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    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: head-to-head review

    | Reviews | 23/03/2010 14:43pm
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    Which is the ultimate high-speed pro digital SLR – the Nikon D3S or the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV? Digital Camera puts these two heavyweights through a head-to-head test…

    Both the Nikon D3S and Canon EOS 1D Mark IV have been designed for the same purpose – high-speed photography. As a result, they’re targeted at professional photographers, especially those who shoot sports, press photos or wildlife. These subjects can present some of the most challenging and demanding conditions for photographers to work in.
    Both cameras are tough, robust and built with a spec list sure to impress photographers who need accurate high-speed performance they can rely on. On paper, both the 1D Mark IV and the D3S offer some truly spectacular features, some of which would have seemed unthinkable even just a few years ago. Stats like this don’t come cheap, but the cameras are also competitive when it comes to price. So which comes out on top in the battle for the ‘best pro SLR’ title? Read on to find out..

    If you’ve read our Nikon D3S and Canon EOS 1D Mark IV reviews, you’ll know that both these high-end DSLRs have been designed for the same purpose – high-speed photography. As a result, they’re targeted at professional photographers, especially those who shoot sports, press photos or wildlife. These subjects can present some of the most challenging and demanding conditions for photographers to work in.

    Both cameras are tough, robust and built with a spec list sure to impress photographers who need accurate high-speed performance they can rely on. On paper, both the 1D Mark IV and the D3S offer some truly spectacular features, some of which would have seemed unthinkable even just a few years ago. Stats like this don’t come cheap, but the cameras are also competitive when it comes to price. So which comes out on top in the battle for the ‘best pro DSLR’ title?

    As befits such heavy hitters, we tested the cameras in a boxing gym. We shot our subject under different lighting conditions, with a range of poses and action set-ups. The D3S was tested with a Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G ED lens, and the 1D with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM.

    Both are at the top of their game, and unquestionably the best DSLRs on the market for sports and action photographers who demand superb quality, outstanding performance and super-quick shooting from their gear. Put two bruiser DSLRs like the D3S and 1D Mark IV into the ring and you’re guaranteed a good, clean fight.

    Both cameras have evolved relatively seamlessly from their predecessors (the D3 and 1D Mark III, respectively), so users already familiar with the Canon or Nikon layout will feel instantly at home. So how can you separate them when it comes to performance? On the following pages, we’ll look at the key characteristics that make these cameras stand out, and then compare them head-to-head.

    First of all, let’s look at the sensors. The Canon EOS 1D Mark IV has a uniquely sized 16.1MP CMOS APS-H sensor, which is half way between full frame and APS-C. This gives a crop factor of x1.3, and while some users might be disappointed that the camera isn’t full frame, others – especially sports photographers shooting from the touchline – will find that little bit of extra reach they can get from their telephoto lenses a real bonus

    Nikon has gone for full-frame, offering a 12.1MP FX CMOS sensor. While it might not boast the impressive pixel count of the Mark IV it’s arguably not a camera targeted at the pixel-counting audience, and there are still more than enough pixels to facilitate a tighter crop if needed. This could prove a shrewd decision by Nikon, which has anticipated the demands of photographers and sought to combine the best of both worlds with impressive speed and guaranteed quality in equal measure.

    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: overview


    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: ISO and noise
    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: autofocus and frame rate
    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: metering and exposure
    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: which is best?
    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: specs

    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: ISO and noise

    Low-light shooting and super-high ISO performance appear to be the priority for the manufacturers of both cameras. When Nikon revealed the D3S back in October 2009 it wowed the ever-demanding photographic community with astronomically high ISO settings. The large pixel pitch and a modified inner structure catapulted Nikon to the front
    of the ISO race, with staggeringly impressive low-light performance thanks to an ISO range of 200 to 12800. But Canon fought back, and while in our tests shots taken at the 12800 setting were equally as usable as those from the D3S, there was definitely more noise.

    Both cameras can ‘boost’ their high ISO performance to a whopping 102400. While images taken at this boosted ISO setting are incredibly noisy, it will facilitate hand-held shooting in near darkness without the need for a flash.

    Nikon vs Canon ISO test results…

    The exceptionally high ISO performance of both cameras is really good, but there’s definitely more chromatic noise in the 1D Mark IV images  at the high end of the scale.

    (100% crops of a grey card test shot shown here – click an image to open the original JPEG in a new window.)

