Description image

5D Mark III/D800 Hands-On Part 3: ISO Range Test

During pre-production for the narrative film that I am shooting as a companion piece to the 5D Mark III and D800 test, which is now on part 3, we decided to see the entire ISO range of both cameras and see how well they handled under and overexposure. I wanted to see how the internal codecs would stand up to this extreme test, so both cameras were set to the variable bitrate 28mbps codecs in the camera. The lenses were kept the same  – the best of the best from both Canon and Nikon, the 70-200mm f/2.8, with the Canon being the newer version of that lens.

Here is the ISO Range Test Video – be sure to download in 1080p for better quality. On a side note, Vimeo’s upload speed is obnoxiously slow, so that’s why this was posted so much earlier than this article.

Below are the complete settings used for the test:

  • Nikon and Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses
  • Factory Default for both Cameras
  • High-ISO Noise Reduction Off
  • Highlight Tone Protection and Dynamic Lighting Off
  • Neutral Picture Profile
  • Canon IPB and Standard Nikon Compression
  • Noise Reduction Off
  • WB: Cloudy
  • Shutter 50 F/2.8

Since Nikon’s liveview mode is a much bigger crop than Canon’s, it’s a little more difficult matching frames. The two lenses are exactly the same in terms of f-stop, so there shouldn’t be much difference (if at all) in light transmission at similar zoom settings.

I wouldn’t worry too much about the color differences, this is just concerned with ISO (though as usual Canon is a bit more saturated in their default settings than Nikon). One major thing that you notice immediately is that the D800 is significantly brighter at equivalent ISOs than the 5D Mark III. This actually seems to be less apparent the higher the ISO, but for everything under about 6400, the D800 is about 1/2 to 1/3 of a stop brighter at the same ISO. I’ll know soon enough exactly which camera is underestimating or overestimating ISO. But in the meantime it makes it somewhat difficult to compare them equally, which is why I tried to give some equivalencies at the end of the video. Regardless of those differences, it’s pretty clear that the 5D Mark III is cleaner. This isn’t quite a definitive High-ISO test, it is more to test the range of under, and overexposure and what that does to the noise and the codec under natural lighting. The D800 also doesn’t tell you ISO settings, instead it gives you Hi 0.3, 0.7, 1.0, and 2.0. When still images of these ISOs are brought into a program that can read metadata, the exact ISOs are 8,063 (0.3), 10,159 (0.7), 12,800 (1.0), and 25,600 (2.0).

By not changing the f-stop or shutter, you get a better sense of how the sensor and compression deals with noise. All sensors have a base ISO and they interpolate and boost gain to get to other ISO numbers. As you can see both cameras are noisier in the shadows at low ISOs when severely underexposed. A lot of this is the codec, but some of it is just noise from the sensor. Both of these cameras perform much better at standard compression when you attempt to expose as brightly as possible without clipping. The way they handle noise, they are both fairly clean at extreme ISOs when the main subject (in this case a wall), is 3-4 stops above middle grey (if your paper white is Zone X) – just before clipping.

People these days talk about filmic noise or grain, but obviously no such thing exists. It’s not the same thing, and it performs much differently than actual silver halides. The one thing they do share in common is that the bigger the grain or noise particles, the more noticeable and obnoxious they are, but I’ll leave final judgement on that until I upload the ProRes Nikon footage and the ALL-I Canon footage. Even though the Nikon has a bit more noise (1-2 stops at the same ISOs – which I stated previously and then corrected – silly me), the pattern isn’t affected as greatly by the compression. I like the way that Nikon handles the H.264 compression in the shadows at lower ISOs, but when we get to around 8,000 or 10,000 ISO the compression is much less dramatic, and the noise becomes more apparent – and that’s when the Mark III really shines.

I also did a quick resolution sample at 200% at two different ISOs for both cameras, to see how accurately they maintain detail as ISOs increase. They both do a good job keeping resolution, and it’s much better to use post-production software to reduce noise rather than in-camera noise reduction. Like I said before, the Nikon is resolving more. Not significantly more, but enough to notice on fine detail like the ceiling. The review will get more exhaustive later on, but for now a few things are definitely clear, the 5D Mark III is cleaner (even when you compare the equivalent brightness ISOs), but the Nikon D800 is sharper.

