The 21.1-megapixel Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III is Canon's flagship professional DSLR.
How many people are going to spend £5,500 on a camera? Even more importantly, how many enthusiast photographers rather than pros, will fork out that amount of money and justify it to their partners? Probably not too many, but Canon’s flagship DSLR is still worth looking at for a number of reasons.
First, people are always interested in the top end, desirable-but-unaffordable gear. The car enthusiast who drives a Skoda is still going to be interested in the Ferrari review and the motorbike fan with a little 125cc Yamaha will harbour fantasies of one day owning a Ducatti. For the enthusiast or hobbyist, the dreams of new kit, or of owning the best kit, whiles away the hours when we’re not pursuing our hobby. Hours stuck in traffic, idly thinking, ‘What camera would I buy if I won the lottery?’ Then making a mental list of the Aladdin’s Cave of wonderful equipment we could accrue if our numbers came up. Or is that just us?
Trickle Down Effect
Second, what comes from the top eventually filters to the bottom. The top-end cameras today are the entry-level and consumer models of tomorrow. The same amount of money ten years ago would have got you a 2MP DSLR, while the 11MP Mk I of five years ago has now been surpassed by the 12MP models launched recently for about £5,000 less. Similarly, technology other than the pixels trickle down to the consumer better processing, faster AF and higher ISOs are just some of the improvements to mid-range and entry-level cameras that originally came from the top end.
Features and Design
This is a big camera with a big feature set. The magnesium alloy body alone weighs 1,210g without a lens and battery. Within that body lies a pair of DIGIC III processors, required to transform the large files that are generated by the hefty 36x24mm full-frame sensor.
That sensor is a newly designed CMOS type with 21.1 million effective pixels with an additional 800,000 pixels making up the black masking border used for calibration. Each photosite of the CMOS sensor features its own noise-reduction circuitry, along with individual amplifiers to speed up the transfer process of the signal from the sensor to the processors. Canon claims that this system results in faster image transfers, lower noise and reduced power consumption.
But what exactly does a 21-megapixel sensor offer that a lower-resolution one doesn’t? The obvious answer is larger images, but apart from the fact that few of us print at 18×13 inches at 300dpi, or larger at a lower print resolution, what does this matter? Well, if you print smaller then your images will be sharper.
And who exactly needs 21-megpixels anyway? The answer here is that the EOS 1Ds is aimed mainly at studio photographers, who do need larger images for ad campaigns, double page magazine spreads (with cropping) and large fine art prints. In short, more pixels have significant commercial advantages. For the studio-based pro too, the chance to achieve high resolution images from a DSLR body as opposed to images from often-unwieldy medium format cameras coupled with digital backs can free up their camera from tripods and increase shooting speed, to name just a couple of plus points.
The sensor doesn’t just offer high resolution, though. Along with other new Canon cameras, the EOS 1Ds Mk III has built-in dust reduction courtesy of the EOS Integrated Cleaning System. This works as a three-way attack on dust. First, an anti-static filter covers the sensor, reducing the chances of dust adhering to the sensor in the first place. Second, a supersonic signal is generated at the sensor during start-up to dislodge any dust that does manage to make its way to the surface, before a software-based dust-removal system checks the images as they are downloaded and effectively automatically clones out any dust that is found on the image or across a range of images, thus completing the process.
DIGIC III Processor
We mentioned that the camera has twin DIGIC III processors, compared with other cameras with single chips. The EOS 1Ds Mk III produces big files so it needs to quickly process and then push those files through the workflow pipeline as fast as possible. With a frame rate of 5fps it’s not the fastest, but it’s still fast and doubling the processing power at least keeps the camera’s speed at a working level, and is comparable to the majority of lower-resolution cameras. It’s not designed for sport and reportage, so isn’t a competitor of the Nikon D3, and besides the EOS 1D Mk III is better suited to fast, prolonged shooting with its 10fps burst rate working up to 110 JPEGs.
Canon hasn’t given details regarding the camera’s buffer size but it’ll need to be fairly substantial to deal with images of this size. This is the memory that holds and transfers images between processor and memory card. If you have a slow transfer card write speed, the buffer holds the images that have been shot rather like an air traffic holding pattern that keeps planes in the air until a slot on the runway is free.
As a professional camera, there are no scene modes, but within the menu are Canon’s Picture Styles that are standard on all current EOS models. These offer a variety of image flavours, setting parameters to make the most from subjects such as portraits and landscapes, as well as varying colour tones with standard, monochrome, neutral and faithful options. There are also three user-defined settings, which can all be adjusted to suit your own preference.
As for other photographic controls, the camera is equipped with the standard PASM modes, while a choice of drive modes offers 5fps shooting with single and continuous AF.
Shutter speeds ranging from 30sec to 1/8000sec and Bulb add to the professional spec, as does the comprehensive white balance settings including WB compensation. The sensitivity of the sensor covers a respectable ISO 100-1600 in normal use, with a Low and High mode of ISO 50 and 3200 respectively. While this doesn’t compare to the Nikon D3, it suits most needs, especially in the studio.
