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Sibling Rivalry: The Canon 1DX and Nikon D4

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There are tons of articles and videos comparing and contrasting Canon and Nikon cameras more than I would personally like to recognize both by mindless fanboys/fangirls and credible sites. The new Canon is now available, and the Nikon can be pre-ordered with a expected ship date of later this month. We're about to see some real world comparisons.

Ever since the Nikon D3s and Canon EOS 5D Mark II made their star-studded debuts, there has been one feature that has dominated the conversation: high ISO performance. However, what a lot of readers and even reviewers forget that a camera is not just the sensor, it is the whole package.

Here I'll take a side-by-side look at the stats on each of these flagship models and let you know who these cameras are for, and if you own a previous generation flagship, is an upgrade worth it? I won't go into which one will be the better camera. But I will focus on who is ahead on what aspect regarding these new releases, how much is just marketing smoke-screen, how much would be useful to photographers.


Marketing Tit for Tat

Nerdgasms aside, new model releases for Canon and Nikon are pretty consistent and follow a similar 18-month product cycle. November and March seem to be pretty popular months as they're just far enough outside the holidays to sneek past those pesky 30-day return policies. So, if you watch the pattern, a new version of whatever camera you own is almost always around the corner at around the same time.

Another trend is that both camps have been distributing useful features amongst differing camera classes rather than being more integral. This split in both video and still camera features peaked in 2010 through 2011, especially in the prosumer and professional categories. And only after everybody invested heavily in these systems, they release cameras that have the best of the three photography worlds: speed, resolution, and video.

Aside from - in my opinion - the somewhat illogical distribution of useful features, it is good to see that both Nikon and Canon have learned from one another in their latest flagship releases.

I'm going through this marketing stuff to quell that little voice inside of all us that drools, "I gotta have it" and that these jumps in technology and product releases are carefully plotted by companies to make that little voice as loud and powerful as possible.

Any photographer, no matter how financially blessed, needs to mitigate the "wow" factor with an honest analysis of themselves as well as their business.

So, lets take a look at these phenomenal cameras from these two phenomenal companies.


Canon EOS 1DX

A lot of Canon users have wondered for years why Canon kept the superb image quality of their full-frame sensors separate from their high-speed performers for nearly a decade. Their middle-ground solution was the 1D line with their APS-H (1.3x crop) sensor that melded the two worlds fairly nicely. However, the price-point, $5000.00, was hard to justify by anyone other than well-worked sports shooters. The issue further complicated itself when the 5D exploded into massive popularity. Then their APS-C (1.6x crop) cameras had the speed an surprising image-quality too. By the time the 5D MarkII and the 7D came around, Canon users were growing tired of having to choose between full-frame and speed, especially in the shadow of the Nikon D3.

The Canon 1DX is definitely overdue and does answer a lot of the questions Canon users have been asking for years. They've combined the rugged speed of their APS-H line, the image quality of their full-frame lines, and innovative AF options from their APS-C line into one body. Finally, but at $6800.00.

Here are the major highlights:

  • 18MP full-frame sensor
  • 12fps with 14fps with mirror lock-up
  • RGB light meter
  • 61-point AF system with its own processor
  • Dual DiGiC 5+ processors

Here are the minor highlights:

  • Dual joysticks
  • Video compression controls
  • Audio controls during recording
  • LAN connectivity

I divided these features into two categories because I feel it better represents the improvements the 1DX offers in context with the 1D Mark IV. The major highlights point to more significant improvements while the minor highlights address features that were mainly pet-peeves.

Firstly, kudos to Canon for not over-loading their new sensor with pixels. Although it is only a 12.5% jump in resolution from the Mark IV, it is potentially a 14% improvement in image quality over the 21-MP 5D Mark II, simply from the physics. Tack on the improved processing and Canon is reporting a 1.5 to 2-stop improvement in noise. Additionally, Canon's amazing EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens gets its full dues on a 1D body.

Next is the incredible 12fps rate of the 1DX. It isn't much of an improvement in terms of numbers, but now the camera is moving a full-frame mirror faster than it's cropped predecessor. From an engineering standpoint, that is impressive given how slow Canon's full-framed cameras used to be.

The new RGB light meter is a long overdue improvement that I cannot understand why Canon didn't put it into the 5D MkII or the 1D MkIV. Nikon had this technology for years because they realized that the color of an object is related to its luminosity. It is also critical to the AWB decisions the camera makes. So, now the 1DX will make better AWB and metering decisions in more challenging situations because it is now taking into account the colors of scene and not just luminosity; a decision usually left to the photographer.

The AF system of Canon's 1D line has been perhaps the best in the business for years, even beating out Nikon's AF year after year. And I believe it is the top reason a photographer would upgrade to a 1D from an APS-C camera. The 1DX's system keeps with that tradition of reliable, responsive AF and melded it with the AF customization of the 7D. This may not sound like much, but I dearly wished they put that kind of ingenuity into the Mark IV.


