Field Testing the Canon 1DX

Canon 1DX Digital Camera Body by Jay Goodrich

Canon 1DX Digital Camera Body © Jay Goodrich

I know everyone out there is waiting in anticipation to see the noise levels on the image files for this camera, but I need to set some ground rules so you understand where this test comes from. I am not a testing lab like DxO Mark. Nor am I going to shoot images of trinkets and do-dads on a gridded platform in a controlled environment. All of those tests as far as I am concerned, are useless. Why? How many photographers out there shoot that way? I shoot adventure and architecture imagery – my studio is indoors at times, but for the most part it is not. The environments in which I work are where I need to test a piece of equipment; I don’t need to test them taking pictures of my kids’ toys. So a lab test will probably confirm something different than I would.

Also, I do not shoot Nikon. I know that Nikon is heralded for their noise capabilities, but again, how does that help me if I shoot Canon and have thousands of dollars tied up in Canon equipment? On a side note, you can read about my struggle with the decision to switch from Canon on my blog from last year, and why ultimately I decided to stay. This is related to what you are about to read. In a nut-shell, I stayed with Canon for two primary reasons: my relationship with my rep, and the availability and diversity of Canon’s selection of lenses.

Ok, with that said, there a few more things you must know. I am not sponsored by Canon in any way. I have nothing to gain by posting this review except the knowledge that I obtained in creating it. I am not biased, but I am opinionated. And testing pre-production cameras is not a cool or glamorous job in any aspect. It’s more like a drug deal gone south. You get a phone call late in the afternoon. Caller ID is blocked. The caller says, “You can pick it up at 4pm.” And hangs up. You then head to the designated pick-up location and are handed a nondescript black bag with no outer markings on it. Inside is a camera body, battery, and charger. No manual, no white paper; you are essentially on your own. The camera has a label on the viewfinder marked “Sample”. Nothing gets you hooked like a sneak peak, does it? You quickly realize that you are not in Kansas anymore. I did manage to download a 50 page document on the auto focus, and if I didn’t hadn’t, this whole thing would have sucked big time. One last note- I was asked not to post any images that went beyond ISO 6400 because the camera I had was a pre-production model and nothing was finalized on it, especially the firmware.

So I have this camera in hand, now what? With only 48 hours, I am definitely not making a movie. I will leave that up to Vincent Laforet. I already knew that I wanted to test three aspects of the 1DX. 1. Its ability to render noise at higher ISOs. 2. Its autofocus capability. 3. Its new feature set. Let’s start from the bottom and work our way to the top.

There is a reason this camera has the “X” in its model number. Like Apple and many other companies out there, the X version correlates to many things. The tenth, the top, the eXtreme. In other words, it has typically represented a company’s highest offering at the given point of release. Everything from there builds to higher levels from the X position.

Once you put this camera in your hand you quickly come to the conclusion that something has changed. This camera is bigger than the current 1D Mark IV. It also weighs more. In a side by side comparison, with strap and battery installed, the 1DX weighed 3 pounds 8 ounces. My 1D Mark IV in the same configuration weighed in at 3 pounds 2.4 ounces. That’s a pretty significant change in weight. I am sure it comes from the fact that there is a third processor in there now, a different battery, and god knows what else. This camera feels bombproof though, and it sounds rock solid when you drop the shutter release. The shutter is noticeably quieter and very firm in its actuation.
The menus are similar to the 1D Mark IV, yet completely different. Canon has definitely thought through the layout of this machine. The menu system is way more intuitive-more so than ever before. You are going to need a PhD to understand the autofocus and its options. Thank you for the 50 page PDF on Canon’s website.

The other amazing feature is that almost every button on the body is customizable. Smaller hands? No problem- move the function to a different location. Coming from Nikon? No problem- match the locations of the similar features, including shutter and aperture adjustment locations and adjustment directions. There are many new button controls on this camera as well, and all of the operation ones are available in horizontal and vertical format. This includes the depth-of-field preview button.

Coming from a 1D Mark IV, I immediately fell in love with the full-frame sensor and the ability to use my 15mm Fisheye the way it was intended. Which leads me to overall image quality. This camera has a little feature in where the camera will pull chromatic aberration out of the image for the given lens attached. This works exceptionally well. Almost to the point of turning it off in Lightroom, but still not quite. And finally, Canon users now have in-camera multiple exposures as well as exposure merging. Since I didn’t have a manual this feature was a little harder to understand, but I did manage an artistic multiple exposure that I really liked.

Multiple Exposure Feature Canon 1DX by Jay Goodrich

Multiple Exposure Feature Canon 1DX © Jay Goodrich

Out I went to shoot what I shoot a lot of…mountain biking. Here is my auto focus test. A cool thing that Canon has added to the menu system is info availability on the more complex functions of this camera. If you are in a menu item such as one of the six preset auto focus functions and forget your manual at home, you can just touch the info button to get a definition of that function while you have it highlighted. This worked extremely well for me when in the field shooting guys that don’t do well with waiting around. I read the auto focus PDF before heading out, but as you learn how to use the auto focus in this camera it is imperative to have the “more info” available to you. It definitely takes time to get you used to this camera. It is EXTREMELY fast. To the point of going PLAID as they did in the movie Spaceballs. I found it hard to keep up. My first hour was spent missing shot after shot, scratching my head. Then it came together, and whoa! This ain’t like anything else that’s been done before. Like I said earlier, you will need to work this camera a ton prior to taking it out on a commercial flight.