Link: All Parts

Part 1: 5D Mark III/D800 Hands-On Review: Initial Impressions (Mark III)
Part 2: 5D Mark III/D800 Hands-On Review: Initial Impressions (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 56 COMMENTS

  • the d800 beat the canon up.

    • Jordan Carr on 04.8.12 @ 2:51AM

      seems like it – but both cameras are fantastic at stills

      I think if anything this round of FF DSLRs is showing the world how obvious the weaknesses are – soft video, rolling shutter, limited color space. They are still aimed at stills and many years after the Nikon D90, they are still not evolving into cinema tools like many people want.

      Canon is struggling atm with how their brand looks to indi film makers. The same group that cut their teeth with the Canon 5D MK2 are turning against Canon (pricing of C300, limited improvements with MK3). Even the Canon 1DX hasn’t shipped yet and that camera was announced 7 months ago. Embarrassing. If Canon doesn’t cut prices or wow people at NAB, 2012 and 2013 will be very difficult for them.

  • Great test! Thank you so much for doing this. Does the D800 have built in noise reduction like the D3s does? If so, I’d be very interested in seeing a similar ISO test with that turned on. The Mk III did surprisingly well with controlling the noise at high ISOs.

    All in all, this is very informative. Thanks for your work, and please keep the review sections coming!

  • With sony’s new camera announcements, i think its time we stop looking at dslrs as video cameras and start using real video cameras for any of our video work. Seriously the fs100 is within the price range of these two, why the heck anyone serious on doing videos buy these over a real large sensor, real 1080p, real video camera?

    Im sorry man, i appreciate the effort in the review, but I think the tide is changing fast. Better hurry up while some people are still not aware of the recent changes in the large sensor camera world.

    • Most photographers are being asked to do video as well these days. I agree that large sensor video cameras have and will overtake DSLRs, but we’re not here to exclusively cover one or the other, we just want to provide valuable information about the different tools that are available.

      • It’s interesting how quickly people want pronounce something dead. It’s important to remember that just because one class of camera is improving, it doesn’t render another camera class obsolete. They are all still tools and part of the fun of filmmaking is finding the right tool for application.

      • I just remember a time when all of these video test of dslrs meant so much because we did not have any other choice for fantastic image quality in this price range. But now that we do…i dont feel the same excitement anymore. But just to add to your all tools are covered, why havent therre been any review or tests at all about the1080p 60p of the new Sonys (dslts and nexs). I think they are awesome tools, we use them professionally, I dont get why only nikon and canon get to have the limelight here, never the Sony ones. Still part of the status quo i suppose?

    • I’m sorry that you can’t be bothered to read about cameras lesser than yours to justify having spent the money you did.

      The 5D (and by extension D800) is consistently used in professional-level productions worldwide. People will stop talking about them when people stop filming on them.

      Here’s a great article about the 5D in professional (television) working environment:

      Specifically this quote: “i’m not trying to suggest that there aren’t difference between the MK3 and Alexa (or Epic for that matter) or that the MK3 image couldn’t be sharper but i am saying that everybody loved what they saw and when mixed with these other cameras, the MK3 still got all the attention.”

      • Don Maximus on 05.8.12 @ 3:14PM

        And yet clearly, the D800 is the better camera. Canon got their asses handed to them in this latest release of DSLR’s. The MkIII also has a design flaw in that the LCD interferes with the metering system. I’d say sorry Canon but Nikon won this one. I shoot both systems and love both companies. Not a fanboy, just being real. I would buy a D800 over a MkIII any day. Remember if you’re buying for the name, you’re an idiot and should just shut up.

        • Joe Marine on 05.8.12 @ 3:20PM

          Absolutely, don’t buy for the camera name. But the top LCD design flaw is barely an issue (most people haven’t noticed it, and if they have, they’ve also noticed it on other camera models), and it doesn’t affect video shooting at all. We’ve got a couple posts about it at NoFilmSchool, and Nikon has some design issues of their own related to the viewfinder. No camera system is perfect – buy the one that will work best for you.

  • “The two lenses are exactly the same in terms of f-stop, so there shouldn’t be much difference (if at all) in light transmission at similar zoom settings.”

