Canon 1D Mark IV vs. Nikon D3S – Evaluating Prints from High ISO Files

Canon 1D Mark IV vs. Nikon D3S - Evaluating Prints from High ISO Files

This is the third round of examining the high ISO results from the Canon 1D Mark IV and Nikon D3S. The prior two comparisons can be found here:

Canon 1D Mark IV vs. Nikon D3S ISO Comparison Part I (JPEG only)

Canon 1D Mark IV vs. Nikon D3S ISO Comparison Part II (RAW files)

As is clear from the variety of reviews and comparisons that have been published here and elsewhere, the Nikon D3S is the hands down noise control winner on a pixel-for-pixel basis.  That is, when viewed at 100%, the Nikon D3S shows less noise throughout the sensitivity range.

Unfortunately, we can often focus too much on what noise looks like using little 100% crops taken from these massive files, and we forget about what prints might look like.  I don’t know about you, but when I look at photos in a normal manner, I view them hanging on the wall, in a photo album, or at reasonable sizes on the computer screen where I can see the entire image.

I ordered several prints from, which I use on a regular basis along with Bay Photo, at a size of roughly 9″ x 14″ in order to preserve the aspect ratio of the original files. I consider this range to be pretty large for most high-sensitivity shooting.  Additionally, both cameras can cover this range with their native resolution printed at 300 dpi. These printed files ranged in sensitivity settings from ISO 3200 up to ISO 25600.

While I am not providing an objective measurement of the noise or detail in each print, I can provide my subjective observations of comparing these prints side-by-side. If you wish to evaluate prints for yourself, feel free to download the images from either of the first two comparisons and print them yourself or at your professional printer of choice.

Prints at ISO 3200-6400

In the 9″ x 14″ prints, noise is virtually imperceptible for either the Nikon D3s and Canon 1D Mark IV.  As a result, the resolution of the Canon 1D Mark IV really shines through to produce an overall sharper print.  It’s not that the print from the Nikon D3S is bad (it looks great); however, the extra resolution of the 1D Mark IV just offers more defined edges, which would allow it to comfortably go beyond this print size.

Prints at ISO 12800

This is the first point where noise becomes perceptible for the Canon 1D Mark IV; however, it is just barely noticeable in the shadowy areas and appears as more image grain than messy chroma noise.  The Nikon D3S still looks very clean.  Edges in both prints are noticeably softer than they are in the ISO 6400 prints.

At ISO 12800, the Nikon D3S appears to match the 1D Mark IV in terms of the overall appearance of sharpness.  While both cameras still present decent image quality, you get the impression that the D3S is passing the 1D Mark IV at this point.

Prints at ISO 25600

The first signs of color splotches from chroma noise appear in the 1D Mark IV prints.  Both prints show a further reduction in resolution, but the D3S takes a clear lead in overall aesthetic appearance.  At ISO 25600, the D3S print is the preferred image.

Still yet, I was very surprised at how well each print held up at this ISO setting.  I am cautious to say this, but both appear to be quite “usable” in certain applications, particularly so when you consider the normal viewing distance.

In order to detect grain, color splotches or soft edges, I had to view the prints from just a few inches away.  Again, the D3S would be the preferred print at this ISO setting; however, both remain of decent quality.  It is clear that these two cameras have ushered in a new standard for low light shooting.

Prints at ISO 51200 and 102400

As noted above, I made several prints in the ISO 3200-25600 range; however, I also ordered some 4×6 prints at ISO 51200 and ISO 102400 from each camera just for kicks.  Looking at the digital files on my monitor, I certainly didn’t expect them to hold up at the 9×14 size.

Again, the practicality of looking at prints should not be underestimated.  Both cameras produced decent prints at ISO 51200.  Now, I’m not saying that these will be some kind of magic bullet, but if you can’t otherwise get the shot, then this might just do it for you. At this print size, the noise is not that bad; however, some squinting up close reveals color splotches from chroma noise in the 1D Mark IV print.  The D3S print still looks pretty clean, although it is noticeably softer than lower sensitivity settings.

Keep this ISO setting in reserve for the small column in the newspaper or candid to be printed at 4×6 that you would otherwise miss.

At ISO 102400, even at the small 4×6 size, the 1D Mark IV bows out of the race with just too much chroma noise.  The image is soft and loss of detail is apparent across the print – even from a foot or two away.

There is definitely some loss of detail and noise coming into the print for the D3S; however, it matches up more closely with the 1D Mark IV print at ISO 51200.  In fact, I would say that the D3S print holds up even a little better – so, call it over a one-stop advantage for the D3S at the top end.  Still yet, we are talking about emergency use only at either of these ISO settings.


In print, both the Nikon D3S and Canon 1D Mark IV impress throughout the high ISO range.  If you’re at ISO 6400 or below with either camera, the prints are quite smooth.

Again, this exercise was intended to be a little more practical than pixel peeping at 100% crops of tiny sections of the overall picture. As noted above, these are my subjective opinions drawn from viewing several prints across a range of sensitivity settings.  You can draw your own conclusions by printing the files that I have previously made available if you would like.

If you would like to discuss these comparisons, feel free to do so in the Photography Bay forum.  You can continue the discussion in an existing thread here:

Canon 1D Mark IV vs. Nikon D3s ISO Comparison Discussion

The Canon 1D Mark IV and Nikon D3s are available from trusted online retailers like B&H Photo via the following links:

Canon 1D Mark IV at B&H Photo

Nikon D3s at B&H Photo

By making your photography purchases at B&H Photo through these links, you are helping Photography Bay to continue bring quality camera tests, news and reviews. Thanks for your continued support.