Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Canon 1D X in the Real World

Available at Adorama or B&H for $6,799.00 USD & free shipping

I’ve only had my Canon 1D X for a couple weeks and during that time I’ve been quite busy. As a result, I haven’t had the chance to give it a serious workout on a sports assignment. However, I have been trying to use it when possible around the house and at the park with my active 3 year old (also featured in my Nikon D4 article). As a result, I’m not ready for my full review, but I thought it would be fun to share what I’ve learned thus far and share some more sample images.


I’m a former 1D Mark III owner and I currently have a 1D Mark IV, so I’m comfortable using pro camera bodies. I have high expectations on what features they should have and how they should work. However, I’m also a 5D Mark III owner which has changed the game in what I expect from a pro camera. I share a few of my joys and gripes of this new body below…

Body Design Observations

If you were to ask me about every part about the 1D X except for the rear panel, I’d tell you I love it. The controls are well laid out and it’s a pleasure to use. Canon is finally catching up with Nikon by having more hard buttons which make it much easier to get to the features you need without removing your eye from the viewfinder. It’s also a godsend to finally have fully redundant controls for portrait orientation and programmable buttons instead of a useless DOF (depth of field) button.

Now if you read that last paragraph carefully you’ll notice the “except for the rear panel” part. The rear panel is where the 1D X has really let me down because its somewhat a hold over of past designs, but not in a good way.

For starters I see little value anymore for having the lower monochrome LCD as it offers little value these days. With battery charges lasting longer and LCD’s are referenced quite frequently for more than just chimping, I just don’t see the point. Of course I’m sure some curmudgeons out their will argue with me on that point, and let’s say for kicks we just leave it be. What really annoys me is that Canon still forces us to use that display for controlling the output format type (i.e., raw, jpeg, card 1, card 2, etc…) as before. Sure, you can program that to go to the upper display, but what you can’t do is have that feature integrated into the nice Q menu like the 5D Mark III.

The 5D Mark III nailed the perfect Q menu in this release, but at least the 1D X has joined the party by having a dedicated Q menu button. Unfortunately there’s a wasted space on the right side of the display and items are shuffled around making the 1D X inconsistent from both the 5D Mark III and the 1D Mark IV. I hope this gets addressed in firmware as it’s really a bonehead design right now.

What also annoys me is that my fancy, schmancy 1D X doesn’t offer the new edit button found on the 5D Mark III which offers quick access to Picture Style, Multiple Exposures, and HDR menus with a single tap. This 5D Mark III button also allows for side-by-side image comparisons on the rear panel. However, what really bugs me the most is that Canon still chooses to put all of the buttons under the LCD instead of on the left edge like Nikon and the 5D Mark III. This makes these buttons harder to reach – especially in the case of zoom which went from the handy top right of the 1D Mark III & IV to next to the play button.

My final gripe about the rear panel is that the new multi-controller slips much easier in my fingers than the 5D Mark III which uses the old design also found on the 1D Mark IV. I hate this new design! I’m also very shocked that the main dial has a tactile feel that feels cheap compared to the 5D Mark III & 1D Mark IV.

It should be noted that the 5D Mark III has a more advanced Live View button for video shooters, but since I don’t do video I actually preferred the 1D X design.

On the top of the camera the one new button that thrilled me was the new white balance (WB) button. Beyond that everything up top was effectively the same and still free of an annoying rotating knob – woohoo!

I Never Thought I’d Say This

When I first saw the 1D X last October I was so happy to see two CF cards. I didn’t like using the slower SD cards so this was effectively a wasted slot for me. However, I’ve become a fan of the Eye-Fi more recently so I quickly discovered that the missing SD slot is probably more strategic to get us to buy Canon’s insanely priced wireless controller. This changes the game for how I do studio shooting with my iPad, so I’m hoping Eye-Fi will give us a CF version or an approved SD to CF adapter.


Dear Canon, please O pretty please can someone have the 1D team talk to the 5D team and get these two cameras in sync on the menus? For reasons that seem to be random and without any merit, the menus are similar but different in all but the AF group. Now there’s more custom options so it would make sense for the 1D X to have more options, but all over the place single items just appear on different pages for no reason.

The 5D Mark III also places External Speedlight Control and Mirror lockup on the first page – where you want it (which saves space on the Favorites menu for other things), but the 1D X put them on the 3rd page – in a different order! I just don’t get the haphazardness here. Of course if there were consistency between the 1D Mark IV and 1D X and the 5D Mark II & III then I think I could understand the deviation – but no, they are all different in random ways! C’mon people – talk to each other!!!!

I know this could be fixed in firmware, but manuals can’t be replaced that easily so I don’t think we’ll ever see a fix for this foolishness. However, that’s one firmware update I’d pay for as I just can’t stand what they’ve done on the 1D X.

