Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III Review: Field Test Report


Still the EOS to beat.


Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III - front. This is a rugged camera, with everything needed to deliver top quality images from day one. Granted, the heavy-duty battery gives it a large footprint and considerable heft, but still this is one camera you'd be proud to be seen with. Copyright  ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III - front. This is a rugged camera, with everything needed to deliver top quality images from day one. Granted, the heavy-duty battery gives it a large footprint and considerable heft, but still this is one camera you'd be proud to be seen with. Copyright ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

I’ve been working with Canon EOS single-lens-reflex cameras since they burst upon the scene. Well, actually, since shortly before, when I and other members of the photo press were introduced to the very first one-the EOS 1-on a top secret junket in Bar Harbor, Maine, many, many moons ago. Back then the photo press consisted entirely of print publications and cameras were analog, or as we simply liked to call them, cameras.

Fast forward to the digital age-and the full-frame EOS 1Ds DSLR. The 1-series continues to be the ranking member in the EOS lineup, designed for every imaginable professional application, with durability, functionality, reliability, and consistency at the forefront. And you’ve no doubt heard of the EOS 1Ds Mark III (MkIII, for short), the current flagship. While not the newest EOS on the block, like the 5D Mark II, it shares a 21.1 megapixel CMOS sensor.

But more to the point, it maintains the longstanding tradition established by its progenitors. And since Photocrati is a new site, we thought we’d take this camera out for a spin and round out our experiences with the EOS, with newer cameras to come under our scrutiny when available. In the meantime, here goes. Oh, and at the outset, at roughly $7,000, we should also point out that this is not the cheapest camera out there. But you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck and a camera that will probably outlast you in the field.

The EOS Interface

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III - back. As you can see, this camera has lots of buttons, and not all of them readily accessible without diverting attention away from the subject. The large color monitor can be used for live view, but only with manual focusing, which, in my view, defeats the purpose of this feature. Copyright  ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III - back. As you can see, this camera has lots of buttons, and not all of them readily accessible without diverting attention away from the subject. The large color monitor can be used for live view, but only with manual focusing, which, in my view, defeats the purpose of this feature. Copyright ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

When it comes to cameras, familiarity breeds anything but contempt. The EOS interface remains familiar territory, although some things inevitably were bound to change, for better and worse. I do wish camera manufacturers would stop using two dials with interchangeable functionality on the one hand, unique attributes on the other. But I’m guessing that will never change, even if a rocker switch were to replace one of the dials. So we might as well learn to live with it. (Although I’ll probably continue to list it as a pet peeve.)

While being familiar with EOS DSLRs in general was helpful, I was still troubled by the plethora of buttons all over the place. I know, this is not the first camera to bear the brunt of this complaint, but that doesn’t ameliorate the situation. I would often find fingers playing Twister with the buttons-not fun (unlike the board game) when you’re trying to do things quickly.

I also found it difficult to read the data displays. There’s the typical display on top, and a smaller one below the color monitor on the back. Hopefully the T1i’s data display will migrate to the next generation 1Ds when that comes along. Of course, you could say I should get new glasses-but, really, do I need to whip out my glasses just to read the display? Fortunately, the optical viewfinder gives you much of the working info you need, so that’s a quick workaround.

 Data Panels. There are two data panels, the main one on top provides the most used information, and a smaller one on the rear that was of no practical use to me. Copyright  ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

Data Panels. There are two data panels, the main one on top provides the most used information, and a smaller one on the rear that was of no practical use to me. Copyright ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

jn_03b-small-data-display

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III - top view. In case you didn't think there were enough buttons on the back, here are a few more for you to get your fingers around. Okay, perhaps I'm making light of the configuration, and I should point out that this plethora of controls on top and in back do give you quick access to many needed functions. Copyright  ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III - top view. In case you didn't think there were enough buttons on the back, here are a few more for you to get your fingers around. Okay, perhaps I'm making light of the configuration, and I should point out that this plethora of controls on top and in back do give you quick access to many needed functions. Copyright ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

By the way, the dioptric adjustment is under the eyecup: squeeze the sides in and lift straight up to reveal the tiny dial on the left. The adjustment appeared to be finer than on other cameras I’ve worked with. And there’s also a built-in eyepiece blind, activated via a lever-nice touch, instead of that very inconvenient eyepiece cover that is often used (assuming you didn’t lose or misplace it). Granted, I rarely, if ever, find myself shading the eyepiece-if I do, it’s usually with a hand. But this definitely facilitates the process and is a more effective approach that I would avail myself of when necessary.

