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Canon EOS 1Ds

Working Field Notes
— An On-Going Diary —

Because of the high level of interest in the new Canon 1Ds I will be keeping an online diary of sorts where I can chronicle my experiences, problems and discoveries. I believe that with this new camera we are in uncharted waters in terms of what digital imaging technology can do for us, and I intend on exploring it fully here in the weeks and months ahead.

Delivery

On September 25, 2002 — the day that the Canon 1Ds was announced at Photokina — I began an intensive 5 day test of a pre-production camera loaned to me by Canon. Based on this evaluation I placed my order and waited not-so-patiently for deliveries to start. Canon had indicated that this would happen before the end of November. (If you have not already read this comprehensive 5-part report in the 1Ds I user you to do so before continuing.)

Almost exactly 2 months to the day, on November 26th, I took delivery of my 1Ds. Shipments had started that week in most countries on a coordinated basis. As promised (or threatened), supply was scarce. My dealer told me that they initially received about a third of the number of cameras needed to fill the orders for which they already had firm deposits. They didn't expect the remainder to be delivered for another 4-6 weeks. As for new orders, they anticipated roughly a 1 month waiting list; comparable to what they had experienced with the Canon D60. With that camera there was a drought that lasted from introduction in March, 2002 until late November, with demand far outstripping supply. Having said that, less than a week after shipments started there appeared to be 1Ds sitting on some dealer's shelves, so the high price may be a detriment to early sales.

All of that aside, I was pleased to have placed an early order and deposit, because based on my testing I believe the 1Ds to be the highest quality cameras of any type that I've used in some 35 years as a photographer. I wanted one because I could see that it would allow me to do a great deal of the landscape and wildlife work that I've previously been doing on medium format film, but now with my large selection of Canon lenses. I was (and am) convinced that the 1Ds is equal to medium format in on-print resolution, and far superior to film in terms of overall image quality because of the dramatically lower grain / noise at all ISO's.


Graham Seaton #2
EOS 1Ds with Canon 28-70mm f/2.8L @ ISO 800
Equivalent to an on-screen enlargement that would be approx. 3 feet X 5 feet

This informal portrait of photographer Graham Seaton was taken over lunch at a local restaurant in Toronto, illuminated by a mix of window and artificial light. You can view a larger version by clicking on the full-frame shot at left above. The eye enlargement (sorry Graham) shows you what the remarkable resolution of the 1Ds is capable of, even on a handheld shot (1/100 sec) taken with a zoom lens almost wide open (f/3.5).

The real story here is that it was taken at ISO 800. Frankly, I can hardly see any grain at all — anywhere. Not in a 13X19" print, not in a 100% on-screen enlargement. Only in the shadow side of Graham's face is there the slightest hint of grain / noise — about what you'd expect from ISO 100 film! Based on this example I give the 1Ds an "A+" for lack of noise at high ISO's.

(The colour balance of the skin tone here is a bit too red, but I was concentrating on looking at noise issues and haven't bothered fine tuning the colour. Skin tones, by the way, are generally excellent.)

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Out of The Box

I was eager to get my 1Ds not only because of what the camera would do for me on upcoming shoots, but also because the camera that I had evaluated two months before had been a pre-production sample. There had been no packaging, no manual, no accessories and no software. I was given a body, a battery and a neck strap. That was it. And, a number of features were not yet completed and the firmware not yet in its final form. So, I was eager to experience what a full production camera would be like.

As is typically the case with Canon my new camera was essentially perfect out of the box. It looks like it had been assembled in a clean room (and likely was). The manuals (both in French and English for the Canadian market) are exemplary. Well written and comprehensive. But there was a last minute addendum sheet with Japanese on one side and English on the other. Unfortunately the English looks like it had been translated by a Grade 8 student from Tokyo High. (How much effort would it have taken to do it right? An hour's work by a decent translator? The manuals are perfect — why couldn't this information sheet be as well?) Annoying.

One very real minor defect is that the rear LCD on my 1Ds has a single green stuck pixel. No big deal. In fact, isn't there a Japanese cultural attitude that says that nothing made by human hands should be perfect? So, when an artist creates something he leaves in one small flaw. Maybe my stuck green pixel is that single note of imperfection. I'm ignoring it because it doesn't effect shooting capability in any way, and I've also heard that other early 1Ds owners are seeing similar rear LCD defects. (But, common Canon. For this kind of money you could be a bit more selective on the parts that you use).

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Batteries

Something that 1D and 1Ds owners need to be aware of is that the Nickel Metal Hydride batteries need to be conditioned before they can provide optimum power. That's what the Refresh button on the charger is for. Unlike Lithium Ion batteries as used in the D60, the 1D/s' NiMH batteries suffer from "memory effect". Not as bad as do old-fashioned Nickel Cadmium batteries, but still, it's there. So in addition to occasionally Refreshing your batteries (an 8 hour task) it's important to do so 3 times before putting the batteries into use for the first time.