I also found it very odd that the ISO Speed Settings on the 1D X matches the 5D Mark III when you consider the fact that you can also set the minimum shutter speed on C.Fn2:Exposure. I haven’t tried it, but what if they conflict? HUH? Seems like somebody dropped the ball here.

Shutter Noise

When I first used the silent shutter mode of my 1D Mark III I was impressed. The 1D Mark IV seemed to carry that feature over with as good or better performance, so I found myself using that camera more often when I needed to be discrete (kinda funny given its size). The 5D Mark III joined the party by adding a silent shutter mode and even added a silent burst mode. The 1D X shocked me by not only having a louder normal mirror slap, but its silent mode is even noisier than the 5D Mark III.

Now this won’t be an issue for sports shooters. However, the 1D X is the only full pro body replacement for the 1Ds Mark III, so this is something wedding and event shooters should seriously consider. Personally everything I’ve seen of the 1D X and 5D Mark III thus far has proven to me that the 5D Mark III is the real 1Ds Mark III replacement and the 1D X is still the sports camera first and foremost. That’s right, I’m saying that if you shoot weddings or events then you should go with the 5D Mark III – even if price is no issue – because the 5D Mark III is the better product for that type of work.

AF Performance

I expected the 1D X to blow away the 5D Mark III, and in burst mode it does – it even destroys the 1D Mark IV (thanks to the larger buffer, better performing AF & faster burst rate). However, if frames per second isn’t your top concern then you’d be surprised to hear that I’ve actually found the 5D Mark III’s AF system to be equal – and in some cases better than the 1D X. Using the default AI Servo mode shooting identical conditions, I have had better luck with the 5D Mark III in spot focus mode than I have with the 1D X. Now before the rumor mill goes out of control, I’m not saying the 1D X is bad – it’s not – it’s just that it surprised me (perhaps due to the fast burst mode) that with the default AI Servo settings I was getting a few frames that were only 90% focused like this:

f/5.6 @ 102 mm,1/500, ISO 1250
When the focus wasn’t bang on, this is what you get
(Yeah, you have to see the original to even tell)

whereas with the 5D Mark III I’ve gone all day without going out of the general AI Servo mode and have had 100% of my shots perfectly in focus. As you can see from above these aren’t gross misses (of which I got zero with the 1D X) and it could just be me still getting used to this camera. I do find that it is SIGNIFICANTLY more accurate out of the box than the Nikon D4, but neither body has achieved absolute perfection – as I had hoped from both in this release. Hopefully both will get firmware updates to continue to tweak the performance.

Most burst mode shots were bang on though like this:

f/5.6 @ 182 mm,1/1000, ISO 3200
Tracking my daughter riding her bike at 12fps was flawless

If I got blur it was typically because I didn’t have a fast enough shutter speed. It seems my active toddler has graduated from 1/500 sec to 1/640+ as I did have a handful of shots that were clearly very subtle motion blur and not focus blur.

Battery Performance

The 1D X seems to be a bigger battery hog as I was only able to get about 1700 images on a full charge whereas I used to average about 2200 – 2500 with the 1D Mark IV. At first I thought this might have been the new battery, but I put in an 1D Mark IV battery into the 1D X and the performance is tracking to be about the same. This was a big disappointment for me as great battery life has always been a big plus for the pro bodies.

Dynamic Range and Noise

I’ll dive more into this when I compare the 5D Mark III, Nikon D4 and 1D X against each other, but I can tell you right now that the lowest noise seems to favor the 1D X. To my eyes when I analyze ISO 6400 images, everything I’m seeing – especially when comparing the RAW files – is that the 1D X has the best high ISO performance over the D4, D800, 1D Mark IV and 5D Mark III. However, the difference is so subtle that only the D800 and 1D Mark IV really stands apart as noise monsters in this line up. If you’ve got a 5D Mark III or D4, I wouldn’t feel bad – by the time you use Noiseware each image will clean up about the same and retain plenty of detail.

Bookcase photos

if you’ve followed my blog for a while you know that I like to take shots of my bookshelf for evaluating cameras. I like this because it allows me to evaluate the performance of text, textures, and shadow detail.

When doing these tests I always shoot RAW and JPEG, but I don’t have a way to upload the RAW so they are just used for my analysis. I mostly focus on the in-camera JPEG because honestly that’s the camera manufacturer's attempt at giving you what they think is a print worthy image from their RAW file.

I use most camera default settings, except I make sure that the best files are created (JPEG Fine and Uncompressed RAW). I know that with RAW file processing different results are possible that some will argue are better, but the in-camera JPEG takes human error and bias out of the equation in my opinion. With that said, what follows are a few select comparison images from both the 1D X and the 1D Mark IV, but you can get the full 1D X set including the original in-camera JPEG’s here.

