Canon EOS-1D Mark IV Autofocus vs Nikon D3s

Rob Galbraith, a well-known and respected photographer from Canada, has recently posted an article on autofocus performance of the new Canon EOS-1D Mark IV after using the camera for a while photographing various athletes that were preparing for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. After weeks of shooting the camera, he compared the autofocus performance of the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV with the new Nikon D3s.

Here is a quick excerpt from his article:

It’s worth noting one other fundamental difference between the AF system in the D3S and that of the EOS-1D Mark IV. When Nikon focus is out, it doesn’t tend to be way out. More often than not, peak action frames that are not perfectly focused aren’t that blurry, making some of them still viable. That is, if you’re of a mind that it’s better to have a slightly soft frame of a great peak moment than a totally blurry one. The EOS-1D Mark IV, on the other hand, produces many more frames that are too soft to use for anything, no matter how sweet the moment.

To sum up, our experience with the D3S’ AF system is that it’s trustworthy and dependable enough for us to be confident using it for peak action sports. Not perfect: it needs to be a bit faster off the line, in addition to the other quibbles we’ve mentioned. But it does work as needed most of the time, which is in stark contrast to the experience of the EOS-1D Mark IV in the last month.

The above review is pretty much in line with what many other sports and action photographers have said after doing comparisons between the two cameras – the Nikon D3s is currently, without a doubt, a leader in both autofocus and low-light photography (high ISO performance).

When I looked at some sample pictures of the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV, I got a little worried about Nikon D3s future. However, after seeing some high ISO comparisons and hearing from pros on autofocus performance of both cameras, it turned out that D3s is the leader and it looks like it will stay that way for at least another two years! Sure, it is unfair to compare Nikon’s full frame sensor with a 1.3x cropped sensor, but poor autofocus performance has been Canon’s biggest weakness (especially in 1D Mark III) and despite the fact that Canon re-engineered their autofocus system from scratch in 1D Mark IV, it is still worse than Nikon’s legendary 51 point autofocus system.

Nikon D3s wins, end of story.


  1. 1) Richard
    February 23, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    You haven’t even used the camera!! You’re basing your conclusion on Rob Galbraith and a few other opinions?!

    Rob Galbraith is hardly the god of photography. Consider a few other “opinions” before you jump to conclusion:

    This review does an in-depth analysis of AF:

    • February 23, 2010 at 4:35 pm

      Richard, first of all, thank you for stopping by and leaving your feedback!

      Yes, I agree that Rob Galbraith is not a photography God. However, so far, he is the only person that has used both Canon 1D Mark IV and Nikon D3s in the field where AF speed is extremely important. His conclusions are based on his findings after spending many weeks taking sports pictures with both cameras.

      Did you take time to actually read all of the above links you posted above? Almost all, except one from photographyreview only talk about Canon and are not comparing to Nikon D3s. Obviously, for a person who has shot only Canon, 1D Mark IV might look like the best camera in the world, but it doesn’t mean that it truly is the best camera in the world. You should read some comments from professional photographers who are switching from Canon to Nikon just because of the 1D Mark III/1D Mark IV frustrations. Check out my other article on Nikon D3s vs Canon 1D Mark IV and see for yourself.

      The last link by says “So I won’t be comparing this camera to the Nikon D3s, as that camera never really was an option for me.” and the top header says that the review has been sold to Canon Rumors? Clearly, it is biased towards Canon, but it is understandable, since the guy shoots Canon and he doesn’t own any Nikon gear.

      The photographyreview link (which I read before) was posted before both cameras became available and they provided an update later. There is no in-depth analysis (besides high ISO image samples) and they also refer to what Rob Galbraith had to say about autofocus performance. On top of that, the review says “I haven’t done enough serious action photography with the high end Nikon DSLRs to know how well they work (that problem needs to be addressed)“.

      Canon should have used a full-frame sensor and stayed competitive on the ISO side. Considering how good the images look at high ISOs on 1D Mark IV, had the sensor been full-frame, I’m sure Canon would have had better control over noise compared to Nikon.

      Anyway, if you are shooting Canon, the 1D Mark IV is the best camera in Canon’s arsenal right now. However, considering low-light performance, image quality, full frame vs cropped sensor and autofocus, Nikon beats Canon. Sure, you can argue about autofocus, but you cannot argue about high ISO performance and image quality/dynamic range of the Nikon D3s full frame sensor. And those are far more important than all other specifications.

  2. 2) Richard
    February 23, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    I’ve examined the sample images at Imaging Resource for both the 1D Mark IV and D3s. My conclusion is that the D3s has about a one stop advantage over the 1D Mark IV in terms of Image Quality, ie, 1D4 at 3200 ISO looks as good as D3s at 1600 ISO.

