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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.

Media Attention

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.

Links: Canon 5D Mark III and Nikon D800


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 26 COMMENTS

  • Jordan Carr on 03.26.12 @ 5:56PM

    “This is a professional camera, as much as certain features might be less professional than desired.”

    Pretty much sums it up.

    I returned my Canon MK3.

    • It’s all about compromises, both the 5D Mark III and the D800 have them. But obviously each person needs to make a decision about their own needs and budget considerations.

  • I’m going to assume that the animated GIF sentence is a shout out to whackos like me, and then I’m going to stick my fingers in my ears because I don’t want to hear any different.

    That said, nice job on initial impression. I’m going to soon be in the market for one of these two bad boys (though I will wait until after the vaunted NAB) and I have some old Nikon glass by way stills shooting from waaaaaay back. So I could go either way. Looking forward to a VERY THOROUGH REVIEW. No pressure or nothin.

    • Absolutely – this stuff gets pretty intense so it’s always nice to get some humor in there. If I don’t live up to your expectations of thoroughness I’ll allow you to call me out on it.

  • Thanks for writing this great review of the 5D MK III. Have you noticed if the 5D MK III’s internal preamp has been improved over the 5D MK II? Being able to control the camera’s audio levels while recording would be great if we don’t need to leave them at one notch above zero and use an external preamp to avoid hiss.

    • I haven’t actually recorded audio through the camera with an external mic yet, but that will absolutely be part of the test.

  • I’m still not accepting the softness on MKIII. Been using it all weekend and today my FS100 has arrived, just a quick test with my atomos ninja and I’m sold.
    I tried to apply an unshrap filter but there’s a difference between sharpening 700 lines and true 1000 lines of resolution.
    But maybe I’m just a pixel peep… Well really waiting for D800 reviews. Got a full set of old nikon primes so it’s just a matter of time… Let’s see the next episodes…
    Still not believing on the 4K Canon DSLR. It wouldn’t make sense or it would cost more than a C300…
    Looking foward for the next part. Want to see the tests that will be done.

  • John Jeffreys on 03.27.12 @ 1:29AM

    every cinematography, imaging, and indie film site is littered with camera technology pissing contests these days. its so consumeristic and shallow. focus on your CONTENT, not the tools to make said content. the DSLR craze made filmmaking consumerized and easily accessible to the masses, and now everybody relies on their kit, instead of the real way of the kit having to rely on you.

    (on a side not, i took advantage of the used 5d II market price drop and got one for 1750. it should be arriving friday)

    • The true masters do quite a bit of both actually. Professionals at the top of their game like gear even more than the masses do, but they also know that there is an entire artistic side to their craft. Have you ever read American Cinematographer – half of it is about the gear they use and the specific way in which they applied that gear – specific film stocks and cameras – or lenses. It’s not something that just appeared one day, it’s always been a part of filmmaking – it didn’t come out of of shallowness or consumerism, it’s just more a part of everyday conversation because regular people have access to these tools now.

      There are plenty of filmmaking jobs that deal with gear but require no artistic knowledge. ACs, for example, don’t actually really need to be that artistically inclined, most of their job is dealing with gear and learning cameras and lenses.

      I know you’ve posted this before, but if consumerism bothers you, this is the wrong industry to be involved with. It thrives on consumerism – because we are selling a product (even if you call it entertainment it’s still a product). It’s not going anywhere because the only way it survives is by people wanting to buy and see new films. If you want to be a true artist free from all consumerism, then it’s impossible to be involved in traditional filmmaking (experimental is your only route) – it takes money to make films – that money comes from people buying products or investing money in order to make more money.

      Let’s just ease up on the negativity – this is a place for learning, and we do our best to give a mix of both camera technology pissing contests and real knowledge about the craft of filmmaking.

      • That needed to be said, thanks Joe. And one other note, the 5d didn’t change filmmaking. Its a camera body, thats all that it changed. Lenses, lighting, art direction, make up, sound, thats all the same. The consumerism of the 5d changed online videos on vimeo, not filmmaking. Though my next statement is tangential, its been burning me up, since I recently switched over to avid, which is far more powerful but less intuitive than fcp. If the 5d mark ii never happened, I think we would have a final cut 8 rather than x.