    But, as you know, since we’re talking about f-stop rather than t-stop, I do expect light transmission to be different. Not by a big margin, though.

  • The fact the you didn’t even use the same lens kind of defeats the purpose of this “test”

    • Joe Marine on 04.5.12 @ 8:54PM

      You should read what I wrote, this was more to see how the compression and noise was handled. Shooting at the same time is the only way to make that work in available light – and I don’t own two of exactly the same lens – these aren’t my lenses – not to mention that there are differences sample to sample. I have a real high ISO test coming using the same exact lens.

      • Nate Balli on 04.6.12 @ 4:20AM

        I appreciate you taking the time to do this test. It takes a lot to keep going when some people just want to throw a wrench where ever they can. Keep up the great work.

      • I did read what you wrote, don’t assume the opposite, and It’s not about trying to “throw a wrench”, you’re justifying your results based on the assumption that for a test focusing on compression and noise you don’t need the same lens for it to be accurate, that would be a mistake. I can sympathise with the lack of gear but no matter how much i like stuff from Koo and nofilmschool, in my opinion this is not accurate enough to get such conclusions from. Here’s my advice, if you’re going to have two identical lens then redo this test if you can, or have the patience for it, and you’ll see how results differ for better or worse.

        • “in my opinion this is not accurate enough to get such conclusions from.”

          This test is at least something to go on, which is better than nothing. He was very clear on all the settings and gear used which is what a good test should be. My advice to you is to take what you can get and use the information provided coupled with your best judgement and make a call, or go use your money and send him two identical lenses!

          • Figures, a guy can’t give constructive criticism that happens to be negative this one time that every fanboy jumps on the opportunity to complain with the standart foolish argument: “do better”. You people are pathetic.
            End of Discussion.

      • As far as the differences in lenses, couldn’t you just get a cheapo Nikon to Canon adapter and use the same lens on both cameras? I got one for $10 on ebay.

    • What’s the problem, that the 5D III image is softer? It has nothing at all to do with the lens, as the Canon 70-200 2.8 IS L II may be the best, sharpest 70-200 2.8 ever made. In all the MFT tests on line, it out resolves the equivalent Nikon version II and I.

      Dan Chung did a D800 vs 5D III comparison using the same 80-200 Nikkor. The results were the same, with the D800 showing significantly more resolution.

  • What puzzles me is moire,aliasing,false color problems of D800. Based on what I’ve seen from other samples, it’s very evident just like what I’d expect from all the other cameras that do line-skipping.

    In your test setting, I expected to see some aliasing problems due to several thin lines on the fixture. However, it is not there. Maybe it’s slightly out of focus and that’s why. Maybe D800 behaves differently and the said problem is not so evident compared to other line-skipping cameras.

    This is something that matters since slight softness can be corrected easily in post as long as moire,aliasing,false color problems are not there.
    Simply put, D800′s sharpness don’t mean much if it comes with moire,aliasing,false color problems.

    • Joe Marine on 04.5.12 @ 8:59PM

      I’ll get more in depth with that in an upcoming test, but it’s definitely there in the D800.

    • Don’t know why people are obsessed with moire and aliasing. It’s insane. Of course it can get bothersome but most cameras have moire and aliasing problems. I see it in TV, I see it in film. Unless you’re a technical film guy, most people don’t care or don’t seem to notice it. It’s such a minor deviance and people cry about it.
      Even high ISO stuff is mostly irrelevant. I honestly never shoot above 1600 ISO. I’d rather work on the lighting side to keep my ISO down. Using your sensor to pump up gain electronically is not something I like.
      What I’m more interested in is dynamic range and resolution. Full frame sensors can bring the range up a notch from the crop sensors or the micro 4/3 sensors. How it handles shadows and bright lights and how colors roll off and create better gradients are my interest.
      I’d like to counter what you’ve said and say that the D800 sharpness does matter. I’d rather get a sharper image all the time and have some moire or aliasing problems occasionally pop up than get a muddy picture all the time.