    In favour of the 1D Mark IV, however, is the higher resolution (16 MP) and 1.3x crop factor. The latter should not be dismissed so lightly. It allows you to use a 300mm lens like a 400mm. The cost savings (if you care about the money) and the weight savings are substantial. To me, these advantages are worth the trade-off of one stop higher ISO Image Quality.

    Assuming, of course, that the AF generally works well…

    • February 24, 2010 at 1:01 pm

      Richard, I have also looked closely at the sample images and I agree that there is 1 to maybe 1.5 stop advantage (on “hi” ISO values) on Nikon over Canon. Had Canon used a full frame sensor, it would have had an advantage over Nikon, considering that it is a 16 mp sensor versus 12 mp of Nikon.

      In terms of megapixels, if you talk to full-time sports photographers, they will tell you that even six megapixels is sufficient for 90% of their work. So 12 megapixels is more than enough for most fast-action photography. Sure, print size matters, but if you measure better low-light performance versus megapixels, most photographers would go for better low-light. Megapixels matter for landscape, architectural and studio photography, where print size is important.

      This megapixel race is really killing Canon. Even Canon engineers are frustrated with the fact that their management is forcing them to add more pixels to sensors, rather than concentrating on dynamic range and low-light performance. I can only imagine what the 1D Mark IV would have been like, if it had a 12 mp full frame sensor! Considering what they achieved with 16 mp + 1.3x cropped sensor, it would have been a remarkable camera. But what did they do? They went after useless megapixels…that’s why Canon is getting hurt and more people are switching to Nikon. Because their current vision is not shared by professional photographers.

      As far as crop factors, I highly recommend for you to read some information on the Internet about whether crop factor increases focal length or not. A 300mm lens is a 300mm lens, no matter what sensor you use on it. So, you are not getting more reach, you are just getting a little more resolution on a cropped picture. The only thing that can increase the reach is a teleconverter. Cropped sensors give a more magnified “field of view” and more pixels per inch, but not increased focal length. When people say “equivalent focal length”, it only means equivalent based on a 35mm film.

      The biggest problem with cropped sensors is decreased dynamic range and diffraction, due to smaller pixel pitch. I highly recommend reading this article, where both are discussed in detail.

      Talking about cost savings, you could also say the same thing about full frame Nikon D3 versus a cropped sensor camera like Nikon D300. While D300 has a 1.5x cropped sensor, does it mean that you are saving a lot of money by using the D300? If it is just about the “reach”, then perhaps. But what about image quality? The results from both cameras are incomparable, and without a doubt, D3 would kill D300 when it comes to image quality. Those who seek the best image quality and dynamic range will always favor a full frame camera versus a cropped sensor, period.

      One more thing – why would you want to save money on a five thousand dollar body? If you want to save money, wouldn’t you want the 7D instead?

  3. 3) Richard
    February 25, 2010 at 6:01 am

    Nasim, your points are well-taken. Perhaps Canon will eventually see the light (pardon the pun) and stop the megapixel race.

    I’ll just make one additional point regarding crop factor: it’s not only about cost savings. For example, the EF 300mm f/2.8L IS is half the weight of the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS (6 lbs vs 12 lbs). From a practical standpoint, this can sometimes be important.

    • February 26, 2010 at 1:23 am

      Richard, I’m glad we ended the discussion on a positive note, because I didn’t want to make it look like another Canon vs Nikon war :)

      Unfortunately, there are some “fanboys” on both sides and sometimes it is practically impossible to have a healthy discussion/debate and people start insulting each other. I have lots of friends who love and proudly use Canon gear and I go shooting with them all the time, despite the differences. We make fun of each other, laugh and best of all – we enjoy taking pictures – that’s what photography is all about!

      Good luck with your photography and I apologize if I hurt your feelings in any way.

  4. 4) ziggy
    March 13, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    If the only requirement for AF comparison is that the reviewer has tested both the Canon 1D MKIV and the Nikon D3S in person, then you might be interested in the review at (You have to subscribe to read the whole review but the results are linkable.):

    (No, I do not believe the results myself, but it handily negates the Rob G. analysis.)

    I do have to question the Rob G. analysis as well. For one, he made sure that we see the sequences of the AF performance from the Canon 1D MKIV by providing examples, but we are not allowed the save privilege for the Nikon D3S sequences?

    Attorneys commonly use this same technique to convince others by only supplying evidence of one set of data and asking the jury to accept the opposite data sight unseen. I don’t like it when lawyers do it and I don’t like that Rob G. does it either. If we are to make up our own minds we need data from both sides. Otherwise he has made our minds up for us.

    My own opinion is that the Canon 1D MKIV and Nikon D3S are probably more similar in AF performance than they are different. I have no doubt that particular situations and lens combinations will skew any tests.

    In terms of high-ISO performance I do believe that the Nikon D3S is the undisputed current leader, but if you are invested in Canon the ISO performance is not really that bad. In both cases I believe that the ability of the cameras to record images in low light is better than their ability to AF quickly and accurately in the same light, unless you use an AF assist of some sort. Still, the high-ISO performance from most modern dSLRs is just astonishing compared to even 5 years ago.

