The long-awaited flagship DSLR arrives just in time for the 2012 Olympic games. In our Canon EOS 1D X review we put the Canon EOS 1DX through its paces to see if it is an award-winning contender.
The camera was announced back in October 2011, even though it was not due to be ready for use until March 2012 at the earliest. This early warning, we were told, was to ensure photo agencies could be made aware of the product in plenty of time to include it in their purchasing plans for the year ahead.
It was perhaps also an opportunity to secure an audience before the announcement of its potential rival, the Nikon D4, which came in January.
Both cameras have since experienced delays in their releases, with the Canon EOS 1D X now looking like it will be in the shops by mid-June. This review is based on a model with pre-release firmware, though Canon Europe has assured us that the camera is performing to ‘release standard’.
The Canon EOS 1D X follows a line of 1D cameras that previously included 1Ds variations for higher resolution studio, portrait or landscape users. However, the Canon EOS 1D X – the 10th Canon pro body – replaces both the 1D Mark IV and the 1Ds Mark III models, despite the resolution being lower than the 21MP 1Ds Mark III.
The only other variation of the 1D is now the 1D C, which also features an 18MP full-frame sensor but is designed for videographers too, having the ability to shoot 4K video. The Canon EOS 1D X then, is a camera designed for a wide range of professional photographers from landscape and nature photographers, through to portrait and press photographers. Sport, however, remains its number one focus, as appears evident from the autofocus case studies in the menu, and is where the camera will be put to the greatest test. Here the onus is on speed and accuracy, to capture often fast-moving subjects in difficult lighting conditions.
The previous 1D Mark IV was no slacker in this regard but the Canon EOS 1D X offers a new faster processor, a more advanced metering system and a more extensive AF system. This should not only cope with the higher resolution full-frame sensor but offer greater performance too.
See sample images here
One of the biggest changes from the 1D Mark IV is the physical size of the 1D X’s sensor. The EOS-1D series has so far used an APS-H-sized (27.9×18.6mm) device that gives a 1.3x focal magnification. The 1D X uses a full-frame (36x24mm) CMOS sensor for a 1x magnification, as previously used by the EOS-1Ds and EOS 5D models. This sensor is a new unit with 18.1 million effective pixels and is the first from Canon to use gapless microlenses on a full-frame sensor. This means pixel size is increased, with each now measuring 6.9um compared with 5.7um on the 1D Mark IV and 6.4Ǐm on the 1Ds Mark III. Gapless technology was previously seen on the EOS 7D’s APS-C sensor and now features on the EOS 5D Mark III.
The sensor features 16-channel output with two vertical-pixel simultaneous readouts and four separate four-channel analogue-digital converters to pass the signal to the processors. This, according to Canon, is 1.4x faster than the 1D Mark IV, which means the frame rate has increased to 12/14fps on the 1D X. The higher rate is only available with the mirror locked, so the camera cannot continue to focus while shooting. The frame rate is also limited to 10fps at ISO 3200 or above.
Working alongside the new sensor are the dual Digic 5+ processors. These have three times the processing power of the Digic 5 processors, which in turn offered dramatic improvement over the Digic 4 units used in previous EOS-1D models. These play a large part in the camera’s high-speed shooting ability, but are also responsible for its ability to shoot at greater ISO sensitivities. With a standard range increased by 2 stops to give ISO 100-51,200, and an extended range providing a low ISO 50 and high settings up to ISO 204,800, the 1D X matches the Nikon D4 at its highest value.
The files output in a choice of 14-bit raw (CR2) and JPEG at 5184×3456 pixels, with options for Mraw (3888×2592 pixels), Sraw (2592×1728 pixels), M1 JPEG (4608×3072 pixels), M2 JPEG (3456×2304 pixels) and S JPEG (2592×1728 pixels) sizes. Users can choose to combine any of the raw with any of the JPEG settings for dual shooting, and also control the compression individually for each of the JPEG settings. Raw files are already supported by Adobe Camera Raw and the camera comes with Digital Photo Professional software for processing. It does seem slightly unusual that the 5D Mark III shoots at a higher resolution than the 1D X, despite the difference in print size being only 3-5mm at 300ppi. Perhaps a 36-million-pixel version of the 1D could still emerge.
