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Mad About Madagascar

A Two Week Shoot in One of
The World's Most Unique Places
With the Canon 1Ds MKIII


Flipped Out – Madagascar. November, 2007
Canon 1Ds MKIII @ ISO 160 with 100-400 f/5.6L IS lens
(Preproduction firmware)

Mad, flipped-out – whatever word I use, the point is that doing two weeks of photography in Madagascar with the new Canon 1Ds MKIII was a ball. The country itself is unlike anywhere else on seven continents that I've ever been, as are the people. It's not an easy place to visit – neither getting there nor getting around once you're there. But the personal and photographic rewards of doing so are considerable.

Let me start with the caution that this page is intended neither a travelogue nor a camera test report. Yet in many ways it will be a bit of both. My intention is to share with you a selection of images which I shot during this trip, and to tell you something of the people and situations. But since the shoot was made somewhat unique by having been done with a pre-production sample of the new Canon 1Ds MKIII, and since this is a site about the art, craft, and tools of photography, I'll be discussing the camera, its features, and its capabilities in some detail as well.

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The Shoot

For two weeks in late October and early November, 2007, Chris Sanderson, Pierre Claquin and I traveled together in central and western Madagascar on a photographic shoot. Chris is the director and producer of The Video Journal as well as of our educational videos, and Pierre is a French Epidemiologist with a life-long passion for photography and some 30 years of experience working and traveling in the developing world. We had previously shot together in Tanzania and Bangladesh.

A natural question to ask would be – why Madagascar? The simply answer is that we had been told by some colleagues that it is a fascinating country with a unique ecosystem and wonderful people. It's also well off the beaten track for most travelers and therefore hopefully would offer an opportunity to do some unique photography. This it did. I also was considering Madagascar as a possible site for future field workshops and therefore treated this trip as a research and prototyping journey.

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Canoeing to Madagascar – Madagascar. November, 2007
Canon 1Ds MKIII @ ISO 400 with 100-400 f/5.6L IS lens
(Preproduction firmware)

Belo sur Mere is a remote village on the central west coast of Madagascar. The two hundred miles between it and the African continent's mainland is called the Mozambique Channel.

We spent three days in Belo at a small eco-resort. Our cabins faced the ocean and looked out over a series of sand bars which appeared and disappeared with the tides. The local villagers sailed and rowed past us to get to the open ocean, and provided a constantly changing tableau as the light changed between dawn and dusk.

Caveat

The 1Ds MKIII which I used on this shoot was a pre-production sample loaned to me by Canon. The only condition attached to my use was that any photographs posted on the web or in magazines needed to have the caption (Preproduction firmware). This I have done, both here and in my original field report on using the IIIs (as I'll be calling it).

With that now done let me also caution that not a single IIIs image in this report was taken with the intention of testing anything in particular. The primary purpose of taking these photographs was as an end in themselves. They will appear here on this site, in a show at my gallery and other one as well, before the end of this year, and in an upcoming portfolio and possible book project as fine art images. To the extent that they may illustrate some aspect of the camera's capabilities I'll so comment, but if there is any technical failing in an image it will likely be because of my limitations, not those of the equipment. And, as for any esthetic failings that these photographs may have, those are also attributable solely to me.

Lettuce Head – Madagascar. October, 2007
Canon 1Ds MKIII @ ISO 400 with 100-400 f/5.6L IS lens
(Preproduction firmware)

Almost universally, whenever I went to take a photograph of a Malagasy I was responded to with a smile or a friendly wave. Only on a couple of occasions was I waved off. In this instance a market vegetable seller covered his face with a lettuce, but a moment later smiled shyly at me in response to my returned smile.

The technique for doing people photography that has worked for me around the world is to carry my camera openly (a 1Ds MKIII with a 100-400mm lens isn't exactly small and discrete). When I see a shot I take it, and then immediately smile at the person if they have noticed me. Only maybe 1 time in 20 will I get a frown or a wave off.

