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Canon EOS 1D X Review - By Fred Miranda

Canon 1D X and Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II

 

I am a landscape photographer at heart, and I usually shoot exclusively with Canon. Naturally, when I heard the news that they were introducing a new full frame camera - the Canon EOS 1D X, I was intrigued. This was branded to be a their "flagship camera", it was destined to command the ever expanding fleet of Canon SLRs. Would all 18MP of this 1D X be enough for me and other professionals to embrace it and let go of our good ol'gear that we had learned to love?

I decided to put it to the test and explore the pros and cons when comparing the Canon 1D X to the Canon 5D Mark III, and its predecessor the Canon 1D Mark IV. The company is confident that the new autofocus system and improvements in image quality will persuade photographers to upgrade from their 1Ds Mark III and 1D Mark IV bodies. But, convincing me to part with the value of a 1.3x crop factor and the ability to autofocus at f/8*, will be a challenge. Then, there are the 1Ds Mark III users who might mourn the loss of 3 million precious pixels - even if it is counterbalanced with less noise and higher image quality.

*Update: Months after this review was posted, Canon released Firmware v1.1.1. The inability to autofocus at f/8 is now a thing of the past. The Canon EOS 1D X firmware update adds Cross-Type AF Support at f/8. It also allows AF points to be illuminated in red when the shutter button is pressed halfway in AI Servo mode.

I couldn't wait to see what this new camera could do. As soon as I had my hands on it, I wanted to push the limits of the new AF system, metering and custom options. But, since I was just borrowing the camera and had limited time and access, I had to stay close to home (Southern California). Thoughts were racing through my mind, what would I shoot with this new gem? Like many, I enjoy sports photography, but I didn't have access to shoot a pro-game in the next few days. Plus, wouldn't it be better to leave sports to the pros to explore? Then it came to me...why not expand on my passion for wildlife photography? And so, it was decided. Armed with my best hiking boots and a camouflage sleeve on my lens, my quest began. Off I went into the wild, ready to sneak a peak at birds in flight, and any other little critters or wild animals I could come across.

 

Canon 1D X  400mm f/2.8L IS II + 1.4x III extender

Canon EOS 1D X   400mm f/2.8L IS II + 1.4x III extender  f/4   1/2000   ISO 400:   Click for larger image

 

Wrapping my hands around this new camera I thought to myself, this is one rugged piece of equipment. Following the lineage of it's predecessors, the EOS-1 series, it features a magnesium alloy body frame and is ready to stand up to some heavy duty pro-use. Although the new 1D X is about a half pound heavier - the difference seemed minor and I hardly noticed it when shooting in the field. It's a bit taller than the 1D Mark IV, and has a beefier grip with a more solid hold. I noticed improvements were made to the vertical grip which now feels more natural and comfortable. A multi-controller for vertical shooting was also added, this features is sure to put a smile on many faces. Plus, there's a new charger (LC-E4N) and a more powerful battery (LP-E4N) - both will work on previous 1D bodies.

 

Canon 1D X

 

Canon EOS 1D X main features:
  • Full Frame 18-megapixel CMOS image sensor
  • 61-point AF with up to 41 cross-type AF points
  • New mechanical shutter rated up to 400,000 cycles
  • New intelligent EOS iTR AF Tracking and Recognition options
  • Zone, Spot and AF Expansion Focusing modes
  • DUAL "DIGIC 5+" processors plus DIGIC 4 processor dedicated to AE functions
  • 12fps shooting with AF (JPEG and RAW) or 14fps super High Speed continuous with no AF (JPEG only)
  • ISO 100 to 51,200 as standard, ISO 50 to 204,800 with expansion
  • 100,000-pixel RGB AE sensor with dedicated processor
  • +/- 5 Stop Exposure Compensation
  • 55ms shutter lag, 36ms via 'Shortened Release Lag' Custom Function
  • Viewfinder blackout at 60ms
  • Full HD Movie shooting with ALL-I or IPB compression
  • 30min clip length in Full HD Movie
  • Timecode setting for HD Movie shooting
  • Transparent LCD viewfinder with new focusing screen (100% frame coverage, .76x magnification, 20mm eye-point)
  • 3.2" 1.04 million pixel Clear View II LCD Screen
  • 2nd Gen EOS Integrated Cleaning System (EICS)
  • Dual CF Card slots
  • Silent control touch-pad area

 

 

Standing as still as statue, I did my best not to frighten away the Egret I was watching. While handholding a new 500mm lens on the 1D X, I was curious to find out if pulling the trigger on 12 frames per second, would scare him off. Surprisingly, the sweet clicking sound faded away into the landscape and it was quieter than what I was used to with the 1D Mark IV (10 frames per second). Mother nature shouted out to me, as my Egret swooped up a fish! I stopped to glance into the ultra bright viewfinder and was happy to see the full frame image I was hoping for staring back at me.