    • Don Maximus on 05.8.12 @ 3:21PM

      I see none of that. In fact, what I see is the D800 out performing the MkIII in almost every way and without the design problem the MkIII has with metering that canon can’t fix. The bottom line, fanboy, is that Canon lost this round. Remember, if you’re buying for the name, you’re an idiot. The D800 is almost twice the camera than the MkIII and the video looked better. Don’t worry Canon will try to beat it out in the next couple of years and we’ll have more, as the pros and consumers to be had out of the competition. I shoot both systems and I think Nikon kicked Canon’s ass in the little battle. Better luck next time.

  • Good test. Could’a used a trapeze artist I think, but at least it was informative. Is the narrative piece what’s coming next or another test? Looking forward to whatever it may be.

    • Joe Marine on 04.5.12 @ 9:18PM

      I agree. Someday you’ll have to make one of these crazy camera tests so we can post it here. The narrative piece hasn’t been shot yet, so there will be more tests posted before that comes out.


  • Dan Chung came up with similar results.

  • Jordan Carr on 04.6.12 @ 1:56AM

    Well done. I think the Nikon beat up the Canon. The grain is there, but the D800 + Neat Video will produce a more detailed / quality result vs the Canon MK3softy. Remove the MK3softies AA filter and I think we would have a dead heat.

    Thanks again for the test.

    • Real Photographer/Videographer on 04.6.12 @ 5:33AM

      Nikon beat up Canon pfft…I own the 5D Mark III watch and wait the dxomark test results . 5DIII will pip the D800 in ISO. As for video spend some time in premier pro and then we will talk.

      • Jordan Carr on 04.6.12 @ 3:15PM

        12:50 sec into video

        You are dreaming. At high ISO the Canon smears away details and it looks cheap. No point in “less noise” if there is no detail.

        That video proves it as do hundreds of other people doing reviews.

        MK3softy is a great camera but don’t fanyboy over its limitations. (heck if anything Praise its AF because it is VERY good).


        • Real Photographer/Videographer on 04.7.12 @ 8:42AM

 By Philip Bloom
          A. DigitalRevTV slap together comical testing/reviews. Pffft when they always shoot on auto..
          B. 70-200mm f2.8 Original shoots soft.
          C. I’m a Camera fan.
          D. Watch and learn kiddo ;-)

          • Jordan Carr on 04.7.12 @ 1:04PM

            Uh. You just posted a link to waxy soft video. Thanks for proving my point. Unless the AA filter is removed, the MK3softy is useless (unless 720p is your final distribution method).

    • Real Photographer/Videographer on 04.18.12 @ 12:28AM

      Best Video DSLR in 2012 – According to the TIPA jury, the EOS 5D Mark III further improves on the experience offered by the 5D Mark II, a camera that “changed the landscape of digital photography.” Delivering both high-quality still images and video in a single camera, the 5D Mark III was praised for its newly designed 61-point AF system and “incredibly high ISO sensitivity,” as well as such movie functions as manual exposure control.

  • Can we see tests using external recorder for NIkon please.

  • I have created a Nikon version of my Flaat suite of picture styles:

    so far it’s only a beta-2 version, but I would suggest that maybe using Flaat on both the 5D3 and the D800 would make the image easier to compare :)

    as with the Canon version, the aim when creating this was:
    * Low noise in the final images, achieved by efficiently using the codec’s color space
    * Easy to grade, achieved by generating a smooth, log-like response to light
    * Leading to nicer skin tones, achieved by using Portrait as base picture control
    * Only on Flaat_11/12/13, more recorded DR (less part of the sensor’s DR being clipped in the shadows; this comes at cost of noise)

    • Samuel, came across your posts on DVX, does the Flaat picure style out of camera give a well.. a flat look about it? These styles would be purely for grading the image?

      • Flaat is installed in the camera. It applies a curve to the image before it is encoded to the 8-bit 420 H.264 file. This curve is designed to give a near-log light response (they are inspired by the F3′s S-Log curve, but obviously can’t do miracles: this is still going to be recorded on an 8-bit color space). It is different on each Flaat variant (Flaat_12 is wider than Flaat_10, but cramming two more steps of DR into the same color space is not a good thing, do it only when you actually need those two steps of DR).

