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Wednesday, 17 December 2008


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Well done, Mike. Thanks for taking the time to share your impressions. There is much information to ponder.

Thanks Mike. Your camera reviews are the only ones that I find both informative and damn hell hilarious.

Well done Mike!
Thank you for taking the bull by the horns and sharing your (enviable) experience with these three cameras with the us. I know someone will roast you for having an opinion. Personally though, I like hearing what you have to say whether it be photographic, jazz, or just life. The world would be a boring place and the arts would not exist if we all thought the same thing.
So, keep it up!

Aaiyyeee. Could I be the first to comment?I guess I really SHOULD be out shoveling.
I'm a Canon guy and I'm already disappointed that the 5DII isn't holding up to the D700. I have friends with the Nikon and others that have used the 5D to some dismay.
..but to comment on the "game changing" bit...as a crabby Canon user I'm keeping in mind that they will kick back and feel confident that the "industry" (whatever that means but I mean photojournalism) is going to latch onto the new, consumer-accessible ability to also shoot VIIIDeeeeee-ooooooHHH and Canon will at some point down the road claim to have been there first...(not counting RED).
Thanks for kickass reviews nonetheless Mike. I personally don't mind at all when a respected reviewer says "The Canon just isn't as good as the Nikon...or the Sony" I'm overly invested in Canon glass....no going back now.

good non-biased comparison, good insight.



Since you didn't reccomend Nikon as the hands down winner and totally slam the other two cameras I quit reading the post early on!I'm sure most of your readers will do the same or else they are wrong as well! Seriously, isn't it amazing to have so many really wonderful choices? I'm only glad that I lost all of our disposable money, and a lot of our non-disposable money!, in the current financial fiasco or else I would have to explain to my wife why Santa brought me a SonyA900 when I allready have a D300 and a D700!Keep up the good, objective, and most importantly geared to people who actually take photographs with their cameras reviews!

I appreciate your attempt at being unbiased in your assessments of the big three (not automakers;-)I have been a long time admirer of Freeman Patterson, a great Canadian photographer and teacher, who, if am correct, used a Minolta, and noone claims his photos are not good because he did not use a Nikon or Canon, or some German make. So if all three are that good I would choose the cheapest camera. In my case, I would choose Nikon because I already have Nikon manual lenses which I am loathe to give up. I am convinced the autofocus zoom lenses, particularly long zooms, are vibration prone.

What I'm interested in is your impressions that some images are "more photographic" and/or "less digital". Like the old thing where people thought they could recognize a medium-format print instantly by the smoothness, or something, I think it would benefit everybody if we could characterize these differences more accurately. I'm not very good at seeing them, either; either I'm not critical enough, or something (my eyes are very unlikely to be bad enough to physically prevent me from seeing such things). If we can characterize them better, we can have an idea of what the actual differences are.

The only bit of the medium format differences I could consistently see was different grain presentation for same-size prints from different-size formats.

(As a D700 owner, I don't feel you've told me I did the wrong thing :-). The AF is really nice, even when you're using the high ISO.)

There are no bad choices here and each is better than most of the photographers who will buy them.

Thanks for the essay Mike.
As a D700 owner, I can agree with most of what you say. As a photographer, I'd just like to add it's a great time to be taking pictures.
Modern digital SLRs have revolutionized the way we shoot. Who would have thought that 6400 would ever be an acceptible sensitivity?
I was speaking to dear old Dad the other day -who was a professional photographer his entire life- about this, and I could practically see the gears turning in his head, as he imagined the possibilities. He was reminiscing about having to make do with ISOs (or ASA, as he still calls it) of 25, or even 8.
I guess my point is, is that because the market is so competitive today, camera makers have to come up with a great product -and for the most part, they do.
Sometimes it seems that a lot of these comparisons are really just hair splitting contests, with the ultimate winner being us, the shooters.

Remember Mike, when this is all over, that you are loved.

Hi Mike,
Thanks for making some great points re the Sony and Nikon. I would be interested to hear what you think of their black and white capabilities, especially as compared to film.

Three amazing tools. In the hands of an amazing artist, any of these are capable of helping create wonderful art.

Its an embarrassment of riches, isn't it?

You're right regarding the 5D2 files, they look too digital. So I have finally decided to buy myself a...

...Zeiss Ikon, Biogon 35/2 and loads of film!


Mike, A great assessment of the three most desirable cameras out there. I'll admit to being a Nikon shooter but I held the Sony in my hands recently and it was the first digital camera that gave me "tactile camera lust" in a big way. The finder was absolutely gorgeous. Now if I could just have it all. Alas, I have a 13 year old who wants to go to college some day........

Thanks for the nice read!

Kirk Tuck

You are one brave sonofabitch, Mike. I wouldn't have the stones to post that...but thanks for doing it.

A number of thoughts:
This thing called noise, as applied to digital
photography, we didn't have that issue blatently pitched, did we?

And the other thing; being able to expose a
sensor or light recording device ie film in almost black out conditions and
then being able to reveal an image without the assistance of additional artificial illumination, what is the idea? To do what may have been impossible prior and because such an activity is now within the realm of possibility?

Suspect we are all wanting more and more. Greed?
I don't know.

I do make one expensive note; the Sony, Nikon and Canon are all EXPENSIVE devices, more so when a piece of glass is added to the mixture.

Yes, you reviewed them however in this mad race to produce an improved image capture device, most of us are aware the devices reviewed will be considered disposable when the next latest and greatest appears.

Is our rapidly declining consumer society really prepared for such a vast tumble?

And given the so-called stupid decline in our economy, maybe it is time for all of us
to gather our wagons in a circle, and wait out the battle for our way of life.

I'm about to buy the 5DMk2, so i'm a bit concerned about your comments regarding its noise and 'digital-like' files. I knew about the black dots, but don't believe they'll ever affect me. The noise and digitalness, though - well, that surprises me. I had felt that my old 5D imaged in a more 'organic' manner than any Nikon. I'm sorta hoping that your assessment may be based more on Nikon familiarity and not on an empirical truth....