In some cultures, photography of strangers in the street is not that well received, even with a smile on your face. (Morocco is one recent example in my experience). But in Madagascar the attitude toward me and my colleagues was almost always warm and welcoming.

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Processing

All photographs (over 5000 in total) were shot raw, and were processed in a pre-release version of Lightroom which has support for the IIIs. Regular readers know that I am a big fan of Adobe Lightroom, and frankly, without it I could never have shoot and processed some 5000 images as quickly, easily, and effectively as I did on this trip. Working on my files in the evenings during the trip, by the time I boarded our Air France flight home from Antananarivo to Paris I had all of my selecting, sorting, keywording and primary imaging editing done.

Back at the studio I was able to begin printing almost immediately (I have a small gallery show coming up in less than two weeks after my return). Because of the limitations of my laptop's screen files needed to be tweaked for tonal and colour values on a properly calibrated monitor, but otherwise the bulk of my image processing was done prior to stepping off the plane in Toronto.

Dog and Wheel – Madagascar. October, 2007
Canon 1Ds MKIII @ ISO 640 with 100-400 f/5.6L IS lens
(Preproduction firmware)

I was drawn to this antique-looking piece of farm equipment sitting in the middle of a village. It caught my eye because the Malagasy are not much on farming, the soil being very poor in many parts of the country. They subsist rurally primarily on raising cattle (Zebu) and fishing.

This image uses a technique which I have developed and become very pleased with over the past year or so. It involves using the HSL controls in Lightroom (also in Camera Raw) and the Targeted Adjustment Tool to electively desaturate certain colours to monochrome, while leaving others, or only reducing them slightly. This produces a hand-tinted look that is nether colour nor B&W, but which to my eye produces a unique look which is appropriate for certain subjects.

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In The Bag

Like all photographers who have to fly with their equipment I am paranoid about both losing gear when checked as luggage, and on the other hand fighting the often arbitrary and capriciously enforced size and weight restrictions of carry-on. My approach of the past few years is as follows, and it has worked on every flight that I've taken including Toronto – Paris – Madagascar – internally in Mada, and then return.

Clothing and bulky equipment such as tripods, heads, cables, chargers and the like go in my checked bag, a large rolling duffle. If the bag weighs more than about 50 lbs I'll pack a second smaller rolling bag as well, usually containing heavier items such as hiking boots.

My carry-on consists of two bags, both with wheels – one a camera backpack, and the other a briefcase. The camera bag is currently a Lowepro and it holds two bodies and four lenses as well as various accessories. It will fit in the overhead bin of just about any aircraft. The briefcase holds my laptop, hard drives, and the usual things such as wallet, passport, reading material and iPod.

I wear a shooting vest when flying, or at least have it handy at the top of one of my checked bags. If I get hassled about the weight of the camera bag (it happens from time to time), I will open it and place the heaviest body with the largest lens over my shoulder, and a couple of other items on my vest's pockets. This approach has never failed. Fortunately on the 5 flights involved in our Madagascar trip there was never a question or hassle about checked bags.

One interesting anecdote is that prior to this trip I had to go out and buy a new multi-tool / knife, because the Leatherman which I normally carry in my checked bag couldn't be found. After we got to Madagascar, with Air France flights from Toronto to Paris and then to Tana, I found my old Leatherman in one of the camera bag's inside pockets. This means that I had flown on two international flights and at last one previously with a large weapon in my carry-on bag.

Given that airline security now involves confiscation of mouth wash and hand lotion, this glaring lapse of security isn't terribly reassuring, and almost makes a mockery of the whole process. And, I should point out that in our internal flights on Air Madagascar there was absolutely no security check. None, Zip. Nada. Makes you wonder.


Baobab and Ox Cart – Madagascar, November, 2007
Canon 5D with 24-105mm f/4L IS lens @ ISO 200

The cliche of photography in Madagascar is the Grande Alley of Baobabs. It is a focal point for tourists at sunrise and sunsets. When we got there, arriving just about an hour before sunset, I found myself struggling with how to photograph it in a way that captured the unique location, but that did so in a somewhat fresh manner.

