It is a rare event when the photographic stars align so that Nikon and Canon both offer up a new flagship SLR at the same time. The last time this occurred was when the Canon 1DX was announced in November of 2011 and the Nikon D4 in January of 2012. Nikon released an updated D4S in 2014, while Canon sat out that upgrade cycle and hasn’t refreshed its top-end camera until the EOS-1D X Mark II was announced this year, a month after Nikon debuted the D5. It is no coincidence that these updates came just in time for the Olympic Games in Rio.
In the early days of digital SLRs, as Nikon and Canon leapfrogged each other in enhancements in functionality and image quality, the release of a new body would often prove enough to cause photographers to defect to a different platform. Fortunately, Nikon and Canon seemed to have ironed out the glitches that occasionally plagued releases of their earlier offerings, and each new version brings enhancements and improvements but—not to spoil the rest of this review—do not add up to a big enough advantage to cause people to jump ship.
Still, comparisons between the two systems—especially when announced back-to-back—are inevitable and so in addition to reviewing each system here, we answer the natural “which one is better” questions. In the end (again, not to spoil anything) while we found that one of the cameras had a slight technological edge, it’s not enough to make one system radically “better” than the other.
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II
The EOS-1D X Mark II is powered by dual DIGIC 6+ chips that process images from the 20MP CMOS sensor at a blazing 14fps with the optical viewfinder and 16fps with live view. The ISO range now goes to a native top speed of ISO 51200 and can be expanded to ISO 409600.
The DIGIC 6+ processors, when combined with the right storage card, give the camera an unparalleled level of throughput. It’s possible with a CFast 2.0 card to shoot up to 170 RAW images before the buffer fills and 73 RAW images if shooting with CompactFlash.
Visit here for our extended review of the Canon 1D X Mark II
At this point it’s necessary to address what is, by far, the oddest choice in the design of the EOS-1D X Mark II—the dual (and very similar-looking) memory cards. The Canon 1D X Mark II has a single CompactFlash slot and a single (nearly identical yet incompatible) CFast slot.
Another, more welcome improvement is a change to the internal AF point display in the optical viewfinder. Canon has responded to shooter requests to make it easier in low light to see the selected AF point, and the Mark II can be set to show active AF points in bright red, with the rest of the points displaying as dots. This makes it much easier to lay focus points on a subject and start shooting.
Canon’s pro cameras have always been known to have incredible autofocus, and the EOS-1D X Mark II ramps that up. The 61-point “High Density Reticular AF II” system has 41 cross-type AF points and can center focus down to -3EV. Outdoor photographers with long glass and those shooting with a teleconverter, which effectively stops down the minimum aperture, benefit from the camera’s ability to use all of the phase-detection points at f/8 or larger.
The AF system doesn’t use the dual DIGIC 6+ processors on board; it has its own DIGIC 6 processor, which is used for AF when shooting with the optical viewfinder and to run the Dual Pixel CMOS video tracking as well.
This last bit brings up another confusing design element. Canon introduced Dual Pixel AF as a way to provide autofocus when shooting video, and it functions by having imaging sensors capture both image data and focus data on the same pixel. This allows the system to continue to focus when the mirror is locked up in live view shooting. It’s the same type of technology that allows mirrorless cameras that feature phase detection focusing to track subjects.
Canon only uses this AF system in live view and uses a more traditional yet very high resolution sensor for optical shooting. While the Mark II can perform subject tracking and even face detection using the dedicated AF module, it can’t do that with the alacrity of a high-end mirrorless system, which is always focusing.
Fast As Jets
To test out the new AF capabilities on the EOS-1D X Mark II, I took the camera to the most motion-filled shoot I could find, an airshow. The erratic and incredibly fast nature of the performances was a great way to put the Canon through its paces. Flying at hundreds of miles an hour, looping, twirling, stalling and occasionally frightening attendees with low-level passes, the air show had it all.
Thanks to Canon’s verbose AF menu, it was easy to pick the right AF setup for a given performance. Planes crossing behind obstacles, set the camera to ignore things that suddenly enter the frame. A spinning exhibition from the Blue Angels? Erratic subject settings.
The AF system performed nearly flawlessly across two days of shooting full of rapid changes from high to low contrast, bright sun to shadow, and even a fog that rolled in and made it nearly impossible to see the subjects.
ISO Performance, Color and JPEG
With the arrival of the EOS-1D X Mark II, I’ve seen a number of conflicting reports from various lab tests of the camera’s high ISO performance and color range. Some suggest that the camera isn’t as capable at creating noise-free images at high ISO as its predecessor; some say it’s better.
The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II has seen the upper end of the ISO spectrum increase to 51,200, which is a stop lower than the Nikon D5’s upper end 102,400. It’s a bit crazy, coming from a film background where ISO 1600 was incredibly grainy and low resolution (compared to an ISO 100 film) to talk about these super-high ISO rates.
But the camera didn’t just get an update to the sensitivity, Canon has upped the ISO range on a camera with a dual-pixel sensor layout. Remember, the 1D X Mark II uses a Dual Pixel design to allow the DSLR to focus during video as if it were a mirrorless camera. Part of the sensor is laid out with pixels that function as focusing elements, not imaging elements, which should result in lower dynamic range and more noise. Instead, the 1D X Mark II has a higher resolution sensor compared to the 1D X and a Dual Pixel layout, but has a higher ISO and similar dynamic range.
