Canon EOS 1DX – The Ultimate Pro DSLR?
When Canon first announced their current flagship camera – the Canon EOS 1DX, back in Oct 2011, it was seemingly met with equal parts excitement & pessimism online – mostly from Canon’s recent history of delayed product releases & also from some wildlife/bird shooters who weren’t happy with the removal of f/8 autofocus & the switch to a full-frame sensor in Canon’s line of fast 1-series bodies.. For me, welcomed the new pro body introduction as I’d definitely begun to feel that my always-trusty 1Ds Mark III was beginning to show its age in various departments (its low-res screen is pretty useless, its small buffer is slightly limiting during events, its high-ISO capabilities are well behind comparable Nikon pro full-frame bodies & lastly, it isn’t able to take advantage of today’s modern/faster CF cards). That said, would I really replace my awesome 21.1MP full-frame studio body with an “improved” but downsized 18MP sensor when it became available in March 2012?
As it turned out (obviously), March, April & then even May came & went without any sign or news of Canon’s “ultimate flagship camera” – even reports of field testing were sparse & my local retailers had no idea why Canon’s heavily-marketed new professional body was delayed. So when the opportunity to pick up a brand new Canon 5D Mark III for considerably less than retail value came up in June, I jumped at it – after all, the 5D Mark III shared many of the improved specifications & technologies we would eventually see in the 1DX so I figured it was a no-brainer to try it out.
Very quickly, I saw why Canon’s new semi-pro offering was being met with rave reviews by fellow event & wedding shooters alike.. The 5D Mark III’s AF abilities & high-ISO performance were noticeably better than my 1Ds Mark III, enjoyed a much larger/clearer LCD display for image review, had improved performance & buffer size, and was significantly faster than the 1Ds Mark III using faster/modern CF cards. In short – in a smaller body, Canon’s 5D Mark III addressed every shortcoming/weakness of the clearly dated 1Ds Mark III (which was first introduced 5 years ago in 2007). (Related: My first impressions of Canon’s EOS 5D Mark III).
HOWEVER, the 5D Mark III had a few significant shortcomings of its own. The “new & improved” viewfinder with digitally-overlaid focus points was NOT an improvement over the older 1Ds Mark III – both my primary assistant & I had difficulty seeing the illuminated points in poor lighting conditions in single-shot AF mode & we basically couldn’t see the non-illuminated AF points at all in dim light in AI-Servo AF mode.. All in all, replacing the already-perfect viewfinders from Canon’s former 1-series offerings & replacing it with this “new & improved” viewfinder was a confusing decision. Throw in the fact that Canon chose to deliberately cripple the 5D Mark III by leaving out the very-important AF-linked spot metering feature, and the 5D Mark III became a complete non-starter for me – even if my female assistants liked the smaller form factor & lighter weight compared to my “bricks” – the 1-series bodies. After just over a month, I sold the 5D Mark III, with ever-growing concerns about the 1DX sharing the same “new & improved” viewfinder design.
Yet, when the first 1DX images began appearing regularly on media newswires in late-July/early-August during the London Olympics, a lot of my apprehension quickly dissipated. 1DX images were DOMINATING major press agencies’ online galleries from the Olympics. Before long, positive reviews about the 1DX’s impressive speed & improved AF/high-ISO abilities started trickling in from international pros & local colleagues alike. My local no-BS retailer (who I trust) called the unit a “game-changer” for press professionals & sports photographers especially.
And so when Canon Professional Services (CPS) notified its members of available 1DX units for test-drive during the Toronto International Film Festival in September, I jumped at the opportunity – even if I was still trying to tell myself that I wouldn’t upgrade either body from my completely-capable combo of the 1Ds Mark III & 1D Mark IV. In just under 4 full days of testing the 1DX, I shot just under 8000 frames in all sorts of conditions on the two 1DX bodies at my disposal, mostly during assignments as I believe a camera is best tested in the field, rather than in predictable or isolated studio/lab environments. Without further adieu, below are my findings, having now pored over those 30 hours of shoots & having edited images from each:
Canon 1DX compared to the 1Ds Mark III:
- new, larger viewfinder combined with shorter blackout times & a much larger buffer combine to make for a noticeably different, more responsive shooting experience than I’m accustomed to with the 1Ds Mark III – Canon’s former full-frame champion that I rely so heavily on for wedding portrait & studio/product photography purposes
- far, far superior mid/high-ISO performance on the newer 1DX (both cameras are completely clean up to ISO-800, 1DX pulls ahead after ISO-800, dominates from ISO-1600 & up – at least 1 full stop better at ISO-3200)
- low-ISO RAW files are a wash (1DX files seem slightly sharper out of camera, but the natively larger 1Ds Mark III files have slightly more absolute resolution & equal/better dynamic range from ISO-50 to ISO-400)
- AI-servo & one-shot AF consistency is much, much better on the 1DX (think ~99% success rate on the 1DX compared to ~90% on the 1Ds Mark III when user error is not involved)
- reviewing images on the 1DX was a DREAM relative to the 1Ds Mark III’s now-ancient 2.5″ 230,000 pixel display
- write/copy speeds with the 1DX’s dual CF cards was night & day relative to what the 1Ds Mark III could with its older CF/SD slots (I’d say the 1DX was 2-3 times faster?)