Fortunately an ox-driven cart came by at one point when the road wasn't full of tourists, and this toned B&W rendition is the outcome.

My main camera was the 1Ds MKIII, of course, and I had a Canon 5D as both backup and a second body, which I also used occasionally together. Lenses included the 100-400 f/5.6L IS, 24-105 f/4L IS, 50mm f/1.4, and the new 14mm f/2.8L. My laptop was a Macbook 13" and I had four Firewire drives totaling about 500 GB of storage.

The reason for so much giggage was backup. The question with hard drives is not whether they will fail, but when. For this reason I always make a simultaneous backup of every card once it's full. Lightroom can be set to do this automatically, and Mac laptops can daisy chain multiple Firewire drives without the need for power bricks, so carrying an extra couple of hundred Gig is only a matter of a few ounces.

I brought a tripod (a small Gitzo CF) and ballhead (RRS) but didn't use it even once. This shoot was about people, and that meant working hand-held 100% of the time.

For a variety of reasons I also found that I used the 100-400mm lens more often than any of the others. It always seemed that the images that presented themselves were at a distance. This was in part due to shooting from boats, across streets and rivers, and the like. Part of it was also a desire not to invade the personal space of rural people. Doing street shooting in an urban environment allows one to get up close, but in a small village it is more respectful to keep a bit of distance. Using a long lens feels a bit more voyeuristic than I am used to, but it's what was necessary in this situation.

Shy – Madagascar, November, 2007
Canon 1Ds MKIII @ ISO 400 with 100-400 f/5.6L IS lens
(Preproduction firmware)

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Theft

I'm often asked about any concerns that I might have about theft when I'm traveling in remote locations and especially in developing countries where a single lens in my bag may be worth more than the average person's annual income.

My answer always has been that I feel safer in underdeveloped countries than I do in major cities in the US and Europe, and this was born out on this trip. We were completely safe and had no incidents at all in Madagascar, even in Tana which has a bit of a reputation for pick pockets. But in Paris, at the airport Novatel, where we stayed the night before our flight to Tana, our room was robbed and we lost about 3000 Euros and a couple of Ipods.

Fortunately none of camera gear, wallets or passports were taken. If they had been, with our flight only a couple of hours away our trip likely would have been ruined.

The short version is that we were all packed and ready to go to the main terminal. We left our bags in the room (for safety!) and went to the hotel's coffee shop for breakfast. During the half hour that we were there someone gained access to our room using an electronic key-card. The hotel had no viable explanation of how this could have happened. Frankly, my guess is that it was an inside job by a hotel employee, but I have no way of proving this.

My suggestion, and one which I will follow myself from now on, is always keep to keep cash, passport and wallet either with me or in the room's safe, even for only a short time.


Mango Laneway – Madagascar, November, 2007
Canon 1Ds MKIII with 50mm f/1.4 lens at ISO 1600. Shot at f/1.4
(Preproduction firmware)

We were stopped on a road toward the end of the day that had a section near a village which had Mango trees down both sides for a distance of about a half kilometer. It was very dim, but the road was filled with villagers heading either home or to market at the end of the day.

I don't remember why, but for some reason I had a 50mm lens on, and was set to ISO 1600 because of the low light levels. I saw down the road some people walking, framed against the illuminated opening at the end of the treed section. I took a quick shot, wishing that I'd had the 400mm lens mounted instead.


Original file with cropped area shown

Looking at the frame on my laptop that evening I knew that even having been shot with a 21MP camera, the area that I had seen and wanted to record was simply too small. Combine this with having been shot at ISO 1600 and with the lens wide open, and it seemed like a lost cause.

