The Canon EOS 5D Mark III is the worthy replacement of the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, the full-frame DSLR that changed everything. The 5D Mark II was a phenomenal success when it was released back in 2008 and the camera is still one of the top contenders to this day. Much of this success could be attributed to the 5D Mark II’s most excellent HD video quality, which made its way into commercials and major motion pictures. The 5D Mark II also held the edge over the Nikon D700, the Nikon lacking any sort of video feature. However, with the recent release of the HD video-capable Nikon D800, there are two roads to take on the path to full-frame DSLR enlightenment. I’ll be comparing the two models throughout this review.

 

Canon EOS 5D Mark III Review - A Worthy Successor

Although the Canon EOS 5D Mark III looks nearly unchanged from its predecessor, the camera is equipped with a new arsenal of tricks, most notably the most extensive suite of Autofocus tools I’ve ever seen on a camera. There’s also a brand new 22.3-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor with Canon’s latest Digic 5+ processing, an expanded ISO range, dual SD/CF card slots, an advanced HDR mode, slightly larger LCD screen and new customizable controls. Unfortunately, full-time Autofocus for video didn’t make it onto the 5D Mark III before the Rebel T4i, and the Mark III is not capable of outputting a clean 1080p signal while recording via HDMI. We’ll get to all of that mumbo jumbo in a bit.

But the most disappointing alteration to the new Canon EOS 5D Mark III is its price tag, taunting the wallet at $3,500. The Nikon D800 is $3,000, so that’s a major thing to consider. The good news is that the Canon EOS 5D Mark II has dropped all the way down to $2,200, so if the Mark III’s shiny new bells and whistles are not convincing enough, there’s still a highly affordable alternative within Canon’s full-frame family. But for those who have the budget or want to see what they’re missing, grab your tripod and come along for the ride.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III Video Review

Canon EOS 5D Mark III Overview

Pros

  • Awesome still image and video quality
  • Wider ISO range with fantastic high ISO performance
  • Lots of new video quality modes to shoot in
  • Headphone jack
  • Dual SD/CF card slots
  • Humongous new AF suite
  • Timecode and meticulous audio control for video
  • Excellent HDR mode with Art filters
  • Lightning fast interface/processor and higher burst rate than the Nikon D800
  • Uses same battery packs as the Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Cons

  • Lacks popup flash
  • Sensor is only 2/3 the resolution of the Nikon D800′s
  • No full-time AF in video mode
  • Increased blanket (white) noise when external mic is connected via 3.5mm audio jack
  • No clean HDMI out signal
  • $500 price hike over the Nikon D800

Ideal for: Professional Wedding, Landscape, Street, Portrait and Art photographers. Semi-professional/pro videographers.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III Product Page: Canon EOS 5D Mark III Home.

Price: $3,499.00, body only.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III Design

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Externally, there are only a handful of key design traits that separate the Canon EOS 5D Mark III from the 5D Mark II. The first is the additional roman numeral added to the Mark III’s product name in the lower right hand corner of the camera. Canon slightly altered mirror box shape and widened the LCD screen a bit. In place of the Live View switch is a Focus Lock switch and there’s a brand new Photo/Video switch with embedded Video Record button located up near the viewfinder. There was no need to throw the camera into a dedicated Movie mode, thanks to the handy dandy Live View switch. One of my favorite additions was a headphone jack for monitoring audio, a feature that Nikon also implemented in the D800.

Two Cards, One Camera

But the most exciting addition to the 5D Mark III has to do with something hidden. Like Nikon did with the D800, Canon added dual SD/CF card slots to the 5D Mark III. This ushers in the newer generation of SD cards while still catering to the photographers who have farms of CF cards lying around the studio. The dual card slots also greatly expand the storage capacity of the 5D Mark III. I used a 64GB SanDisk Extreme Pro SDXC in the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and never needed a CF backup, but I would stock the camera with two cards for wedding shoots.

