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24
07
2012
Canon 1DX Thoughts
Canon 1DX Thoughts on a rainy day

Before I get into the 1DX, there are a few things I need to point out. First, there will be no comparisons with any other manufacturers cameras because it’s a pointless and boring exercise. Professionals may change systems if they perceive a commercial advantage but few amateurs ever do. Comparing models and saying "mine is better than yours” is something for the playground that we should have all grown out of. It should not matter what camera I use, it’s about the photography that I produce and the techniques that I teach. Never again will I say anything negative about another manufacturer’s camera system, it’s not how a professional behaves and it doesn’t help anyone. The manufacturers don’t do it and we, as photographers, should not do it. Not one bit. Ok, now that’s off my chest I feel a lot better, let’s get on with it!

Of course currently I am a Nikon photographer, you all know that, so this was a very interesting test for me to do. I gave the 1DX a much harder test than I did the D4 too, I just felt like I had to do it! First test, could it stand the full weight of the honed and perfectly chiselled (ho ho ho) Rouse body....

cheers to Matt Binstead for this image

Now you may wonder what the hell I am doing with a Canon camera? There has already been a lot of web chatter about it so let me tell you the truth. I tested the 1DX for three groups of people. First, a group of friends I am going on safari with that are considering the upgrade from an older Canon 1 dslr to the 1DX for the said safari. Since none of them own yachts or the new Ferrari Flibbertygibbet it is a big purchase and I want to ensure that they get it right as they are very close friends of mine. The second group is you lot reading this, the Canon fans that have looked at my reviews of Nikon dslr’s, and wanted a similar no BS view of the 1DX. The third person is me, I have to admit a recent interest in how this camera performs in tough conditions and whether it’s AF is as good as it used to be before someone naughty invented the 1D MK3 (hopefully that person is now on a desert island being chased by packs of howling Spurs fans). More than that I won’t say.

I was very privileged to get the 1DX for two days. I could not take it far from Canon HQ and for the first day it came with it’s own technician Sundeep to help me get to grips with the all new AF system. This was also because it was a pre-production model and Canon wanted to make sure that I always had someone there to help. To be honest though after the first hour of reading the manual, pouring through the menus and pointing it at anything that moved, I got the hang of the 1DX pretty quickly. So don’t think that every 1DX needs its own personal technician, it doesn’t.

Since I only had the camera for a very limited time, and the fact that it rained for ALL of this time, I only really tested the new AF system, Image Quality and the ISO performance. Of course no one can judge a new camera in 2 days, my recent experiences have shown that, it has to be repeatedly used in anger in the field to find out if it can really do the job. But I do have to say that the conditions I shot under would have been a test for any camera and I think it gives a good indication of the 1DX. Hopefully I will get the camera back again soon to test it’s AF abilities in backlit and low light situations too, plus the HD movies as well.

As always my reviews are not really reviews, they are just thoughts from a proper working pro who really stresses these cameras and pushes them to, and often beyond, their limits. I judge images on what is commercially acceptable, i.e. what I expect in the real world, rather than some Dali like still life. So if you want these technical "indoor” reviews, you know the sites to go, mine will just be straight and based on actually using the camera rather than repeatedly licking the box.

Ergonomics

When I first picked it up the 1DX felt like an alien device in my hand. The differences and nuances between Canon and Nikon button layouts are enormous! Luckily the shutter button of course is in a familiar place but even trying to change the ISO caused me to do something completely different. Slowly however my memory for using these cameras came back, as I had done so for 10 years before my switch to Nikon, and after the first hour it all became second nature again. Their is no doubt that the 1DX is a big camera in the hand, it’s weighty like all pro bodies are these days, and it’s dimensions probably make it the largest camera around. I am not sure if this was a feature in previous models but there are now two very responsive joysticks for horizontal and vertical shooting that are well placed for someone who hands "delicate girly hands” like mine.



On the back is a Q button now for instant access to all the commonly used parameters (quality, AF tracking mode, white balance etc), which is great as the menus take 4.5 million years to cycle through. One omission from this though are the new AF presets, which do need to be changed if you are switching from high action to more static subjects. I would have thought it obvious to have this clever feature on the Q button (and the ability to assign it to the Fn buttons on the front) and have fed this request back to Canon. It’s a minor gripe about the functionality but it’s an important one if, like me, you need to change things in a hurry.