But it wasn't. The cropped area was only 584 X 386 pixels, but with a bit of noise reduction with Noiseware Pro and ressing up in Photoshop, I have a file which can print an 11"X16" that is captivating, not for it's technical quality (or lack thereof) but simply because of the grace and gesture of its subjects.

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Madagascar


Map Copyright hammond World Atlas Corp.

In case you were absent the day that Madagascar was mentioned in grade school geography class, here's the summary. It is the world's fourth largest island and is located in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Mozambique, Africa. It is one of the world's poorest countries, with a per capita GDP of just $800 per year. It has a varied landscape, ranging from forested highlands to lowland jungle.

French is an official language, as this was once a French colony. While a few tourist guides speak a bit of English, don't expect to be able to get around unless you have some small proficiency with French. For this reason, while Madagascar is a popular tourist destination with people from France, one sees few other nationalities there. The most popular destinations are the beach resorts in the country's north, while it is only more adventurous travelers who will explore the rest of the island.

One of the main reasons for this is that for a good part of the year, during the so-called rainy season which begins in November and runs through April, much of the country is inaccessible. During the dry season, other than a few paved two lane highways between cities the roads are basically ox cart tracks. It took us 5 hours in a 4WD one day to drive the 90 KM between a small town and a major tourist destination, Tsingy National Park. In the wet season even the ox carts can't make it.


Bus Stop – Madagascar, October, 2007
Canon 1Ds MKIII @ ISO 250 with 100-400 f/5.6L IS lens
(Preproduction firmware)

Rural life in Madagascar takes place on the roads and streets of the villages. People are seemingly constantly on the go. Public transportation is in the form of privately run mini-busses – little more than vans that pick up and drop of passengers as needed, without a fixed schedule.

Bicycles and livestock on the way to market are welcome.

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The Canon 1Ds MKIII


Show-offs. Madagascar, November, 2007
Canon 1Ds MKIII @ ISO 400 with 100-400 f/5.6L IS lens
(Preproduction firmware)

This will probably be read by three groups of people;

– those that have owned a previous 1Ds series Canon camera and who want to know if they should upgrade

– those that own some other Canon DSLR and want to know if the step-up to a IIIs is worthwhile

– those who have no plan to purchase a IIIs but simply want to know what it's like

I'll try and address the interests of all three contumacies.

I've owned and extensively used a 1Ds and a 1Ds MKII, and a 1V before that. While the upgrade from the 1Ds to the MkII was a modest one (11MP to 16MP was about it) the 1Ds MKIII is almost a completely new camera. Yes, it looks the same, but from the battery to the LCD screen, to the shooting rate, to the menu interface – the 1Ds MKIII offers a range of improvements that make it well worthwhile for anyone currently owning either a 1Ds or a MKII.

Of course there's the step from 16MP to 21MP. In terms of digital real estate this is a similar increment to the move from 11MP to 16MP; worthwhile, but not huge. From 11MP to 22MP is huge though, so if you skipped the MKIIs then now is the time to make your move to the MKIIIs.

If you own any other DSLR and are tempted by the MKIIIs, then read on. But keep in mind that along with the significant monitory price, there is a price to be paid in terms of weight and bulk. A Canon 1 series camera is a big sucker, essentially as large as a medium format camera. There's no point in considering one just for ego satisfaction, no matter the size of your bank account. Compared to a 40D or a 5D, a 1Ds MKIII is quite large and heavy, and unless you really need what it has to offer you'll end up leaving it at home.

So, in no particular order, here are my impressions of the 1Ds MKIII. Be forewarned though that this is not a typical test report. I'm assuming that the reader is a sophisticated enough reader and photographer that they understand the difference between an online technical review (which I used to do, and no longer see as terribly meaningful) and this type of hands-on field report. There are lots of very fine web sites that will eventually give you all the test results, graphs, charts and specs that you might want. Here, all I hope to be able to share with you are my impressions of how the 1Ds MKIII stands up as a professional grade photographic tool in real-world use.


