Nikon D4 vs Canon 1DX: A Quick Comparison

Canon 1DX vs Nikon D4, A Comparison

The Differences That Matter

If there were ever two cameras that seemed destined to be compared, they are the Canon 1DX and the Nikon D4. These two titans have so many similarities that my mind has already conjured up numerous tales of corporate espionage to explain them. But before I continue, let me be clear: both cameras are amazing pieces of equipment, and both promise to be such great tools that it is almost foolish to ask whether one is better than the other. Take this article as a means of satisfying my curiosity rather than an attempt to persuade the reader that one is “better” than the other.

There is one further point that I’d like to make before getting started. The margins of difference between many of the factors discussed below are small enough that many people will ask “How often will that make any practical difference?”, and the answer will be “Rarely, if ever.” I suggest that you ignore that concern, for the moment. For many people who are willing to spend $6000 on a camera body and whose livelihoods depend on those rare circumstances, they’re important. In all of my years as a photographer, I don’t think I’ve ever dropped my camera so hard that it needed a magnesium alloy body to hold together; but that doesn’t mean I’d want to go into the field without it. This is not to say that every difference should be considered consequential, but at this level, those differences should not be dismissed off-hand, either.

The Numbers

Let me begin by looking at some of the major features of the two cameras, starting with those that are most important in a professional camera aimed at news and action shooters: speed, autofocus, and low-light capabilities.

 
Canon EOS 1DX
Nikon D4
Canon 1DXNikon D4
Price:$6800$6000
Sensor Resolution:18 Megapixel16 Megapixel
Native ISO Range100-51200100-12800
Expandable ISO Range50-20480050-204800
Auto-Focus Points6151
Cross-Type Points41 (5 diagonal)15
Minimum Auto-Focus Light Levels-2 EV-2 EV
Smallest Aperture that Allows AFMax. Aperture of f5.6Max aperture of f/8 (11 focus points; 5 in the center, 3 on each side)
This is important for people using tele-extenders on small aperture lenses.
Maximum Frame Rate:14 fps (high speed mode)
12 fps shooting RAW
10 fps, 11 with AF locked
Shutter Release Lag:55ms standard
36ms via "shortened release lag" custom function
42ms
Expected Shutter Life:400,000 shots400,000 shots
Metering Sensor:107,250 pixel RGB91,000 RGB
Video Size and Rates1080p 24/25/30fps
720p 60fps

Max duration: 29 min. 59 sec.
1080p 24/25/30fps
720p 60fps

Max duration: 29 min. 59 sec.
Video Type.h264 codec with choice of 2 compression types:
1.IPB , smaller file size
2.ALL-I , higher image quality, larger file size
.h264 codec with B-frame type compression for ease of editing, .mov
Video ISO Range100-51200200-204800
Audio:Stereo External
Mono Internal
Auto or Manual Levels

A/V Out
Stereo External
Mono Internal
Auto or Manual Levels

Stereo headphone jack
Connectivity:Wireless with accessory Canon WFT-E6A

Gigabit LAN jack
Wireless with accessory Nikon WT-5

Gigabit LAN jack
Time-Lapse ModeNo, external intervalometer required.Yes, Built-In.
Viewfinder:Pentaprism, .76x magnificationPentaprism, .70x magnification
Memory Slots2 Compact Flash2: 1 Compact Flash, 1 XQD

.

Low Light

When it comes to sensor performance in low light levels, it initially appears that Canon will have the advantage, as it has two extra stops of native ISO range, and image quality has typically dropped off very quickly in the extended ISO range of earlier models. However, this may be deceptive, as both cameras reach the identical top extended ISO range. It’s possible that Canon has simply opted to include two stop of extended range in their native range. It’s also possible that the Nikon’s noise handling is simply good enough that it will out-perform the Canon, even with two stops of difference… though I don’t currently have any reason to believe that that’s the case (or even likely).