Anyway, i will no/cannot argue with any of your comments. But, i will offer that the reason i cannot choose in favor of Nikon, despite my preference for their body design, is that Canon's prime lenses are all just so much better. At least, in the range i'm likely to use (28mm-85mm). And, frankly, i remain shocked that Nikon has not chosen to address this. Nikon still doesn't have a fast 28 or 35mm lens. Their 50mm lens has the worst bokeh of any 50mm lens i've ever seen, and their new G isn't much of a step forward. The 85mm/1.4 is nice, but still doesn't approach the 85L.

If i could have a D700 body, with Canon glass, and the 5D2's resolution and video, i'd just stop. Right there. But, i'm going to have to deal with the 5D2's 'shortcomings.' I never had a problem with the old 5D's AF. I don't shoot sports/action, though. And, in fact, when i compare Canon to Nikon AF in shops, i tend to prefer the Canon's. Go figure. The Canons just seem more immediate and responsive, and the Nikons seem to hesitate initially, before then speedily locking on. I'm sure that's a familiarity issue, too.

You qualify the A900's ultimate IQ rating by saying, "That's assuming you're someone who knows how to use it and is willing to use it as it's intended to be used." So, then, what is it's intended use?

Thank you for your well reasoned and valued opinion - the reason I think the blog is so popular and respected. It's a rather sad reflection that you felt in neccessary to pre-contextualise your post - I hope your chin survives...


"So, then, what is it's intended use?"

You would use the A900 in situations where you didn't need extremely high ISOs and did need lots of resolution, for large prints, for example. It would not be the camera I'd want to shoot basketball games in poorly-lit high school gymnasiums for half-page repro, for instance. It would definitely be the camera I would want to make 20x24 fine art prints for framing and sale. And so forth.

Mike J.

"I think it would benefit everybody if we could characterize these differences more accurately."

That's what I tried to do in the section called "Artifacts."

Mike J.

What some smart poster at DPReview figured out:

The excessive purple fringing on the 5DM2 results from reflections, ghosting, double imaging, from the filter stack that sits in front of the sensor.

He figures whatever they did to change that stack from that which is on the 1DSM3 in order to make it transmit more light (for better high ISO) is also causing this fringing effect.

There's almost no way firmware can fix this one.

* * *

The black dot effect of the 5DM2 is a separate one from above, and it's unknown whether this can be addressed in firmware.

* * *

Bottom line is to get the high ISO performance at such a resolution, Canon pushed a couple of limits here and probably pushed over the limit by a touch. So you have to ask yourself, knowing this, am I OK with this?

I don't think I am. :(

I have Canon and Nikon Systems and I think they are both great. I have used them for a while and in the real world have difficulty picking a favorite or deciding which is "best." I tend to favor Canon overall. I have found that with all cameras I have tested, there is a great difference in performance dependant on the conditions and it is impossible to test all conditions. I do think that video capabilities will play a much bigger role in the future, and I bought the 5DII largely because it was an inexpensive way to be more creative (lenses) in video. It turns out it is a great still camera too. Also, most purchasers of high end SLR's will be influenced by the lenses they have or that are available. I think Canon has the edge on lenses, but many would argue that point as well. I personally believe that in the next 5 to 10 years we will have low noise at very high ISO (50,000), but right now, I am very happy with around ISO 2000 with all these cameras. And resolution is good enough right now, but will improve as technology progresses and/or sensor size gets bigger. As an audiophile, I know there is a limit to what I can hear, and with cameras, there are also limits that will eventually make further improvements moot. In the last few years, we have been presented with the best imaging tools in history and competition had something to do with that. This is a great time to be a photographer.

Well done, Mike! I hope we can look forward to hearing more from you about the lenses you used on these cameras.

So, (knowing nothing about Sony lenses), Mike, It sounds like the Sony A900 would be the current best pick for landscape shooting, below medium format?

Like everyone else, I follow your personal impressions of these cameras with interest. Your knowledge base and skills as a photographer are so much more than mine! But when all is said and done, I keep scrolling back through your blog entries to take another look at the "Unscared of the dark" shot you took with the Nikon D700...wow! I'm a Canon shooter with a few pieces of decent Canon glass, but if not for that I think this one picture would persuade me differently. BTW, how did that shot print out? Thanks for the time and thought you put into these "reviews".

The international industrial conglomerate that makes the electronic consumer product that I purchased is better than the international industrial conglomerate that made your electronic consumer product!

Ok, each one is a wonferful camera, I just wolud like to keep the A900 in my hands for few second.....and hear his "click".....Absolutely Fantastic!

It's always a delight to read some clear-headed thinking on such a potentially nebulous subject. One of the reasons I haunt this site rather than others (cough-DPReview-cough) is the consistently thoughtful approach to cameras and image quality here. Rather than ruminations over sub-pixel-level phenomena, we get this kind of sensible discussion about what really matters when the ink hits the paper.

It's also probably fair to point out how absurdly good all 3 of these cameras are. Even using the best possible photographic technique, grain and tonality issues still place a limit on the largest print you can make from a 35 mm film image—at least one that looks good to my eye. Yet all 3 of these cameras let you print a carefully exposed and processed image to crazy sizes—and have it look perfect. The low-light capability of the D700 is simply mind-boggling to someone who grew up on Kodachrome, where the "really fast version" was ISO 200 and had golf-ball sized grain. And the resolution attainable from 20+ megapixel sensors (with appropriate glass) is magical. The only excuse for a bad picture is, sadly, the photographer.

Time to take a few more pictures and practice so my camera won't embarrass me again.

Considering the investment I have in Canon lenses and accessories, articles like this are an intellectual curiosity and not much else. If I want to go to a full frame camera, it will be the 5DmkII. I'm not prepared to sell what I currently have and by a new system based on what's out there now. If there is truly a camera that advances the state of the art by a thousand fold, I would consider it, but none of these cameras do.

I've made my bed and I'm comfortable in it.

"The lamp sample shots show that the Sony had overall less exposure, so it's not really directly comparable, IMO. Also, not knowing if they were shot in JPEG or RAW, how they were processed leaves more questions as to whether we are looking at real differences in D.R., or just differences in processing and exposure."

