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A Unique Photo Shootout Featuring David Bergman and Robert Caplin: Canon 1D Mark IV Versus Nikon D3S

Last week at Coastal Sports in Long Island, Unique Photo put two of the best cameras in the hands of two top-tier professional photographers. Canon and Nikon are the powerhouses in the digital SLR market, and their flagship cameras represent the finest sports photography cameras ever made.  The highly anticipated Canon EOS 1D Mark IV has just started shipping, and Nikon’s D3S has been available for about one month.

David Bergman is a NYC based freelance photographer, who regularly shoots for Sports Illustrated.  He has had numerous covers and “Leading Off” images.  David also shoots portraits and tour photography with top rock bands, and teaches photography workshops across the country.

Robert Caplin is also a freelance photographer in NYC; he works regularly for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal.  His work is a mix of celebrity portraiture, travel photography, and sports photography.  His creative eye has also helped him lead a movement of top photographers using digital SLRs to shoot HD video.

David is an avid Nikon shooter, and currently owns several Nikon D3 cameras.  Meanwhile, Robert owns and shoots Canon, including a number of 5D Mark II cameras and many of Canon’s sharpest L-series lenses.  In this “Unique Photo Shootout,” we placed the latest and greatest from their respective brands in their hands, and put them in one of the toughest shooting environments we could find.  David was given a Nikon D3s and Nikon 400mm F2.8 VR lens, and Robert had a Canon EOS 1D Mark IV with a Canon 300mm F2.8 IS.  Since the Nikon D3s is a full frame camera, and the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV has a crop factor of 1.3x, this gave both photographs about the same focal length equivalent.
Robert Caplin, left, and David Bergman, right, talk strategy before the shootout begins.
The venue was Coastal Sports in Long Island, an indoor athletic facility that hosts a number of different sports, including softball, football, lacrosse, and soccer.  To test out the cameras, we choose to shoot lacrosse, and a bit of soccer.  Coastal Sports is a great venue for athletes, but can be a real challenge for photographers.  Even at ISO6400, it is hard to get a shutter speed over 1/400th of a second at F2.8.  What this means is that even with top of the line lenses and cameras, shooting in this space is incredibly difficult.  It truly tested the capabilities of the two cameras at hand, and the mettle of two experienced, top-tier photographers.
The Canon EOS 1D Mark IV succeeds the infamous Canon EOS 1D Mark III.  While the 1D Mark III was a major improvement over previous models, it was plagued with autofocus problems, and outclassed at high ISO by Nikon’s D3.  The Nikon D3 was well received by many photographers, and while it was said that the autofocus was more reliable than the Canon, it was not as quick or responsive.  This test is not only to see how these two cameras perform against each other, but how they fare against their predecessors.  Without any further ado, here are some photos:

Both images were shot at ISO4000, F2.8, at 1/320th of a second.  There is some cropping and exposure adjustments, but no noise reduction.  Click the image to download the original RAW files.  Notice how remarkably noise-free both cameras are at such a high ISO.  Nikon D3S Photo ©David Bergman, Canon 1D Mark IV Photo ©Robert Caplin.

Being able to boost the cameras to ISO12800 at F2.8 allowed a fast shutter speed to be used indoors, in this case, 1/800th of a second.  There are some cropping and exposure adjustments, but no noise reduction.  Click the image to download the original RAW files.  While there is definitely noise at this high ISO setting, it is more than manageable.  I could easily see a 16×20 print being made from either one of these images.   Nikon D3S Photo ©David Bergman, Canon 1D Mark IV Photo ©Robert Caplin.
Shooting side by side, Robert and David were able to capture nearly the same moment, this time at the insanely high ISO setting of 25,600.  Shutter speed was 1/1600th of a second, more than fast enough to freeze the moving lacrosse ball.  Both images have a bit of noise reduction in Adobe Camera Raw, click on the image to download the original RAW files.  Differences between the two cameras definitely start to show here, with the Nikon D3S handling the noise a bit better at ISO25,600.  Nikon D3S Photo ©David Bergman, Canon 1D Mark IV Photo ©Robert Caplin.
What we can deduce from these images and our testing is that practically all of the autofocus issues with the Canon EOS 1D Mark III have been resolved.  When shooting first with the 1D Mark IV, and then the 1D Mark III, Robert Caplin noticed “I definitely noticed a difference in the snappiness of the autofocus and the reaction time when triggering the shutter.”  It is safe to say that the Canon 1D Mark IV has the best performing autofocus of any camera to date.

