5D Mark III/D800 Hands-On Part 1: Initial Impressions (Mark III)
The thought occurred to me that the picture to the left is a little boring, and it would be far more interesting to have an animated GIF of sorts with both cameras turning to each other and butting lenses as if they were American football linemen. Kidding aside, I have been using both the Nikon D800 and the Canon 5D Mark III for a couple days now and I am coming to a few interesting conclusions that I need to explore in the coming days. I already talked about my testing plans before, but the idea is that since some of these edits will be time-intensive, the test will roll out in parts over the next couple weeks, culminating in a short film.
The 5D Mark III has been getting far more attention than the D800, and for good reason. Nikon’s video offerings have been less than stellar to date, and since the 5D Mark II in 2008, Canon has more-or-less become the go-to DSLR of choice for video. Not to mention that the 5D Mark II is really the camera that started this whole revolution (even if Nikon was the first out the gate with the D90 and the first with 24p – an absolute necessity for filmmakers). It wasn’t until 2010 that Canon finally wised up and offered a firmware update that solved the 24p problem for filmmakers.
In the past few weeks after the announcement of the 5D Mark III, there has been an unbelievable amount of coverage – from small details like button placement to large details like codecs and resolution. The D800 has mostly had coverage because of it’s clean 4:2:2 HDMI output. I don’t think anyone in the filmmaking world really expected Nikon to jump this far ahead in features over the equivalent Canon camera. Nikon and Canon seemed to switch philosophies when it comes to making cameras, and at the lower end of the full-frame offerings, Nikon went with higher megapixels (12mp to 36mp) while Canon basically stayed the same (21mp to 22mp) and focused on low-light ability. Much had been said about Canon’s decision on megapixels, and for filmmakers it seemed they were making all of the right decisions, choosing 22mp possibly because we’d get cleaner video with a perfect 1920 x 1080 downscale – avoiding unnecessary line-skipping. Nikon truly surprised with a 36 megapixel medium format-like camera – and reception for this choice among filmmakers has been somewhat lukewarm – because more megapixels usually equals more noise and harder downscaling to 1080p. Things are not always what they seem, and that will become more clear later on in the review. Most of this hands-on will be focused on video, but there will also be a section entirely devoted to stills.
Canon 5D Mark III – The Design
Though the new camera is larger than its predecessor, it still feels right in the hands. I’d been a Nikon shooter until the 5D Mark II, so it was a huge learning curve trying to figure out the best way to operate the camera. Before the 5D Mark II, I was shooting with the D90, an inferior video camera but a stellar photography camera. It was one of the better designed and balanced DSLRs that Nikon had made to that point, so moving to Canon was difficult. But the Mark II became my everyday camera, and ergonomically it was fantastic. The Mark III continues that ergonomic tradition and feels great in one hand – a huge positive for stills shooters. For video shooters, Canon has made some interesting decisions that make it a bit more difficult to operate.
Canon has made this camera much less of an afterthought in regards to video. We’ve got the video/photo selector of the Canon 7D, as well as the Start/Stop button (and the ability to Start/Stop recording with the shutter release). They also added a Q button, which allows you to cycle through the different record modes and other options. It’s a very smart and much-needed addition as going through the menu to accomplish that same task is incredibly tedious. Interestingly, Canon decided to combine the magnify and reduce buttons (focus check) into one maginify/reduce button, and it’s located on the left side of the camera. Many people have questioned this move (me included) but in practice it hasn’t really affected my shooting. If you’re handheld you just move the left hand back a little and press it – if you’re on a tripod it’s simple. I do miss easily zooming out, but you can press the button quickly enough that this isn’t really a problem. The Menu and Info buttons are much more sensibly placed, because those functions (white) are now separated from the reviewing functions (blue). The scroll wheel is now touch sensitive, and it allows you to change certain functions silently while shooting video. The only caveat is that you must first press the Q button, and then it allows you to get into those options which can be changed with the touch-sensitive wheel. I haven’t used this too much so far, but it works, and thanks to the addition of the headphone jack (finally!), we can actually hear and adjust audio levels on the fly.
The mini-HDMI connector has been the bane of my existence since I started using DSLRs, and unfortunately it hasn’t changed. I truly believe they could fit a full size HDMI port if they wanted, but for now we’ve got to live with the HDMI Type C connector. Canon’s rubber swing-out cover has not changed from the 5D Mark II, and it’s just as difficult to open as ever (and still opens bottom-up). The headphone jack is placed appropriately and gives a good enough idea of the volume to be able to adjust levels
Obviously a major physical addition is the SD card slot. It doesn’t really affect video, because there is no overflow option from CF to SD (or vice versa) in video mode. It is certainly handy for stills, but I’ll also get to that in the stills portion of the review.
Canon 5D Mark III – Operation
The menu has been redesigned for this camera, and it is laid out in both sections and pages. Each section is similar to the previous Mark II, but now we have pages instead of a scrolling continuous menu. The top scroll wheel moves between pages, and the back scroll wheel does just that – scrolls between options in a specific page. When the end of a page is reached, the camera remains on that page until the top scroll wheel is used. I actually like this design a lot, even though it takes a little longer to scroll through all the menu options. It helps to keep things much more organized.
Speaking of the menu, most of the specific options that are new to this camera are disabled by default. Timecode is finally available but must be specified in the menu. Audio is set to auto, and there is a new function that should help reduce wind noise that is also disabled by default. The touch-sensitive scroll wheel must be enabled – same with using the shutter release as a start/stop function. During recording, once the Q button is pressed, tapping up and down on the touch-sensitive scroll wheel moves through specific options, like F-stop and audio levels, and tapping left or right allows those options to be changed.
The info button affects the display in live view just like the Mark II, and all of the overlays can be disabled except for the white square. I don’t think it’s to prevent HDMI recording, as it seems the camera spits out gibberish that can’t really be recorded (I’ll have more on that later on in the review). When the camera is connected to an external monitor, it’s similar to the Mark II in that the image only takes up a center portion of the screen. The overlays must be removed for the image to be larger. Upon pressing record, the overlays are stuck in place, and recording must be stopped to change the size of the screen and the specific overlays. The positive, however, is that the screen does not blank when pressing record. I need to look into this more, but when all the overlays are disabled, the image does not completely fill the screen – the frame is outlined with a grey line, and there is black space between the frame and the edges of the monitor. This may have to do with heat or processing issues, so the camera cannot actually output a full 1080 through the HDMI in live-view mode. The only way to do so is through playback, where the image fills the entire screen. Just like the Mark II, the 5D Mark III can only operate the LCD or the monitor, and not both at the same time.
This is a professional camera, as much as certain features might be less professional than desired. I am coming to some interesting conclusions regarding video quality vs. the D800, but it’s safe to say from the footage I’ve shot so far that this camera is tremendous in low-light, and a two-stop improvement over the 5D Mark II. The issue of video resolution will be confirmed later on, but regardless, this camera can truly see in the dark.
Check back for initial impressions of the Nikon D800.
- A Roundup of Canon 5D Mark III and Nikon D800 Videos
- 5D Mark III and D800: Thoughts on Camera Tests and Company Motivation
- 'Joy Ride,' the First Nikon D800 Test Film