Big cameras. Big performance.

The Nikon D5 and Canon EOS-1D X Mark II are purpose-built machines. Firing at 12 and 14 frames per second respectively, they are designed for speed and durability to help you make sure you get the shot no matter what conditions you find yourself in. Conditions like those at the Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Washington recently, where DPR staffers Dan Bracaglia and Carey Rose went to get some preliminary findings on the cameras' AF systems.

Bear in mind we're camera reviewers, and not pro sports photographers - we're actively working to get the Nikon and Canon cameras into the hands of working pros to get some real-world opinions on them. But for now, we thought there was some value in sending Dan out to get some early findings from the 1D X Mark II, which had arrived only recently into our offices, and Carey out with the D5, the review of which is fully under way. Since these cameras are likely to be shot alongside each other at many a major sporting event, we figured we'd try our best to do the same and compare our results.

The Nikon D5

by Carey Rose

Flyin' high. Photographed in Auto Area AF. Nikon 24-70 F2.8E VR @ 38mm | F11 | 1/250 sec | ISO 100

For someone as interested in motorcycles as I am, it’s almost embarrassing to admit that this was my first time watching motocross in person, much less photographing it. And even though we were shooting a Sunday 'practice' session, it proved a good test for Nikon’s flagship sports shooting machine. As riders brapped and blipped their engines, rocketing around the track at over 40 mph, I snapped and clacked the D5 away at 12 fps nearly the whole time. You just don’t realize how nice all those frames per second are until you really – truly – need them.

But before we get to the burst rate and the photos, let's dig into the D5's autofocus system a bit. The continuous autofocus modes I chose to try out were 3D Tracking, single-point, Group Area AF and Auto Area AF. Here's what all those modes mean, how they behave and some common use cases.

  • 3D Tracking utilizes the D5's phase-detection autofocus module for distance information and combines that with pattern and color information from the RGB metering sensor (basically a low-res image sensor) to effectively track subjects around the frame with a single point. Put another way, place your chosen AF point over your subject, initiate focus, and the point should stick to that subject whether you or your subject move. Frankly, it's worked so well in my experience that I default to this mode almost all the time for general shooting.
  • Single-point AF utilizes depth tracking from the phase-detection module to effectively track an object that is moving towards or away from the camera, so long as you keep the point over that subject. Despite how good 3D Tracking performs, it can still sometimes be fooled. If you know your subject's trajectory and can comfortably follow that subject with the AF point over it, this mode also comes with a high degree of precision.
  • Group Area AF works very similarly to the single-point method, but uses a tight group of 5 AF points instead of one. With a larger 'zone' of focus coverage, it should be easier to follow unpredictable subjects in this mode, and it's commonly used for photographing birds in flight.
  • Auto Area AF works basically by letting the camera take over entirely. Like 3D Tracking, this mode uses the camera's PDAF module and metering sensor in tandem to intelligently discern what it should be focusing on. It will usually bias to objects closer to the camera, so watch your foregrounds, but it should also intelligently be able to read colors, and in Nikon's newest models, faces and eyes. This is a good mode for photographing people at events, or if you don't have time to react and just need to get a photograph, there's a chance Auto Area AF will get you what you need.

It goes without saying that all of these modes, despite how computationally intensive they may be for the D5, work perfectly well at its full burst rate (not mirror lock-up mode).  And as someone who is used to 5fps bodies, the higher frame rate is something to behold. 

12 fps

After some quick and informal testing, I soon started to take 12 fps for granted. Slowing down the D5 in ‘Continuous Low’ mode to 6 fps to simulate a less sports-oriented body was torturous. Predictably, instead of getting a solid six-to-eight shots of a rider flying past me with wide-ish framing, I’d get maybe two or three. I was often left wanting an additional shot in-between the few that I managed to get, and because of this, I ended up trying to get just a single shot at the right moment and hoping that my timing worked out. It often didn’t. Back to 12 fps mode for me.

A high frame rate gives you more compositional options in situations such as this, where two riders are constantly changing their positions relative to each other. Nikon 70-200 F2.8G VR II @ 200mm | F5.6 | 1/1250 sec | ISO 400

Following and focusing with single-point AF

But of course, 12 fps is useless if you can’t see what you’re shooting. The good news is that the viewfinder blackout is so short on the D5 even at 12 fps that I was able to pan and follow a fast-moving rider at a very close distance with ease. Nikon’s 3D Tracking worked well (more on that later), but because I could see so clearly in 'real time', using single-point continuous autofocus and just keeping a point over my subject was a completely viable option when panning and this approach netted a high number of ‘keepers.’ What’s more, the frame coverage of the D5's autofocus array is so generous that I rarely felt compositionally constrained by picking a single point to keep over my subject.