After looking at a lot of images from the 1D X Mark II, and pouring over the lab tests posted online, it looks very much as if the 1D X and the 1D X Mark II have similarly high ISO performance, but the camera is taking a more aggressive and possibly less-pleasing approach to creating in-camera JPEGs.
The D5 has a number of important upgrades over the D4S. The camera has a 20.8MP sensor (vs. 16 for the D4S), a 180k pixel RGB metering sensor (vs. 90k), 153 AF points (vs. 51), 12fps capture (vs. 11), an extended battery life of 3780 shots (vs. 3020), 2.36M pixel touchscreen LCD (vs. 920k non-touchscreen LCD), 4K video, and an ISO range from ISO 100-25,600 natively and 3,276,800 extended.
On paper the D5 seems to be less of a technological leap than, say, the D3 was compared to the D2, but in an era of maturing SLR technology, each tweak is aimed at improving performance and workflow—something that is as crucial to the working professional as dynamic range and bit-depth. The result is one of the most incredibly sophisticated cameras the world has ever seen.
Visit here for our extended review of the Nikon D5
That makes the D5 perform significantly better in all regards than the D4S, but there are some tradeoffs and limitations to be found in the camera as well. 4K video is limited to 30p, for example, whereas many systems can capture 60p.
A more practical caveat (though possibly a feature, not a limitation) is the dynamic range of the sensor. Because of the emphasis on high ISO performance, the dynamic range of the D5 is actually a bit lower at the low end of the ISO range than as the ISO climbs. That makes sense for the target audience of this camera—photojournalists and location shooters who often need to capture in low light and want to maximize that performance.
With slightly reduced dynamic range at the bottom end, portrait shooters and others working with studio situations might want to look at other solutions, but news, sports and those shooting in low light have a truly compelling system with the D5. The ability of the D5 to focus down to -4EV is further indication that Nikon has created a platform that can exceed the practical biological limitations of the humans who operate it.
As good as the Canon AF system is now, the Nikon system seems even better, particularly when evaluating subject depth in its 3D tracking modes. Shooting fast-moving subjects with 3D tracking has an incredibly high focus rate, especially if a subject is moving erratically. The D5 seemed to predict more effectively where someone or something would be from shot to shot.
At 20MP, the D5 isn’t as packed with pixels as the company’s D810, though it has more than enough resolution to get the job done. It’s obviously aimed at those for whom speed and sensitivity are a priority over pure pixel counts.
The company has also responded to the encroachment of the mirrorless camera systems by adding hallmarks of those systems. The D5 can do face detection and scene recognition, a trick that was previously an advantage of shooting with a mirrorless system with phase-detect photos on-sensor. Through custom settings, the D5 can be set to 3D tracking with face tracking, which enables a photographer to set a focus point on a subject, and when/if the camera detects a face, it will lock onto that focus point until it loses face detection.
In a technological advance that might seem trivial on the surface, the D5 has added touchscreen functionality to the LCD screen, which I’m thrilled about. Often during a shoot I’ll try to zoom in on a portion of the image to determine critical focus, but having to use buttons and dials in combination was a cumbersome process (and I often found myself zooming out by accident, all the way to a thumbnail view). Being able to swipe and pinch an image is great, and it’s also great to set menu items and enter information with the touchscreen.
The touchscreen allows you to focus during video but also allows for live white balance metering—you can set a custom white balance preset by tapping on an area of the screen. This is a great boon to event and wedding photographers, who need to keep white balance consistent between different lighting conditions.
There are other great features in this camera that are less sexy than the ISO range but are no less important. One favorite of mine is a new tool for easily micro-calibrating a lens. Because lens optics are incredibly complex, the focus points of lenses can be minutely off, so that what the camera considers “in focus” is actually slightly back- or front-focused. Years ago, cameras added in-camera tools to make micro adjustments, essentially correcting for the focus issues by changing the focus point.
Nikon offers two different models of the Nikon D5, one with dual CompactFlash slots and one with dual XQD slots. XQD cards blow today’s CompactFlash cards out of the water in terms of data recording and reading. While the XQD model will probably be mainly the choice of heavy video users, I’m going to implore you to embrace the new technology and buy the XQD version. Since the XQD unit is a different version than the CF version, there’s no chance of mixing up cards.
Video shooters will like the 4K video abilities and that the camera outputs uncompressed 4K across the built-in HDMI port, but will be disappointed that the video is limited to 30fps. It’s also important to note that the 4K capture area is a cropped center of the frame, eliminating some of the real estate found with wide glass. It’s possible to shoot video with a larger portion of the sensor, but only in HD.
Nikon vs. Canon
Because of the dominance of Nikon and Canon in the professional camera space, the D5 is positioned in a head-to-head battle with the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, and I feel comes in just ever-so-slightly behind the D5. The D X Mark II has a few design choices that, to use a horse racing analogy, allowed the Nikon D5 to win by a nose.
Most of these small design factors give a technological edge to the D5, while others favor the Canon. The robust AF system on the D5, which outpaces the EOS-1D X Mark II, is a strong mark in favor of the D5, as is the phenomenal ISO range.
That said, there are some places where the 1D X Mark II trounces the Nikon D5, most notably in video operation. Canon has integrated its Dual Pixel AF technology in the 1D X Mark II, which allows for autofocus in real-time in-video capture mode.
There is no “wrong choice” when purchasing either the Nikon D5 or the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, which means that the professional photographer—regardless of platform—has a lot to look forward to when upgrading to these new systems.
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II Gallery
Here are more samples from our shoots with the 1D X. Continuing scrolling for more of our Nikon D5 images.
Nikon D5 Gallery