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Canon 1D MKIII

An Almost Perfect Ten by Ten

First Impressions

Now in its third generation, (fifth if you include the "s" models) Canon's flagship 1 Series cameras need little introduction to professional and advanced amateur photographers. The new Canon 1D MKIII might easily be seen as a refresh to the model line, but this is not so. Though it looks much like any of the previous models it is in fact an almost complete rethink on the part of Canon of what a pro-level digital camera should be like.

Announced at the PMA show in early March, 2007, the MKIII was to become available in late April or early May. Instead it now looks as if delivery will start in June. In late April I received a MKIII for testing that was described as pre-production, though close to final. It came with a manual and looked "almost there".

So, with the caveats stated that this is neither a formal camera review, not a final production camera, here we go.

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Note: This is not a typical camera review, not even a preliminary one. I will neither list all of the camera's knobs and dials, nor dissect every functional feature. There are plenty of sites that do this quite well. Rather, this is a report that contains my biased impressions of how well it will likely accomplish its intended tasks. If you're looking for so-called objectivity, please turn the dial.

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What's Changed?

I'll proceed with the assumption that you already know what a 1 Series Canon digital camera is all about. These are large, heavy cameras built like the proverbial brick outhouse. They are designed to be extremely rugged and weather-resistant, and able to take the hard knocks that working pros hand out. I've owned and shot with virtually every 1 Series camera since the film-based 1V, and can attest that they can take a beating. I've dropped mine countless times, have used them in heavy rain, blowing dust storms and snow storms, and these cameras have held up. Not to say that they're indestructible, but they're as close to it a today's technology can produce.

On The Surface

The first thing that you notice when picking up a MKIII is that the covering material has a different texture and feel. It is a bit more rubbery, and thus a bit less slippery when ones hands are sweaty. Though the body looks the same, there have been countless changes, big and small, so anyone using a MKIII after coming off a MKII will have to do some serious reorienting. This is especially true of the menu system, which is now totally different than the one that photographers have either loved or hated in 1 Series cameras for the past five years. The top and rear panel control buttons are also mostly reorganized.

Menus and Buttons

Gone is the need to hold two buttons down simultaneously to make any menu change. (Yaaa!). While a handful of photographers liked this approach, and most got used to it eventually, I never understood how this design ever got past Canon's ergonomics review committee (just kidding). Frankly, it sucked. But that was then and this is now, and the menu system on the MKIII is now similar to that of other Canon cameras, and for that matter virtually every other digital camera. The front control wheel changes menu headings while the rear wheel moves up and down through the list. No list is more than one screen long. The SET button selects the choice. Simple and logical. Press a button. Turn a wheel. End of story. Good riddance to the old system, I say.

My Menu

In addition to all of the regular menu setting screens there is a My Menu screen, which can be user customized. So, the menu settings and Custom Functions that you use most often can be saved to this menu, as well as ordered and sorted. A very welcome feature.

Also of interest to organizations such as newspapers, or anyone with multiple cameras, is the ability to save all camera settings and functions to a memory card and then transfer them to another camera.

Metering and Autofocus

The metering system is 63 zone, and there are now 19 high-precision cross-type autofocus sensors, which should lead to even more accurate focusing in difficult situations .

The Screen

To view the menus, not to mention for reviewing images, there is now a 3" diagonal screen, the largest on any DSLR at the moment. If they could build an MP3 player into the camera it could double as a video iPod replacement. The screen is as bright and visible in daylight as any I have ever seen. Quite usable in almost any situation.


Cones. Toronto, May, 2007
Canon 1D MkIII with 24-105mm L IS lens @ ISO 200

Sensor and Frame Rates

The big news though is the new sensor and frame rates. This is a 10.1 Megapixel camera able to shoot at 10 FPS, for up to 30 frames in raw mode, and 110 frames in JPG. This is the first digital SLR that can shoot raw at this high frame rate, and now matches the Canon 1V film camera in that regard. By way of comparison the Nikon D2Xs, the MkIII's closest competitor, can only manage half that speed (5FPS) at 12MP, and 8 FPS at a reduced 6.8MP.

For sports, documentary and wildlife photographers 10FPS is a real boon. The 3-4 FPS that most cameras can manage is pokey by comparison. Most amateurs will rarely need such speed, but for those that do it makes a huge difference in ones ability to capture peak action when the motion path is unpredictable.

Parenthetical Note: Whenever high frame rates are discussed, there's always some wag on the forums who writes – "Real photographers don't need high frame rates. They should learn to anticipate the peak moment".