Burst Rate

I can confirm that the 12 fps mode certainly works and it locks out after 36 RAWS (or a lot of JPEGs). I did find that this was true when I have my fast SanDisk Extreme Pro card in the slot, but once it switched to the second slot the buffer rate dropped as I had a much slower older card in that one. The moral, which is true of all these high spec dslr’s, is that they work best with the best new cards. An expensive but true fact.

Noise Performance / Image Quality


Ok some public knowledge. One of the reasons I changed to Nikon years ago was because of the noise performance. Since the change I have watched as Canon continued along the same path with noise and I was happy to stay with the D3 and then the D3s. In my opinion Nikon have always had the best noise performance from their sensors and using high ISO on a Canon sensor just rendered too much noise. In particular the shadow areas of a Canon image were always full of banding and colour noise. YES they can be removed on the MAC but my opinion has always been why should be bother, it’s upto the camera scientist geek speccy types to get it right.

Of course the new Dual Digic 5 processor and sensor on the 1DX were heralded to be the new dawn of Canon noise performance...at least in the noisy official marketing. So I decided that any exposure test had to be a hard one, there is no point just testing at ISO 100 and 200 in a studio as any camera over £5 should be able to produce good images these days. My Canon G12 produces great images at these ISOs and it’s a compact. So I started with ISO 400 first and a lovely short eared owl:

Ok now I zoomed in to 100% so that you can see the detail that is picked up, remember there is no sharpening here and I have the camera set to Faithful as well so everything is switched off:

Ok for the noise geeks here’s a different view, still at 100%, showing the background noise at the back of the head. Oh...you cannot see any??? Yes that’s right it’s clean and you’d expect it to be for the money.



OK upto ISO 800 now, a different subject this time (a young Barn Owl), and in sheltered and very bad light right at the end of the day. In fact it was Grimsville and that’s sure a grim place.

And again a 100% crop right in to the detail area shows very good detail in the white areas and the feathers. There is marginal noise in the background, considering the light I think that it’s a pretty good performance. I started to notice something interesting though, whilst there was noise in the background, there was nothing on the subject. Huh, weird. I’m not complaining, and nor should you (although some websites will drone on about it) but I just wanted to point it out.


Ok now for an ISO 1600 test. I know that some of you, particularly girlie sports pros that are terrified of going over ISO 1000, will be nervous at this kind of ISO but I do it for over 50% of my shots. My starting ISO is 800, for me that’s my 100. I like sheep too. So here’s the full image, taken at 2.8 to really accentuate the shallow depth of field:


Ok now for the crops. Here we are at 100% in the eye region, like I said very low DOF, notice the total absence of noise still.

And it’s so sad that I have to do this but there will be people out there who will say that I am not showing the noise so here is the background edge at ISO 1600. Not bad at all I think, in fact better than any other Canon file I have seen at this high ISO.



OK all very good so far, that’s about as high ISO as most of you will go right? Wrong. Cameras like the 1DX and D4 are built to be pushed and that’s my job. So now the big cahooooona. Guess the ISO on this long eared owl?

Here’s the 100% crop to help you, any ideas yet?


Yep that’s right it’s ISO 160. Ooops no that was a typo it’s ISO 1600. Darn it, I gotta stop drinking Vodka for breakfast, another typo....it’s ISO 16,000. Yes that is right, 16,000. Check the detail in the image. Remember no sharpening, natural gloomy daylight and hand-held. I checked all the dark shadows around the eyes, there’s no noise in there at all. Incredible detail I think for ISO 16,000.

 


Too good to be true, yes I thought that so I had a look around, here’s another 100% crop showing the background. Trust me high ISO is my business, I know what to look for in images and where to look. It’s noisy in the background, yes well of course it is as it’s ISO 16,000 but its monochromatic noise that to me is perfectly acceptable and totally commercial. A calendar client would not hesitate at this and for you girlie sports photographers the newspapers will not notice the difference.As a camera independent photographer I can say, had on heart, that this performance is really world class. I will be very interested to do a lot more testing at this ISO, as it will make a lot of stuff a whole lot easier.

Now I want you to remember that all of these are shot in natural overcast and downright murky light. When I first looked at the ISO 2000 images on Photo Mechanic I was dismayed to see some colour noise in the shadows and some banding BUT when I converted it into a TIF it was gone. What was there in it’s place.....were just pixels. Not coloured or banded, just pixels. So I tested it it 4000,8000 and finally 16,000 all with the same results, no colour noise in the shadows. Of course it was hardly an exhaustive test and it needs a lot more field testing to be sure, but initially I would say that the 1DX has brought Canon but up to scratch with the rest of the professional world. The noise is as good, or as little, as anything I have seen. The image quality and detail is superb throughout. And remember I’m not in the club.

