New pro Nikon, Canon DSLRs compared

It’s war (again)!

For the better part of a decade, Canon dominated the pro photojournalist an sports shooter marketplace, but that dominance started to erode somewhat when Nikon, after years of delays and denials, finally entered the full-frame pro DSLR ring in 2007. Last week, Nikon unveiled its latest flagship DSLR for the photojournalist/sports photographer market, the D3s, and in the wee hours of this morning, Canon shot back with the EOS-1 Mark IV.


Now, it’s an all-out brand war, with increasingly useful features and improving image quality on both sides. The winners? Professional photographers and their clients or employers. Competition is good.


Note: Adorama Camera is now taking pre-orders for both the Nikon D3s and Canon EOS-1 Mark IV. Orders will be filled upon arrival of the cameras to our warehouse on a first-come, first-served basis. Adorama will not charge credit cards until the order has been shipped.


While both cameras are clearly aimed at the same end users, comparing the specs side-by-side reveals striking differences that will help some pros decide whether to switch brands or stay with what they’ve got. These differences, I believe, also reflect the two companies’ very different camera design philosophies.



Canon EOS-1 Mark IV

Nikon D3s




ISO Range



Top “Hi” ISO




1080p HD, 24, 25 or 30fps

720p, 24fps


CMOS, APS-H (1.3x crop)

CMOS, 35mm “FX” format

AF System

45 Point, 39 cross-type

51 Point, 15 cross-type

Pixel size

5.7 microns

8.45 microns

LCD resolution

920k pixels, 3 inches

921k pixels, 3 inches

Burst rate


9fps (full frame) 11 fps (DX crop)

Shutter speeds

30-1/8000 sec, 0.3, 0.5, 1 stops

30-1/8000 sec, 1/3 stops

Flash sync

1/300 sec

1/250 sec


63 zone

1005 pixel, auto scene recognition

Card slots

1 CF, 1 SD slot

2 CF slots

A/D conversion


16-bit (?)


Auto copyright info in EXIF

Quiet Shutter Mode


Auto Light Optimizer

Active D-Lighting

Build Quality

Weatherized; Magnesium alloy

Magnesium alloy


Li-on LP-34 rechargable

EN-EL4/4a Li-ion rechargalbe


6.2x6.2x3.1 inches

6.3x6.2x3.4 inches


2.6 lb

2.7 lb






What will these specs mean for potential users? Let’s take a look.

Resolution and image quality

The first thing that both Canon and Nikon want you to notice is the ISO range, which tops off at 12,800 at full resolution for both cameras. Both models also offer a lower-resolution “Hi” ISO up to 102,400, which I’m assuming will produce digital noise the size of golf balls and will be fairly useless, but will get a lot of press. At 12,800, however, both cameras promise publishable image quality.

But there are important differences here that pixel peepers will have a field day with. The Nikon’s is a modest 12MP, on a full-frame, 35mm sized sensor, which allows for 8.4-micron pixels. The Canon records 16MP images on a slightly-smaller-than-35mm APS-H sensor, which requires a 1.3x lens crop factor; to fit all those pixels, means each pixel measures a significantly smaller 5.7 microns. As demonstrated by DxOLabs, smaller pixels tend to produce more digital noise than larger pixels, and this could put the Canon at a disadvantage in lower light shooting.

When shooting JPEG, factoring in both cameras’ noise-massaging software, quality will probably be similarly excellent in the lower speeds (through ISO 800, at least). Based on the historic effect of smaller pixels, I’m going to predict that there will be a noticeable difference in image quality by the time each camera reaches the higher ISOs, and that the Nikon will probably win in RAW. It’s anybody’s guess in JPEG since noise reduction will automatically kick in on both models. Canon’s noise reduction will have to work harder, though, to overcome the physical limitations of its sensor.


Canon and Nikon have taken different paths to bring HD Video to their DSLRs, and Canon has an advantage here in both quality and robustness. The Canon records 1080p HD videos and lets the user choose frame rate: 24, 25 or 30fps. Users can also record up to 60fps in lower resolution. Canon likes to stress the fact that recording length is limited only by the amount of space on the memory card.

Nikon, meanwhile, has more limited but still very useful video. It records in lower 720p resolution, and only allows for the cinematic 24fps. For you movie buffs out there, 24fps is the frame rate that has historically been used in projected motion pictures, and so on some subtle, subconscious level, videos recorded at this speed may seem more “movie-like”. 30fps is the typical video refresh rate, and the difference requires some software conversion but that’s become an easy process. Another limitation for the Nikon is that you can only record up to 5-minute videos. I don’t think that’s a huge limitation, given that most shots are shorter than 5 minutes (unless your name is Jacques Tati).

Both cameras have external microphone outlets, so you can plug in any off-camera mic and get high-quality audio.

While I’ve seen some stunning videos shot with other Nikons (such as the D90), based on the specs it seems the Canon has a clear edge in this category.

Other differences

Nikon’s 1005-pixel auto scene recognition, which compares the shooting scene with a database of tens of thousands of images to help determine the best exposure, leaves Canon’s 63-zone system in the dust. Canon has 39 cross-type AF sensors (compared to Nikon’s 15), which should give it an edge in action photography.


Both camera offer what I call “Pseudo-HDR,” which is really the camera using software to overexpose shadow areas to expand the dynamic range of an image. In previous cameras, this would lead to selectively grainier areas in the shadows but with the promised high-res low-grain performance, Auto Light Optimizer (Canon) and Active-D Lighting (Nikon) might actually deliver good quality images with a higher dynamic range.


As expected, both cameras are well-sealed against rain and dust via the usual array of gaskets and 0-rings and are built on solid magnesium-alloy chasses. Nikon even says the D3s is protected against electromagnetic interference.


Flash sync on both models is relatively fast, and the burst rates are in similar ballparks. Both cameras use high-resolution LCD monitors, and have dual card slots. And they’re both big and heavy (more than 2.5 lbs).

Pricing? The difference is negligible. While we’ll all know more once we get these cameras into the hands of knowledgeable reviewers, my first instinct is to recommend the Nikon for general photojournalism, wildlife and sports, and the Canon for sports photography, photojournalism and serious videography.




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