Yes, thank you very much. And this is in large measure true for something like a pole vaulter crossing the bar. But try shooting a leopard seal catching a penguin, or a hockey puck moving into the net at 100 MPH, and it's a very different story. Enough said.

To manage these high frame rates much in the MKIII had to be upgraded. This includes a new dual-Digic III chip set, and a new shutter mechanism that is now rated for 300,000 exposures. (That's only a bit more than 8 hours of continuous shooting at 10FPS, but for most photographers who shoot an average of about 1,000 frames a month it's 25 years). A matter of perspective, I suppose.

The shutter has four release modes – Single, High Speed, Low Speed and Silent. High is normally 10FPS, and low 3FPS, but each can be customized. Low can be set to between 1 and 9 FPS and High between 2 and 10 FPS.

Silent is a new mode that is quite effective in reducing shutter noise. It does this by separating the shutter actuation and mirror rise from mirror return and recocking. The mirror will stay up as long as you hold down the shutter release. This means that you can take a shot, turn away, and then let the mirror return when out of earshot. Even just separating them by a fraction of a second makes the sound less noticeable. Nicely done and very effective. I don't know of any SLR, film or digital, that has a more quiet shutter release mode.

14 Bits

The MKIII claims 14 bit A/D sensor output converters, whereas all previous Canon DSLRs were 12 bit (as are almost all other maker's cameras). Till now 14 bit processing has been the exclusive preserve of medium format cameras, and in theory at least this should translate into smoother tonal transitions, especially under later image manipulation.

Some medium format back makers claim a full 16 bit A/D, but several knowledgeable industry pundits claim that this is probably not really the case, and processing is more than likely 14 bit, so it's hard to be certain. What is certain though is that the MKIII's files look as smooth as a baby's bum most of the time.

ISO

Since the beginning of the DSLR era Canon has had a deserved reputation of producing cameras with some of the lowest high ISO noise of any manufacturer. Each new generation of cameras seems to best the previous, and in the case of the MKIII this is the case again. The camera offers ISO 100 – 3200, and can be set to ISO 50 or 6400 as well.

Let's cut to the chase. In my initial evaluation I judge the MKIII to have between a one stop and two stop advantage over any Canon camera to date in terms of high ISO noise. And at the risk of starting a barroom brawl, previous Canon cameras have been as good as if not arguable better than any other manufacturer's DSLRs when it comes to low noise at high ISO. One can also quibble as to whether the Canon 5D has been the best yet (my opinion), but there will be no argument that with the MKIII Canon has now exceeded what has come before, and has set a new benchmark for low noise.

The sample 100% crops below tell the tale. I repeated this test a number of times, with different subjects and under differing lighting conditions, and in each case came up with the same results. ISO 100, 200 and 400 are noise free. ISO 800 is just starting to show a bit of luminance noise, but hardly enough to warrant any noise reduction. ISO 1600 looks similar to what ISO 400 looks like with my 1Ds MKII, and ISO 3200 is completely usable, even without post-processing noise reduction, though the use of a plug-in like Noise Ninja or Noiseware Pro can be helpful. ISO 6400 is noisy, but no worse than ISO 1600 from many other cameras – a full two to three stop advantage over some other makes.


Full Frame
ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
100% Crops – No sharpening or adjustments. From raw files.

The implication of this new-found low light freedom will be significant for many working pros. Sports shooters will now be able to use faster shutter speeds and slower long lenses. Photojournalists will enjoy greater freedom to work in low light conditions, and wildlife photographers will be able to work earlier in the morning and later in the evening, when animals are their most active. Wedding photographers will be able to shoot more without flash.

As much as anything else, and there's a lot else, clean high ISO images are one of the MKIII's greatest strengths.

Back Focus Adjustment

Then there's the till-now controversial issue of back focus. It seems that over the past couple of years whenever a newbe has a focusing problem he blames it on backfocus – best described as a fault where the camera focuses slightly in front of or behind the point that it should. Is back focus a real issue? Yes, it is, though likely nowhere near as common as reading some discussion boards would have you believe.

It's actual cause has been described to me this way. All cameras and lenses are built to be within a certain tolerance range when it comes to the accuracy of production alignment. Let's say that the range is an arbitrary scale is +/- 5. If the stars are in their proper alignment you'll end up with a camera that is +1 and a lens that is -1, for a perfect match. You might even have a camera that is +3 and a lens that is -2, and still be within the manufacturer's tolerance.

But, what happens if you have a camera that is -4 and a lens that is -3? Both items are within the manufacturer's tolerances, yet when used together combine to produce a focusing error. This is what is widely known as back focus.

