Nikon D4 Versus the Competition

Now that the Nikon D4 is official, we can compare specifications with its closest competitors.  To me, the two closest competitors are the Nikon D3S and the soon to be available Canon 1D-X.  I’ll throw in the Nikon D3XCanon 1D Mark IV and Canon 1Ds Mark III as they are all pro bodies with similar capability.  I don’t consider the Nikon D700 or Canon 5D Mark II direct competitors to the D4 so I’ll exclude them here.  They can certainly be considered competitors for some applications and are themselves excellent cameras but they primarily target a different market.  I’ll also exclude the Sony Alpha A900, it’s a full frame camera but it has been discontinued.  Sony is rumoured to be developing a new full frame shooter, but no word on when it will be available.  Also, things like the Leica M9, Pentax 645D, or even more expensive models from Hasselblad are not direct competition.  So let’s compare the D4 to five of it’s closest competitors.

Sensor

Canon EOS-1D X Nikon D3S Nikon D3X Canon 1D Mark IV Canon 1Ds Mark III
Effective Pixels 16.2 18.1 12.1 24.5 16.1 21.1
Sensor Size (mm) 36 x 23.9 36 x 24 36 x 23.9 35.9 x 24 27.9 x 18.6 36 x 24
Max resolution 4928 x 3280 5184 x 3456 4256 x 2832 6048 x 4032 4896 x 3264 5616 x 3744
Pixel Size (µm) 7.3 6.95 8.45 5.94 5.7 6.4

Looking at the table, we can see that the odd-ball in terms of sensor size is the Canon 1D Mark IV which does not have a full frame sensor but one slightly smaller and what Canon calls the APS-H.  Prior to the 1D-X, Canon’s high speed pro camera used the APS-H sensor and their slower, high resolution camera used a full frame sensor.  The 1D-X is a blend of both, full frame, high speed, and 18MP.  On simple spec alone, the D4 is nothing special.  It’s not not highest resolution and Canon’s latest flagship is 2Mp ahead in the ‘megapixel race’, if you are counting.  Pro shooters realize there is a lot more to image quality than megapixels, but it’s worth to note.

Resolution is only part of the story, the size of the pixels affects sensitivity and as you cram more pixels in the same amount of space those pixels get smaller and thus less sensitive to light.  The D3S still has the biggest pixels in the list, which makes sense as it’s the lowest resolution.  The D4 increases resolution but claims one stop better low-light performance over the D3S.  It remains to be seen if that claim holds up, but one can assume that the new generation of sensors are better than the old so this may be true.  Time will tell.

Performance

Canon EOS-1D X Nikon D3S Nikon D3X Canon 1D Mark IV Canon 1Ds Mark III
ISO Native 100-12800 100-51200 200-12800 100-1600 100-12800 100-1600
ISO (boosted) 50-204800 50-204800 100-102400 50-6400 50-102400 50-3200
FPS 10 with AF/AE, 11 12, 14(JPG) 9-11 1-5 10 5/3
Autofocus points 51 61 51 51 45 45
AF f-stop f/8 f/5.6

The benchmark for low light performance for the last several years has been the Nikon D3S.  It was one to two stops better than the already good D3 and well ahead of anything from Canon.  The D4 is said to improve on the already impressive D3S by at least one full stop but no real-world testing and comparisons have yet been completed.  The new Canon 1D-X is a wild card here, on spec alone it looks better than the D4 but I personally don’t think it will match the performance.  Nikon has had the edge in this department for some time and once both models are available for side-by-side testing I think the D4 will come out on top.  It may be even possible to get relatively clean images from the D4 at ISO 12800 which will be boon to many types of shooters.

In terms of speed, the D4 will shoot at 10 frames per second (fps) with full autofocus and metering in RAW.  The 1D-X has an edge here, shooting at 12fps.  Honestly, I doubt any Nikon shooter would make the switch to Canon for 2fps but if you have no investment in glass and are looking to buy a pro camera it may sway some to Canon.  For my shooting needs, I don’t need anything with even 10fps so it’s a moot point.

Nikon has enjoyed an advantage in autofocus performance for some time.  Some Canon shooters may disagree, but I see it in review after review that the pro Nikon cameras just focus faster and more consistently than their Canon rivals.  The 1D-X has more focus points and more cross-type focus points but one of the big new features of the D4 is the addition of 11 autofocus points that work down to f/8.  This should mean even better autofocus performance in low light, and combined with it’s expected performance at high ISO this should translate to great shots in available light (weddings, concerts, sports, etc.).

At the end of the day, both the D4 and 1D-X are the top of the DSLR pile in terms of features and performance.  The D4 has potentially caught up to Canon in video performance and Canon to Nikon in autofocus and low-light performance.  There is no doubt that both models will make their owners very happy and saying one is clearly better than the other is not possible.  The new D4 is clearly an evolution in Nikon’s lineup but not a revolutionary camera.  I’m looking forward to hands-on reviews and sample images in the months to come.

There are a lot of other features worth talking about, but I’ll leave that for another post.  Now Nikon, please release the D800!

 

Visual comparison of the Nikon D4 and Canon 1D X

Nikon D4 Front

 

Canon-1DX

Nikon D4

 

Nikon D4 High Res Top Transparent

Nikon D4 High Res Back Transparent