The Canon 5Dmk3 is a full-frame camera with a powerful set of features. When Canon launched their flagship camera for sport and action photography, the 1DX, at almost the same time, many users of the older Canon 1Dmk4 began selling their cameras off. At the time of writing, brand-new Canon 5Dmk3 bodies and used 1Dmk4 bodies are selling for similar amounts. Although these are two somewhat different cameras, they are both capable of fulfilling a variety of photographic roles. If you are in the market for one of them, and are unsure which one suits your needs best, keep on reading. I have compared the two cameras feature for feature, and also shared my own shooting experience with both of them.
Build Quality, Controls and Ergonomics
For the purpose of this comparison, I have included the 5Dmk3 without the optional battery grip because that is how I use mine. The 5Dmk3 has a pretty tough feel to its build , and feels very similar to the 1Dmk4 in this regard. Whilst Canon do not clearly define how weather-sealing and durability differences are measured in their high end cameras, the fact that the 1Dmk4 makes use of sealed buttons as opposed to the mode dial on the top of the camera probably mean that the 1D has the edge when it comes to build quality and weather-sealing. Canon also state that recent 1D bodies are made with the highest level of weather-sealing.
The 5Dmk3 body weighs around 950g with a battery inside, which is a lot lighter than the 1Dmk4 at 1360g. The 5Dmk3 holds a clear advantage here. The 5Dmk3 battery charger weighs just 125g, compared to more than 340g for the 1D charger.
The two cameras are not too different when it comes to control sets, which is a good thing. Although the locking mode dial and the On/Off switch beneath it on the top left of the 5Dmk3 work well, I prefer the location of the On/Off switch on the 1Dmk4, on the back of the camera. On the 1Dmk4, I can flick that switch on with my right thumb whilst aiming the camera in a hurry and supporting the lens with my left hand. The location of the switch on the 5Dmk3 forces me to change my grip and takes me longer. The 5Dmk3 has a dedicated Live View switch that sits out of the way and is easy to activate, whereas on the 1Dmk4 you have to choose a button to do this function, and it is easy to accidentally engage Live View on it. The 5Dmk3 has a larger rear LCD screen with greater resolution, whilst the 1Dmk4 has an additional LCD screen beneath the main screen which shows information that isn’t overly critical to my shooting. Both cameras have similar information shown on their top screens.
New on the 5Dmk3 is a rubberized, sealed compartment for the media cards, but the 1DMk4 has a locking door that feels tougher. The 1Dmk4 is built with an integral vertical grip and this makes the camera a lot higher and heavier. The extra surface area below the level of the rear screen that the grip provides makes for added comfort when holding the camera for long periods. Of course it is possible to attach the optional battery grip to the 5Dmk3 which will also add extra gripping area down below. The 5Dmk3 battery grip also comes with its own, dedicated AF multi-controller, whereas reaching the solitary AF multi-controller when shooting vertically on the 1Dmk4 can be tricky. On the 5Dmk3, the front part of the grip, where your fingertips wrap around, has been deepened for a more secure hold. There is also a raised ridge that runs down the right rear of the camera. Whilst these changes have been made to improve the overall grip, I am finding that the raised ridge interferes with my ability to easily move the AF-multicontroller on the 5Dmk3. People with bigger hands than mine don’t seem to notice anything at all, and many actually seem to prefer the new shape. I find the slightly shallower and flatter grip of the 1Dmk4 better suited to my hand size. The 5Dmk3 holds an advantage when it comes to customizing controls, even the somewhat obsolete (for my needs) depth of field preview button can be set to do something useful.
The eyepiece on the 5Dmk3 is situated closer to the camera back than the one on the 1Dmk4, which has a lot more space for the photographers nose.
The shutter on the 5Dmk3 is rated for a life cycle of approximately 150 000 cycles, whereas the 1Dmk4 has a higher durability rating of 300 000 cycles.
Sensor and Image Quality
The 5Dmk3 has a full-frame sensor (36mm x 24mm) with 22 megapixels of resolution. The pixel pitch is 6.2 microns. The 1Dmk4 does not have a full-frame sensor, instead it has an APS-H sized sensor (27.9mm x 18.6mm) with 16 megapixels of resolution. The smaller sensor gives a field of view crop equivalent to 1.3x. The pixel pitch is 5.7 microns. What that means is that the 1Dmk4 has fewer pixels, spread over a smaller sensor, and that the 1Dmk4 has smaller individual pixels.
Shooting with the same lens from the same location produces two images that are different due to the 5Dmk3’s full frame sensor and wider field of view. In order to better appreciate the difference between the two straight from the camera, I have posted two images. I made use of an excellent telephoto zoom for comparing image quality, that being the Canon EF 70-200L f2.8 IS II.