AF System


We all know the troubles that Canon have had with their AF system over the past few years, it went from being the best to costing them a lot of money when many of us moved to Nikon. Reading about the 1DX and talking to Canon Tech’s about it, seems that the message has got through and they have redesigned this camera from the ground up. The AF system has had a complete re-design, not a patch, and I was keen to test it all out under some very tough conditions. Not to get too techie, but the new 61 point system has 41 cross type sensors with an additional ultra sensitive super dooper dual cross type sensors across the centre. It promises a lot, but does it deliver?

Well before we get to that there is some setting up to do, and it’s important to get it right!

a) AF Controls - The new 61 point AF system is controlled via the joystick and the usual "thumb” button. Press the thumb button and the display inside the viewfinder shows the 61 point grid; note it is not displayed in full on the camera’s top LCD, which is great as a good photographer never looks at this anyway.

b) AF Groups - Like most modern cameras, the 1DX allows you to select from groups of AF points as follows 1) Billy No Mates - a single point 2) Billy and 4 mates - central spot plus four around it at compass points 3) Billy and an expensive drinks round - central spot plus 8 others surrounding it and finally 4) Billy and all the annoying relatives at the wedding that you have to pay for but don’t really want there - all 61 points. Excuse my flippancy but it seemed the only way to describe it and I’m trying to get an alternative career as a stand up comic, although not even the dog finds the act good at the moment and just snores through it. Anyway back to the 1DX, the AF system is quick and easy to setup. The joystick is very responsive to move the points around the grid and after a bit of experimentation I could do this without taking my eye from the viewfinder.

i) AF Options and Presets - Much has been made of the new AF 1DX system and it’s flexibility. For those of you who like nothing better than to read manuals, fiddle with settings and write about the results you will have a field day. There are many AF options that you can customise. For the rest of us, who frankly can’t be bothered and just want the AF to work, Canon have given 6 presets for a variety of situations. In the spirit of the Olympics (can I mention that without the copyright police getting a monk on?) each preset is identified with a sporting symbol to give you some idea what it is used for. I was very dismayed to find the lack of a Sandra Bullock or Kylie symbol for naughty photography and again I have suggested this to Canon! The 6 settings are designed for a variety of situations, from everyday use to some extreme and variable motion. They are well explained and pretty obvious too. I tested all of them extensively on a variety of subjects and found that with high action, some worked much better than others. If I found it was lacking slightly I could make a slight adjustment, which generally fixed the issue. It was actually fun learning and I found myself understanding how all the parameters worked together, something that is vital when you have split second to make decisions.

d) Face Detection - Yep you read it right, face detection on a pro dslr. No longer the sole remit of the compact camera, I was very surprised to see it but once I got used to it, I actually think that it works quite well (see tests below). Note however it only works when you have all 61 AF points selected.

I lined up some really difficult tests, ones that I had tried before with other cameras and which I knew would push the AF to the absolute limit. The rain added an extra element, forcing the ISO up to 4000. Lens for all tests was the new 300mm f2.8L II which was all that was available for me to borrow since I only have the black variety and sold all my white stuff years ago. Images have been simply processed in ACR, loaded into Photoshop, Levels corrected and then re-sized down to 700 pixels. Nothing else and no selective sharpening.

AF Test no1 - Flight in distracting woodland

Ok for the first action test I wanted to try the Tawny Owl flying through a distracting forest. We do this on my workshops and it’s a always a nightmare for everyone, me included. The light was awful, there was no contrast, and the background distraction was extreme as the Tawny Owl started out as less than 5% in the frame, rapidly becoming a lot bigger. My only previous success with this is in decent light, and then only with a couple of images. So this was the first test and already it was a toughie. For each flight I experimented with different AF presets ( 4,5 and 6 - the ones governing erratic motion) and here are the results:




The lightbox shows a complete sequence where every image is sharp. Now I should state that the photographer has a lot to do with this too, and I am very very good at action and motion tracking. That’s why I teach it. So I know all the tricks to help the camera track motion. In this case I knew to select the centre point with it’s four surrounding points, to get the maximum accuracy. It worked. I will not say that it locked on everytime, it didn’t, but it did lock on MOST times to give me a fighting chance of getting at least 2-3 images per flight (which last around 5 seconds) on average. Those that have tried this on my workshops know how close to impossible it is in good light, yet alone murk (people in Northern Ireland and Scotland please note, murk is defined as what you see when you look up 360 days of the year!).