The Canon 1D Mark IV locked on quickly and accurately in this very low-light situation (1/25sec, f/2.8, ISO 6400). I expect the 1DX to meet and exceed the great AF tradition.

The new DiGiC 5+ processors are major players in the 1DX as they're responsible for image throughput and image quality. It's the processors that make the 12fps useful because it determines the buffer size for RAW and JPEG shooting, as well as tonality representation and noise control. Even with the increased resolution, the 1DX buffer should be larger than the Mark IV.

The minor improvements have answered quite a few of the complaints Canon's many professional users and Canon cinematographers have had. Canon has given videographers increased control over video compression as well as live adjustments and monitoring of audio controls without the need for 3rd party gear or software. This helps resolve a lot of the audio monitoring and syncing peeves HDSLR users have been complaining about. The refinements in the 1DX regarding video capture is going to set a new benchmark in DSLR film-making ... which I'm sure will be upped by the 5D Mark III and/or 7D Mark II.

Finally in the 1DX minor features line are related to workflow. The dual joysticks make selecting AF points in either orientation faster, useful when photographing action and quickly composing both vertically and horizontally. And for those shooters working for a wire service, the LAN connection provides extremely fast and more reliable transfer rates than USB or wireless.


Nikon D4

Even though I have been a Canon user since I got my first DSLR, I have been continuously impressed with Nikon's D3s. With that camera, I feel Nikon listened to professional photographers even more than Canon listened with their fantastic EOS 7D. And with the D4 ($6,000), it looks like they're poised to do it again.

The D3s is an impressive camera with its high-ISO performance and sports-worthy fps. It made Canon photographers wonder why they couldn't have a full-framed speed demon themselves. By comparison, Mark IV users only had the higher resolution, better AF system and 1080p video to boast about. However, with magazines, newspapers, and wedding albums still being the same size the additional 4MP didn't mean that much.

To answer the Canon 1DX, Nikon followed suit in many areas to deliver an awesome new tool for its professionals. The D4 is faster and better than the D3s in nearly every major area.

The major highlights:

  • 16MP full-frame sensor
  • 10fps
  • 51-point AF system
  • 1080p video

The minor highlights:

  • Backlit buttons
  • dual joysticks
  • 1080p video
  • 1/8stop aperture control in video

In the D4, Nikon addressed the main complaint of D3s users: pre-2005 resolutions. Although the superlative image-quality of those pixels strongly mitigated that downside, photographers still wanted the ability to crop more aggressively especially since their cameras lacked the 1.3x crop of the Canon EOS Mark IV. The Nikon D4 upped the resolution on their sensor by 35% with a new processor, EXSPEED3, boasting a 2-stop improvement in noise.

The D4 also addressed it's other weakeness to the Mark IV and its predecessors by matching it with a 10fps full-resolution capture. The D3s could only surpass the Mark IV in DX-mode (cropped) at 11fps. The loss in resolution for the minute gain in speed doesn't seem to be something to boast about when Canon has been able to do 8 and 10fps at full-resolution since the film days of the EOS 1V.

In the AF system is where this new camera starts to get really interesting as it appears to make some serious incursions into what has normally been Canon's dominion. Nikon has maintained its 51 AF points, but has upgraded the system to be able to focus better and faster than the D3s, up to -2stops. Personally, I cannot wait to see a 1DX vs D4 "real world" AF test.


This is just to give you an idea of what -2stops looks like. According to Nikon, it can focus in moonlight.

Due to the Nikon only enabling 720p recording for so long, nearly all DSLR movie-makers use Canon cameras. The Nikon D7000 does provide 1080p video, but it came a little too late as the 5D MkII and 7D already dominated that section of the market. What Nikon did is finally provide what it should have (1080p video) and add a lot of workflow functionality. The full hi-def video to the D4 is what the full-frame sensor is the 1DX: long overdue.

Backlit buttons are a tiny detail that are a stroke of genius. Although most pros know their buttons by touch/heart, there is always a frequent chance of pressing the wrong button. With the backlit buttons you don't have to feel around for the right press or commit tons of muscle-memory to your layout. This will make the seldom practice of "chimping" faster.

Like the 1DX, the Nikon D4 has dual joysticks for easier AF functionality and access to menus in both orientations. These little details add up during an assignment and cutting precious fractions of a second can be the difference between missing a shot or not.

The video improvements are the largest departure the D4 has made from the D3s, but the ability to fine-tune the aperture by 1/8stop is amazing. Now, you can compensate for the small differences in brightness different lenses have, even when the same settings are used. It also make transitions while film more smooth.