Canon 5Dmk3, EF 70-200L f2.8 IS II at focal length 200mm
Canon 1Dmk4, EF 70-200L f2.8 IS II at focal length 200mm
Looking at the two images above this text, it is clear to see the wider field of view captured by the full frame sensor of the 5Dmk3. If you shoot landscapes, or need the widest possible angles from your lenses, then the 5Dmk3 is the better choice of camera.
In order to make up the difference in size of the subject, I cropped the 22mp image from the 5Dmk3 until the subject was identical in size to that in the 1Dmk4 image. At identical subject sizes, the 5Dmk3 file was made up of 13.3 megapixels, whilst the 1Dmk4 image was at its full resolution of 16mp.
I examined both images side by side on the screen, but was unable to discern any noticeable quality difference between the two. Cropped in that way, the 1Dmk4 held a slight resolution advantage.
I downsized the images and have posted them below to illustrate this exercise better.
Canon 5Dmk3, EF 70-200L f2.8 IS II at focal length 200mm, iso 3200
Canon 1Dmk4, Canon EF 70-200L f2.8 IS II at focal length 200mm. Iso 3200
In order to further compare image quality, I cropped the two iso 3200 images until they represented roughly 100 percent views of the original file. At that magnified view, I felt that the 5Dmk3 was showing better image quality, mostly noticeable in the low contrast areas of the background. No noise reduction applied at all.
Canon 5Dmk3, EF 70-200 f.8 IS II. Cropped to 1.1mp, approx 100 percent view. Iso 3200
Canon 1Dmk4, EF 70-200 f.8 IS II. Cropped to 1.3mp, approx 100 percent view. Iso 3200
In terms of processing the images in this text, I shot in raw, and processed in Adobe Camera Raw, applying a low level of sharpening to the high-contrast edges of the subject only. Amount was 50. I applied no noise reduction at all, and I sharpened each image once for website viewing after downsizing to the 800 x 533 web size in Photoshop
If you consistently shoot subjects that are small, and far away, at the maximum range of your focal length all the time, the 1Dmk4 has a small advantage in terms of cropping images closer and maintaining a small resolution advantage. Looked at another way, you can fit more pixels of 5.7 microns into your subject from the same distance as you can fit pixels of 6.25 microns. When you compare the cameras on a pixel for pixel basis at higher iso settings, then the 5Dmk3 holds a slight image quality advantage to my eye.
When you do have enough focal length for the job, or you can get closer to the subject to make up the difference in the sensor size, then the full image quality advantage of the 5Dmk3’s bigger sensor and greater resolution can be realized. For the two ocean scene images posted beneath this text, I shot the 1Dmk4 attached to the EF 70-200 L f2.8 IS II, and at the same time, had a friend shoot with the same lens, fitted to the 5Dmk3. The difference was, my lens was set to a focal length of 100mm, and on the other lens that was attached to the 5dmk3, we set focal length at 130mm. We attempted to shoot at the same time. This produced two images where subjects are quite similar in size, due to the extra focal length being utilized on the 5Dmk3 combination.
Canon 5Dmk3, Canon 70-2ooL f2.8 IS II lens. Focal length 130mm
Canon 1Dmk4, Canon 70-200 L f2.8 IS II lens. Focal length 100mm
In order to better appreciate the difference in image quality between the full-frame 22mp sensor in the 5Dmk3, and the smaller sensor in the 1Dmk4, I cropped into the images. Remember that earlier, we accounted for the different field of view between the cameras by shooting at a longer focal length on the 5Dmk3 image.
Canon 5Dmk3, Canon 70-200 L f2.8 IS II lens. Focal length 130mm, cropped to 5.9mp
Canon 1Dmk4, Canon 70-200 L f2.8 IS II lens. Focal length 100mm, cropped to 3.9mp
In these crops, which represent images resampled for print, it is clearly visible that the 5Dmk3 enjoys an image quality advantage. The differences can best be seen in the shadow areas of the front rocks, as well in the low-contrast, blue shades that represent the mountain backgrounds.
At a guess, these differences represent an image quality advantage of somewhere between a 1/2 stop, and one full stop of sensitivity.
Overall then, the 5Dmk3 has an image quality advantage over the 1Dmk4. Understanding the difference between these two cameras in image quality is not necessarily clear, due to the different sensor sizes making direct comparisons a little complicated.
If you are able to use longer focal lengths, or get closer to your subjects, to make up the field of view crop that results from the smaller sensor in the 1Dmk4, then you can expect to benefit fully from the 5Dmk3’s resolution advantage. In those images where I have composed properly in-camera, and cropping is limited to just one or two megapixels, I am finding that I can easily make use of 5Dmk3 images for print and publishing at iso 3200.
