Which is the one to buy – D3X or 5D Mark II? – Peter Gregg

Which camera is really the better camera – the Nikon D3X, or the Canon 5D Mark II?

And to add to the confusion we also have the Sony A900 on the scene. How can you really know which camera to buy? Is it going to be basically dictated by price or by popular opinion based on what everybody else is saying on the Internet? Is there really a way for you to determine for yourself which camera is the camera that will please you?

The really big and exciting part of these new cameras is the number of megapixels in their sensors. These high megapixel sensors deliver resolution that we haven’t seen before. What does this resolution actually do for you? The secret and the answer is hidden away in the prints.

If we take a picture taken at ISO 3200 and blow it up and printed to 16 x 20″ in size, we will begin to see the power of these high megapixel cameras. If you take the same picture at ISO 6400, and then print that file at a large 16 x 20 in size, you may well start to see the print deteriorate in certain areas. Once it passes the point where it is no longer acceptable to you, it has reached the point of failure. The point of failure is a great way to start to determine which camera will work for you and which camera will not work for you.

Landscape photography, wedding photography, photojournalism, fashion photography and plain old “hobby” photography are all different in their needs, requirements and end results. However, it seems to me that lately the landscape photographers are the ones at the microphone giving us the world as they see it. I am not against landscape photography, in fact I love doing landscape photography and most people take at least a few landscape of pictures of flowers here and there at a very minimum – even if they are a photographer in another category! However it must be remembered the requirements for landscape photography are very different than being in the heat of the moment in a high pressure position of photographing someone’s wedding. The requirements now will have suddenly changed and may include how fast a camera can focus, how accurate a camera can focus, the noise levels in high ISO pictures, how quickly a buffer can be emptied out.

In landscape photography, how fast the camera can focus or how accurate a camera can focus does not really enter into the picture. How well a blade of grass or leaves on the tree are represented in the file is much more significant, as is the color reproduction and the sharpness of the image when comparing the center area to the edges. Each type of photography has its own set of rules.

Yet somehow it seems that one style of photography is dictating to the entire world in this latest round of reviews and opinions flourishing in the world of the internet. This should not be so. As you look to determine which camera is for you, you need to examine which point of view is being presented in a person’s opinion. In the unbelievable amount of tests that have been done on these cameras in the recent weeks it has clearly been shown that all three cameras – the Nikon D3X, the Canon 5D Mark II, and the Sony A900, all excellent cameras in terms of picture quality.

At lower ISO levels it is up to the purchaser to determine which camera delivers the best file for him/her, and the same thing goes for those that are using high ISOs. I personally live at ISO 1600 and higher. Yet I often see on the Internet where a photographer will say “this camera is good as high as ISO 800 but I wouldn’t go any higher than that”. To a landscape photographer that may seem very real, to a wedding photographer that is ridiculous. The truth is for me in real life, I have printed out images from all three cameras at 16 x 20 in size at ISO 1600, ISO 3200, and ISO 6400. I have also included the Canon 1Ds Mark III cameras in these tests. Believe it or not, all of the cameras including the Canon I just mentioned would be excellent cameras to own. If I was forced to rate them I would put the Nikon D3X at the top and the Sony at the bottom, but Sony’s bottom slot would still be higher than most any other camera on the market today – so it is not a terrible thing to be in that position. For landscape photography ALL of the cameras would do well, but in the tests and reviews that I have been reading the Nikon D3X and the Sony a 900 seems to get the nod for landscape photography. Remember though, that type of photography is usually using lower ISO levels and is in a slow or static environment. Chasing a kid around the room dramatically changes what camera you wished you had in your hands.

So once you determine which camera will give you the files that you will be happy with, the next thing you need to do is which camera will actually get you the pictures in hand that you want to bring home when the day is over. Landscape type photography, where the camera sitting on a tripod and you have 30 minutes to hours to shoot a picture will not give you real world results as to what you will need when you’re shooting people moving in rapid ways or the action that happens at a wedding or party. If you’re planning on taking baby pictures, high school portraits, wedding photography, live events, your need to be able to capture the moment quickly and accurately – over and over. The point is to capture an expression, to record something that cannot be repeated into a digital file leads you to view performance of the camera in a new light.

To give you an example, the Nikon D3X camera is often blasted for it’s price, yet it is the only camera giving you the biggest buffer rate, the biggest file size, the most accurate focusing, the most control in restricting your shutter speeds at the high-end and low-end, gives you one of those new beautiful accurate LCD screens, dual card slots, good flash compatibility, great high ISO results, a high number of precision focus points for low light work all in one camera! Bet you can’t say that fast ten times – <smile>

Letting others cloud or color your thoughts on determining which camera is a good fit for you and the price you should spend is a bad way to arrive at your idea camera body. There are 3 or 4 top cameras and they each have their strong points.

