Camera Test: Canon EOS 1D Mark III

Canon's new speed champion posts impressive results in our full lab test.

Camera-Test-Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III
Camera-Test-Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III

Since Canon announced their new flagship 10.1 megapixel high-speed professional DSLR, the Canon EOS 1D Mark III (street: $4500) back in March, we've been itching to put it through our battery of lab tests. Photojournalists, sports photographers and hardcore enthusiasts, among others, have been chattering about this camera online, eagerly awaiting delivery of a promised unit, or complaining about being stuck in back-order hell.

Perhaps you've already heard about the feature set of this camera: ISO 50-6400, 1.3x conversion factor, 10 frames per second with a JPEG burst of up to 110 full-resolution shots (or 22 RAW plus JPEG), Dual Digic III processors, 14-bit analog-to-digital conversion, live preview shooting on the 230,000 pixel 3 inch LCD, sensor-shake dust removal, and a host of other upgrades big and small.

Our impressions with a late pre-production working sample left us on the edge of our seats waiting for a fully testable unit to see if it lives up to the hype. Now that we've run the Canon EOS 1D Mark III through our battery of tests, we can now say we're very impressed with both the features, and the performance, of this new high-speed champ.

Canon traded megapixels for speed with this model. The Nikon D2Xs, another camera in the pro class, captures 12.4 megapixels on a 1.5x crop factor sensor at full resolution at 5 fps, and drops resolution to 6.8 megapixels (and a 2x crop factor) for a high-speed burst of up to 35 JPEGs at 8 fps. The Mark III's full-frame stablemates, the 12.8 megapixel Canon EOS 5D and the 16.6MP Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II, capture images at a more leisurely pace: 3 fps for 60 JPEGs and 4 fps for 32 JPEGs, respectively.

For many a breed of photographer, speed is the name of the game, and the decision to keep the Mark III at 10 megapixels to capitalize on blazingly fast capture and processing with those dual Digic III processors is a tradeoff many sports photographers, photojournalists, and wildlife pros will be willing to make. Life happens in the blink of the eye, and fractions of a second can separate a good peak action shot from a truly great one -- and the Mark III should produce more winners with its blazingly fast burst rate.

In fact, the burst rate of the Mark III is so fast that a series of still images played back on the 3 inch LCD or loaded into Soundslides (video coming soon) feels more like continuous video capture than a series of still images.

IMAGE QUALITY RESULTS, RAW VS. JPEG

Sure, the Canon EOS-1D Mark III is fast -- but how is the image quality? Do you sacrifice quality for speed?

No, not at all. Image quality is Excellent from ISO 50 to 1600 and Very High at ISO 3200 and 6400 (with in-camera high ISO Noise Reduction activated.)

Resolution is Excellent at all ISOs in both JPEG and RAW, ranging from a high of 2200 at ISO 100 RAW to 1850 at ISO 6400 JPEG, with in-camera High ISO noise reduction activated -- a drop of only 16 percent from lowest ISO RAW to top ISO JPEG with aggressive in-camera processing. High ISO Noise Reduction steals a marginal amount of resolution in JPEG images at ISOs 1600-6400, but it's well worth the tradeoff for the noise control.

Noise is Extremely Low at slower ISOs (ISO 50-400) in both RAW and JPEG images, and stays well controlled even as the ISOs keep climbing. JPEG images have much less noise than RAW files processed in Canon's Digital Photo Professional 3.0 at default settings at higher ISOs (See our full test results. And both JPEG and RAW images processed with the In-Camera High ISO Noise Reduction (CF II-2) had better noise control still, with JPEGs showing least noise-Low at ISOs 1600 (1.9) and 3200 (1.8), and Moderate at ISO 6400 (2.8).

Those high-ISO RAW numbers look scary at first glance, but there are so many variables in Canon's Raw Converter, Digital Photo Professional 3.0, or Adobe Camera Raw 4.1, that it's possible to push and pull sharpness and chrominance- and luminance-smoothing sliders to tweak the RAW images to your personally chosen compromise between noise and resolution. But when you're on deadline, the in-camera JPEG processing with High ISO Noise Reduction on does an impressive job of minimizing noise with minimal resolution loss. At ISO 1600, for example, noise reduction steals just about 2 percent resolution, dropping from 2050 to 2000. But noise drops from Low scores of 1.6 to 1.3. At ISOs 3200 and 6400, the noise reduction is even more dramatic, dropping ISO 3200 from Moderately Low (2.3) to Low (1.8) and bringing ISO 6400 out of Unacceptable territory (3.2) to Moderate (2.8).