Paddling to Work. Madagascar, November, 2007
Canon 1Ds MKIII @ ISO 400 with 100-400 f/5.6L IS lens
(Preproduction firmware)

Early morning light looking westward – the sea calm as a pond and all three types of boats that are build in Belo Sur Mere head out for a day's fishing, passing right by my beach-front hut. I hadn't even brushed my teath yet.

Battery

If I had to rank those things that most 1Ds and 1Ds MKII owners bitched about the most, at the top of the list might well be the battery system. Being Nickel Metal Hydride the batteries were large and heavy. The had umpf, but they were already old technology when they were introduced, and had become positively antediluvian in recent years.

The 1Ds MKIII though now has a state-of-the-art Lithium Ion battery, which is half the size of the former NiMH, and less than half the weight. The camera also now has an intelligent battery management system able to tell you how many shots have been done with the battery and what percentage of life remains. There is also an overall indication of battery condition (rechargability), since all batteries do have a limit on the number of charges they can accept.

Battery life with the 1Ds MKIII is nothing short of remarkable. I went out and bought a second battery for the IIIS before this trip, even though the camera used was a pre-production sample and not mine. I didn't want to find myself in a remote area without electricity and a failing battery. I needn't have bothered though.

Over nearly three weeks in France and Madagascar I shot approximately 5,500 frames but with two batteries I could have left the charger at home.

Twice I averaged approximately 2,000 frames before I decided to recharge, and on both occasions when I did the battery showed that it still had about 30-35% charge available. I also was using IS lenses almost all the time, and was doing a fair amount of LCD chimping. I would therefore guess that in mild weather conditions about 2,500 frames would easily be possible on a charge. Somewhat less in cold weather, of course.


Dancers – Madagascar, October, 2007
Canon 1Ds MKIII with 50mm f/1.4
(Preproduction firmware)

We spent three days and nights aboard a small boat traveling down river. We slept ashore in tents on sandbars each night. On one of the evenings a small group of boys from a local tribe dropped in, and by the light of a log fire danced and sang for us. It was quite an experience.

Other than the bonfire there was no light, and even at ISO 3200 normal exposures simply weren't possible. Flash would have ruined the effect and the moment. So, I simply set the camera to about a one second exposure (f/1.4, ISO 3200) and shot away. The above frame was one of the more fluid and pleasing of several taken that evening.

Dust

Removing sensor dust by vibrating the sensor cover glass has been around for a couple of years, but the MKIIIs' are the first 1 Series cameras with this capability. In short – it simply works! After two weeks of jouncing over dusty roads in a 4WD, and changing lenses frequently, I never saw one spec of dust on any of the 5000+ frames shot. (well, yes, a few faint ones on areas of clear sky – but a quantum leap over a camera without dust shake).

It's In The Cards

I commented on this in my earlier 1D(s) MK III reports, but it's worth mentioning again. The MKIII cameras now allow a number of variations in how files are saved to the two resident cards, a CF card and an SD card. It can be configured to save first to one and then the other, or to save the same data to both simultaneously. You can also set it to save raw files to one and JPGs to the other.

This is very welcome versatility, with my only complaint being the use of an SD card rather than a second CF. To my mind SDs are simply too small. They are difficult to handle and too easily misplaced. I once lost one in a shag rug and it was subsequently vacuumed up and lost forever. Nikon's new D3 offers two CF cards and I regard this as a more appropriate offering in a Pro level camera.

Autofocus Issues

Again, there were none. I used the camera in all focus modes, in hot weather, and never had anything other than the type of reliable autofocus that I have experienced with Canon cameras in the past.

I mention this because the 1D MKIII, which the 1Ds MKIII is almost identical to mechanically, has had an autofocus problem. When I left for Madagascar it was still an outstanding issue, but I learned on my return that a statement has been issued by Canon Europe that a flaw in an AF sub-mirror assembly has been discovered that causes some 1D MKIII cameras in the serial number range 501001 to 546561 to have problems when using AI servo mode, especially in warm temperatures. Canon has offered to repair any cameras with the problem and has recalled dealer stock in this serial number range.