 

Canon EOS 1D X  500mm f/4L IS II + 1.4x III extender (700mm)

Canon EOS 1D X   500mm f/4L IS II + 1.4x III extender   f/5.6   1/1000   ISO 160:   Click for larger image  |  100% crop

 

Canon's Clear View II technology delivers greater visibility to the 3.2" TFT LCD screen. It has an anti-reflective construction with 1.04 million dots. The screen is sharp, bright and easy to see outdoors - even when the sun hits it. With a 400,000 shutter cycle the shutter durability is now rated at 100,000 cycles more than the 1D Mark IV.


Note: Use the links to enlarge the thumbnail images. Make sure to close the window before opening another image.


 

Canon EOS 1D X  400mm f/2.8L IS II + 1.4x III extender (560mm)

Canon EOS 1D X   400mm f/2.8L IS II + 1.4x III extender  f/4   1/2000   ISO 200:   Click for larger image  |  100% crop

 

Full Frame and FPS

After a long wait, professional sport shooters and photojournalists are finally getting the full-frame and high frames per second (FPS) camera they've hungered for. For the past 10 years we used a crop sensor in order to achieve a high number of FPS. The first full frame Canon SLR was released in 2002 but three FPS was inefficient for action photography. Subsequent full-frame models did not significantly improve FPS either, and left much to be desired.

New technology allows Canon to deliver full frame and FPS without sacrificing too much resolution. They've improved performance, making the new 1D X more responsive and reliable. Capturing full frame RAW files at 12 FPS instead of 10 FPS, may not seem like much, but it could be just the edge you need when striving for that perfect shot. With a new 61-point autofocus system and a 100,000-pixel RGB metering system to top things off - it's sure to satisfy.

 

Canon EOS 1D X  500mm f/4L IS II

Canon EOS 1D X   500mm f/4L IS II   f/4   1/800   ISO 640:   Click for larger image

 

Autofocus (AF):

Forget previous versions, the new 1D X has just raised the bar in autofocus technology. Leading the way with a highly advanced 61-point high density Reticular AF, Canon has designed something to brag about. It reacts to sudden stops and starts on a dime, which is something sports and wildlife photographers will appreciate. There are also a number of dedicated AF modes which are optimized to capture anything from a static subject to an unpredictable moving one. Plus, it has remarkable shooting sensitivity in low light situations.

The 1D X has enhanced and greatly improved tracking capability. The main difference between it and the 5D Mark III, which shares the same 61-point AF system, involves the metering system. There is a new 100,000-pixel RGB metering system in the Canon EOS 1D X that can be used with Automatic AF point selection to assist when tracking subjects around the AF area. It calculates exposure better than anything I have ever seen, even under mixed lighting conditions. Canon calls this an "Intelligent Tracking and Recognition" system (EOS iTR). They designed a separate, independent DIGIC 4 processor, dedicated strictly to calculate metering in order to bring this to life. When enabled, EOS iTR does a phenomenal job detecting face and color when tracking the subject.

 

Canon 500mm f/4L IS II

Canon 500mm f/4L IS II   f/4   1/3200  ISO 400:   Click for larger image

 

The new AF system is able to quickly lock on focus in one shot AF mode, even in extreme low light conditions. There is noticeable improvement from the Mark IV. The low light AF sensitivity at EV -2 makes a great deal of difference in the real world. I was able to focus in very low light (moon lit subjects) with the new 1D-X when using a fast lens and the dual cross central 5 AF points. In comparison, this was not possible with the Mark IV, even when using the center point. It fails to lock on high contrast subjects in very low light, therefore making it necessary to use contrast-detection AF Live View instead.

