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5D Mark III/D800 Hands-On Part 5: Mark II vs. Mark III vs. D800 - Candlelight Revisited

The candlelight test that got an enormous amount feedback has returned. After a bit of a delay between this one and the last one (thanks in part to the craziness that is NAB), I thought it would make sense to really level the playing field between the two cameras since the exposure for the D800 is slightly brighter at equivalent ISOs. I’ve also done a little bit of color correction and noise reduction, and the results are certainly interesting compared to the last video. The test is embedded below, but be sure to go to Vimeo and download it in 1080p for the highest possible quality.

Candlelight Revisited:

The last test confirmed what many had suspected, that the D800 was not going to be a low-light winner. What wasn’t expected was just how bad that camera was going to fare compared with the 3-years-older Mark II. It’s clear that Canon is doing hardware noise reduction based on the noise patterns and the fact that the cameras had their noise reduction settings turned off. They have seriously improved the hardware noise reduction in the Mark III, and for that feature alone, it might be worth a purchase for some people.

But what about the D800 with noise reduction? I think it’s a whole different game. Comparing the cameras at a similar exposure level didn’t really change my opinion, but applying the noise reduction definitely put all the cameras at a more equal playing field. The additional dynamic range of the D800 does not explain the difference in exposure, as the D800 adds a lot of that latitude in the shadows. Canon and Nikon are not rating their cameras exactly the same, and it was mentioned to me at one point that the ISO standard allowed them to be 1/3 of a stop different. For the most part, it seems like the difference is somewhere between 1/3 and 2/3 of a stop. It never actually goes as far as being a full stop different — the closest it gets is at the very lowest ISO settings.

Either way, noise reduction makes the D800 perfectly usable at ISO 2500, and you can see from my tests that ISO 2500 on the Nikon has a similar exposure between ISO 3200 and ISO 4000 on the Canons. I don’t think the D800 is a camera that should have all of its noise reduction done in post. While doing it in post certainly gives you more control, Nikon has actually developed advanced noise reduction techniques that are specific to their own noise pattern. As far as the noise patterns go, the Nikon certainly looks the most like film grain. To me, noise is noise, but when it comes to removing it, a clean pattern with defined noise can actually be easier to remove than a blotchy pattern that already has hardware noise reduction applied.

If you’re going to use the D800 for video, recording out of the HDMI will give you the best chance of getting clean noise. I was using the demo version of Neat Video in my test, but it still proved to be exceptional. I’m not as well versed with the program, so my settings were not perfect, but I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better program out there for noise reduction. I purposely set the reduction and sharpening as high as possible to compare the cameras fairly, but with the D800, too much reduction causes unattractive splotchy noise in the frame — so your own mileage might vary according to how well you know the program and what level of noise you’re willing to accept.

The Mark III still has the cleanest signal, and 6400 is remarkably clean, but if you apply some in-camera noise reduction to the D800, and possibly some in post, the differences are less dramatic up to around 3200. The D800 still won’t be able to compete with the Mark III in low-light, but you should be able to get similar results as the Mark II if you’re careful about what settings you use.

One thing is clear, the signal recorded from the HDMI of the D800 at lower ISOs is one of the cleanest I’ve ever seen on a DSLR. There’s no doubt that these are all capable cameras with various positives and negatives. The D800 won’t be able to shoot in no-light situations without a little noise, but the Mark II and the Mark III have lower resolved detail and color channels that are not nearly as clean.

So why might we still care about these cameras when we’ve got something like the Blackmagic Cinema Camera coming out in a few months? There is an indescribable feeling to the image coming from a full frame sensor. The Blackmagic camera will undoubtedly deliver superb dynamic range and resolution, but it will never be able to capture the magic that you can get from shooting at ISO 6400 under almost no light, at f/1.4. That doesn’t mean it won’t be a viable camera and have its place (really it can’t come soon enough), but these full frame cameras utilize full frame lenses in a very different aesthetic way. There are plenty of cheap full frame lenses to be had, but you’ll only ever see their full potential from these Vista-Vision sized sensors.

There is at least one more test video to come, but if you’re already sick of them, you can certainly watch some shorts instead!


Candlelight Revisited – Vimeo

All Parts of the Mark III/D800 Review

Part 1: 5D Mark III/D800 Hands-On: Initial Impressions (Mark III)
Part 2: 5D Mark III/D800 Hands-On: Initial Impressions (D800)
Part 3: 5D Mark III/D800 Hands-On: ISO Range Test
Part 4: 5D Mark III/D800 Hands-On: Mark II vs. Mark III vs. D800 – Candlelight


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!