Since the 1Ds MKIII will not begin shipping until later in November at the earliest, it is likely safe to assume that this problem will not be an issue with the new cameras.

User Interface

This encompasses everything from button placement to the new LCD screen, to the menu and control structures. It's a big topic and I'll just be commenting on some of the highlights, especially as they relate to differences from previous 1D series cameras.

As discussed in my 1Ds MKIII First Impressions comments made here in October, and last May's 1D MKIII First Impressions report, the new large 3" LCD screen is a pleasure to work with, and is visible in just about all light conditions. I also have found myself really appreciating the fact that Canon has abandoned the infuriating double press requirement when making menu selection changes.

The revised menu structure is also welcome as it greatly reduces the amount of scrolling required to find the item that you're looking for. My Menu is a selection that allows you to select just about any regular or custom function and for it to appear in a special seperate list. So access to certain functions, such as Mirror Lock Up, which is buried within the Custom Function lists, is now made much more accessible. (I still want a dedicated MLU button, but I have now laid odds that hell will freeze over before Canon relents and gives it to us, so I guess i have to be satisfied with the My menu option for now).

By the way, setting Live View to operate with the centrol Set button also gives one mirror lock up, but sensor heating with Live View might be an issue and so I don't like to use it simply as a MLU alternative.

Voice Control

No, the IIIS does not have voice control. Neither does any other camera that I'm aware of. But I have to ask the question – why not? My cell phone has voice control, my car has voice control, and many children's toys do as well. So why not cameras? The 1Ds MKIII already has a built in microphone and the way that cameras are used is to hold them up to ones face, so sound interference certainly isn't a problem. Neither should be microprocessor power when high-spec microprocessors and ASICs are already onboard.

I want to be able to say – AI Servo, Aperture Priority, IS OFF, ISO 400, and so forth, and have the camera execute the command. Why can't I?

I can't think of an answer, other than that camera makers are simply lacking in imagination, or that they don't have too many actual photographers on their design staff requesting features. I've mentioned this idea to professional and amateur photographers for several years and when I do their eyes light up. Pros working in rapidly changing conditions get really excited by the idea because it would make their work so much more quick and efficient.

By the way, this isn't a rant against Canon alone. It's the whole industry that simply seems lacking in imagination. More megapixels, better LCDs and lower noise are all fine, and welcome. But how about also giving us some real innovation in user interface design?

Frame Rates

At 10 FPS the 1D MKIII was an exciting breakthrough for a 10MP camera. Finally we have frame rates for sports and wildlife shooting that are comparable to the best that we had in the days of film. So the 5 FPS speed of the 1Ds MKIII seems tame by comparison until one realizes that you're getting that speed with 21 Megapixel files, resolution that until now has been the purvue of medium format, where 1 FPS was something to write home about.

I find that the 5 FPS of the IIIs is just about as much as I need for my style of documentary shooting, and fashion and wedding photographers will similarly likely find it to be more than adequate. But I can ask for a bigger buffer. At 5 FPS the 9 frame buffer is hit all too quickly. With memory as cheap as it is I don't see why the size of the buffer couldn't be made larger.

High ISO


Reaching for Mangoes – Madagascar, October, 2007
Canon 1Ds MKIII @ ISO 1250 with 100-400 f/5.6L IS lens
(Preproduction firmware)

Shooting with the 100-400mm lens allowed being able to get in close, but it also presented problems in low light because of its small maximum aperture. This often necessitated high ISOs when light levels were low, such as in the deep shade of a mango tree just at sunset.

This ISO 1250 shot required no noise reduction, even in a large print. Noise only starts to become an issue at ISO 1600, and even then is well controlled, with little loss of fine detail.