One more thing you’ll notice is the large footprint. That’s due to the large, high-capacity battery. You need that kind of battery to drive this kind of machine-we’re talking NASCAR, not go-karts. Expect to get good mileage. Since this is the 1Ds and not the 1D (twice as fast at half the resolution), you’ll have to contend with 5 fps (at the “H” drive setting)-which is fine, unless your bread-and-butter is sports/action photography.

Under the Hood

To begin, the 1Ds MkIII supports two memory cards: CF and SD, operating in tandem. That can prove very handy. But to maximize capture rates at highest resolution, use the fastest cards you can get. Slow cards will slow you down and put you in pause mode as the frame buffer empties out. Still, I did find myself maxing out the buffer even with a SanDisk Extreme III SDHC class 6 card, when shooting RAW + small JPEG. (The only reason for the JPEGs was in case I used a geotagger to geographically ID the files, plus backup insurance.)

By the way, I can understand taking preventive measures so the card door doesn’t open inadvertently, but I think they’ve gone overboard on this one. Try holding a memory card while accessing the card chamber and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. It’s inelegance taken to a new level. Or another level of Twister-except, again, without the element of fun.


Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III - card door. The camera's card door has an inconvenient latch that makes accessing this compartment rather awkward. On the plus side, there are two slots: for SD and CF cards that work in tandem, so there's little fear of running out of card memory during a fast-paced and arduous shoot. Copyright  ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III - card door. The camera's card door has an inconvenient latch that makes accessing this compartment rather awkward. On the plus side, there are two slots: for SD and CF cards that work in tandem, so there's little fear of running out of card memory during a fast-paced and arduous shoot. Copyright ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

While not currently the highest resolution camera on the block, the 1Ds MkIII still gives you plenty of pixels to work with. That translates into plenty of room to crop. And at this resolution, it gives you pause to consider whether you still need a medium format DSLR. (On the other hand, as one who has worked with medium format digitals with resolutions reaching 60 megapixels, it’s no contest.)

The 1Ds MkIII boasts twin Digic III processors. That means the camera has processors working in tandem so that it can almost anticipate your every need. They may not be next generation as in the 7D, but they go a long way toward optimizing performance. That said, one can always wish for something better and faster. And I can’t wait for the next-gen 1Ds (sorry, no clue when that will arrive).
Of greater practical importance, perhaps, is the durability factor. The shutter has been tested to 300,000 cycles-twice that typically rated for other “pro-level” cameras. And it is fully sealed against dust and moisture-so, combined with an L-series Canon lens (equally dust/moisture-resistant), you have a camera that will go virtually anywhere imaginable-at least on this planet. (When we start testing cameras on Venus or Pluto, I’ll give you an update).

As mentioned, burst rates top out at 5 fps for that shutter, although the frame buffer is the limiting factor if you’re shooting RAW, or worse, RAW + JPEG. But if you’re shooting JPEG alone, you can reach 56 frames before the camera needs a breather. Capture is 14-bit, just shy of 16-bit that medium format cameras have standardized on–may not seem like much, but those bits add up exponentially. There’s also the option of sRAW (smaller file sizes), although I’m not sure why you’d spend $7000 on a camera only to choose this option.

Autofocusing–On Track & Off

The AF system in the 1Ds MkIII features 19 cross-type AF points with f/2.8 or faster lenses, and 26 additional “assist points.” Unfortunately, the functionality of these cross-type sensors changes with the maximum aperture of the lens, so you have fewer and fewer of them as the lens gets slower and slower, until they are only horizontal-line sensitive AF points with f/5.6 lenses. The Assist AF points help in focus-tracking when predictive AF is employed (a function of AI Servo continuous AF).

Having said all that, it brings us to a recent squabble some have voiced. Or more to the point, much has been made of the woes plaguing the latest 1D-series EOS cameras with regard to autofocusing, notably concerning focus-tracking. Well, from my experience with the 70-200mm f/4 lens attached, Canon apparently addressed that problem with a good deal of success, if not unqualifiedly, with the latest firmware update (already installed on this test camera when I received it). Keep in mind that this f/4 lens makes use of only one central cross-type sensor surrounded by horizontal sensors.

So after a largely successful run with my zoom, I decided to try AF with an f/2.8 lens, choosing my f/2.8 macro-perhaps not the ideal candidate for this test. My reason for saying that is this: With the 100mm f/2.8 macro lens attached, things did not go quite as smoothly. In fact, I found myself resorting to my usual routine, namely switching to full manual focusing. And this happened despite the fact that some exposures were made with subjects exhibiting plenty of contrast and texture-and less than life-size, which should have made it easier for the AF sensors to lock on. So I guess we don’t live in a perfect world just yet.

