The big guns

Published on Author Yean Wei Ong

Some of you might be curious about the Canon EOS-1D X and Nikon D4S that I referred to recently. These are the ‘big guns’ of the Canon and Nikon DSLR lines—the top-level, professional camera bodies that are around the $7,000 mark. First, let’s refer back to the Canon EOS 7D Mk II as a basis for comparison. I’d suggested that this body currently presents the best performance for low light action photography out of the mainstream DSLR bodies from Canon and Nikon.

Canon EOS 7D Mk II – approx. $2,100 body only. This DSLR gives performance that, only a few years ago, we could only have expected to see in professional bodies. Even if the 7D Mk II had stopped at 8 fps and ISO 6400, that would still have been excellent performance for a body at this price. Add a frame-filling, top-notch AF unit, generous buffer (10 s JPEG; 2.5 s RAW), and technology to minimise the effect of flickering artificial lighting, and we have a superlative tool for low light action shooting. The only negative technical point is the unremarkable battery life.

  • Viewfinder: 100% (0.63x).
  • AF points: 65 (all cross).
  • Base sensitivity: ISO 100–16000.
  • Frame rate: 10 fps.
  • Buffer size: 103 JPEG, 26 RAW.
  • Sensor resolution: 20 MP.
  • Battery: LP-E6 or LP-E6N (670 frames).
  • Card slots: CF and SD.
  • Introduced: November 2014.

Now let’s compare that to the top-of-the-line professional DSLRs from Canon and Nikon.

Canon EOS-1D X – approx. $7,000 body only. The 1D X has a larger viewfinder than the 7D Mk II, but an AF unit with fewer cross type AF points and poorer coverage of the image frame. The full frame sensor extends the base sensitivity range by almost two stops. The 1D X shoots a couple of fps faster and has almost double the battery life. It’s important to note that this body is a few years old now, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the 7D Mk II is better in some ways (e.g., more cross type AF sensors).

Canon EOS 1D X
Canon EOS-1D X image © Canon 2015. Used under Copyright Act 1968, Section 41.
  • Viewfinder coverage: 100% (0.76x).
  • Autofocus (AF) points: 61 (41 cross).
  • Base sensitivity range: ISO 100–51200.
  • Maximum frame rate: 12 fps.
  • Buffer size: 56 JPEG, 31 RAW.
  • Sensor resolution: 18 MP.
  • Battery: LP-E4N (1,120 frames).
  • Card slot: 2x CF.
  • Introduced: June 2012.

It should immediately be obvious that the 1D X, with its integrated vertical grip (along the bottom edge of the camera body in the picture above), is much larger than the 7D Mk II and the Nikon D70S I’d used as a reference body previously.

Nikon D4S – approx. $7,000 body only. The D4S also has a larger viewfinder than the 7D Mk II, though not quite the size of the 1D X. Nikon seems to have been more conservative with the sensor than Canon, as its base sensitivity extends less than one stop more than the 7D Mk II, and its AF unit retains the same layout as the previous Nikon D3, D3S, D3X, and D4—still with only 15 cross type AF sensors. The frame rate is only slightly better than that of the 7D Mk II. Where the D4S really stands out, though, is with its unlimited buffer capacity; in theory, we should be able to keep shooting continuously until the memory card fills or the battery runs out of power. Speaking of the battery, the D4S has tremendous endurance—rated at roughly two and a half times that of the 1D X, and four and a half times that of the 7D Mk II.

Nikon D4S
Nikon D4S image © Nikon 2015. Used under Copyright Act 1968, Section 41.
  • Viewfinder coverage: 100% (0.70x).
  • Autofocus (AF) points: 51 (15 cross).
  • Base sensitivity range: ISO 100–25600.
  • Maximum frame rate: 11 fps.
  • Buffer size: unlimited JPEG, unlimited RAW.
  • Sensor resolution: 16 MP.
  • Battery: EN-EL18a (3,020 frames).
  • Card slot: CF and XQD.
  • Introduced: March 2014.

The Nikon D4S is very slightly smaller than the Canon EOS-1D X. If you’re not familiar with the XQD memory card, it’s a relatively new, high speed format intended to be a successor to CF. So far, only Nikon seems to be supporting XQD in practice … I couldn’t really say that it’s caught on as a new standard, although Thom Hogan has noted that the read/write speed is much faster than with CF.

Looking at the differences I’ve described above, it might be tempting to think that the professional bodies don’t give us that much more than the 7D Mk II. What these brief comparisons don’t show are differences in operational speed, physical robustness, and almost certainly reliability. Let’s also not forget that these two professional bodies have full frame sensors, which will give better image quality than the cropped frame sensor in the 7D Mk II. But there’s no doubt that there comes a point of diminishing returns on investment. It simply doesn’t make sense for most photographers (who don’t specialise in low light action) to buy a 7D Mk II, let alone a professional body costing three to four times as much.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to shoot a wedding with the Nikon D3S. Apart from the AF frame coverage (which has not improved in the D4 or D4S) and the shutter sound (loud), I couldn’t really have wanted for anything more in a DSLR body at the time. Despite its relatively large size and mass, the D3S was comfortable to hold and shoot with for several hours (though not everyone would necessarily hold the same view, of course). Operational speed was excellent. Technical image quality was top notch—if anything, it was the photographer letting the camera and lenses down, rather than the other way around.

The 7D Mk II is a very capable body, but the 1D X and D4S take it a step further. These two bodies are as capable and as tough as Canon and Nikon can possibly make them. They’re built for work, not play, and they’re priced accordingly.