This is always a problem when writing reviews. It's the difference between opinion and evidence. What I want to do is give my opinion, or impression, and then illustrate with an example to make what I'm saying more clear (if only because a written article without illustrations is dull). What you want to do is take the example and make it into evidence. And as evidence it's never enough, because it's only one particular sample.

To demonstrate my impression--to give evidence--would require a great deal of work, in fact more work than I have done. I would have to make direct comparisons, carefully bracket the exposures, use different converters to remove that variable, etc. And then people would say, "yes, but maybe it's all down to ---------- or --------- and you never tested that." That's why I prefer to simply shoot with the cameras and just give my impressions instead. But it's a mistake to treat an illustration as evidence, and it's why photo writers prefer that you pay attention to what they say over what the illustrations show you. At least with our words, we can better clarify how and in what way our opinions might be wrong.

Mike J.

It's really Sony vs. Canon here. Nikon is not a contender, because I don't want a 12MP camera for 3 grand, and I don't want a 24MP camera for 8 grand.

I shoot 95% wide angle. Canon's wide angle lenses are good but not great in the corners. When the Zeiss ZA 16-35/2.8 lens arrives next year for the Sony, I'll have to take a serious look at the A900 before deciding between that camera and the 5D Mark II.

One thing you left out of your assessment is the phrase "For the moment." The A900's resolution will almost surely be eclipsed by Canon within the year, and has already been matched by Nikon. That means that a new buyer, planning to use the camera "as it's meant to be used," would do well to think about the implications of buying into the system, because Sony's resolution advantage is almost sure to be fleeting. Of course, the Sony's other huge advantage is cost, which may be critical to many people.

On the other hand...the Sony will make exceptional pictures for many years, and below some certain print size -- 24 inches, perhaps? -- it'll be a long time before anything surpasses it, if it's "used as it's meant to be used."

By the way, I really like the head shot of the young woman in what looks like low tungsten light; I even like the blotchiness. Pretty sensual shot. Like a Dutch painting where the varnish has gone yellow with the years.


Somebody up the line spoke about the "photographic" less Digital style.
I remembered a comment somewhere, yes, here it is:


Also good read with a different perspective.

Thanks; Mike, good comparison :-)

Yes, I should have said more explicitly that you had made some attempts to characterize the issues, and that I applauded that while encouraging more of it. I didn't intend it to sound like I was criticizing you for not doing it.

Thanks for the review - it was very informative, and more or less what I expected: Sony having the most resolution, and Nikon, with its relatively low resolution, able to squeak out best high-ISO performance. I tend to take the stance of the 5D II being "best of both worlds" since it's so close in both departments, but I already have an arsenal of Canon glass so there's probably a cognitive bias lurking somewhere in there... ;-)

I'm curious about two things: first, like others asked, what you mean by "digital" vs. "photographic" pictures? On the surface this sounds like a very logical, reasonable assertion, that might be responded to similar to the light fall off question, but surely there's more to it than that.

Last: have you tried down-rez'ing the 5D Mark II image files to the size of a D700, and then comparing noise? The 5D M2's noise gets significantly less noticeable when it's downsized to the equivalent of the D700, and I suspect is at least the equal to the D700 in that case (can't perform the test personally because I don't have a D700 handy!). There's actually an SRAW option that shoots directly in ~10 MP mode, too, which has less (noticeable) noise.

Mike, just this Tuesday I saw several A4 printed images from Nikon D700. I looked at them very closely (like in 2 feet from my eyes, or may be even less). IMHO, for printing up to (inclusive) A3 one does not need more than what Nikon D700 provides. Since many people who are amateurs like me rarely print bigger than A3, I have to ask myself (and you too in a manner of speaking) do we, the amateurs, really need more than 12-15 MP? I think that we don't. Unless heavy cropping is involved, I don't think that these MPs are indeed justified. It seems however that right now we're square in the midst of megapixel wars. To that end I applaud Nikon's decision to come up with D700. Since we (virtually) know each other for quite some time, I should say here that I am sorely tempted to go Nikon. D700 seems to be exactly the photographic tool I need.

Meanwhile, tomorrow I shall be giving in my freshly bought FA 24-90 for AF repairs.

Reading your blog is very joyful to my eyes.

As a long time Nikon shooter I always felt Canon had superior AF. I'm just wondering if in your AF test were you using the 35 f/2 or 1.4L on the Canon?
Thanks for telling it like it is Mike!

"That's what I tried to do in the section called "Artifacts.""

But you only show artifacts from one camera in isolation. Where is the lamp highlight shot for the 5D2 and/or Nikons? Where is the comparable fringing or noise shot for the A900 and Nikons? Could fringing simply be the lens (e.g. use the same Nikon MF lens for both the Nikon and the Canon.

Hi, thanks for the report. The lamp sample shots show that the Sony had overall less exposure, so it's not really directly comparable, IMO. Also, not knowing if they were shot in JPEG or RAW, how they were processed leaves more questions as to whether we are looking at real differences in D.R., or just differences in processing and exposure.

Thanks for this review. Since we all get more or less locked into one system or another what with lenses, lighting systems, etc, I ponder if I'll regret spending for an upgrade rather than which of the three excellent cameras to choose. My opinion is I wouldn't regret upgrading to any of these 3.

All 3 of the systems now go into the 20+ megapixel range. I'd be thrilled if the camera makers now turned their attention to competing on high ISO noise at their current generous resolutions.

Finally, I realize this is sacrilege, but I've come to like the digital look.

I'm only echoing most of everyone else's statements in that I am highly grateful that you've taken the time to test and summarize your findings to the rest of us.

Great, fair reviews. Nice work. All of these cameras look to be top flight. I wish I could have told you not to use ACR with the A900 when you had it, because just about any other RAW converter works much better with the camera's noise. For some reason, Adobe just can't seem to get it right with the A700/900.

