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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.

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16 responses

  1. Zak says:

    Great article Brett! Thanks for posting it.

  2. Greg Croft says:

    Nice comparo Brett!
    Mostly the same conclusions I’ve come up with.
    I’m a Nikon shooter and I am convinced that the D700 is the best camera i’ve ever owned.

    That being said, the image quality from both is amazing and one would be served well by either. :)

    Greg

  3. Daniel says:

    Great review. I’m sticking with Canon too!

  4. Tim says:

    Hey Brett,

    Thanks for the review. I found it very helpful in understanding the differences in the systems and I guess it’s slightly comforting to know the D700 isn’t quite as dramatically better than the 5dII in AF as I had thought.

  5. Nicole Haley says:

    I’m so glad you wrote up your review! I agree with Tim, this is slightly comforting news. 😀

  6. A very interesting read. I wish I had a friend who had an all Canon setup to try out. I wonder if you’d prefer the AF on the D3 as opposed to the D700. Granted they aren’t in the same price category, but I’ve found that the D3 as primary and D700 as back up makes a nice system. Hopefully Nikon will listen to their customers and produce the fast wide angles everyone is after. Ultimately I don’t think it’s very cost effective to completely jump ship, but I have thought about being cross platform on more than one occasion.

  7. Jimmy Ho says:

    Thanks for posting this!

  8. Jessie says:

    Thanks so much for this!

    I am considering changing from Nikon to Canon just to get those fast primes that I love. Plus Canon is not as expensive so I thought that I could perhaps get more bang for my buck (I was comparing the D3 to the Mark 5D, but now I see that I should be comparing the 5D with the D700 and that makes it a little better). I think I will just stick with my Nikon for now and hope that Nikon comes out with some faster lenses! Come on Nikon…

  9. With Nikon’s Auto ISO the minimum shutter speed works so long as a flash is not being used. The camera has a “My Menu” grouping where anything can be added. I put Auto ISO at the top so it is easy to switch off when using flash. With flash the Auto ISO will keep cranking up the flash output instead of increasing the ISO setting.

    When I shot two weddings with the D3 and a Mark III the difference in flash exposure accuracy was often dramatic. In large dark reception venues the D3 would still be dead on while the Mark III was way off the mark.

    Although Nikon does not provide anything like the Canon 24mm f1.4 prime, Canon provides nothing close to the 14-24mm f2.8 lens which is significanly sharper than Canon’s 14mm f2.8 and 24mm f2.8 primes. I also like the autofocus accuracy of the Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 lens which is consistent shot to shot and not something one finds with most Canon copies of the 24-70mm f2.8 lens.

  10. Brett Maxwell says:

    thanks for the comment Bruce, the 24-70 was a large part of the reason I was considering Nikon.

  11. brain waves says:

    From what I read, there is a figure of different views on this. I mean you only have to surf the miscellaneous Internet forums and that gets starkly obvious. Yet the problem is, numerous people don’t appear to look that deeply into this.

  12. C. Harvey says:

    Good review. The D700 vs. 5D II debate is a great one. If the 5D II came with the new AF system of the 7D, this all might not be such a big debate. Each system has its advantages as you pointed out nicely.

  13. Joe Fish says:

    Good review. The D700 vs. 5D II debate is a great one. If the D700 came with the 24 Mpix sensor of the D3X, this all might not be such a big debate.

  14. Thanks so much for the article! It’s great to hear the thoughts behind the pros and cons.

  15. Harish Sharma says:

    Great Article.
    What I like about D700: Great AF system, and fps for shooting action. It’s an all-rounder even in low light.
    What I like about 5d II: Superior IQ and noise reduction, its ability to get detail, esp. using ‘L’ glass.

    If my current gear had nikon glasses, I would have gone with D700.

    But I have several superior lenses in Canon, 17-40 f4L, 85mm 1.8, 28-70mm f2.8L (old version of 24-70), 200mm f2.8L, and the cheap 50mm f1.8 too (apparently gives me sharp images). (I have an old 1D II)

    I would upgrade to 5d mark ii being in this situation. But, “IF” 3d comes out, I would turn my face away from both 5d2 & D700.

    But I still think Nikon bodies outperform Canon any day. Thanks to Sony for sharing its sensor technology to majority of the Nikon product line up (except the top range ones I think). Canon has to do this part themselves.

    So, two great companies in its own way.

  16. Rajan Verma says:

    very nice compare..I think D700 is a best one.