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  • Difficult to compare the Mark II and Mark III in because the Mark II on the same ISO level always seems to be more light sensitive than the Mark III. If you compare the amount of brightness with the amount of added noise and leave the ISO value aside, there doesn’t seem to be much of difference, at least when you look at the compressed vimeo-image. Owning a Mark II I haven’t yet seen enough selling points that would justify purchasing the Mark III. Absence of aliasing/moiré is the most outstanding new feature to me, as the rolling shutter is still there (albeit considerably reduced). Lesser compression might also be a factor, although I haven’t yet gotten my hands on un(re-)compressed Mk III footage to do some color correction / grading testing on to find out about that.

    • I’m on the same boat. After a week doing some corporate shots with the MKII and a rented MKII, I can garantee that MKII keeps an exceptional camera compared to MKIII. Yeah, Moiré is a great problem but you can avoid that and I don’t work with almost no light on set. F1.4 on a 50mm is almost impossible to have a perfect hack focus on the actor. I find myself often working on F5.6 to have a good focus point.

      My output is internet and a few times broadcast, but I was expecting more from MKIII. Nikon really did a great job!! It’s a pity that I’ve got a full set of L canon glass.

      Although We know the beauty of the full frame, I’m curious about Blackmagic’s performance… I don’t need an insane little DOF, but uncompressed material with better latitude, light rolloff, skin tones is the way to go in my opinion.

      A D800 with HDMI recording and a BBCC have the potential to be a great combination….

    • I agree. I see no reason to buy an overpriced MKIII. For sharp wide shots I now have a Pana GH2, for definition still better than all of the 3 DSLRs here.

      Thanks for the great comparison.

  • Wow, the Nikon does great with noise reduction…will be picking up neat denoiser.

  • Hey Joe, thanks for redoing this test, and thanks to your model for sitting through that again. I have had several people tell me the low light tests I did were not accurate, so now I can just refer them to your video.

    Dave Dugdale

    • It was actually the same test re-edited, so thankfully she didn’t have to sit through it again!

  • Good job Joe!

  • Oh yeah, I forgot! Thank you! I really dig those comparisons :).

  • am I the only one that thinks the d800 looks pretty nasty at the higher iso values?

  • Nikon looks so much better before color correction ! Is that color shift the result of the denoising process ? I think Nikon is better just because it can reproduce colors better. I recently shot a short feature with a D800E and I like it !

    • The camer default settings for D800 is more nuetral while the 5DIII is more contrasty. That is not a problem. Simply change the setting or picture style and they can all look the same.
      However for video the D800E is not recommended because of severe aliasing. Read Philip Bloom’s blog.

    • I just watched your video but it is very soft. I know youtube compresses video but I can still tell it is soft and mushy. I want to see how it looks like from HDMI out and after grading.

      • yes, youtube compression is really shitty. What I uploaded was flat and no sharpness applied straight from the camera. No grading yet, the film is being edited right now. I read what Philip Bloom wrote about D800E and I had the same fear that I might experience lots of artifacts with this camera, but no! I was really impressed to see that there was only one small moire problem where I wouldn t have expected it. (It is in the bathroom scene ) Otherwise the camera really reproduces colors so well. You can see that in this comparison, too. Canon looks so magenta on the faces. I usually make movies with people s faces not with walls, stones, sea waves and other flowers, so I care about actor s skin tones. I even made a test with Red Epic and Alexa and Nikon is pretty close. (in terms of colors)

  • Thank you for this comparison. The difference in brightness levels between these two cameras has stuck out to me since day one. Can you explain a little more about the noise reduction process you applied to the D800 footage? Was it simply turning on NR in the camera settings and just using Neat Video for color correction, or doing NR at both levels? I ask because the former would obviously be an easier workflow.

    • No noise reduction was done in-camera to keep the results as fair as possible. Neat Video was the only noise reduction applied, and only for the clips that were color-corrected. I was suggesting that turning on the noise reduction in-camera for the D800 should give better results since Nikon has developed an advanced noise reduction removal algorithm for their stills, and the byproduct of that is it actually helps the noise in video mode considerably. Since the D800 is already sharper than the Mark II or Mark III, turning noise reduction all the way up in the camera shouldn’t affect the overall sharpness very much, but will considerably reduce the noise right out of the gate.

