Up until recently, full-frame cameras fell into one of two camps: professionally designed workhorses costing thousands of pounds, and the Canon EOS 5D, a much cheaper alternative but a little long in the tooth, with few of the technologies found in more recent DSLRs.
Last year, though, saw the arrival of three new full-frame models, at the £2000 price point or below. The long-promised Sony Alpha900 finally arrived, delivering a 24.6MP sensor, high-resolution LCD and a refined viewfinder to the professional market. The Nikon D700 came as something of a surprise – not least to those who had parted with £3,000 for the original D3 – curiously holding a few advantages over that particular model from which it derived. Finally, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II bounded on the market, replacing its venerable predecessor and thus completing a trinity of professionally specified, affordable full-frame DSLRs.
Of course, what is deemed as affordable is a personal issue, and for the working professional all three cameras should quickly pay for themselves. But now that prices have come down a little, the enthusiast is more likely to consider such a model as a viable upgrade option, particularly as issues such as crop factor have been addressed.
The purpose of this feature therefore, is to look at how each camera performs in comparison with the others, ascertain their strengths and weaknesses, and to examine how these impact on their suitability in different working environments.
Canon EOS 5D Mk.II vs Nikon D700 vs Sony A900: Features
All three cameras are geared towards the enthusiast/professional markets, each carrying with it an impressive specification sheet. At 12.1MP, the Nikon D700 features the lowest pixel count out of the three, followed by the Canon EOS 5D Mark II at 21.1MP and finally the Sony a900 at 24.6MP, in each case on a full-frame CMOS sensor. As we expect, each sensor has been fitted with a dust-reducing vibratory mechanism to help keep the sensor area clean, though only the Sony a900 further uses this technology for image stabilisation.
For the other two cameras image stabilisation is offered via the lens, where the appropriate lens group shifts to counter any camera shake. Many Canon and Nikon lenses now feature image stabilisation – dubbed IS on Canon’s optics and VR on Nikon’s – though these systems are expensive to manufacture, which translates to them carrying a price premium. Both manufacturers do, however, claim their system is the most effective as it’s optimised for the lens and not the body, though Sony’s offers the advantage of working with almost every mounted lens.
The Canon EOS 5D Mark II is unique in being the only model to offer video recording. Video may be captured at a 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution (full HD) at a frame rate of 30fps, and up to a maximum 12 minutes, or you can extend your shooting time to 24 minutes by switching to standard VGA definition of 640 x 480 pixels. Nikon’s D700 may not offer video recording, but it matches the 5D Mark II in supporting live view, which comprises two autofocus modes – tripod and handheld – as well as manual focusing. The a900 offers neither live view nor video, though it does feature an Intelligent Preview mode, which takes a preview image from which any adjustments to white balance, exposure and so on may be viewed and changed, prior to the real image being taken.
The three cameras are better matched when it comes to their LCD screens, in that each is a 3in display with a 920,000-dot resolution, offering 100% coverage of the scene and a wide 170° viewing angle. The device found on the Canon EOS 5D Mark II is complemented by a sensor which monitors shooting conditions, adjusting the LCD’s brightness accordingly, though manual adjustment is possible on all three models.
Unsurprisingly, none of the three cameras offers scene-based exposure presets, with their control centred instead around the PASM (Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual) options. Each camera also differs slightly in the control it provides for storing and accessing custom settings; the EOS 5D Mark II provides three user-defined custom settings via the mode dial, as well as a My Menu option, with the a900 only providing the former and the D700 the latter. The EOS 5D Mark II also features a Creative Auto mode, which allows the user to make adjustments in a user-friendly way (such as blurring the background, which forces the camera to change the aperture), though its status seems somewhat redundant on a model like the 5D Mark II. Having also featured on the recent EOS 50D and EOS 500D models, it’s likely this will trickle down towards the lower end of the EOS DSLR spectrum in future models.
Dynamic range optimisation, which has steadily crept into DSLRs over the past few years, features on all three of these models. Nikon’s comes in the form of Active D-Lighting, which is available in different intensities as well as on an automated setting. Canon has a two-pronged approach, with the Highlight Tone Priority setting and Auto Lighting Optimiser. The former, set to either on or off, regains highlight detail from blown out areas, while the latter benefits both shadow and highlight detail. As with Active D-Lighting users have control over how greatly this is applied, though again, this may also be left to auto. The a900 features perhaps the most comprehensive system, in that there are standard and advanced auto options, together with further settings that let you fine-tune this to one of five levels. Although it may be confusing as to which setting is the most appropriate in a given situation, the Intelligent Preview function allows you to view the effect of each of the seven settings to find the best one.