An additional Digic 4 processor features purely for the exposure system on the 1D X. The metering uses a 100,000-pixel RGB AE sensor and 252 metering zones. Previously, Canon metering systems have been monotone in their design, but the ability to ‘see’ in colour can help detect what is in the scene. This uses the ISA (intelligent subject analysis) system and allows face detection through the viewfinder, not just when in live view mode. ISA also works with the auto light optimiser correction system to set the best exposure. Evaluative metering uses a matrix of 252 zones to analyse the scene, while more prescriptive partial, centreweighted and spot options are also available. Spot metering by default reads from the centre of the viewfinder, but can be linked to the active AF point or chosen individually in up to eight positions for multi-spot readings. Should it need to be corrected manually, there is ±5EV exposure compensation and auto bracketing of up to seven shots.
The 1D X is compatible with the full range of Canon EF lenses and third-party models using the EF mount. The exceptions are EF-S-mount optics, which provide coverage for APS-C-sized sensors only. There are also focusing implications for optics with a maximum aperture of smaller than f/5.6, as we explain in the Autofocus section.
Two CompactFlash card slots feature, allowing one to be used as an overflow, or to record different formats to each card, or to duplicate content to both cards for backup. There is no move towards SD or the new XQD card here as in the Nikon D4. When using a SanDisk Extreme Pro (UDMA 6) card, 20 raw or 20 raw+JPEG files can be shot before filling the buffer. Using just large JPEG files, the camera showed no sign of letting up after over 800 shots.
The battery has been upgraded from previous models, increasing the power from 2,300mAh to 2,450mAh, although it remains compatible with the old LP-E4 units, and the new LP-E4N battery can be used in the 1D Mark IV body. The LP-E4N gives 1,120 shots in regular daytime temperatures, which is less than the 1,500 shots of the 1D Mark IV, presumably due to increased power consumption in the 1D X.
The 1D X leaves users wanting for almost nothing. The only question is whether Wi-Fi functionality could have been built into the camera rather than offered separately.
Build and Handling
The body of the EOS-1D X has the same weatherproof construction as the EOS-1D Mark IV, with 76 seals around a magnesium body and internal structure. The 1D X is slightly larger and considerably heavier, though, weighing 1,340g. Combined with even the lightest of lenses, it feels very solid and reassuringly sturdy. The grip is deep and long, making it surprisingly easy to hold in one hand, although the strap makes for welcome relief during rest periods.
While the layout of the body is very familiar, there have been a few small changes. For instance, on the top plate, white balance now gets its own dedicated button and the FEL button is replaced by one of the three multi-function (M.Fn) buttons. On the back next to the main control dial is a dedicated live view button and a quick menu button, as on the EOS 7D.
A second thumb joystick has been added for vertical operation and the zoom controls have moved from the AF select and AE lock buttons to its own dedicated button, while zooming during image preview is performed using the finger dial. This is the one function that regularly confused me during use, as I instinctively tried to zoom with the old buttons. In time, though, I’m sure users will adapt and find that the finger dial makes it far easier to zoom in and out quickly.
On the front of the camera, the multifunction and depth of field preview buttons placed to the right of the lens are duplicated in the bottom right for natural finger placement in both horizontal and vertical holds. To avoid buttons being knocked or pressed accidentally, one or all of the main dial, quick control wheel and thumb joysticks can be disabled using the ‘lock’ position on the power switch. The vertical control buttons can also be turned on and off with a separate switch.