I think nature of the shooting you do matters a lot more as we get into these high end cameras. Having recently moved to the D700 from a Canon, I am amazed at how much better a camera it is for shooting things that move in lower light - not darkness, but decent indoor light. Plus all the necessary controls for tweaking shots on the fly fall right to hand (finger), for very fast shooting and adjustments such as exposure comp and shooting mode (P A S M). OTHO, on a tripod shooting still lifes and landscapes and architecture, the Sony and Canon are going to produce much nicer files for really big prints - if you make really big prints. For myself, I still shoot 4x5 if I want to use a tripod and make really big sharp prints. The D700 is prefect for me because it is a camera for people and difficult light when I do not want to use a tripod. If I quit shooting 4x5 and was only going to shoot digital, I would probably go for the Canon or Sony.

The best part of this (though i enjoyed it all) is that it makes me happy about being able to get a Pentax K20D next year to go with my Pentax 35 F2.

Time to check the couch for spare change again.


Great review! I shoot with Canons, used to shoot with Nikons and I've owned a couple of Sony...TVs.

I've got pictures hanging on the walls at home and at work made with 4x5 Wista, Canon 1n and 30D, Leica M6, Pentax 645, Mamiya C330, Nikon F2 and Kodak disposable. I love all these pictures and I consider the camera used in making them to be the least important part of the whole process. But it's still fun to read about which car won the race this month.

So my question, as I contemplate purchasing a 5DMKII, is whether it might come closer to having "the ungodly resolving power of the A900" with some new Zeiss ZE mount glass in front of it.

At PhotoPlus this year I took a look at the Zeiss 85mm for EF mount, and it was certainly impressive through the viewfinder--sharp with really smooth out of focus rendering. Unfortunately, they only had a mockup of the 50/1.4 in ZE mount at the show.

I have always purchased Canon SLRs (after being an owner of Olympus point-and-shoots, which depsite having lousy sensors, STILL meter as well or better than any other brands' cameras) but I work with a staff of Nikon users.

To say that Nikon's new SLRs are amazing sells them short. From the D40 through to the D3, they beat their Canon counterparts in sharpness, noise control, ease of use and just about every other measure. Canon still makes great cameras. Nikons are just superior and I'm intrigued that Sony has come so far so fast with their cameras.

It's a great time to be a shooter.

Good summary Mike. I have used all these and the D3X as well, currently under review. My experience with the 5D MkII is not as bad as yours, and despite some very poor Canon glass issues (unsharpness to one side or the other) with two lenses I have found it hard to make the A900 match the visual acuity of the 5D MkII. The technical reason seems to lie in the A-to-D conversion curve, which is pushing shadows down then lifting three-quarter tones and midtones (I think this also results in the sharpening artefact seen as the 'black dot').

The A900 has, as you say, some qualities which induce loyalty - mainly the viewfinder. It's better than the D3X in brightness and size, and also in dioptre setting tolerance.

I like the rubber waterproof flash shoe cover on the D3X. It makes a statement.


Thank you! Your discussion about file editability is something I've not seen anywhere else. Very good info to weigh in my workflow. I always shoot raw and can never seem to leave an image alone. I dream of the day when single exposure files can be changed from day to night with no loss in IQ. It's frustrating when they start breaking down at twilight.

Even though I haven't used any of the three cameras you reviewed, your conclusions make sense to me. As with so many real world decisions, the choices aren't always clear-cut. There will always be some things you will have to live with with in exchange for the features you love.

The only thing I'd add is that image quality isn't the only factor in making a choice. You may need a particular lens or flash capability that another manufacturer doesn't offer. You may have a large investment in legacy equipment. You may simply like the "feel" of one camera over another.

Whatever these factors may be, I feel reasonably certain that at this level of quality there's not a bad choice to be had among them.

It TRULY is a great time to be a photographer, but, from my perspective, that's because Hasselblads and Rolleiflexes have been made affordable by these wunderplastic digital thingamajigs. They have not really made film cheaper, but, hey, foregoing a $3,000 camera will buy a lot of film while it lasts.

I'm agree with the A900. I'm actually own this camera, and i can say that i have never been able to play like that with the Fill light slider of Lightroom before. Even i have been able to get very good result in one shot that before needed Bracketing to be able to do that.

Thanks for your time to show us this review,



Twenty-nine comments within just a few hours of this article being posted. Gear-heads sure rule the Internet, eh? (Of course by virtue of posting this comment I, too, am a...)

Hi Mike,
nice comparison!! just wanted you
to look at the weird noise on the canon file.
I have a 1dsmk3 and have seen that noise structure before.Its not the camera its acr,
it does not appear in dpp or raw developer for
example with the 1dsmk3 so I stopped using acr
on those files. I always put it down to acr doing some noise reduction by default that
can not be turned off.


A super read.

On a personal note, and pass the sick bags round, can I just say thank you for treating us like adults. In the days of puff-piece 'reviews' it's a source of joy to come here. I could read you all day.


Mike, this is one of the most interesting, credible an unbiased comment I've read in a long time. I've been shooting Canon for the past 2,5 years, but I think the D700 will soon lure me back into the Nikon camp. Definitely with your review's help, thanks again.

Nicely done Mike.

What is really interesting to me is the fact that there is such a large spread in the capabilities of these cameras ("large spread" being relative, of course). What does it mean? I think it means that, contrary to frequent declarations that "digital has arrived," it is still evolving and has quite a way to go. If we were truly "there," wherever that might be, the competition would be a lot closer.

So I would like to modify the also-frequent declaration that "it is a great time to be a photographer" to read "it is a *fascinating* time to be a photographer." It really is. It is also an expensive time to be a photographer because whatever you buy this month will be significantly improved and probably cheaper next month, and you'll have to give in and upgrade at some point (another common statement these days: "this is all the camera I'll ever need" ... yeah, right.)

As others have mentioned, while we're on this roller coaster ride it is vital to consider the system and support when considering a digital camera. Compared to a selection of top-notch lenses most camera bodies are a relatively small expense. Buy the best lenses you can get your hands on, and the bodies will eventually evolve to make the most of them (as long as you choose a stable, reliable manufacturer).

Fascinating. Truly fascinating.

Having moved through the Sony system from the A200, to the A700, to the A900 in under a year (yeah, silly, I know), I can say without a doubt that the DR available in the a900 is staggering.