Each camera’s focusing patterns are largely based upon previously seen configurations. Canon has carried over the nine-point AF system from the original 5D, with an additional six ‘invisible’ points within the central spot-metering circle, while the DIGIC 4 processor is said to improve the speed and accuracy of AF calculations over the model’s predecessor. The a900, meanwhile, sees nine standard points complemented by 10 assisting points, the latter activating when the Wide Area AF mode is called upon. Overwhelming both these, the D700 features a 51-point system, which squeezes in 15 cross-type sensors in its centre, and a further 36 towards the peripheries of the frame.
In terms of output and connections, each camera provides a port for flash synchronisation, external remote controls and HDMI connectivity, and recording in each case takes place onto either CompactFlash or UDMA memory. The a900 further provides a slot for Sony’s proprietary Memory Stick Duo format.
Canon EOS 5D Mk.II vs Nikon D700 vs Sony A900: Design
Despite the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Nikon D700 not technically being at the top of their range, both have been designed and constructed for professional use, as has the flagship a900. Each camera has been sealed to keep out water and dust from where it may incur, though despite the promise of weatherproofing, there was one occasion with the EOS 5D Mark II (right) where some rain managed to make its way into the top-plate LCD. Although this dried out within a few hours, it still leads me to believe that the camera isn’t perhaps as tightly sealed as the other two.
None of the three cameras creaks or shows any signs of weakness when subjected to a firm hold, while the grip, back plate and sides of each body have been rubberised for both comfort and security. Internally, the shutter mechanisms for both the D700 and 5D Mark II have been tested to 150,000 cycles, with the a900 slightly behind at 100,000.
On the grip side of each camera’s top-plate lies an LCD screen, whose main purpose is to display exposure information. The four extra buttons that the Sony A900 (left) has squeezed into this space means that this display is much smaller than the others, and consequently is only able to display basic information at default, though any changes you make to shooting parameters such as ISO and white balance are indicated on this screen. These aforementioned buttons – which concern drive mode, exposure compensation, white balance and ISO – aren’t all easy to operate quickly without straining your finger, particularly the latter two, which are furthest towards the back of the camera. Another consequence of the Sony’s smaller LCD monitor is that in some cases it only allows for somewhat obscure labelling of certain menu options: continuous shooting at low speed is simply stated as ‘oooL’, for example.
The Canon and Nikon offer a similar concept of menu- and body-based controls, though on both I find it easier and faster to change settings via the dedicated buttons. Canon’s long-standing arrangement of pairing up two key functions per button on the top-plate makes changing these with one hand easy, and as with the other two cameras changes to exposure, sensitivity and so on are indicated in the viewfinder, too. You generally need two hands to do the same on the D700, as the buttons for image quality, white balance and sensitivity are located on the other side of the camera to the two command dials, though neither of the three systems is unworkable.
The menus, however, are a little trickier to navigate on the a900, mainly because the same black, orange and white colour palette is used throughout the various tabs and options. Even after extended periods of use, I would often find myself needing to carefully look through each tab to make sure I didn’t go past what I was looking for. Admittedly this may seem a trivial concern, but a simple thing such as menu colour coding ultimately makes a camera easier and quicker to operate. In any case, the a900 does redeem itself by offering a clear graphic user interface panel from which to adjust key settings, as does the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. (Right: the Nikon D700)
Canon EOS 5D Mk.II vs Nikon D700 vs Sony A900: Performance
Now that all three models have been out for a while and they have developed a reputation for themselves. The D700, for example, is perhaps best known for its responsiveness and low-light ability, and while this is very much the case, testing all three cameras together shines light on other factors that may not be as apparent.
Essentially, the price the D700 pays for having such a comprehensive focusing system is that it takes a little longer when the camera is instructed to find what should be in focus. Set on its Auto Area AF mode the camera hesitates slightly to ensure it has the correct subject and however many of the 51 points activated, while focusing from one extreme to another also shows this slowdown – something to consider if using a lens with a particularly wide focal range. By contrast, both the other two cameras – the 5D Mark II and a900 – are a little quicker in this respect, although with fewer points they understandably have a lot less work to do.