Canon 1DX compared to the 1D Mark IV:
- in situations where not focal-length limited, 1DX files seemed to retain substantially more detail & clarity. I prefer the full-frame “look” of the 1DX images
- in focal-length limited situations, the 1D Mark IV still proved to be the more useful tool (wildlife, birds)
- the 1DX’s 12FPS was a nice upgrade over the 1D Mark IV’s 10FPS, but it wasn’t a big deal for a non-sports professional like myself
- 1DX high-ISO performance is about a half-stop better at ISO-1600, full-stop better at ISO-6400 than the already good 1D Mark IV
- AI-servo & one-shot AF consistency is slightly better on the 1DX, but the 1D Mark IV is no slouch (think ~99% success rate on the 1DX compared to ~95% on the 1D Mark IV when user error is not involved)
- new, larger viewfinder combined with shorter blackout times make the 1DX feel even more responsive than the already robust 1D Mark IV
- write/copy speeds with the 1DX’s dual CF cards was 15-20% faster than what the 1D Mark IV could with its already-fast CF/SD slots
Conclusions about the Canon 1DX:
- Wow, Canon really stepped up its autofocus & high-ISO game with the 1DX after a few years of being challenged/dominated by Nikon’s excellent D3S. The 1DX is definitely a game-changer for any Canon shooter who absolutely “needs to get the shot” in the moment, no matter the situation.. In both single-shot AF & AI-Servo focus modes, the focusing speed & precision is noticeably better than the already-impressive 1D Mark IV, which was already better than my great 1Ds Mark III. I have to say, the 5D Mark III I got rid of wasn’t shabby in this department either..
- I would have confidence editing a well-exposed ISO-8000 to ISO-10000 RAW file from the 1DX, whereas I never shot above ISO-1600 on the 1Ds Mark III & usually stayed under ISO-2500/ISO-5000 on the 1D Mark IV. 1DX high-ISO files seem to clean up better in Lightroom, providing what would be a HUGE advantage for me at weddings & other low-light situations..
- I picked up the 1DX thinking I’d hate the “new & improved” viewfinder & I ended up putting the 1DX down feeling only slightly annoyed at the changes. Yea, there were still moments where I couldn’t see the focus points properly, being accustomed to the former 1-series viewfinder design, but the 1DX’s new, brighter/larger viewfinder pentaprism is really something to behold in decent light – during the event assignments especially, I found myself glued to the eyepiece as if I was seeing the world through a lens/camera for the first time. Combined with the shorter blackout times of the 1DX, the bigger/brighter viewfinder made for a super-responsive shooting experience that I definitely missed after returning to my 1D Mark IV & 1Ds Mark III.
- For what it offers me, a professional shooter with already substantial investment in very capable former 1-series bodies, the 1DX is definitely overpriced. I get that the cost of having the latest & greatest is high because Canon has to make money, as a huge corporation in a competitive industry, but.. Given that I don’t only shoot sports or press assignments for a living, $6750 after discounts + taxes is a lot of money for incremental upgrades that I probably won’t need to remain professionally competitive.
- The 1DX is slightly better than the 1D Mark IV in many ways, but for my high-speed shooting applications (wildlife/birds), I prefer the 1.3x APS-H sensor of the 1D Mark IV to maximize the reach. If I shot indoor sports assignments exclusively for a living, the 1DX would basically become a job requirement.
- The 1DX is definitely a better camera than the 1Ds Mark III in most ways, but there are still a few things the 1Ds Mark III can do better than the 1DX – thus, the 1DX is not really a complete replacement or upgrade of the former 1Ds line of professional-grade cameras (the “S” stands for Studio). If I end up buying a new 1DX in the next year or so, I likely will still keep my excellent 1Ds Mark III for portrait, studio & product photography purposes where I’m almost exclusively shooting at ISO-100.
Last but not least, to address a question that was emailed to me last week & to provide you with a frame of reference, these are the Canon DSLR bodies I’ve used extensively (in chronological order) prior to testing the 1DX: Canon 30D, 40D, 5D Mark II, 1D Mark III, 1Ds Mark III, 1D Mark IV, 5D Mark III – you can click on each of these links to see images shot with the respective bodies.
Canon EOS 1DX – Key Specifications:
18.1 Megapixel, Full-frame CMOS sensor
61-point AF with up to 41 cross-type AF points
Zone, Spot and AF Expansion Focusing modes
DUAL “DIGIC 5+” processors
12fps shooting with 14fps super High Speed continuous
ISO 100 to 51,200 as standard, ISO 50 to 204,800 with expansion
100,000-pixel RGB AE sensor
DIGIC 4 processor dedicated to AE functions
+/- 5 Stop Exposure Compensation
Full HD Movie shooting with ALL-I or IPB compression
29mins 59sec clip length in Full HD Movie
55ms shutter lag, 36ms via ‘Shortened Release Lag’ Custom Function
Timecode setting for HD Movie shooting
Transparent LCD viewfinder with new focusing screen
3.2″ 1.04 million pixel Clear View II LCD Screen
Improved EOS Integrated Cleaning System (EICS)
Dual CF Card slots
Silent control touch-pad area