The styling of the buttons has been refined slightly across the camera, with a more rounded appearance – again in the style of the EOS 7D. The quick menu is a handy route to some of the more popular features but, with the exception of the picture styles, white balance shift and auto lighting optimiser, all these functions already have direct access via a button on the camera body. As a tool, it works better as a method of checking the settings than actually changing them. The main menu is clear and easy to use, sectioned by icons, each with a range of tabs, so functions can be found by scrolling across rather than down a long list.
Noise, resolution and sensitivity
Image: ISO 204,800
The EOS-1D X’s 18-million-pixel sensor is relatively standard in terms of resolution – even Canon’s enthusiast-level models have 18 million pixels. However, it is the size of these pixels, thanks to the full-frame sensor and gapless microlenses, that gives it the potential to deliver better results than even the EOS-1Ds Mark III. The gapless microlenses mean less light is lost during capture, so the camera has more information to process and makes it less prone to noise.
The resolution at its base ISO 100 setting delivers a solid 36, a decent score but one we would expect from such a sensor. As the ISO is raised there is minimal fall-off in detail, and even at ISO 25,600 the camera still manages to resolve up to 28 on our chart. These results are based on the raw files, processed using Adobe Lightroom 4.1. The JPEG files appear slightly softer, only resolving 32 at ISO 100 but maintaining detail through the ISO range and still reaching a score of 28 at ISO 25,600.
The lack of noise is evident in the unprocessed raw files, with ISO 6400 images remaining impressively clean. Some noise starts to creep in from ISO 12,800 but colour noise appears more prominent than luminance noise and is easily removed during raw processing. JPEG images demonstrate this clearly, although signs of luminance noise remain at ISO 51,200. The high settings of ISO 102,400 and ISO 204,800 show greater increases in noise levels, and the top setting especially is best avoided for critical work. Having these settings available is reassuring, though, especially when it is the difference between getting a photo or not, and the results are still better than the original EOS 5D managed at ISO 6400.
WB, metering and dynamic range
White Balance and Colour
Colours from the EOS-1D X appear very natural, while maintaining a certain bite – almost like Fuji Provia slide film. This was perhaps aided by the quality of the lenses. As with everything else on this camera, however, colours can be adjusted to preference, either using one of the preset picture styles or customising one of the user-defined modes.
The auto white balance is faithful to the scene, leaving plenty of warmth under evening light and not neutralising the natural colour of indoor scenes. The additional six presets cover more specific needs, while the manual temperature and reading settings will still be favoured for studio use.
Out of habit I found myself underexposing scenes on the 1D X by around 2⁄3EV, but in processing I found I needed to dial this back in to achieve the right exposure, and often slightly more. The evaluative metering seems more adept at maintaining all the highlights in scenes without pushing too much into the shadows. The auto lighting optimiser, with its three levels of intensity, helps lift shadows too. The temptation to switch to partial or centreweighted metering is lost for most scenes, as there’s simply no need to. For critical subjects the spot metering is still very handy, especially when linked to the AF.
Although full dynamic range measurements are not yet available for the EOS-1D X, I expect it to top any of Canon’s previous models. The results from the EOS 5D Mark III reveal an 11.74EV range at ISO 100, and the larger photosites of the 1D X’s sensor should ensure that it at least reaches 12EV, although it is unlikely to hit the 13EV of the Nikon D4. Dynamic range can be effectively extended by using the multiple exposure functionality, which can combine up to eight shots, or by processing, using the auto lighting optimiser.
AF, LCD and viewfinder
The autofocus system is without doubt the most fascinating part of this camera. The large amount of customisation available allows the user to tailor the camera to their own needs, and should you want to get an overview of just what is possible, try flicking through the 47-page EOS-1D X autofocus guide available in PDF at http://cpn.canon-europe.com/content/news/eos_1d_x_af_settings_guidebook.do.
