since there is usually no room for cropping in my landscape photos. I leveled the camera, locked down the ball-head, and activated live view. My fingers automatically looked for the Magnify/Reduce button on the upper right side. Low and behold, it was no longer there. It's been moved to the left of the LCD almost as a copycat of "Nikon's" location, but I was able to quickly find a work-around by assigning it to the "SET" button. This solution worked well for me and caused no big changes in my shooting style. I was able to focus on the subject with ease.
Next, it was time to let the Nikon out of the bag. I quickly set it up, as I cursed out the light that was beginning to fade already and tried to manually focus. Dusk was upon me and I was not prepared for the frustration that was to follow. I tried my best to focus using Nikon's live view. To achieve critical focus I looked for nuances as I slowly turned the focusing ring on the lens. Surprisingly, in the field under this variable lighting, the image seemed to be interpolated as I used higher magnification. It was a mess. I had never experienced this before and wasted so much time playing around with the live view, that I missed the light. I still took a few shots even though I knew they weren't usable just so I would have something to look at. When reviewing these images on the LCD, I noticed they had a green cast and a low contrast look to them. Needless to say, this did nothing for my self-esteem in the field. My solution - Delete.
I tried not to read too much into this. The point is, if you don't use a manual lens or rely on live view for critical focusing, this shortcoming is not really an issue. It's more of an adjustment for those of us accustomed to using this feature.
After testing Nikon's live view manual focusing in the field, I quickly came to the conclusion that Canon's implementation worked better for the applications I need. Perhaps because Nikon's depth of field preview is always "live" and there's a lag time from when you make your adjustment to when you actually see the results. For this reason, Nikon's live view at higher magnification appeared pixelated and nailing focus was not easy. However, with the Canon you get to preview depth of field by simply pressing a button. Therefore, the changes appear faster and the nuances necessary for focusing are much easier to see.
The new auto-focusing system on the Mark III is a dream for 5D shooters, and probably the best reason to upgrade your camera. No more focus hunting in low light and no more having to "compose and re-frame" with the center focusing point only. It instantly locks focus and is extremely accurate when using the "only cross type" focus setting.
However, interchangeable focus screens are not supported with the new viewfinder and this is unfortunate for anyone using a manual focus lens. Keep in mind, that if you are using a manual focus lens that supports AF confirmation (green dot), the new focusing system will aid with added speed and reliability.
The "red light" that appears when you lock focus on the new Canon shows up on the focusing point and on the entire viewfinder. I found this to be a bit troublesome. It's hard to see the AF points in low light and the red light confirmation is not that visible outdoors, thus making the focus lock beep a must. Hopefully a firmware upgrade will come around to fix this shortcoming. In low light, I found myself pressing the "AF Point Selection" button (the default) to confirm which focusing point was engaged. I'd prefer for this to work like it did before on the Mark II, whereby you could just press the "Multi-controller" (joystick) and move the focusing points, as apposed to now having to use a two-step "AF Point Selection" followed by the "Multi-controller" to set your desired focusing point.
I have since learned that there is a new custom function allowing the "Multi-controller" (joystick) to control focusing point selection directly. You can set this up by going to menu, C.Fn2: Disp/Operation, Custom Controls. The last item, on that page will be the Multi-controller AF point direct selection. Reference
Shooting landscape, I rarely use auto-focus anyway, so this feature was not something I was able to explore in depth on the Nikon. I primarily stuck to manual focus lenses, like the Zeiss 21 mm for the purpose of this review. However, I did take a few quick shots with Nikon 14-24mm and auto focusing was quick, accurate, and easy to use.
The weather was finally starting to change. I woke up at the crack of dawn and set out for a nice sunrise capture. My first stop was nearby Yosemite lodge overlooking Half Dome in the distance. It was finally time to give in to the 17mm and 24mm TS-Es that had been calling my name.
I thrive on shooting with tilt and shift lenses because it lets me keep the camera level instead of having to tilt the entire camera to compose the shot. Tilting the camera creates unwanted distortions, even in landscape, so I avoid doing this at all costs. Trying to capture tall mountains like El Capitan while keeping trees straight, are easier when your camera is level, thanks to the TSE shifting movements.
Large format photographers rely on view camera movements to achieve optimum resolution. They strive to keep ideal apertures like f/64 and use tilt to achieve perceived depth of field. This optimum aperture size translates to about f/8 in a full frame digital SLR. Why do you think Ansel Adams prints are so sharp? Shouldn't we at least dream of doing the same using our digital SLR?
Tilting the lens to "tweak" the plane of focus, in landscape photography, helps you avoid loss of resolution due to diffraction. Without having to stop down your lens, you can get both close elements in the foreground and the background in perfect focus. It grants me the ideal aperture size and maximum resolution with apparent depth of field at the same time. There is always a compromise between depth of field and resolution and I strive for the best of both worlds.
The two Canon lenses I brought were more than I could hope for. They delivered spot on and did not disappoint.
On the other hand, the Nikon 24mm PC-E did not excel functionally or optically. It lacks an independent axis rotation and I noticed some annoying chromatic aberrations, when shifting or tilting. Personally, this was a big handicap and hopefully Nikon will refresh their PC-E lenses in the near future.
Lucky for me, a full-on snow storm had just rolled into the High Sierras. With chains on my tires, I rolled over to Mono Lake in search of the calm after the storm. Faced with high winds, I tried my best to deal with the restless waters and the lack of reflections. I waited for my favorite lighting to show itself at dawn and dusk, since there's lower contrast during these times and I wouldn't need a high dynamic range camera to capture the light.
Part II: Controlled tests