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Just like a London Bus, you wait forever for Canon to release a digital camera and two come along in the same year – the EOS 1D followed by the EOS D60. As expected the 1D attracted the most media attention, as it was Canons first “own” badge professional digital SLR (rather than a Kodak clone). I was particularly interested, as I had just been commissioned for a book on the re-birth of a national park in South Africa called Marakele. My client specifically wanted all images taken on a digital camera (for reprographic purposes) and the 1D was my only hope (as the D60 had not even been announced yet).
I read the standard magazine reviews, most concentrated on the negative issues of price and low file size. For a more practical view I spoke to the ultimate reviewers, some sports pros who had bought the first 1D’s in the country. They absolutely raved about them so the next day I placed my order. Since then my 1D has been subjected to the dust of Africa several times, worked at 10,500 ft in –40C and survived partial immersion in a fast flowing river. I really love using it, as it performs like a film camera with few (if any) of the usual problems with digital SLRs. So here is my review of it, an honest and frank interpretation of the 1D’s highs and lows. It is not the most technical review that you will ever read (there are plenty of those floating around so why re-invent the wheel?) just a practical guide from someone who really pushes the 1D to its limits in all areas. The review concludes with my own views on who would suit the 1D and the D60, not from a commercial standpoint but from a working photographer.
The EOS 1D is a digital version of the Canon Professional flagship SLR, the EOS 1V - it has the same tough build quality and has almost identical functionality. It feels like a professional SLR, is nicely balanced in the hand and can take punishment.
The 1D’s main strength lies in its performance. Almost as fast as a Labour politicians sleaze denial, the 1D’s integral drive unit powers to 8fps. Coupled with the burst size of 16 images (RAW) / 21 images (JPEG), the 1D out performs every other digital camera available on the market today. This burst size value is all-important; the most annoying thing about all digital cameras is the time it takes them to write to the drive and the frequency with which they do it. The 1D barely seems to write to the drive, does it very quickly when necessary and has never caused me to miss a shot (that feature is normally my fault entirely). For a professional photographer under high stress conditions these features are much more important than file size.
Tests have proved that the 1D has the quickest 47 point auto focus in the Canon range and is able to cope with any fast moving situation. I know for a fact that most of the professional photographers who covered the 100m mens sprint final at the recent Commonwealth games used the 1D, clearly indicating its capabilities. Not only is the autofocus quick but I have found it to be very accurate, even at the outermost points which normally are any cameras downfall. Canon have stated however, that the autofocus system is the same as that used on the 1V and I think that the reason for this improved performance on the 1D is the enlarged viewfinder image. When you view an image through the 1D viewfinder, it appears 1.3 times larger / closer than with the 1V. This of course is due to cropping on the chip but has the practical result of giving the autofocus points a better chance of hitting a portion of the desired image, rather than out of focus background. Hence, it locks on easier and it appears faster. Whatever the reason it is lightning fast and works, which is really all I care about.
The first time I really used these features in earnest was a month before my first African trip with the 1D. I wanted to see how it performed in a real pressure situation and this was to be the ultimate test. My French agent urgently needed pictures of the highly endangered snow leopard in its natural habitat for a major ad campaign. There was no time to spend three years in Nepal getting a picture of a backside (the only truly wild shot that to my knowledge exists) but fortunately I knew of two that had just been trained for a major wildlife film. A week later Tracey and I were sitting on top of a 10,500 ft peak, watching our helicopter disappear into the distance whilst two fully grown snow leopards prowled around us. It was brutally cold, we estimated –40C in the wind, and we had two very expensive hours to get what we needed. To minimise bulk I had the 1D with a 70-200mm IS f2.8L lens, whilst Tracey looked after the Pentax 645 medium format camera. We would use the latter for static’s when the leopards eventually wore themselves out and the 1D for everything else. I have never in my whole life been so grateful for not having to change film, my hands were like claws and having a digital camera was perfect for these conditions. Over the next two hours the 1D performed an awesome job in the cold, the combination of fast drive and high burst rate allowing me to capture every action packed moment as the leopards romped around in the snow. The 1D had proved itself to me and I had delivered an important piece of work to a new client.
