Canon 5D Mark II vs Nikon D3X Compared

First published on: Thursday, 12 February 2009

Which camera would you choose, and why — the Canon EOS 5D Mark II or Nikon D3X?

What are the pros and cons of each?

In this post, I attempt to compare and summarize the benefits of, and the differences between these two digital SLR cameras from Canon and hopefully, this will help those who are researching whether to get the 5D2 or D3X.

The final decision on which camera to buy rests with you.

Canon 5D Mark II Advantages


Based purely on image quality alone, the 5D2 offers remarkable bang for your buck. 20+ MP of resolution from the 5D2 will set you back only $2,700 while you’d need to pony up $8,000 for the D3X.

Nikon D3X Advantages

A more robust body

The D3X is built to withstand tough conditions and requirements for rough use by photographers who work in extreme conditions. Read this Antartica 2009 account by Luminous Landscape which has details on failures of several 5DII bodies during the trip.

No banding artifacts in deep shadows

You might want to read this thread if you shoot a lot of low-key portraiture in studios or images with high contrast and deep shadows.

In the original post, “honzaveleta” claimed that the 5DII produces images with noisy shadow areas. He then provided a sample. Many claimed that they could not see any noise, and an equal number claimed they could.

It has to do with the computer system you’re using — if you’re on the Mac and the display is set to 1.8 (the default value), chances are high that you can see the vertical streaks of noise running on the dark areas of the image. Not so if you’re on a Windows PC system or have had your Mac display set to gamma 2.2.

The next argument was that if you can’t see the noise in prints, then the banding phenomenon in 5D2 photos is immaterial, but the counter-argument is that if you bring up the shadows in post-processing, the banding pattern becomes visible, so this becomes a Canon 5DII disadvantage.

Mike Chaney, author of Qimage, Profile Prism, upon receiving the RAW file from the photographer, stated that it was “the noisiest ISO 100 shot I’ve ever seen”.

Several others have added some input and feedback on this:

  • Kabe Luna:
    …when confronted with subject matter with a high contrast ratio, invariably there will remain significant areas of underexposure, and with the 5D and apparently 5DII, the attendant appreciably high noise levels. I have simply found that these cameras not well suited to such situations. My D2, D300 and D700 all give much cleaner shadows at base ISO, and the D3x surprisingly looks just as good.

  • John Sheehy:
    Banding is a form of read noise, but despite its extremely high visibility, it has extremely low presence in standard measurements of noise, because it is statistically insignificant.

  • John Sheehy:
    The sad part of the Canon story is that Sony and Nikon are giving deep ISO 100 shadows these days which are, for all intents and purposes, devoid of banding (line) noises, and they are still a part of the Canon experience.

Arguably better image quality in terms of sharpness and noise “character”

Several tests seem to indicate a slight, almost imperceptible advantage (but an advantage nevertheless) the D3X has in the image quality department, at least where sharpness and noise pattern is concerned.

Look at two of Ken Rockwell’s tests. The first, a sharpness comparison using the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens on the 5D2 and the new Nikkor 50m AF-S f/1.4G on the D3X.

The second set of tests focuses on high ISO comparisons, specifically, at ISO 3200 and ISO 6400. Ken doesn’t mince his words:

If you look at the blowups, the D3X is sharpest, but that’s because it is the sharpest.

The 5D Mark II looks the smoothest, but that’s because it slops on the noise reduction with reckless abandon. Notice how the noise is smoother, but so are the fine details!

Pro Photo Home had also conducted two tests. The tests comparing both cameras are not performed to lab standards, but you get to download the RAW files to play around with and understand the type of files each camera gives you.

Part 1 — Nikon D3x vs. Canon 5D MKII: Image Noise

Nikon D3X wins slightly, and the report concludes:

I have to give a slight edge to the Nikon D3x for stellar performance provided at ISO 6400.

However, the lead is not tremendous, and when you consider the sobering fact that you can acquire 2 Canon 5D MKIIs before you can buy one Nikon D3x, you have to give Canon a big hand for that simple feature called Value.

Part 2 — Canon 5D MKII vs. Nikon D3X Image Quality

A landscape, portrait and high-ISO product shot was tested in this round. Canon seems to produce sharper images but this could be a result of using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom to perform the conversion.

For the highest possible quality, it’s best to do RAW conversions using the manufacturer’s own software, Digital Photo Professional (DPP) for the Canon and Nikon Capture NX 2 (a free, 60-day trial is available) for the D3X.

Skin tones appear much better coming from the D3X but again, this might be a function of Lightroom settings.

Additionally, DxOMark sensor results (the Sony A900 is also included in this graphic) seem to support the assertion that the D3X is the better imager (click the photo for a larger version):
DxOMark results overview -- Nikon D3X vs Canon 5D Mark II vs Sony A900

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