Canon vs Nikon: professional DSLRs
- The Nikon D5 might have a slight edge in AF and low-light performance, but the Canon 1DX Mark II is no slouch. Toss-up, to slight advantage Nikon.
Which is the best professional DSLR from Canon or Nikon? Let’s face it: you can’t really go wrong with any of these. Each of these cameras offers the sort of upgrade in performance you’d expect from a camera that likely costs more than your car.
But if you’re prepared to drive a 10-year-old Toyota and spend the money it takes to acquire one of these powerful cameras you may as well get the one that offers the most advantages for the type of photography you want to shoot!
If we’re honest, though, there used to be slightly more of a distinction between Canon and Nikon in the professional market. Nikon was always known as the company that nailed metering and flash system performance.
Canon was the brand you went to for superb autofocus and cutting-edge lens technology. But as the market has changed, so have the differences between the two brands.
The turning point for pro DSLRs
Really, the turning point was probably back in 2007 when Nikon launched its professional D3 model. With its 12.1-megapixel sensor, amazing dynamic range and superb performance at high ISO settings, the D3 was a game-changer in terms of what people came to expect from a DSLR.
Nikon followed this up with the D3s in 2009, introducing the 720p video capture it had unveiled as a DSLR-first with the D90. The D3s also boasted dust reduction and a Quiet shutter mode, which were subtle features, if you will, that had a transformative effect on people’s photography.
Then, in 2012, Nikon launched the 16.2-megapixel D4, just in time for legions of sports photographers to capture Usain Bolt at the London Olympics.
The D4 upped its game to record Full HD video at 1080p, introduced XQD memory cards (the first camera to use them) and offered a built-in ethernet port on the side of the camera.
Two years later, Nikon upgraded the D4, unveiling the D4s with improved AF, faster 11 frames per second shooting and an Expeed 4 processor that enabled a new Hi4 extended mode, allowing the camera to shoot at a staggering equivalent of ISO 409,600. If you thought the D3 offered night vision, the D4s could pretty much see in the dark.
Canon’s part in this story begins around the middle of 2011 when it launched the 18.1-megapixel EOS-1D X. Its new flagship professional DSLR finally usurped its long-standing joint rulers, the 21.1-megapixel, full-frame EOS-1D Mark III and the 16.1-megapixel, cropped-frame EOS-1D Mark IV.
Because the 1D X replaced two of Canon’s professional camera lines, its spec sheet is effectively a compromise between the needs of the users of each of its predecessors. For instance, while the 1D X doesn’t give sports and wildlife photographers the effective focal length increase they got from the 1D Mark Iv’s 1.3x crop factor, it offers a resolution 3 megapixels less than the 1D Mark III.
It may seem like an odd move on Canon’s part, but the 1D X received widely positive reviews and offers a number of best-in-class features, such as 12 frames per second shooting (180 JPEGs or 38 raw files) and a 14fps High Speed mode with the mirror and AF locked.
The Nikon D4s could ‘only’ shoot 11 frames per second; however, it could keep this workhorse pace going for up to 200 JPEGs or 60 uncompressed 14-bit RAW files.
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Nikon D5
Which brings up to the present. In 2016, both Canon and Nikon updated their professional models yet again, launching the EOS-1D X Mark II and the D5.
Aimed at professional news and sports photographers, the Nikon D5 replaces the D4S as the company’s flagship DSLR. Along with its 20.8-megapixel, full-frame sensor it can shoot at a maximum burst rate of 12fps with full AF and metering function.
In our own Nikon D5 review we found it’s 153-point focusing system is superb, getting images sharp even in terrible light.
Of these 153 AF-points, 99 are cross-type and the central point is sensitive down to -4EV. Up to 55 of the points are individually selectable, although its possible to limit this to 15, and the rest are support points. The D5 can also be set to operate in single-point, 25-, 72- or 153-point dynamic-area AF, 3D tracking, group-area AF or Auto-area AF mode, giving photographers a lot of control.
As well as the Full HD video capability that has become standard across all DSLR models, the D5 is capable of recording 4K video footage, but this is limited to just 3 minutes. However, there have been intimations that a firmware upgrade will raise this limit to fall in line with the HD setting.
One of the D5’s headline specs is its capability of shooting at a maximum sensitivity setting of ISO 3,280,000. Our own tests found the results to be, well, rather awful. But if you are a photojournalist, often any shot is better than no shot at all. And images at the D5’s ISO 51,200 look rather remarkable.
Nikon makes two versions of the D5, one with two CF card slots and one with two XQD card slots. The XQD model is capable of recording up to 200 raw files at the maximum shooting rate, but the slower reading time of CF cards cuts this roughly in half.
As its name suggests, the Canon 1DX Mark II is Canon’s new flagship DSLR, replacing the 1DX. Canon’s flagship DSLR is designed for speed and low-light shooting to enable professional news and sports photographers to shoot in demanding conditions.
While Canon only increased the pixel count a modest amount, jumping from 18.1 million effective pixels to 20.2million, the company did employ a change in sensor design that integrates the A/D converter into the chip. Canon says this helps to reduce image noise by reducing the distance the analogue signal must travel before it’s converted to a digital signal.
Image processing is handled by two Digic 6+ processors, which enables a maximum continuous shooting speed of 14fps (dropping to 10fps at ISO 102,400) with exposure metering and autofocus operation. It’s even possible to shoot at 16fps in Live View mode, but exposure and focus are locked at the start of the sequence.
These high shooting rates are matched with high burst depths of unlimited JPEG files or 170 raw files. The 1DX can shoot 180 JPEGs or 38 raw files in a single burst so the Mark II makes a significant jump up.
Although the 1DX Mark II has the same number of AF points as its predecessor (61 points with 41 cross-type and 5 dual cross-type) Canon has expanded the AF area to cover more of the scene. What’s more, there is a new AI Servo AF III+ system to help tracking subjects moving erratically.
Finally, while it doesn’t offer the slightly ridiculous maximum sensitivity settings of the D5, it is still very capable in low-light situations. In our Canon EOS-1D X Mark II review we found that its standard autofocus system is very sensitive, fast and accurate, getting speeding subjects sharp in conditions that would stop other cameras in their tracks.
Last but not least, and perhaps the most interesting camera in this post, yet owned by the fewest people… the Canon EOS 1DC. Canon’s ‘multimedia’ camera is based on the same design as the 1DX, and is a stills/video hybrid that can shoot 4K video at up to 24fps, as well as 1080p at 50/60fps.
However, you’ll need to trade down your 10-year-old Toyota for something older: the EOS 1DC price tag starts around £8.5K.