Nikon D4 vs. Canon 1D X: The Battle Begins

Posted in Equipment, News, Photography by Nathan Lee Bush on January 6, 2012

A Momentous Occasion

The ultra high-end full-frame performance camera market seems like a rebuke to everything our society stands for. It’s the one reprieve from the breakneck pace of development in almost every other technological niche. The nimble mirrorless market sees a substantial updates for each model at a yearly clip, while entry level cameras cascade from the open mouths of camera makers like water from the Trevi Fountain (just today, Fujifilm tossed 30 point and shoots into the throng). Apple updates its computer lines about every nine months on average. Car manufacturers get out an updated model every year. Even space shuttle launches happened a few times year until they were ended last summer.

These cameras are different. In what feels like an interminable period, the Big Two sequester themselves in their respective R&D labs, painstakingly refining their pro flagships. It’s been over 2 years since Nikon announced its incrementally updated D3s, and over five years since the D3 was revealed. To put this in perspective, the first iPhone was released just two months prior. This delayed upgrading is no conspiracy, these cameras are just really damn expensive! The market for them is so specific, that tacking on a few new features every year is not practical.

For all the excitement over the raft of features, the upgrades are essentially conservative refinements: a new function button here, a slightly re-angled shutter button there. These cameras are the culmination of literally a century of refinement of the 35mm (now full frame) format, so everything works about just as well as you could hope. With entire careers hinging on their success, one misstep could be disastrous for the companies.

The moment has finally arrived: the D3 successor has landed. Close on the heels of the recently announced Canon flagship, the 1D X, Nikon has just announced the D4, and with that press release, the race for the hearts and minds of photojournalists and sports photographers has begun. Allow me a second to take in this momentous occassion…

Okay, I’m done. Now, onto the comparison.

The Highlights

With the 1D X Canon, merged its studio and its field camera into one impressive animal, designed to please its broad swath of pro customers.

Nikon, presumably sticking to its previous two-model strategy, has the luxury of focusing this model on performance and improving it’s already industry-leading high ISO performance. Its new EXPEED 3 processor promises to do just that, with a native ISO of 100-12,800 and expandable to 50-204,800. They’ve even added illuminated buttons to really drive home the fact that this camera pretty much sees in the dark. The 1D X natively supports up to 51,200 ISO, but the D4’s redesigned 16MP CMOS sensor might allow it to retain its low-light chops against Canon’s 18MP resolution. Of course, we’ll have to wait until we have samples to properly peep pixels.

The camera has upped its game slightly in performance, with full time autofocus and autoexposure at 10fps, and 11fps locked. But the Canon rival can go 12fps and 14fps in these scenarios, respectively. With the new XQD format, just announced as the Compact Flash successor, the D4 will be able to theoretically pump out 105 uncompressed RAW files at 10fps, autofocusing all the while. The camera has 51 autofocus points, 15 of which are cross-type (compared to 61-point AF sensor with 21 cross type AF points on the Canon 1D X).

Like the 1D X, it gains an ethernet port allowing faster data transfer and longer cable. But this also includes a WT-5A transmitter which can wirelessly send images via FTP server. The LCD is a slightly larger 3.2″ and features an enhanced color gamut, and will adjust saturation, contrast, brightness and gamma depending on ambient light conditions. Canon’s LCD is the same size but sports a slightly higher resolution – 920k vs. 1.04 million pixels.

After getting hammered by Canon for years in the video department, it seems Nikon has finally woken up to the desire for serious video chops among pro users, presenting the D4 as a “multi-media DSLR.” A mic in and headphone out with adjustable levels, the B-frame compression standard of h.264 at 24mbps, the full-time contrast detect autofocus recording, aperture control, and most importantly, a direct HDMI out for uncompressed recording, imply a newfound seriousness about the video needs of contemporary photographers. Old definitions are falling away, and ‘image making’ is becoming the new byword for many industry professionals. The one annoyance in the video department is for slow motion enthusiasts (namely everyone), Sony remains the only company to recognize the demand for 1080p, 60fps video. Why can’t Nikon or Canon figure out how to crack that egg on $6,000 cameras with supercomputers built in, when Sony implemented it on a $600 camera (the NEX-5N) half a year ago?

The Winner?

On the spec sheet, Canon seems to have gained the upper hand this round, after arguably losing the last. But at the end of the day, it will come down to the output, useability and real-world performance, and we’ll have to wait until the exhaustive reviews start trickling in.

For those of us who don’t need to capture the pores of people sprinting 20 miles an hour down a field trying to catch a ball, these recent announcements are captivating for the same reason watching Ali v Frazier is captivating: a brief, rare glimpse of two giants at the top of their game, going head to head. They also give us a sneak peak at some of the groundbreaking technology, which, by the end of the product cycle, will have filtered down to the humbler end of the product range.

So let the new round of turf wars begin! I for one, will be eating popcorn tonight watching the Nikon and Canon fanboys each proclaim absolute dominion over the other. But they’re getting a couple years ahead of themselves. In this war, the first battle has just begun.

The D4 is available for pre-order here.


Nathan Lee Bush is a fashion and fine art photographer and filmmaker in New York City. His work is on his site, vimeo and blog.

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6 Responses

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  1. […] Summary + Amateur Photographer UK + Pop Photo + DCR + Through the Looking Glass […]

  2. Bill said, on January 6, 2012 at 7:23 am

    It seems that a lot of reviewers make this same mistake. It’s not a matter of finally waking up to video. This is first and foremost a stills camera. Video is just for marketing purposes. If it were the most important feature do you really think a company like Nikon couldn’t make it work? Get real! I would prefer if my purchasing dollars went solely for a dedicated stills camera. I neither want nor will I end up using video on a stills camera. Video is just a gimmick to placate those who want everything in one package. Remember that a Jack of All Trades is Master of None. What happens when we finally get HD video at 60fps? Do we then add on Web Surfing capabilities to cater to these same people who need just another gimmick?

    • Dan said, on January 6, 2012 at 11:49 pm

      It seems like you’re making the mistake here. This is an eminently capable stills camera. You might not want video features, but just because you’re not using your DSLR for video doesn’t mean others aren’t. This is first and foremost a stills camera and I defy you to find a better one in a DSLR form-factor. The Jack of All Trades bullshit falls apart at that simple fact. The video isn’t as good as dedicated video camera and nobody expects it to be. Perhaps when you manage to extricate your head from your own bowels, you’ll be able to see well enough to get off your high horse.

    • omar spence photography said, on January 13, 2012 at 11:55 am

      The enthusiastic response to video DSLRs among video production houses is a testament to the fact that video is not just a marketing gimmic. These cameras produce professional quality results and have allowed the smaller scale operations to raise the bar and allow photographers to diversify their business offerings. Video capability has not affected the quality of the output for still photographers so it really is a non issue in this regard. These compaies are in the business of selling cameras, given the development costs involved, if they can double their sales by expanding into other markets, the gripings like the above really count as noise and nothing more.

  3. […] this blog, Through The Looking Glass, we compare feature for feature the just announced Nikon D4 flagship sports/action camera against its recently announced rival, the Canon 1D X and ask the […]

  4. […] the old old Nikon 1DX. You’d have thought Canon would have thought about that) appears here. Nikon Rumors has a comparative spec sheet […]

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