The Canon EOS 5D Mark III benefits from a slightly wider 3.2-inch 1,040,000-pixel LCD display, which trumps the 5D Mark II’s 3-inch 920K display. The 5D Mark III also has a higher resolution LCD than the D800, which sticks with a 921,000-pixel resolution. Overall, the Mark III’s LCD screen was sharp as a tack and exhibited great clarity. The 100% coverage viewfinder was also improved with transparent LCD technology that superimposed focus points and grid lines over the image. However, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III can only display the horizontal/vertical level meter on the LCD screen and not on the viewfinder like the Nikon D800. Lastly, the Mark III now features a handy M-Fn button by the shutter button that offers focus point coverage selection.

Terminals and Controls

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Aside from the new additions listed above, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is almost architecturally identical to the 5D Mark II. The Mode dial lacks the CA (Creative Auto) mode this time around, but that’s okay because I never really saw the need for CA, as it was a stepping stone between Auto and Program AE mode. Again, Canon omitted a popup flash with the 5D Mark III, forcing photographers to rely on their trusty Speedlites or buy one for around $600. The Nikon D800 has a built-in flash and I actually relied on it for moments where I needed more light during spontaneous shoot. This will not irk most pros, but might be a hindrance to budget-minded amateurs who are not pleased about the fact that the EOS 5D Mark III is already $500 more than the Nikon D800.

For steering wheels, Canon carried over the same Main dial, 8-way Multi-controller and Quick Control Dial, which proved to be a winning combination on the 5D Mark II. However, I would have taken the Nikon D800′s 8-way directional pad any day over the 5D Mark III’s 8-way Multi-controller because it was much easier to navigate with. As far as buttons, the 5D Mark III has just about the same setup as the 5D Mark II with AF-ON, AE lock and AF point selection controls along the back. Three shortcut buttons for Metering/WB, AF/Drive and ISO/Exposure Compensation neighbor the secondary LCD screen lamp button. The main LCD screen has a new Picture Style button for HDR and other things we’ll discuss later, as well as Playback buttons, all lined along its left side.

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Now for connectivity, I loved the addition of the Headphone jack, which is an essential tool for any audio monitoring. Just like last year, we have a Mic jack, HDMI out, USB out, Remote and Flash Sync terminals. Unfortunately, the HDMI out terminal does not output a clean, uncompressed image like the Nikon D800 does. This is not a huge factor if you plan on recording internally to the 5D Mark III’s SD or CF cards, but will spell trouble if you’re trying to record to an external source. The Nikon D800 has uncompressed HDMI out, so that’s a big factor if you’re a video guy or girl.

Bring On the Magnesium Alloy

Canon-EOS-5D-Mark-III-Product-TopJust like the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, the EOS 5D Mark III rocks a rugged magnesium alloy body with a 150,000-cycle shutter life at 6fps. The 5D Mark III has gained a few ounces this year, tipping the scale at 30.3 oz. for the body only. This places the camera slightly behind the Nikon D800, which weighs 31.7 oz., so the moral of this comparison is that you’ll still be shooting with a cinder block strung around your neck. Fortunately, Canon shipped me the f/4.0 EF 24-105mm L lens with AF and Image Stabilization. This lens was almost half the size of the 24-70mm f/2.8 ED NIKKOR lens that Nikon sent me, and featured double the zoom range. Thanks for looking out for my shoulders, Canon!

One last thing to mention is the Canon EOS 5D Mark III’s LP-E6 battery pack. If you’re a 5D Mark II owner, that model name should sound quite familiar. That’s because both 5D models use identical battery packs. Hallelujah! While the battery life was about the same and very comparable to the Nikon D800′s, this ability to interchange LP-E6 packs from older Canons is invaluable, due to the fact that you’ll be saving a few hundred dollars. The Nikon D800 uses an all-new proprietary battery pack, so D700 owners are out of luck.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III Features

The AF Explosion

Canon-EOS-5D-Mark-III-Product-Menu-AF1Every year camera manufacturers tweak the Autofocus capabilities of the newest models by adding more cross-type sensors or introducing full-time AF, but not Canon. For some peculiar reason the company went gangbusters on the 5D Mark III’s AF features, to an almost absurd extent. In fact, AF even has its own category in the main menu with five pages of options! For the sake of brevity, I’ll highlight the most intriguing features, but I could write an entirely separate review on the Canon EOS 5D Mark III’s AF features alone.