Color is Excellent in both RAW (Average Delta E: 7.3 ISO 100 AWB) and JPEG (Average Delta E: 7.5 ISO 100 AWB). Our test images showed normal contrast with excellent color in both RAW and JPEG at the neutral setting, which zeroes out Sharpness, Contrast, Saturation, and Color Tone, with very good shadow and highlight details even at higher ISOs. At ISO 100, the Mark III was able to hold detail over an 11 EV dynamic range, and more than nine EVs at ISO 1600 -- quite impressive. Test images showed excellent color fidelity with very little color shift or casting in auto white balance.

In the lab tests, autofocus was Extremely Fast in bright light (EV 12-EV 6) at :33-:40 sec. In moderately low to low light (EV 4-EV1) it was Extremely Fast to Very Fast (:41-:55). At seriously low light (EV 0- EV -2), it slowed down but still manages to find focus when many other DSLRs give up (:96-1:20.)

In our field tests, the autofocus was equally impressive, quickly finding and tracking moving targets -- racing taxicabs, zoo creatures, wild birds, and more -- under various lighting conditions in just about every situation we faced. There's been some online chatter about flaws and failures of the autofocusing system on the Mark III, but we did not experience any of these problems in our field tests with a variety of Canon and third-party lenses, regardless of the autofocusing method. Whether we tried shutter-button focus, AF-button focus, single-focusing point focus, or expanded focusing point focus, the AF speed and tracking worked equally well and quickly found our subjects in bright light and low light.

A VERY BIG LCD FOR A PRO DSLR -- WITH A TWIST

The Canon EOS 1D Mark III packs a 3-inch ultra-wide viewing angle 230,000 pixel LCD on the back, which is quite big for a pro-level DLSR. The smudge- and scratch-proof coating does a good job protecting image display, and the tough coating over the LCD barely yields to a forcefully applied thumb right to the center. It'll take a special effort to bang up this LCD. It's big, but it appears tough enough for the abuses of all but the most hardcore gear-destroying pros.

Contrast on the display is crisp and sharp, and the combination of the larger LCD and joystick-based navigation make for a much easier set-up and review experience. Magnified Image jump (up to 10x magnification) linked to the active focal point during playback is a great feature for quickly separating the selects from the outtakes in-camera.

On the Mark III, the LCD isn't just for inputting shooting settings and image review. Like a pocket digicam, the LCD can be used for a real-time live image preview. In this mode, the optical viewfinder is useless, as the reflex mirror is locked up, but the LCD screen displays exactly what you'd see through the lens, with the added benefits of metering emulation and white balancing to check for exposure problems and unwanted color-casts.

When we say "exactly what you'd see through the lens," we mean it. Unless the Depth of Field preview button is depressed, the on-screen display shows maximum aperture with the shallow depth of field that entails. But press the DOF preview button and the image quickly shifts to display your stopped-down preview and the LCD gains up quickly. Auto White balance preview also adjusts quickly and dead-on to shifting lighting conditions.

With the Mark III tethered to a computer, the Live Preview mode can also be displayed on your monitor. This could come in handy for studio shooters wanting to give a real-time preview to a client or to the creative sports photographer setting up a remote camera at an obtuse angle.

Photojournalists with a wide-angle lens set to hyperfocal and stopped down a bit to f/8 will love the advantage of the live view mode as they hold up their camera statue-of-liberty style, hoping for a usable Hail Mary shot.

The lack of autofocus makes moving-subject macro work more challenging than useful, but for still subjects or set-up shots, and high- or low-angle shots, this feature borrowed from point-and-shoots certainly has its uses in a pro-level camera.