Also, all that old and still (relatively) cheap Minolta glass works wonders on full-frame. Much better, in fact, than on crop-sensor. Punches a lot of holes in the sweet-spot idea, showing that lens design is much more nuanced than "sharp in the center".

PS Funny, but the DR only works one way. If you try and pull shadows, ruh-roh! Noisy mess! I just overexpose by about .3-.7EV and all is well.

Well, I'd go with the Canon since that is what I already own. No comparison needed, though I did enjoy reading it the sense that the grass in greener on the other side is one to try and ignore I think.

I've started to get the impression, and I'm disapointed that Canon aren't entirely sure what they want to achieve except to be better than everyone else, they certainly push the technology I think but it shows it's limits. Nikon and Sony it seems to me have chosen particular directions and strengths to concentrate on to target an audience.

I'd have to leave the Sony behind since high ISO is far more important to me than high resolution. The Nikon makes me envious but since I can only afford a 40D and won't get much better for the same price I'm a happy bunny. And far more importantly I get a very affordable 28mm f1.8 to play with. :-)

Obviously the reviever is baised against Canon. Did not take into account D700 detail loss as a result of noise reduction to contain noise at high ISO. Also failure to take into account 5DMk2 when downsized to 12MP will have lower noise abouut 1 stop better and 2 stops better in sRAW1.
Comparing 21MP with 12MP with only half a stop better in noise for the 12MP is a huge victory for the 21MP camera.

Thanks for taking the time with these three cameras, I'll bet it was fun to do. As many of your commenters have said already, it's a nice new crop of cameras coming out now.

That night shot with the D700 is astounding, due mainly to your skill as a photographer, I'm sure, but it's pretty cool we can be out shooting in the dark.

I'm starting to feel weird about the 5D Mark II "black dots" issue, though, I haven't been able to reproduce it. I even took 25-second exposures of Christmas lights the other night and didn't see it.

My dream from Canon would be a FF camera, in the 15-mp neighborhood (just seems like a nice neighborhood) with a fast frame rate like the 40D, 100% viewfinder, nice screen. I have found 21-mp RAW files tough to deal with.


Does anyone have a mental model for how long they would be likely to use one of these cameras in light of the "march of progress" or their own personal camera purchasing habits? I bought a D3 last summer and have been more than prone to flirtation with other cameras, systems. But I really hope the camera can go, say, 10 years, without needing major care. Now I well know that 10 years is an age and a half in digi-photo land (11 years ago I bought a Sony Mavica, a camera whose specs would not allow for retail sale in today's marketplace). Any ideas?

Ben Marks

So I will go for the Sony A900. Not now!!!.....hell no, but in 2 years time.
Second hand. When everybody wants the newest camera-blingbling and the A900 seems to outdated for them.
Good thing that the resale value is maybe not so good :-)
My analog gear always maintained a good resale value.
Ever since I have seen the resale value of my D200 drop 60% within 1 year (because of the D300) I know that buying this stuff new is crazy. As long as technology is changing so rapidly I am content with the 'older' cameras. My now very old D200 is still o.k.

There's one more camera that would be interesting to see here - the D3x. Yes, it's a lot more expensive (and a big heavy body!), but it seems to combine a lot of the features you like in the Sony and the Nikon, and the early image quality reports are amazing - basically all the image quality virtues of the Sony, but with some "secret Nikon sauce" (which, from the price, is made of pure unobtainium), that gives it a lot of the low-noise character of the Nikon as well. At least one photographer I trust says that pixel-for-pixel, it beats the Phase One P45+! Samples I've seen scream "Phase" or "Hasselblad", rather than "very good 35mm"
Admission - I like Nikon a lot - it has the best ergonomics of all for me (although I'm shooting Canon now, from the days when Nikon had no high-res camera), and I have a D3x on preorder - it has convinced me to switch back. I agree with Edward Taylor that competition is in the best interest of all the makers, and, most of all, in the best interest of photographers. If the D3x has raised the image-quality bar, it simply means that the 1Ds mkIV will be better than it otherwise might have been, and that Sony will keep the best things about the Alpha 900, while working on its weaknesses, in the next model. Having three manufacturers working on ultimate image quality "35mm" DSLRs means that we'll get more cameras, better, sooner and cheaper than we would with one or two.


I appreciate the impartiality of the review.

It doesn't make sense to compare these two cameras to the D3/D700. The D3/D700 are clearly made for speed and versatility while the Canon and Sony were made with resolution in mind.

It would be silly to shoot commercial action with an A900 instead of a D3, it would be silly to shoot products with a D3 instead of a 5Dmk2 or an A900.

And if you're not a commercial photographer, it's silly to buy any of these 4 cameras.

"Obviously the reviever is baised against Canon."

Oh, all right, you caught me. I admit it...bias. Yes, sweet bias! But you would be biased too, if YOUR ENTIRE FAMILY HAD BEEN WIPED OUT BY CANON SHOOTERS. You have no idea how I've hungered for this day.

We were simple farming folk, Ma and me. We were young, still in love, with two young 'uns and one more on the way. We toiled from sunup till sundown, every day, milking Moose Peterson, our cow, at dawn, and scratching the miserable soil to raise our sun-baked crops. Our entire wealth consisted of an old, battered FM and an E Series zoom (but the good one--the 75-150mm that all the fashion shooters used). Every Christmas Eve, we gave the kids their one toy for the year--a corncob doll dressed to look like David Bailey.

Then one day, one terrible day, I was off in the back forty with David Douglas Duncan, our mule, and I heard it...motor drives, dozens of 'em. I knew what was happening, but I wouldn't face it. I couldn't. I ran like a crazy man across the field, stumbling in the newly plowed furrows. But it was too late--by the time I got to the old homestead, it was burning. My entire family had been wiped out by a marauding band of drunken photojournalists...Canon shooters, every last one of 'em. (What can I say, it was 1998.)

My humble sod house and my poor darlings had been...yes...PICTURESQUE. Too photogenic for their own good.

