By Patrick Singleton
Introduction: The Matchup
The two most expensive DSLRs from Canon and Nikon are notable mainly for their pixel counts.
The Canon 1Ds Mark III and the Nikon D3X record 21.1 and 24.5 megapixels, respectively. The file sizes may seem enormous to most photographers; they strain the limits of the cameras' processors and data arteries. The cameras' large files make 2GB memory cards look puny, and clog hard drives. DVD backup schemes begin to look clumsy.
As we look at the 1Ds and the D3X, we'll balance the (presumed) advantages of the cameras' pixel counts with the burden of handling such large files and near-$8,000 cost. Though both cameras are every bit as durable as, and handle very much like, their lower-resolution counterparts, they are much slower in performing every function that is influenced by file size.
These cameras are special-purpose tools. With that premise, it's fair to ask if they should be less like the 1D Mark III and D3, and more adapted to studio and tripod shooting.
Face Off: Design & Operations
The Canon 1Ds Mark III and the Nikon D3X have interfaces very similar to their predecessors, and are more or less structurally identical to their lower-resolution counterparts, the 1D Mark III and the D3. The similarities are a convenience for most users, who will likely use the 1Ds or D3X in combination with other bodies. On the other hand, consistency means that there are few interface improvements in the new models.
The D3X requires fewer steps to change AF points and white balance, and the 1Ds offers faster access to Live View, and a more flexible white balance system.
The Main Event: Performance & Image Quality
The Nikon D3X is the hands-down winner of the autofocus comparison. It's faster, and it works much better in low light and with low-contrast subjects.
Both cameras offer single and continuous autofocus, and allow the user to select the active AF point. The Canon 1Ds Mark III has 19 cross-type sensors, while the Nikon D3X has 15. All 51 of the D3X's sensors are selectable, while only the cross-types are selectable on the 1Ds.
Nikon's auto-area mode is adjustable so the user can choose to have the closest nine or 21 sites around the active point, or all 51 sensors active if the subject moves. Canon's system allows the user to activate the “helper” points on either side of the selected point. The 1Ds also allows the user to limit the number of selectable points.
Twenty-plus megapixels of bad color wouldn't be worth much, so it's wise to look at how accurate these cameras are in a controlled environment. In our tests, the Nikon D3X shows more saturation and hue error than the Canon 1Ds Mark III. Though the grays are more neutral, and some greens and blues look marginally better on the D3X, Canon does better with most of the sample colors.
The Canon 1Ds Mark III resolves more detail than the Nikon D3X throughout its ISO range. That's a tough result for the Nikon, given its roughly 15 percent advantage in pixel count. It should be obvious in the days of 10-megapixel cell-phone cameras that not all pixels are created equally, but still.
Given their enormous pixel counts, the Canon 1Ds Mark III and the Nikon D3X have pretty small pixel sites on their sensors, and that size correlates with noise.
Overall, the Canon 1Ds Mark III is more adept at controlling noise throughout its sensitivity range, though the cameras perform equally at ISO 100.
Dynamic range measures how broad a range of luminance between the brightest and darkest tones that show detail. The Canon 1Ds Mark III performs consistently better than the Nikon D3X in our test - at every ISO, it's better by around a third of a stop.
The 1Ds's top score is a fair score among DSLRs. The Canon 50D scored about the same. That score, and the D3X's inferior one, are explained by their enormous pixel counts. Many of the photos that require such pixel counts are taken in pretty well-controlled settings, where lighting can be changed to accommodate the camera's range.
As we photographed action, we found both cameras very responsive: shutter lag wasn't a factor and both cameras tracked moving subjects well, given that we were shooting with macro lenses. The big limitation was burst speed. Both the Nikon D3X and the Canon 1Ds Mark III list a maximum frame rate of 5 fps for full-frame images (the D3X offers a DX crop mode that shoots up to 7 fps), and both fail to reach that speed when capturing full-size, best-quality RAW files.
Conclusion & Value Assessment
In a comparison review, the expected conclusion identifies the better camera. But not in this case.
The most compelling aspects of both the Canon 1Ds Mark III and the Nikon D3x are their drawbacks. 1.8 frames-per-second burst rate! Dynamic range no better than their $1,300 stablemates! Live View that overheats and screws image quality before shutting down the camera to avoid trashing the sensor! And remember, in the D3X's Live View, it can seem as though the camera has taken a shot when it hasn't.
These failures pale in comparison to the major disappointment: neither camera brings anything new beyond pixel count to the market. Though they are explicitly targeted to commercial shooting - where medium- and large-format film used to reign - they're no more adapted for that style of shooting than their lower-resolution counterparts.
To recap points from sections of the review: Commercial shooters would be better served by cameras that had more robust, usable live view systems; autofocus that helped optimize depth of field; better in-camera features to evaluate exposure and image quality, and finally, industry-leading color, noise, and dynamic range - not just resolution.
The Canon 1D Mark III and Nikon D3 are great cameras for photojournalism and similar styles of photography. They really are much better than their competition. Unfortunately, the 1Ds and the D3X are nothing more than those cameras with their pixel counts doubled. The 1D Mark III isn't full-frame, but other than that, the differences are essentially the ways in which the higher-res cameras are less convenient or functional.
All this makes economic sense. The lower-resolution cameras sell in much greater volume. They are the mainstays of the pro-level lines. The high-res versions aren't the apex of the DSLR market - they are the very low-end of the high-resolution market dominated by “medium format” digital cameras. A number of DSLR users complain about the near-$8,000 price, but that's much cheaper than the cheap medium format systems. With lenses, the gap is yawning. So, the reply to our complaints about these two cameras is obvious: “What do you want for 8,000 bucks?”
With all that out of the way, here's our comparison: the Canon 1Ds Mark III beat the Nikon D3X in most measures of image quality - detail, color accuracy, noise and dynamic range. Usually not by much, but with convincing consistency. The Nikon, however, has much better autofocus and mechanics. The D3X’s ability to focus via the Live View data stream is a significant distinction, depending on how problematic heat buildup is. The comparison of Nikon and Canon user interfaces is subjective in the end. We like Nikon's variations in controls.
Our recommendation is simple: If you already have a Canon, buy the Canon 1Ds Mark III. If you have a Nikon, buy the Nikon D3X.
Neither should be your first DSLR, and neither should be expected to provide an upgrade in image quality over their lines’ respective counterparts. The vertical grip, robust frame, and superior mechanics offer clear advantages, but hardly enough to justify the leap in price for very many shooters.
Having said that, those comfortable investing $7,999 in a single DSLR body aren’t likely to be disappointed in either one.
For more details about these cameras, including the field tests, color reproduction, image detail, picture modes, metering, and controls, read the complete report at H2H Reviews.
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