With the 1D MKIII Canon recognizes this issue, and has come up with a solution. They call it AF Microadjustment, and it's available under Custom Function III-7. This allows setting focus adjustment by +/- 20 points (arbitrary units). A good way to do this is to try focusing using center single spot on a ruler at 45 degrees to the camera plane. This will allow you to easily see any focus shift and also in which direction it is occurring.

Doing the adjustment is a trial and error processes, but once done it can be saved in the camera's nonvolatile memory and assigned to a particular lens. A maximum of 20 lenses can be calibrated this way and stored in camera. Just the project for a rainy afternoon.

Note though that only one instance of any particular lens can be saved in memory. So, for example, if for some reason you have two 50mm f.1.4 lenses, the setting for only one of them can be saved.

Battery System

The batteries used in all previous 1 Series DSLRs were Nickel Metal Hydride, which means they were big and heavy. The battery and battery system of the MKIII is brand new. The battery is Lithium Ion and less than half the size of the previous battery. It's also much lighter. The MKIII is almost 8 oz lighter than the MKII, largely due to the switch in battery. Canon claims a battery life of some 2,000 exposures on a charge, a figure which I have not had the time to test at this point.

Battery management on the MKIII is finally in a similar category to that on flagship Nikon models. In other words, in addition to an accurate multi-segment battery level meter on the top panel LCD, as well as in the viewfinder, there is a reporting screen available on the rear LCD that tells you the percentage charge remaining, how many exposures have been taken with the current battery, and how well the battery is doing in terms of its useful life span.

The provided battery charger can take two batteries for sequential charging, and takes two hours to generate a full recharge.

Sensor Cleaning

Canon has adopted a vibrating cover plate method of sensor cleaning. The camera can be set to automatically vibrate the plate ultrasonically whenever the camera is turned on or off, or this can be performed through a menu selection whenever one wishes. This appears to work effectively, as during the time that I did my initial testing I saw no sensor dust to speak of.

Canon also provides a sensor dust mapping capability which when used in conjunction with their provided DPP raw software allows for dust spots to be digitally removed. The only problem with this is that it only works with DPP (which I am not a big fan of). My recommendation is that Canon provide the software specs so that third party raw converters can access this useful capability. The same applies, as it has for years, to the spec for indicating the focus sensor used. (Wait – listen! Is that the sound of hell freezing over?)

Viewfinder

The MKIII's viewfinder is claimed to be a complete redesign, with a larger pentaprism. It provides 100% coverage and is big and bright, though I made no direct comparison with the previous model. Anyone shooting with a lesser Canon camera, or just about any other DSLR, owes it to themselves to drop into a dealer and look through the viewfinder of a Canon 1 Series camera. But, only do so if you're prepared to suffer from viewfinder envy, because its shocking how small and dim most DSLR viewfinders are by comparison. This is the way the viewfinders used to be folks. Medium format cameras still have an edge in viewfinder size and clarity, but the MKIII is pretty damn good even by comparison with the viewfinder of a Hasselblad.

There is a diopter adjustment, as before, but now the control wheel is buried beneath the rubber eye cup, which needs to be removed for adjustment. This eliminates accidental settings. The eye cup also is now more secure than previously. A viewfinder shutter blind is also provided, as before, to keep stay light from entering the viewfinder when the camera is tripod mounted, and possibly influencing exposure measurement.

The viewfinder display is comprehensive, and includes whether one is shooting raw or JPG. It also shows the ISO, and continues to display ISO when it is being set, so that one can do so with an eye to the viewfinder. Hooray!

Live View

A funny thing happened on the way toward digital photography. In an attempt to reduce camera size and price manufacturers started removing viewfinders, providing instead a live image on an LCD panel, just as with a video camera. This meant having to hold the camera out away from ones face, far enough so that one could visually focus on the screen. It also meant having to fight reflections and deal with dim screen images in bright sunlight. But, it turned out that people liked and even became used to using rear panel LCDs as viewfinders.

Canon has now joined Olympus and others in offering Live View on a DSLR, but it's purpose is quite different than that seen on digicams. It's going to make some photographers very happy.

What Live View does is raise the instant return mirror, fire up the sensor, and produce a live image on the rear colour LCD. On the MKIII this is accomplished by pressing the Set button in the middle of the rear control wheel. There are two modes available, accessed through Custom Function IV-16. The first shows the image auto adjusted for exposure. The second mode simulates the exposure so that you can see what the exposure chosen by either you or the camera looks like. You can then use the rear exposure compensation wheel to visually adjust to taste. This works as well in Manual exposure mode, of course.