I buried my family in the Kansas dust blinded by hot tears. But when the last of my beloved were in the ground, I felt took my trusty old FM and mounted David Douglas Duncan (er...), and I set off, a murderous rage rising in my throat. I swore two things that night, my friend...I swore that those were the last tears I would ever shed, and that one day...one day...come what may, I would live to WRITE LUKEWARM REVIEWS OF CANONS. I'd never rest until I'd done it. I'd have my revenge.

So I've been waiting. Waiting, all these years. Suddenly, I saw my chance! Canon had come out with a new camera that was so popular no vendor could keep it in stock. Oh, that's right, I suspected that nothing I said could possibly have any effect on its sales, that indeed Canon took no more note of me than a gnat on a giant white telephoto. But I didn't care! No, I didn't care. It was my chance, and I took it: I didn't write a rave. That's right, read it again, shocked as you might well be: I DIDN'T RAVE. It took guts, it took courage, it took all the strength I had, but I kept thinking of my family, and I wrote that lukewarm review. I said only a few nice things. I did it.

My babies rested a little easier in the ground that night, I can tell you that. And only one commenter, one astute, analytical bastard, detected my bias and realized my perfidy. But I had said what I thought by then and it was too late, so damn the consequences.

That night, I blew a wisp of smoke from my now-ancient FM and replaced it in its dorky belt pack. Its job was done, friend...for now. FOR NOW.

Mike J.


When got around to the cameras grace in handling the transition into blown out highlights you got to one of the toughest things for a digital camera to do well. But it isn't just an issue of the cameras. The RAW converters vary widely in what they will do, also. For instance I generally adore what Nikon Capture NX2 does with my NEF files.... until it comes to blown out highlights. Then, in those cases, there is nothing else like Aperture to gracefully recover highlights and render the nice, photographic gradation of tones into the highlights that we want. ACR can come close, but no cigar.

But I only know that on NEF files out of a Nikon. How do the RAW converters vary with files from each of the other cameras? This is where the common practice of camera reviewers using to ACR to "standardize" the results between cameras falls down. The camera/software combination is a whole solution. What I really care about is which combination makes the best total image solution. In that case, for instance, a Nikon might have a real advantage because it can take advantage of Nikon Capture NX2. (And the same might be true of Canon and their software, as well.)

Divorcing the camera from its available software is not necessarily the best way of evaluating the whole system.


I can understand that the text below refers to the 5DII lamp photo that is blown out:

"This is a detail (maybe 30%) of a larger image, and this is somewhat behind the plane of focus (the subject was a girl lying on the bed*), so don't expect it to be sharp—just look at the tonality (luminance values):"


But if the text below is referrng to the 2nd, less blown out lamp - is the 2nd lamp photo a "corrected by sliders" 5DII photo or a photo from the A900?:

"Sony A900 detail

It's just a screen shot from ACR, no corrections applied. Now look at the same section with some judicious use of the "Exposure" slider and the "Recovery" slider slammed all the way to the right (you can see that it's picked up a bit more blue, for one thing):"


...AND if the 2nd lamp photo has "...no corrections applied." Why do you then go on to say: "the exposure and recovery slider "slammed" all the way to the right"?

I am confused, not that what I wrote isn't equally as confusing.

Would you mind saying what program you used to process the lamp photo/girl on the bed photo from the 5DII? If it was ACR, could you possible process with DPP and see if the DR is improved?


Most of us who have owned and loved to use the 5D and have a bagful of Canon lenses are left with little choice but to upgrade to 5DII, unless we want the weather-proofing and expense of 1 series.

The A900 is looking promising. I've heard great things about the Zeiss 24-70 that works with it. Does Sony (or Zeiss) make exceptional wide angle, telephoto, macro, Tilt-Shift, and a couple of key fast primes such as 35/1.4, 85/1.2, 135/2, etc.?

Dear Mark,

"It doesn't make sense to compare these two cameras to the D3/D700."

Which is exactly what you did in the rest of your post.

Consider just what the word "compare" means.

Without such comparisons, how is a hapless would-be camera buyer to know which camera will best suit their needs? As you point out, they have very different strong and weak points. This is exactly what Mike was pointing out.

It's not a horse race, y'know, nor is there any level playing field to be invoked.

To others who've criticized the lack of visual evidence to support Mike's reviews--that's not what illustrations are for. They are to illuminate the points the reviewer makes in the text. They're not proof of his claims, nor are they evidence for your consideration. If you don't believe his words, you've got no reason to believe photograph would serve as proof (easy to pick and choose illos that make one's point). If you do, then you don't need to cross-examine them.

pax / Ctein

Nice reviews. I have read your stuff over the years and next to David Vestal I am impressed. I have stopped with the D300/D2x-Telephone for events. For personal work I have gone to Epson R-D1--not the same IQ but lighter and easier to use in action events--for me. Yes, I have a lot of Nikon/Voightlander lenses and now I am able to focus on the moment--not the equipment. You do good work but equipment is not the answer!

The issues you describe with the "character of the noise" are specific to ACR. This is a result of the demosaicing and to a lesser degree the default noise reduction and is especially visible at higher ISO's - but as you say only at pixel peeping levels.

DPP (and others) produce more natural looking noise.

Good points though and a fair comparison as far as I'm concerned.

So the most recommended camera out of the Sony, Canon and Nikon is the...

Pentax K20D?


Man, this cowboy story is great, you are a very talented writer Mike!

Was worth to go through the comments, so much gearheads, like i am one...

Let the record show that at 7:53 PM Wednesday, 17 December 2008 Mike Johnston finally cracked.

(Great post, btw.)

"And if you're not a commercial photographer, it's silly to buy any of these 4 cameras."

There's a slight chance--slight--that the D3 will sell more to pros than to amateurs. But no way on the other three, which will sell far more to amateurs than to commercial shooters. The percentage sold to commercial pros will be well down in the single digits, I'd guess.

Mike J.

