Nikon D800 Vs Canon 5D MKII

I, like a lot of other photographers or photographic enthusiast, have been asking the same question. Is the Nikon D800 the camera to buy. If you are like me and own a whole Canon system, the question is whether to replace an entire kit for a new breed of camera.

Within my photographic journey of ± 20 years, I’ve worked with various cameras from 35mm to large format.
Even though I am presently a Canon user, one of my favorite cameras is a Nikon FM2. When Canon launched their auto focus system in the late 1980’s, I was there, buying a Canon EOS 620 for myself, while using a Nikon FM2 at work.

Later in 1996, I became an in-house photographer for a Magazine group. It was Nikon all the way till 2003. Canon brought out the EOS 1Ds. It wasn’t long before I was one of two photographers that had a Canon system. Up until now, I felt Canon suited me better in the work I am doing.

Nikon have upped the “game” a lot this time, so I asked ORMS for a Nikon D800 to test against my Canon 5D MKII. When the Canon 5D MKIII arrives, I’ll do another test.

Some of the things you should know about my test:
– Both cameras were set to the same ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture.
– Lenses used were Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM, Nikon 105mm f/2.8G AF-S VR Micro Nikkor, Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM and Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR.
– Images are viewed and processed using Capture One Pro. All settings are the same except for the white balance which is explained below.
– Three genre’s of photography were used namely food, decor and portraits.

The first shoot was a food shoot with food editor Arina Du Plessis of Landbouweekblad magazine. This is where I’m still trying to get used to the Nikon and its “language”. Being South African, I am bilingual, but it still meant I had to learn Nikon terminology on the go.

My first impressions were not one of awe, but rather, it works. I have to say that I shoot tethered 90% of the time and Capture One Pro did not support tethered shooting for the D800. What I did notice though, was all the food shots taken on the zoom lens with the Nikon had to be pushed half a stop to render the same exposure as the Canon images. When setting a colour profile for the images, what Canon calls “daylight” Nikon calls “sunny”. Those of us that remember using film or who still use film will know that “Daylight” means 5500Kelvin as it stands on the box. Canon’s default is 5380K and Nikon’s is 5231K when pulled into Capture One Pro. Enough of the technical.

Besides the file size 36Mp vs 21Mp, There wasn’t much in it for me when viewing full screen, as I know that these images will be used as a maximum size of A4 for a the magazine. However, when looking at the images a bit closer, the D800 does see more. More texture in the food. More texture in the fabric used as the table cloth. More sharpness. On the down side there was more magenta in the Nikon images as a whole.

Here are the images seen together.

Here are the same images in a close up look at what is going on inside the image. Nikon images are set to 50% of the image and the Canon images are set to 67% to give the same size in the window.

On to the next challenge. Decor. Styled by my wife Janine, the shots were deliberately set up wanting highlights and shadows in the image. I’ve tried to get the colours as close as possible. Once again, I used the zoom lenses and found that here too the Nikon lenses were a half stop darker than the Canon. So, all settings the same on camera, but not the same when viewed in the software. Nikon images were pushed a 1/3rd of a stop and Canon images were pulled 2/10ths to make up for the half stop difference.

There were three set ups for the decor. The first did not reveal much difference. There is however more detail in the wood carvings in the room divider used at the back. So if one feels that this is the main feature, which I do not, then that would be the difference. I did however feel that the Canon image was slightly sharper.

The next image starts to tell a story of “detail matters”. The Nikon shows more detail on the cushion as well as the glass bell and plant on the library cabinet. Both cameras are set to ISO – 100, Shutter- 2sec, Aperture – f11.

On the last set up, the D800 has more edge to edge sharpness than the 5D MKII which can be seen on the door hinges. I think both cameras did a great capture of this scene. Even though the image looks fairly light, this is a 4 second exposure at f11, shot with natural light on a rainy day.

The shoot would not have been complete without putting some smiley faces in. So while our boys were being boys drinking hot chocolate, I got them to sit on a step outside in the shade. Both cameras now had the macro lenses on. I also put the drives to continuous drive to see how it handled a few rapid bursts. Continuous drive was fine on both cameras, but the D800 takes the photo-count on the cards down quickly due to its file size. Both cameras had to have the exposures tweaked a little bit for images to be similar.

The Nikon images also seemed to be “warmer” and the Canon’s “cooler”. The D800 images have a white balance of 5231K. To get the 5D MKII images to look the same, I had to push the Canon shots by between 400K and 600K. Skin tones are good and for me, I preferred those of the D800. Areas to watch out for are the ones between skin and clothing and the way the shadows form in these areas.

All in all, I was and am impressed with the Nikon D800 and from my perspective, it is worth having a serious look at. I have not done any video footage to compare and have strictly stayed within the photographic environment. It is obvious that Nikon have made this huge improvement. The question for me still lies ahead. Will it out perform the Canon 5D MKIII. I eagerly await to do the test between the D800 and the 5D MKIII, and when I do, you will find me testing them in a similar way.

Will size matter as it has here? We will have to wait and see.

You can review the D800 Vs 5D MKIII here.

11 thoughts on “Nikon D800 Vs Canon 5D MKII

  1. Hi Neville,

    Really interesting thanks. I had my 5D Mk II and lenses stolen in Mthatha in April and had the Canon 5D Mk III on order, but it never arrived. I have now engaged with Nikon and am going to go the D800 route with those very Nikon lenses you used on this test shoot.

    1. Hi David. Sorry to hear about the kit stolen. I hope you get fixed up with the right system for you. The lenses tested were really good to handle. Just had to get to grips the differences between the system eg. what sits where on the lenses and camera.

  2. great comparison, looking forward to see how mk3 does against D800.

    thanks for your time taken on this review.

  3. I noticed your recent posts have shown processing of .CR2 files. Have you switched to the 5D III? If so I would love the D800/5D III comparison that you had talked about. I am very interested in white balance/sharpness comparisons.

      1. Oh great, not sure how I missed that. Thank you, I love these comparisons and have been looking for something similar for a while and not a lot out there. I have been considering a switch to Canon due to various small details but mostly better AWB and out of camera JPEGs in my opinion. If you don’t shoot on preset WB, what is your opinion on the differences between how Canon and Nikon handle white balance?

        ALso If there is any possibility, it would be for the future parts to incorporate more closely matched lenses (possibly even Nikon 24-70 and Canon 24.70 II). What you have is great but if you would be able to get your hands on those for testing that would be very interesting to see. Thanks for the posts!

      2. Hi. I’m not able to comment on which AWB is better as all my shots are done on the Daylight setting. What I can say is that there is a difference when importing to Capture One Pro and that I need to adjust the Nikon files slightly to read the same as the Canon files.

  4. Great article! Exactly what I’m trying to do right now, find a good DSLR for my upcoming photography class, but one that can be with me for a long time as I take my photography to the next level. Very helpful. Thank you.

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