Backscatter Home Backscatter HomeSearchHousing FinderContact
Backscatter Underwater Photo & Video
GalleriesArticlesTrips & ClassesBooks

Hands on with the Canon 5D Mark III, the Nikon D800, and the Nikon D4

Articles » Photo Equipment » Hands on with the Canon 5D Mark III, the Nikon D800, and the Nikon D4

Font Sizes:
Hands on with the Canon 5D Mark III, the Nikon D800, and the Nikon D4

Image of a cenote in Mexico taken by Backscatter Owner Berkley White with a Canon <a href='' class='standard'>5D Mark III</a> in a modified Aquatica housing
The improved low light sensitivity and superb dynamic range makes
the Canon 5D Mark III a perfect match for Mexico's cenotes.

Back in April, Backscatter owner Berkley White took a modified Aquatica housing with the new Canon 5D Mark III for field testing in the Cenotes of Mexico and Lembeh, Indonesia. Please be sure to check out his article about his thoughts on using the 5D Mark III underwater, as well as our review from The Digital Shootout.

2012 is an exciting year with the launch of three incredible SLRs, each of which breaks important new ground in their own ways. The hotly anticipated 5D Mark III continues Canon's excellence in shooting video, while vastly improving the experience of taking stills with improved low light sensitivity and excellent autofocus performance. The Nikon D800 pushes the envelope with astonishing resolution and the best video implementation we've yet seen in a Nikon SLR. The Nikon D4 continues the company's dominance of the low light realm with mind-boggling frame rates for caputuring stills, while also adding excellent video capture and interesting new features such as remote control via ethernet. The Backscatter team could not wait to put these cameras through their paces, and we eagerly tore open the first shipment of cameras to our shop to begin testing and considering their potential for use underwater. Read on to find out about what we've learned, and what we think it all means.

Canon <a href='' class='standard'>5D Mark III</a>

Canon​ 5D Mark​ III

The Canon 5D Mark II forever changed the way that we think about capturing HD video underwater, as we wrote in 2009 in our in depth review. In addition to its prowess in video, the 5D Mark II is also a decent stills camera, but it feels dated, particularly in the areas of autofocus and continuous frame rates.

Canon's successor, the 5D Mark III, makes significant improvement to all aspects of image capture. On the video side, Canon's new ALL-I intraframe codec has more than double the data rate of the 5D Mark II, as it compresses each frame individually. This greatly improves issues of moiré (banding artifacts that can typically appear in photographs of repeating patterns such as clothing, feathers, or other textures), reduces the amount of computer processing power required to play back and edit, and also allows the footage to be more heavily manipulated in post production. This last point is critical, because even the slightest error in setting exposure with the Mark II could render footage unusable, especially in wide-angle reef scenics. The Mark III footage looks to be much more forgiving, with potential to do some heavy color grading.

On the stills side, there has been a world of improvement in Canon's 22 megapixel flagship. While the Mark II autofocus has only 9 points and struggles heavily to acquire focus underwater, the Mark III features a completely overhauled 51 point AF system, giving it parity with the upcoming 1D X. Not only that, the frame rate has been increased from 4 to 6 fps when shooting raw files. Definitely something to make a still shooter smile. The improved AF performance is a boon to video shooters as well, as it makes re-focusing in live view a snap. To top it off, the 5D Mark III has improved its low light sensitivity by at least two stops, making it possible to shoot at higher ISOs with significantly reduced noise. Add in some ergonomic improvements, and Canon has scored a real winner in the 5D Mark III.

Who should choose a Canon 5D Mark III?
If video will be 60% or more of your shooting, choose a 5D Mark III. We hate to say it, but even if that means selling your Nikon lenses. While the new Nikons offer excellent video quality, they fall short on essential video controls as mentioned below. Further, the new ALL-I video format on the Mark III offers much more latitude in post processing. If you're already a Canon still shooter, the lightning fast focus, high ISO performance, and 6 fps shooting speed make the 5D Mark III a no-brainer upgrade.