The 1DX vs D4

Now, in a side-by-side comparison it is easy to see that each camera has advantages over the other, but it won't be until these bodies are released and fully evaluated and compared that a conclusion can be made. What needs to be made abundantly clear is that at the flagship level, comparative capabilities don't matter so much as the photographers who would buy these new cameras are already heavily invested in one brand or the other.

Also, a direct comparison is further complicated since both the 1DX and D4 are now full-framed cameras and the problem of "too many pixels on too small a sensor" has disappeared. Theoretically, the disparities have reduced significantly. Both Nikon and Canon have 20+MP full-frames that are amazing and both have found their respective middle grounds and added better processors too.

Also, it appears that both Canon and Nikon have taken a serious look at their competitor's strengths and added it to their own cameras. Nikon has made a serious-looking movie DSLR while Canon has made a serious-looking still DSLR. They've also taken improved connectivity and remote control very seriously too.

Even with the gap (on paper) to be even smaller than before and the practical application of this information to a photographer who already owns a MarkIV or D3s to be nearly pointless, I'll still propose who will leap-frog the other.

Feature Canon 1DX Nikon D4
Resolution +  

ISO Performance

  +

AF Performance

+ +

Speed

+  

Ergonomics

  +

Video

+ +

Compatibility

+ +

These are just possible scores based upon the pre-release specifications and a little history on the performance of each manufacturer's previous generation cameras. Things will most likely change once actual comparisons are done.

Canon wins the resolution game, as it usually does with the 18MP sensor. This gives sports shooters nearly 5D MkII cropping abilities.

I expect Nikon to continue to top Canon regarding high-ISO performance, especially in the really, really, really, high settings. However, I expect the gap to be slimmer due to both cameras being full-framed. I think it won't be pixel density that decides this, but processor performance.

I tied Canon and Nikon in AF performance because both have introduced dramatically improved AF systems that promise more intelligent AF-tracking and improved low-light focus reliability and speed.

Canon wins the speed race again with 12/14fps full-res capture over Nikon's 10/11fps. It's not a huge deal as both manufactures only added 2fps to this new line-up.

Even though I own a Mark IV, a Nikon does feel better in the hand. I also like that Nikon kept physical dials and buttons for common settings. And the backlit buttons are just smartness.

Although the D4 may not dominate the video market due to Canon's longer presence, I think the new D4 features it could really give the 1DX a good run. Maybe even beat it. Like the AF systems, I'll wait and see.

Both manufacturers have betrayed Mark IV and and D3s users respectively with their new releases in terms of compatibility. The 1DX has gone with dual-CF card slots, making those SDHC cards pointless. The D4 introduces a perhaps a too-new card slot, XQD, making redundancy impossible without buying the new cards and a new reader. Another fault of the D4 is that the D3s batteries will not fit into the D4. Canon's 1DX has maintained compatibility with the Mark IV batteries, but the newer charger won't work with the old batteries.

These changes are not insignificant because the cost of new batteries, cards, readers, and lost investment (i.e. SDHC cards) adds up very quickly to an already expensive upgrade. I believe Canon should have gone dual-CF with their MarkIII/IV like the D3/D3s did in 2007, and Nikon should have waited until the XQD was popular enough before it had it as a feature. This would have saved buyers some pain after dropping over $6000.00 for each body.


To buy or not to buy?

These cameras, like any pricey professional piece of gear is aimed at professionals doing consistent work. It is not of sound judgement to spend that kind of money when the kind and amount of work does not justify it. Remember, it's over $6000.00 for just the camera.

If you're covering the Olympics, nocturnal animals or nighttime combat for a major client or publication (AP, Getty, NatGeo, etc.) then these cameras may be a great idea to deliver images using the best and latest tools out there. But unless you've pushed the Mark IV or D3s to their conceivable limits, stick with them.

I'm not bashing these new releases, butin my experience DSLRs have a longer life than the product cycle the manufacturers place upon them. This is especially true since online and print media haven't advanced as much in either quality or physical image size as DSLRs have. Both Nikon and Canon have realized this in these new cameras as both have made even smaller jumps in improvements than before.

I don't believe either camera is an upgrade that justifies the expense for 1D MarkIV or D3s owners. Upgrading would be a better idea for early D3 or MarkIII users as the ISO performance and AF will be vastly better.

It may also be a good idea to upgrade if your current bodies are approaching their end at approximately 300,000 cycles. Otherwise, I cannot imagine the majority of well-equipped professionals ordering these up by the pallet like when the 5D Mark II or D3s hit.


Conclusion

Even though I don't think that the Canon EOS 1DX and the Nikon D4 cameras are very justifiable upgrades, I think they're still impressive and exciting cameras. It is great to see two companies listening well to their photographers and taking a hard look at each other to produce cameras that improve upon their previous model's weaknesses.

There is a lot of fanfare surrounding these cameras, but I hope this article provided some context to these new releases and may guide you to a wiser decision if you're in the market for a flagship camera.

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