    ISO 200 Nikon D3S

    ISO 200 Canon EOS 1D Mark IV

    ISO 800 Nikon D3S

    ISO 800 Canon EOS 1D Mark IV

    ISO 6400 Nikon D3S

    ISO 6400 Canon EOS 1D Mark IV

    ISO 12800 Nikon D3S

    ISO 12800 Canon EOS 1D Mark IV

    ISO 102400 Nikon D3S

    ISO 102400 Canon EOS 1D Mark IV

    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: overview

    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: ISO and noise


    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: autofocus and frame rate
    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: metering and exposure
    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: which is best?
    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: specs

    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: autofocus and frame rate

    Fast, accurate focusing combined with a fast frame rate (and generous buffer) is critical for action, press and wildlife photographers, and in this area both cameras performed exceptionally well in our tests, which we carried out under limited indoor light.

    Canon must be congratulated for the radical overhaul it has given to the comparatively clunky autofocusing that hampered the 1D Mark III. Frustrated Canon users can now relish the Mark IV’s awesome performance. Using 45 AF sensors, 39 of which are the cross-shaped variety, Canon has really gone to town with a sophisticated system that works a treat, especially when used alongside lenses with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or faster. Once you navigate away from the default settings and start customising the camera to your specific requirements, the focus performance really comes into its own.

    The D3S boasts a 51-point AF system with 15 cross points, and it was fast and effective in our tests. This system is less of a radical departure than that of its predecessor, but then unlike the AF on the Mark III, it didn’t need significant improvement. That said, Nikon has tuned the D3S’s contrast detection system to provide focusing support during movie capture and Live View shooting.

    The D3S shoots at 9 frames per second (fps), unless you’re using a Nikkor DX lens – then the camera switches to Crop mode, and the frame rate is increased to 11fps. However, do this and you’ll lose the camera’s full-frame potential. The Canon offers a constant 10fps, making it the winner in the speed stakes.

    It’s fair to say that both cameras are fast enough for most shooting situations, and while it might be superficial they sound and feel awesome too, especially when you fire off a round of shots. Even if you don’t intend buying either of these cameras, go to your local camera store for a hands-on demo, just to feel and hear the drives in action. It’s beautiful.

    Nikon vs Canon autofocus test results…

    (Click an image to open the original JPEG in a new window – please be aware that these are large files.)


    Nikon D3S

    : The D3S’s 51-point AF system was fast and responsive in demanding lighting conditions. It locked on to our subject and effortlessly tracked movement to deliver a set of pleasingly sharp shots. It’s noticeable that the D3S produced images with a more muted colour palette in Auto White Balance mode. Combined with slight underexposure, the colours seemed more ‘conservative’ than those captured by the 1D Mark IV.

    Canon EOS 1D Mark IV

    : The new pro EOS badly needed smarter autofocus. It’s now got 45 AF sensors, 39 of which are cross-shaped (horizontal and vertical line detection). The new system worked extremely well in these challenging conditions. The colours captured by the 1D Mark IV here are pleasing and vibrant, with greater warmth than those from the D3S. They were more impressive and natural when viewed unaltered straight out of the camera.

    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: overview
    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: ISO and noise

    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: autofocus and frame rate

    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: metering and exposure


    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: which is best?
    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: specs

    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: metering and exposure

    Both cameras produced images with a good tonality and dynamic range. We tested the cameras in a variety of set-ups and modes, from the fully auto 3D Colour Matrix metering on the Nikon D3S and Evaluative mode on the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV to the spot metering modes on both cameras. Even in the challenging light of a locker room, both cameras’ intelligent metering systems worked a treat. In these shots we took a spot meter reading from the boxer’s knee. Both shots produced healthy-looking histograms.

    (Click an test shot below to open the original JPEG in a new window – please be aware that these are large files.)


    Nikon D3S

    : This portrait reveals that the D3S can produce decent images with a good dynamic range and tonality.

    Canon EOS 1D Mark IV

    : The 1D Mark IV also did a good job of capturing a range of tones correctly in tricky lighting conditions.

    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: detail and definition

    On close scrutiny the detail in images from the D3S is impressive. The camera produced clean and crisp images despite the fact that it has fewer pixels. The Mark IV performed extremely well too. However, when put next to the D3S it’s clear to see which camera’s packing the punches. Both of the images below were shot hand-held. The fact that both cameras were able to deliver this quality of image when shooting at 9 frames per second or more is simply astonishing.

