CANON EOS 1D MARK III REVIEW
1D series is flagship product line of Canon Digital EOS cameras. Development cycles of 1D's are long compared to consumer models so while you are enjoying your current model you quietly envy some improvements done in more recent consumer models and wonder what will the next 1D offer.
Anticipation for 1D Mark III was great and when the word finally came out we saw a camera that was completely redesigned, with new features like improved AF, sensor cleaning, Live View, AF micro adjustment, new user interface, bigger LCD, internal Speedlite control, lighter weight, 14 bit A/D conversion, less noise, more metering sensors... in short, expectations were met and in many parts exceeded. Before the camera was shipped its AF was praised by PR documentation and videos, we got videos showing 10fps in action and how Live View looked. No wonder this was expected to be a mother of all cameras, one package that would solve all problems and make photographing easy and fun. Now that the packages are open and some field time spent it is time to see what's on the bottom line after those $4500 dollars (or Euros) spent.
This review compares Mark III mainly to its predecessor 1D Mark II.
BUILD AND FEEL
Mark II always felt a bit too heavy to me. I'm not a weakling but when you hold 70-200 IS and Mark II up for a few hours you start to wish for lighter gear. Mark III weight (with battery) has dropped 295 grams which is just what was needed to make a difference. Main weight reduction came from smaller and lighter battery, some internals were done with magnesium instead of aluminum die cast. The body feels as durable and well constructed as all 1D's have felt.
Buttons have been relocated, some removed and some added. The whole layout is simpler for daily use. There is a new AF/ON button which starts AF, but I really like to use the old * button for that function. AF/ON is located somewhat "behind corner" and I found using it disturbed my shooting balance a bit.
Finally we have a dedicated ISO button, thanks Canon!
A great thing is that 580 EX II and Mark III create a weather sealed combination. You can also control 580 EX II from Mark III menus. The menus are well organized, they remember your last position of each page and you can build your own daily menu, too. That little joystick is great for navigating menus. I just wonder why it can not be used for AF point selection?
I value operational speed more than high fps. This is the first camera which is really like quicksilver. Menus are fast, formatting is lightning fast, preview browsing is instant. My only complain is slow panning inside zoomed preview image. They probably intended to make this smooth (thus slow), but there should really be a custom function to set a pixel jump scroll value to make it faster.
10fps is of course great to have for sports and wildlife. I shoot mostly events and people so I do not use it that often. Turns heads, though!
Mark II viewfinder was not bad at all, but Mark III is brilliant, literally. You can see manual focusing easier, markings are less distractive, image is bigger and brigther in low light.
My only problem with it is that it is still not exactly 100% view. I had similar issues with Mark II so this is nothing new. In my Mark III viewfinder top and sides are accurate, but bottom is not which means when I compose something out very closely from bottom, I get a stripe of it in files. I'll see if Canon can adjust viewfinder to at least be symmetrically "close to 100%" - I called them and they said the can adjust it, let's see.
Interestingly the size of viewfinder view starts to be the maximum of what I would like to have. Reason for this is personal: every time the viewfinder gets bigger it is harder and harder to get a feel of overall composition, in the same way when you look a big print or a movie from too close. It has taken me some time to get adjusted to the new viewfinder in that respect.
I'm sure that the next implementation of Live View will be an LCD viewfinder - that will let you zoom in when focusing, let you brighten view in dark or darken it in bright, let Live View AF (no mirror in the way) and if the mirror would no longer be needed we'd have virtually silent cameras.
The new 3 inch LCD is a good thing to have when you get older and start to have trouble reading close, in my case glasses on. Menus are big and clear, easy to navigate with new mini joystick, preview is large enough for showing photos to clients.
Couple of complaints, though. First one is color. When this kind of machine is obviously used in color-critical applications and by people who can see a difference between orange and orangutan, it is strange that the color calibration is so off, especially in yellows.
