Canon 5D Mark III vs. 1D Mark IV High ISO Comparison

April 3rd, 2012



Canon has just come out with a new full frame camera body, the 5D Mark III, and the 1D x is coming soon. Nikon has just released the D4 and the D800 bodies.  This is an exciting time for photographers!  Bird photographers are no exception; unfortunately, most conventional sample images and comparison tests are not designed with bird photographers in mind.

So how do we decide which body to spend our hard-earned money on?   The 5D III is touted as being a great high ISO performer.  Canon’s 5D Mark III features a full frame CMOS sensor with an imaging area approximately 1.7x larger than that of the 1D Mark IV; this allows the 5D III to collect more light and deliver better high ISO performance in theory.  But does the 5D III deliver on that promise?  I’ve designed a test that hopefully answers this important question in a way that’s relevant to bird photographers.


This test involves 2 separate but related comparisons.  The first comparison (Comparison 1) is between the 5D Mark III and the 1D Mark IV with identical framing or field of view (you see the exact same thing when looking through the viewfinder of either camera).  The second comparison (Comparison 2) is between the 2 bodies with identical focal lengths and distance to subject (a focal length limited scenario in which the subject appears larger in the Mark IV’s viewfinder).

I chose a subject that’s covered in feathers.  I shot at a fixed distance to subject using the 70-300mm L lens and decided to push the ISO from 3,200 to 12,800 (in full stops) to make it a fairly extreme test.  I used a constant aperture of f/7.1, Live View manual focus, mirror lockup, and a cable release for all frames.  The 5D III images were acquired at 300mm focal length.  I then mounted the 1D Mark IV on the lens, zoomed out to the identical field of view I had on the 5D Mark III (221mm), and snapped a series of frames.  Finally I shot the Mark IV at the full 300mm zoom from the same distance.

I uploaded the RAW files from Lightroom 4.1 RC into Photoshop CS5, making no adjustments other than the Lightroom defaults.  For Comparison 1 I took a 100% crop of the 1D Mark IV image taken using the same FOV as the 5D Mark III; this crop measured 1024 x 683.  I cropped the same portion of the image from the 5D Mark III file and then downsized it using Photoshop’s bicubic method to 1024 x 683.  For Comparison 2 I took a 100% crop of the 5D Mark III image measuring 1024 x 683.  I then cropped the identical area in the Mark IV image taken at the same focal length and distance to subject and downsized it to 1024 x 683.

You’ll note that I shot 2 versions of the Mark IV image.  My reasoning is that some photographers feel that when comparing a full frame body to a crop body, an identical field of view should be used.  This scenario resembles a case where you can either get physically closer to your subject or use more focal length to equalize the field of view. The problem with this approach in our current comparison is that it neutralizes any advantage in image detail created by the increased pixel density of the 1D Mark IV over the 5D III.

The second version of the Mark IV image was shot with the same distance to subject and focal length as was used in the 5D III image.  Some photographers feel that this focal length limited scenario more accurately reflects bird photography.  Here we allow the Mark IV to put more pixels on the subject.  I’m hoping to avoid the debate over which testing methodology is the correct one.  You can choose whichever one you wish.


Here is a scaled-down version of the full-frame test image used in Comparisons 1 (5D Mark III and 1D Mark IV) and 2 (5D Mark III).  My apologies for the subject’s good looks!  It was the only bird I could get to hold still for my little project!

And here’s a scaled-down version of the entire test frame obtained from the Mark IV for Comparison 2.  The subject magnification (tighter field of view) is due to the 1.3x cropped sensor of the Mark IV.