It's been a given in the industry for the past number of years that Canon is the leader when it comes to low noise at high ISO. The 5D till now has been the flagbearer in this regard, with remarkably low noise at even the highest sensitivity settings. Since I have not done a side-by-side between the 5D and the 1Ds MKIII I can't say whether it's as good in this regard with any certainty, but to my eye, after having some hundreds of frames with the IIIs at ISO 800 to 3200, I can say that if it isn't actually as good as the 5D, it's damn close.

As mentioned later in this report I did have an opportunity to do some studio comparisons with a number of different cameras, including a 1Ds MKII. A more detailed analysis will follow in that report, but anecdotally I can report that at ISO 400 the noise comparison showed the IIs and the IIIs to be almost identical. On some shots I thought the IIs to be a bit cleaner, and on others the IIIs. It's a quibble, and could also be due to slight discrepancies between how the raw processing software handles the files.

Live View

I didn't have much opportunity to work with Live View since all of my shooting was done hand held. I like the idea in concept, but I'm afraid that without autofocus it can be somewhat tedious to use. Also the lack of an articulated LCD makes its use somewhat more limited than it might otherwise be. I'm also curious as to why Canon has not implemented some form of autofocus. Others, such as Nikon, have. It would really make Live View much more usable.

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Preliminary Conclusion

I haven't yet done any side by side comparisons with the 5D, the D3, the 1Ds MKII, the P21, the P45, or any other camera for that matter. All I've had time for is travel half way round the world with the IIIs, shot from 4WD vehicles on dusty ox-cart trails, from canoes on the ocean, on sandy beaches, and in tropical jungles and forests. The camera has been dust covered, splashed with sea water, and bounced around on the floor of a Land Rover for hours at a time. So, sorry – no tests reports with graphs and comparison tables right now. Just five thousand plus frames of actual photography done in the harsh real world.

Based on that experience here then is the bottom line, at least as I see it. The 1Ds MKIII continues Canon's deserved reputation for ruggedness. If you can take it, the camera likely can as well. I experienced no bugs, hiccups or anything else that prevented me from ever getting a shot. If I didn't get it it was my fault, not the camera's.

Battery life is phenomenal. High ISO image quality is as good as I've seen from any other camera, and better than most. Frame rates at 5FPS are more than adequate for most shooting situations, and for those that need more there's always the almost identical 1D MKIII which offers 10FPS, though with only 10MP.


tellow and Orange Truck – Madagascar, October, 2007
Canon 1Ds MKIII @ ISO 640 with 100-400 f/5.6L IS lens
(Preproduction firmware)

21 Megapixels is great to work with. For making large prints it provides 5616 X 3744 pixels, which allows for a 16X23" print at 240 PPI. Of greater importance for many is that it allows significant cropping while still leaving enough resolution for a decent sized print or page layout. For photographers working for publication this is one of the main reasons for wanting higher megapixel files – the ability to crop and still have a usable image area.

When it comes to comparing the 1Ds MKIII with 21 MP backs (there are no DSLRs in this category (yet)), I'm as curious as the next person, and when I have a chance in the weeks ahead to compare image quality with a Phase One P21, or a Mamiya back, I will. But even before I do so, don't think that the obvious factors that we already know will not be at play. Backs with similar resolution have larger photo sites and therefore likely higher image quality at low ISO. Based on my experience with MF backs over the past five years or so there's not going to be any contest when it comes to higher ISOs. The Canon will win hands down at ISO 400 and higher. But the MF backs will win at base level ISO. Whether this is because MF stresses lenses less than does 35mm, or that Canon has better microlenses and chip and camera circuitry is a matter for debate.

Shooting speed (FPS) is a given. No MF back can do 5 FPS, and none can take stabilized lenses and the like. No – when it comes to a combination of overall image quality, high ISO capability, shooting convenience, features, frame rates, lens selection and the like, the new 1Ds MKIII is going to be a hard act for any medium format back to beat. Low ISO, studio use, highest possible image quality – sure, a 39 MP back on a H2, Hy6 or Mamiya is going to provide the current ultimate image quality and will trounce the IIIs. But as the British say – horses for courses. No one tool can do everything perfectly. There are always compromises.