Other complaint is zooming in, Canon does not use RAW or original JPEG when zooming in, but something like 2mp thumbnail instead. There is simply not enough resolution there for critical focus check. Firmware 1.1.0 was supposed to make it better by sharpening, but sharpening preview thumbnail more is not equal to viewing the real thing! False sense of sharpness fools you into thinking your shot was sharp because in the LCD it looks like it is sharp but in reality you do not know the truth any more than with zero preview sharpening because the data required for real quality evaluation is simply not there. I really wish they would apply in firmware a method to zoom in to original RAW/JPEG image and use thumbnail as quick preview, you would expect it with level of general sophistication Mark III has.
Soon all DSLR's will have Live View, but Mark III was the first Canon to do it. It is not just a marketing gimmick, but a useful tool in many occasions. With wide angle you can shoot over heads. With product and macro photography you can manual focus easier. Production team can see what you shoot. When you focus far you can zoom 10X to verify accuracy. I have often used it as focusing aid, and then shoot normally. You can change perspective without need to lie down in the dirt.
Live View is also a great aid for teaching photography, combined with capability to display live image remotely on laptop/wallscreen. With remote Live View you can get wide angle closeups of animals, make Mark III a nice ceiling camera, drop it to the ocean and take photos while it sinks... the applications are endless.
One question remains: why is the LCD not detachable?
Soon after Mark III was released we got 40D which has AF with Live View, technically doing it by dropping the mirror during AF, no extra hardware needed. So, Canon, where's the firmware update to enable that with Mark III?
I just love the new battery. It is durable, lightweight, charges fast and contacts are protected. It also shows its charge in %, how many shots you have taken etc. A big improvement over Mark II's bulky dummy brick. Dual Charger has better monitoring lights, it is smaller and faster.
Well, it seems to work. What I would really need now is automatic viewfinder cleaning. It's amazing how you can get dust in the viewfinder in camera like this, with weather sealing and all.
I was happy to see Canon has included new Silent Mode which is an improved version of Personal Function 21 we have in Mark II. The Silent Mode is not totally silent but let's say "adequate". Noticeable difference in any case.
Apart from shutter noise, the thumb wheel and top wheel are quieter than in Mark II which gave annoying click-click-click sound when you rolled them, especially the top wheel. Battery cover can also be opened and closed silently more easily than with Mark II.
If you want to shoot really quietly then Live View mode is for you. With it even 10fps is possible. Only acoustical problem with Live View is that when you enable it with SET button you get a loud click from the mirror which will reveal you to the subject and the audience really well. Come one Canon, would it have been hard to make the mirror move slow up, as in Silent mode, when enabling Live View?
Overall the direction acoustical noise is going to is correct one, but it will need more work from the engineers - a nearly silent digital camera must be possible when you put your mind to it!
Good metering is one of those things that should be taken for granted when talking about cameras. With Canon this has not been always the case in digital era, tendency to underexposure has plaqued most EOS's so far. With Mark III metering is so good you really do not think about it any more. Not perfect, though. I shot Mnozil Brass concert and by my placement I ended up composing many scenes with couple of performers in front of black velvet, i.e having a large black gap in the middle. This happened to be very problematic for Mark III because every metering mode was so center-oriented they metered the velvet in between two people which resulted to over-exposure. Even evaluative which should be like an overall average did not understand that I was not shooting the black wall in the middle. Of course you can link spot metering to selected AF point or lock metering and recompose but still, evaluative should be even more distinctively different from other metering modes, in my opinion. So, metering is a definite improvement over Mark II, but could use some more "AI".
A big thanks to Canon for including ISO safety shift feature. When you combine this with custom settings for limiting shutter speeds and apertures you can set up a shooting environment with some insurance for success. For example I have set minimum shutter speed to 1/60, set ISO safety shift on, set ISO to 1600 and Tv mode to about 1/160. Now what happens when I shoot a live event is that when selected shutter speed is not possible with ISO 1600 Mark III raises ISO to 2000, then 2500 and 3200. When in Av mode and ISO 3200 is reached, it starts lowering shutter speed - but not below 1/60, this I have set to ensure reasonable stopping of movement without photographer having to change all settings during shoot.
Now all we need is M mode ISO shift.
A marked improvement over Mark II when in natural light and in most mixed and artificial light situations. In very low light WB is off, the familiar Mark II orange color cast is still there. I guess we'll need to wait for Mark IV for perfect WB. Kelvins save my day often. You can have several custom WB presets which is great feature for JPEG shooters.