Here is a run down on the latest round of cameras and what strengths and even some weaknesses of each:

Nikon D3X
Okay, this one is the king of the hill. The big boy. The top of the heap. It has everything available of all the other cameras all combined in one place. Unless you actually owned a camera manufacturing company and were able to make your own camera, buying a camera off the shelf with everything in one body would lead you to this camera. The gravy on top of all of those features would be that it also performs excellent at high ISOs. It also happens to be built very well. There is very little negative that can be said about this camera. The pricing seems to have raised an uproar though. The Internet seems to have determined that Nikon’s high-end cameras should be around $5000. They were obviously very wrong. The ridiculous notion the only difference between the Nikon D3 and the Nikon D3X is the sensor is a bit small or short sighted. It’s the best DSLR camera one can buy, the newest, and the most advanced and it is treading on Medium Format territory with DSLR agility and lenses. It’s the only game in town if you want it all in one camera body. Another will come along, but for the moment, there is no “other”. Granted, you may not need the best and therefore not willing to pay for the best, but reviewers and writers basically saying this is the wrong price for the camera is very narrow minded and looking at things from their own point of view. This camera will slide down in price as time goes on. It may not slide as much as some people think though. If Nikon releases a D700X model it will actually be the camera that most of us have really been looking for. And this bad boy will still be sitting there at the top of the heap as the best you can buy – at least for the moment. The shortcomings of this camera are small, but still irritating. The biggest problem I find with this camera is the 3 center columns of high precision focus points all nestled and huddled together smack in the center of the viewfinder. I don’t think they should change that, but add more out to the sides – like their buddies at Canon have done! That is the camera’s greatest weakness. Nikon needs to discover the rule of two-thirds and put a few focus points out there.

Canon 5D Mark II
The  biggest value of this camera is the quality of file it puts out in conjunction with the price points it arrived at and the Canon lens family that stands behind it. No, I am not a Canon fan boy, but when you compare the file you pay $8000 for, and the file you pay $2700 for – you just have to stop and say wow. Great job Canon! On the other hand, there are so many features missing compared to the Nikon D3X big boy that it almost is funny. Photographers have a long history of making do and in making a way when there is no way, so even though all the features are not in this camera the big question becomes can I really make do? The answer is a definite yes. I own this camera myself personally. But all is not hugs and smiles in Canonland because comparing it with the Nikon D3X, there are so many features missing that I have to wonder as to why on some of them. Comparing it to the Olympus or the Pentax results in the same why? Comparing it to the Nikon D300 results in the same why? What’s up Canon, it makes you look a teeny weenie bit stingy. Oh well, it still has that super sensor, and a movie mode to boot. But if you can focus using the center point only, and can find a workaround for those features that are not there, then this is your baby. So what are the negatives on the 5D Mark II? Without going into a major attack on what should have been and what really happened, a few features that are an exercise in frustration on this camera comes to mind. One of the biggest is not having Auto ISO be Auto ISO when the camera is in manual mode. If you want to set the F stop and the shutter speed and you want the camera to take the helm at the ISO wheel and run it up and down for you – buy a Nikon – lol. Auto ISO in M mode becomes ISO 400 – no soup for you! And if you are in Tv or S mode and you turn the flash on – the ISO becomes locked again at – you guessed it – ISO 400. This camera so badly wants to be $400 – lol – it gives us every hint in the book. Really though, the Auto ISO out to really be Auto ISO. If you don’t want Auto ISO then set it yourself. The next thing a little annoying is not being able to set the camera in Av mode and restrict how slow the shutter is allowed to go. if you are taking a picture of your kid in your family room in low light, you may just very well may get a surprise shutter speed of 1/13 or 1/2 second. Why not be able to restrict it and let the auto ISO run up instead so you can get a little faster shutter speed. You can with the Nikon’s – hello. All in all though, it’s still a nice camera and will deliver prints that will knock your socks off, you just have to have a really good handle on stuff the camera is perfectly capable of doing for you, but doesn’t.