<a href='' class='standard'>Nikon D800</a>

Nikon​ D800

Nikon rocked the photography world when it introduced the D800, a camera that approaches medium format resolution and dynamic range. With 36 megapixels, the full frame D800 is designed for studio and landscape photographers that demand the highest resolution images for large scale prints. These types of photographers have good control over their lighting with studio strobes or long shutter speeds and tripods. Underwater macro shooters are essentially like topside studio photographers as they can easily light the entire scene with strobes, thus the 36MP resolution will be a huge advantage for cropping macro images for the perfect composition. Even a 50% crop will deliver a very high resolution and printable image.

While the D800 sensor can be cropped (menu option) for use with DX lenses, photographers will want to use FX lenses to make full use of all the extra pixels. However, with favorite DX lenses such as the Tokina 10-17 fisheye, the D800 in DX crop mode will produce similar results to the Nikon D7000 or Canon 7D in regards to resolution and noise. Thus, an underwater photographer could shoot high resolution FX mode for macro and then switch to DX mode for wide. Add in the D800's ability to shoot very respectable video with great quality, and decent controls, and you have what will likely be the most popular Nikon SLR for 2012.

Nikon D800 vs. Nikon D800e
For an extra $300, you can upgrade to the D800e which does not have the standard anti-alaising filter common to all digital SLRs. Anti-aliasing filters slightly blur the image to reduce moiré patterns. The D800e still has a protective filter over the sensor, but it does not alter the image. The D800e will thus offer even sharper images and allow the photographer to use Photoshop to selectively blur the image if necessary. The D800e will be a great choice for landscape photographers and could offer improved results for the majority of underwater images, however, the shooters needs reasonable Photoshop skills to correct images with fabric-like repeating patterns. Video enthusiasts should avoid the D800e as video suffers more from these banding pattern artifacts and is difficult or impossible to correct.

Who should choose a Nikon D800?
The Nikon D800 is the camera Nikon photographers have been waiting for. The Nikon D4 will deliver more frames per second and better low light performance, but the D800 delivers a perfect blend of performance, resolution, and price. We feel the high resolution of the D800 is a dream come true for anyone interested in making large prints, or for macro shooters that always need to crop a photo. While the video quality is stunning, the D800 is cumbersome to execute a manual white balance and does not display a meter while shooting video. That being said, if video is 40% or less of your interest, you'll be thrilled with the photographic power of the D800 and very happy with the video. Read more in our review from The Digital Shootout.

<a href='' class='standard'>Nikon D4</a>

Nikon​ D4

Fast action photographers typically need fast shutter speeds and rely on ambient light levels for a good exposure. Underwater wide angle shooters need enough light to capture a blue water background and sometimes a fast shutter speed to get sharp images of moving animals. Sailfish, dolphins, sharks,and other pelagics are just a few of the subjects that demand fast shutter speeds and high frame rates. Thus, shooters frequently need ISO settings of 400 or higher when photographing them. Unfortunately, high mega pixel sensors produce more noise than low megapixel sensors, and their frame rates generally cannot match these cameras. The 16 megapixel, full frame Nikon D4 has lower resolution, and can shoot much smoother blue water backgrounds and noise free subjects at ISO's of 800 or higher. This makes the D4 the best choice for fast action, low light scenarios.

Like the D800, the Nikon D4 also offers full 1080p video capture, along with the ability to capture an uncompressed signal using an external recorder. Paired with its incredible low light capability, the Nikon D4 could be an intriguing new option for the professional video shooter, albeit with the same annoyances as the D800, including the inability to meter while shooting. Nikon has also added an intriguing new feature - remote control via Ethernet, which opens up some exciting new possibilities for applications in manned submersibles where a pilot will be able to control exposure, focus, white balance, along with both still and video capture from a laptop inside the sub. All in all, the D4 is a major leap forward for Nikon's flagship SLR line.

Who should choose a Nikon D4?
The underwater world is a dark environment, and the Nikon D4 is hands down the ultimate camera for advanced underwater photography. Its butter smooth results in low light opens new doors for ambient light and fast action photography. While some might think 10 frames per second is only for action shooting on land, high frame rates for a slowly passing shark mean you get the perfect body position. The Nikon D4's 16 megapixel resolution should upscale very nicely due to its low noise, but if extremely large prints (bigger than 30 inches on the longest dimension) are your goal, then you are probably going to be better served by a D800. As with the D800, we're disappointed with the cumbersome video controls for white balance and metering. However, for advanced Nikon shooters, there's no better choice. Read our review from The Digital Shootout for more detail on how the D4 performs in practice.