  • The D800 suffers from aliasing and moire which is not what filmmakers want. You can buy filters that reduces but not completely remove AA but at the expense of sharpness. The 5DIII has virtually no aliasing but is softer, however it sharpens up very well in post much better than the D800 because of better sampling. The D800 like the old 5DII uses line skipping. Another advantage the 5DIII has is third party profiles like Cinestyle, etc, that add more DR.

  • Actually for shooting video on the 5DIII you should set the Picturestyle to Neutral which allows more DR latitude than their Standard default setting (which is closer to D800 default) and use ISO 160, 320, 640 and so on in those steps, this represent less noise than Canon’s native ISO. Also turn OFF HTP because that is ON by default and crushes shadow details.

    • Those ISOs might be cleaner, but they come at a loss of dynamic range, since they achieve those ISOs by clamping down on the gain. I would probably use whatever ISO you want up to about 1000, as the camera is remarkably clean, especially if you put Noise Reduction on low in the camera. Up to 1600, there’s almost no noise. On a camera like the Mark II or the 7D/T2i/60D, it might be a different story, but on the Mark III, it’s so clean that I would rather use the ISO settings with more dynamic range.

      • Yes. Every little DR boost helps. But nikon seems to have a good advantage on DR over MKIII. Sharpness is also better with more AA as a downside…

        I really waiting just for the BMCC to see what happens then… If something goes wrong with that cam regarding DR and sharpness then I’m considering the D800… But it hurts to think that I’ve got to buy so many lenses again…
        Andrew Reid from EOSHD is reporting great results on the MKIII without the OLP Filter. That mod could put MKIII on par against D800 on sharpness. But after that you need a good filter on the lens…

        • I’d love to see those results, but honestly, how many people are going to void their warranty by either paying someone to remove the front OLPF or by doing it themselves? If I just bought a $3,500 camera body, the last thing I’m going to want to do is have it torn apart. While I’m no stranger to opening up electronics, it’s pretty simple to royally mess up your camera by doing that modification – and if something goes wrong, it becomes a very expensive fix. On the other hand, it’s not much different than doing an infrared modification to the camera, which are done all the time on plenty of different bodies with good results.

          The clean HDMI is a big deal, and it’s nice finally being able to record to a professional codec. Like I said before, at lower ISOs, with the D800 lit properly, it has one of the cleanest images of any DSLR I’ve ever seen – and if you’re recording to something like ProRes, it’s hands down the cleanest.

      • mikko löppönen on 05.22.12 @ 2:58AM

        Not really so. The ISO push to is done in RAW before the compression to 8-bit h264. Using the 160, 320 values is better and you do not lose any real dynamic range. It just pushes the shadows down a bit but because the camera takes more dr than it records in videomode, it still gives more highlight latitude.

  • only me dont like how nikon d800 reproduce yellow colors?
    It’s so unnatural
    Light from the candle should be yellow/orange than yellow/green.

  • Some say that the dynamic range of the markIII can be equal to the d800 if you use technicolor. but using something like the tassinflat on the d800 would give even more DR than the markIII with whatever picture profile right?

  • Thank you for posting a great comparison. I’m totally new to video cameras and am deciding between the nikon and canon. Can some one explain to me why I can see the light in the background of the nikon videos, but it showed up dark on the canon? Thanks.

    • It’s because the D800 has more dynamic range or latitude. This is not limited to the video mode, the Nikon also has more dynamic range in stills mode. Basically the D800 is able to see detail in more exposure levels above and below the correct exposure.

      • Thanks Joe. Is there a way to tone down the dynamic range? To my in trained eyes it seems that one camera sees too much and the other sees too little. To your eyes as the producer, can you see the back like in the Nikon, or is it dark like in the canon?

        • You want the camera to see as much as possible, you can always color correct and darken backgrounds in post if you’d like to do so.

          • Regarding the Nikon’s latitude ‘advantage’ (with that kind of noise it’s hard to see the advantage) it would have been interesting though to have a test with at least the Technicolor Cinestyle employed in addition to the standard values on the Canons (does it also work on the mkIII?), because it works somehow as a semi-official upgrade in contrast to the Magic Lantern *hacks*. With cinestyle installed the latitude of the Mk II noticably became better … probably next time when they make it work in the MK III (If it doesn’t already work on it :) ).


