Canon 1D Mark IV vs. Nikon D3S – Autofocus Performance [Part 3]

Canon  1D Mark IV vs. Nikon D3s

In Parts 1 and 2 of this series, I provided an introduction to this autofocus evaluation, as well as a brief overview of the Canon 1D Mark IV and Nikon D3S AF systems.  If you have not read the previous installments in this series, you can do so now by clicking the links below:

  1. Canon 1D Mark IV vs. Nikon D3S – Autofocus Performance [Part 1]
  2. Canon 1D Mark IV vs. Nikon D3S – Autofocus Performance [Part 2]

In Part 3 below, we will look more in-depth at images captured during basketball games with the 1D Mark IV and D3S.

All images below were captured during Spring 2010 at University of Tennessee basketball games.  As you will see, I was positioned along the baseline in the normal photographer-designated areas.  During basketball games, I used 4 lenses total – 2 for each camera.

I averaged around 1000 or so frames per game and captured both RAW and JPEG images in many sequences.  I am providing (for personal inspection) either JPEG images from the camera or JPEG images processed from RAW files through Lightroom 3 in some cases.  You may download the individual original files by right-clicking on the links below the images and selecting “Save link as…”

The key point of this series, as the title states, is the autofocus performance of these two cameras.  Because I shoot primarily with a Canon 5D Mark II outside of sports, I am more familiar with the ergonomics and controls of the Canon EOS system.  That said, I have no desire to see Canon “win” or Nikon “lose” because I use a certain camera.  My goal here is to be as objective as possible when evaluating these two cameras with respect to their AF performance.

As a result, I’ll go ahead and kill any suspense or speculation on which camera I like more or I think is better – I think the Nikon D3S is the best sports camera available today.  I would go so far to say that the Nikon D3S is the best DSLR made to date.  It’s not brand bias, it’s not a fanboy thing, it’s based on the high rate of sharp, noise-free images in every environment I threw at it.

Of course, the D3S is not a perfect camera by any means, and it missed plenty of shots that I think it should have made, but when the rubber meets the road, I would prefer the D3S over 1D Mark IV in almost any sports shooting situation.

Now, the big question is why?

Nikon D3S AF Setup

Nikon D3S – ISO 3200 – f/2.8 – 1/1000s

My preferred setting for basketball was to use the Dynamic AF Area setting with 21 focus points to help track the players as they zigged and zagged around the court.  I shot in manual mode at around ISO 3200, f/2.8 and 1/1000s in manual mode for most of the action shots.  As you have probably seen by now, the D3S can capture clean images at ISO 3200 all day long.  For that matter, the 1D Mark IV is equally impressive at ISO 3200.

I found the Dynamic AF Area with 21 focus points to be the best blend for tracking basketball players on the court.  I spoke with a Nikon pro at PMA 2010 who suggested that I use the Dynamic Area 51 point (3D-tracking) mode for basketball.  During the next game I shot, I quickly learned that this was not a viable option for basketball.

Nikon D3S – ISO 3200 – f/2.8 – 1/1000s

I believe the reason that the 51 point (3D-tracking) is poor choice for basketball (and likely other team sports) is due to the method in which the D3S stores information for focus tracking.  When 3D-tracking is selected and continuous AF is engaged, the D3S stores color information from the area surrounding the focus point and uses that information to aid in tracking your subject as it moves around the frame.

I suspect that the reason the D3S had difficulty hanging onto my subject while in 3D-tracking mode is due to the fact that everyone on the same team is wearing the same color.  As a result, when a player that I was tracking would get close to another player, the camera would often shift to tracking the other player wearing the same color uniform.

Additionally, because all 51 points are enabled for 3D-tracking, there was simply too much area available in the frame for the D3S to find other players wearing the same color.  Likewise, using a single AF point left no room for error.  Finally, the Dynamic AF Area setting with 9 focus points will likely suffice for many sports photographers more seasoned than me; however, I found that it was not enough cushion for me to make the most of it.  Accordingly, I experienced the most success using Dynamic AF Area with 21 focus points.

I shot the D3S with the Focus Tracking Lock under Custom Setting a3 in position 3 (Normal) as this seemed to be the best setting in these circumstances.

Canon 1D Mark IV AF Setup

Canon 1D Mark IV – ISO 2500 – f/3.2 – 1/640s

As with the Nikon D3S, I shot primarily in manual mode, although I did experiment a bit with other settings.  I shot shutter speeds ranging from 1/640s to 1/1000s; however, due to the high resolution of the 1D Mark IV, I found that a higher shutter speed produced better results when inspecting for motion blur at the 100% image size.

I got the best results out of the 1D Mark IV servo AF performance by setting the tracking sensitivity to the middle position under C.Fn III-2, using AF priority/Tracking priority under C.Fn III-3, and using Surrounding AF points, which is option 2 under C.Fn III-8.  Additionally, I enabled orientation linked AF points under C.Fn III-16.

When choosing the AF/drive priority settings, giving priority to AF/Tracking under C.Fn III-2 is a no brainer.  This is the default setting, and for good reason – it gives you the best chance at sharp images while tracking. In this mode, priority is given to achieving AF prior to the initial release of the shutter and then, priority is given to AF tracking while capturing frames in burst mode.

Canon 1D Mark IV – ISO 2000 – f/2.8 – 1/800s

You can lose some drive speed with this setting – but never as much as was the case with the D3S.  In some situations, the D3S would slow to a crawl when in Focus-priority; however, (in most cases) all of the D3S images would be in-focus.  With the 1D Mark IV, it seemed that there were times when the camera would not slow the drive down quite enough to maintain focus – even with the AF/Tracking-priority enabled.