      • John Correa on 03.28.12 @ 12:16PM

        Here, Here! Very well said!

      • I was a pro-consumer, a decade long and fruitful ($ales) position in the AV gear world, then the day job evaporated to nepotism when the boss’s daughter was scythed along with hundreds of other VP’s at a well known bank’s mortgage division. Make room for daughter, and boom EDD here I come..

        That made me into a professional, my chops were already there, years of schooling in technical arts, scripting, recording yadda and then some, plus studio and production environments.

        So using some rapidly depleted savings and contacts from “the biz”, I began the freelance period of life.

        Been doin’ OK, and the postulation about consumerism is pure nonsense in my view.

        Parity, that makes more sense actually.

        Yes, the craft exists, and as a writer the create scope exists and the gear exists, somewhere in between lies one’s personal level of achievement and success.

        Thanks Joe, great response.


  • “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. ”

    You can make the “set” button, on the right in the center of the large dial, be a magnify/reduce button. It’s in the Custom Function 2 menu under Custom Controls. This moves the magnify back to the right side and makes for easier operation.

    • Yes, I’m just not a huge fan of resetting buttons to different spots – I use enough different cameras that I prefer to keep them standard. My only problem with the magnify is that there isn’t also a reduce button – which is something you can’t fix with a custom button.

      • You are almost making it more complicated than it is:

        In film mode one click of the magnify button takes it to 5%, a second click to 10%, the third click back to fit screen. IOW, you are only one or two clicks away to reduce it back to where you started. It’s much quicker than going to a new reduce button.

        Also, you are not resetting buttons to different spots per se. The magnify button on the left is still the same. The “set” button had no function while in movie or live view mode. So, you are not pushing anything out or losing any functionality of how the camera was setup in its default mode.

        All you are doing is gaining a magnify button on the right within easy reach of one’s thumb.

        • Gotcha, I’ll consider doing that but it hasn’t really bothered me being on the left side. It usually takes two hands to operate a camera anyway.

  • Can someone please shoot a test chart for measuring sharpness and one for dynamic range with the 5d mk3 and compare it to the previous version of the 5D? I can’t believe that this hasn’t been done in the first 2 days after the camera’s release, because I think this is what everyone wants to know when deciding to upgrade from the mk2…

    • It’s coming – not everyone has test charts by the way – because most of the time if you really need to test a camera the rental house can help you. Test charts run into the hundreds – so if you don’t need one, you’re probably not going to buy one….but be patient.

      • I know that a good test chart is very pricey, and I’m not saying that everyone should buy one, but until now there is not a single video that illustrates those two aspects of the camera, knowing that those were two big reasons why the mk2 was, and still is, such a popular camera for video production (besides the low light capabilities and large sensor). It’s like when a new smart phone gets released and no one says whether you can actually make phone calls with it or not.. Well, maybe not that extreme but you get my point, right? ;-)

        • Yes, I understand, I think a lot of people don’t see a need for test charts, they’d rather look at the pictures – so to each his own. But again, it’s coming in my test, so you won’t have to wait too much longer.

  • I’m seriously considering returning my 5dmiii. I’m actually quite disappointed with it, all-in-all. This article nails the point for me: beyond audio improvements and some low light, none of what this camera offers really matters. I’m not disappointed, I’m just not impressed. And with all of these fabulous Sony cameras coming to market, I’m seriously thinking about just keeping the cash and waiting for what’s next. This doesn’t seem like anything more than an expensive, slightly improved mark ii.

    I really am deeply unmoved by Canon’s lack of delivery. Three years is long enough to wait: they should have done more and delivered more for the money.

    • well, canon (and nikon) had some additional problems in their country and thailand that affected their production…
      the mkIII’s biggest improvement is the autofocus and photographers love it.
      you simply have to find out what you need and which camera can do it for you.