To re-inforce the argument about noise, here’s a 100% crop of one of the sequence at ISO 8000:


Personally I think it’s a pretty good result for ISO 8000 in bad light, check the detail on the owl too. As an independent I was very impressed with these first results, showing how the noise performance and AF system worked in tandem.

AF Test no2 - Flight in Open / Rain

Test no1 was an extreme test as it contained the worst of everything. Since I managed to produce some very decent images out of it, I was growing in confidence with the AF and moved onto a slightly more "real world” test, which would be closer to how most of you might use the 1DX. I figured that if it could get the tawny owl sharp, against a dark background, then it would have no issue with a seabird or an eagle. Of course just as I started the test it began to rain, not wanting to keep the owls out we had time for two flights. The first I cocked up entirely (my fault), the second yielded three sharp images out of four with this one being the best:



The 1DX / Rouse combo did a good job again, the rain did hamper the AF slightly I think but it retained the focus well once it had locked on. I think that this is an image that you will see published a lot, at ISO 4000 and in a lot of rain. Pin sharp. I found myself getting strangely depressed that I could not fault the camera so far, luckily I knew that test no3 was by far the worst and most challenging.....for the both of us.

AF Test no3 - the ultimate

Otters are very fast, unpredictable mammals. Trust me I am an expert there, having spent a long time working with them for the 2020VISION project. I have always wanted to get some head-on high action shots of otters running straight at the camera, but have never managed it before. Now to those of you that don’t understand how hard this shot is, let me explain the way an otter runs. Fast. Damn fast, damn unpredictable and it goes from stationary to full speed in two long bounds. It’s a complete AF nightmare, head on straight at the camera, undulating run, a dark and wet subject in cloudy conditions in the rain. From a low angle too, the distance is only 8 metres, so the run is over in just over a second....and it’s head on with a featureless head that has to be razor sharp. It’s like the Mens 100m at the Sponsored Unmentionables but worse. The ultimate test, I expected the 1Dx to fail. Of course for this level of dslr, and the money it costs, you would expect the camera to get a few right; but the rate of change of the running otter coupled with its erratic motion and unpredictable path, meant that both photographer and camera would be pushed to their limits.

When I started the test the light was ok so I managed to get 1/1600th at f4 with an ISO of 2000. The first result from the first run, a hit:


The rain came down and the light was terrible, so I bounced the ISO upto 8000 to retain the shutter speed and shot with this for the rest of the day. Of course I would rather shoot at ISO 2000 but I didn’t get a choice, professionals never do, we just have to produce no matter what the weather. Despite the pouring rain between the lens and otter the results continued to be consistent:



I want to put these images in perspective. One second the otter was still (usually side on), less than 25% of the frame, the next second it was hurtling towards me. In fact the run was so fast that I could not really get any feel for it in the viewfinder, all I did was to keep the otter roughly central and hope that the AF locked on. It was all over so quickly, I didn’t really have time to check the images before the next run and I could not really check anyway. So when I downloaded on the MAC I zoomed them all upto 100% in Photo Mechanic and hovered my hand over the delete key, expecting to use it a lot. You know what I found? On most of the runs, I would say 8/10, the sequence was 75% sharp. Right at the start they were out, as they were when the otter was about to munch the lens it was so close, but these are only to be expected. In between, I would say that when the otter was coming right for me, approximately 75% of the images were sharp.

Now let me define sharp. For some of the sequence the head was not in focus due to the undulating gait of the otter as it’s head bobbed up and down when it ran. But where the head was not sharp, the back was sharp - as this was at the centre of the image. This means that the AF system locked on and kept the lock in the centre. It did exactly what I asked it to do, the motion was so fast that I did not have the time to flick the AF points around. Had it been a 100m sprinter in the unmentionables then the AF point would be more consistent and easier to move around. I’d have no hesitation in using it for the 100m sprint final after how the 1DX performed with the otter. Now this is where my lack of time and experience with the 1DX really kicked in. I later found that you can set the 1DX to automatically expand AF points to track the motion, so it might have kept the otter’s face in focus all of the time, who knows.



All the other images were just taken from the camera, processed as TIFS and then reduced in size to 700 pixels. The one above I decided to process a little, so ran it through some Photoshop actions for contrast etc. It processed well.

