Two 2012 full frame cameras down, two to go. The Canon 5D Mark III and Nikon D4 have already blown through our labs, earning high performance marks. We put them head to head to see which is the best so far.
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In the world of DSLRs, the full frame sensor cameras are king. With larger sensors that are nearly the size of 35mm film, full frame cameras are more expensive to manufacture, but produce stunning results in both stills and video.
Because of that high level of performance, full frame cameras are also above the rat race of yearly upgrades that other cameras all go through. Around every three years, professional full frame DSLR lines get refreshed, setting performance benchmarks for smaller cameras to match.
This year is already shaping up to be just such a year, with four full frame cameras (two from Canon and two from Nikon) announced or already out on the market. While there are rumors of more cameras to come, we've already put two through our full testing rubric, the Canon 5D Mark III and Nikon D4.
While they're not true rivals—the $6000 D4 is more closely in line with the unreleased Canon 1D X, while the Nikon D800 is the Mark III's real competition—but it's a worthy comparison to see where the two companies reside.
The Mark III ($3500 body-only) was already the best camera that we had tested until the Nikon D4 strolled through our tests, wowing us with consistent low light performance and incredible speed. The Mark III has the edge in price, size, and can match the D4 in most performance metrics when light is readily available. When light becomes limited, though, the D4 is the best DSLR that we've tested.
The Nikon D4 has the edge in speed (over 12 frames per second against the Canon's 5.5), dynamic range (especially at mid to high ISO speeds), and focus accuracy (51 points that work great in low light while the Mark III hunted somewhat).
In video this test starts to become very interesting. Both cameras shoot 1080/30p footage, with options for various plenty of framerates. Both cameras also include mini headphone and microphone jacks, and offer full manual control over exposure, ISO, and audio levels—though only the Mark III gives you audio level control while recording.
The Nikon D4 has some neat tricks, like the ability to output uncompressed HD footage to an external monitor and recorder. It can also utilize a 1.5x or 2.7x crop of its own sensor in order to produce a sharper, zoomed in video image. The Mark III can't do either, but it does have two compression types, IPB and ALL-I, with ALL-I offering a higher bitrate than the D4 can do.
We found that the Canon 5D Mark III was a hair sharper than the D4 in video testing, with significantly reduced moire over the Canon 5D Mark II. The D4 suffered from some poor aliasing on diagonal patterned lines, though moire was controlled, it produced a usable image with less than 1 lux of light, and motion was rendered very well.
In the end the D4 and 5D Mark III likely appeal to very different shooters. The Mark III is the more affordable camera, is lighter, is a better option if video is a primary necessity, and can hang with the D4 in bright light conditions. For news photographers, sports photographers, or those in need of a camera for surveillance, the Nikon D4 is your low light king.