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|| News Item: Posted 2009-06-25

Photographer's Toy Box: Nikon D3X Users Report
Robert Seale compared the Nikon D3X vs. the Canon EOS1Ds Mark III.

By Robert Seale

Photo by Robert Seale

Photo by Robert Seale

Shot with the Canon EOS1Ds MkIII
Let me preface this by saying that I'm not endorsed by either Canon or Nikon. I have good friends who are pro reps on both sides, and I've used both systems over the years. I began in high school and college with the Canon FD system shooting the Canon F-1 for several years. At my first newspaper job, we were issued Nikon gear, and I stayed with Nikon on two more subsequent jobs, buying my own Nikon system and eventually using the Nikon F-3, F-4, and F-5 cameras for about a 10-year stretch of time. I will also add that I used Hasselblad cameras for almost all my portrait work from 1996-2005, and I was definitely spoiled by the tack-sharp Zeiss lenses.

When the Sporting News went digital around 2003, I switched to Canon and used the original EOS1D, and later the MkII and Mk IIN versions. Since the market for action photography has dwindled for the last several years, I've made it a point to focus my business on commercial work for advertising, corporations, and editorial portrait clients.

High-resolution sensors have meant much more to me lately than fast motor drives or autofocus speed. I've been very happy with Canon's "S-Cameras": The EOS1Ds MkII and 1Ds MkIII. Both brands had cameras with focusing issues (Canon with the 'non-S' 10MP MkIII, and Nikon with their D2H), and these problems are well documented on various message boards and sites. I won't regurgitate all of that stuff here. The main question, to me, was: Is the new hi-res Nikon better enough (for my type of work) that it warrants a wholesale system change?

With the help of my good friend Jody Grober at Robert's Distributors, I was able to extensively test a Nikon D3X and several Nikon zoom lenses. I'm certainly no Rob Galbraith, and I don't have an optics testing lab at my disposal, so this will be decidedly unscientific. We're posting these sample photos at 72dpi on the Internet, so you'll have to trust me in some cases, but nevertheless, I'll attempt to test a few things and compare a few issues that are important to me.

The Nikon D3X shoots a 24.39 MP file (6048 x 4032 pixels). The Canon EOS1Ds MkIII shoots a 21.1 MP file (5616 x 3744 pixels). This works out to about a 7% increase in each direction. Normally, I'm all about having the largest file size available, and the files are definitely larger, with the Nikon files opening up to 139.5M and the Canon's files measuring 120.3M (16 bit).

One thing to keep in mind in comparing these files: different sensors, even within the same model of the same camera, can vary in sensitivity. The same exposure on two cameras often yields photos with varying brightness. These cameras were no different, so bear that in mind when looking at the test photos. Just because a photo appears to have a lighter exposure doesn't mean it is sharper or better.

I did several tests, including cropping small bits from the frame of: a typewritten page at 10 feet, some skyline photos, and also some portraits in the studio. I made test prints directly out of Lightroom with no adjustments to the files. I exported 16 bit files into Photoshop and blew them up to 400% on a large 30" monitor side by side.

What I found surprised me. The Nikon looked better on some of the photos, the Canon looked better on a few of them, and on some, I just couldn't tell the difference. Yes, seven percent is bigger, but in enlargement after enlargement, I often had trouble distinguishing them apart. In fact, I found them easier to distinguish based on the color shift from brand to brand, and the tone curve of the file. I showed cropped prints and full frame prints to several people who also couldn't reliably tell me which one was better.

There is no doubt that the D3X produces a larger file than the Canon, but in the end, the difference (432 x 288 pixels) is less than the resolution of most web photos.

Photo by Robert Seale

Photo by Robert Seale
Zoom lenses of all types and brands are notorious for lens distortion. Making a lens zoom through all sorts of focal lengths is still a fairly complicated optical engineering feat, and the zooms rarely measure up to fixed focal length lenses in this regard. This is one of the compromises we make in order to carry fewer lenses in the bag, or to be able to work faster with a subject.

