Hands On Canon 1Ds Mk III and Nikon D3X – Peter Gregg

I recently was called upon to do some photo journalistic shots of a traveling evangelist that was coming through the Miami area. I decided to take this as an opportunity to test out Canon’s top camera and Nikon’s top camera both at the same time and at the same job in real world conditions.

I took the 85mm f/1.2L II to use on the Canon body and the 70-200 f/2.8 VR to use on the Nikon body. The venue setting was one of Miami’s country clubs in a room that would normally be used for a small to medium size wedding or reception – or both. This was the perfect environment to do some testing and at the same time not be under the pressure of shooting a fast paced pressure cooker environment that a wedding provides.

I will say up front both cameras did well, but one gave me better files for my client than the other when looking at my results in the relaxed atmosphere of my home office and under optimal conditions to dig deeper into the files. I won’t keep you guessing which camera gave me the better results, it was the Nikon D3X. You would be remiss not to read the whole story though as there are reasons to shoot both cameras and for different people the choice may be for different reasons.

Let me show you some pictures first and get that magnifying gaze we all love to do into the shots out of the way.

Up first will be an overview shot so we can all be on the same page as to what we are looking at:

The room had dimmed lighting around the perimeter with some ugly florescent lighting in the center where the dancing floor would be. In a wedding environment these fixtures would be turned off and only the recessed fixtures would be used. I always am amazed how the mood lighting at weddings takes precedence over providing a little more light to get lasting memories that looked better – but that isn’t part of this story is it :)

The picture above is the venue’s setting. Here are a few crops of pictures I grabbed while I circled the outer perimeter of the room. I think from these you will clearly see the strength and weakness of each camera.

The picture above is the full view of the image. The camera is the D3X and the ISO is 2500 at f/2.8 with a shutter speed of 1/80. Here is a 100 percent crop:

Here is a sample of the shooting done from the Canon 1Ds Mark 3:


The settings are not the same because this is real shooting happening and  not controlled testing conditions. I ran the cameras live and used them exactly like i would at regular paying commissioned work. This means for the Canon camera, I would have (and did) set the camera body to the ISO I wanted. In this case the Canon was set to ISO 1600. On the other hand, i run the Nikon camera using auto ISO. This is a feature Canon hasn’t gotten screwed onto their cameras properly yet, but the newer 5D Mark II does have a semi satisfying version of auto ISO. So the Canon was locked in, the Nikon was free to adjust the ISO to it’s metering system.

The 100 percent samples of the pictures above both are acceptable. The Nikon is delivering a more detailed and sharper picture. I should mention that these samples are straight out of the camera with no sharpening and no noise reduction done – not even “default Lightroom settings” which is a fudging way to have Lightroom’s default noise reduction and sharpening applied without having to state it was done :)   This is REALLY no sharpening or noise reduction and the image should be about in it’s worse state possible and things can only get better from here. A lot of us can read “foundational” images and can know what the camera is capable of from that point on. Those images were for you guys.

Even though these are foundational images, let me show you what the Canon 1Ds Mark 3 does way too often. This shot was takes a second after the sample I posted above – look at how the focus said GREEN but the results say SOFT:

Focusing is soft and all over the place with the 1Ds mark III. Why is that? In talking to Chuck Westfall he suggested the 1Ds Mark III I was using be sent in for an update the Canon service department is doing for the Mark III series cameras. I in turn suggest the same for you folks shooting with these bodies.

In using the D3X and the 1Ds MK3 I would say first off the bat they are both top end pro bodies that mean business – serious business. This is the best there is folks and the cameras both are at the edge of their game. In my hands though, the Canon 1Ds Mark III seems to lock on and shoot so easily that it feels like a joy to use. The Nikon too often frustrated me when I pressed the shutter in that it would not lock on “easy as pie”. The Canon on the other hand did give that “easy as pie” feeling in the focus department.

The big choice would be if a photographer wanted quicker shooting or more accurate shooting. The Nikon’s files back at the office were solid and mostly tack sharp. The Canon’s were hit and miss with way too many out of focus or just slight out of focus results. My choice would be the Nikon. I wish there was a combination of both bodies in one. The accuracy of the Nikon and the ease of lock-on of the Canon in one body – I’ll take 2 of those please :)

Anyone can present one camera to look better over another camera in an article. The purpose of this exercise is to leave all the controlled environment testing shots behind us and see what the cameras did in the live world of shooting, whether it be in your family room with dim lighting or at venues like this where you shoot what is just there. Here are just a couple more 100 percent unprocessed shots of that run I was shooting in this sequence. These are from the 1Ds Mark III -

A D3X sample 100 percent clip:

Taken out of this high ISO shot:

For those that haven’t experienced what huge megapixel “power files” do – these ugly looking 100 percent crops will print so beautifully and detailed at 16 x 24 that your jaw would drop to the ground. The new technology today with these super packed megapixel sensors that are “fairly” clean and hold detail have move the professional and high end hobby guy into medium format territory in the quality of their prints. Amazing!

The bottom line is I could make either camera work for me. But back to real life – in delivering the files to this group, about 90 percent of the files I handed over to them were from the Nikon D3X. That is the real result of this shoot – plus the ability to write this artcle so you can see the 2 cameras in action too.

Don’t make the mistake of determining one camera over the other by just looking at one point of view. Static testing of objects is okay, and shots taken on tripods of sunsets can be beautiful, but there are real world situations like your own family gatherings in no-so-bright living rooms or wedding receptions where the lights are turned down so low the couple could actually start the honeymoon right there as it feels so “romantically dark” when they turn the lights almost off and the DJ is playing so loud your sensor can shake itself right out of the camera. Unless you are an ISO 100 shooter, you need to discover what these modern day cameras can do at ISO 1600 and more importantly – what will your prints look like?? Forget looking at images on the web and on your monitor. I can make almost anything look good there. Show me a 16×24 print or file and what the quality of that looks like – and then you are cooking with gas :)

Everything is on the table except for one thing. Canon’s response to the Nikon D3X. The Nikon D3X is a camera I am proclaiming as the current King of the Hill. But Canon’s 1Ds Mark III is not the newest stuff coming out of Canon at the moment. I am really eager to see if Canon is simply going to throw more megapixels at us or if Canon will chart new territory with better cleaner high ISO sensors along with a focus system that focus “easy as pie” but is also tack sharp. Can they do it? I sure hope so. Can Nikon get their focus system to “lock-on” the target like Canon’s “easy as pie” locking on? I hope so there too. One of Canon’s strong point is their LENS SELECTIONS. An 85mm f/1.2, a 50mm f/1.2, a 24mm f/1.4, a 35mm f/1.4 – oh be still my credit card :)   Those are killer lenses folks and what I will nail as a weak spot for the Nikon camp.

And there is one more itsy bitsy point to make. It’s the “bitsy” part of my trying to sound cool that I want to focus on for a second here. The Nikon is shooting at 12 bits to keep it’s agility while the Canon is shooting at 14 bits. Why Nikon’s D3X becomes slow as molasses at 14 bit mode is not something I can explain to you. But it does. Meanwhile, Canon’s 15 megapixel 50D pumps out 14 bit images at 6+FPS. Okay, add the faster 14 bit shooting mode t my D3X request too please.

See you online!

Peter Gregg

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