For the record, after focus was acquired I turned everything off on the 70-200mm lens. This means no AF, IS, etc… 10 second timers were used to ensure there was no chance of camera shake. Exposure was set manually to what was indicated as the correct exposure using Evaluate metering and I always used Auto White Balance (AWB) with the Standard Picture Style. In-camera noise reduction was set to Low and Auto Lighting Optimizer was Standard.

I’ll do a comparison later, but you can also get bookshelf images in my D4 and D800 articles. The D800 article includes 5D Mark III images as well.

f/8 @ 100 mm,20s, ISO 100

f/8 @ 100 mm,1/8, ISO 12800

f/8 @ 100 mm,1/30, ISO 51200

f/8 @ 100 mm,30s, ISO 50

Canon 1D Mark IV Image Quality Comparison

Below are a few 1D Mark IV shots to compare against. I shot the pics using only RAW and then used DPP to convert them into JPEG’s so we’d get effectively the same processing as the in-camera for the 5D Mark III & 1D X.  You can see the full 1D Mark IV gallery here.

f/8 @100 mm, 20s, ISO 100

f/8 @100 mm, 1/6, ISO 12800

There’s easily a 2 stop improvement in high ISO performance of the 1D X over the 1D Mark IV both in RAW and with in-camera JPEG’s.

Real World Sample Photos

All of the following photos are in-camera JPEG’s that may be clicked to view the original in-camera JPEG. Only the file names have been changed, but nothing else. A bigger collection can be found here.

f/9 @ 58 mm,1/320, ISO 250
The colors are great with the Standard Picture Style

f/16 @ 80 mm,1/160, ISO 400, Flash Fired
Great shadow detail and dynamic range

ISO 1000

ISO 640

ISO 800
AI Servo with Spot Focus
is Scary Good!

All Shots 1/500 sec @ f/4

f/11 @ 24 mm,1/125, ISO 250
AV Mode –1 EV did a good job with the dark train and bright sky

f/2.8 @ 120 mm,1/160, ISO 100 (70-200mm)
Detail is incredibly sharp right out of the camera

f/10 @ 17 mm,1/125, ISO 640 (16-35mm)

f/10 @ 150 mm,1/80, ISO 320

f/14 @ 80 mm, 8s,ISO 100

f/11 @ 200 mm,1/125

f/5.6 @ 80 mm,1/500
This one of those “oh sweet, it got it” shots because of the detail in the shadows

f/5.6 @ 200 mm,1/500, ISO 1000
I can’t say enough about the accuracy of the new spot auto focus – it’s outstanding!

f/5.6 @ 130 mm,1/500, ISO 1600
Active kids? No problem

Click here to see another article with some sample shots taken at night under tungsten.


Despite my bitching, the 1D X is a great camera that creates wonderful in-camera images – especially at higher ISO’s. Had I got the 1D X first, I’d probably be making these same complaints about the 5D Mark III, but things didn’t work out that way. As a result, I really hold the 5D Mark III to be the gold standard by which others are judged and in some ways the 1D X failed as a camera body. It’s sensor quality makes up for it though, and its burst mode is what I think anyone who owned a 1D Mark III or IV was expecting when they bought those expensive cameras.

The price is insane when you consider how good the 1D Mark IV was and how similar the 5D Mark III is. While it would be financially beneficial for me to say this is the camera to get, the reality is that I think the 5D Mark III is going to be the smarter choice for most pro photographers who don’t need rapid fire burst mode. If you do, and you have a 1D Mark IV, then it really only makes sense to upgrade if you need the higher ISO performance. Even then I’d suggest keeping the 1D Mark IV around as it’s silent mode, longer reach, and better battery performance will be welcome companions on some jobs.

I still have much field and studio testing to do, but early signs are that this is a great camera that fails to justify the 2x price difference over the stellar 5D Mark III.

The 1D X does match or beat the Nikon D4 in just about every way, so my previous previous bewilderment at Nikon’s strategy for this wave of cameras remains. The D4 is a good camera, but it just lacks the technological innovation that we’ve seen from Nikon over the past few releases that had been making us Canon guys wanting to jump ship. I’m now thrilled I didn’t switch camps!

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Frank T said...

I might point out that there are CF card adapters that take SD cards.

A number of people are using them with their Eye-Fi SD cards to use in CF slots... and they work!

Available on Amazon as well as elswhere I'm sure.

Not an issue, and I'll be using one on MY new 1DX and unadapted in my 5D3

Anonymous said...

Will you still be posting a 5D III/1DX/D4 comparison? Would love to see that, particularly autoWB tests.