  • I meant my untrained eye

  • I applaud you because who went back and did some comparison between the two in low light. The biggest gripe was that the Iso setting between the cameras are completely different. At same ISO the Nikon is clearly at least 2/3 stop brighter (In the latest test I would say 1 stop) than the Canon 5d. So you have to compare Nikon ISO 1600 to Canon 2500 to 3200. The second thing is dynamic range, you can clearly see much more in the shadows than the Canon which crushes the shadows and thus hides more of the noise.

    The last thing is detail. The D800 has much better resolution than the 5d3 which look out of focus when you put it side by side. So if you trade off a little of this rez with noise reduction like you did in the last part with neat image you get much closer to the 5d3. Some would say that the ISO 5000 d800 test at 200% is still brighter (I think he should have use a 3200 to 4000 ISO sample) and more resolute that the 5d3 at 6400 (In the 200% test).

    So in the end they are much closer than what you would think because many so called test just assume things like the ISO rating are the same from each manufacturer while they are so far from it. So now the d800 is getting the reputation that it is not a great low light camera because Canon has overestimated its ISO by nearly a good stop and use much more aggressive in camera NR.

    Unfortunately we don’t have a system like DXOmark in the video world. But at least your test is much more precise than so called test by some bloggers.

    • I agree. What is disappointing is that some are reading this article, watching the video, and ignoring the conclusion that “if you apply some in-camera noise reduction to the D800, and possibly some in post, the differences are less dramatic up to around 3200″. At the end of the video I thought the D800 looked very good at ISO 5000 with the added NR and was hard pressed to find any real differences, I wished I could compare them side by side.

      People will see what they want to see and low noise is clearly the most important factor in low light video. I don’t think it’s particularly fair that you cannot turn off the NR in the MKIII as I think the raw output would look similar to the D800.

      I still think if you turn on NR on the D800 in-camera you will get similar results.

      I don’t doubt Nikon needs more experience in video and their lack gives the MKIII a slight advantage in noise reduction and a bigger advantage in aliasing and moire.

      Based on all these video reviews here are the lessons for Nikon:
      1) Lower your ISO ratings, it’s better to appear underexposed and crush blacks so there is no noise. Darker looks cleaner and as everyone has concluded: cleaner is better.
      2) Reduce your dynamic range. Similar to above no one wants all that extra detail, it just shows noise (cleaner is better).
      3) Apply heavy handed noise reduction on the chip and don’t let anyone turn it off. It’s better to have no visible noise than visible detail. All together now: “Cleaner is better!”

      Nikon’s hardware is perfectly capable of providing what people want, but Nikon obviously didn’t get the memo.

  • @Shawn,

    That is a great response. I really can’t fathom the undying fanboyism for the Mark III.

  • Joe thanks for all of the hard work, Koo needs to give you a raise.

    The color profiles, IE. Tassenflat etc. will surely arrive for Canon (Technicolor) and Nikon’s new crop of video enabled DSLR’s.

    We shot with a pair pf D7000′s, a MK2 and a T2i, with various static positions, and zooms, with a 400mm on the T2i, poor stage lighting (overblown by the house folks, no lighting honcho).

    The files backed into PP are in Cineform, and the differences between the NIkons and the Canons follow on with your evaluations, more DR on the 7K’s, and some prone noise as indicated.

    Used f/5.6 at ISO 800 (Canon shooters choice) and f/5.6 for on stage roaming, and f/8 at ISO 800 tripod in audience (my choice for D7K’s) with starkly different capture levels between the two brands.

    My opinion after that shoot is that more MP’s equate to tighter or more dense video takes which is why I will pick up the D800 next week (Finally…).

    Thanks again for the diligence.


  • It´s clear. I´m into a Canonist site. Whenever I have compared Canon and Nikon cameras I´ve always noticed that Canon process harder the images inside the camera than Nikon does. Those neat and clear pictures from Canon are a little false in my opinion. I’ve learnt to manipulatevery little my pictures the less the better. Otherwise you’ll lose a lot of shades or nuances.

  • Much appreciated review and many thanks! I also agree with the aesthetic value of a Vista vision sensor, but it doesn’t work for practical cinema. Blown up to a theatrical screen, even the slightest misses look huge and it is very hard to work with that shallow a DOF, where the nose is in focus but not the eyes, sometimes! It is overkill, without a doubt in my mind. It is great for easy set ups, where the focus pulling is not too challenging, but throw this in at the deep end of the pool, with heavily choreographed scenes and it becomes very complicated to handle and compromises will have to be made to accommodate for stuff dropping out of focus. All the fantastic abilities, in low light etc., are just great, though!