If the subjects are small, or far away, and I have to crop the images quite heavily, I know that when I have 13.3 megapixels left in a 5Dmk3 image, that it matches the 1Dmk4 image in size, although the 1Dmk4 is enjoying a slight resolution advantage at that subject size.
Comparing the two cameras image quality outputs in heavily cropped images shows that there is not a significant difference in image quality between them on a pixel to pixel level, although the 5Dmk3 holds a very slight advantage.
The 5Dmk3 also holds an advantage for me when I decide to crop a vertical 2×3 ration image from one of its files..such a crop yields a vertical image of 9.8 megapixels. Performing the same vertical crop on the 1Dmk4 image produces a vertical image in 2×3 ratio, of only 7.1 megapixels.
The 5Dmk3 is driven by a Digic 5+ processor, which means it is a responsive camera. The shutter lag of 0.59ms, combined with a viewfinder blackout of 125ms, makes for a brisk shooting experience. For action photography, it can shoot at 6 frames per second. The 1Dmk4 outperforms it quite significantly though when it comes to response and speed. With a shutter lag of 55ms (with the option of shortening it to 40ms), and a viewfinder blackout time of only 80ms, the 1Dmk4 is very responsive. Frame rate of the 1Dmk4 is a very fast 10 frames per second. This is one of the biggest differentiators between the two bodies. If serious action photography is important to you, the faster frame rate of the 1Dmk4 may be a telling advantage.
With the 5Dmk3 generating 6 x 22mp images per second, and the 1Dmk4 churning out 10 x 16mp images in the same time, it follows that buffer size on the cameras is important. The 5Dmk3 buffer shows as 13 shots in my viewfinder, and the 1Dmk4 as 25 shots. Both numbers would seem deeply conservative, as I have yet to fill the buffer on either of these two camera bodies, despite shooting literally thousands of frames with them in the field. Previous cameras that have been buffer limited for me included the 1Dmk3 and some older Canon bodies. I use only the CF card slot in both the 5Dmk3 and the 1Dmk4, and use the fastest CF cards I can find, which at this stage are Sandisk Extreme Pro 90mb/s. For action shooting, I do not put any SD cards in the SD slot in either of these cameras, as it is quite easy to accidentally end up shooting to the SD card slot, which comes with a speed penalty.
The 5Dmk3 has a fantastically quiet Silent mode, and it can operate like this at up to 3 frames per second. The 1Dmk4 also has a Silent mode, but it is not nearly as quiet.
The 5Dmk3 also has a very useful in-camera HDR feature, which is I find very useful and a real time saver for me.
The Auto-Iso program is more advanced in the 5Dmk3 and allows more fine-tuning and control of Auto Iso as an option, whereas Auto Iso implementation is functional in the 1Dmk4 but not very refined.
Both cameras have glass pentaprism viewfinders, but the 5Dmk3 has an LCD overlay that I find very useful with a rule of thirds grid that helps me keep my horizons level when I am shooting. The 5Dmk3 also has an in-camera electronic level that can be very useful for getting your camera straight, especially when using Live View or shooting off of a tripod. For long exposure shooting the 5Dmk3 has a somewhat gimpy rubber eyepiece cover that attaches to the camera strap and is easy to lose and fiddly to use. The 1Dmk4 has a sliding, built-in shutter for closing off the viewfinder to stop light coming in during long exposures.
The 5Dmk3 uses the LP-E6 battery, which usually gives me around 1200 shots on a charge. The 1Dmk4 uses the NP-E4 battery, which usually gives me somewhere around 1500 shots on a charge.
The 5dmk3 has autofocus that is light years ahead of earlier 5D models. The AF grid is made up of 61 points, and coverage is good, meaning the points go a long way towards the edges of the frame and there are enough of them that you are almost always able to place a point where you want to focus. Five of the AF points are extremely high precision when used with an f2.8 or faster lens. Those five are placed two above and two below the very middle AF point. Of the total of 61 AF points, 41 are cross-type, depending on which lens is attached to the camera. Not only does the 5Dmk3 have high-quality AF points and a lot of them over a wide area, but there are also many ways to control how you utilize them. You can choose from a single, reduced-size precision point (called Spot AF), a single point, a small cluster of 5, a cluster of 9, a movable zone of points and fully automated AF utilizing all 61 points. It is also possible to opt to use only the cross-type points as a selection. The way that the AF points display can also be customized, and you can have all of them visible in the viewfinder at once, or just your selected one. There are also a set of three controlling parameters that determine how fast, how sticky and how responsive the AF function is, and you can either choose to set each parameter yourself, or make use of Canon’s presets, of which there are six. Each preset is suited to a particular AF scenario. To gain a deeper understanding of the 5dmk3 AF parameter function, read my 5Dmk3 AF guide here.