In this image, shooting at ISO8000 on the Canon 1D Mark IV allows a shutter speed of 1/800th to be used.  The low noise at this setting creates a new world of possibilities for sports shooting.  Click to download the original RAW file.  Photo ©Robert Caplin

But how did the Nikon D3s fare?  The Nikon D3 is a fantastic camera, is it possible to improve on something so great?  David Bergman was skeptical at first, but his intimate familiarity with the original Nikon D3 allowed him to truly appreciate the improvements Nikon made in the D3s.  When asked about the difference in autofocus performance, David said The D3S feels like it reacts even faster than the D3. I found that it took no time at all to acquire initial focus on a moving target.” 
Robert and David shooting down field action.  Robert is using the Canon 300mm F2.8 IS lens, while David shoots with the Nikon 400mm F2.8 VR.
The real test is to put the cameras in a scientific, side-by-side test, shooting a fixed target at all ISO settings.  That is what we have done here; simply click the appropriate link to download the original RAW file from each camera.  Please be sure to select ‘Save File’.  You will need the latest version of the Adobe Camera Raw 5 plug-in for either Adobe Photoshop CS4 or Adobe Lightroom 2 to view these files.  All noise reduction was turned off in camera; these are the original, untouched raw files.

ISO SettingNikon D3SNikon D700Canon 1D Mark IVCanon 1D Mark III
200PhotoPhotoPhotoPhoto
400PhotoPhotoPhotoPhotoPhotoPhotoPhoto
1600PhotoPhotoPhotoPhoto
2000PhotoPhotoPhotoPhoto
2500PhotoPhotoPhotoPhoto
3200PhotoPhotoPhotoPhoto
4000PhotoPhotoPhotoN/A
5000PhotoPhotoPhotoN/A
6400PhotoPhotoPhotoPhoto
8000PhotoPhotoPhotoN/A
10000PhotoPhotoPhotoN/A
12800PhotoPhotoPhotoN/A
16000PhotoN/AN/AN/A
20000PhotoN/AN/AN/A
25600PhotoPhotoPhotoN/A
51200PhotoN/APhotoN/A
102400PhotoN/APhotoN/A

What’s clear from the test is that the Nikon D3s has the best high ISO performance of any camera on the market, hands down.  It bests the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV by at least 1 stop, and even beats the Nikon D700, which has the same sensor and ISO performance of the original Nikon D3.  It is also worth mentioning the big improvement from the Canon EOS 1D Mark III to the Mark IV; Canon has done an excellent job at decreasing noise, even as they add more megapixels, up to 16.0 from the Mark III’s 10.1.
Both cameras max out at an ISO setting of 102,400.  Only in the most dire of situations would I ever recommend using this setting, even with some noise reduction, this photo shows significant noise and loss of sharpness.  But I couldn’t resist posting a photo from the Nikon D3S at such an absurd ISO setting.  Click the image to download the original RAW file.  Nikon D3S, ISO102,400, 1/5000th, F2.8.  Photo ©David Bergman
So who wins the shootout?  When it comes to high ISO, both cameras excel, but the Nikon D3S edges out the Canon.  Autofocus performance is excellent on both cameras, with the Canon being slightly more responsive.  Both of these cameras are professional tools designed to get the job done in the most challenging conditions, and they are both winners in that sense.
  The “Nikon vs. Canon” debate might never end among die-hard users, but the differences between these two cameras are more about user preference, and less about image quality and performance.
The Canon EOS 1D Mark IV and the Nikon D3S break new ground for action and event photographers.  In the past, indoor venues were nearly impossible to shoot sports at, to get shutter speeds over 1/500th was not an option.  Slowly cameras began to offer ISO6400, but the noise at that high ISO was unacceptable.  Both of these cameras produce incredible results at ISO settings as high as 12800.  With a bit of post processing, large prints at ISO settings this high are easily possible, in fact, you can shoot up to ISO 25,600 and still get usable images.  This level of functionality and quality can open up new doors for photographers, and will change the way we shoot sports.
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fC3-92eRHM]

 