    Nikon D3S

    : The D3S might not have the megapixel advantage of the 1D Mark IV, but the detail and definition when zoomed in to 100% is superior.

    Canon EOS 1D Mark IV

    : While not quite as impressive as images from the D3S, the level of detail and definition captured by the 1D Mark IV is still pretty amazing.

    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: overview
    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: ISO and noise
    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: autofocus and frame rate

    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: metering and exposure

    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: which is best?


    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: specs

    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: which is best?

    If you’ve already bought into a Nikon or Canon system, the results of this test will be somewhat academic, as neither camera presents a compelling reason to switch systems. Both cameras are outstanding, and it’s unlikely that anyone would be disappointed with their performance and the quality of images they produce.

    What distinguishes these cameras from other DSLRs is their ability to capture fast-moving action shots and work in low-light situations. In an ISO test alone the Nikon would come out on top – our test shots show that the D3S delivers better results at higher settings. However, images with both cameras shot at ISO 12800 were impressive and very usable. Pushed to their extended limits the Nikon performed better, but both were arguably too noisy to be of much practical use.

    When it comes to speed, both of these cameras are pretty spectacular, especially when using autofocus in fast-paced continuous shooting situations. Out of the box the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV delivered more accurate metering and colour rendition than the Nikon D3S, but the D3S could easily be customised to compensate for this.

    Both cameras are fully decked out with HD video capture features. The D3S can record standard HD movies at 720p and 24fps, which is impressive, but not compared with the 1D Mark IV’s full HD 1080p at 29.97fps.

    Both cameras also have a hefty price tag – an RRP of over £4,000 and street prices of £3,600 and £3,850 for the Nikon and Canon respectively. Combine this with the high-spec lenses you would need to maximise performance and you’re looking at a considerable investment. The good news is that pro technology has a habit of migrating down the ranks, and it probably won’t be long before you see some of these cameras’ staggering features on cameras at the more affordable end of the range.

    Having tested both cameras extensively, we have to call this fight a dead heat. We could nit-pick over this and that but at the end of the day, in use, both cameras deliver unparalleled user experience and outstanding image quality in the toughest of shooting situations.

    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: overview
    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: ISO and noise
    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: autofocus and frame rate
    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: metering and exposure

    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: which is best?

    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: specs

    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: specs

    Nikon D3S

    Canon EOS 1D Mark IV

    Street price: £3,600 £3,850
    Image sensor: CMOS 36×23.9mm Nikon FX Format (full frame) CMOS 27.9×18.6mm
    Focal length conversion: Full frame x1.3
    Effective pixels: 12.1 million 16.1 million
    Lens mount: Nikon F-mount (with AF coupling and AF contacts) EF (excludes EF-S lenses)
    Memory: Dual slot, Compact Flash Dual slot, Compact Flash SD/SDHC
    Metering modes: Matrix, Centre-weighted, Spot Evaluative, Partial, Spot
    Focusing modes: Single-servo, Continuous-servo, Manual One Shot, AI Servo
    AF points: 51, including 15 cross-type points 45, inc 39 cross-type points
    Shutter speed: 1/8000 to 30 secs, Bulb 1/8000 to 30 secs, Bulb
    ISO sensitivity: 200 to 12800 (expandable to 102400) 100 to 12800 (expandable to 50 and 102400)
    LCD monitor: 3-inch colour, 920,000 pixels 3-inch colour, 920,000 pixels
    Drive modes: Single, Continuous High Speed (9fps), Continuous Low Speed, Self-timer, Quiet Single, Silent, High-speed (10fps), Low-speed Continuous (3fps), Self-timer (2 or 10 secs)
    Battery life: 4,300 shots 1,500 shots
    Power supply: Li-ion Li-ion EN-EL4a
    Weight: 1,180g body only 1,240g body only
    Transfer: USB 2.0 high speed, Video, PictBridge, HDMI USB 2.0 high speed, Video, PictBridge, HDMI
    Software: Nikon Transfer, Nikon View NX Digital Photo Professional, Zoom Browser, EOS Utility, WFT, Original Data Security Tools, Picture Style Editor, PhotoStitch

    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: overview
    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: ISO and noise
    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: autofocus and frame rate
    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: metering and exposure
    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: which is best?

    Nikon D3S vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV: specs

    See this pro DSLR shootout in the Spring issue of Digital Camera magazine, on sale 6th April.


    Posted on Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010 at 2:43 pm under Reviews.

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