The D700 compensates for this by offering a superb continuous tracking performance, which is where the saturation of the 51 AF points pays off. The camera reacts to the smallest movements and changes the focusing points accordingly. The other two cameras have their focusing points occupying a smaller proportion of the frame, and so their performance can only extend so far towards the peripheries before the system gives up. They are, however, brighter than those of the D700, which is helpful when shooting in darker conditions.
On the subject of speed, both the a900 and 5D Mark II can be fairly unforgiving of anything but the fastest memory cards, not to mention spacious hard drives and fairly up-to-date computer systems. The 5D Mark II in particular seems to take a little more time to process its files in-camera, and I did miss a couple of shots when shooting Raw and JPEG files on slower memory cards. This suggests that while the pixel count of the two models may offer an advantage over the D700 in the resolution stakes, their processors aren’t comparably as fast to deal with so much information, slowing down the capturing process.
While all three LCD screens are excellent in displaying detailed and contrasty images, the D700’s falls a little short in comparison with the other two. Outside in bright sunlight, I found its contrast decreased the most, making reviewing images and checking exposure more difficult. A more minor niggle is that its viewfinder isn’t quite as bright or clear as those of the other two cameras, but this is only noticeable when comparing the three together. The a900’s viewfinder is something Sony strived to get right, and it certainly is one of the pleasures of the camera. Its performance is comparable to that of the 5D Mark II, but it offers the advantage of covering 100% of the frame.
Canon EOS 5D Mk.II vs Nikon D700 vs Sony A900: Back Views
A closer look at the backs of these cameras
Drive modes including timers, live view and mirror lock-up are accessed via the dial to the left of the viewfinder, on top of which sit buttons for image quality, white balance and ISO.
Offering 100% coverage, the viewfinder is fronted by a porthole style cup.
Top plate LCD
Exposure information is displayed on this LCD.
Focus Point Lock
By locking the focus point with the dial around the control pad, you eliminate the risk of accidentally changing the focus point while shooting.
The focus modes may be selected via the switch at the lower right of the LCD screen. This includes the dynamic area mode, which uses all 51 points (if you wish) to track moving subjects.
Sony Alpha 900
The a900’s viewfinder is large, bright and an absolute pleasure to use.
2. Quick Access Buttons
The top-plate buttons quicken access to certain settings, such as exposure compensation and drive modes.
Metering patterns are changed via the collar around the AEL button, with three options – spot, average and evaluative.
The 920,000-dot LCD screen measures 3 inches in size, and makes light work of reviewing fine detail.
This started out as a dedicated mode dial on the a100, though now it accesses the graphic user interface (left) which displays the various shooting options. From here these may be changed using the two command dials and the joystick on the rear.
Canon EOS 5D Mark.II
The 5D Mark II is the only camera out of the three to feature a mode dial (top left), which contains exposure options, custom settings and the Auto modes. It also allows direct access to the bulb function.
This button (to the left of the eyepiece) accesses the live view function, from which you also can start shooting video. It also doubles up as Canon’s Direct Print button.
When playing back movies, the small speaker allows you to listen to your recordings.
The 3in high-res LCD screen is primed with a number of coatings for the prevention of dirt
build-up and reflections, among other things.
This scroll dial (the big, round dial on the right) allows you to change key settings in a hurry.
Canon EOS 5D Mk.II vs Nikon D700 vs Sony A900: Image Quality
The D700 has received much acclaim for its low-light performance and, as our tests demonstrate, the other two cameras can’t quite manage to better it. At higher sensitivities, images from the D700 are clean and detailed, though the extra resolution of the other two cameras means that finer detail is ultimately better resolved. The EOS 5D Mark II shows little chroma noise at higher settings, though with good detail remaining, while the a900 is overall the noisiest. As many photographers only ever shoot towards the lower end of the ISO scale this would be easy to forgive, though the a900 begins to show noise at a lower ISO threshold than the others.
In the studio, the D700 was the only camera to produce a relatively light midtone, with the other two cameras hitting the middle pretty accurately. What this means is that shadow detail is retained better at default, at the expense of highlight detail. Despite this, exposures are generally accurate. The a900 underexposed slightly more frequently than the 5D Mark II, but this was only the case in certain tricky conditions.