Canon has the advantage of a higher resolution sensor, however. Down-sampling images, when done correctly, will significantly improve sharpness and reduce noise, so even if sensor performance is similar at native resolutions, Canon may be able to make up some ground after-the fact. At this point, however, I’m merely speculating. Until both cameras are available for testing, we won’t know who will win out at high ISO.

When using large aperture lenses, both cameras can auto-focus in remarkably low light levels; -2EV is roughly equivalent to the amount of light you’d get on a clear night under a full moon. However, the Nikon D4 does have a clear advantage when focusing small aperture lenses. If you were shooting Canon with a 400mm f/4 lens and wanted to add on a 2x tele-extender, you’d have to switch to manual focus, since the 1DX can only reliably auto-focus (reliably) when the lens’ maximum aperture is f/5.6 or larger and a 2x extender reduces the amount of light getting to the sensor by two stops, effectively making the lens an f/8 maximum aperture.  Eleven of the D4′s 51 AF points, however, will continue working even at f/8 light levels, according to Nikon.

Nikon D4 with Telephoto Lens and Extender

Speed

It is no accident that we see so many big white lenses as professional sporting events. Canon has a history of making fast, responsive cameras and lenses, and again, the Canon 1DX follows in this tradition. It has an excellent shutter lag, and it’s shooting rate, at 14 fps, is unrivaled.

 Autofocus

The Nikon D4 and Canon 1DX both boast impressive new auto-focus systems with 51 and 61 AF points, respectively. The ten point difference may not be overwhelmingly important in itself, but there is one difference that is: while only the center 15 focusing points on the Nikon are cross-type,  41 AF points on the Canon are. Additionally, 5 of the Canon’s center points are oriented diagonally, which allows the sensor to quickly pull focus on horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines.

Autofocus performance is of such a high priority to the 1DX that its AF system has been given a dedicated Digic 4 processor in addition to the dual Digic 5 processors that handle the camera’s image processing. The processor handles a variety of AF processing tasks, such as face detection, an improved predictive AF system with obstruction detection, and even light-source adjustments. Under tungsten light, the focus module can make adjustments that will more accurately focus the warm shifted wavelengths of light or the cooler wavelengths of shaded natural light, increasing sharpness and reducing chromatic aberrations.

Nikon’s new Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX is also impressive, though. As mentioned previously, it handles low light and small aperture lenses with aplomb, and can track 16 individual faces in the frame. Furthermore, the module offers continuous AF while shooting video, and regardless of how useful this feature may be in practical use, it is a feature still absent in Canon cameras.

Backs, Canon 1DX and Nikon D4

In the End…

Nikon D4 and Canon 1DX with wireless modules attached.

The Nikon D4 and the Canon 1DX with their wireless modules attached.

I don’t expect anybody to make a decision based on a brief review like this; any sane person would not buy a $6000+ camera body unless they were already a seasoned professional with a collection of lenses and brand preferences that will play a much more important role than the technical differences I can point to. Indeed, I’ve only mentioned a few of the factors that seem most important in the bodies, but photographers who rely on Nikon’s sophisticated CLS flash system will find that external factor just as important, as will those Canon shooters who have grown accustomed to the performance of their white telephoto lenses. For my money, if the high ISO performance of the 1DX is close to that of the D4, I would lean toward the 1DX, and if it is better, that would seal the deal.

As usual, I’m interested to hear your opinion on the matter, either way! Please leave your comments below.

Avatar of Matthew Gore

Matthew Gore is the Editor in Chief and Administrator of Light & Matter.

11 Comments

  • Reply March 4, 2012

    Gandalf

    D4: 7.3-micron pixels

    1DX = 6.95 micron pixels

    We will see, if Nikon have used this little advantage to make the camera better in the iso-performance (again)?

