Part II - Controlled tests

The image below was taken to test the Canon 5D Mark III in comparison to the Nikon D800 in order to demonstrate the differences between the two cameras and how they each capture small detail. I did this by shooting with the Nikon and the Canon using the same lens (Zeiss Distagon 21mm f/2.8) with an EOS adapter attached.



For the purpose of this test, my files were normalized in order to compare them on a monitor screen. It's unfair to downsize the D800 36MP file to 22MP in order to compare the advantage of higher resolution. Doing so, would throw away detail from the higher resolution file. Instead, I interpolated the 22MP file to 36MP. I believe this is a fair comparison because both files will be printed at the same paper size. Since I can not demonstrate print detail on the web, I will show 100% magnification crops displaying identical size dimensions for both cameras.


Canon 5D Mark III


Notice the detail on the text written on the "non-smoking" and "notice" signs. The lettering is blurred and difficult to read.


Nikon D800


Now check the Nikon image at 100% magnification. Words come into focus and are much easier to read since the sensor was able to capture more detail.


Canon 5D Mark III


This cross section gives an example of the Moiré pattern produced by the Canon 5D Mark III. Notice the white horizontal slats on the top part of the dome.

Nikon D800


Looking at the same area above, Moiré is not visible in the D800 shot.

It's no secret that the Canon 5D Mark II does not have the cleanest shadows even at base ISO 100. It's usually unnoticeable in good light if we don't start pushing it in post. However, even perfectly exposed shots in high contrast lighting will show, color and luma noise in the shadows when pushed one or two stops in software. To make matters worse, you might even find some banding or visible horizontal and vertical line patterns. At this point, I was wondering how the 5D Mark III and D800 would deal with noise at base ISO. Canon shooters brace yourselves because I don't have good news.



For all tests, I used the same exposure for both cameras under the same light conditions with the same Zeiss lens. I wanted to make sure that I captured RAW images in exactly the same settings. Afterwards, I used Lightroom 4.1 (with the latest Adobe profile) and kept color noise reduction and sharpness at 25 percent which are essentially the default values.

Let's examine these 2 areas for shadow detail recovery and compare how much each camera is able to retrieve detail under high contrast lighting.



We begin by taking a look at the image with no recovery and no post-processing.


Canon 5D Mark III

Although the Canon 5D Mark III deals with banding slightly better than the previous version, surprisingly I could still see a substantial amount of color noise.


Nikon D800

Obviously, the Nikon D800 is in a totally different league. Absent of color noise or any pattern, this image reveals Nikon's exceptional performance.


Notice the lower area of the image with no recovery and no post-processing.


Canon 5D Mark III


The Mark III image shows a huge chunk of color noise. Vertical patterns are also visible.


Nikon D800


There is no question that the D800 does not disappoint in signal to noise ratio (SNR) at low ISO and has higher dynamic range. I'm still shocked by the differences.

I know this is disappointing for Canon shooters but on the bright side, there is a workaround if you shoot RAW. Start by overexposing (up to 1 stop) above the correct exposure before taking your shot and then normalize the exposure later in software. This gives you the correct exposure but the shadow detail is much cleaner, just in case you need to push it a stop or two. Alternatively you could use ISO L (50) for low contrast situations whenever lighting and wind conditions allow. However, make sure that there is no clipping in the highlights (blinkies) because essentially when you are using ISO 50, you are already compromising highlight detail by about one stop. I've used this workaround for many years and have been happy with the results.

In regards to the Nikon D800 handing of noise in the shadow areas, I have to say it's nothing short of amazing! Kudos to Sony and Nikon for the new sensor partnership. The Exmor sensor is exceptional and there is so much detail in the shadows. I can push the shadows more than 4 stops without any hint of color noise. WOW! Let's just say the D800 sensor is a breakthrough in sensor technology.


Nikon D800   Zeiss 21mm   f/10   1/10s   ISO 100:   Click for larger image


In order to get the most out of Nikon's 36MP sensor, we need to use the best glass at their sweet spot apertures. Apertures too wide will lessen resolution due to lens aberration and too small will rob resolution due to diffraction.


Part III: Diffraction, Anti-aliasing and Conclusion