Colour and White Balance
None of the three cameras produces images with any objectionable colour or white balance issues, though there are differences. Typically, the lighter midtone on the D700 affects colour, while colour from the EOS 5D Mark II is excellent and vibrant, and without a doubt a strength of the camera. The a900 also showed very good colour, with a slightly warm white balance system. Under artificial lighting the D700 performed similarly to the D90 and D300 models, making the greatest attempt to neutralise colour casts.
Detail and Sharpness
Unlike with cameras whose pixel counts vary little from each other, the resolution advantage of the a900 and 5D Mark II over the D700 is obvious. Images are larger and more detailed, but this is only appreciated at 100% viewing and printing sizes. The detail all three cameras can capture is impressive to say the least, though at higher sensitivities only the D700 manages this without degrading the image too much. Both the a900 and 5D Mark II are capable of delivering superb detail throughout the full range of their sensitivities, though the a900 did seem to have a slight edge when images were downsized to match those from the EOS 5D Mark II.
Throughout this test, I used each camera with fast 50mm prime lenses, each manufacturer’s professionally oriented 24-70mm optics, and a handful of other lenses I happened to have to hand. Stopped down to f/11 each of the 50mm prime lenses delivers superb detail, with the Sony 50mm f/1.4 optic in particular shining. None of the 24-70mm lenses suffered from distortion to any degree of concern, and all did an excellent job to suppress chromatic aberrations.
Raw images from the D700 were very workable and showed good latitude for processing, though the other two cameras, despite having much smaller photosites, offered impressive headroom for dynamic range adjustments. This allowed detail in both highlights and shadows to be brought back from the brink.
Canon EOS 5D Mk.II vs Nikon D700 vs Sony A900: Verdict
When Nikon’s D700 was released it had little by way of competition. Canon’s original 5D was perhaps its closest rival, and until the MK II’s launch the two were naturally compared, but three years of technological advancement had led Nikon to produce a model that could offer so much more. Dust reduction, live view and high-resolution LCD screens had become the norm, and maximum sensitivities were increasing as processing and sensor technologies had developed. The arrival of Sony’s a900 only reinforced what consumers should be expecting as standard, so it’s just as well that Canon did finally release a model fit for the modern era. Of course, the fallout of this is that while all three are excellent in their own right, inevitably, they’re all different.
As such, a comparison between the three can only conclude so much. A professional choosing one of these models will almost certainly be governed by whether a 12MP sensor is enough for their requirements. If not, the other two cameras offer a cheaper and more portable alternative to medium format systems, and are more suited to those applications where detail is likely to be scrutinised – fashion, studio and landscapes would be three such areas.
For reasons I can’t put my finger on, I’ve had the most fun using the Sony a900 (particularly with the excellent Carl Zeiss 24-70mm lens), and the detail it is capable of resolving is incredible. Obviously Sony has had quite a leg up from Konica Minolta to get this far in the DSLR market so quickly, but to produce a model that can more or less comfortably rival the other two is still a significant acomplishment. As for the Nikon D700, I’ve consistently relied upon its responsiveness and performance in a variety of conditions, and the spatial advantage of its photosites makes it more tolerant to poor lighting.
And while Canon may have initially lost some sales to the D700, the wait was clearly worth it to bring together the 5D Mark II. Its high-resolution images and obligatory professional trappings make it the most well-rounded camera out of the three, and its video mode signals a new era for the working professional.
So which one is right for you? The answer will largely depend on what
you’re using it for. If you shoot landscapes or work in the studio,
with the camera on a tripod, rarely venture above ISO 400, and want the
highest possible resolution, the Sony Alpha 900 would be your choice.
For photojournalism, sport, wildlife, concerts and other types of
photography where you may be called upon to shoot moving subjects, in
less than ideal light conditions, then there is no finer camera than
the Nikon D700 (with the possible exception of the much more expensive
Nikon D3 from which its technology is derived).
If you want the best of
both worlds – the high resolution of the Sony and the versatility of
the Nikon, the Canon EOS 5D Mk.II offers a good compromise between the
two – and with HD video to boot.
In summary though, these are all
exceptional cameras and I find it hard to believe anyone could be
genuinely dissatisfied by any one of them.