D800, D4, 5D Mark III or 1DX: Which one to get?

With the two major DSLR companies (Canon and Nikon) both announcing two new full frame (FX) cameras in the last few months, there has been a lot of buzz and excitement.  With the cameras slowly becoming available, many photographers find themselves debating which one to get.

In this article I’ll briefly discuss the evolution from the previous generation to the new generation (from both a technology and a marketing perspective) and explain why the choice between the new flagship model (Nikon D4/Canon 1DX) and the prosumer model (Nikon D800/Canon EOS 5D Mark III) might not appear to be an easy one to make. Finally I hope to help you a bit in making the right decision (hopefully it will turn out that it isn’t actually that hard to choose).

In order to understand why choosing between the flagship models and the second tier cameras in the FX line up, is more difficult than it was in the previous generation of cameras, let’s first briefly look at the last two generations of Nikon cameras.

Previous Models
About a year after Nikon introduced the revolutionary D3 (2007), they introduced the D700, a trimmed down version of the flagship model. The D700 is basically a baby version of the flagship D3, using much of the same technology, including the great sensor.  This was great for enthusiasts and even for professionals that didn’t need the (limited) extras a D3 provided at a much higher cost and weight. With the introduction of the D3s, the flagship was once again a real flagship, with yet another stop of improved high ISO performance and the introduction of basic video capabilities. Although this minor upgrade increased the quality gap between the pro model and the D700, the latter still was not that much less of a camera.  All in all, the choice was relatively easy for most advanced photographers: If you had the (professional) need and/or money you would buy the D3(s), but for most advanced amateurs and even pros, the D700 was the obvious choice. Since Nikon is there to make money, so they might not have been thrilled to see a significant fraction of potential D3(s) buyers get a D700 as a (secondary) body, instead of the $3000 more expensive D3(s).

On top of that, Nikon found itself facing tough competition when Canon announced the EOS 5D Mark II a few months after the introduction of the D700: Canon’s second tier FX model wasn’t a trimmed down version of the Canon flagship model, but with an almost double sensor resolution (21.1 MP) and great video capabilities. Although the Mark II couldn’t match the low light capacity and AF performance of the D700, it became immensely popular for its great quality video (for independent and aspiring videographers) and resolution (e.g. landscape photographers). A few months later, Nikon came with an answer: The D3X, basically a D3 with a higher resolution (24 MP) sensor, at the cost of lower high ISO capability, less FPS and a hefty price tag of $8000! For what it offered, the price was somewhat absurd: It (simply put) had the same type of sensor as the Mark II, be it in a more rugged, professional body, but lacking video. It turned out that relatively few were willing to pay such a premium for a body that offered even less than a $2500 5D Mark II body. Only the wealthy few, or those that really (professionally) needed the resolution and didn’t want to invest in new Canon glass bought a D3X. So where Nikon had a high ISO, high FPS, weather sealed, pro monster (D3 and later D3s), a baby high ISO camera (D700) and the high resolution pro camera (D3X), Canon pretty much offered only two FX choices: Either a high ISO, high speed pro 1Ds Mark III, or a high resolution and great video 5D Mark II (although Canon polarized their own market as well, by offering a pro model with a sensor size in between FX and DX).

Now let’s see how these market placement issues and the technology gap on the video front on Nikon’s end led to a drastically different approach in the next (current) generation, especially concerning the second tier model, compared to Canon, who released two new FX models in the last few months as well.

Nikon D4 and Canon EOS 1DX
When Nikon announced the D4 as the successor to the D3s last December, we got more or less what we expected: A mostly incremental upgrade on the still front, with a 30% increased resolution (16.2 MP) and greatly improved video capabilities (including clean HDMI out) as the most notable changes. The specifications are quite similar to the professional Canon EOS 1DX, announced a few months earlier by Canon. The vastly improved video indicated that Nikon had (at least on paper) closed the gap with Canon and was promising with regard to the expected D800, while Canon closed the high ISO gap with performance levels close the D4 (at least on paper).