Mike, regarding Canon's color noise, there are numerous posts on the web (mine is in the Luminous Landscape forum: http://luminous-landscape.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=29894&st=0&p=241243&#entry241243) which seem to clearly illustrate that the problem is with ACR, not Canon (or at least not totally). Canon's own (and free) Raw developer DPP 3.5 generates visibly less color noise and finer, tighter luminosity noise. Adobe likes to argue that Canon uses aggressive noise reduction even when all sliders are set to zero (i.e., in the de-mosaicking stage), but as a user, do I really care where that happens, if the final result contains less noise while preserving details?

For landscapes, I think the old Canon 5D does much better than any of the Nikons when it comes to gorgeous, lush full of life colors. It out-resolves the Nikon D700 as well.

For people (particularly with flashguns) and action photography, the Nikon does much better than Canon - both in skin color and speed and flash exposure.

It would be nice to own each brand and a set of lenses for each.

But everyone will have to choose which tool works best for them.

The Canon 5D Mark II will end up being the best compromise - as any engineer has to do.

Universal negative comment to save others the trouble:

"Infidel!! Blasphemer against the name of (insert beloved camera brand here). May the mother of all dust clouds land on your image sensor!!!"

As for me, it was a nice, sensible review. No money for any of those cameras but I can still dream.

i really appreciate the practical, sensibly reasoned and written comparison here between three cameras which interest me a great deal. obviously, if i could get a camera with the pixel iso performance, control dial customizability and responsiveness of the nikon, the prism and dynamic range of the sony, and the (relatively) quiet shutter, fast prime af lenses, and mode dial of the canon (though that mode dial should be interlocked) (and the live view/video capabilities!) then i'd be done for a good long time.

but as much as the nikon's responsiveness calls out to me, i can't see going down that road for a few simple reasons. the camera is bigger and louder (and the 5d is right around the limit of what i can tolerate in terms of size and noise). i can't see giving up my 24/1.4 and 50/1.2 lenses (i'm in a phase right now where i don't use the 35, though it's very nice too).

i was really hoping that the canon would be perfect for me as a move up from the 5d. the staid choice to keep the old shutter/mirror release (relatively slow) and af (relatively slow, and needs more light than the sensor does) systems burst that bubble, but then again it could be worse. for the way i shoot, the extra custom positions on the mode dial will be really indispensable. (walking down the street, i usually have the camera in manual set for sunlight, and the c1 set for shadows. what i need is another few blind-switchable modes for narrow/deep dof, and/or continuous af mode. the 5dII should deliver that, i think.) it looks like there's at least a stop better high iso performance as well, and that will be really useful to me. but mostly i think the canon will be my choice because it is enough better than what i have, and close enough to what i could otherwise have, and allow me to still have fast primes.

ironically, what i really want is a different camera altogether--basically any of these three sensors in something very like a leica m body, w/o some of the conceits of that camera (including price). can you imagine a camera with a sensor like that (go ahead and use microlenses and software to correct falloff) which handled like a leica m--but that also implemented live view on a good lcd? a rf with a through the lens view option for when you need it... boy would that be great. i'd dump the slr gear in a heartbeat.

I've got an original 5D along with a bunch of lenses and accessories, so it would be easier to just get a 5DII, but I just can't get excited about its output. I'm glad to find out that I'm not the only one that looks at 5DII samples and feels like they're not all that great. "Too digital" describes them well.

The A900 samples I've seen, on the other hand, look fantastic. Sure it may not be as good as the other cams at higher sensitivities, but the resolution is incredible and the overall look of the files is very natural.

Oh yeah, I may start calling you "The Outlaw Mike Johnson" Great satire.

Take the bull by the tail and face the situation. I've decided not to "upgrade" until I've mastered the 4x5 I purchased in 1984. I figure if the photos don't work then it's my fault and not the camera's. My only dismay is that Polaroid has died leaving me with a pair of useless Pol backs — pack film and 4x5.

Thank you Mike for your Report. I love the way you explain the most complicated stuff ;-)

As an amateur who has painfully been evaluating these 3 for the last month or so, and been reading Every review (and there are a lot of those ;-) here is my take:

Canon 5Dii:
Pro: SEALED lenses, F4 lens line up, 35L, 135L
Con: IQ, ergonomics, Body NOT sealed, No flash

Nikon D700:
Pro: Great Sealed body, IQ, High ISO, AF, flash, Metering, 12-14, 70-200/VR, Re-Sale value
Cons: Sealed lenses?, Wide primes, 12MP

Sony A900:
Pro: In-Body IS/VR, 24MP, Viewfinder, Sealed body, ergonomics, IQ, Zeiss lenses
Cons: Noise, no flash, Expensive Lenses, Price$, 35mm/F2?, Third party software/hardware support

I very much like the Canon lens line up, and over the weekend I had a chance to play with the 5D (old model)... I just could not get over how complicated it was to change settings. I want to keep my index finger on the shutter, and use the back wheel to change exposure... very hard to do on this Canon (for me!)

My local store's 5Dii pre-order came in on Monday... I gave up my spot.

Choosing between these cameras has turned out to be more difficult than I'd thought. If I was invested on their lenses, the decision would have been easy.

Now, Sony or Nikon?

And, I've been spoiled by Pentax's in-body-stabilizer, FULLY sealed body AND lenses, wonderful SMALL primes, and fantastic ergonomics.

I too am a canon and Leica shooter. I wish after reading this and other reviews that sony had a real pro system meaning a sports camera and complete line of lenses including a 400 2.8. But they do not and I shoot pro sports music street work and landscapes. Simply put where I disagree with Michael about the 5d mk11 in low light compared to the nikon, the more digital look compared to sony I have to agree with. I hate the out of focus noise with the nikon compared to the canon. But the blown highlights compared to the sony there is no arguing about. Someday I will be made of money and have all cameras. Till then oh well. Thanks for article Mike

How does the 5D Mark II compare in noise with the D700 if the 21MP images are resized to 12MP like the D700 has?

Well, like a lot, I'm staying with what I have for many reasons and if I did win the lottery, I'd probably go with the 5D MKII for the reasons of do it all. I've also found DPP to be the best raw converter for Canon and have stopped even trying to use anything else.