For my next round of tests, I found a fairly new brick building in my neighborhood, (after checking to make sure it was relatively level), set up a tripod, leveled everything, and shot some test frames with both cameras. The zooms were not exactly the same, but I compared the equivalent lenses at the same focal lengths. (Note: I did not use the Canon 24-70/2.8L for these tests, as I don't really use it anymore …I've replaced it with the Canon 24-105/4L, which I've been very happy with - Nikon does not make a similar lens, so I had to use their 24-70/2.8). Most of my work is done with medium zooms, so I wanted to look carefully at those two lenses.

What I found was rather shocking. The medium range zooms from both systems, although very sharp, have major issues with distortion. I would expect this at the wide-angle end of their range, but was shocked to find the lenses still distorting rather significantly at 50, and 70mm focal lengths. As you zoom in to the telephoto range, from 50-70mm, the distortion effect morphs from barrel to pincushion.

At 24mm, the distortion is significant on both lenses.
I placed a model release with very small type on the wall and photographed it at various focal lengths. Both lenses were very sharp, and yielded crisp type at high magnification. I made some specific notes from each focal length, comparing the two medium zoom lenses:

Canon 24-105/4L vs. Nikon AF-S 24-70/2.8G ED
24mm - Canon exhibits severe barrel distortion and vignettes big time. Nikon distorts as well, but is sharper in the corners and has less vignette effect.
28mm - Huge change for the Canon…the lens distortion levels off significantly, although there is still a slight vignette effect. Distortion in the Nikon starts to improve.
35mm - Virtually the same level of distortion as at 28…vignette barely noticeable (both lenses).
50mm - Pincushion distortion starts (both lenses).
70mm - Slight pincushion effect…more pronounced in the Canon lens.
The Nikon doesn't zoom to 85 and 105, but the Canon is still very sharp throughout this range. If you look closely, you'll still see some slight pincushion distortion.
Nikon's wide angle zoom, the 14-24/2.8, is an amazing lens. At 24mm, it is almost devoid of distortion. It looks like a Leica lens…it's absolutely amazing. It also looks great, distortion-wise, at 20 and 18mm, but by 16mm, it is starting to distort significantly in the corners, and the distortion stays there at 15 and 14mm. The amazing thing is, even at 14mm, there is no vignette effect at all and the corners are very, very sharp. It is a huge, heavy piece of glass, though. It has a convex front element much like the old Nikon rectilinear 15, and there is no way to put a filter on it. It's quite a beast to carry around.

Canon has nothing similar in the same zoom range, so I tested it versus my 16-35/2.8L, and it was no contest … .the Nikon was better at every focal length. My 16-35 however was a first generation version of that lens, and Canon has recently released a 16-35/2.8L II, which is supposed to be a vast improvement to my lens. More on this later.

I tested both 70-200/2.8 lenses briefly. I've never been dissatisfied with my Canon version of this lens (I use the non-IS), but I shot my test pattern with both and couldn't really tell the difference.

In this day and age of RAW files and digital imaging it matters less than it used to, but I did observe, that when images were converted straight from the RAW files, with no color correction, the Canon images seemed to have a slightly warmer tone to them. The Nikon's were neutral, and actually looked almost cool on skin-tones. Again, very unscientific - just a casual observation.

Photo by Robert Seale

Photo by Robert Seale
The D3X is a solid camera. The body and the lenses feel like robust, professional tools in your hands. Some of the controls are awkward, though. Although I shot Nikons for many years, including the F-5, which has very similar ergonomics … I found that after using the Canon's aperture wheel on the back of the camera, getting used to the location of the Nikon shutter and aperture dials was difficult. I'm sure I would get used to it after a month or so.