5D Mark III ISO 3,200 (300mm)

1D Mark IV ISO 3,200 (221mm)

5D Mark III ISO 6,400

1D Mark IV ISO 6,400

5D Mark III ISO 12,800

1D Mark IV ISO 12,800


5D Mark III ISO 3,200 (300mm)

1D Mark IV ISO 3,200 (300mm)

5D Mark III ISO 6,400

1D Mark IV ISO 6,400

5D Mark III ISO 12,800

1D Mark IV ISO 12,800


Now for my impressions.  I was surprised at how well the Mark IV fared versus the 5D Mark III.  I was expecting the full frame 5D III to better the Mark IV by close to 2 stops.  While the 2-stop advantage may hold true for in-camera JPEGs, this test is all about RAW file ISO performance.  After analyzing the images (using the naked eye), I’d say that the 5D Mark III is in the ballpark of 2/3 to 1 stop better in the noise department than the 1D Mark IV, but no more when you use the same FOV for both bodies (Comparison 1).  The noise is almost identical in Comparison 2 (the one with identical focal length and distance to subject), but the Mark IV has better image detail (especially noticeable at ISO 12,800).  In other words there is no advantage in the 5D Mark III when not using the entire sensor area (i.e. cropping your files to any significant extent).

I use a 1D Mark IV as my primary body and have recently added the 5D III as a second body.  If I had to choose between the two bodies based solely on high ISO noise, I’d go with the 5D Mark III as long as I was not focal length limited (meaning that I could frame perfectly in camera and not resort to cropping in post).  In these conditions, the 5D Mark III has lower noise and slightly image detail.  However, if I’m going to be cropping, the Mark IV gets my vote.  It has similar noise levels and better image detail (even at ISOs as high as 12,800).

Of course there’s more to a camera than its high ISO noise performance.  Another purported advantage of the 5D III is the AF system lifted from Canon’s soon-to-be top-of-the-line 1D x.  My initial impression of the AF system is favorable, but I need to spend some more time photographing birds in flight before I can draw any meaningful conclusions.  But if you factor in things like f/8 autofocus, frame rate, buffer size, and build quality, the 1D Mark IV starts becoming more and more attractive.  And if you are focal length limited and will need to crop, the Mark IV’s higher pixel density gives it the edge, even in low light conditions.

A special thank you to Gary Farber of Hunt’s Photo and Video for getting me an early production copy of the 5D Mark III.  Please help support this site by purchasing your camera gear at Hunt’s.  Thanks also to Greg Basco and Arash Hazeghi for their assistance.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. Please leave a comment below to let me know what you think!

Best regards from the desert,

Doug Brown

29 comments on “Canon 5D Mark III vs. 1D Mark IV High ISO Comparison

  1. Robert Hardy says:

    Many thanks Doug for takeing the time to do this test ,iv been back and forth over should i get the 5dmk3 or a 1dmk4 as my next camera this makes the mk4 the better camera for me here in the uk were we often carnt get close enough to the birds.
    It will be very intresting to get your views on the AF once you have the time to compare them, another point that you mention is all the other bits the mk4 offers fps buffer etc all things that help when birding as we rarely have time for a second go.

  2. Jess Levin says:

    Very well done, Doug. Thank you!

  3. jason says:

    do the same test with out as much available light.

    • Doug Brown says:

      The light was quite low for the test frames. The shutter speed for the ISO 3,200 images was 1/15, and got as high as 1/60 for the ISO 12,800 photos. Thanks for your interest in the thread!

  4. Per Inge Oestmoen says:

    Thank you for the test. However, it may be pointed out that you are comparing a top-notch tool against a prosumer-grade camera. Many people do not realize that the 1D-series has and have always had better componentry and hence is more capable in many ways. The 1Ds III was always superior to the 5D II, except for isolated performance at very high ISO. It will be extremely interesting to get the EOS-1D X into the mix.

  5. Steve Uffman says:

    Thanks Doug for taking the time to do this…I know I am still not certain if I am going to buy the 1d4 or the 1dx. The advantages you cite of the 1d4 are very attractive.

    will be interested in your BIF tests of the AF on the 5dIII. Not having a 1d4, I can only go by what I have had several tell me was an1d4 AF weakness on BIF coming straight towards you….I can say that on my recent Eagle trip to Alaska, Robert Otoole had us set up often with the wind at our back and the Eagles were flying toward us. I thought the AF of the 5dIII performed terrifically as I would pick them up with the first image OOF but the rest all very sharp. The first image was set on release and subsequent on AF. I used case 5.