You also have some flexibility in the way AF works, via the Custom Functions. When using the macro lens, I briefly played with one of these Custom Functions governing the assist points-but, again, perhaps not the best lens for this test, since it did not seem to make a difference.

Custom Functions Galore

There are a ton of Custom Functions. Seventeen of these address AF and drive functions, as part of the C.Fn III subset. For instance, you might want to set tracking sensitivity for AI Servo to better deal with obstacles that come between you and the subject. This way you can avoid getting off track as soon as, say, someone walks into the frame in front of the subject. As an extension of this, another Custom Function lets you place priority on a subject entering the field of view closer to you than the original subject. You can also prioritize if the camera continues to track the subject at the expense of drive functions, or if the drive takes priority so that you can continue to shoot at a fast clip, at the expense of AF.

Fifteen Custom Functions are devoted to exposure alone (C.Fn I subset). Among these, you might want to address exposure and ISO increments. And, when shooting in Aperture Priority, if you want to avoid long shutter speeds under low lighting conditions when employing flash, opt for the fixed 1/250 flash sync speed. This, however, may not be the most prudent choice for fill-flash applications, where the flash takes a backseat to the ambient lighting.

There are over two dozen more Custom Functions contained in two additional subsets. If ever you’ve wanted a camera that you could customize to your heart’s content, this is it. But as I’ve said before, go slow so you don’t end up sinking underneath all those Custom Functions. Start with the most vital ones then play around with the rest at your leisure.

Other Functions

Automatic sensor cleaning is a welcome feature, albeit quite commonplace in today’s DSLR world. However, I believe that activating this feature both when the camera is switched on and when switched off is overkill. You can choose to activate this function, but not when it’s activated. It would be nice to be able to choose whether to initiate the process when the camera is turned on, turned off, or both, as well as none of the above. Of course, manual activation is possible. And for those who really feel the need, you can initiate a manual process (I’m getting this sense of déjà-vu that I’ve said this before).

There is also live view. But on this camera that means setting the lens to manual focusing. I tried it with my macro lens under bright lighting conditions. It was doable, but not my first choice. Sometimes I simply had no other option, since a plant or bug was otherwise out of reach.

Conclusions

Considering that I feel, in a sense, I’ve taken a ride in Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine, although I’ve transported myself only a very short distance into the past, and viewing this camera in light of its design and accomplishments, I have to say I was impressed. Now sling-shotting back to the future, in light of more recent technologies that have been introduced, I still say-I’m impressed. I’ve always found Canon to deliver very usable images, with quantifiably good exposures and white balance. And I definitely like having more real estate to work with.

Since I wasn’t testing any new lenses with this 1Ds Mark III, I can only say that the lenses I employed performed as expected. As for camera operation itself, the release was certainly responsive enough (there’s also a second one, for vertical shooting-but I never used it), with no measurable shutter lag to speak of-any delay is best attributed to human failure to respond in a timely manner to unfolding action. And while I found autofocusing and focus-tracking well within acceptable tolerances, I once again found myself having to take the manual route when using a macro lens. But in this instance, manual control extended to shooting at less than life-size, which was unexpected.

One thing that struck me about this camera when I tried to squeeze it into a compact shoulder bag for my meanderings about town: It wouldn’t fit. And then it dawned on me. It wasn’t supposed to. Given the heavy-duty battery and the resulting overall bulk of this camera, this EOS was not made for quick jaunts. Admittedly, I did find it fatiguing to schlep around hanging from my neck for extended periods, but I was sure glad I wasn’t using my 300mm f/4 IS or a faster piece of glass.

Still, we come back to this: The EOS 1Ds Mark III is a serious camera for the serious-minded. No pro has come to me complaining about this camera. Pros use it, and abuse it. In fact, given a choice between using a 1Ds and 5D on the job in the studio, pros pull out the 1Ds. They tell me it impresses their clients-no minor point in a highly competitive arena.

There are cameras out there that are faster and smarter, but sometimes what you need is a workhorse camera. And this 1Ds Mark III, my friends, is a workhorse designed to stay the course.

Verdict: Buy it. It will work for your professional needs and your professional image.