On the first page of the AF bible, the 5D Mark III offers five different “Cases.” These are presets for different shooting scenarios like tracking subjects while ignoring obstacles (a car driving with other vehicles occasionally passing by in front of it), subjects entering AF points (bicyclists riding into the frame), quickly accelerating or decelerating subjects (hockey player speeding up or slowing down), erratically moving subjects (dancers), and a few more presets. Each of the five presets are governed by three adjustable parameters: Tracking Sensitivity, Acceleration/Deceleration Tracking and AF point auto switching. I shot a lot with the general Versatile multi purpose preset, which seemed to do the trick for most environments, though the 5D Mark III will take you far with the other AF presets during sporting events, concerts, nature shoots and much more.

On page two, the 5D Mark III offers a sliding control that dictates Release and Focus priority for AI Servo focus. When set to Focus priority, the Mark III will take a picture only when the image is properly focused, while Release priority will snap a picture regardless of the image being properly focused. Essentially, this is a speed vs. accuracy selection. This is available for One Shot focusing as well, and I kept the priority set to Focus for more accuracy. Now the Canon EOS 5D Mark III has up to 61 AF points (up to 41 cross-type sensors, depending on the aperture), while the Nikon D800 has 51 points. I could shoot with all 61, only the cross-type sensors, 15 points or 9 points, but I found that shooting with all 61 was sufficient, even though I’d normally opt for just the cross-type sensors. The AF area could also be selected via a myriad of focus point configurations, and individual focus points could even be memorized and stored.

Canon-EOS-5D-Mark-III-Product-Menu-AF2There were three primary AF modes to shoot in: One Shot, AI Focus and AI Servo. One Shot pertained to still subjects while AI Servo focused on moving subjects. AI Focus transitioned between the two, depending on the action in the frame. For the most part, I used One Shot, but found that the AI Focus did an excellent job transitioning between One Shot and AI Servo. And I could always adjust the shooting Cases with the presets on the first page of the AF menu. Without a doubt, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III has the most extensive AF toolbelt to date.

Unfortunately, the 5D Mark III’s AF capabilities are fairly limited in Movie mode. Subjects can only be autofocused before recording, as the camera lacks full-time AF. The Nikon D800 is one of the few full-frame DSLRs to offer full-time AF in Movie mode, so Manual focus will be the best option with the 5D Mark III. To be honest, no manufacturer has truly perfected full-time AF yet, so Mark III owners will not be missing much. Perhaps some of the new STM lenses with make their way into Canon’s L-glass family and a firmware update down the line will provide the ability to use their smooth, silent autofocus, but for now Manual is the way to roll.

The ISO Boom

Canon-EOS-5D-Mark-III-Product-Menu-ISOThe Canon EOS 5D Mark III uses Canon’s multi-layer 63-zone iFCL (intelligent Focus Color Luminance) Metering System, which uses the color and luminance information surrounding the AF points to accurately provide the exposure. The 5D Mark III meters via Evaluative, Partial, Spot and Center-weighted and has an Exposure Compensation range of up to five steps. Thanks to the 5D mark III’s brand new sensor, the camera can now reach an ISO ceiling of 102,400, which is astronomically high. This is higher than the Canon EOS 5D Mark II’s and Nikon D800′s 25,600 caps. The base ISO value remains at 50, however, just like the 5D Mark II and D800.

The 5D Mark III’s shutter speed range is unchanged, providing a 30-second to 1/8000 range with Bulb mode for long exposures. There’s a Mirror Lockup mode for shooting without the adverse effects of mirror shock, which can attribute to camera blur. The Canon EOS 5D Mark III has Long Exposure and High ISO Speed Noise Reduction, as well as three different Custom shooting modes (C1, C2, C3) that store exposure and shooting features for different types of environments.