The Canon 1D Mark IV sells at Unique Photo for $4999.00, the Canon 300mm F2.8 IS lens goes for $4299.00, the Nikon D3S is $5199.95, and the Nikon 400mm F2.8 VR is $8999.95.
I have to thank Christine Eriksen at Nikon USA for providing the Nikon D3s, Coastal Sports for letting us use their venue to do the Shootout, David Bergman and Robert Caplin for donating some of their valuable time to participate and make some great photographs, and my fantastic employers, Unique Photo, for providing the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV.
For a little taste of the true speed of these cameras, check out the video to the left!
Postscript:
A lot of you might be wondering how the HD video features of these cameras stack up.  Both cameras shoot incredible low light video, the Canon offering full 1080P while the Nikon offers 720P.  The video capabilities of these cameras will be tested in a future article . . . so if you are interested in the convergence of digital SLR cameras and HD video recording, stay tuned to the Unique Photo blog!

26 Comments

  • Great test. Was there one of the cameras that had a higher keeper rate of in focus shots? THanks

  • Peter Says

    This is an unfair comparison. Look, you need Nikon 400mm lens to match Canon 300mm lens to get the same FOV, the former costs more than double of latter lens. This is not an option in wildlife such as birds photography when even 600mm is not long enough. In most high-level sports such as Olympics, NFL or Worldcup photography I doubt you ever need more than 6400 ISO in much brighter light. Canon will win clearly in those senarios. Yes we do need Canon to release a 16~18mp rumored 3D to answer D700/D3s in extreme low light needs such as wedding that is going to happend as they did in EOS 7D as answer to Nikon D300s/D300.

  • THANKS SO MUCH TO UNIQUE PHOTO FOR GIVING US, YOUR CUSTOMERS, A "UNIQUE" OPPORTUNITY TO OBSERVE THIS GREAT SHOOTOUT!!!

  • Peter,

    Thanks for the comments. I understand your point about a 400mm f/2.8 being more expensive than a 300mm f/2.8 for someone who has to purchase their own equipment and/or isn't going to make a living using it.

    However many pros will spend whatever it costs to have the gear they need and are often supplied with equipment by their employer.

    Relatively speaking, you are correct, having more than 6400 ISO may seem excessive, but with a native setting of 12,800 ISO on the D3s, 6400 will look that much better.

    Additionally I believe this test is very fair. While the cameras have different size sensors, they are in the same price range and are both designed for the same kind of photographers.

    Canon clearly didn't win even at 6400 ISO, but win is a subjective term. If you don't need to go past a certain ISO and you benefit from the 1.3x size sensor (as you mentioned), then the Canon makes sense. If low light performance is your top priority, the D3s has an edge.

    Both of these cameras are so impressive that a pro Nikon OR Canon shooter would be happy with either body. Obviously what lenses you have access to is a major factor as well.

    There have been internet rumors for a long time about a Canon 3D and it would be nice, but there is nothing to solid to even begin speculating when a release date would be.

    Thanks.

    -Mike Zawadzki

  • Sara Says

    Great article. The sample picture are well thought out.

    As far as Canon having the edge in focus speed – thats a tricky one. Having tried both cameras it boils down to "milliseconds" difference. Almost imperceptible. Not to mention that we are dealing with a 300mm Canon lens vs a 400mm Nikon. Perhaps the lens influence ones perception of focus speed.

    That being said I don't think any working pro would have trouble producing amazing images from either camera.

    The C VS N competition is great for everyone!

  • Mahonri Says

    This looks good for Canon. Now lets wait and see what Spring Baseball and Track & Field bring. The MkIII did well under the conditions of this test but fell in the crapper in bright sunlight, bright and contrasty colors and warm temperatures. Canon sandbagged everyone for a long time and Nikon benefitted big time. I'll wait for hot weather reports before even considering this one.

  • Ron Says

    Please note that your #4 zip file contains two NEFs.

  • Thanks for taking the time to post this comparison and all the files for download! Nice piece.

    –Thomas

  • AnotherKKVictim Says

    Your ISO 12800 Download includes 2 Nikon RAW files instead of Nikon and Canon.

  • Matti Says

    Great tarticle, well in balance.
    Both cameras have a top AF, (also al servo, I understood). It is important for Canon users. Botare winners in iso performance.