    Now I also did not hear the two guys using the 1dmk4 complain about AF issues on birds coming directly in. Since I am in no hurry, I plan to be a bit lazy and look forward to leveraging research by you and other experts before I make my next buy.

  6. Thank you for this test, it’s very interesting and useful.

  7. Ed Cordes says:

    Thanks for doing this test Doug. I have loved my 1D Mark 4 a lot since getting it 2 years ago. The new 5D Mark 3 seems to be a good alternative as a second body if you can afford it. However, I will take the pixels on the subject approach anytime.

  8. Greg Basco says:

    Good test, Doug. I was hot to trot on the 5DIII but am now thinking that it’s probably not worth a major switch for me from the Mark IV.


  9. Karl Egressy says:

    Thanks Doug.
    It is an excellent test, makes more sense than a test not including feathers.
    I was going to buy the 5D Mark III for the high ISO performance, but I’m kind of cooling down now and will stick to the MArk IV and 7D as a backup.

  10. Ted Willcox says:

    Hi Doug.
    First of all thanks for the test. I have a 1D Mark111 and was going to up grade to a MarkV. It doesn’t look like that is going to happen anytime to soon. I was then swayed by the high iso jpegs comming out of the 5Dmark 111 camera. By using the Image Resource Comparometer it was at least 2 stops better then the Mark 1V and also better then the top Nikon cameras. I shoot Raw capture and by looking at your test results there seems to be a big difference between raws and jpegs as far as noise is concerened. I had my mind made up on the 5D mark111 now I am thinking that mabe the Mark 1V would suit me better. It just seems that it is a step backwards if I choose the Mark1V. If I only had the cash for a 1DX. My main interest in photography is Birds.

    • Doug Brown says:

      Hi Ted. For the kind of photography I do, the Mark IV has some compelling advantages. But I’ve yet to really give the new AF system of the 5D III a workout. That should change next week, because I’m off to Florida to do some serious BIF photography with my friend Jim Neiger. I’ll be posting my AF impressions on the blog in the coming weeks.

      • Ted Willcox says:

        Thanks again Doug. I will be very interested in your impressions on the AF of the 5D Mark111. Before I make my decision on which camera I will buy I will wait till you have finished testing the 5D Mark111 and also the 1DX. I believe you will be giving the 1DX a thourough testing, at least I hope so.

      • Gautam says:

        Thanks Doug for this very practical and objective assessment on the ISO comparison. Being primarily a wildlife and nature photographer, I am keenly awaiting your review on the Servo AF auto focusing of fast moving subjects between the 1DIV and 5DIII. I am considering a second body to compliment my 1DIV.

  11. John says:

    Great job Doug, this is a great comparison the two things. I am still waiting for your setting for 5D III for BIF.

  12. Juan Carlos Vindas says:

    Hi Doug.
    Great to read this real review. Both cameras are very tempting but depending on what a photographer wants to photograph, the MKIV is better than the 5DIII, in my personal case both cameras would make me quite happy since I shoot birds and macro, but in the real world the MKIV would be my main body.

    Thanks so much for the tests and insightful review.

  13. Wenona says:

    Hi Doug.
    I have a 1Ds Mark lll. I have been looking at the 5Dlll as a second body. Do you know how the 1Ds Mark lll would hold up against the 5D lll. The 1Ds lll is such a work horse I love it. Would I be disappointed with the picture quality of the 5d lll after having the 1Ds Mark lll?

    I have read every one of the reviews on B & H and still can’t make up my mind. I enjoyed reading your comparison of the 1D Mark lV verses the 5d lll.
    Any comments would be appreciated.

    • Doug Brown says:

      Hi Wenona. I’ve never used a 1Ds III before, so I’m not able to compare the 2 bodies for you. I do find the image quality of the 5D III to be quite good, almost on par with the 1D Mark IV. The Mark IV does a better job of shadow recovery, but the 5D III is much better than the 7D in that regard. Lately I’ve been leaving the Mark IV at home if that tells you anything!

