Canon EOS 1D
A Formal Review
This review of the Canon EOS 1D originally appeared in the March / April 2002 issue of Photo Techniques magazine. It doesn't contain any insights or information radically different from what was first published in my December, 2001 hands-on review on this site, but I'm publishing it here for the interest of those who live outside North America and who might not have seen it when it was in print.
The development of digital cameras seems to be following two disparate paths. Consumer grade cameras appear to be upgraded or replaced with new models as frequently as twice a year, while pro-level SLRs come on the scene much less frequently. When they do the event is much anticipated and none more so than the arrival of the Canon EOS 1D.
In the fall of 2000 Canon introduced the EOS D30, their first homegrown digital SLR. (Several joint venture cameras with Kodak have been available to the pro market, but that relationship was ended in early 2000). Though targeted as a consumer-grade camera the D30 knocked everyone back on their heals because of its image quality. Many pros consequently started to use D30s even though the autofocus was at the low end of the usability scale and burst shooting rates were very low. Naturally, everyone then waited for Canon to unveil their pro camera.
It took more than a year, but in November 2001 the EOS 1D was announced, and they started to trickle into photographers hands just a month later. The timing was right because it allowed Canon to get sufficient cameras into the hands of sports photographs covering the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Like an Old Friend
Picking up the EOS 1D for the first time was like a visit with an old friend. In every respect, except for its digital capabilities, it is an EOS 1V. Cosmetically (from the front and top at least) the cameras are almost identical, and when shooting everything from controls to display to autofocus and metering are essentially the same. A busy photographer with both a 1V and a 1D around his neck can use both interchangeably, and will hardly notice the difference.
Of course even a quick glance at the back panel shows that these are indeed different beasts. With the 1D Canon has again raised the bar, elevating the digital SLR to a true competitor with film-based 35mm cameras for many applications. Photojournalists and sports photographers will be especially rewarded since the areas where the 1D excels are in lighting-fast autofocus and high frame rates — 8 FPS for 21 frames in Large / Fine JPG mode, and 16 frames even in RAW mode.
But the 1D is no one-trick-pony. When it was first announced there was some considerable gnashing of teeth by those who had anticipated that Canon would follow through on the success of its D30 to produce a pro-level CMOS imaging-chip based camera. When the 1D was learned to use a CCD, and not even a full-frame 6MP one at that, many people were disappointed (myself among them). Only 4.1 megapixel and not CMOS — what were they thinking of?
It turns out that Canon’s aim with this camera was to produce a digital SLR that rivaled its companion EOS 1V in terms of shooting ability. After testing a full production camera shortly after first release I can say that they have succeeded admirable. But I also have to admit that I was greatly impressed with the 1D’s image quality as well. I was especially interested to learn how a Canon CCD-based camera would compare to the CMOS based D30? Would I see the vivid, clean and low-noise images that I’d learned to expect from the D30?
Canon EOS-1D @ ISO 200 with a Canon 70~200mm f/2.8L zoom @ 200mm. 1/400 sec @ f/8
The surprise was that files from the 1D had significantly lower noise (a grain analog) than did the D30. The inherent colour characteristics are also much less saturated — more neutral if you will. The analogy I would make is that if the D30’s images look like Fuji Velvia then the 1D’s are like Astia.
Looked at strictly as an SLR, it’s so much like a Canon 1V on the actually shooting side that I’ll assume that you are already aware of many of this camera’s capabilities. This makes these two cameras among the fastest-shooting, quickest-autofocusing and toughest-built professional cameras available. From a quality of construction point of view this is undoubtedly the most rugged camera that I’ve ever used. Every button and opening on the body is gasketed and sealed against dust and water. Even the lens mount has a rubber gasket, mating with a similar seal on certain new Canon lenses for a virtually waterproof fitting. Of course the camera isn’t really ready to take a swim, but in just about any environmental conditions where the photographer can survive, so too should the 1D.
Let’s look at some of the 1D’s shooting features that relate to the digital side of its personality. The 1D couldn’t claim its place as a pro-level digital SLR unless its digital side could keep up with film. It does this with alacrity. The camera can fire 21 high-resolution frames at the astonishing rate of 8 frames per second. Even when the camera’s buffer is full it can continue to shoot while it saves frames to the memory card or Microdrive.
One of the joys of shooting digital is that ISO settings are variable, even between frames. The 1D’s basic ISO setting is 200, but it can be set in small increments up to ISO 1600 and through a Custom Function even to 3200. During my testing I found that the image noise level of the 1D was between one and two stops better than the D30. In other words, an ISO 800 frame taken with the 1D looked to be about as grainy as an ISO 320 image from the D30. Given that many photographers, myself included, have heaped praise on the D30 for its low noise images, this is high praise indeed. At ISO 200 the 1D’s images are as noise free as I’ve ever seen from a digital SLR.
On the subject of image quality it needs to be understood that not all 4 or 5 megapixels cameras are the same — far from it. For example, the pixels comprising the chip in the 1D are some 12 times the size of those in a 4MP chip found in a consumer camera. These larger pixels mean lower noise and a cleaner optical image. (See as well my online article Counting Megapixels).
Canon adds ISO bracketing to the 1D’s bag of tricks. While many cameras allow the rapid bracketing of three frames, with a pre-determined under or over-exposure using either the shutter speed or the aperture, with the 1D one can vary the ISO setting for bracketing purposes. This can be very useful when depth of field or shooting speed concerns preclude varying either of these settings.