When shooting with the 500mm f/4L IS II, there was access to 21 Cross-type AF points even when adding the 1.4x III extender. But, from the lenses I tested- only the fast 400mm f/2.8L IS II allowed me to use the new high precision diagonal cross-type layout (dual cross / central five AF points). With the 500mm f/4L IS II, I was able to use high precision AF points away from the center. To the left and right of the center stack of AF points there was a smaller group of 20 AF points in each (four rows across, five points top-to-bottom). In these groups, the middle two vertical rows had a horizontal line sensor that provide superior high-precision.

Here is a graph showing the AF points and their precision when using popular wildlife f/4 lenses like the new 500mm f/4L IS II or 600mm f/4L IS II.

Canon 1D X 61-point AF system

 

When adding the 1.4x III extender (on the example lenses above), you will loose the f/4 (vertical-line focusing) + f/5.6 (horizontal-line focusing) cross-type AF as shown below:

 

Canon 1D X 61-point AF system

 

The final graph shows an example using the most popular sports lenses Canon produces: The 400mm f/2.8L IS II and 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II. Because of the fast f/2.8 aperture, these lenses take advantage of all precision points available on the new 61-point AF system.

 

Canon 1D X 61-point AF system

 

I noticed that in servo mode, the 1D X takes about the same time as the Mark IV to lock on low contrast subjects in low light. But, focus accuracy was better with the 1D X. Also noticeable is the 1D X's ability to quickly lock focus in extreme defocused subjects.

 

Canon EOS 1D X  500mm f/4L IS II

Canon EOS 1D X   500mm f/4L IS II   f/4   1/320   ISO 100:   Click for larger image  |  100% crop





Servo Mode:

One indication that Canon built the 1D X with the Sport Photographer in mind is the use of "Olympic sports" icons to illustrate several tweaks to the servo algorithms, aka "Case". These pre-sets grant the ability to tweak the AF servo code to work more specifically for your subject type and conditions.

Even though tracking sensitivity was available on the previous Mark IV, the 1D X now expands on this feature by adding two new settings which allow you to finely tune the acceleration and deceleration and speed of the AF pt auto switching. My tests demonstrate an improvement from the 1D Mark IV because of the improved servo algorithms and user customizations. I was able to increase the number of keepers when tracking fast birds in difficult conditions with a busy background, thanks to a number of AF Servo "Cases" provided.

 

Canon EOS 1D X  400mm f/2.8L IS II

Canon EOS 1D X   400mm f/2.8L IS II   f/2.8   1/600   ISO 400:   Click for larger image  |  100% crop

 

When capturing images of birds in flight, I found that two of the pre-set AF cases were most effective. Case 4 and 6. My default setting is Case 4 and works well in all conditions whether the birds are flying laterally or towards the camera. I also like to fine-tune Case 4, by adjust the tracking setting to -1. This gives me just enough lag time to keep the focus where I want it. However, if a smaller bird is rapidly approaching I will change accel./decel. to +2.

 

Canon EOS 1D X  500mm f/4L IS II

Canon EOS 1D X   500mm f/4L IS II   f/4   1/320   ISO 500:   Click for larger image  |  100% crop

 

When shooting against a clear background my 61-point AF expansion with face recognition, is enabled. But, my default AF setting will be a single focusing point along with four or eight surrounding points depending on the background. For a small perched bird that I anticipate tracking as it takes off latterly into the frame, I switch to Case 6. With a solid background, I like to capture these rapid birds by predicting their flight - using the 61-point Automatic selection AF mode. I start by focusing on its head and then let the camera automatically switch between the 61 points to track the bird as it speeds into the frame.

 

Canon EOS 1D X  400mm f/2.8L IS II + 1.4x III extender (560mm)

Canon EOS 1D X   400mm f/2.8L IS II + 1.4x III extender   f/4   1/2000   ISO 320:   Click for larger image  |  100% crop

 

I like using Zone AF when birds are coming towards the camera. Zone AF switches focusing points giving priority to the nearest subject element (birds head). I was able to get a great number of keepers by quickly switching to this mode.