Live-Action Soccer. All these shots were taken with the 70-200mm f/4 lens (generally zoomed out), with the camera in shutter-priority mode and set to 1/800 second to freeze movement as best as possible without the need to crank up ISO to outrageous levels (ISO was set to 400 for most exposures, with the first three frames at ISO 100), while delivering a usable f-stop (which often ended up at or near maximum aperture). A number of frames were cropped, but certainly not all, the intent being to focus attention on the play in motion--in particular, the sequential exposures occurring within a hair's breadth of each other. AF was set to continuous focus tracking, and with few exceptions the camera did an admirable job. Copyright  ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

Live-Action Soccer. All these shots were taken with the 70-200mm f/4 lens (generally zoomed out), with the camera in shutter-priority mode and set to 1/800 second to freeze movement as best as possible without the need to crank up ISO to outrageous levels (ISO was set to 400 for most exposures, with the first three frames at ISO 100), while delivering a usable f-stop (which often ended up at or near maximum aperture). A number of frames were cropped, but certainly not all, the intent being to focus attention on the play in motion--in particular, the sequential exposures occurring within a hair's breadth of each other. AF was set to continuous focus tracking, and with few exceptions the camera did an admirable job. Copyright ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

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For more information: Visit Canon USA
Tech specs: Canon USA
For prices and user reviews check out: Amazon (Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III 21.1MP Digital SLR Camera (Body Only)) (about $6,100), TestFreaks (Canon 1Ds Mark III, rated 7/10), and B&H Photo (about $6,100)




Comments

  1. Jack: Great review. I use the 1Ds3 as my primary camera, and agree with pretty much everything you said. If I might sing harmony for a moment:

    The battery life is worth the weight, and for those of us coming from the 1Ds and 1D2N, is actually both an improvement in weight and a improvement in battery life. With the 1Ds, I had days (admittedly, arctic days of great length) where I’d use more than one battery on the original 1Ds. Now I find myself shooting many days with the 1Ds3 and seeing the battery barely discharge, I’ve even been tempted to go for days without recharging. The extra battery I bought acts more as backup than necessity. Bravo.

    The Sandisk Extreme IVs give even better performance on the camera, as for many cameras the best reference on card-camera speed is Rob Galbraith’s database: http://www.robgalbraith.com/bins/camera_multi_page.asp?cid=6007-9256

    Agree with you about LiveView, but I sometimes use MF lenses (e.g., the Tilt-Shifts). Glad it’s there, as a result.

    Build quality. This camera took a tripod topple from a tall tripod onto hard rock, lens first, without a blink. The lens attached to it was shattered in two, the camera was utterly unharmed. I couldn’t believe it, I still have trouble believing it, but my images from later that day, and (a week later, back in civilization) Canon Irvine confirmed it. (Canon also upgraded the firmware, updated the AF hardware, cleaned the camera and sensor, got it back to me very fast, and didn’t charge me a nickel, but perhaps that’s CPS service for you.)

    I don’t do as much action/wildlife, but the 70-200/4L is a lot faster AF on the 1Ds3 than the 100/2.8. Love both lenses, but the 100 is just slow at AF. I’ve also used it with, for me, good success with the 300L/4 IS, but again, I tend to shoot non-moving subjects.

    And you do get used to the card slot, even get quick at it. But yeah, it’s odd.

    Again, great review!

  2. Jack Neubart says:

    Thanks, Joe. Obviously the one thing I can’t do with a review sample is toss it onto the ground and see how well it bounces back (not to mention I was using my own lenses on that one). But I take extra care with my review cameras, since reviewers are responsible for them. But no more so than my own gear.
    The only camera I’ve had on loan and which showed wear was an Olympus OM4-T. I was carrying both the Olympus and my Minolta XD-11 around my neck in Puerto Rico, shooting for my first book, and I observed that the Olympus black coating got chipped away, whereas the Minolta remained intact. Fortunately, Olympus let it slide.

  3. Jack,

    I agree with your assessment of the 1Ds3. Mine does everything I ask and delivers the best color I have seen from a digital body. It does not seem to have the focusing issues the 1D3 has reportedly experienced. Having both bodies I can assure you that both work as Canon intended, but the 1Ds3 seems to me to be superior for accuracy and color.

    Joe, the 1Ds3 will take more than you can dish out. I have seen this 1Ds3 used by new agencies that looked like police department mag lights — scarred and battered and working just fine. I have taken mine in my gas tank bag on my racing dirt bike hammering across rock ledges in CO and UT on unbelievably rugged trails with no effect on the camera whatsoever. It is as close to imperviously tough as you are going to get. Just like my KTM 525 race bike.

    Stu

  4. Most welcome–yeah, I usually don’t throw mine on the ground either, “Kids, don’t try this at home!” :)

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