  • Reply February 20, 2012

    jlawr

    The 1DX seems to be the clear “winner” in sports and still photography, but noy by much.
    An important consideration to choose the D4 over the 1DX may be in it’s video capabilities:
    1. Uncompressed HDMI video out
    2. A form of auto focus and face detection
    3. 1.5 and 2.7 crop factors in camera with the same attached lens
    4. A headphone jack for monitoring real time audio
    5. iPhone and iPad Remote control capabilities
    As I understand it, none of these features are offered in the 1DX

  • Reply February 13, 2012

    Colormetric

    One area Nikon dominates is with its CLS system. I for one would like to see external flash such as the SB910 as part of the review and the 1DX with their top flash . Yes I realize its not intigrated into the camera but it is an accessory likely to be used together frequently.

    • Avatar of Matthew Gore
      Reply February 13, 2012

      Matthew Gore

      There’s no doubt that the choice of a camera system should depend on more than the body, and as you have probably seen, I did at least mention the CLS system in the closing paragraph :) But I’m sure that you also understand that a great many photographers either choose not to or are prohibited from using flash in their work, so it makes sense to consider the bodies here in their on their own merits.

      I agree that it would be interesting, though, to see a comparison of the SB-910 and the 580EX II, as well as the entire strobe systems. I’ll add the idea to my article list… though from my experience with the 580EX, I expect it would be pretty well lop-sided in favor of Nikon.

      • Reply February 14, 2012

        Colormetric

        That would be great to include a comparison with both external flash units, because the fact remains photography is all about light.

        • Avatar of Matthew Gore
          Reply February 14, 2012

          Matthew Gore

          Very true. Opinions may differ, though, as to whether it’s about creating light or capturing light :)

          - Matthew

  • Reply January 9, 2012

    Dr.Vijay.K.Shastri

    Hello Mathew

    Both, Canon and Nikon Cameras are excellent picture takers and I guess it is up to the photographer to make the best of their features to get quality images. I am a serious amateur and possess both the systems right from film SLR’s to DSLR’s. I have enjoyed using both the systems and continue to get top class results from both the systems. I have always used full frame DSLR’s and would like to make a comment with respect to the use of Canon 1DX with apertures as small as F8. The Central sensor in professional grade Canon DSLR’s notably the 1D series is optimised for performance at F8. I have consistently used 400 mm F 5..6 EF L Canon with 1.4 EF extender on the now antiquated Canon 1DS mark II and have had no issues in terms of achieving perfect focus wtih the combination. Yes, Nikon has the advantage in terms of having more number of AF points that are able to help the autofocus points to latch on to focus with lenses having smaller apertures but Canon 1D series does not lag behind much and I have had wonderful results with the combination that I mentioned with autofocus nailing the subject perfectly well. I am sure the 1DX will have a similar system on the 1DX.

  • Reply January 8, 2012

    Odysseas Papageorgiou

    Nikon D4 / Canon EOS 1D X
    16 MP / 18 MP
    51 AF points (15 cross type) / 61 AF points (41 cross type f/4)
    10 fps (with AF) / 12 fps (with AF)
    CF + XQD / Dual CF
    Expeed 3 / Dual Digic 5 + Digic 4 (for AF + metering)
    0.70 x / 0.76 x

    Considering the fact that the Canon EOS 5D MK II has a similar high ISO performance with the Nikon D3X, then Canon EOS 1D X and Nikon D4 should be really close in that department. As a consequence and for all reasons mentioned above, the winner is Canon EOS 1D X.

    • Avatar of Matthew Gore
      Reply January 8, 2012

      Matthew Gore

      That’s about how I’d sum up the matter as well. The Nikon’s ability to AF at f/8, though, could come in handy for nature photographers. Maybe even sports photographers, during daylight events. Not that I’ve ever needed anything beyond a 600mm lens for sports… someone might.

      - Matthew

      • Reply January 8, 2012

        Ryan

        I’d completely agree with you there if it wasn’t for Canon releasing the fact that their “lack of AF at f/8″ issue can be resolved via firmware alterations, and as it’s a fair few months before it starts hitting the shelves then personally, I’m holding hope.

        :]

        • Avatar of Matthew Gore
          Reply January 8, 2012

          Matthew Gore

          I hadn’t heard that Canon had officially addressed that yet, but I knew that it was a possibility. Glad to hear it’s already in the works.

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