    Likewise the improvements of the Nikon D3S are tangible compared to the D3, but may not be sufficient for many D3 shooters to upgrade. The D3 is still a very viable camera for just about anything.

    We live in a very interesting time, photographically speaking.

    • May 24, 2010 at 12:38 am

      Ziggy, I agree with what you have said above in terms of living in a very interesting time :)

      In terms of autofocus, Canon clearly has had a lot of problems with autofocus in the past and many photographers are still seeing focus-related problems on current Canon pro-bodies…but it is all a matter of opinion :)

      • 4.1.1) Elsavann
        July 8, 2010 at 1:07 pm

        if people still have some doubt about canon focus system, they should watch the video from this link

        • Profile photo of Nasim Mansurov Nasim Mansurov
          July 9, 2010 at 3:38 pm

          Elsavann, I watched the video and again, it is a matter of personal opinion. The guy is a Canon shooter and he obviously knows how to use the Canon autofocus system, whereas Nikon was kind of new to him. AF performance is extremely hard to measure and you really need to know both systems very well in order to measure the performance apples to apples.

          Again, both cameras are great, without a doubt and each one has its strengths and weaknesses.

          • Jon White
            October 23, 2010 at 3:11 pm

            Well now, Nasim, you are wobbling a bit here, logically. If “The guy … knows how to use the Canon autofocus system”, well, then I would suppose that I will know how, too — as will other buyers/owners — and thusly we all have a chance for good AF performance, eh? That negates inherent instrument performance issues that you have claimed before.

            Did the guy shortchange the Nikon? Did RG? We all have to watch our biases.

            • Profile photo of Nasim Mansurov Nasim Mansurov
              November 17, 2010 at 11:19 am

              Jon, I agree, no matter how you look at both, you will have a certain bias. At the end of the day, both are strong cameras that can deliver great results.

              A few more AF tests became available that have an in-depth of analysis of how both cameras compare under different conditions. Under broad daylight, both seem to work perfectly fine, while the D3s focuses better for indoors action:


              Check out all 4 parts of the comparison, which is very in-depth.

            • ziggy
              November 18, 2010 at 7:28 am

              Please encourage any Canon 1D MKIV shooters struggling with AF in sports like basketball to explore their camera’s AF setup. Particularly, they may need to adjust Custom Function III-2 and “reduce” AI-Servo sensitivity. This will increase the ability of the AF to resist distractions in congestive sports and generally should improve the keeper rate. For those who have learned the lesson they are getting very good results:


              • Profile photo of Nasim Mansurov Nasim Mansurov
                November 18, 2010 at 3:32 pm

                Ziggy, thank you for the link and feedback!

  5. November 21, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    I think the bottom line is; Nikon makes better bodies and Canon makes better lenses (all factors taken into account).

    For example; being a hobbyist nature photographer, I use 50D and 450D bodies with EF 17-40 f/4L USM and EF 400mm f/5.6L USM lenses for shooting landscapes and wildlife (both birds and mammals) respectively. Couldn’t find equivalent Nikon setup at same price point. If available, I switch today.

  6. 6) Timothy Winn
    June 24, 2011 at 6:17 am

    Very late post on this discussion but thought I’d add my 2 cents worth (or 2 pennies as I’m British). At the end of the day the photographer will be the one who is most in control of taking a good picture – whether it’s the cheapest compact or £5000+ DSLR – HOWEVER, I have used both these bodies for professional work and can comment a little on there performance (I shoot weddings and shows amongst other things) – my conclusion is that the D3s wins due to 1. far better ergonomics (just seems instinctive and easy to change controls fast – although it could just be me been brought up on Nikon) 2. Low light king – and I think that this has to be understood not just in relation to cleaner images but most importantly better dynamic range, colour and contrast (A recent show I shot with the 1DIV really showed how weak it was in this area!) resulting in much higher technical image quality. 3. Autofocus – may be a draw here BUT, the Nikon’s just seems far simpler to use whilst the 1DIV control set appears far more complex. 4. Crop sensor Vs full frame (thought it wouldn’t bother me but it just did!). 5. 16mp Vs 12mp largely irrelevant except for perhaps the lowest ISOs where a little more detail is visible at 100% crops (which no-one looking from a normal distance would observe), an advantage that soon disappears as you rank up the ISO. I could stich images from the D3s if I wanted larger images printed. For balance – in the 1DIVs favour – Higher quality video (and yes this is important for me as the ability to shoot HD film of my new born son has captured some truly magic first time moments) and I would say that the AF on the 1DIV appears very snappy and more sensitive despite its complexities. Anyway – there you have it! I am not as qualified as some to make this comparison (I have little experience in sports) and this contribution is very late so no one may even read this. However, if you are trying to make a choice I would choose the Nikon as my favourite!

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