Canon-EOS-5D-Mark-III-Product-Menu-QI shot mostly in Program Auto and Manual mode and was highly impressed with the 5D Mark III’s performance. Unlike the Nikon D800, the Mark III was not afraid to dial up the ISO when set to Auto. The D800 usually topped out mid-way through the range, but the Mark III’s sensitivity was so fantastic that I could really take advantage of the higher ISO speeds. The Mark III would expose properly 99% of the time in Program Auto and Auto mode, without any blown highlights. Usually I have to at least fiddle with the Exposure Compensation, but not with the 5D Mark III. This is an effortless camera to expose with.

The Full-Frame HDR Mode to Beat
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Stephen King’s house in HDR Art Vivid

Another area that Canon truly went to town on was the 5D Mark III’s HDR mode, which was part of the Creative menu. While the Nikon D800 has a fairly standard HDR mode that merely blends a few different exposures together, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III has the ability to add artistic effects to HDR images like Art Standard, Vivid, Bold and Embossed. The results were phantasmagorical at times, and really made the thought of having to blend all sorts of exposures and add effects in Photoshop a thing of the past. I’m surprised Canon added this level of creativity to a full-frame DSLR, but they hit it out of the park with the 5D Mark III’s HDR mode.

The Creative Style menu also includes Multiple Exposure shooting, with the ability to fine tune the overlaid images via Additive, Average, Bright and Dark effects. I could combine up to nine images and all source images were saved individually. The last option in the Creative menu was Canon’s classic Picture Style modes, which alter the sharpness, contrast, saturation and color tone via different presets like Portrait, Landscape and Monochrome. There’s also Auto Exposure Bracketing at up to +/- 3 exposure stops. It’s in the bracketing department that I believe the Nikon D800 has the upper hand, with the ability to capture up to nine exposures compared to the 5D Mark III’s maximum seven exposures.

Canon-EOS-5D-Mark-III-Product-Menu-HDRIt’s also worth mentioning that the 5D Mark III has a 6fps burst shooting mode at full resolution, ousting the Nikon D800 and its 4fps continuous mode. The 5D mark III is also mush faster in regard to recording image data. I could snap away, up to seven images at once and images would keep firing at a reduced rate after that. Also, there was no need to wait after taking a long exposure shot. 30-second shutter? No problem, the image is done recording as soon as the shutter snaps shut. With nearly any other camera, I’d have to wait another 30 seconds for processing. The 5D Mark III is definitely a quick machine.

Interface and Video Mode

Canon-EOS-5D-Mark-III-Product-Menu-LVCanon’s DSLR menus have always been swanky and strange. The Canon EOS 5D Mark III is no different. The menu interface is a tad fancier than the Mark II’s, and it’s extremely fast. The 5D Mark III is so fast that I could spin with Quick Control dial and watch images fly by like I was viewing a flipbook. Speaking of Playback mode, there was a new Comparative Playback mode in which I could compare two images side-by-side on the LCD screen, which was particularly helpful for bracketed shots. I found that options were a bit more difficult to find and access when compared to the Nikon D800′s menus, but as with any camera, I was able to acclimate to them eventually. Using the dial combinations was a snap, and the Quick Command dial even had a silent mode that transformed the dial into a touch-sensitive 4-way directional pad for complete silence during movie recording.

Since videos could be recorded in any mode on the 5D mark III, the exposure tools were bountiful. The ISO range peaked at 25,600, proving that Canon is not afraid to show off the 5D Mark III’s high ISO sensitivity performance. The shutter speed could be dialed down to 1/30-second, and the ability to shoot higher at around 125 was great as well. I enjoyed Live View, though I expected more out of the Quick Menu. That’s okay, because I could litter the screen with AF, image quality, WB options, the virtual horizon meter and even a histogram. Audio control was fantastic in video mode with about 64 different decibel levels, which is far more than the D800′s audio control allowed. The only thing was that I couldn’t adjust the audio while the camera was recording, and the levels did not display on the screen when the 5D Mark III was set to Auto sound recording. Regardless, I would take Canon’s audio control over Nikon’s any day.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III Image Quality