        You can see some test footage here:

  • One conclusion from this test and many others is that the Nikon is much more brighter than the Canon. From the first example in the photo test at imaging resource (They had to compensate the two exposure with 2/3 stop more time for same middle gray between the Canon and Nikon) to this one. I think we can clearly see that these cameras cannot be compared at same ISO. So ISO 1600 on the Nikon would need about ISO 2400 on the canon to have same exposure. I think it is something very very important, because we can can’t just rely on the manufacturer to give the true value.


    I’ve been waiting for NFS’s denizens to get to this point. The noise in the D800 at high ISO’s is a bit more noticeable in the deep shadow areas, but mitigated way below previous N versions, The MK3 seems a close second according to this so far, with at least a stop or two being spotted by Nikon, which can only be good for we, the freelancers.

    My D800, is waiting and I’ve yet to pull the trigger simply because nothing as elemental as this Koo flavored comparative has been out there.

    Mind’s close to being made up now, after I look at the next chapter so THANKS!


  • Geoff Longford on 04.13.12 @ 12:10AM

    All I hear is people moaning about what is better etc.Talk about splitting hairs.Just get out and shoot and stop wanking on about the tiny differences.If you have nothing to compare your work to,whats the point.

  • paolo forti on 04.13.12 @ 9:00AM

    i see a lot of noise in the D800 instead of MarkIII and at the highligts all the two cameras maintain details.

    • Don Maximus on 05.8.12 @ 3:24PM

      I see noise on the MkII as well, it’s just too dark to see it until later. :) This isn’t really a fair comparison because Nikon is much brighter at lower ISO’s ;) I’d say Nikon won this one.

  • Which camera has correct ISO??

    • The Mark III is closer to a real meter reading from my testing. So Nikon is underrating their sensor I think.

      • Hmmm… Underrating their sensor. That sounds clever when ISO has been the big variable to champ for the last years. Canon would come out as a ISO-winner if they overrate their sensor, much better and probably motive I think. If it’s so that Nikon is underrating their sensor – I say kudos, it’s almost as they put on the brakes to let Canon catch up :)

      • Don Maximus on 05.8.12 @ 3:28PM

        It matches almost perfectly with my metering. I’d say Canon lost this little battle. Perhaps the MkIV will beat the D900 eh? The D800 beats the MkIII in almost everyway. In fact, the MkIII has an unfixable design flaw with it’s metering. The light from it’s LCD in low light causes metering issues. Canon even put out a press release. No firmware fix for that. D800 is the superior camera in almost everyway. I know that sucks for the Canon fanboys out there.

        • Joe Marine on 05.8.12 @ 3:34PM

          I responded above, but you should really look at the articles we posted here, as the issue does not affect video, and hardly affects any other circumstances. The top LCD, not the main LCD screen, is the problem, and it’s only when it is illuminated. That top LCD light does not stay on for very long, so again the issue is hardly an issue. Nikon also has hardware problems of their own related to the viewfinder.

  • Hi,

    I personally don’t see a lot of differences between these two cameras once the output level is visually equal. I don’t get the whole “Winner” and “Loser” thing. The MK III has _slightly_ less noise and the D800 has _slightly_ more detail.

    Can you please try to add something to this test though? Can you please add extra noise reduction to the D800 and see if you can equalize the noise and detail levels? My hypothesis is that you can set the Nikon to match the MK III to the point that no one would be able to tell the difference unless you told them.

    This is currently the BEST ISO Video Comparison out there of these two cameras. Great work!

    • Yes another test is coming soon, with noise reduction and color correction. I may consider having people guess which is which, but I’m not sure yet.

  • Hi
    As a total video noob my real question is this:
    To my eye super high ISO is practically unusable on either camera (the noise is very distracting and cheap looking imo, and seems unlikely to be fully correctable in post)….so is it possible (especially shooting in a studio or controlled lighting environment) to simply stick to the rule of using only low ISOs and compensating with lighting while shooting?
    It just seems like no matter what you do anything shot with high/super high ISO on this type of camera is going to looks bad otherwise, no matter what the brand.
    i think this could also apply to a lesser extent (since the problems are much less) when shooting stills.
    thanks for the input.

    • Yes, you don’t have to use super high ISOs. For the most part, the cameras perform pretty well, but the Mark III is actually very clean at 6400 compared to any other camera I’ve ever seen. Lighting will always be your friend but some people need the ISO performance for the work they do.