To format a card on the D3X, you simultaneously hold down two buttons on the camera body for a few seconds, and then press them again. Call me crazy, but I actually like the card formatting system on the Canon cameras. I WANT the process to be deliberate and menu driven. I don't ever want to accidentally delete a card, and even though there are two buttons that have to be held down simultaneously on the Nikon, I still felt there was a chance of it happening by accident. Yes, I'm paranoid, but it was a legitimate concern of mine.

The viewfinder is wonderful on the D3X. The controls and buttons are solid and well built. The menus are organized in a logical outline in different groups, and are easy to understand. Everything is where it should be for the most part. One nitpicky concern to most people, but an important one for me, was the placement of the rear AF focusing button. In the horizontal position, it was right under my thumb, but for some unexplainable reason, when you shift the camera and use the vertical release, Nikon decided to relocate the button closer to the edge of the body. For someone with smaller hands, it may not be a big deal, but for me, it was very irritating. Canon, by contrast, kept the "*" button in virtually the same place vertically and horizontally (relative to your hand position).

I was disappointed with the D3X camera's LCD screen. Although bright and very sharply detailed, there is no way to calibrate the screen to a monitor, gamma, or color space setting. It could have just been a problem with the camera I was sent, (I'm sure there is some variation in manufacturing), but my screen was fairly washed out, with a very flat curve showing open shadows and very little color saturation.

I tried going into the menus to see if someone had set the LCD on the brightest setting, but it was actually in the middle (default) brightness setting. I know this shouldn't be a big deal, and that I should be tethering the camera and looking at a calibrated monitor, but there are plenty of times where the LCD comes into play.

Sometimes, while out in the field, away from laptops and calibrated workstations, you need to show a client the LCD screen, and often I show the screen to models or other subjects, just to reassure them during a shoot. The LCD monitor, in many cases, has become our defacto Polaroid camera to test lighting. Despite the lack of calibration settings by both manufacturers, the fact is, my two Canon cameras are reasonably accurate … certainly good enough to show a client in the field - and the Nikon (although crisp and bright) wasn't even in the ballpark.

I'm a bit of a freak about backup gear. I've always had two, if not three, of everything. Items can be dropped or broken on a shoot or in transit, so having enough gear to get the job done, even when one thing breaks, is essential.

Right now I have backup bodies and several backup lenses. I have large telephotos (a 400/2.8 and a 200/1.8). I did the math on replacing all of my Canon gear, with Nikon equivalent lenses and it was certainly do-able, but I would end up owning a lot less stuff. I would likely have to pick one Nikon long lens (300/2.8?, 200-400/4?).

Canon's best camera is now selling for considerably less than the Nikon, and by and large, the Canon lenses are less expensive than the Nikon versions. With my Canon system, backup cameras can be had with the same resolution as my Ds MkIII for under $3000, while a second Nikon with similar resolution will cost you almost 8000 bucks. The less expensive Nikon, the D3, is only a 12MP camera, while my last generation Ds MkII is 16.7MP.

I calculated that even if I got top dollar for my Canon equipment, and even if I didn't replace each piece, the switch to a basic system would cost me around 8,000 dollars. I'm not a cheapskate about this stuff, I'm perfectly willing to spend all sorts of money to improve my work or strengthen my business, but I couldn't seem to justify shelling out a bunch of money for less gear, fewer lenses, and fewer backup items.

Photo by Robert Seale

Photo by Robert Seale

TOP: NIkon D3X, 24-70/2.8 (at 50mm, 1/125, F4.0. MIDDLE: 400% crop with NIkon D3X, 24-70/2.8 (at 50mm, 1/125, F4.0. BOTTOM: 400% crop with Canon EOS 1Ds MkIII, 24-105/4.0L (at 50mm, 1/125, F4.0).
I didn't get a chance to test the Nikon strobes. I always enjoyed using the SB-24 and SB-25 strobes, and I remember them being extremely accurate. I've seen Dave Black and Joe McNally demonstrate the latest models, and they are certainly better now. I've never been happy with the Canon small strobes…they were extremely inaccurate with the original Canon digital cameras, and they didn't really make an acceptable model until the advent of the 580. I was always blown away that a simple feature, like auto modes, (where you set the flash for a specific aperture, which was available on Vivitar 283's just after the Earth cooled), somehow wasn't available on a Canon strobe until the 580. Even now, the auto mode feature is buried in a menu and is difficult to switch back and forth from. Canon strobes have improved by leaps and bounds, but why did it take 20 years?