Of course, for the sake of some variety, sometimes it's best not to follow the action and just let it pass you by. Nikon 300m F4 PF | F5.6 | 1/500 sec | ISO 100

Group AF

Group AF on the D5 works similarly to single-point, but with the idea that a group of tight points will afford you a little more sloppiness in point placement than the higher precision one point alone requires. The idea is great in principle and it usually worked well, but there were a handful of times where I let a part of the group stray off the rider, and the camera quickly readjusted to focus on the background. Part of this is probably due to to the fact that I had the AF system set up for ‘erratic’ subjects since 3D tracking and single-point worked so well in this mode, but in any case I tended to avoid Group AF for the rest of this shoot. It's a great focus mode though for when you expect a subject to suddenly appear in one part of the frame: wait for it, then when the subject is under the general area of your selected group, jam the shutter button to both initiate AF and take the shot.

Motorcycles in flight. Nikon AF-S 300mm F4 PF | F4 | 1/1600 sec | ISO 100

3D Tracking

One of the most exciting autofocus developments for DSLRs in recent years, Nikon’s 3D Tracking, worked as well as I have come to expect with only a single exception. When at wider focal lengths and attempting to initiate tracking on a rider at a distance, the D5 would usually just not be able to find my subject. The user manual reflects this though, saying that the camera collects color information from focus points surrounding the one you've chosen, storing that information and using it to initiate tracking.

So with a distant rider, the D5 was seeing mostly the dirt color, despite the bright colored clothing of my intended subject. Put another way: the metering sensor was not high enough in resolution to discern a small rider from its immediate background. In any case, if I let the subject get a little closer, or if I used longer lenses that produce inherently shallower depth-of-field, 3D Tracking proved itself to be pretty magical, constantly re-focusing and re-positioning the autofocus point in the viewfinder even when I was shooting at 12fps.  

Nikon's 3D Tracking did a great job of tracking this rider with a single AF point pegged to his riding suit. Nikon AF-S 300mm F4 PF | F4 | 1/1000 sec | ISO 100

Auto Area AF

The last mode I experimented with was Auto Area AF, which is usually a mode that I tell people to avoid using. The D5 might just change my mind on that one. The camera was able to find a moving subject and hit it with anywhere from one to nine AF points almost every single time.

1 2 3 4 5

In the above series of (unedited) images, Auto Area actually directed the camera to focus on the background first. But then in the middle of that 12 fps burst, focus snapped to the rider flying through the air in front of me within two frames. I generally prefer a higher degree of control than Auto offers, but I can see this mode being genuinely helpful if you have milliseconds to get a shot and you don’t have time to place an autofocus point manually.

All those buttons

One of the best parts of the new D5 (and its sister model, the D500) is the level of button customization regarding autofocus modes. I am a back-button AF shooter, as I do sometimes like to pre-focus and wait for a subject to enter the frame without having to switch into manual focus. But even with the shutter button decoupled from any autofocus functionality whatsoever, I can assign AF-ON to be 3D Tracking, then assign the FN1 button on the front of the camera (under my ring finger) to switch to single-point continuous autofocus, and then also assign a full press of the AF joystick to switch into Auto Area mode.

So without even shifting my grip, I’ve got three different autofocus modes at my fingertips. This is incredibly handy as I often found myself changing AF modes depending on my lens, my position and the riders' movement. It's also a feature you won't find on any other camera on the market, save for the D500.

Having watched this rider come around this corner a number of times, I wanted to focus on just how much dirt he kicked up as he plowed through the scene. Having de-coupled autofocus and my shutter button, I pre-focused just behind where his rear tire is, shot a burst as he entered and exited the viewfinder with the tight framing I wanted and I didn't have to worry about the focus shifting or missing (an admittedly minor concern with the D5). Nikon 300mm F4 PF | F4 | 1/2000 sec | ISO 200

So, now that we've seen how the Nikon D5 performed, let's move on to Canon's EOS-1D X Mark II.