A New Sensor
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The Canon EOS 5D Mark III is equipped with a brand new 22.3-megapixel full-frame (24 x 36mm) CMOS sensor, which is a negligible jump in resolution from the Mark II’s 21.1-megapixel CMOS sensor. Canon improved the signal-to-noise ratio, and thanks to the sensor’s new photodiode structure, the 5D Mark III is now two stops more sensitive than the Mark II. This meant that I could shoot up to ISO 51,200 and 102,400, which are new highs in the digital camera market. The Mark III’s new sensor is accompanied by Canon’s latest Digic 5+ processing, which allows the camera to capture up to 6fps at full resolution in RAW+ JPEG mode and reduce the noise at higher ISO levels.

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Now let’s look at the picture in a slightly different light. The Nikon D800 has a whopping 36-megepixels packed into its sensor, which might tempt pros who want something that’s close to Medium Format resolution. So, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III’s pixel count is approximately 2/3 the size of the the D800′s. In video mode, it doesn’t make a difference, since both cameras record at 1080p, but the D800 definitely has the resolution edge. On the plus side, the 5D Mark III’s images are smaller in file size than the D800′s, averaging 32MB for RAW files and 10MB for JPEGs, based on the hundreds of test images I took.

Canon revamped its Movie shooting modes as well this year, offering the ability to record in 1920 x 1080p at 30fps, 25fps and 24fps, 1280 x 720p at 60fps and 50fps, as well as VGA (640 x 480) at 30fps and 25fps. There are two different quality modes, similar to professional video cameras: ALL-I (Intra Frame) and IPB (Inter Frame). The difference here is that IPB footage is highly compressed to provide more recording space while ALL-I features low compression for higher quality video with the ability to extract higher quality individual stills. I shot exclusively in ALL-I to see what the EOS 5D Mark III was truly capable of. Considering that the EOS 5D Mark III records files in the H.264/MPEG-4 AVC format with the ability to store timecode, the Camera is a definite upgrade from the 5D Mark II.

Still Image Quality

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Now let’s talk about the Canon EOS 5D Mark III’s still image quality. I shot in a multitude of environments, including a full wedding, and the 5D Mark III was a magic maker. Since I’ve already reviewed the Nikon D800, I was able to make a few comparisons. First and foremost, the EOS 5D Mark III’s high ISO performance was awesome. I could shoot comfortably at 12,800 with minimal noise, which was invaluable in low light. The range up to 25,600 was a tad nosier, but several images were still usable. However, I’d still recommend avoiding the 51,200 and 102,400 ISO levels because of the high levels of noise and bluish discoloration that plagued images. For last resort images that will be sized down significantly, the highest ISO levels will be acceptable, but only in emergency situations. Compared to the Nikon D800, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III had the edge when it came to high ISO performance.

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ISO 102,400 cropped

According to history, Canon cameras always provide warmer, more saturated colors than Nikon cameras. Guess what? Nothing’s changed in the year 2012. The EOS 5D Mark III tended to exaggerate colors at times, but not to a detrimental extent. Ultimately it comes down to photographer preference. I tend to like my colors warmer, so the Canon was right up my alley. Plus, I could tone them down using the Picture Style presets if need be. Detail and clarity at low ISO levels was astounding, and the EOS 5D Mark III proved itself a worthy wedding shooter. I also took a drove of long exposure shots and did some light painting with excellent results as well.