Please note that I can comment only RAW, I do not shoot JPEG.
After Mark II, which is not at all incompetent in IQ area, Mark III images showed immediately their more "natural" and "non digital" quality: deeper but realistic colors, great skin colors, smoother gradations especially in dark areas, less noise and finer grade detail in all ISO's, lack of jaggies in thin lines is remarkable. You get a little bit of Moiré, though, which is always the price to pay for crisper detail. Mark III really likes my fisheye and 17-40L, Mark III draws lines so cleanly wide angles look really good.
Couple of megapixels more does not sound like much, but when they are quality mp's they get you much more detail. They also require you to increase shutter speeds about 25-50% to use the advantage - the more you enlarge the more slow shutter speeds messes the detail.
Overexposed and underexposed areas benefit a lot of 14-bit processing. It can be seen in lack of cyan/magenta halos in overexposed areas, and lack of posterization in dark gradients. The images can handle plenty of curve torture and they still retain their integrity. Bokeh seems slightly smoother compared to Mark II, must be because of smoother gradations and bigger enlargement.
The files need very little sharpening and generally you do not feel post processing is needed. Noise is low across the ISO range, and quality of noise is very pleasing. Only exception is ISO 2500-3200 which sometimes produces faint star field noise pattern on near-black areas (might be RAW conversion issue, too) - Neat Image Pro takes care of those nicely, I also use NI to remove extra chroma noise from ISO 3200 files because I do not reduct noise in RAW converter (produces better detail in shadows). As with all digital cameras you will need to keep your exposures good with ISO 3200, when exposure gets dark the noise increases and could be a problem when pushing back couple of stops in post process. Detail is preserved really well in high ISO, no posterization, smooth gradations. 14-bit processing is surely a big help here.
I have converted all my photos so far with Capture One Pro 3, even though its Mark III conversion is at beta stage and all conversions are shifted 5 pixels leaving a stripe of digital mess to other long edge of converted image. I take all noise reductions off and use smooth sharpen 40-60 with threshold 0. C1 version 4 is coming, but C1 Pro version 4 is not out yet so no comments about that yet. I have also Lightroom, but it can not compete with C1 colors, and quality of detail C1 can extract from the files.
This time the upgrade was really worth the money. I'm very happy with this camera as it makes me more productive, it makes shooting more fun and relaxed. Beware the feeling, though. Feel of ease of shooting, fast AF and good looking LCD has fooled me a few times to get lazy and nonchalant in the way I shoot, thus ending up with tons of crap photos. A good reminder that no matter how good the camera is, photographer must take the photo, photographer must think on behalf of the tool. Mark III is an excellent professional tool and in that it excels, obeying commands with ease. It is a vast improvement over Mark II, apart from AI Servo issues. 1D Mark III Image quality rocks, it does not let you down at the critical moment.
I'd give it 9 out of 10 score.-----------------
A critical footnote
I must say that I am not happy how Canon has handled AI Servo complaints. It has taken them weeks to bring some words "we're examining it", and by consequently posting papers explaining custom functions in detail as a way around AI Servo errors they effectively acknowledge that their AF system is too complicated to cope even for seasoned pros.
Rob Galbraith has proved his point but what real information his texts and images contribute to Canon engineers for solving the problem. They'll need to isolate the problem and reproduce it before it is possible to fix it. But have they found anything? Is there a real problem in software? Is it a hardware problem? Do all cameras have it? We have not heard anything about this from Canon.
Adding to this lack of communication is the "over communication" mess going on in the net: some have reported their cameras fixed, some have seen no change after repair, some have had good cameras and then developed the problem, some have swapped cameras and problems have been people related, some say all is fine, some just keep on shooting.
There is hearsay that some firmwares are tested in Osaka by sports shooters - why can't ALL the people participate in testing?
Canon, please. It's time to communicate with your customers. It's time to sort out this mess now and that way put Mark III on the top pedestal it belongs to.
(And later something DID happen...)
Addendum regarding Canon's AF fixes
There are so far two fixes for Mark III AF provided by Canon. First is firmware updated 1.0.3, second is "submirror fix" repair procedure which has to be done for certain range of cameras (basically to all without a blue dot in box). People have got this fix done by Canon and still there seems to be problems.