Anyway, none of this makes much of a difference, as I rarely have the opportunity to use the smaller strobes. Most of the work I do is with larger flash heads with power packs, like Dyna-Lites or Profotos.

We all have a niche - a unique market and clientele for what we do, and, as I said before, my business is usually shooting people. If it was purely sports action, the Nikon system would seriously be worth exploring purely because of the amazing (and well documented) high-ISO capability of the regular D-3.

I still enjoy sports photography, but I'm much more into making conceptual sports photos, with great lighting in controlled situations. For the work that I do, the Canon cameras have worked very well.

I particularly love using my 24-105 - a lens that Nikon doesn't offer. On a portrait shoot with a famous athlete or CEO, where I have three to five minutes with the subject, it is a wonderful thing to have that extra range. Every time I put down the camera to change lenses, the subject could potentially decide that they've had enough of me, (charming though I am…) and walk away, so avoiding that delay and distraction is a huge deal for me.

The Canon cameras fit my hands and I'm familiar with all the menus and controls. I'm sure I could get used to the Nikon, but it would likely take some time. The last thing I want is to be fumbling around with or trying to figure out buttons/menus in front of a client.

I haven't jumped into video yet…but I have a feeling we all will. Canon's 5D MkII already shoots great video, and I can't imagine that the next camera - a MkIV, or whatever they decide to call it, won't have great video features as well. I'm sure that Nikon will move into video with their next generation of cameras as well, but Canon has been building them for years, and brought the technology to the SLR market first.

• Having a well-rounded array of equipment, including backup gear is important to me.
• The D3X is a wonderful camera with the highest actual file resolution of any 35mm format camera.
• The Nikon 14-24 is truly an awesome lens. Canon doesn't make anything similar, but I did order the newest 16-35/2.8L II, which is considerably sharper and distorts less.
• Nikon has a history of making more sophisticated small strobes. The models that I would go out and buy are expensive….500 bucks each, and I would probably need 3 of them. The 580 is the first Canon flash that I've been reasonably happy with…and they are a little less expensive.
• The Ds MkIII fits my hand, particularly the vertical shutter release and AF button. I'm really not comfortable with location of the vertical autofocus button on the D3X.
• The Ds MkIII has a self-cleaning sensor that works extremely well. The D3X does not have a self-cleaning function.
• The Canon screen is accurate enough to share with a client or subject, and is useful to preview the final output of the photo … the D3X was not as accurate, and I would probably hesitate to share it with a client.
• I love my 24-105/4L. There is simply no other lens like it, and it is wonderful to have on the camera when you have a high-pressure, very rushed photo shoot. There are times where I simply can't afford to change lenses. The Nikon 24-70 is tack sharp, and doesn't vignette as much, but doesn't offer the extra coverage.
• Spending 8000 bucks (along with selling off my entire Canon system) to get a marginal increase in resolution is probably not a good business decision. I can do one helluva printed promo for 8 grand.
• In print, it is very difficult to see a quality change from 120MB to 139MB. Most of my clients end up down-resing the photos I give them anyway.
• For the work that I do: in most cases, shooting strobe-lit, environmental and studio portraits, the Canon 1Ds MkIII's work extremely well…based on the current capabilities of both systems, it doesn't make any sense for me to change now.

(Robert Seale is a Houston photographer who specializes in shooting people for advertising, corporate publications, and magazines. You can see more photos from his studio shoot with the Nikon D3X vs. the Canon EOS1Ds Mark III on his blog at:

Related Links:
Houston Portrait Photographer Robert Seale
Seale's member page

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