In 2012 Canon launched the world’s first SLR style camera with the capability to record Full HD video, the 5D MKII. Since then with the release of the Mark III and IV models, the 5D line has established a strong reputation as the hybrid motion/stills workhorse camera of choice for many photographers and DOPs. This has been supported by the brand’s emphasis on video features and high ISO performance as well as the huge variety and convenience of the long-established EF mount lens ecosystem.
The success of the hybrid Canon 5D series stands in stark contrast to Nikon’s rival offerings. The D8XX series, in particular, has prioritised higher resolution and dynamic range at base ISO to high-ISO performance and video features. With the release of the D850 Nikon has closed the gap significantly introducing features including focus peaking, 4k video recording and 120fps Full HD video.
To compare, the 5DMKIV also features 4K recording but this only utilises the centre of the sensor resulting in a 1.5x crop factor. Full HD recording is also limited to 59.94 fps, however, the MKIV still remains the first choice for many. In order to compare the video performance of the competing camera bodies, I have tested them side by side in our kit-room, using one of our JJ coffee mugs (Video below). I kept exposure settings consistent between the two cameras and increased ISO incrementally from 100 to 25600. The Nikon D850 is fitted with a 50mm 1.4G lens and the Canon 5DMKIV with the 50mm 1.2L series.
Low Light Performance
Note on recording settings: both cameras were set to the flattest available standard picture profile – ‘Neutral’ on the Canon and ‘Flat’ on the Nikon. I did not use the C-Log profile with the Canon as this is an optional upgrade, however, having looked at the results I am not convinced that the Neutral profile footage will stand up to a heavy colour-grade, and at least subjectively I find the Nikon video to be less overtly digitally-cooked and sharpened. Noise Reduction was turned off on both bodies so as to minimise the effects of in-camera processing.
In both examples, noise becomes apparent, particularly in the shadows from ISO 6400. However, this appears to become more distracting and widespread throughout the brighter parts of the image from 12800 on the 5D MKIV. This goes somewhat against my expectations as the Nikon sensor features a much higher resolution and smaller pixel pitch (45.7 megapixels and 4.35 microns compared to the Canon’s 30.4 megapixel and 5.36 microns) – this would usually suggest the sensor should be less optimised for low light.
Looking at the images side by side, it becomes apparent that the crop ratio on the Canon body is also rather extreme which can be an issue for those who desire the perspective and depth of field of the 35mm full-frame sensor. However, this is still larger than the 2x equivalent crop of popular Micro Four Thirds motion cameras like the Panasonic GH5 and Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. A slightly counterintuitive benefit of this is that the body can be used with Super 35 and APS-C lenses without vignetting.
In terms of recording codecs, the D850 uses H.264 – a long GOP (interframe) compression method with 4:2:0 chroma subsampling, whereas the 5D MKIV uses Multiple-JPeg intraframe compression with 4:2:2 chroma subsampling. As a result, the Canon records video at 500mbps, producing much larger files than the Nikon at 144mbps. Whilst this may seem to indicate a lack of quality from the Nikon, and certainly the chromatic subsampling will make the hues of the Canon footage a little more malleable to grading, it is worth bearing in mind that H.264 is a far more efficient form of compression than MJPEG and thus much of the information that is thrown away is simply repeated from frame to frame. Having said this the intraframe compression used by the Canon is more easily decoded in editing, thus requiring less processing power and speeding up the rendering process.
Whilst some of these statements may appear generous towards the D850 there are still a number of cinematographic benefits that raise the appeal of the 5D MKIV – in particular, the abundance of purpose-designed cine lenses for the system. My main concern with the Nikon, however, lies with the lack of an on-sensor phase detection autofocus system meaning that it takes much longer to find focus in live view, sometimes this can become very frustrating when compared to the excellent dual pixel AF system employed by Canon. Even without using cine lenses dual pixel AF allows for smooth fast focus pulling using the touchscreen in live view. In conclusion, both cameras exemplify the current height of how far hybrid camera systems have come in the last 6 years and perform excellently for their own merits. Whilst I believe that the 5D MKIV makes the more effective workhorse body, photographers who are happy to manually pull focus with the Nikon lens system may find that the D850 offers a tantalising alternative to the established dominance of the 5D line.
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