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ISO 2500 cropped and very usable

The difference between RAW and JPEG files was fairly substantial, particularly due to the fact that the RAW images had more accurate colors and definition at the sacrifice of slightly increased noise in low light when viewed at maximum resolution. The JPEG files were still impressive, but advanced photographers will want to take advantage of RAW images. Now the big question: Is the Canon EOS 5D Mark III a better still shooter than the Nikon D800? I think that comes down to brand preference. The Nikon has the resolution, but the image quality from both cameras was so close that I really couldn’t choose one over the other. I will say that the EOS 5D Mark III’s superior low ISO performance will be a major factor.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III Still Picture Samples

*These images were captured in RAW and converted to the highest quality JPEGs, except for the HDR shots, which only record as JPEGs. Exposure information can be attained by hovering the mouse cursor over each thumbnail or clicking on the image and reading the file name in the browser bar. I included aperture, shutter speed and ISO information in the following format: (values are an example) f4-1.320-400 (f4.0 aperture, 1/320 shutter speed, ISO 400).

Video Quality

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The Canon EOS 5D Mark III’s superior low light sensitivity came through in video mode, exposing dimly lit areas that the Nikon D800 was not capable of. This was because I had a higher maximum ISO range to shoot with (ISO 25,600) and full shutter and aperture control. I will say that the highest ISO levels are quite noisy in Video mode, so I recommend keeping an ISO 6400 cap when the lights are down. To Nikon’s benefit, the D800 produced a slightly better dynamic range, and yet again, Canon’s colors were warmer and more saturated. In bright light, it was difficult to pick a winner between both cameras, but the Canon EOS 5D Mark III was an all-star, thanks to its award-winning technology handed down and improved upon from the Mark II. Again, either camera will suffice, depending on brand loyalty, but the Canon knocked it out of the park when it came to video quality.

Now it’s sad that I even have to write about this, but the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and the Nikon D800 both exhibited some pretty fierce rolling shutter effects, causing any video that’s panned to distort like a gelatinous blob on the run. It was about the same level of rolling shutter as an iPhone’s, which is something Canon and Nikon will need to work on for future models. Also, the EOS 5D Mark III’s colors were not as lively in video mode as they were in Photo mode. I saw this with the Nikon D800, so the 5D Mark III is not alone. Regardless, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III holds an edge over the 5D Mark II, and that’s a very good thing.

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When it came to Audio quality, I was highly impressed by the Canon EOS 5D Mark III’s intricate level of decibel control, but the built-in microphone was not the best. That’s okay, because any serious videographer will be using an external microphone, courtesy of the Mark III’s Mic jack. I tried a few models out, including a Rode Stereo VideoMic and audio-technica lav setup, which solved that problem to an extent. You see, for some reason, DSLR makers have not cracked the case of the amplified blanket noise. When using the 3.5mm Mic jack, the blanket (white) noise is automatically intensified and a faint hissing sound could be heard in the background. It disappeared when the microphone picked up audio, but it was still there, to the same degree as the Nikon D800′s external mic blanket noise. If you’re serious about audio, get a Beachtek XLR grip because I believe the 3.5mm audio jack is the cause of this.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III HD Video Samples

Canon EOS 5D Mark III Conclusion

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Just as I had suspected in my Nikon D800 review, I think the choice between both major full-frame DSLRs comes down to brand loyalty. If you’ve got a drawer full of NIKKOR glass, then go for the D800. If you have a closet filled with L glass lenses and spare Mark II batteries, then go for the 5D Mark III. Both full-frame DSLRs have their strengths and weaknesses, but ultimately you can’t make a wrong decision by buying either model. Of course, the Nikon D800 is friendlier to the wallet with an MSRP that’s $500 less than the 5D Mark III’s. The D800 also has a built-in flash, a fantastic shooting interface, great HD video quality and shooting features with a clean, uncompressed HDMI out signal.

The Canon EOS 5D Mark III benefits from a brand new sensor with astounding high ISO quality, humongous new Autofocus toolbelt, enhanced video mode with ALL-I recording and timecode, nifty artistic HDR mode, unbelievably hasty operation speed and 6fps full resolution shooting to name a few welcome attributes.

So, if you bought a Nikon D800 and you’re happy with it, then good for you. You made the right choice. If you bought a 5D Mark III and you’re happy about it, then you did the right thing. You really can’t go wrong with either of these full-frame juggernauts, and this is as classic a Canon vs. Nikon battle I’ve ever seen. Go test drive both models at your local camera store and let me know what you think.

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