Here is a tip on how to do this very quickly without loosing the bird:

Go to camera "Operation" (C.Fn5)
Select Custom Controls
Select "DOF preview button"
Select "Switch to registered AF func." and click on the "INFO" button
There you can register a custom AF function like Zone AF among other tracking settings.
Press "Menu" and then the "Set" button.

You have successfully registered a custom AF function to the DOF preview button. (In this case Zone AF)
When shooting BIF using Single-point AF with expansion you can quickly switch to Zone AF while still tracking the bird for those occasions when the bird changes direction and starts to fly towards the camera. Alternatively you could use the "M-Fn2" button for this purpose.

 

Canon EOS 1D X  400mm f/2.8L IS II + 1.4x III extender (560mm)

Canon EOS 1D X   400mm f/2.8L IS II + 1.4x III extender  f/4   1/2000   ISO 125:   Click for larger  |  100% crop

 

 

The right camera for Wildlife Photography?

Many wildlife photographers may be wondering if they should upgrade to the new 1D X.

It's 61-point AF system is definitely a pull in that direction. If you can get close to your subject and you are working with a long lens, than this could be the camera for you. Especially since you will get cleaner shots when shooting in low light.

 

Canon EOS 1D X  500mm f/4L IS II + 1.4x III extender (700mm)

Canon EOS 1D X   500mm f/4L IS II + 1.4x III extender   f/5.6   6s   ISO 160:   Click for larger image

 

Some may argue that the 1D X inability to autofocus at f/8 is a big drawback*. After all, being able to auto focus at f/8 with accuracy, using the center point, has always been a major advantage of the EOS 1 Pro SLR since the 1D introduction. If you do decide to get the new camera, popular lenses like the 400mm f/5.6L and 800mm f/5.6L will not autofocus with the 1.4x extender. Also, bread and butter super-telephotos lenses like the 500mm and 600mm f/4L, when coupled with the 2x extender, will not autofocus either.

*Update: Canon released Firmware v1.1.1 which enables the Canon EOS 1D X to autofocus at f/8.

When not focal-length limited, wildlife shooters will get superior image quality, especially when shooting in low light. In situations where your subject fills the full frame, the 1D X makes a lot of sense and could be the best tool currently available. But if you find yourself reach limited and substantial crop is applied in post-production, then the 1D X superior image quality takes a hit.

 

Canon EOS 1D X  500mm f/4L IS II

Canon EOS 1D X   500mm f/4L IS II   f/4   1/320   ISO 1250:   Click for larger image  |  100% crop

 

Keep in mind that with the 1D X you are going to be maxed out at 800mm. If you upgrade to this camera you might have to get closer to your subject in order to avoid too much cropping. For example, bird photographers currently shooting with a 1D Mark IV and the EF 800mm f/5.6L IS lens are able to take advantage of the 1.3x multiplier and the ability to shoot at f/8 - giving them a maximum reach of 1450mm when adding the 1.4x extender. That's a big difference in focal length that they will have to give up with the 1D X. Although 800mm is as super-telephoto as it gets, it just might not be enough for many experienced wildlife and bird photographers.

The 1D Mk IV's sensor has a pixel density advantage of 22% compared to the 1D X's full frame sensor. In essence, when using the same lens and cropping the 1D X file to match the 1D Mark IV's field of view, you end up with only about 10MP to work with.

 

Canon EOS 1D X  500mm f/4L IS II + 1.4x III extender (700mm)

Canon EOS 1D X   500mm f/4L IS II + 1.4x III extender   f/5.6   1/640   ISO 640:   Click for larger image  |  100% crop

 

At first glance when comparing RAW images from both cameras at the pixel level without any cropping or normalization, it seems like the 1D X files are cleaner. However, if the 1D X image is cropped so that it produces the same field of view as a full sized image from the 1D Mark IV and then interpolated to 16MP, the differences in noise are not so dramatic anymore. (See high ISO tests on page 2)

One solution for wildlife shooters considering the EOS 1D X is to upgrade their lenses to compensate for the loss of reach. It's an expensive proposition, but it will yield better image quality. And, there's always the option of carrying an extra crop body like the Canon 7D or 1D Mark IV, when focal length restricted.

 

Canon EOS 1D X  400mm f/2.8L IS II

Canon EOS 1D X   400mm f/2.8L IS II   f/2.8  1/600   ISO 100:   Click for larger image