What the submirror is and what it does:
Image: Canon / Canon 1D Mark III White Paper, submirror = oblong, secondary mirror
The submirror problem in Canon 1D Mark III explained
What that meant (and what was empirically proved) in real life was that when shooting 10 fps the mirror sometimes failed to return to its default position in time, between frames. Sometimes it would, sometimes not. If you shot very fast with single shot you could also end up a victim of the mirror return lag. I think it is also feasible to assume that sometimes the submirror could not return to its original position at all until you let the camera cool off and take few shots to "tame it".
This info also suggests that low light shooting ability can not be affected by submirror fix, as some have claimed to experience. If it does it actually may improve it because the light points now accurately to AF unit!
Many people complain that getting the fix done took weeks. I got it on same day. Why for some the fix was simple and for some long and hard? Here's one explanation: With some cameras there is no need to open mirror box in order to fix it. Opening mirror box takes few hours. In some cameras the whole mirror box needs replacement. Parts may not be available instantly. Also, I learned that if the camera owner made prior attempts of fixing the problem, it usually brought the camera so much out of specs it needed lot of time in repair shop to totally re-spec the camera before applying the correct fix.
Ok, lets hear what these fixes do in real life to my camera!
STEP 1 -- Firmware 1.1.3: A significant change in AI Servo behaviour. Less nervous, better keeping the target, more keepers in low light. Now Canon is on the right track!
STEP 2 -- Submirror fix: no visible change in anything. No change in tracking, AI Servo still wobbles a lot with static subjects, nothing I can see was improved. But it is winter, so operation in heat will be tested much later.
STEP 3 -- Viewfinder adjustment repair: Besides an accurate viewfinder, a clear change in AF accuracy! Servo is very steady with fixed subjects. Perhaps the whole submirror system was slightly off. Fact is that repair guy needs to remove/open the mirror box in order to adjust the viewfinder so simple explanation is that there was something misaligned and it was put back correctly. Viewfinder fix could also put AF rects on correct place, so what I see is what I get when focusing. Also, my 70-200 2.8/IS was not too sharp at 200/2.8. Now it is very sharp there, like a different lens. Obviously the explanation is that with viewfinder fix they adjusted the optical path to perfection.
STEP 4 -- Firmware 1.2.3: This firmware added joystick AF point selection. To me it felt still more accurate, and 45-points Servo mode (Ring of Fire, RoF) with center point initial lock works beautifully even with 135/2L and 85/1.2L and demanding shallow DoF applications. I now seldom choose a specific AF point, it's RoF for me all the time!
So, if some people report that submirror fix does not do wonders, my view is that it does not show benefit if camera is not by default in proper working order. Most important is to make sure all components in signal path are correctly aligned. That is why e.g. a viewfinder alignment fix could be a good way to ensure that mirror box is really opened as they do not do it with all submirror fixes. So before you complain more, get your camera's optical path checked for perfect calibration.
Big question is of course why aren't the flagship cameras carefully assembled and tested in the first place. Why do users have to report things like this...
JBF in POTN forum: "Mine was horrible, was sent in 3 times but the last time I think they got it right. When they checked the AF sensor. There were a few of the AF sensors were on the edge of specification. The AF Sensors were recalibrated and fine tuned. Whatever they did, it seems to have worked. I shot all last weekend and had about a 90% keeper rate (Might be higher than that.)"
...with flagship model intented for professional use? Reportedly latest batches are good. Perhaps Canon took steps in quality control and testing.
And then .......
Canon USA posted this announcement couple of days after my review's addendum:
Most people seem to interpret the words from Canon saying the AF saga is over. I see it simply as a positive note that we might see improved firmwares if there is anything they can improve, and they will try. For some glass is half empty, for me it is half full.
For me current Mark III is a great tool and if you do not get the shot with it it's time to look into the mirror on the wall if there is any improvement to be done there.
Feel free to comment and discuss this review in this thread.
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All photos by Pekka Saarinen ©2007. Usage in any media without written authorization prohibited. Photos are converted with Capture One 3.7.7.