Now let's see. 8 hours a Refresh and then 2 hours to recharge. 10 hours X 3 = 30 hours. Two batteries = 60 hours. Two and half days to get a couple of batteries ready for us. Really. My solution was to condition the first battery and then a day later the second. But I really do wish that Canon would give us a Lithium Ion alternative. Performance of NiMH batteries in the cold is much worse than Lithium Ions, and they also lose their charge sitting on the shelf, which LI batteries don't.

(Note that the camera ships with one battery. A second battery though should be the first accessory purchase that you make).


Autumn Arrangement
Canon EOS 1Ds with Canon 28-70mm f/2.8L lens. ISO 100

Late November in Toronto isn't a terribly colourful time or place, but this arrangement in a neighbor's planter seemed like a good test subject for colour rendition. I was able to take the shot, process it, make a print and then take the print next door and compare it in the same light to the actual subject.

I found little to take issue with. No colours stand out as being unrealistically reproduced, and there's a very "natural" rendition to the pastels as well as the more saturated colours. Since these are objects which we all are pretty familiar with I find it to be a suitable subject. I have to give the 1Ds an initial "A" for colour rendition as well.

Software

I've never been a fan of Canon's image processing software. Not to put too fine a point on it, but frankly it's lame. The user interface on the new File Viewer Utility supplied with the 1Ds is better than we've seen from Canon in the past, but still not as simple to use as one could wish. The software is also buggy and slow.

I always work in RAW mode, and have since the D30 came out. A RAW file is like working with a digital negative, it's essentially what the camera recorded, with a minimum of in-camera processing. It allows you to change white point, exposure and a whole lot more. It's slower than working with JPG's, but if the finest image quality possible is what one is after, then it's the preferred way to work.

Since I began testing the pre-production 1Ds back in late September, 2002 I've been using an as-yet unreleased RAW file converter. I can't discuss it until it's released, but it really does put the Canon software to shame. It isn't that the Canon software doesn't do the job. It does, but just not well.

What I do use the File Viewer Utility for are two features that none of the third party converters can yet do. That is to play back the audio recordings attached to a file and also display the focus points. I find the later to occasionally be very worthwhile if the focus looks "off". By being able to see what the camera was focused on I can make a judgment as to what might have gone wrong and who caused it — me or the camera.

Switching Gears

After the D30 came out in 2000 I almost completely stopped shooting 35mm film. My Canon 1v went into semi-retirement because I found that D30 images (and then in early 2002 those of the D60) were superior in almost every way to scanned film. I still used medium format for 90% of my landscape work, and my M Leicas for documentary shooting, but my 35mm format SLR work had become all digital. This meant becoming familiar, after 30 years of shooting, with what various focal lengths were like given the 1.6X magnification factor of these DSLRs.

After some time it became second nature. But now, with the 1Ds and its full-frame imaging chip I'm back to normal 35mm lens coverage, and I'm as confused as hell. I look at a scene and think, "Better put on the 300mm", but then find that it's too short. Or I attach a 24mm lens and find that it's giving me much wider coverage than I want. I adjusted to it before and I know I will again, but it's very confusing. My D60 is now relegated to backup use, but if I was switching lenses between them quickly I know it would be somewhat confusing. In a few years when all DSLRs are full frame this will seem a quaint problem, but right now it's very real.

LCD Image Magnification

Canon 1D owners have moaned for the past year about not having file magnification on the rear LCD when reviewing images. It's hard to understand why Canon left this out. The 1Ds now has it, but curiously it isn't active as a default state. One has to go into the Personal Function settings (more on this in a while) and turn on the capability. It's hard to understand the logic of this.

I should also point out that unlike the image displayed on the D60's LCD, which if anything are over sharpened, the ones on the 1Ds appear soft. Of course this has nothing to do with how they turn out, but it does make judging frames in-camera more difficult than it should be. Come on Canon, give us a compromise setting, or make it user configurable — almost everything else on the camera is.

Personal Functions

Like most contemporary cameras the 1Ds allows you to customize its operations in a large number of ways. There are some 20 Custom Functions; everything from display settings, to bracketing options to mirror lock-up. As if this weren't enough the 1D family has added what are called Personal Functions. The 1Ds has more than 25 of these, and they include a number of seldom used functions as well as some desirable ones, such as the LCD image magnification function described above.

What's curious though is that these so-called personal functions are only programmable via a Firewire connection between your camera and PC or Mac. Once a function is turned on (being able to do magnified LCD image reviews, for example), this ability can then be turned on and off on the camera, but only after it has been "activated" via ones computer.