  14. Hi Doug

    I’m a amateur wildlife/bird photographer and i’m using a 7D at the moment but i’m looking for a second camera to complete my gear. For me the 5D Mark lll and the 1D Mark lV are very interesting.
    Because i already have the reach for birds using the 7D, the 5D Mark lll looks like a good second body for wildlife or when i can get closer to the subject. The new AF of the 5D Mark lV looks to be very good also.
    For me it’s important to have two body’s when i go on a trip as a second options and as a backup.
    What should i do?


    • Doug Brown says:

      Hi Marcel. I think having a crop body and a full frame body in your bag is the way to go. You’ve already got the reach with your 7D. The 5D III has superior AF compared to the Mark IV, has more pixels (if you aren’t having to crop), has relatively comparable image quality, and costs less. Not that you’d go wrong with a Mark IV, but the 5D III would be my choice.

  15. Steve Uffman says:

    Hello Doug, I was wondering how you liked the AF on the 5dIII. I have found it to be very impressive to anything I have shot thus far.

  16. Erick says:

    I’m not surprised by your test’s results.

    Canon is leaning towards video on most of it’s line of DSLRs, the 5D Mk II and Mk III and 7D, are designed more with video in mind, not photography. Usually in cinematography and video smaller apertures are needed and when you mix it with high resolution (more MPs) you get moiré and need a stronger AA filter… I’d prefer Canon to stop walking that road.

    Your 1D Mk IV has a less aggressive AA filter as is not intended for video but real photography… Your test proofs what I’ve been thinking. Well done!

  17. Ed MacKerrow says:

    Thanks Doug for the relevant and great test. I currently have a 7D that I really love, I was leaning to the 5Dm3 for a poor mans alternative to a 1Dx, after reading your test results though I will think more about the 1Dm4 since I like the high fps and pixel density. As an amateur bird photographer my biggest challenge is the autofocus, 7D works pretty well, however, too many times that incredible photo opportunity ends up out of focus. So, I will be curious to learn more on BIF photography autofocus performance with the 5Dm3. Thanks again!

  18. Ann S says:

    Hello contributed an excellent guide to Setting Up Your New Canon 7D on Greg Bosco’s site. Any chance you could share a setup guide on the Canon 5D Mark III?

  19. Stephane says:

    Thanks a lot for this great review.
    I heard that 5DIII was by far better than the 1DIV with IQ, but you seem to show that it’s not so sure.

    Now, i really would like to read your feed-back about AF comparison between the two bodies, may be one day ?

    I own a 7D and do a lot of dance photography (low light and very quick movements), but i don’t like high ISO IQ of the 7D (very bad shadow recovery)

    And i don’t know yet which body will be the next one and would be better for dance photography : 1DIV or 5DIIi ?

    • Doug Brown says:

      Hi Stephanie. Image quality of the 5D3 is very good, but not better than the 1D4. In particular the 1D4 does a better job with shadow recovery. There’s no comparison between the 5D3 and the 7D on image quality, particularly at high ISOs; 5D3 files are much nicer! One area that the 5D3 excels in is low light AF (significantly better than either the Mark IV or the 7D), and that’ll definitely help you with dance photography. If you don’t mind the lower frame rate of the 5D3 compared to the Mark IV, I’d go 5D3.

      • I have recently purchased a 5D Mark III and i am absolutely delighted with it.
        The autofocus is superb and very’s low light capabilities are incredible
        I used to always shoot in raw but now shoot jpegs as the quality of them is outstandingly good.Saving lots of editing time on the computer afterwards.
        I also have a 1D Mark IV which will not produce sharp images with the 3oomm f2.8l
        IS USM and 2x extender,even after adjusting autofocus micro adjustments.
        The 5DM3 however is superb with this combination with no discernible loss of image quality,i would go so far as to say it is as good as with the 1.4 extender.
        If anyone doubts what i say then i will provide images as proof.

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