Canon 5D Mark II compared with Nikon D700 Sep 7
(photo from D700)
Edit: As of April 2010 I have switched to Nikon with a pair of D700s. The Canon 1D Mark IV that was introduced since this review remained a crop sensor camera and I have given up on Canon producing the camera I really want (essentially, the mythical 3D). I have been quite pleased with the switch so far, though I miss greatly my 35L and hope Nikon releases an equivalent soon.
Caution: Nerdy tech post intended for photographers.
Intro: I always want to have the best camera to capture the real emotions and personalities of weddings with technical precision. My first camera was an all manual film Pentax with a 50mm that I used for a high school photography class, and since then I have only owned an Olympus point-and-shoot and several Canon Digital SLRs. In recent years Nikon has produced a very compelling camera in the D700 that has grabbed my attention, primarily with their full-frame sensor, high-ISO performance and the same autofocus as their professional sports camera. My much-loved Canon 5D Mark II has two of these features, but lacks the top level autofocus. Conveniently, friend and photographer Jason Aten shoots Nikon, so we decided to trade gear for a couple days so I could try out the D700 and he could shoot an HD video project with my 5DII. I put the camera to work shooting both many test scenarios and some candids at a friend’s birthday party. Testing was done primarily with the 50mm f1.4G, but also with the 70-200 f2.8, 85mm f1.4, and 24mm f2.8. The following are my thoughts on features relevant to me and my preferences as primarily a wedding photographer. Although I read the whole manual, perhaps I missed some things and some of my complaints could be resolved with a better understanding or a simple custom setting, feel free to let me know in the comments.
Biases: Many people are loyal to a brand or product for reasons they can not justify, this is not the case with myself and cameras. Although I have spent all my professional time with Canon SLRs, I am not hesitant to critique the equipment I use, and I would be more than happy to “jump-ship” if another brand offers a superior product. If anything, my bias is towards Nikon, as I think their product lineup makes more sense and they offer features in their $2400 D700 that you can only get in Canon’s $6300 1Ds Mark III. Regardless of my final decision, without a doubt, competition is good and I’m happy to see Nikon and Canon push each other to improve.
Autofocus: The D700 is very responsive and accurate at the center, 3D tracking is very cool, and focus tracking of a moving subject is better than my Canon. However, it would seem there are no cross type points outside the center 3 vertical rows; none of the others could find focus on vertical blinds, but turn the camera vertical and it nails them instantly. The 5DII has been widely and appropriately critiqued for not having a new autofocus system, and although the center point is quite good, the fault is in not having the more effective cross-type points spread around the frame. I was disappointed to discover that the D700’s autofocus suffers this same critical problem. Winner: Nikon
Body/Construction/Handling: The D700 feels like a brick compared to the 5DII, in a good way. Heavier, yes, but more solid and rugged. The D700 shutter seems slightly more responsive than the 5DII, and with an optional battery it is capable of 8 frames per second, compared to the 5DII’s 3.9fps. I really like that the battery grip on the D700 is removed in just a few seconds. The D700 does not support interchangeable focusing screens, which putting the “precision” screen in my 5DII was the best thing ever, allowing the shallow DOF of large aperture lenses to be readily seen in the viewfinder. A personal detriment to the Nikon construction is that the battery grip does not allow the use of a hand strap. I love my hand strap! This is a really big deal to me, though people who prefer neck straps won’t care. Winner: Tie
Controls: I like that the D700 gives you a customizable function button, and that focus and metering modes are given switches. It is quicker on the D700 to set a custom Kelvin white balance, which is nice, but I like to shoot shoot RAW with AWB and correct everything in just a few minutes with Lightroom. One great addition to the D700 would be custom settings on a switch or dial like the 5DII has with C1, C2 and C3 on the mode dial. One thing I hate about the Nikon controls is that it takes both hands to change ISO, which is a hassle with a small lens and impossible when handholding a large lens and keeping your eye to the viewfinder. Canon’s ISO selection control is much more convenient, and in the world of digital where we can adjust ISO on the fly this is very important. ISO has become such an importantly variable factor in exposure that I would love to see cameras get their own ISO wheel like aperture and shutter speed already have. Winner: Canon
Exposure/Metering: Generally I really like the way Nikon’s Matrix metering reads exposure (photo above was in Aperture Priority with no compensation), except, and this is a really big negative for me, when there is a light source in the frame. The metering seems so averse to blowing any highlights that if even a small light source is in the frame the overall frame will be drastically underexposed. For example, I was shooting outside in deep shade, the sun was about an hour from setting and just barely peeking through the trees, and when I shot with a tiny sliver of sun in the frame the rest of the scene went almost totally dark. I had to dial in +5ev to expose the rest of the scene properly. I also encountered this indoors when shooting a friend with a tungsten light in the background. Although my Canon’s metering is also fooled by the sun or bright lights, it is to a much lesser degree, resulting in an image that is still usable with some RAW corrections.
The one other exposure related thing I dislike about Nikon is the native ISO-200 (compared to 100 on Canon). With ISO-200 in very bright scenes you can’t shoot f1.4 even with 1/8000 shutter. Also, with strobe light in bright lighting conditions a low ISO is very advantageous. Nikon has ISO expansion (with loss of dynamic range) down to 100, but Canon with it’s native ISO-100, has expansion down to ISO-50. Winner: Canon
Auto-ISO: Auto-ISO is a great feature for Aperture Priority shooting on both Canon and Nikon, but each have big flaws. For Canon, you can’t set a minimum shutter speed and it defaults to around 1/focal length. With my 50mm it will often shoot at 1/40, ISO-100 when I would MUCH rather it use 1/160, ISO-400. Nikon’s Auto-ISO is great because it allows you to set a minimum shutter speed, however, turning Auto-ISO on and off has been buried in a menu and it doesn’t default to off when going to Manual mode. This means that if you want to shoot Aperture Priority with Auto-ISO then switch to true Manual you first have to go sort through some menus. Winner: Tie
Image quality: Both produce beautiful files from their large full-frame sensors. I find that the 5DII has a slight advantage for high-ISO noise, but both are quite impressive. The 5DII has the advantage of 21 megapixels, but for bulk work like weddings I use mostly the 10 megapixel sRAW. The D700’s 12.1mp is a great size for wedding and portrait work, so the Nikon has a generally preferable resolution but the Canon has more flexibility. Winner: Tie
System: A camera body is only one part of photography equipment, while lenses and lighting are large considerations also. It is well known that Nikon lacks the fast, wide primes that Canon has in the 24mm f1.4 and 35mm f1.4, though this is of no concern to me as I prefer an f2.8 zoom for the wide end. For either system I would have a wide zoom (16-35/17-35), a fast 50mm (Sigma 50mm for either), a long zoom (70-200mm f2.8 IS/VR) and a long prime (85mm or 100/105). For this selection of lenses the Nikons and Canons are near equivalent. Flash systems should also be considered, but since I use mostly off-camera flash in Manual mode with radio triggers there is no real difference or advantage between systems. Winner: Tie
Conclusion: Both cameras have their pros and cons and both are quite capable and wonderful tools for wedding and portrait photographers. For the present I remain unconvinced to switch systems as my biggest complaint with the 5DII is the autofocus, and while the D700 is an improvement in that category, it was not as significant as I had hoped. If I were starting from scratch it would be a more difficult decision, and I would probably go with Nikon. As I look at how both companies are progressing, I am hopeful that Canon will release a camera similar in features to the new 7D, but with a full-frame sensor (3D?). Or, perhaps the overdue 1D Mark IV will become a full-frame camera.