Head-to-Head Video Comparison of the Nikon D4, D800, Canon 5D Mark III & Canon 5D Mark II DSLR
March 30, 2012 -- In the past couple of weeks both Nikon and Canon have released two new HDSLR's that many are considering upgrading to. While the cameras are very different in specifications, it seems that the one area that everyone is hoping will improve even further over current models is in the high-ISO / low-noise area.
The Canon 5D Mark III is a step-up from the best selling Canon 5D Mark II. When the 5D Mark II shipped in November 2008 it set the standard for DSLR video. The image quality was so good that TV shows (House Season Finale 2011) and Feature Films (Act of Valor) have been shot almost in their entirety with that camera. I believe that if Canon knew what they had created before hand - the camera never would have made it to market with that kind of video quality or at least at the original price point. What made that camera so special? The full-size 35mm-sized sensor gave it a very cinematic look with smooth tones, high-ISO with very little noise, and a very shallow-depth-of-field that, at the time, was only obtainable with cameras costing 40-60x more.
The Nikon D800, launched this month is also in very high demand thanks to a new 36-megapixel sensor that approaches (and maybe surpasses) the resolution of many medium-format cameras. The D800 comes just a month or two after the launch of the Nikon D4, another full-frame sensor camera with blazing fast 11fps continuous shooting speed and incredible noise-free images at very high-ISO settings. Both camera's are the first full-frame Nikon models to shoot video.
The Canon 5D Mark III represents a second generation full-frame HDSLR, while the D800 is Nikon's first full-frame with this feature. Because of this they are both being looked at under a microscope. Did we really need or want 36-megapixels in the D800? With that many pixels on the sensor we might gain resolution but probably at the expense of increased ISO sensitivity. Canon's Mark III barely increases resolution at all, which should bode well for increased low-light sensitivty, but did they add enough additional features to warrant the big increase in price? In my forthecoming review I'll try to tackle these questions, but for now I wanted to share a couple of ISO comparison video's that I created. The first video demonstrates the the ISO video quality at each ISO, while the second video takes the camera's into a lower-light situation so that shadow noise will stand out as ISO increases. Please note that these video tests are only designed to show you ISO performance when recording video. A separate part of the upcoming review will compare these camera's as photographic tools. In those tests we'll look at focusing, resolution, ISO noise, and speed.
Natural Light - Video ISO Comparison
Low Light - Video ISO Comparison
Based on these video comparisons it is clear that the king of low-light is the Nikon D4 ($6000), followed closely by the Canon 5D Mark III ($3500). In third place is the Canon 5D Mark II ($2100) and in last place for ISO noise suppression is the new Nikon D800 ($3000). Please note that this is just based on ISO noise levels in video mode. If that is your only criteria when judging a camera then you can pretty much follow those placements in guiding your decision, but we know that other factors come into play. Price, resolution / sharpness, speed, ergonomics, and brand loyalty are just some of the other factors that you will also likely consider when trying to decide which camera to upgrade too - or even whether you need to upgrade at this time.
The other attribute that these comparison videos will spotlight is Moire and Aliasing, a problem often associated with video. Again, the Nikon D800 scored poorly here as it exhibited severe moire on our natural light brick test. The Canon 5D Mark II did 'okay' with the brick test, but Moire was visible in the low-light test around the door accents. The 5D Mark III and the Nikon D4 scored very high in this comparison with little or no visible moire or aliasing issues.
Canon 5D Mark III vs. 5D Mark II ISO Noise Test
In the test above both versions of the EOS 5D Mark series do very well up to ISO 3200, at least under these lighting conditions (Livingroom, 4 recessed lights turned on, ambient light from outside coming in through window to the right (drapes were half drawn). Once you get to beyond ISO 3200 the 5D Mark III controls noise fairly well up to ISO 12,800 - a remarkable feet. Interestingly, while both cameras were pre-focused on the top-right corner of the pillow and both cameras were set to an identical aperture setting of f/2.8 it seems that the older 5D Mark II had better depth and sharpness.
Video Recording Times: 5D Mark III vs 5D Mark II
Something that all cinematographers should note is that the new Canon EOS 5D Mark III has two video codecs that you can choose when recording video: ALL-I (Intraframe) and IPB interframe). Both use H.264 compression but All-I can achieve up to 90MB/Sec vs. about 33MB/Sec for IPB. I haven't tested the difference yet but I will report here sometime this week.
From learning about these two recording formats ALL-I may not necessarily be better quality despite using 3x the memory space. I have read that while intraframe (ALL-I) requires a higher bitrate to achieve the same quality, its compression may look a bit more organic compared to Intraframe and might also have some benefits when grading. I have also seen example videos where I really couldn't tell the difference. I'll do some testing this week and will report back here.
The Nikon comparison tests on this page were only possible thanks to the generosity of two Boston based photographers, Bob Jenney and Jay Stebbins . Bob is both an engineer and photographer, and supplied the Nikon D4 for this test. Jay is one of the leading pet photographers in New England and kindly allowed me to use his new Nikon D800 for testing. I brought with me the Canon 5D Mark II and Mark III to round out the models.