Nikon D800
With the announcement of the D800 in February this year, it was clear that Nikon did not want it to cut into the sales of the new D4 model like the D700 did with the D3(s), while at the same time providing better competition with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II: A D700 like body, with a sensor that is not like the one found in the D4 – a whopping 36.2 megapixels, trumping the Nikon D3X by 50% and the Canon Mark II’s 22.1MP by even more, while providing pretty much the same (great) video specs as the D4 (full HD 1080p at 24, 25 and 30fps and up to 60fps in 720p,). We’ll never know whether Nikon expected Canon to up the ante once more in the Megapixel race or whether they really just wanted such a high MP count regardless of Canon’s choices, but now all of a sudden Nikon seems to have the landscape/architecture/fashion camera.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Shortly after Nikon presented the D800, Canon announced the EOS D5 Mark III. Initially, many Canon users seemed a bit disappointed and underwhelmed by the relatively small upgrades. However, it seems that Canon has once again launched a great product, addressing the most glaring issue of the predecessor (AF performance) by introducing the same AF engine as the one found in the new flagship 1DX and featuring greatly improved high ISO abilities, while keeping the same resolution. Although many of the other changes are just incremental, many are just what users were waiting for. The biggest complaints I’ve been hearing: No clean HDMI video out (unlike the Nikon D4 and D800) and the $500 price jump over the predecessor.

Four new FX models
To sum up the latest introductions: In the last few months we’ve seen the arrival of four new full frame DSLRs by the two companies that hold the majority of the DSLR market share. Both companies announced their flag ship model first: Nikon introduced the D4 and Canon the 1DX. On paper these cameras seem very similar, with Canon closing the high ISO capability gap and Nikon the movie capability gap. Both are rugged, weather sealed, high FPS and high ISO monsters, built to endure and deliver under tough conditions.

Shortly after the introduction of the flagship models, both Nikon and Canon announced their second tier models. Now this is where things get quite different. Canon chose to no longer chase the pixels (for now), but instead fix the much dreaded AF system and improve the high ISO performance. Other than that, it’s mostly small (but good) improvements, welcomed by the Mark II users (except for the $500 higher price tag!). Just like it did with the D4, Nikon closed the video gap with the D800, but at the same time took a big leap over the Mark III in resolution. While there are several minor differences between the Mark III and the D800, it’s the resolution that has caused most of the stir – some think it’s great, but others think it’s a bad move by Nikon.

Expectations vs. reality
Many Nikon D700 users and DX users looking to upgrade to a FX camera, had been hoping for a decent upgrade in MP (to Canon 5D Mark II levels) and competitive video specs in the D800. The latter they certainly got, but the 36MP was way more than most hoped for. Isn’t more always better? Not necessarily. The high MP count introduced two major concerns:

– Noise. With increased pixel density (3 times as many pixels on the same area compared to the D700!), noise increases as well. That’s a matter of physics. Simply put: More pixels on the same area means smaller pixels, which in turn means that each pixel catches less light, which ultimately leads to more noise.

– File size. With the increased number of pixels, more data needs to be processed by the cameras processor and stored on the memory cards and later on hard disks and backups. As an example, my 12.3MP D300 creates 15MB RAW files, while the D800 will produce 75MB RAW files! This will require 5 times more storage space and lots more processing power to edit.

Since the D800 has started to hit the market, so have the more in depth reviews. From that it’s becoming clear that the D800 noise performance beats all expectations. Obviously it does well at base ISOs, but even at higher ISOs it seems to perform remarkably well. Is that surprising? Not really. People tend to forget that technology progresses. It’s been several years since Nikon surprised the world with great high ISO performance with the 12MP D3 sensor, so why wouldn’t we expect them to be able to improve high ISO performance with much smaller pixels over the course of years? The impressive performance of the 16 MP DX size sensor of the D7000 (introduced in 2010) was a good indicator of the potential of a FX body with the same pixel density 16 months later.

As far as the file size concern goes: It’s a valid concern that should definitely be considered, but aren’t most applications that we use on our computers getting more and more demanding as well? With the ever increasing size and speed of memory and processors per dollar paid, I don’t think the file size should be a game stopper for most users.

So, for those looking for a new FX camera, what to get? The Nikon D800, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III or perhaps even go for the pro models instead? This is the question that seems to pain many photographers these days. Of course the right decision depends on a lot of factors, like your goal in photography, what you currently own and of course budget.

Decision Basics
First of all, ask yourself if you really need a new camera: If your current camera does (almost) exactly what you need it to do, get your sticky fingers on some new glass, rather than a new body. However, if you convinced yourself (and your partner…) that you need a new FX camera, you have some decisions to make.

Let’s start with the best case scenario: You have plenty of money to burn, or are more than willing to sell some organs. I’d say buy whichever camera you want, or better, buy all four of them. They’re all great cameras, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, so you can’t go wrong really.

Moving on to a more realistic second scenario: You’re budget is limited and you don’t own any lenses (Canon or Nikon) yet. I’d advise you to start by writing down what your goals in photography or filmography are. Then read up on the cameras by checking specifications and descriptions of the manufacturers as well as the wealth of previews, reviews and general opinion articles out there on the web. Based on your needs and budget, you should be able to make the right decision. Just keep in mind that it’s not just about the body, but also about lenses and computer capacity. The 1DX produces slightly bigger files than the D4, the 5D Mark III significantly bigger files than the 1DX and the D800 the biggest of them all. Image processing is a big part of a photographer’s workflow these days, so depending on which camera you choose, you might need to invest in a computer upgrade as well.