As for the camera’s focus system, the 1DS Mk III retains the same 45-point system of the Mk II, but now includes 19 cross-type points instead of the seven on the older model. Similarly, the new model has an improved metering system upping the evaluative stakes with 45 zones, over the previous 21, all linked to the AF system.
Finally, Canon has added live view to the 3in monitor, allowing live viewing of the subject to be shot directly on the monitor. Disappointingly, this feature works only in manual focus mode, though a 10x zoom view is available for critical focus checks.
There’s nothing especially unique about the layout of the camera which keeps almost the same interface as other Canon digital SLR cameras. Even if you’ve only used an entry-level EOS model before, the 1Ds Mk III will be immediately familiar. Of course, there is the question of size, and this is a much larger camera than any other in the range, other than the 1D Mk III.
Part of the size increase comes from the rugged build and incorporation of the large sensor, but also the added size of the powerful battery and built-in vertical grip. In vertical shooting the camera offers much the same controls around the shutter release button as its top-plate partner, including AF controls, AF/AE lock and a front command dial for changing shutter or aperture (depending on what exposure mode you’re using).
Performance and Handling
Once we’re up and running, the camera is a breeze and a joy to use. The AF is quick and quiet, and the shutter release button is responsive. While it’s not the fastest shooter at five frames per second, it’s impressive that the large file sizes can be passed through the system so quickly and sustained bursts of around 60 Jpegs are easily achieved using a SanDisk Extreme III CF card.
The camera grips are comfortable despite the weight, with the same rubber coating of other Canon DLSRs providing a confidence-instilling and secure grip. It’s a camera better suited to larger hands and longer fingers though, as there can be a bit of a reach to certain buttons. It’s not a major problem it’s just a big camera!
We always find ourselves fumbling around with EOS cameras not through unfamiliarity but it’s just a little awkward and the 1Ds Mk III is no exception. Having to press two buttons simultaneously then using the dial to access the exposure bracketing is a case in point; another being using the ‘Func’ button to change the White Balance on the grey LCD on the back of the camera. They’re all subjective quibbles, but we just find it less intuitive than it could be.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to try the camera’s weatherproofing across a range of climate conditions, but it certainly coped well with a downpour of fine rain, the sort that soaks you right through.
The viewfinder matches the size of the sensor, noticeably larger than that of an APS-C type DSLR, and is bright and clean with clear green LED readout and red projected LED AF points. The AF points can be selected individually using the front command dial and the large rotating command dial on the back. The monitor is a useful size, but the resolution and clarity really fail to match that of the ultra-high resolution of the Nikon D3 or Sony Alpha 700. At this price, we really would expect more resolution, especially as the live view only works in manual focus mode and so requires the sharpest view possible.
Image Quality & Value
There’s little to criticise the camera for in terms of exposure. For average subjects it’s consistently spot on, while the more usual meter-fooling culprits will be easily sorted using exposure compensation. If you’re less sure about exposure, use bracketing, but seriously if you’re spending £5,500 on a camera, you should be able to drive it!
Ever since the original EOS 1Ds, the range has always impressed with its noise control. Canon was the first to use CMOS and the lack of noise proved its worth. Canon has done it again with this version; ISO 800 is noise free while the higher sensitivity shows so little as not to matter.
Tone and Contrast
Images are punchy and crisp, while still maintaining smooth tonal gradations. There’s plenty of shadow detail, and when highlight detail is lost, such as bright skies for example, it can usually be brought back during Raw processing. I’ve seen few cameras that can maintain that level of retention, indicating an impressive dynamic range.
Colour and White Balance
Another bonus for the 1Ds Mk III, the auto white balance proves remarkably effective and for the picky there’s plenty of control on board for fine-tuning. Similarly, with general colour control the camera makes a good show, with vibrant images, though not over saturated.
Sharpness and Detail
This is where the camera shines, with its 22 million pixels enhancing the perceived sharpness of the images, especially when viewed on screen or printed to A4. Zooming in on the images reveals levels of detail that lower-resolution cameras can’t capture (nor often need to)
Value for Money
It’s the most expensive DSLR on the market, but is it worth the money? To the man on the Clapham Omnibus, probably not, but to the top-end advertising or fashion snapper, it’s less than a day’s wages.
Canon has done it again with the 1Ds Mk III and I expect that studios across the globe will be ordering them as a matter of course, just for the high resolution. In use it’s a workhorse, and what it lacks in grace and beauty is made up for with its strength and results and what results! The image quality achievable from the 1Ds Mk III, when coupled with excellent optics, is, quite frankly, awesome. One notable example of this is the exceptional sharpness that?s possible from the high-resolution CMOS sensor, permitting very fine detail capture, and the excellent exposure and tonality of the pictures. As long as the camera produces images this good, there’s little else that matters.