I cannot argue with your conclusions about the cameras reviewed, but when the Nikon D3X becomes available tomorrow(Friday 12/19)will you also test it? Yes, I know, everyone hates the $8,000 price tag. Even Adolf Hitler, in a parallel universe at least.;-) And so do I. But before everyone completely rakes it over the coals, it would be fair to give it a proper and thorough series of tests against the A900 and the 5D2 and perhaps the 1Ds3. The latter doesn't have the black dot problem of its younger sister.

Anyway, a good comparison among the 20+Mp DSLR club seems to be called for here.

"Obviously the reviever is baised against Canon."

Oh, all right, you caught me. I admit it...bias. Yes, sweet bias! But you would be biased too, if YOUR ENTIRE FAMILY HAD BEEN WIPED OUT BY CANON SHOOTERS. You have no idea how I've hungered for this day.

You have no idea how hard I laughed at that post. You bent over backwards to be fair, and someone blasts you. Good night.

Look,they're all good. Choose your best compromise. What more do people want? Look at cars. A car is hundreds of compromises. Do the people who post like this own a car? Or do they abjure automobiles on principal?

I want a perfect [fill in the blank],or I won't buy. And anyone who disagrees is stupid.

I wrote this before: People read this free of subscription fees, and they still are unhappy. I give up. I'm going to go back to picketing an engineering school.

I accidentally read the other post thinking that I am reading this comparison article. I looked at the picture and thought - Wah! you can do this with a D700 or ...? May be my learning of 8x10 film is a waste of time. It turned out that it was a 8x10 picture and was another post :-).

Somehow, as a hobby, digital camera has reached a plateau and still does not match certain aspects of some film camera and shall be co-exist. Just like Tri-X and (not vs) Velvia 50. Just consider them as different kind of "film" and for different kind of purpose. I still thought that one shall choose one digital platform for sports/macro and another for street shooting/landscape.

Another angle of the plateau issue would be that it would just like the plateau issue of film camera about one decade ago, the camera company is expected to have a big problem (even though digital camera can be considered as a film camera plus a lot of film and hence digital camera is also a film company). People would not change digital camera much like they have not kept on buying the film camera in 90s. It is a replacement market and the blood bath would continue and goes deeper. Along this line, your statement about camera firm stability is something one has to be taking very seriously.

As a hobby go, I still think the best choice would be a Nikon digital (D90/D300 or Dx0/D700 when the even cheaper full film D90 comes up) plus certain kind of film camera/platform (Rangefinder, Twin lens, large format). We shall now move away from the camera issue (and say "camera does not matter" in a sense) and turns to a more productive discussion on how to make better picture by oneself.

I emphasis the "by oneself" part as hobby goes (and as Art goes), one may not easy taking a better picture in general but one can be better oneself. Fixing the camera issue is important here. You simply cannot fix yourselves with a Canon D30 or Canon G1 and the distraction of camera change affect too much the learning of the technology part. But now you may be able to ignore the change for the next few years (at least if one ignore video) and just use the current generation of digital camera. As one might say, the camera race is dead and long live the camera.

Once again, Mike, your reviews prove to be the most informative, most objective and most entertaining on the web. But I shall buy none of these cameras (at least not until their used values dip below that of the camera packaging).

For me, none of them offers the best IQ in a 35mm package. The best IQ comes from a Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Minolta, Pentax, (even a lowly) Zenit loaded with 35mm FILM.

The other day, I shot two series of photos of our beloved new baby daughter, one using a Canon 40D, the other using a Canon 1V loaded with Fuji ISO 400 colour negative - the same L lenses were used with both cameras.

The prints from the digital files (processed in a local pro-lab with good reputation) have (in comparison) an unnatural colour tonality, lack of sharpness and a 'blotchiness'. Meanwhile, the IQ of the prints from the ISO 400 film took my breath away - absolutely superb and grain free. Indeed, still far better than the digital files when the latter are displayed on a monitor.

Apart from the issue of IQ, the film camera just lets you shoot (through a big, plain viewfinder). No worries about histograms, white balance, JPEG or RAW, nominal ISO speed. . . And what did this used but absolutely mint 1V HS (with integrated 10fps grip) cost me? 530€.

For me, film is back to the future.

Thank you very much for your excellent/fun review/essay by a real photographer about real photography.

Mike, I just have one question - how many of your readers actually know the word "mentsch?" For what it's worth, I think you are one and enjoyed the frankness of this post, which reflects how you always present your materials.

Laurel F.

Thanks Mike, you're a hero for providing the cruical decision relevant information. Great real world oriented analysis! Hans

You attract a bright and open-minded group of readers. Thanks!

My first impression of the A900 was that even the JPGs frequently give me plenty to work with, without having to open the raw files.


Oh, but Nikon's 14-24mm is so nice.

As a pro image quailty is important but it is not the only criteria juding a camera/system. Many things are to consider. As example: What is a 24mpixel sensor good if your lenses are not able to deliver such a high resolution? At the end, you are handlying 100MB (as PSD, RAW or tiff) files per photo. You end up buying a new computer, bigger hard discs and you'll need more time process/backup your photos.

Currently I am using Nikon. Because Sony makes a 24mpix sensor would not make me change my camera. Sooner or later almost every camera will supports that resolution (D3x) It is likely that resolution will even go higher. But then lenses will cost double of what they cost now to bring the quality the sensor needs.*

If I can, I rather work on my photography style than putting to much time and money into hardware. But being a tech-freak dosn't make that easy for me.

* I think this might be the next u.s.p. for lens marketers for nikon, canon, sony etc.: "Buy this 50mm normal lens for US 2500.- It's build for your 30mpixel sensor."

Mike, the blotchy noise character you're seeing from the 5DII is an issue with ACR and Lightroom, not inherently with the Canon camera. Push your 5DII files through Capture One 4.5 and you will see more detail at high ISO, but also more and crisper noise, the chroma component of which is more easily dealt with using dedicated NR tools, like Noise Ninja or neat image. I suspect, when Apple's Aperture does offer support for 5DII images, you will see the character at high ISO as much more filmic than ACR/Lightroom as well, given that Aperture seems to perform automatic (and effective) chroma noise reduction along with rendering luminance noise in a granular manner.

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