Sony A900
It’s not a pro camera. It doesn’t say it’s a pro camera. it doesn’t pretend to be a pro camera. But it’s a GREAT consumer camera that happens to have a wild 24.5 megapixel sensor in it. At lower ISO levels it gives arguably some of the best files out there. I’ve tested it myself – it’s the real deal. At higher ISO level the files start to break up quicker than the other 2 cameras above this one. The biggest things wrong with the Sony is not what it does right, it’s the way it does weird things – just plain weird. But in Sonyland, all is well, as the people using this camera and the A700 sibling, have become indoctrinated with the way things are done in the Sony world and most are settled and happy there. The only reason to shake things up is if Sony wanted to make gains and inroads into the Canon and Nikon share of the marketplace. Special hot shoe configurations knock out the use of Pocket Wizards, Radio Poppers, Q Flash accessories and so on. You need to be happy with what Sony gives you or, well, go to Canon or Nikon. Speaking of flash, the Sony flash system is quirky at best and does not follow any of the conventions of what a pro (or pro wannabe) has come to expect. Ask a Sony owner though and most of them are happy just the way things are, so that means the pro people will just stay away in droves. Shame though, such a nice large file, and things can only get better as time moves on with this Sony sensor. The unique thing about this camera is the low ISO quality, the low price, and every lens you use on it becomes stabilized – a low light shooters dream :)

Nikon D3
This is where the game meets the ball. Same camera body features as the D3X, I believe this is Nikon prized and cherished accomplishment. Most would think it is the D3X, but I think the D3X as good as it is, is riding on the coat tails of the D3. The files of this 12 megapixel camera get mighty mighty close to the files of the big boy sensors. Can you believe that?? A 12 megapixel camera being talked about and compared to 21 megapixels and 24 megapixels and still coming out darn close! Wow, that says a whole lot right there. I have one of these, and when I look at prints – LARGE prints made from the Nikon D3 and compare them with all my past camera bodies my jaw is dropped open and I am amazed at the beauty of these prints. Only when i actually place a print from the Canon 5D Mark II or the Nikon D3X next to one of the D3 prints do I get a rude awakening that things can actually go another step better. That is what the 5D2 and the D3X are all about – that next step better in the prints. But come on, in reality there are no photographers out there that are going to show a client a comparison of the 2 file sizes side by side. So if I was none the wiser, then the clients would not even have a clue – until shown. So I still happily shoot the Nikon D3 and it is a champ at delivering a great file, and with the exception of the D3X, it still wipes Canon’s behind off the road in terms of features, functions, and frills. I can control spot metering to evaluative with the press of ONE button. I can see an instant 100 percent view on my awesome LCD screen zoomed in TO THE FOCUS POINT with ONE press of a button. I can instantly take a flash picture and then take an ambient picture with no flash without turning off the flash with ONE PRESS OF A BUTTON. Come on, this camera has features up the wazoo :)   Two years old and still a winner!

Canon 1Ds Mark III
This camera has a lot going for it. It’s biggest problem is other Canon cameras and the age of it’s technology. The 5D2 can out picture-quality it. The LCD showing you the pictures is actually one of the worst of Canon’s lot, the 40D I have is better. Everyone is on Digic 4 and going higher and this puppy is still back on Digic 3 with older technology. Doesn’t clean it’s own sensor, but then neither does the top dog, the Nikon D3X. If Canon puts a better sensor in this puppy, a few of those really neat 1 button Nikon features, adds it’s Digic 4 or even goes to Digic 5, slaps on a high quality LCD, tightens up it’s focus system, puts an “n” model on it, I may want this puppy more than any other. This camera has 19 juicy cross type sensors spread all around it’s viewfinder that makes the creative composition photographer drool and slobber all over himself. This should be a real dream boat of a camera and is so close, but may miss the boat entirely if Canon remakes this camera into a super high megapixel monster and we all miss the possible features gold this camera can provide. This camera oozes with possibilities, it just isn’t worth $8000 to me, or the current $6700 when the others are around doing everything one better.

What – I never heard of that camera – yet. But if and when this camera comes to market, it will be the one that steals the show. An $8000 in a possible $4000 suit of cloths. I am betting if Nikon keeps it identical to the D700 it will become the D700X. But if Nikon makes some serious improvements, or even semi serious improvements, it will come out as a D800. It would give Nikon the ability to make a differention. If Nikon misses that opportunity, all I can say is they should have asked a few of us first.

So what will you buy? I hope you do a little of your own thinking, and don’t just consider the camera body, but also consider the lenses, the flash units, and accessories. I will tell you which has the best accessories – but I’ll save that for another day.

These cameras are available (depending on stock) from these trusted sources, and in our Pro Store:

Canon EOS 5D Mark II (Body Only) – Amazon

Canon EOS 5D Mark II Camera with EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM Lens – Amazon

Nikon D3x 24.5MP FX Digital SLR (Body Only) – Amazon

Nikon D3 12.1MP FX Camera (Body Only)- Amazon

Sony Alpha A900 24.6MP Camera- Amazon

You can also find these cameras at B&H Photo.

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