Canon EOS 1Dx vs Nikon D4: The Great Showdown

First the disclaimer :-) My personal history with these two giants:

I have used both brands extensively with a long relationship with Canon since the early eighties. I loved the brand and slammed the opposition on many occasions - especially towards the beginning of this century when I really felt Canon lead the race by a wide margin concerning autofocus (AF), image stabilization (IS) and full frame digital sensors. A new era in single lens reflex (SLR) photography dawned when technology vastly overtook old school in the new world of digital SLR photography. During this time Canon built up a good lead before dropping the ball, in my opinion, with the much anticipated release of their EOS 1D Mark III series for which I had been on a waiting list for a long time. If you follow the developments of these two major brands you will know what I mean - suffice it to say the AF performance was much discussed... maybe the internet made this worse than it should have been and alerted many amateurs to a 'problem' they might never have experienced or suspected otherwise and many people were very happy with this model.

My specific EOS 1D MkIII was also plagued by the dreaded 'error 99' which could also be a real deal breaker! I lined up on a lioness with 3 small cubs one golden morning only to find error 99 stealing my shot and I watched helplessly as this once in a lifetime opportunity slipped by as my professional EOS 1 D MKIII refused to let me 'GET the Shot"!!! Many trips to Cameratek (Canon's contracted repair people) followed,with them eventually conceding that after a so called fix there was nothing wrong with my camea. I did not agree and eventually traded it in for a Canon EOS 1Ds MkIII - the full frame version.

This was a real beast with 21MP of real studio quality at the time, but the same AF module. Since most of my 'work' was to document rare species ***still working on this link*** that had never or hardly been photographed before, I felt that action was not a big part of my portfolio and that reach and quality were more important. I married this body to the EF 800mm f5.6 IS and did not look back for some time. Even when many of my friends started migrating to the 'dark side' with the release of the full frame, professional Nikon D3. When Nikon released the D3x it was all that the EOS 1Ds MkIII was and a quite a bit more.. at 24.5 MP it had all the quality a pixel peeper might ask for with the same highly applauded AF module that came with the updated D3s and an increased buffer. Nikon also amazed the world with the low noise, high ISO performance that was revolutionized by the D3 and improved even further in the Nikon D3s. They were back in the race.. in fact they had taken the opportunity to build up quite a lead! Before the Nikon D3 switching brands was something mostly unheard of. The Nikon D3 was a game changer and many disgruntled EOS MkIII users jumped ship to live happily ever after :-). Brand switching was not so hard after all...

Canon responded with the EOS 1D Mark IV but the D3s was now the camera to beat... until the Canon EOS 1Dx came on the scene. During the same time Nikon released their D4 but with all the D3s hype it was difficult to repeat the magic and many regarded it as a simple update with an increased resolution from 12MP to 16MP and still very good high ISO performance. Since I shoot mainly birds I always appreciate high pixel counts because of the crop possibilities so my D3s (much less used than the D3x) was traded for a new D4. Canon's new 'White Giants', the version 2 updates of their super telephotos, with huge weight savings and beautiful MTF charts made the 1Dx look even more appealing. Finally there is a good re-engineered body one can stick onto one of these new white beauties. (No disrespect to the acclaimed EOS 5D Mark III).

So this is how we get to this weekend. I hired the Canon EOS 1Dx and fitted it with the latest EF 500mm f4 IS version 2 to compare it with my Nikon D4 and AF-S 500mm f4 VR lens. Let the games begin!

I am not going to compare the specifications of these two pro bodies - there are numerous articles on the net and honestly - if you don't know the differences, this article is not intended for you. Go and do your homework!

First impressions: The 1Dx is heavy c 1.5 kg vs the D4 c 1.3 kg but that familiar Canon feel is still all there! Both bodies have ergonomics the other could learn from - I wish we could combine them! The 1 Dx has the resolution advantage (18MP vs the D4's 16 MP) but this is slight and I did not really see this in the images down below. It is still not a resolution giant and for detail I still prefer my Nikon D800, or even my ageing D3x for that matter.

The 1Dx is like a machine gun - firing at 12 fps in servo AF BUT at this rate it fills its buffer (in RAW - to me the jpeg buffer is of no use) in little over 3 seconds - I found this very annoying since my D4 can rattle away at 10 fps for over 80 frames using its super fast writing XQD card - in fact I have never filled its buffer - I give up before it does. All this means is that one should plan your action photography and pay attention not to fill your buffer with a senseless burst when your subject (bird in flight BIF) is still far away when shooting with the 1Dx. The Canon actually claims 14 fps in one shot mode but for a bird photographer that is useless - the action is mostly shot in servo AF mode.

For low light photography both have excellent high ISO performance - welcome back, Canon :-) There are plenty of articles on the internet comparing this on a scientific level but at the levels we use it in the field this should not sway anyone in any direction. The low light AF capabilities are good for both but here the D4 is the clear winner. This camera feels like it can see in the dark! For more on this read this review by Morten Hilmer. Morten is based in Greenland - where is there a better place to experiment with low light photography month after month :-)

I photographed a painting in my house (painted by my very talented dad) under dark conditions. Both cameras struggled with the leopard's face but easily focussed on the painting's frame. With the D4 I could then move off the frame onto the leopard in continuous AF mode and it would keep the focus. The 1Dx could focus using one shot mode but in servo AF mode it would hunt endlessly as I moved the active AF point onto the leopard's head. Both images were taken handheld to help compare IS (Image Stabilization for the Canon) with VR (Vibration Reduction for Nikon).











Canon 1Dx with EF 500mm f4 IS                                                                                                                    Nikon D4 with AF-S 500mm f4 VR

Exposed in Aperture Priority 1/50s f4 ISO 51200                                                                                        Exposed in Aperture Priority 1/13s f4 ISO 51200

On the left is an image taken after dialing in +2 exposure compensation to the 1Dx which yielded similar results to the Nikon D4, also exposed at 1/13s f4 ISO 51200. Note how sharp these images are at such a slow shutterspeed handheld! I was amazed and must admit I don't get these results in the field but here I was sitting down in my kitchen, completely relaxed and rested and it just shows IS/VR does work! In all fairness the scene looked a lot like the above image from the Canon - very dark to the naked eye but the Nikon simply pulled out the detail, electing an exposure which gave two stops of light more than the Canon giving a more pleasing result. With some aggressive exposure compensation of +2 the Canon did the same. On these images one can also see the reddish hue in the Canon raw files compared to the greenish hues from the Nikon. All these files were extracted from raw and converted to jpeg with no adjustments and the standard 25 amount of sharpening in Lightroom 4.

Below I have posted crops as actual pixels for ISO comparison. No adjustments made with the in camera noise reduction kept at the default settings.

Canon EOS 1Dx below to the left with +2 exposure compensation in Aperture Priority at 1/13s f4 ISO 51200 and the Nikon D4 below to the right also in Aperture Priority 1/13s f4 ISO 51200 with no exposure compensation for comparison.
















This is enough for now... Part II will follow soon. In summary so far both cameras are very capable and I am glad to see Canon is back in the game with a good low light performer. The 1Dx is a pleasure to use but I still love my Nikon D4 :-) I will add a bit more on the AF performance as soon as I get a chance.