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Shady Details – The Nikon D800 Sensor Performance Debate – CameraTalk

By Matthew Saville on April 23rd 2012

There is usually a lull in excitement between the initial announcement of new cameras and the time that real-world reviews start hitting the internet.  However the Canon 5D Mk3 and the Nikon D800 didn’t allow for much of a lull this time; their specs were so off-the-chart impressive that people have been discussing and debating them non-stop.  Yet somehow, the excitement still managed to bump itself up a notch with the recently published “official reviews” on the web.  …Links to be discussed:


Page two of Fred Miranda’s Nikon D800 vs Canon 5D mk3 review, where you can see a truly amazing difference in the shadow noise that favors the D800


The DXO Mark review of the Canon 5D mk3, in which it is actually surpassed by the Nikon D800 even at high ISO’s


The DXO Mark review of the Nikon D800, in which the D800 sensor becomes the #1 all-time champion, beating even medium format digital backs

 

 

Now, before you think that this is just a collection of “fightin’ words” from a Nikon fanboy, let me get right to the bullet points:

 

•  First of all, could the reviews / tests be faked, doctored, biased, or inaccurate?   It’s possible, but I won’t put too much effort into debating this point since both of these reviews are from pretty reliable sources.  Either way, before you go crying “conspiracy theory” maybe give it another few months, or weeks…  The truth will eventually surface.  I suspect the real-world tests will show slightly less dramatic results, though maybe not any true “reversals” from these current findings.


•  If you’re a serious landscape photographer, then yeah you may want to give the D800 a try.
  Otherwise, however, you may find the D800 to be less practical, even less value, than say a D700 or D7000. The D800 is definitely a quantum leap forward for those who need sheer resolving power and overall image quality, of course.  Even Canon-shooting landscape photographers ought to at least glance at the tests, or try the D800 out.  Is the image quality superior?  Possibly, on paper / in the lab.  Is it a necessary upgrade?  Probably not…

 

•  If you’re a serious portrait photographer, the D800 may also have an allure, since it packs great dynamic range, color depth, and high ISO performance into a body with medium-format-like resolving power.  Any fashion / editorial photographer, on a budget or not, will be considering the D800.

 

•  Personally, I do still suspect that the Canon 5D Mk3 will out-perform the D800 in real-world low-light image quality, as well as general versatility.  Because in the real world, we apply as much noise reduction and sharpening as we need to get the job done.  (And Canon CR2 files accept copious noise reduction much better than Nikon NEF files) Also in the real world, you just don’t need a ridiculous number of megapixels, nor should any self-respecting photographer go around under exposing every image by 2+ stops and just “fix it in post”.  Keep in mind that DXO’s tests are done in a lab, and are “normalized” from a specific set of technical tests, NOT real-world shooting. Who knows what subtle nuance of image quality may be going un-noticed in these tests.  (Such as those famously beautiful Canon skin tones…)

 

•  Speaking of “normalized”, be sure to read DXO Mark’s page that describes their testing methods.  It gets pretty geeky, but the bottom line is that you need context (and maybe a grain of salt) when trying to “interpret” DXO’s sensor rankings.

 

•  Don’t forget,  by the way, that something better is always around the corner.  Canon may be holding back on a 40 megapixel camera body that blows the D800 out of the water.  In fact I believe we are “only” 12-18 months away from another Canon full-frame announcement.  (And Nikon may be cooking up a “D800 with the D4 sensor”, for those of you who still can’t get around the idea of going from 12 to 35 megapixels…  ;-)

 

•  Also keep in mind that each new quantum leap in performance only pushes the other to improve.  Lest we forget, Nikon didn’t even offer a full-frame camera until 2007, while Canon was working on it’s 3rd or 4th.  Canon’s ISO performance was the envy of any Nikon low-light shooter, and it forced Nikon to step up it’s game.  The same will happen with any dramatic improvement that Nikon brings to the table before Canon does.

 

•  If you’re just an impatient person in general, you may never be happy with just one single camera brand / system.  Honestly, you’ll be much better off if you just do what Ken Rockwell did- break down and buy both brands.  There really is no better way to ultimately decide for yourself which side the grass is greener on.  Master them both.

 

•  If you’re impatient but on a budget and can only afford one camera brand, you may just have to get used to the whole leapfrog thing.  It happens in every industry; the competition takes turns being on top.  To be honest, it was pure luck that I picked the system that turned out to be right for me; I bought my first (film) Nikon when I had no clue about camera controls or performance.  Digital wasn’t even around that much…  In fact I kinda bought a Nikon because it was the underdog, and I was a teen who felt compelled to avoid anything mainstream or popular.

 

•  Remember that both the Nikon D800 and the Canon 5D Mk3 are huge leaps forward, and a worthy “upgrade” even if you’re not thinking about jumping ship to the other brand.

 

•  Lastly, of course I don’t need to remind you that 99% of the time, your camera is not the weakest link.  You are.  Yeah, there are technical limitations we all must live within.  But nothing can compete with raw talent / skill.

 

Take care,
=Matt=

 

(No, it’s not a D800 or 5D mk3 image, but it has lots of shadows…)
Nikon D700, Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 – 1/90 sec @ f/2.8 & ISO 3200, RAW image in PS CS6 Beta

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Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

Follow his personal wilderness adventures: Astro-Landscapes.com

See some of his latest wedding photography featured on: LinandJirsa.com

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Copisetic1

    My new D800, new Zeiss 21mm/2.8, some old Ais glass, 50,85,105,135. I’m as happy as a bug in a rug.
    North rim grand canyon primitive area here I come.

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  2. QWER

    Clearly a Canon fanboy…

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    • Pye

      Interestingly, this article was written by our resident Nikon fanboy, Matthew Saville. We try to be as unbiased as possible here ;) 

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