The 1Dmk4 has a 45 point AF grid. Although it has fewer points, the 45 point oval covers a greater portion of the 1Dmk4’s frame and extends very close to the edges, which gives flexibility for composition. Of the 45 AF points, 39 are cross-type and offer high-precision AF performance when an f2.8 or faster lens is attached. If a lens with a maximum aperture of f4 is attached, then only the centre point remains a cross-type, and the rest become horizontal-line sensitive only. There are a number of Canon f4 lenses and extender combinations that still retain the cross-type function throught 39 AF points though, and they are listed in the 1Dmk4 AF literature. Trying to work out all the possible permutations can be quite an exercise in itself. Fortunately all the background numbers and specifications pertaining to different f4 and f5.6 lenses are easy to forget once you just start using them on the 1Dmk4, as the AF is good enough that it works very well, regardless of cross-type point or not.
You can choose to shoot with a single AF point, or one on each side of your selected point, or a cluster of 9, or all points in automatic AF mode. It is also possible, if using an L-series telephoto lens that has the programmable AF-stop buttons to configure them to activate Spot AF, which reduces the size of the selected AF mode for greater accuracy. It is also possible to reduce the number of AF points in the grid, if you find that you prefer working with less.
There are also a set of controlling parameters that determine how fast, how sticky, how sensitive and how responsive the AF function is, and you have to choose each setting yourself, depending on what type of AF scenario you might be faced with. Most of these parameters are similar to those found in the 5Dmk3 but that camera has an extra parameter that the 1Dmk4 does not have, called Accelerate/Decelerate Tracking.
With each AF system broadly described, it becomes interesting to compare how the two AF systems perform in real-world use. I shoot mostly with lenses in the 200mm to 400mm focal length range. Both cameras have exceptionally good autofocus systems, and AF is definitely a shared strength. For still or slow-moving subjects, the AF is almost instantaneous and accurate almost every single frame.
In very low light, the 5Dmk3 holds an advantage over the 1Dmk4 in that it will continue to AF when the 1Dmk4 is hunting and failing to lock on. This would typically be noticeable in light so low as to be near darkness, and has more relevance for a photographer working indoors or at night than for regular wildlife photography.
When the shutter or AF-On button is pressed to activate AF, the active AF point in the 5Dmk3 remains black. Some photographers have found this difficult to make out clearly especially when the AF point is placed against a dark subject. It doesn’t affect me at all, but most photographers prefer the way that the active AF point in the 1Dmk4 viewfinder lights up red when AF is activated. Canon have managed to make a firmware upgrade to the 1DX to make its AF point light up red, but it is not clear yet whether it can be achieved with the 5Dmk3.
For wildlife action photography, the 5Dmk3 AF feels more stable, once you have it locked-on the subject, and a bit more forgiving, and even less likely to jump onto the background.
The 1Dmk4 feels as if it grabs focus faster initially, and it works very well, often delivering several sharp shots in a row when photographing sequences of very fast targets, although it does seem a little more twitchy when compared to the 5Dmk3.
Both cameras autofocus very well, and both have autofocus that is so good that it makes it easier to take on the most difficult action shots. For very fast action, I find that the 1Dmk4 holds an advantage with its faster response and 10 frames per second frame rate just giving more opportunities to get the perfect frame.
The 5Dmk3 has AF that is exceptionally good, easy to use, highly configurable, and stable, with a clear advantage in very low light, and perhaps where very busy backgrounds are involved. The 1Dmk4 AF is very fast to grab focus, and accurate. It too can be configured for different AF situations.
The 1Dmk4 can carry out autofocus with a lens whose maximum, wide-open aperture is f/8 (which may happen when teleconverters are used on lenses with apertures of f4 and f5.6). The 5Dmk3 may not be able to do this yet, but there is an apparent firmware upgrade for April that is meant to address that.
In the end, despite many similarities, the most basic of differences is that of maximum image quality of the 5Dmk3 compared to the blazing speed and responsiveness of the 1Dmk4. There are no winners or losers between these two bodies. Both have great image quality, one is just better, and both have excellent autofocus, one is just a little faster. Each one can perform very well in a variety of photographic roles. I am fortunate in that I do not have to choose between the two, as I use a 5Dmk3 and a 1Dmk4 as my primary wildlife bodies.
With the 5Dmk3, Canon have made available superior image quality, matching autofocus performance and features that were only available at 1D price levels in a compact dslr that costs two thirds of what a 1D did, and all that in less than three years..