Finally, what about Nikon? If medium format backs only have an edge when it comes to ultimate image quality, is there anything competitive from anyone else, especially Nikon?

As this is being written in early November the D3 is not shipping yet. Neither is the 1Ds MKIII for that matter, but both should be before the end of the month, or at least before Christmas. At only 12MP the D3 won't have what it takes in terms of resolution, though based on published specs it may really push Canon hard in terms of handling and operational features.

But PMA is only a few months away. How would a full frame 24MP Nikon compare? Time will tell.

In the meantime I've sold my 1Ds MKII and placed an order with my dealer for a 1Ds MKIII. Sadly I've had to pack up the IIIs loaner and send it back to Canon. Now I have to be patient like everyone else for initial shipments to begin. I can't wait.

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A Final Word

For all of my cynicism about comparative testing, I'm as guilty as the next person about wanting to know how various new cameras compare.

On the last day of having the loaner camera from Canon, and after all of the above was written and ready to publish, I spent a day at Studio One, a high end professional rental studio in Toronto run by my friend Craig Samuel, doing some camera comparison tests. Craig has set up a Phase One P45+ / H3D-39 II comparison on his own, because he rents out equipment and studio space to visiting pros from all over the world, and he wanted to know for his own purposes how they compare. When I called to say that I had the 1Ds MKIII for just one more day, and that the Sinar Hy6 / e-Motion 75 had just arrived, we both cleared our schedules and spent the day running tests.

In all, the cameras compared were a Hasselblad H2 with Phase One P45+ back, a Hasselblad H3D-39 II, Sinar Hy6 with e-Motion 75 , and a Canon 1Ds MKII and a 1Ds MKIII. Whew.

We did still-life set-ups as well as a model shoot – testing all ISO settings, resolution, noise, frame rates and long exposures. It will take a week or so for me to collate the results, analyze them with Craig and his assistants, and prepare the results for publication. Watch for them. It should be fascinating.

November, 2007

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Addendum

Readers may recall that my initial 1Ds MKIII report a few weeks ago, when first published, contained some comments about how I felt that the camera might have too strong an AA filter, and therefore images not appear as "crisp" as they might without one or with a less strong filter.

A couple of hours after the piece first appeared I changed it so that this reference did not appear. Subsequently the conspiracy theorists have claimed that the "black Canon helicopters" must have started circling my house, (said in jest, I'm sure) or that some other form of coercion had been applied to make me change the article (not said in jest, I'm also sure).

Utter Rubbish – as anyone who even has the vaguest knowledge of how I work would know. For the record, the truth of the matter, for what it's worth, is this...

During my initial few days of shooting with the 1Ds MKIII in Algonquin Park I saw several files that did not appear to me to be as crisp is I thought they should be. This was likely as a consequence of also shooting with people who had Hasselblads and Mamiya's with P45+ backs on them, which can be bitingly sharp and of extremely high resolution, in part because they do not use an AA filter.

My friends and I discussed what we were seeing and came up with the theory that it likely was as a consequence of the Canon's AA filter, and so as I was working on my report I added a couple of paragraphs to this effect. After reviewing my image files yet again I decided that this was an inaccurate analysis and so I deleted the offending paragraphs. They were never intended for public viewing, simply because they were based on a false assumption and inaccurate technical analysis.

Somehow I subsequently ended up publishing the version that had the deleted paragraphs, rather than the one that had them removed. Brain fade, or whatever. Simply a mistake.

A few hours later I received an email from a friend who is extremely knowledgeable technically, chastising me for saying something dumb, and I realized that I'd posted the old draft rather than the revised one. So, I quickly changed it to what it should have been and noted that the article had been "updated".

That's the story. Middle aged brain fade leading to an early draft being published instead of the polished final version. No black helicopters, no coercion from on high. Conspiracy theorists can now climb back under their rocks.

 

 


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