Nikon D3 vs. D700 vs. Canon 5D
Fast answer: Want to shoot in low light, or shoot moving things and action? Get the Nikon D3. Want a camera for weddings and portraits? Get the Nikon D700. Want the highest technical quality for landscapes, even if the camera is more difficult to set and use? Consider the Canon 5D.
You could spend hours fretting over meaningless specs, forums and conjecture, but hopefully my personal experience over the past couple of years after buying these for myself can make this clear.
I've made about 35,000 shots on my Nikon D3 and about 20,000 shots on my Canon 5D, so the differences are obvious to me. I spit out this whole article off the top of my head, which is important, because what's really important is what's here.
In case you're wondering how I afford this stuff, see How to Afford Anything. I shoot all day, every day, so cost is trivial to me, while the real differences between these cameras is enormous.
The Nikon D3 is the only pro camera among these three, and therefore the biggest, fastest, heaviest, toughest, most expensive with the fattest and longest lasting battery.
What you get for your extra money is speed. The D3 is the only camera among these, that if you spend all day with a camera stuck to your face, just gets out of the way. It does everything fast and without complaint. Its finder has no marks for AF sensors, so most of the time, you have a clear rectangle in which to compose. The lack of distraction from etched AF sensors makes a big difference when trying to concentrate through it all day long.
The D3 is the camera to get for action and sports. Its AF system is superb. It just goes. You no longer have to pick and chose AF sensors, or have to focus, lock and recompose. When you set it up as I do, you just compose and fire, and everything comes out perfectly.
The fast, smart and accurate autofocus is the hard part. The frame rate of 9 FPS is the easy part.
If the D3 is too heavy for you, pop on a fixed 50mm lens and it now feels like nothing.
The Nikon D700 is a newer version of the D3 with a smaller battery, cheaper viewfinder screen, and lower price.
The D700 offers the exact image quality of the D3, but in a smaller body.
For portraits, the D700 is probably the best buy because I love the skin tones I get on Nikon in the Neutral Picture Control setting set to +1 saturation.
If you're shooting action for a living, step up to the D3. If you're only shooting on weekends and money matters, I see little missing in the D700 compared to the D3. See my D700 review for the exact comparisons.
The Canon 5D excels in image quality. It's also the lightest and least expensive of these cameras. It has the sharpest pictures of these three cameras by a slight margin. If you're backpacking or shooting careful landscapes, the 5D could give superior image quality above anything from Nikon, at a bargain price.
If you want the best picture quality for landscapes and huge enlargements, the 5D is the best camera. I'm not kidding: I have 20x30" (50 x 75cm) prints here, and the 5D is clearly superior. (Then again, medium format film is superior to any of these in 20x30" prints.)
The 5D is sharper than the D3 or D700. It looks a little oversharpened on-screen compared to Nikon, but on 20x30" prints it just looks better.
The downsides of the 5D are that it's a pain to use. Everything takes a few more button pushes than any of the Nikons. Want the LCD to magnify the shot you just took? You have to press the Play button and wait a moment, while on every Nikon you just press the mag button, instantly.
The viewfinder of the 5D has weak, scrawny and dim numbers, while the Nikons are all easy to read in any light.
The 5D has a pathetically dim and off-color LCD. It looks like it's broken when held next to even the cheapest Nikon.
The controls of the 5D feel crappy compared to the Nikons. My hands hurt after shooting the 5D all day from the cramped and poorly thought-out controls.
The 5D has no Auto ISO, so that's one more thing with which I need to piddle for each shot. The 5D takes about 10 menu button pushes to shoot a manual white balance, while I can do this on any Nikon with no menus at all.
The 5D feels much dinkier than the D700 or D3. The 5D is mostly plastic, except for the metal top plate which Canon used to justify the original $3,200 price, along with removing the built-in-flash. The 5D's top control dial always feels as if it's about to fall off, as these dials did on the Canon EOS A2.
The 5D has the fastest manual focusing, but so what; Canon's manual-focus FD lenses won't work on the 5D while Nikons old lenses work great on the D700 and D3.
Once I've forgotten what a pain the 5D is, the results are worth it. Shooting the 5D is like shooting a view camera: its a pain, but the results are why you do it.
Action and Sports: D3.
Kids running around: D3 or D700. Sad, but true: my kid is so fast, I really need the D3 to keep up with him!