The bottom line. I nailed a consistently sharp selection of jumping and flying otters in some of the most difficult conditions to shoot in imaginable. A much greater number of them were sharp than what I could every realistically expect. The AF system works...but of course it needs further testing!

Face Detection

Look I know many of you consider this a gimmick but I just wanted to show some results from it as it might be very useful. In the old days, as I remember it with Canon, you could select all the AF points and hope that the AF system was smart enough to get the face. That’s all you could do, hope. I hope for many things such as new hair on my head. With the 1DX there is a new AF option that controls how the camera determines the point of focus when all 61 points are selected. You can either have it like the old days, where you hope that it gets it right, or you can select an option that lets the camera combine the AF detection system with the Face detection system. Interesting...if it works...here’s the results:

So I held the subject roughly central in the viewfinder and it got it with the face detect. It tracks around the face yes, but it was always within the boundary of the face and the images are sharp. I used it a lot and liked it. I found the following feature by accident:

Here’s the face detect again picking up the head. Notice that the points are slightly off the eye, as they are picking up contrast areas, but with f5.6 then eye will be razor and it’s close enough. Annoyingly the owl kept looking from one side to the other, which meant continually changing the composition around to get it looking into dead space. I found however that if I moved the camera slowly to the new composition, the face detection tracked across and acquired the face again....


I thought that this was pretty impressive and saved a lot of work moving the AF point via the joystick. It needs further testing but it seems to work well.

Miscellaneous

1)
Metering - this seems a little hit and miss, which is probably caused by the extreme conditions. It did have a tendency to over expose images when set to "0” compensation, not an issue if you are experienced and don’t trust the camera one bit (errr that’s me). I don’t mean that it burnt them out, just tended to give a histogram that was farther right than I would expect. Canon have told me that at least one of the firmware updates addresses this issue for the production versions so hopefully the next one that I get to test further won’t have this.

2) Taste - the box tasted nice

3) Water resistance - during the tests I did my best to keep the camera covered up but it did get pretty wet. Drenched in fact. Well I though what the hell, it’s a just a sample right? Gotta test it for everything. So it was drenched and it worked, no failures. Again not a definitive test but the seals seem to work, regular readers of my BLOG will know all about recent issues I have had in this area.

Conclusion

Phew, well now it’s the hard bit. If I am honest I was surprised how good the 1DX was, and pleased at the same time for all the Canon photographers I know that have so wanted this camera to deliver. The AF system I found to be astoundingly accurate, like my old 1DS MK2 was it could lock onto anything and so (from my limited testing) can the 1DX. The images I have shown here are all razor sharp, again I was surprised to see so many in a sequence with such fast action. I’m quite happy to say that after my limited testing I can see that the AF system is probably the best I have ever used. Yes it is quite complex, but the 6 presets are obvious even to people from Essex, and for 99% of you they will be fine. I should say though that I need to really test the AF system with backlighting and I will be doing that as soon as Canon loan me another body for a couple of days. I think it is a vital and fair test to really push it across all light conditions that I encounter, not just the grimmest.

Ok now to have the noise performance. I have never seen a Canon file like it, at the kind of ISO’s I like to shoot at, the image quality is great, detail is intense and the noise is not an issue. I’m not going to give any bold sound byte statements like "it’s better than brand X” or anything like that. All I will say is that it’s as good as anything else I have seen on any camera, it more than competes.

So there’s the results of my limited test. If you are a Canon shooter reading this, with any previous 1 series Canon dslr then get the wife’s stockings on your head and rob the nearest bank. Do it tonight. In my opinion the 1DX is as much of a revelation to Canon photographers as the D3 was to Nikon photographers. It’s in a different ball park. Of course most amateur photographers will say that it’s too expensive for them, well you have to hope that Canon will now take the noise performance and AF of the 1DX and propagate it through their range of cameras. But if you do spend the money then, from what I have seen so far, you will be investing in the future as the 1DX is a machine built for success. I am sure that there will be many at the Olympics, as there were many at the golf last week, and it will be interesting to see if any of the pros push the ISO because of our lovely weather. I’m now back to my misfiring D4 and leaving for a two day shoot with it and the ever faithful D800. It’s been a very interesting exercise testing the 1DX and I look forward to seeing what it can do with a longer lens. From an independent point of view it’s a great camera.....it just creates one helluva problem for me........




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