It's a major advancement, and Live Preview certainly will gain its adherents, but it's not perfect -- yet. Always-on Depth of Field preview and autofocusing (especially via a tethered computer) will really make Live Preview a much more robust shooting experience.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Canon EOS 1D Mark III packs an impressive mix of features and functions into a rock-solid pro body. Image quality is first-rate at low ISOs and it pushes the envelope with its high ISO performance -- managing noise while maintaining resolution very well. It ups the ante in terms of autofocusing speed and range, ISO range, LCD screen size and live preview, and of course, that world-beating 10 fps burst rate. We expected something big from Canon this year, as the company celebrated its 70th anniversary and 20 years of the EOS system. It delivered a real winner with the Canon EOS 1D Mark III.

COMPETITIVE SET

Nikon D2Xs: Nikon's current speed champ the D2Xs (Street: $4500) shoots 8 frames per second at 2X crop mode at 6.8 megapixels, or captures 12.4MP at a slower burst rate.

Canon EOS 5D: It's not a speed demon by any means , but this mid-high end Canon DSLR (Street: $2700) does have a full-frame sensor that appeals to many landscape and studio shooters.

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II (Street: $7,000): Canon's top megapixel DSLR has a 16.7 full-frame megapixel sensor, and not nearly the burst rate or duration of the Mark III.

IN THE BOX

Canon EOS 1D Mark III
• Camera strap
• LP-E4 Rechargeable Lithium-ion Battery
• LC-E4 Battery Charger
• ACK-E4 AC Adapter
• CR2025 Lithium Battery (backup battery)
• IFC-200U USB Cable
• VC-100 Video Cable
• EOS Digital Solutions Software CD-ROM
• Instruction Manual on CD-ROM
• 1-Year Canon U.S.A. Limited Warranty

Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-with
Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-with
Canon EOS 1D Mark III with Sigma 300mm f/2.8 USM DG APO. 1/1000 @f/2.8 ISO 125. Otters are fun, but this one looks so serious. There'sgood contrast throughout this challenging scene.Photo By Jack Howard
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Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-with
Canon EOS 1D Mark III with Canon 70-200mm f/4L. 1/125 @ f/4 ISO400. There's great detail with extremely low noise even after pullingup the exposure about half a stop in RAW processing.Photo By Jack Howard
Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-with
Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-with
Canon EOS 1D Mark III with Canon 70-200mm f/4L. 1/400 @ f/4 ISO400. There's virtually no noise in the shadows in this extremely highcontrast scene.Photo By Jack Howard
Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-with
Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-with
Canon EOS 1D Mark III with Sigma 300mm f/2.8 USM DG APO. 1/1000 @f/2.8 ISO 400. The outer ring was selected as the active AF area forthis shot, locking onto the otter's snout as soon as it surfaced.Photo By Jack Howard
Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-with
Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-with
Canon EOS 1D Mark III with Sigma 300mm f/2.8 USM DG APO. 1/400 @f/2.8 ISO 1000. This was shot at ISO 1000 without High ISO noisereduction activated. The exposure was pulled up slightly in RAWprocessing. There's not much visible noise.Photo By Jack Howard
Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-with
Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-with
Canon EOS 1D Mark III with Sigma 300mm f/2.8 USM DG APO. 1/1000 @f/2.8 ISO 125. This low ISO image of a dark shiny subject feels like achrome to me.Photo By Jack Howard
Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-with
Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-with
Canon EOS 1D Mark III with Canon 70-200 f/4L. 1/2000 @ f/4 ISO 400.There's excellent midtone and shadow detail in this aquatic scene, andauto white balance was right on with the water highlights, which showno casting.Photo By Jack Howard
Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-with
Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-with
Canon EOS 1D Mark III with Canon 70-200 f/4L. 1/6400 @ f/4 ISO 400.Auto focus quickly found this aquatic subject's eye and tracked itwell with the outer ring selected as the active AF zone.Photo By Jack Howard
Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-with
Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-with
Canon EOS 1D Mark III with Canon 400 f/5.6L 1/800 @ f/5.6 ISO 800.Noise is controlled very well at ISO 800 on this high-contrast scene.Photo By Jack Howard
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Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-Canon-EOS-1D-Mark-III-with
Canon EOS 1D Mark III with Canon 70-200 f/4L. 1/200 @ f/4 ISO 1600.Even at ISO 1600 in a rainy gray setting, there's excellent color andskintones without excessive noise, which was smoothed just a touchmore in RAW processing.Photo By Jack Howard
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