The third scenario: You already own a Canon or a Nikon body, plus some lenses. In this case, the choice of which brand to choose is typically an easy one; go with the brand you already own lenses of, unless it’s just one single, cheap lens (in that case, see scenario 2). Lenses, with a generation time of 10 or more years and a lower susceptibility to aging parts, are more of a long term investment, whereas a DSLR body is a relatively poor investment, with a generation time of 2 to 3 years and typically more wear issues (failing shutters, dead pixels etc.).  Now you just need to decide whether you go for the flagship models (D4/1DX) or the second tier models (D800/5D Mark III).

High speed or high resolution
As discussed earlier, the choice of a Nikon user was fairly easy in the previous generation: If you had the money and needed the weather sealing and high FPS, you would get the D3(s), otherwise the very similar D700 for much less money. In the current generation of cameras, the choice is somewhat different: Do you need high ISO and high FPS in a professional, weather sealed body, or a high resolution camera in a significantly smaller and lighter package?

The problem that many photographers face now is that the traditional logic of starting out with what you need and what you can afford, does not work. On the one hand they don’t need the high resolution of the D800 or (to a lesser extent) the 5D Mark III, but they don’t have the money for a D4 or 1DX. People feel like they are forced to pay extra for something they don’t really need: Since most prospective buyers only publish photos online or view them on screen, a 12MP sensor provides plenty resolution. Indeed it seems a bit of an odd decision by the manufacturers to have such a high resolution sensor in a non-professional model. Why did they do it anyway? Here’s what I think:
Many of the pros, especially photo journalists and sports and wildlife photographers don’t want such high resolution either, at least not as long as it hurts the write speed (and thus FPS) and high ISO performance of the cameras.

The reason that manufacturers don’t just create a high resolution pro model next to the high speed model as well as a trimmed down version of the top model for the enthusiast/prosumer audience we’ve seen with Nikon’s previous generation: The trimmed down pro model just cuts into the pro model sales, while the market for the high resolution pro model isn’t big enough. Had the DSLR market been tenfold, I’m sure we would have had more options. That’s the bad news. The good news? Apart from having to deal with much larger files and a bit more limited high ISO performance, both the D800 and the 5D Mark III are awesome cameras. Their ISO performance is still way ahead of what we had just a few years ago in pro models and way better than the film days, where most wouldn’t go beyond ISO 800. On top of that, downsampling (reducing resolution in post processing) the resolution reduces the apparent high ISO performance compared to the pro models. Another advantage is that you can crop more aggressively when you start off with so many pixels (read more on that here). Finally, regarding the lower fps of especially the D800 (4 fps): Many enthusiast photographers seem really keen on having a camera that can do crazy high frames per second, evidenced by all the continuous  shutter speed videos you can find on youtube. I wonder though how often this feature gives them images they wouldn’t have gotten by just taking one shot. Except for some specialist use, like sports and wildlife photography (in which cases a >$8000 fast telelens probably provides more of a boost than 4 more frames per second), for most uses it’s more than a gimmick than anything. Going through my thousands of images shot on the D300, I only find a few series (mostly flying birds) shot at maximum fps.

So you decided that you want/need a new FX body? Unless you really need the high FPS, weather sealing, built in vertical grip and perhaps a bit of extra ISO room, I’d say go with the D800 or 5D Mark III. The $3000 you will save can be used to upgrade your computer to deal with the extra storage and processing power it will require, or perhaps an extra lens or two.

How about current owners of a D3s or 1DX looking at the new pro models? As mentioned here, D3s owners will only see very minor improvements in the still department, but a big jump in video. So for press photographers that occasionally shoot video for web media or even for TV when no dedicated film crew is around to cover the subject, the upgrade will be a no brainer. For Canon users, the 1DX seems to have significantly better high ISO performance, as well as improved video performance; a solid upgrade.

How about people that wish to have all these specs, but don’t have the money? Don’t forget that ultimately the camera is just a tool. Understanding light, composition and creativity are way more important than gear. These days there are people that shoot amazing images or even short movies on I-phones. At the end of the day most of the people buying these cameras don’t do it because they need it to put bread on the table: They are just passionate about their hobby and like to splurge a bit on the toys that come with it.

I myself belong in the latter category: Some time after the first reviews of the D800 appeared, I decided to order one, thinking it would take months before I would get my hands on it… more on that in another post very soon.

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