As was the case with the Nikon D3S, I got the best results by allowing the 1D Mark IV to help me out through the use of Surrounding AF points under C.Fn III-8.  The 1D Mark IV seemed to lag behind the D3S with these tracking assist points though (discussed below).

Canon 1D Mark IV – ISO 2000 – f/2.8 – 1/1000s

The 1D Mark IV’s orientation linked AF points is a feature that should be on every camera.  While I had used this on the 7D prior to using the 1D Mark IV, I had not used the 7D in such fast-paced settings as I did the 1D Mark IV.  And so, I appreciated the convenience with the orientation linked AF points on the Canon 7D; however, using this feature on the 1D Mark IV in high action environments made it an almost essential feature.  I sorely missed the orientation linked AF points nearly every time I picked up the D3S.  I don’t know if this is a technology that Canon has wrapped up in a patent somewhere, but I hope for the sake of all Nikon users out there that Nikon can put something similar in its future DSLR models as well.

Basketball AF Performance Evaluation

The 1D Mark IV seemed to edge out the D3S when other players crossed the path of the subject I was tracking.  However, I felt that the 1D Mark IV responded a little better to tracking sensitivity adjustments than the D3S.  The 1D Mark IV would stay with the subject most of the time when another player would cross in front of him.

Below are some examples of the Canon 1D Mark IV maintaining focus as another player completely obstructs the view of the target subject.

In this first pair of images, the 1D Mark IV is tracking UT player #32 when is is obstructed by a Georgia player.  Note that even when the UT player is completely obstructed in the second image, the 1D Mark IV maintained AF tracking on the original subject.  Again, this is one area where the 1D Mark IV really shined.

Canon 1D Mark IV – ISO 2500 – f/3.2 – 1/640s

Full-res downloads (right-click and choose “Save link as…”): Image 1 / Image 2

Canon 1D Mark IV – ISO 2000 – f/2.8 – 1/800s

Full-res downloads (right-click and choose “Save link as…”): Image 1 / Image 2

I have been continuously surprised at how the the 1D Mark IV performs in this regard.  Canon’s technology is quite intelligent here.

In ordinary AF tracking though, I found the D3S to perform more consistently than the 1D Mark IV.  While both cameras missed the mark at times, the 1D Mark IV missed the subject in favor of the background or another nearby subject much more often than the D3S.  Canon advises that AF tracking performance is maximized by activating the AF and tracking the subject for a half second before releasing the shutter.  I have not been able to quantify this in real world shooting scenarios, so I will just leave it out there as a little tip from Canon.

In the following series of images, I had been capturing a player moving up the court with very little else in the frame; however, the 1D Mark IV kept shifting focus to the background instead of maintaining focus on the subject I had been tracking.

Canon 1D Mark IV – ISO 2500 – f/3.2 – 1/640s

Full-res downloads (right-click and choose “Save link as…”): Image 1 / Image 2 / Image 3

While there are many series of images where the 1D Mark IV captured a higher rate of in-focus images, the number of missed focus shots were much higher than my experience with the Nikon D3S in basketball scenarios.

Below are some Nikon D3S burst series for comparison sakes.

Nikon D3S – ISO 3200 – f/2.8 – 1/1000s

Full-res downloads (right-click and choose “Save link as…”): Image 1 / Image 2 / Image 3

Nikon D3S – ISO 3200 – f/2.8 – 1/1000s

Full-res downloads (right-click and choose “Save link as…”): Image 1 / Image 2 / Image 3 / Image 4 / Image 5 / Image 6

If I were evaluating the 1D Mark IV without ever having used the D3S, my feelings would likely be much different about the camera.  It’s not a bad camera – it’s really quite a good one.  Each time I went out with the 1D Mark IV, it captured many excellent action sequences with several series of frames in focus.  So, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the 1D Mark IV is not an effective camera.  I’m just saying that the D3S AF performance is superior and more predictable in most circumstances.

If I were heading out to shoot a basketball game tomorrow, I would be ok with using either camera.  However, I would feel better about the trip beforehand and I know I would come home with more “keepers” if I took the Nikon D3S with me.

The Canon 1D Mark IV and Nikon D3S are available from Photography Bay’s trusted retail partner, B&H Photo, at 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.



  1. Michael says

    From the megapixel perspective – how did you find the quality of large prints between the 2 cameras?

    • says

      @forkboy – Right.

      The good thing is that you can get a long way down the sports camera road with the Canon 7D and Nikon D300s, which compare very similar to each other in the same vein as the 1D Mark IV and D3S.

  2. says

    @ Eric Reagon @forkboy

    Or go for the 1d mark III / Nikon D3 Path. Both are great cameras that will give you 90% of the current line performance for half the price. :)

  3. Shawn says

    I just received the D3S in the mail. I decided to “upgrade” from the Canon 7D. I was sick and tired of the crappy autofocus system on the canon 7D and the poor mid ISO noise in all of my images, even at ISO 1000.

    I know it’s an apples and oranges comparison, but if you can afford the D3S, you will be very happy. For me, I missed tons of great pictures that I won’t be able to get again with the 7D. I’ve had the D3S now for 2 weeks, and it’s really amazing how good it is with quality glass. I’ve used both with a 50mm 1.4, and the metering and AF tracking on the Nikon is amazing.