When the Nikon D4 was released on February 2012, pundits all over the world gave excellent reviews of the full-frame camera, stating that it was Nikon’s best camera yet. Indeed, with its flagship design offering superior image quality and versatility, the D4 is every professional photographer’s bread and butter. Equipped with an arsenal of improved specifications over the D3X, the Nikon D4 has excellent control of picture quality under low light conditions and an improved video recording capabilities.
While individual plaudits for the Nikon D4 lives up to its hype and marketing, in comparison with the Canon 1DX, significant drawbacks exist. On paper, while the effective resolution of the Canon 1DX fares slightly better than the Nikon D4, what makes the Canon 1DX stand out against the Nikon D4 is its better auto-focus performance especially under poor lighting conditions. To add a little icing on the cake, the Canon 1DX offers 10 more auto-focusing points including cross-type auto-focusing and has higher continuous shooting speed.
After weeks shrouded in secrecy, the unveiling of the Nikon D4s today which promises “a new image-processing engine” as well as a “more advanced auto-focusing system” has kept many of us charged up at bay over the latest Nikon-Canon battle. However, one overarching question remains: is the latest Nikon D4s going to outperform the superior Canon 1DX? We analyze.
As if a wake up call from a half-time defeat, the Nikon D4s improved astoundingly in performance relative to the D4. However, does it match up with its expectations as the leader in the photo-imaging industry or does the Canon 1Dx have a greater say?
On paper, one prominent difference is 10 less auto-focusing points on the Nikon D4s than that of the Canon 1Dx. It may mean a whole world of difference to professional photographers but the Nikon D4s has compensated that with 15 cross-hair points and introduced the group-area Auto-focus, and giving an equally smart capability in sensing and tracking fast moving subjects. With this new group-area Auto-focus, the 5 autofocus points shaped like a diamond on this mode will ensure the Nikon D4s is able to secure tracking on the first focus, thereby producing images of small, distant and fast-moving objects quicker, sharper, and more successfully. This is similar to the Zone AF auto-focusing mode on the Canon 1Dx. But instead of 5 focusing points, the Canon 1Dx has 9 or 12 Auto-focusing points grouped together.
We have conducted a simple experiment to determine the auto-focus clarity of both cameras under similar conditions. Geared with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at 200mm, f/8, 1/1000 on both the Nikon D4s and Canon 1Dx, we have taken some shots of go-kart riders during the Nikon D4s launch.
Comparing both results, both cameras have produced excellent auto-focus tracking and sensing of these fast-moving go-karts, creating reasonably sharp renditions of the subjects. Of the 15 shots taken over a single trigger, the Nikon D4s and the Canon 1Dx has produced at least 13 crystal clear shots, with the same subject’s face in full focus.
However, assuming two fast-moving objects speeding across your frame simultaneously, should the auto-focus be locked incorrectly on the subject, the Nikon D4s more capable in remedying the incorrect focus, introducing a 0.5ms delay before lock on, allowing you to quickly readjust and focus on the subject you want. For the Canon 1Dx, it is crucially important to lock the focus accurately before triggering, as the lock-on effect keep your subject out of focus. Based on the experiment below, having switched the Nikon D4s and the Canon 1Dx to the group-area auto-focus and Zone focus respectively, the delayed focused has enabled us a higher chance to capture a crisper image of the go-kart rider using the Nikon D4s than the Canon 1Dx.
From the pictures above, both taken using the zone auto-focus system, the Canon 1Dx has a tendency to produce inaccurately focused images should the lock-on be wrongly positioned. However, incorrect lock-on ultimately boils down to the handling experience of the camera and anticipation of each photographer of the fast moving subjects.
It may be a little late that the Nikon introduced the easy Auto-focus mode switching button as a strategic shortcut on the D4s as the Canon 1Dx (introduced earlier) has options to pre-register a button for another AF mode. Nonetheless, it is a great tool to utilize for sports or events photography especially when the subjects are moving unpredictably.