    • Daniel Mimura on 05.27.12 @ 1:41PM

      Agreed about full frame. I don’t like even having it as an option…cuz then you wind up in situations where you say, “I know we need to shoot at 4 or 5.6…but it’s overcast and the sun’s dropping…well, okay, i know it’s not ideal…but we’ll just open up a little…”. … And the director or producer or whoever just wants to keep going so you can finish the scene, wrap the location or whatever…and then you get back this out of focus blurry crap that was in no way the AC’s fault.

      I like the 7D or Nikon’s DX format for motion picture work better. Yesterday my AC was feeling like she was doing a bad job cuz she was having a hard time keeping it sharp…I was telling her she was actually doing an amazing job…we were shooting steadicam without cine-tape doing semi-ad-libbed stuff with the actor running free, the depth of field was like 9″! If we were shooting this with a full frame sensor, they would want the same coverage, the same lighting, and not really realize that it’s NOT the same thing.

      When people talk about a VistaVision sized image plane, they’re correct as far as technical stats…but VistaVision was in an era when lenses were slower, so they were shooting 4 or 5.6 or so…and that was wide open. Also, as a premium format…only big budget stuff was using it…I know it’s happened with a couple films, but I don’t really see anyone shooting 5D’s with arrisuns and big lighting packages… Most people that are looking to buy $3500 worth of film gear would be much better buying a cheaper 7D or other APS-C/DX sized camera…and buying some LIGHTS with the rest of the money.

  • Wow, Joe. Thank you so much. That was really illustrative. Until now I haven´t any doubt about it, the 5D Mark III was the absolute winner of this challenge, but this changes all. That extra mbps, extra color space on the D800 with the clean hdmi output really, really works incredible. I downloaded the file and I was looking at and I am really amazed, the noise reduction it´s very clean (I certainly do not expect that since the noise in the tests was worse than terrible), the image is very crisp, the color rendition is really good and the latitude is terrific. Even at the higher ISOs, when canon shows less noise than nikon, nikon`s images seems to be better quality, more robust images, that`s very obvious on the skin tone. Better latitude, better color rendition, more robust files for post and also more noise but just in the insane range of the ISO`s.
    To me, until now, if you are willing to use an external recorder, the D800 beats the 5D III by far, and I´m a canon user by the way. The only thing that could change that to me is aliasing!!!!
    I just die to see how bad is the aliasing and moire on the Nikon?!!! I guess is awful, 36mp is too much. Also some camera movement will be very helpful, to know about rolling shutter. Handheld camera movements could be very, very helpful too, to talk about the camera in a real environment.

    Joe, please try to use a mosaic engineering filter to test aliasing on the D800. I wonder how do the D800 manage the contrast with the filter. Does the resolution decrease with the filter? It should, how much? That`s one of the strong points agains the Mark III. How about the softness on the corners with wide lenses?

    Excellent work guys, very straightforward (how it should always be in this cases), good editing. Thanks so much
    (Excuse my english, I`m from Chile, not a native speaker)

    • Would love to test the D800 with the filter but I only had the cameras for a short time and the filter wasn’t even being designed at that point back when I did this test. As far as moire, it’s not worse than the 5D Mark II, at least at 1080p. It’s really not too much of an issue, I’ve barely noticed it in the footage I have shot. But regarding the image, at the lower ISOs, it’s the cleanest image I’ve ever worked with on a DSLR when you’re using the HDMI out with a recorder. It’s really phenomenal – you’re just not going to be able to use the camera under moonlight, that’s all.

  • I have measured the results in Photoshop in Lab color (the is a separate channel for the light) and there is a firm ONE STOP difference in Nikon and Canon almost all the way up. You can measure this yourself by putting the point samples. Even when they are equally bright Nikon looks brighter because it does not crush the shadows. It means that Nikon has better dynamic range. There is no surprise because we already have tests.

    D800 is amazingly sharp. If you do commercial video shooting you should always use a lighting equipment. I would put the light with filters from the candle side and there will be no ISO issue at all. Moreover, candle light would be less burned out.

    Thank you for the test! I would say that it is one of the best tests I’ve seen yet. However, you have underestimated the stop difference that could be easily measured.