Though the feature has existed on previous high-end cameras, this is the first one that I’ve used that has an audio-note recording capability. I don’t know how many times I’ve needed to make a notation about some detail concerning what I was shooting, or a thought about how the image should be processed, cropped or printed. Now it’s possible.
When reviewing an image on the camera’s bright rear LCD screen, pressing a button will record up to a 30 second audio note that then becomes part of the image file. If 30 seconds isn’t enough, just press the button a second time and a second note is added. I tested this while holding the camera at waist level while walking in a relatively noisy environment and it worked flawlessly, producing a clear intelligible recording. When reviewing frames on a PC’s screen a small symbol appears next to frames that feature an audio note. Click on the icon and the audio plays.
The software CD provided with the 1D supports both PCs and Macs. The program works as a Plug-in for Photoshop. Converting a RAW 1D 16 bit image and saving it to disk takes 26 seconds on a dual processor 500 MHz Mac G4. Converting a D30 RAW file on the same machine takes 35 seconds. By way of comparison, processing RAW D30 images with BreezeBrowser, my preferred digital image processing software, takes 32 seconds on a 600Mhz Pentium 3 machine. Canon says that RAW processing has been considerably speed up. To quote from their brochure, "...newly-developed driver software typically takes only a few seconds to convert each RAW file." I’m afraid that I didn’t see this.
My first impression of the provided software is that it isn't as easy to use or as full-featured as some third party offerings. By way of examples, there is no histogram available within the program. Also, it's only possible to move from one image to another when in thumbnail mode. Looking at the images in a larger size one-at-a-time requires that you go back to thumbnail mode to view the next picture.
Furthermore, if you "Transfer" a file to Photoshop you have to exit the software to be able to work on the image, and then have to wait a long time to reload all the thumbnails when you want to return to look at additional thumbnails. This can be a very lengthy process if you're working with a large directory of files. The program should be able to start displaying thumbnails immediately while it’s processing the remainder of the directory, rather than making the user wait for the whole conversion to take place. Having a stand-alone version of the software would allow for a much-enhanced workflow.
Price is naturally an issue when considering a new camera. While many photographers with large investments on Canon lenses have remained loyal while waiting for a pro-level Canon SLR, how does the 1D’s street price of $5,500 fit with most photographers?
One can look at it several ways. This is nearly twice the price of an EOS D30 and almost 3 times the price of an EOS 1V. On the other hand it’s only a quarter of what photographers were paying a couple of years ago for the previous generation Kodak/Canon digital SLRs. The real equation though needs to take into account film and processing costs. A photographer shooting just 1,500 frames a month can recoup the cost of the 1D body in just one year. For most sports shooters and photojournalists the payback will be much quicker as 1,500 frames a week are not uncommon for many.
As well designed and executed as the EOS 1D is, I find two areas of concern. The first is with battery life. On the D30 I have become used to being able to shoot as many as 500 frames with a double set of batteries onboard, even in low temperature conditions. During my testing the 1D’s rechargeable NI-MIH battery pack could muster less than 200 frames in moderate temperatures. Canon apparently decided to use Nickel Metal-Hydride batteries instead of Lithium Ion because of the current demands of high frame-rate shooting. This combined with the greater power demands of a CCD Vs. a CMOS chip means fewer shots per charge. My guess is that most 1D purchasers will opt for at least one additional battery pack, and possibly two.
The use of a CCD chip brings with it one other concern — dust. With the D30 I have had to clean the CCD just once in some 8,000 frames taken over a year’s time. I found the 1D’s chip needed cleaning after just 4 days. This appears to be the nature of the beast, and is a concern voiced by Nikon D1x shooters and others that have CCD-based cameras.
No review of a new high-end digital camera would be complete without a rumour of what’s coming next. During the yearlong lead-up to the EOS-1D’s announcement there were persistent rumours that the camera would have a full-frame 6 megapixel CMOS chip. I even heard from several people who claimed to have seen such a prototype.
When the 1D appeared with a 4.1MP CCD chip and a multiplication factor of 1.4X I was initially disappointed. Was this the camera that as a wildlife and nature photographer would meet my needs? Though the high frame rates were appealing they’re not critical for my work. I was let down, and many others in the on-line community expressed similar misgivings.
Now that I’ve tested the 1D I can say that this camera scores a bulls eye with its intended audience — photojournalists and sports photographers. But I believe that the other shoe has still to drop. More than one knowledgeable source has told me that the camera that I’ve been waiting for, a 6MP CMOS full-frame digital in the same bulletproof body as the 1D is indeed coming down the pike. Canon has publicly stated that they needed to go to CCD because CMOS couldn’t deliver the high frame rates that they wanted in the 1D. They also have said that 4.1MP is sufficient for the camera’s intended uses — typically full-page magazine spreads. Nikon has two pro-level digital SLRs, one targeted at high-speed PJ and sports use, so why not Canon? Indeed.
My guess, and it’s only that at this point, is that we’ll see an EOS 1C before summer 2002. As great as the 1D is, and it’s one hell of a camera, I’m going to wait for the 1C. Once this body is in Canon’s stable they’ll have a set of remarkable digital SLR with capabilities meeting just about any photographer’s needs.
The above review is reprinted essentially as it appeared in Photo Techniques magazine in early 2002. In the ensuing months we have seen the introduction of the Canon EOS D60 — a 6MP upgrade of the D30. Rumours of a 6-9 MP full-frame version of the EOS-1D still circulate, with an expected announcement date of September — with early winter delivery. Time will tell.