Taking the Canon 5D Mark III, Nikon D800, and Nikon D4 Underwater
So onto the question on everyone's minds: when can we dive with these incredible cameras? Currently, none of these cameras will drop into an existing underwater housing. Our service staff managed to hack an Aquatica 5D Mark II housing to fit a 5D Mark III with some success, and you can see the footage we shot and read about the experience in our article. However, not all functions were readily accessible, and all essential controls would require such high level modifications that costs would quickly match the price of a new housing. Fortunately, several great manufacturers have stepped up to the plate and built brand new housings from the groud up for these impressive cameras.
Nauticam's D800 Housing


  • Ikelite 5D MK III housing and the Ikelite D800 housings
  • Nauticam NA-D800, NA-5DMKIII housings
  • Aquatica 5D MK III and D800 housings
  • Subal ND4 and the ND800 housings
  • Sea & Sea MDX-5DMKIII and MDX-D800 housings

  • Subal <a href='' class='standard'>ND800</a> housing for the <a href='' class='standard'>Nikon D800</a>

    Want to dive a new rig?

    If your dive plans call for a new housing in the next couple of months, please call one of our sales staff. As you might know, these housings are hot commodities and shipping in limited quantities. Our staff is ready to help you choose the best camera and help make sure we meet your travel schedule. Please contact us early so we can help keep your schedule intact.

    Shoot with Us


    EMAIL (please enter it twice)

    ANTI-SPAM: (Please Type Verification Word)
    verification image, type it in the box






    Canon 1Dx Mark II Underwater Camera Review
    Here at Backscatter we are fortunate to have a large customer base of professional underwater filmmakers. This year our conversations have revolved around three cameras: Red Weapon/EPIC Dragon, Sony a7R Mark II, and the new Canon 1DX II. Weve had the chance to spend time in the water with all of the above, and each has their benefits and drawbacks. Heres how the 1Dx Mark II stacks up...

    Underwater TTL Reference Guide
    TTL is an automatic strobe exposure system and a great tool for beginning underwater photographers. TTL systems will allow you to focus on strobe placement while it figures out the best strobe exposure. Its not fail proof, but modern systems have become surprisingly accurate and help make underwater photography even more fun.

    Nikon D500 Underwater Camera Review
    The D500 is Nikons long awaited update to the D300. With blazing shooting speed and Nikons first dive into 4K video, see how this camera performs in the water in our full review with images and video.

    10Bar Strobe Snoots - Underwater Snoot Review
    Snoots are a great way to add more drama to your macro pictures and rekindle your love for all things small in the ocean. The 10Bar Snoot will narrow the beam of your strobe, concentrating the light on just the subject and not the surrounding reef. Aiming a snoot can be challenging so 10Bar added a laser pointer to see where the strobe light will land while you're framing your shot.

    Sony a7R Mark II Underwater Review
    The Sony A7R Mark II is a full frame mirrorless camera that shoots 42 MP stills, 4K video, and has low light capability that is second only to the best low light camera ever, the Sony A7S. Can the new A7R perform on all fronts as promised? Read on to see photos and 4K video from this revolutionary camera.

    Olympus Tough TG-4 Underwater Test and Review
    TG-4 now shoots RAW photos! We recently shot some amazing photos and video with the new Olympus TG-4. Read on for the full review.

    More Articles »

    Backscatter Home Search Housing Finder Contact
        CHECK US OUT ON:  Backscatter on Facebook FACEBOOK   |   Backscatter on Twitter TWITTER BACKSCATTER UNDERWATER VIDEO & PHOTO
    225 Cannery Row, Monterey, California 93940 USA
    PHONE: +1-831-645-1082
    FAX: +1-831-375-1526
    SKYPE: backscatter_west
    Showroom Hours
    16 Manning Street, Suite 103, Derry, NH 03038 USA
    PHONE: +1-603-432-1997
    SKYPE: backscatter_east
    Showroom Hours


    Products by category
    Products by part number

    Download Backscatter Logos


    Visit Our Help Center