Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Canon 1D Mark III: Field Review

As previously reported, between the two of us we generated 35+ Gb of images over the course of our two week trip to Africa. That’s a result of shooting roughly 4,000 pictures between the Canon 1D MkIII and a Rebel XTi. As detailed here, the Mk III survived a bit of an accident, and pretty much on day 1 in Tanzania to boot, that my 70-200 L lens did not, so right off the bat I guess it gets good marks for ruggedness and dependability! I’d also have to give it high marks for the way in which it repelled dust. When we were shooting in Arizona with my (now) old 20D, sensor dust was a real problem by the end of the trip, resulting in frames towards the back-end there that were almost unusable thanks to the files showing dust marks all across the skies. The 1D was both a) better sealed and b) had Canon’s vibrating “shake ‘n clean” sensor technology This two-pronged approach of prevention plus cure seemed to do the trick better than, say, just the sensor-shake piece that is in the Rebel. And just to to be clear, Africa is a pretty stern test in this regard! Safari roads are no more than dirt tracks that are fast turned into airborne dust plumes by the many tourist vehicles plying back-and-forth, something that is especially evident when you are parked trying to photograph something and they are driving past you. Add to that a constant need to change lenses and you have a recipe for slews of images spoiled by specks on the sensor. A big win for the 1D here, then.

Over the course of the trip I got to really like the form factor, size and weight. The extra heft helped balance longer lenses and overall the body quickly felt familiar, despite my first impression of the whole thing being a bit too large and cumbersome. Coming from the Mk II, say, you’d have absolutely no issues adjusting and even my switch from the 20D ultimately went well. Indeed, about the only thing I wish they would to improve the handling is to differentiate the buttons a bit more. I like to use a separate focus button, and I’m pleased to say that this body now has one, but, it’s small, tucked round a corner and I can’t quite reach it comfortably. I’d prefer Canon provided something a bit larger and with more feel than just yet-another-button so I can be confident on what I’m doing without having to pull the camera from my face to check which button I'm about to press. And copy that comment too for the ISO button. On the plus side, Canon have finally included the ISO reading in the viewfinder; on the minus side I kept hitting focus lock or something else when I was quickly trying to switch ISO settings.

One reason in particular why the ISO button got to bug me was that the biggest change in this generation of camera was the noise performance of the sensor, and hence the way it really did allow you to use the ISO setting as a third dimension to get the settings you want for aperture and speed. On my old 20D, going above ISO 200 means you quickly start to hit the law of diminishing returns as noise quickly becomes intrusive and severely impacts perceived image quality. However, once you figure out that on the Mk III, ISO 800 is very acceptable from a quality standpoint then all of a sudden you have degrees of freedom not available to you before to get good DOF combined with a shutter speed that will keep things pin-sharp. This really was a revelation, and indeed it took me more days than it should have done to push the ISO to those rarified levels above 400 because I just couldn’t get my head around what it would mean in terms of the results.

The other big change for me is overall picture quality: right out of Lightroom the images look significantly better than I’ve seen before. Image files are clear, well defined and smooth, much more so in fact than I’ve ever seen with my own camera, confirming the notion that it’s not how many pixels you have but the quality of the data flowing from each of them that ultimately matters most. (Quick aside: I wish Canon would produce a black-and-white only version of this sensor. Quite makes me drool to think of what it could produce once de-Beyer-ed.)

OK, onto the more controversial stuff. To say that there have been a lot of reports about the auto-focus capabilities of this body, both good and bad, is the biggest understatement since the Captain of the Titanic announced that they had hit a small piece of ice but that the ship was unsinkable and so everyone should just keep dancing, having a good time and not worrying about it. Just for the record, the sample I used was a body reported to have had the mirror fix applied and was running the latest version 1.2.3 firmware.

In short, when it worked well then the Mark III's autofocus was very good indeed. Focusing was generally fast and accurate, results borne out by looking at the files afterwards and on the same day so that I had some recollection of each frame sequence shot. I used both one-shot and AI, each mode working pretty much as I expected it to. It took me a day or two to be able to convert how the image looked on the LCD into what that meant for actual sharpness when viewed in Lightroom, but it soon became clear when the image, err, wouldn't be. (The frame shown on those on-camera LCDs is, I assume, still a JPG constructed on-the-fly and hence is compromised even before you look at it. Add to that the fact that it's being displayed on a 3 inch square screen then there’s a limit to how critically one can judge things in the field on an absolute basis.) However, I could certainly see things well enough to know when shots were not in focus which is really all you can - and some would argue, should - be doing whilst out taking pictures. Remember the mantra, “memory is cheap, the shots you miss by playing with the camera are not”.

Throughout the trip I largely used just the central focusing point (with surrounding AF assist) and recomposed once I had lock. I did use the full-up pattern from time to time but mostly stuck to rifle-shooting rather than shot-gunning (if that makes any sense?) However, I did experience some issues when either the contrast was a problem or, quite frankly, I was in the wrong mode for the subject being shot. Not perfect, therefore, but way better than I was used to with the 20D and perfectly easy to figure out what was going on once you knew it was happening. Again, I got better at sorting this out as the trip went on and really the only time things were particularly challenging was trying to catch, for example, white birds flying quickly across grey skies (i.e. low contrast and fast moving subjects).

Speed shooting? 10 FPS? “Bloody fast” is the short answer, and in all honesty I had the burst rate dialed down to more like 5 or 6 FPS for the entire trip. Animals just don’t move that quickly, but having said all that I’d love to try it at Laguna Seca, the surf beaches or somewhere else where there’s fast motion because I’m sure the results would be very impressive indeed. Hmm, in fact I might think about renting one again for the ALMS meeting at Laguna Seca in October. Stay tuned ….

Other stuff: very impressive battery life, even with significant chimping of pictures just shot. (Great LCD by the way, though you have to keep brightness cranked up in order to see it in strong daylight). Didn’t try live view so no comments there except that I could see it being useful. Never got to try it in low light, with a flash or otherwise push it in areas outside of just shooting animals doing whatever it was they happened to be doing at the time we showed up, so nothing more to add really outside of the basics.

Value for money when figuring a price close to $4k here in the US? I’m tempted … very tempted, in fact, as reverting to the 20D to photograph the new dog this past weekend was a real comedown. But another $4k is hard to justify today, especially given just how much we dented our finances by being away on safari. Think I’ll wait and see what the 5D replacement looks like before deciding (to be revealed to the press on 26th August?), and even then may wait for the 1D Mk IIIN to see what the next generation brings. However, it was absolutely worthwhile spending the $630 for three weeks rental so no regrets at all on that front. I ended up with better quality files that can withstand tighter cropping and that show lower noise, and that ultimately do better job of bring you back to what was a wonderful experience each and every day we were in-country.

1 comment:

The Geeks said...

Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
thank you :)