The 61-point AF system includes four different types of sensors: 20 standard (horizontal) f/5.6 sensors, 20 cross-type (f/4 vertical, f/5.6 horizontal), 16 f/5.6 cross-type (both horizontal and vertical) and five dual cross-type (f/2.8 cross and f/5.6 cross-types). The points available vary depending on the lens being used, with the sensitivity broadly representing the maximum aperture that must be available from the lens.
For instance, to use all 61 points in their full capacity requires an f/2.8 lens or faster, while even some f/2.8 lenses are unable to use all the dual cross-type points fully, including the 24-70mm f/2.8L. Lenses with smaller maximum apertures such as the 17-40mm f/4L are still able to use all 61 points, but the dual cross-type units will only function as single cross-types at f/5.6.
Canon only lists a few select lenses that are able to use fewer than the 61 points, such as the 800mm f/5.6L IS USM (47 points) and the 180mm f/3.5L Macro (33 points). While most systems will support AF up to f/8, any lenses with apertures smaller than f/5.6 will not be supported by the 1D X. This will only really affect the use of superzoom or non-constant aperture lenses with a 2x converter, neither of which is likely to be used with such a high-grade camera.
I tested the camera with the 50mm f/1.2L, 16-35mm f/2.8L, 24-70mm f/2.8L, 400mm f/2.8L and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses and found the focusing extremely impressive. Single focus locks on effortlessly even in low light, and is claimed to work down to -2EV, or the equivalent of moonlight.
The servo mode, for continuous focusing, opens up all the tracking options, although how to engage the multi-point tracking is not obvious. The focus point select button must be pressed and the M.Fn button used to cycle through the focus modes. This is handy when shooting, but it would have been nice to have as an option in the menu as well. The tracking options are impressive and even with the default settings the 1D X locked on to the main subject with ease and held focus as it moved around the frame. When the tracking is used with a smaller-aperture lens, such as with the 70-200mm f/2.8 plus 2x teleconverter (giving an f/5.6 aperture), the tracking is less effective but still successful.
LCD, viewfinder and video
The LCD monitor is a large 3.2in unit with a 1.04-million-pixel resolution. This makes reviewing images very easy, and the zoom functionality allows enough magnification to really pixel-peep and fully assess the focusing. Some have questioned the lack of a vari-angle bracket, but due to the size of the screen and its extensive viewing angle, it isn’t really missed for still shooting and the required hinge bracket could cause issues for the water and dust sealing.
The viewfinder provides full 100% coverage and a large 0.76x magnification, equal to those on the 1D Mark IV and 1Ds Mark III, remains clean and clear with simple shooting information in green LEDs below and to the right of the frame. The viewfinder projects the grid and AF points onto the screen, allowing the user to choose how much or little is displayed.
Video functionality has also been expanded on the 1D X, recognising the importance of video for many professional shooters. Full HD (1080p) video can be recorded at 30/25/24fps for PAL and NTSC varieties (50/60fps at 720p). The 1D X circumvents the 4GB limit for video clips by automatically starting a new file when the limit is reached. This means that constant recording up to 29.59mins is now possible, although it is saved in 12min sections to be spliced seamlessly together. For serious videography there are timecode options and a 3.5mm external mic input. It lacks the audio monitor jack of the 5D Mark III and the clean HDMI output of the Nikon D4, but videographers will probably opt for the dedicated EOS-1D C version of the camera.
Cameras at this level have extremely high standards to live up to and the 1D X certainly meets them and in places even exceeds them. The new sensor is extremely impressive in terms of detail but more so in terms of its noise performance in low light. This is the finest Canon DSLR I have tested and though the difference may not be enough to tempt many Nikon users, it represents another step forward in the sports and action market. Despite the quality I’m not sure its resolution will hold the interest of many portrait or landscape photographers, with the 5D Mark III looking like a more practical solution and the Nikon D800 giving a blisteringly sharp 36-million-pixel output. However, if I had to choose just one camera to use for all types of photography, this would be it.