It's hard to understand what Canon's engineers had in mind with this design. Were they afraid that some of the more obscure settings might trip up the unwary photographer? Possibly. But this is the same software gang that brought us the less than brilliant File Viewer Utility. There appear to be two software groups within Canon Japan; the first-rate folks that do the internal chip level and microcode, and the somewhat less talented group that does user interface. My unsolicited advice to Canon U.S. is to hire some of the top ranked developers available over here and have them produce the UI for future cameras and associated software.

Firewire

If your computer doesn't have a Firewire connection — get one. The 1Ds only has Firewire, not USB, and even if you transfer files using a card reader you'll need to connect your camera to a PC or Mac to be able to set Personal Functions and do firmware upgrades.


Mystic Wall — Toronto, December, 2002
Canon EOS 1Ds with Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L lens. ISO 400

This image is a crop using less than one third of the full frame. I was at 200mm but could have used 400mm. This is one of the pleasures of using the 1Ds — the resolution is so high that even when cropping away 2/3rds of the frame it still hold up well. The man was walking quickly and my shutter speed wasn't high enough so he is slightly blurred. The wall was, if anything, too sharp by comparison. So I applied a bit of gaussian blur to a lightened layer copy and then used the Multiply blending option. This gave the entire image a slight hazy feel, enhancing the mystery and also diverting attention away from the slightly unsharp figure.

Memory Cards

When I bought my first computer in 1980 it had a 90K floppy disk. I thought that one or two disks would be all I'd ever need. I was wrong. (I now have some 500 Gigabytes of online storage). When I bought my Canon D30 two years ago I thought that one 1GB Microdrive would be enough. When I got the D60 I found I needed a second 1GB card. With the 1Ds I now have four 1GB Microdrives.

Each 1 gig card can hold 82 RAW files at 11MB each. That's little more than the equivalent of 2 rolls of film. So to have the equivalent of 9 or 10 rolls of film (what I'll frequently shoot in one day on location) 4 of these cards are needed. I could save files to a notebook computer or digital wallet device in the field, but I much prefer to do so all at once at the end of the day either back in the office or in a motel room. (Nevertheless I keep my subnotebook handy in the car for downloading files and clearing CF cards on a heavy shooting day).

Noise

I know that this will sound like hyperbole, but the 1Ds is essentially noiseless at most ISOs. At ISO 100 and 200 there is NO noise. Period. At ISO 400 is just starts to become visible in smooth areas, and at ISO 800 it looks like scanned film at ISO 100. Really. This is when used in combination Capture One software, which appears to have some remarkable noise suppression capabilities. With Canon's RAW software you can knock these evaluations back one stop. Still superior performance.

More...

The second installment of this report, titled 1,700 Frames — is based on a four day wildlife and landscape shoot in southern New Mexico, as part of one of my workshops. It contains a number of images which will be of interest to those wishing to examine the 1Ds' image quality, as well as my commentary on handling, battery and dust issues.

About Lenses

Update: As this is written I have shot about 2,500 frames over a 30 day period with the 1Ds. I have used every lens that I own, and while I haven't (yet) done any critical comparisons between lenses with the same subject one things is abundantly clear. The 1Ds is mercilessly unforgiving of lens quality. It sucks up resolution like a sponge. Give it the highest image quality possible and it will reward you with superlative photographs. Feed it consumer grade zoom lenses and it will be "OK", but you won't be happy.

In my almost 35+ years as a photographer I have never seen anything like the ability of this camera to separate the wheat from the chaff in lenses. If you have a 1Ds you will now know why you bothered to buy those expensive Canon "L" series lenses. This camera demands them.

 


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Concepts: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Full-frame digital SLR, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Canon EOS DSLR cameras, Canon EOS, Film speed, Canon EOS-1Ds, Raw image format

Entities: Toronto, Tokyo, Canon, Japan, U.S., ISO, digital negative, Frames, Michael Reichmann, sorry Graham, Graham Seaton, New Mexico, DSLRs

Tags: camera, image, canon 1d, personal functions, File Viewer Utility, software, image quality, 1Ds owners, new canon 1Ds, rear lcd, lithium ions, medium format, early 1Ds owners, raw files, pre-production 1Ds, Canon software, new camera, NiMH batteries, on-screen enlargement, late november, skin tones, cards, Canon 1D owners, Nickel Metal Hydride batteries, colour rendition, Canon D60, Firewire connection, Canon lenses, user interface, Canon EOS, common canon, LCD image, Lithium Ion batteries, Canon D30, expensive canon, Canon U.S, Canon Japan, Nickel Cadmium batteries, photographer, comprehensive 5-part report