Landscapes: 5D or D700.
Low Light: D700 or D3.
If I was still a weekend amateur shooting landscapes and arty stuff, the 5D is the one camera I'd buy. Today I spend all day, every day shooting, so I usually shoot the D3 because it just gets out of my way.
I've written this without regard to price. If price matters and you're not shooting action, just get the 5D. Regardless of price, the 5D is your camera if you're backpacking. If you're shooting landscapes, the 5D probably is your camera if you don't mind the sucky ergonomics.
When I think of each camera, the 5D reminds me of how it doesn't fit my hand, how I can't always see the finder information, how I need to guess at what I'm seeing on the LCD, how difficult it is to move that crappy little top control dial while tapping the ISO button for each shot, how the 5D re-shifts my shifted program exposure every time it wakes back up, how I always need to tap and wait for the Play button just to see if the last shot was sharp, and how I need to use a second hand just to tap the depth-of-field preview, and how my hands hurt after a session trying to use it with one hand. When I think of the D3, all I remember is concentrating on what's happening in that big, bright rectangle which is the finder, and shooting.
Of course when I'm looking at the results on my 30" Apple Cinema Display, the 5D results are vivid and almost three-dimensional.
The Nikons have more flexible color and contrast controls, but the 5D allows you to access preset settings with one button push. The 5D gets all the saturation even a nut like me needs, and the Nikons can get even more. I love the way people look on the Nikons when set for Neutral Picture Control, I've not seen this in my 5D.
If you're shooting action, just mortgage your house for the D3.
If you're shooting in no light, get the D3 or D700. The 5D is sharper in most light, but the Nikons excel at ISO 6,400.
Now that the D700 is out, it replaces the D3 for just about everything except full-time sports, action and news photographers.
* Just tap the dedicated REC button with the camera still on your face, and you can record notes about the photos you're making. Since the microphone is right at your mouth on the back of the camera, you can whisper if the comments are sensitive. It sounds silly, but I find this very helpful for taking notes. Tap the REC button with the camera at your side, and you can record whatever you want unobtrusively. For instance, here are the first sounds of my baby Katie.
** Two card slots completely revolutionizes my workflow. I run in backup mode, which copies everything to the second card as I shoot. I now can format a card as soon as it's downloaded, saving me from having to wait until the hard drive to which it's transferred is also backed up. I never erase a card until its files are in two separate physical locations.
*** I'm talking real in-the-field speed, not the frame-per-second rating.
**** All these finders are big and bright. Ratings are taking all the other factors into account.
***** Can I say that? Canon improved the 5D LCD around 2006; I'm unsure if mine is the poor or extra-poor version.
****** On my first charge, probably many more if I didn't fiddle in the menus so much.
I'm only comparing DSLRs. These are what I use today.
Today I shoot hundreds of images every day, 7 days a week, mostly for publication. I average 5,000 shots per month on my D3 alone. I need digital images because I need the results now, and digital is good enough.
Camera stores, magazines, review websites and camera makers don't want you to read the rest of this, because they are making all-time record profits with everyone thinking nothing of throwing thousands of dollars away on digital SLRs which will be exchanged for the next big thing in 24-36 months.
If I was still only shooting a few hundred images a month, instead of every day, and shooting mostly my sort of stuff for my own pleasure and for serious large-print exhibition, I'd be shooting film, not these expensive throw-away DSLRs.
I only bought my first DSLR as a joke to help me test lenses more easily instead of having to run to the lab all the time. Having DSLRs lying around, my lazy side started shooting them more and they became what I shoot all the time today.
If I only shot hundreds of images in a month, instead of each day, and if the highest quality prints were my goal instead of just churning out "good enough," results from film are much better than from any of the cameras above.
When I say film, I mean medium and large format film. If I was more concerned with quality instead of quantity, I'd be shooting my Mamiya 7 hand-held, and my 4x5 for everything else. When comparing 20x30" prints, my optical prints from 6x7cm Fuji Velvia are far better than those from my D3 or 5D, and that was comparing to 6x7cm Velvia shot on a folding camera which fit in my large hiking shorts. (see my 20x30" print comparison.)
If you're serious about print quality for static subjects, for less money than any of these disposable DSLRs, you can buy a far better film camera which will last you a lifetime.
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