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.
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.