    Canon has better resolution and reach due to 1,3 sensor.
    Nikon gives better low light/ high iso performance.
    It is everybody´s own decision which one to choose.

    Thank you for sharing the article!

  • Kay Says

    Nice comparison – the RAW file speak volumes. Is there any chance you have the same shots with the 5DmkII? I'm keen to see how the low light performance compares to the new body (and also the D700).

    Thanks
    Kay

  • Hey guys nice comparison here! Really enjoy seeing the two side by side as well as the overall organization of this comparison. Looks really well controlled. I will link my 1D series camera comparison video to your comparison if you are okay with that. I think it would be valuable for people to see this comparison as well as the strictly Canon Comparison.

  • The 1DIV has the extra reach of 1.3.
    I wish people wouldn't mix apples and oranges, the 1DIV is designed for reporting, sports and nature photography. Its very rugged and gives more reach then FF but bigger sensor then APS-C. Its unique and the sales figures of the 1DIII testify to its popularity.

  • Aaron Says

    The D3s SMOKES the Canon Mark IV as it should with a bigger sensor, plus since the D3 Nikon has always been on top when it comes to noise.

    The 5D Mark II is supposes to be better on noise than the Mark IV…

  • Hello everyone! I want to first thank you all for reading and the great response from the Unique Photo Shootout. To answer a few questions…I did include other cameras in my official "side by side" tests, including the 5D Mark II and the 7D, along with some other Nikon cameras. I will be posting them all together to create a database of RAW file comparisons for many cameras in the near future.

    As for the 1.3x crop versus full frame argument…it is nice to get a bit of extra reach with the long lenses, but if the Mark IV had a full frame sensor at 16MP, you would be able to crop and get a comparable file size to the D3s. I personally believe that full frame sensors are the future, and that the APS-H 1.3x crop format will eventually die out.

    As for autofocus, the Canon 1D series has always been faster than the Nikon D series. While the Mark III had its own set of issues, the pure speed of the focusing and its ability to acquire and track a subject is faster than Nikon. Not to say that Nikon is slow, in fact it is quite speedy, but that is where Canon has its edge. This remains true on the 1D Mark IV vs. D3s argument. While the D3s is scary-fast, the Mark IV still bests it. Both cameras are fantastic, and I would not encourage someone owning a full set of Canon lenses to switch to Nikon or vice versa.

    Thanks again for all your responses, I welcome all suggestions, comments, and thoughts about the article and my testing/processes, feel free to email me anytime at joshl@uniquephoto.com

    Josh Lehrer

  • The #4 zip file has been corrected to include the CR2. Thanks to those who pointed this out to us!

  • marion Says

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

    Lucy

    http://dataentryjob-s.com

  • zoommer Says

    Thanks for your test. I love Nikon :-)

  • Chio Says

    Thanks for this awesome review and comparison. The full frame sensor and bigger pixels are better, indeed, but if only for one stop, then Canon did a good job with the IV.

    Two of my friends are waiting for the IV's to come to our country. I'll be more than glad to to show them this review. We don't want to switch to Nikon, so this is great hehe.

    Thanks again.

  • Great review. The raw files take 6 minutes to download on a 1 Mb Broadband connection – is there any chance of posting some 100% crops for those with slower connections ?
    Thanks

  • Autumn Says

    Not sure about this as I've only been using the D3s for a couple months and it is pool equipment at work so I don't have it all the time… but I believe you can set the camera to have a 1.3 or 1.6 size sensor so that your lenses will be longer. My coworker came into work complaining about a grayed frame in the viewfinder and in playing around with the settings – I found a section with those options. I LOVE the D3s. I use 8000 iso or higher all the time for high school sports. Let me know if I'm wrong about this option. I haven't consulted the manual to be sure.

  • Interesting angle.

  • dimo Says

    Yup, Nikon did it !!
    The only step left- get money needed for that new amazing monster. :)
    Great review and comparison, thanx!

  • JP Says

    Having shot both, my vote goes to the Nikon D3S. The files are just plain terrific. I have never seen a high iso file so clean

  • thanks for sharing, i have got over 20k invested in nikon and tht includes a d3s but would gladly change to canon tomorrow, canon loaned me a mk4 for a month and yes nikon wins on noise but for ergonomics and image quality the canon wins hands down, better in all respects bar battery life and card slots….

  • When will you have the HD shootout?

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