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At Photo Plus Expo in New York last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Canon Advisor of Technical Information Chuck Westfall and a reporter from Rangefinder Magazine to discuss the Canon EOS-1D X (press release article).
I’ve suffered through the pains of the 1D Mark III, but I’ve enjoyed my 1D Mark IV despite its few warts. I’ve also had this strong desire to take a 1D Mark IV, 1Ds Mark III, 5D Mark II, and 7D and mix them all up to create the perfect camera. From what I’ve seen so far, it seems that is what Canon appears to have done and I couldn’t be happier. Everything I love about all of those cameras is present in the X (and much more), yet all of the frustrations and limitations of them appears to have been addressed.
Sensor Details Still Leave Room For Concern
Canon says this sensor offers a 6.95 pixel pitch (µm) compared to 6.4 for the 5DM2 and 5.7 for the 1DM4 (see more comparisons here). This is very important because if you imagine photons as rain as illustrated here, then the pixel pitch is like the size of the bucket catching the rain. The bigger the pixel pitch, the better the image quality – sort of. For example, the original Canon 1D had a 10.9 pixel pitch, but many other modern advancements in sensor technology make its images far inferior to those of a 1D Mark IV so when comparing pixel pitches you need to think about the generation to which the camera belongs. In this generation, 6.95 is great, but still smaller than the 8.4 found in the Nikon D3s. This would make one wonder if this is really the D3s killer that the Canon shooters like myself hoped it would be, or if we still be lusting for the next Nikon flagship camera that will replace the D3s.
With a sensor that is effectively the same size as the D3s, yet nearly 6 megapixels more packed into each image, the big question is going to be about image quality – especially at higher ISO’s. Canon claims that with in-camera JPEG’s the image quality will meet or exceed what is seen today in the 1Ds-Mark III/5D Mark II. That’s a tall claim, but my hands on experience at the Expo seems to indicate this is true. I was unable to test the RAW performance, which Canon naturally acknowledges isn’t as improved as JPEG, but was unable to commit to how much of an improvement due to the pre-production nature of these bodies. Time will tell if it is simply a match to the D3s or if they will be competitive with the D3s replacement.
Sports Shooters Will Be Pleased
When I read about the 12fps performance of this camera I was excited – especially given the larger image size – but I was also worried as my 10fps performance of the 1D Mark III & IV has always been significantly limited by its puny buffer. In my early testing with what I was told was a slow CF card, I was able to get 52 full-size RAW frames in burst mode before the buffer started to stutter. That’s up from 30 in the 1D Mark IV, so that’s promising given the significantly larger file sizes. However, I would have really loved to have seen that number closer to 100 for RAW. RAM is pretty cheap, so I’m always frustrated there isn’t a way to add RAM or do something to overcome this limitation. With that gripe aside, the 52 RAW frames is going to be usable enough in most practical scenarios so this is a welcome relief. This also means that sRAW or JPEG only shooters will find themselves with an endless supply of buffer for sports shooting.
I didn’t have enough time to test buffer flush performance, but the Mark IV smoked the D3s (see here) so I’d expect the X to be the fastest camera on the market in this measurement.
Of course, the biggest problem with prior Canon 1D cameras wasn’t FPS performance – they were the leaders at 10fps RAW – it was the usability of the AF system. When used properly, the Canon pro AF system was unbeatable and it could give you a ton of in-focus images. However, when used improperly (which was VERY easy to do) it could be a disaster and lots of images would be out of focus. The reality was that just like a pro photographer must know the triangle of setting ISO, aperture and shutter speed to get a good photo – Canon shooters had to know how to coordinate four different AF settings to get a good result. Despite my attempt at writing a guide to help with this problem, the truth is that many still failed to get the most out of the system – myself included. This has left IV owners envying 7D owners zone system.
Fortunately Canon has added that system to the X (see above) along with many other autofocus improvements. The net result of this is that the new system is less prone to user error. The advanced ability to change these settings still exists, but presets have been added with additional help information to aid photographers in quickly knowing which setting to use for a variety of common situations. I think these changes will help photographers maximize the potential of the system. One example is shown below in the new 5 page AF menu that features help with a press of the Info button:
Here’s a table that shows some pretty crude shots of each of the case settings (all of which are customizable and feature help when you press the info button):
Case Settings will be a welcome addition to newbies
as well as existing 1D owners confused by the AF system
14fps Super High Speed
Make no mistake, this is a 12fps camera despite the presence of a 14fps super high speed mode. The reason why I say this is because during the 14fps mode the mirror is left up so you can’t see through the view finder and the AF are fixed. In addition, it only supports JPEG so its pretty useless in most scenarios. Sure if you have a fixed point to focus on and want to bang out the most shots possible (which is the case in skiing sometimes), this might be useful, but I think most will find it frustrating to use. That said, I’m sure some will be glad to see this added but I doubt I’d ever use it.
Only the REAL AF Points Are Shown Now
Another huge improvement is that the confusion about what AF points worked with what lenses has been removed. Before you would always see the same number even if some were not active for the lens you were using. The X will only show you the focus appoints that apply to your lens and more cross type sensors have been added to improve the accuracy of subject tracking.
Wedding Photographers Rejoice – Low Light Nightmares Addressed
One of my frustrations with my 1D Mark IV was that its low light auto focus performance was mediocre at best (worst than the 5D Mark II’s antiquated system). As a result it wasn’t a very good camera for situations like concerts, night clubs, etc… which is really where you want a high ISO pro camera. It seems that the advancements in metering with the new 100,000 pixel RGB metering sensor and its dedicated DIGIC 4 processor and a leap from 63 metering points to 252 will result in far fewer scenarios where you push the shutter release and nothing happens because it can not meter the contrast and/or acquire focus.
