Canon 5d Mark III vs Nikon d750

An exploration of shadow detail

I am a Canon shooter and have been since the late 1990s, but I’m not tied to any one system of wedding photography gear. I have zero patience for brand wars — both Canon and Nikon make fantastic cameras and lenses, and each system has its pros and cons.

I have to say, however, that Canon needs to up its game with the 5d Mark IV — the current Canon sensors simply can’t compare to current Nikon sensors when it comes to dynamic range. As has been pointed out all over the web, the current generation of Nikon sensors is simply remarkable.

I’m not about to switch brands — been there, done that. But I got to hang out with a friend and fellow photographer Blake McCord, who just bought a Nikon d750. While eating pizza on my deck in Estes Park, we decided to do a little test to see how my 5d Mark III stacked up against his body when it came to shadow recovery.

It’s pretty common to be faced with a scene with wildly uneven exposure, especially during Colorado wedding photography where the mountains cast deep shadows during golden hour. I often experience valleys darkened with shadows, and mountains glistening with the final bright rays of the evening sun.

My subjects are often in the shade, so I have several exposure choices.

I can expose for then and blow out the sky and high peaks. Or I can light them with a flash and preserve the sky and high peaks, but still be faced with lots of shade surrounding them where the strobe light doesn’t reach. Or, I can expose the sky as bright as I can without losing highlight detail, and then boost the shadows in post.

When I do this, I do so at low ISO values, which is the zone where DSLR bodies have their highest dynamic range.

This purposeful underexposure is an effective way to manage uneven light, and it’s waaaaaay more effective these days on a Nikon than a Canon. Like way more. Like, not even funny.

Case in point: pizza on my deck.

Here is a straight out of camera exposure: ISO 100, 1/500th sec, f/4


Totally ugly, right? Of course. I deliberately kept the sky blue so I could see what kind of shadow recovery I could get.

Next, check out the low res versions from the Canon and Nikon after boosting shadow detail.

PS, sorry about the color casts. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time trying to get the cameras to render the exact same colors. It’s beside the point.

This is shot with the Nikon d750, with the shadows boosted about 5 stops.

This is shot with the Nikon d750, with the shadows boosted about 5 stops.

This is shot with the Canon 5d Mark III with the shadows boosted about 5 stops.

This is shot with the Canon 5d Mark III with the shadows boosted about 5 stops.

The images appear relatively similar at web resolution, but when I looked at shadow detail after Lightroom processing, I was blown away.

The Canon lost virtually all shadow detail, while the Nikon preserved it and wound up delivering an image that looks to be shot around ISO 400.

Here they are, Canon first and Nikon second. There is equal noise, banding and grain throughout the Canon frame.




I have a history of shooting both Canon and Nikon, so I’m not trying to say one system is better than the other. That’s just not the case. Choosing a camera company is not just about one aspect of a camera, but about an entire ecosystem of equipment and how it all works together. Every photographer has a lot to weigh when it comes to choosing a system.

But on the dynamic range front, there’s simply no choice. The Nikon files are just so much better.

Here’s my history, and a brief recap of lessons learned:

Just before the release of the Canon 5d Mark III in 2012, I became fed up with the poor color noise of the Canon 5d Mark II at high ISO, and I couldn’t stand the autofocus performance of the camera. The AF performance was barely an improvement over the original 5d and the color noise at 3200 and above made images so blotchy that I wound up buying a second 5d classic and using the Mark II as a backup.

After getting increasingly frustrated, I switched to Nikon. Doing so wasn’t that huge of a deal, and if you play your cards right, you can make the switch with minimal fuss and zero financial loss. I carefully sold my gear at the right price and re-purchased lightly used gear at the right price.

I shot Nikon for the majority of the 2012 wedding season, until I became fed up with the quirks of the Nikon system and switched back to Canon. When I switched back, I actually wound up a few hundred dollars ahead.

Here is the Cliff Notes version of my switch and switch back:

FLASH SYSTEM: I like the Canon flash system way better. I don’t need any third party gadgets to have a radio-operated remote flash system and the autofocus assist beam is miles better. It’s brighter and wider, so I can more reliably use off center AF points. This makes composition easier. Even with the SB910, Nikon’s flagship flash, the off center AF points were just not as reliable for me. People complain about the Canon flash system metering being less reliable, but I can’t say I noticed much of a difference.

AUTOFOCUS: With the current crop of pro and semi pro bodies, I’m not sure there’s a big difference. The 5d3 solved all the AF issues of the preceding cameras, and the d800, d4, and d750 all kick butt as well.

LENSES: The Canon zooms I used seemed, at least in my unscientific opinion, to focus faster. The Nikon zooms were sharper until Canon released the Mark II versions of their popular zooms (24-70 and 70-200), and now I think Canon makes better zooms. The Nikon primes I’ve used are sharper wide open, but they gather a little less light. All this said, I prefer the Canon lenses.

SENSORS: I like the Canon skin tones way more and always found Nikon RAW files to require more fine tuning to get skin tones to my liking. But, the D750 has a mind boggling amount of dynamic range, so much so that it drowns out my complaints about Nikon skin tones.

If all my gear was stolen today and I had to start over, I’d probably go for Canon solely because the AF assist beams are better and I like the integrated radio in the 600EX-RT units. It seems like a minor thing, but it’s pretty major to me. To each his own. If I didn’t shoot weddings, and wasn’t in terribly lit reception venues all the time, I’d probably go for Nikon.

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