Mountain Biking Canon 1DX Autofocus Test by Jay Goodrich

Mountain Biking Canon 1DX Autofocus Test © Jay Goodrich

This camera has 61 focus points, and 41 of them are usable with most lens combinations and apertures – a major upgrade from the 1D Mark IV. The options here are limitless, and cover just about every conceivable aspect of autofocus shooting. Once I figured out enough to get the camera to work for me instead of continuously working for it, I was able to link together series after series of in-focus images. A fourteen image count was the longest. This camera’s shutter operates at 12 frames per second, meaning that keeping your subject in frame while shooting will only slow the thing down to about 10 frames per second. That is so unbelievably fast over my 1D that it was mind blowing for me to witness. Head over to our stock site to see that series of 14 images.

One other really cool option with this camera is in the view finder. You can turn every icon off to view just the subject you are about to shoot, or option it up one icon at a time to see everything. It is a true Heads Up Display (HUD) and can really help when trying to get used to the speed you are about to witness.

And finally noise. I know, I know, does this camera beat Nikon? I do not know, nor do I care anymore (see last year’s discussion). This camera does whole heartedly kick the crap out of my 1D Mark IV, probably by about 3 stops. I feel that ISO 3200 images need little to no post processing noise reduction, and even though I can’t show you ISO 12,800, 25,600, or 51,200, they will be usable too. Surprisingly, the ISO 51,200 images show more detail than the ISO 25,600 ones, although Luminance Noise is higher. Here’s the kicker, up to ISO 51,200 there is almost no Color Noise. Crazy! In comparing them with my current 1D, I can say that there is no competition. The high ISOs for this camera produce very few artifacts in the 5 digit ISOs, so as far as I am concerned Canon has succeeded ten-fold from their past equipment updates. I was told that the production camera will be even better.

Car Image Taken with Canon 1DX by Jay Goodrich

Car Image Taken with Canon 1DX (click to enlarge) © Jay Goodrich

The included images were shot as RAW files and converted to JPEG for the web. I used Adobe’s Lightroom 4 to make that conversion, and I did not add any other adjustments to the file prior to export. I opened those TIFFs in Adobe Photoshop CS5 to zoom into 100% and then pulled a 2000 pixel crop out of that. Click on the image to see it enlarged to those dimensions. I am starting with ISO 400 and above because honestly, the image files below all look the same. I didn’t verify that I could post full res JPEGs for you to download, so I am not taking any chances in doing so. Notice how much detail the images possess even though Luminance Noise gets higher at ISO 6400. FYI-you can easily pull this noise out utilizing just Lightroom 4.

Car Image Taken with Canon 1DX at ISO 400 by Jay Goodrich

Car Image Taken with Canon 1DX at ISO 400 (click to enlarge) © Jay Goodrich

Car Image Taken with Canon 1DX at ISO 800 by Jay Goodrich

Car Image Taken with Canon 1DX at ISO 800 (click to enlarge) © Jay Goodrich

Car Image Taken with Canon 1DX at ISO 1600 © Jay Goodrich

Car Image Taken with Canon 1DX at ISO 1600 (click to enlarge) © Jay Goodrich

Car Image Taken with Canon 1DX at ISO 3200 by Jay Goodrich

Car Image Taken with Canon 1DX at ISO 3200 (click to enlarge) © Jay Goodrich

Car Image Taken with Canon 1DX at ISO 6400 by Jay Goodrich

Car Image Taken with Canon 1DX at ISO 6400 (click to enlarge) © Jay Goodrich

So where do we go from here? I have to honestly say that this camera isn’t for everyone. And Canon obviously knows that with the recent release of the 5D Mark III. The same auto focus with slower frame rates for half the price. It does lack the weather sealing and other features, but for most it will do more than a better job for even the most seasoned veteran. So why buy the 1DX? For me it is because of the speed. The frame rates, followed up with an auto focus system that can clearly track those subjects at that speed is what I need. I also need that high ISO availability in the darkness of the forest when shooting those fast paced mountain biking subjects. If you are photographing wildlife or landscape, you could easily own the new 5D and never have any problems. But if your shooting style and subject matter require the speed, this camera delivers on another level.

With all this good is there anything bad? As far as I am concerned there are three drawbacks. Although they are not game changers for me, they might be for you. One is the price. Granted, the option set delivers, but competitors are still charging a lot less. The second drawback is weight. Almost a half pound heavier than my current 1D is still almost a half pound heavier than my current 1D. And third is the feature set. This is both the blessing and the curse. If you are not techno savvy, you will struggle with this camera for a bit longer. It is a complex piece of engineering, and you need to have a pretty firm grasp on technology to get along with it. Remember, you can always teach an old dog new tricks, but there is a definitely a learning curve to doing so. And make no mistake, 48 hours did not really have me past that learning curve, because I didn’t even touch the video side of this camera. There are many upgrades there as well, including the video file format, sound quality and level adjustments, and again the list goes on.

Canon has definitely produced a piece of equipment that deserves the “X” designation. This camera is going to be their top performing professional still camera that the market sees. It also has strong video capability at a better price point than the newly announced 1DC. If you focus on stills rather than video, but still want great video options, and you photograph a lot of action, look no further. I am on board; 48 hours was enough time to get me addicted. I used up every minute of my “Sample” time for sure. In addition, we will be posting a gallery of mastered images from this past weekend on our main site with the original RAWs inset so you can see how far these images can go in the processing department. Our new website is scalable, so you will be able to see everything as large as 1800 pixels on the long side. It’s game changing time. Again. Consider this my “Sample” to you.