We’ve all experienced that frustrating moment when we try to compare the features of a product we would like to buy with a competing product and discover they are not exactly comparable or the comparison is inconsequential. The manufacturers list hard-number specs, but without digging a bit deeper below the numbers, they could almost be meaningless. Such appears to be the case when comparing the ISO specs of the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and the Nikon D4 and D800.
The hard numbers reveal that the 5D Mark III’s native ISO range is 100–25,600 while the Nikon D4 is 100–12,800 and the D800 is 100–6,400. “By the numbers,” the Canon provides a range twice that of the D4 and four times the D800. Compare the three cameras’ maximum ISO ranges, however, and the 5D Mark III is able to deliver 50–102,800, the D800, 50–25,600, but the D4, 50–204,800.
What this suggests (which has been highlighted in PhotographyTalk equipment reviews and various other online sources) is that the Nikon D4 is built for the rugged use of professional sports, photojournalists and nature/wildlife photographers who are more likely to shoot in low-light situations, thus needing all that ISO range. Other specs of the D4 would seem to support this generalization. The specs of the Nikon D800 would seem to make it the better choice for professional photographers shooting in controlled environment. It’s 36-MP sensor, but much slower continuous shooting rate, is more appropriate for pros shooting portraits, fashion, product and similar “indoor” subject matter.
With the EOS 5D Mark III, Canon appears to have designed a camera that splits the difference: a 22-MP sensor, 6fps continuous shooting mode and half the ISO range of the D4. The lower resolution of the Mark III could be an advantage, as one would expect it to translate into lower noise at higher ISO levels, plus deliver a wider dynamic range.
Canon’s strategy may be to appeal to both “indoor” and “outdoor” photographers with the 5D Mark III. Nikon has obviously created two cameras, one for each target audience. Which strategy will prove to be better may yet take some time, since the Nikon DSLRs are still available in limited quantities or backordered (August 2012).
The ISO comparison, by the specs and third-party tests, point to the Canon EOS 5D Mark III as the winner; however, the distinction is probably meaningless and without any benefit, except to a very small percentage of the photographers who will choose the Mark III over its Nikon competition.
The reason the Mark III’s “superior” ISO performance is of little or no consequence is that its images and those of the Nikon DSLRs are exactly the same when viewed by just about everyone. Professional photographers that make mural size prints for commercial or gallery purposes will want to be conscious of the ISO difference of these DSLRs. For the rest of us, we interact with photos either on a computer screen or large-screen HDTV or prints no larger than 8 ½ x 11. For serious amateurs, semi-professionals and full-time professionals who are prepared to invest thousands of dollars in a DSLR, comparison of ISO range and the images it delivers won’t be of much help in deciding which brand and model to buy.
As many professionals advise, the best “formula” to decide what high-end (or entry-level or mid-level) DSLR to buy is first to define what type of photography you shoot, then choose the lenses that will produce the best images for that photography type, and then buy the camera that is most compatible with those lenses.
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