But, there's more! Wonder of wonders Canon has provided a live histogram, showing either luminance or RGB readings. So for those wanting to optimize their exposure by Exposing Right , you can now have your cake and eat it too.

Using Canon's DPP software you can also shoot tethered with Live View on your computer screen instead of the camera's rear LCD. This is something that Phase One has just introduced on their Plus series medium format backs, so Canon steals a march on them in the lower priced DSLR segment, not to mention providing Live View on the camera's LCD, which the Phase Plus backs can't do.

Be aware though that running the camera in Live View generates heat from the sensor. On a hot day, or in a warm studio this could cause images to pick up some extra noise, especially at higher ISOs and with longer exposures.

Live View also works wirelessly with the new WFT-E2 WIFI transmitter. I did not have an opportunity to test this yet, but Vincent Laforet did, and you can read his write-up here. Be sure to check the link at that bottom of that page for a video clip of remote Live View in action.

Frankly, the combination of Live View and WiFi will be found to be a breakthrough technology for many photographers, and puts the MKIII in a unique position among cameras. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you need this capability, the MKIII is going to be dynamite.


Cody in the Shade. May, 2007
Canon 1D MKIII with 70-300mm DO lens at ISO 1250

100% detail of above frame

Models costing what they do, and time being short, I utilized my dog Cody for some low light testing.
Sitting under our patio table in the early evening, and shot with a slow lens, this exposure
at ISO 1250 looks to my eye at least as clean as anything shot at ISO 650 with previous generation cameras.

Software

The MKIII ships with the usual assortment of Canon software, including DPP, Canon's raw converter. While I'm sure that DPP does the best possible job of rendering raw files it simply isn't in the same league as Camera Raw or Lightroom when it comes to features, convenience and productivity. I used a beta version of Lightroom to process the MKIII raw files, with excellent results. I would imagine that by the time the MKIII ships in June, or not long afterward, both Camera Raw and Lightroom will have new releases that support the camera.

Small Raw

New with the MKIII is a reduced 2.5MP raw file. I'm not sure who this is aimed at, though I'm sure someone will find it to be valuable. It is likely that only Canon's DPP software will ever be able to read this mode.

Highlight Tone Priority

Custom Function II-3 allows setting what Canon calls Highlight Tone Priority. What this does is bias the exposure toward preserving highlight detail, unfortunately at the expense of shadow detail. It is intended to help wedding photographers from blowing out or losing highlight detail in white wedding dresses. Be aware that this setting limits ISO settings to 200-3200, and is indicated when set by the ISO display on the top LCD having small 00 characters in the ISO number.

JPG and Picture Styles

I admit to being a raw file chauvinist. I hardly ever shoot JPGs, and so I can't really provide any in-depth commentary on their settings in the MKIII. Be it enough to say that the camera can be set to a mind-numbing assortment of different JPG sizes and compression levels, and that each one of these can be assigned a different "Style", which in turn each has a number of separate adjustments and settings.

Those that like and needs this will be pleased. It seems to me to make so much more sense to shoot raw and then simply have some preset conversion routines in a program like Lightroom, and have it generate JPGs with the characteristics that you need. This just takes moments. Doing it in-camera (except for someone shooting to a wire deadline) seems to be like throwing away your "negative" and having to live forever-more with a drugstore print.

Mirror Lock up

There's good news, and there's bad news. The bad news first.

For all the wonderful improvements made to the MKIII over its predecessors Canon still doesn't "get" mirror lockup. Or, I should say, we don't get mirror lock up. Not unless we're willing to go to Custom Function III-15. Unlike almost every other camera maker, Canon still refuses to give us one-button mirror lock up.

But, it's a bit better than before. There is now an additional option under the custom function that works as follows...

– go to CF III-15 and select option #2 (0 is Disable, 1 is Enable)

– press shutter to raise mirror. Press shutter again to take exposure. Mirror remains up.

– press rear SET button to lower mirror for next composition

– return to CF III-15 to disable mirror lock up mode when done

But, if you want to leave your camera so that Live View is always available with the SET button (which I found preferable), then this technique won't work, and all you're left with is the basic Custom Function access to mirror lock-up.

Thanks Canon. Slightly better – but definitely no cigar.

So, it appears that I will have to continue my personal crusade (now in its 7th year) to get Canon to understand that there are photographers who use mirror lock-up a lot, and that other major camera makers (can you spell N I K O N) have with good reason been providing a simple one-click setting for this for years.