Canon has also made significant strides to not only catch up with the mighty Nikon D3s (the current high ISO noise champion), but from what I saw in these early cameras it possibly has surpassed it. The formerly useless ISO 12,800 is now usable and appears to look at least as good as what ISO 1600 looked like on the 1D Mark IV. Unfortunately I couldn’t take any of my own images for closer scrutiny elsewhere, so the judge is still out on this. At a minimum it seems that Canon has matched the Nikon D3s and is definitely 2 stops better at high ISO performance, but I think it is higher than that. It certainly seems to be a camera where 12,800 and lower all seem like very usable ISO’s from what I saw.
While video files are still limited to 4GB, Canon has come up with a seamless scheme for allowing multiple video files to be created and transparently stitched together for a maximum of 29 minutes and 59 seconds of its highest quality HD video per individual clip. This coupled with improvements in additional compression modes will be a welcome relief to many videographers.
The biggest improvement in HD video has now been improved to prevent any moiré (i.e., that annoying effect you get when videoing someone in a herringbone suit) as well as better compression. Video will also now embed a time code which will be a big benefit to cinematographers.
I had a chance to sit one-on-one with Hollywood Director of Photography, Shane Hurlbut, and he was thrilled about the video improvements. He felt like Canon addressed his major pain points he faced when filming his upcoming movie, Act of Valor, with the 5D Mark II.
Multiple Exposures On A Single Frame Now Possible
In the film days you could take multiple shots on the same frame of film by simply not advancing the film after the shot. Nikon added this feature a long time ago to their cameras, but it has been missing from Canon. I’m pleased to say that Canon has addressed this by adding an advanced version of this feature.
Built-in Chromatic Aberration Correction
While this feature was available for select Canon lenses in DPP before, its now possible in camera where people will actually use it. Woohoo!
One interesting change is that due to safety regulation changes in Japan, a new battery has been introduced. The good news is that your old 1D Mark III & IV batteries will work in this camera, and the new batteries will work in your older cameras. They are the same size but have a different charger which is backwards compatible. It’s rare for camera companies not to screw us over by changing the battery size, so it was a relief to see Canon care enough not to do that here.
Other Random Notes
- An Ethernet cable can transfer data from the X to your PC at speeds up to 300mb/sec
- Bracketing now goes from +/-3 to +/-5 scale with the same maximum number of bracketed exposures. This will help with the new built-in HDR processing as well.
- Button redundancy is greatly improved with a joystick and front buttons being repeated for easy access in both portrait and landscape mode
- The scroll wheel has a really nice rubbery tactile feel that is much nicer than all current Canon cameras
- Dual compact flash instead of CF/SD
- The EOS-1D X allows users to save up to 3 sets of customized camera settings that can be selected via the mode button and main input dial. They're listed on the LCD data panel as C1, C2 and C3. This puts the 1D X on a par with other current EOS bodies above the Rebel series in terms of its ability to store user-registered custom camera settings.
Other improvements include a much nicer feel for the scroll wheel, an easier to use joystick controller, programmable redundant front camera buttons. I was also happy to see Canon finally do away with the SD card slot and go to dual Compact Flash slots.
If I had to summarize one theme of Canon’s work on the 1D X it has to be “we’ve heard you”. Canon as done so many things to catch up with the Nikon D3s and D3x as well as extending its lead in video. Of course if they just did that then there would be little to be excited about, but I’m pleased to say that this is just the beginning. In fact, I’d probably put you to sleep if I listed everything here and I’m sure I have only discovered the tip of the iceberg.
Of course one difficult situation Canon has put me in is that they’ve finally built the camera I hoped I was getting when I made the leap to get my 1D Mark III, but they’ve priced it to be as insanely expensive (yet still cheaper than a 1Ds Mark III). I have a fear of ending up with the state-of-the-art promise only to be disappointed with a nightmare performance like I had with the Mark III. Fortunately, I’ve been assured by Canon that I’ll get a better chance early next year to give one of these cameras a test drive to give you my honest opinion on this camera. From everything I’ve seen so far I’m afraid I need to make a lifestyle change so I can start saving for this camera, but I’m also so pleased at what I’m seeing that I might be putting both my 1D Mark IV and 5D Mark II on the market to help pay for it.
Make no mistake, if this camera is stable and works as advertised, this is the greatest camera Canon has ever made. It appears to be well worth the upgrade for any Canon shooter with an existing pro body. Everything I’ve seen show signs of greatness and frustrated Nikon D3 and D3x owners might want to start planning for a platform change this Spring. Canon has finally listened so I’m very pleased I didn’t make the move to Nikon. Thank you Canon!
Canon made it very clear that this camera still isn’t out of development yet, so the earliest we could hope to see it is March 2012. If history repeats itself, then that date could really end up being summer 2012 because the 1D Mark IV was supposed to be out in November/December of 2009 yet it didn’t start getting distributed into the channel until February 2010. In fact, those without connections or good luck were lucky to see them by summer of 2010.
As of the time of this writing, no legitimate online reseller I know of is taking true pre-orders (meaning you are guaranteed a spot in line when they come in). Click here to pre-order at B&H when they begin taking orders (perhaps by the time you read this).
More Expo Hands On Reviews
If you enjoyed this, then you’ll probably love these articles here as well:
- HANDS ON: Canon s100 and Fujifilm X10
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- Part 2 coming soon – check http://ronmartblog.com for the latest posts
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My information was obtained by a hands-on experience of PRE-RELEASE versions of the EOS-1D X, so my facts and those who I spoke with at Canon are subject to change prior to the final release. I’ve made every attempt to share the facts as they are known now and to confirm with highly reliable sources. If any information here is proven to be inaccurate or misleading, I’ll update the article immediately so check back for updates.
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