To sum up, while the Nikon D4s and Canon 1Dx produces reliable focusing systems that tracks subjects with pinpoint accuracy, the Nikon D4s edges slightly ahead in its versatility with its auto-focusing systems, producing a wide array of solutions to modern-day professional photography problems. On the other hand, the Canon 1Dx offers a more intuitive design through its densely packed, intelligent and clustered AF points, aiding focus precision over a wider area of your frame.
Needless to say, the Canon 1dx is the superior winner in its ability to capture images at a higher frame speed. Despite bumping the Nikon D4s’ frame speed up to 11 frames per second on full auto-focus and exposure, with 14 frames per second blazing away on the Canon 1Dx, every extra frame shot by the Canon 1Dx translates to every moment lost by the Nikon D4s.
However, would the Canon 1Dx be able to keep up its writing speed with the higher frame speed? Afraid not. Cranking up dozens of images in Raw would not bother the Nikon D4s, as its powerful EXPEED 4 image-processing engine that receives 14-bit A/D converted data from the sensor conducts a comprehensive 16-bit processing to maintain the images information without losing speed. On this note, as the experiment was conducted, we did realize that the Canon 1Dx took a slightly slower time (40%) to write its images than the Nikon D4s.
Must also say that Nikon is a late bloomer with the ability to produce images in different RAW file formats. Despite offering the tweaking benefits of RAW images in a smaller file size, the Nikon D4s only has only one option of capture small RAW files 4MP, compared to the Canon 1Dx at Small and Medium Raw formats. In which case, it offers photographers and photojournalists alike one less choice for uncompressed processing.
Impressive as it is, the upgraded Expeed 4 image-processing engine that boasts 30% more processing power than the Nikon D4 incorporates an entirely new algorithm for even higher ISO noise reduction and color fidelity making the Nikon D4s a clear choice when comparing the clarity levels of the Nikon D4s and the Canon 1Dx. With its ISO boosted to 409,600, the Nikon D4s has produced unmatched rivalry in sharpness, clarity and accuracy under very low light conditions. For the Canon 1Dx, it’s maximum extension settable for the ISO is 204,800, one stop lower than that of Nikon’s.
Indeed, our comparisons between the Canon 1Dx and Nikon D4s proved the superiority in image quality of the Nikon D4s. At ISO 25600, it appears that there is reduced chroma noise in shadows and noise is kept minimum on the flat planes in the mid-tonal range, creating deeper tones, a healthier saturation and project an overall bolder look. On the contrary, the Canon 1Dx appears very noisy by ISO 25600, rendering uneven modulated grains that fails with the most extreme sensitivities.
The increased video recording performance will surely wow many photographers and photojournalists. With its stunning capability to shoot at full high definition at 24 frames per second, or 1080p at an incredible 60fps, the Nikon D4s presents a new frontier in video recording capabilities and performances amongst the high-end digital SLRs. However, lacking in the D4s but present in the Canon 1Dx is the presence of the time-code. Essential for video editing, the timecode aids video editors access a specific frame of the video and make edits to it and the frame will still be accurate.
I can safely say that Nikon has exceeded everyone’s expectations. In terms of battery life, the introduction of the EN-EL18a battery for the Nikon D4s achieves 5960 shots per full charge, almost 4 times the LP-E4N’s performance for the Canon 1Dx. The upgraded EN-EL18a now carries 2500 mAh instead of 2000mAh, and together with the Nikon D4s’ optimized power consumption, this means more shots taken with a single charge. It may seem pretty insignificant to professional photographers, but now, they can carry 3 less batteries compared to their Canon 1Dx counterparts.
It has not been a complete letdown with the improvement in several areas in terms of optics and performances for the Nikon D4s, even though we had expected more improvements such as in-built wireless, geo-tagging transmitter as part of the new launch. In fact, it seems the Nikon D4s is built to match the overall specifications of the Canon 1Dx in auto-focusing performance and outperform the Canon 1Dx in image processing capacities. But it is also important to concede that the release of the Canon 1Dx is based on the technologies procurable 3 years ago, prior to its release in October 2011. Going forward, we would expect Canon to build on its auto-focusing superiority as Nikon would advance her image processing capabilities.