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Parting Thoughts

As I began by writing – this is by no means a review. A week around town with a sophisticated and complex new camera like the Canon 1D MKIII is nowhere near enough time to do justice to it. It really was a shame that Canon couldn't get me the camera in time for my shoot in Brazil in April. The sample camera ended up arriving two days after I left. If I'd had the camera on that trip I'd have been able to shoot several thousand frames under varying real-world conditions, and hopefully would have been able to file a much more comprehensive report.

But, such is life. Instead I have had the camera for a week or so, during a time when I've been extremely busy after a major shoot, have had a nasty cold, and am preparing for a gallery show opening. I'm not looking for any sympathy, just attempting to manage expectations.

Of course I would have preferred to have been able to provide a much more comprehensive report, and still could with more time with the camera. But, I know that people are eager for word on the MKIII, and I have to move on to other projects, so this regrettably incomplete report will have to suffice. Nevertheless I hope that it provides potential buyers some as yet unavailable information about the camera, and a few insights into its feature set and capabilities. I'm sure that some time this summer, when the major camera review sites have published their analysis, many as yet unanswered questions will be answered. In the meantime, if there a Canon 1D MKIII in your future, get on a waiting list, because dealers are telling me that the lines are starting to get quite long.

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The 1Ds MKIII

The question that everyone wants to have answered is – when will the other shoe drop? This means, the 1Ds MKIII. Clearly Canon would not have spent the money and expended the effort that they did in almost completely redesigning the 1D MKIII if there also wasn't going to be a 1Ds MKIII. The 1D MKIII is a niche camera, designed primarily for photojournalists, sports and wildlife photographers. The 1Ds series with their full frame sensors appeal to a much wide constituency, and so it's clear that an "s" model can not be far behind.

Canon has been very closed mouthed about the "s" successor; more so than usual. We haven't even seen any "accidental" leaks from Canon web sites in France or Taiwan. But rest assured, the camera is on its way. My guess is that it will be announced at PhotoPlus Expo in New York, which opens on October 18.

As for the 1Ds MKII's specs – your guess is as good as mine, though obviously it will be based on the 1D MKIII's chassis and feature set. It will be full frame, of course, and more than likely 22 Megapixels. I'd guess that maximum frame rate will be 5 FPS. Not too much of a challenge to figure out, really.

Advanced Notice to Canon

Canon – please make note that I will be leaving for a 10 day shoot in Madagascar on October 20th. A review sample of the 1Ds MKIII by that date would really be appreciated, both by me and about a million readers each month :-)

Either that, or you'll end up with a review featuring more photographs of my dog. The choice is yours.

May, 2007

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Update #1

Since this article first appeared I've heard from several people by e-mail expressing their concern that my statements about the MKIII's low noise capabilities "can't be right". That there's "no way" that it has at least a stop lower noise than the 5D. That I must be "smoking something" to write that the MKIII has as much as a two stop low noise advantage over other previous Canon cameras.

Well folks – get over it. If anything I have been conservative in my comments.

I'm also apparently not alone with my observations. Rob Galbraith seems to also have been highly impressed with the MKIII's low noise capabilities, as was Art Morris and the folks at Imaging Resource, from which I quote – "we were pleasantly surprised by how good the Mark III's ISO 6,400 images are. Noise is present, of course, but it's at a level that most cameras produce at ISO 1,600 or 800".

I'm certain that as other popular camera review sites eventually publish their technical reports there will be additional gnashing of teeth by those that don't like having their favourite ox gored. T'was always thus.

 


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Concepts: Film speed, Camera, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Single-lens reflex camera, Raw image format, Digital camera, Digital photography, Canon

Entities: New York, Canon, Phase One, Nikon, Madagascar, France, Brazil, Taiwan, PMA, ISO, frame rate, Megapixel, ISOs, DSLR, MKIII, MKII, Michael Reichmann, Cody, Menus, Vincent Laforet, Rob Galbraith, Art Morris, Nikon D2Xs, hockey, SLR, iPod, WiFi

Tags: camera, Live View, canon 1d mkiii, custom function, sensors, mirror, canon cameras, frame rate, high frame rates, camera review, viewfinder, menu, MKIII Canon, low noise, 1ds mkiii, images, digital camera, button, series camera, medium format, set button, previous canon, high iso, previous canon cameras, raw file, MKIII ships, Canon digital camera, camera review sites, mode, wildlife photographers, camera makers, lesser canon camera, high iso noise, Camera Raw, mirror lock, medium format cameras, major camera, DSLR, MKIII raw files, low light