Camera Test: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III

For image quality and fine detail that rivals or exceeds that of many medium-format systems, the EOS-1Ds Mark III is the only DSLR in its class.

What does it take to be the best? In comparing DSLRs, the answer is incredible image quality and performance. Especially for pros, it also takes a nearly unbreakable camera body, long-lasting battery, and a wide range of accessories to ensure that you don't miss the critical shot. Is all of this worth $8,000 (street) for the camera body alone? Canon hopes that enough pros will think so once they discover the capabilities of its new 21.1MP EOS-1Ds Mark III.

The latest in a series of EOS-1Ds professional-level cameras, the 1Ds Mark III showcases Canon's most advanced, super-high-megapixel, full-frame sensor. The earlier models broke ground with 11.1MP and 16.7MP sensors (on the 1Ds and 1Ds Mark II, respectively), and all were built to handle the rigors and demands of professional use.

In our tests in the Pop Photo Lab, the 16.7MP 1Ds Mark II exceeded the image quality of ISO 100 film in most categories, including color accuracy and low noise levels at high ISOs. But film still had the resolution advantage at 3000 lines (tested), compared with 2600 lines on the 1Ds Mark II.

So we couldn't wait to find out what a 21.1MP pro DSLR offered in terms of image quality and resolution. After all, some medium-format film shooters (or those using digital backs) might be tempted to trade in their heavy cameras and clunky lenses for a less-expensive DSLR if it captured similar, or better, image detail and provided the other benefits of a digital SLR system, such as burst shooting, fast autofocus, low noise at high ISOs, and a wider range of accessories.

When we got a production model of the 1Ds Mark III, we needed no more than a few seconds to get acquainted with the controls and button/dial arrangement -- mainly because it shares all of these with its sibling, the 10.1MP EOS-1D Mark III ($4,330 street, body only) we tested in 2007. They both also have the same 45-zone AF system with 19 cross-type sensors, 14 bits per color from dual Digic III processors, 3-inch LCD with live view (with manual focus only) and 230,000-dot resolution, rechargeable lithium ion battery, and shutter rated to 300,000 exposures.

In our tests we found similar viewfinder accuracy (99%, an Excellent rating) and magnification (76%, Good), but the image in the 1Ds Mark III has full-frame coverage.

For twice the price you get more than twice as many megapixels in the 1Ds Mark III as you do in the 1D Mark III. So does that mean you get twice as much detail and overall image quality? No. For one thing, it takes four times as many pixels to double the resolving power of a camera sensor, and lens design plays a part.

However, the resolution improvement in the 1Ds Mark III is still record-breaking. With an average 2830 lines (2850Hx2800Vx2840D), it not only beat the performance of the 1D Mark III (2200 lines), but it also broke the record set by its 16.7MP predecessor, the 1Ds Mark II (2600 lines). For comparison, Nikon's new full-frame 12.1MP DSLR, the D3 ($5,000 street, body only) captured 2320 lines.

With such a pixel-filled sensor, the quality of the lens and the accuracy of the camera's autofocus system is more important than ever. Photographers get what they pay for from the 1Ds Mark III's fast, sensitive, and accurate AF, and we assume that anyone who can afford this camera will pair it with high-performance Canon L-series zooms, or high-quality prime lenses such as the 50mm f/1.4 Canon EF USM used in our tests. (Otherwise, using an older or cheaper lens will have the same effect as dialing down the megapixel count to the 16.7MP of the EOS-1Ds Mark II.)

Color accuracy on the 1Ds Mark III also lands in the top tier, with an Excellent rating based on an average Delta E of 6.98 (compared with 7.3 on the 1D Mark III and 7.28 on the Nikon D3, also Excellent ratings.) The color accuracy remained similarly high all the way up through ISO 1600, while resolution dropped only 15 percent when we applied full noise reduction at ISO 1600 and 3200 in Canon's sophisticated (and included) Digital Photo Professional software.

The 1Ds Mark III's normal ISO range is ISO 100 to 1600, but you can expand it through custom menus to ISO 50 at one end or ISO 3200 at the other end. That high setting is a stop below the less-expensive 1D Mark III and several stops below the Nikon D3.

But in our noise tests, the 1Ds Mark III did better than expected -- even with minimum noise reduction in the RAW conversion process. So you get the choice of maximizing detail at ISO 1600 (with some noticeable increase in noise in shadow areas) or dropping resolution by 15 percent to 2400 lines while rendering any noise nearly invisible. That's impressive, but the Nikon D3 actually outperforms the EOS 1Ds Mark III in overall image quality at ISO 6400, and it can still capture acceptable newspaper-quality shots at an incredible ISO 25,600.

If high-speed action or low-light shooting is your specialty (and you're already a Canon shooter), the EOS-1D Mark III is a better choice, as it boasts a blazing burst rate of up to 10 frames per second (compared with the 1Ds Mark III's 6 fps) and higher ISOs, up to 6400. On the other hand, its slightly smaller-format sensor creates a 1.3X lens factor, so if you want a full-frame field of view with your wide-angle lenses, then the 12.1MP Nikon D3 is an attractive alternative due to its incredible low-light performance, fast 9 fps burst mode, and two types of AF in live view mode.

Still, for image quality and fine detail (at ISO 100 to 1600) that rivals or exceeds that of many medium-format systems, the EOS-1Ds Mark III is the only DSLR in its class.


Imaging: Full-frame 21.1MP (effective) CMOS sensor captures 5616x3744-pixel images with 14 bits/color in RAW mode.
Storage: Dual slots for CF Type I and II cards including UDMA, and SD/SDHC cards. Stores JPEG, RAW, RAW + JPEG, and sRAW (2784x1856-pixels).
Burst rate: At 5 fps, up to 56 JPEG or 12 RAW.
AF system: 45 selectable AF points with 19-cross type. One-Shot AF and Predictive AI Servo AF. Sensitivity EV -1 to -18 (ISO 100).
Shutter speeds: 30-1/8000 sec (1/3-EV increments).
Metering: 63-zone TTL. Evaluative metering linkable to all AF points, centerweighted averaging, partial (approx. 8.5% of frame), and spotmetering (approx. 2.4%). EV 0-20 (ISO 100).
ISO range: 100-1600 in 1/3-EV increments, expandable to ISO 50-3200.
Flash: Supports E-TTL II autoflash with EX-series Speedlites, X-sync at 1/250 sec.
Viewfinder: Eye-level fixed pentaprism with tested 99% accuracy and 0.76X magnification. LCD: 3-in. TFT with 230,000-dot resolution, live preview mode with manual focus and exposure simulation.
Output: Hi-Speed USB 2.0; NTSC video.
Battery: Rechargeable Li-ion LP-E4.
CIPA battery life rating: Approx. 1,800 shots, or 300 in live view.
Size/weight: 6.1x6.3x3.1-in., 2.7 lb, body only, without battery.
Street price: $8,000.



White balance can be adjusted later in the DPP Raw conversion software, but in this scene the white balance and contrast didn't need tweaking. Photo taken with Canon EF 28-70mm f/2.8 L USM lens, 1/200 sec at f/7.1, ISO 200 at 70mm. +2/3 stop exposure compensation.


The large, bright viewfinder allows you to use the depth of field preview to accurately judge detail in focus. Photo taken with Canon EF 28-70mm f/2.8 L USM lens, 1/500 sec at f/8, ISO 400 at 44mm, +2/3 stop exposure.Michael J. Mcnamara


Note the detail in the horse's tail and the reeds blowing in front of the fence. This closeup shows a 5x7-inch section of a print enlarged to 18x28-inches (at 200ppi).Michael J. Mcnamara