OK, lets move on to the usability. Looking at the camera from above, you would be fooled into thinking it was a 1V - so identical are the controls. One look at the back however will show you that this is a serious digital SLR. Two TFT displays are provided with control buttons down the left hand side of the larger and at the bottom of the smaller. The larger screen is a 2 inch 120,000 pixel display that is used for image playback and to provide access to most of the menu functions. The smaller screen is provided to allow quick on the fly changes to important functions without the need to scroll through menus. These features include the white balance, image quality, folder location and LCD monitor display format (how many images are displayed during playback). At first I found this smaller screen to be of limited use but as my experience with a digital camera has grown I find myself becoming reliant upon it.
Menu navigation is the one minor glitch in its usability. Unlike the D60, which has an intuitive menu system, the 1D menu system takes some getting used to. At the start it was quite frustrating to spend valuable seconds trying to select an option, only to jump somewhere else. Eventually, it all became second nature but it does baffle me why Canon changed the menu system that was already proven on the D60’s predecessor the D30. The D30 / D60 zoom function, so useful for checking the focus of a particular shot, is also absent, which I cannot understand. Canon have stated that they omitted this because they thought it was a feature that professionals would not want, but surely checking if an image is sharp is vital for any photographer, particularly when your microdrive is about to become full up? Anyway it is a minor point as the autofocus system mostly gets it spot on but I wanted to mention it for completeness.
The EOS 1D is the most customisable camera that I have ever used, providing 4 separate selection menus in addition to personal and custom functions. There are too many options to go through here, so I will just pick the most useful few:
1) Image Recording Quality – various options to set the quality of the recorded image, ranging from Small / Fine (JPEG, 1.1MB file) to RAW (TIF, 4.8 MB file). You can also set the camera to record a RAW and a JPEG simultaneously. For most of us this is just a gimmick, but for press photographers it means they can transfer a thumbnail image back to base without further processing. 2) Colour Matrix – this gives 5 options, which basically match the colour chacteristics of various films. For example setting option 2 gives nice colour tones in portraits, whilst setting 3 gives a warmer image similar to Velvia. I always set my matrix to 4 which gives a wide gammut range suitable for conversion to an Adobe 1998 colour space. This is particularly useful if you want to post process your images on a PC, something which I do as my default workflow. Unfortunately, it does not tag the image with the ICC profile, just readies it for conversion, so you still need to set up Photoshop to do this for you. 3) Processing Parameters – Canon’s design philosophy for the 1D (and in fact for all their digital cameras) is very much a hands off approach to internal image processing. A lot of manufacturers process the RAW images before they leave the camera, which means you can have things done to the image which are out of your control. The default settings for the 1D are for no processing at all, no sharpening, no increased colour, just the RAW image. The processing parameters option allows the user to specify a group of parameters to process the RAW image within the camera. These options cover the tone curve (i.e. colour balance, brightness etc), sharpness and JPEG quality. All of these parameters have multiple options, which makes them very well thought out and customisable. The only downside is that the user needs to define them from the TWAIN application on the PC, then upload them to the camera via an IEEE 1394 firewire connection. Initially I did not use any of these options as I never use JPEG’s and prefer to sharpen my images in Photoshop. However I have read several tests which suggest that a sharpening level of 1 (the minimum setting above the default of 0) gives a much better result. Talking to Canon technical people they were also of the opinion that this might suit my photography better so I made the changes and have been using it this way ever since. The images are certainly sharper when they leave the camera, but not so over sharpened that I cannot Unsharp Mask them later. I have also heard that the Allsport agency photographers share their settings amongst each other for different stadiums, light conditions etc, which again shows the flexibility of the 1D. 4) Noise reduction – when taking long exposures with a digital camera you often get an excessively noisy image. This image reduces this effect, by post processing the image that seems like a good idea. I have never used this facility so cannot comment either way, but is worthy of a mention. 5) Highlight alert – taken from the world of the TV camera, this option makes overexposed areas of the recorded image blink when viewed in playback mode. This is really useful when time is of the essence or in bright light conditions.
The EOS 1D gives all the usual exposure options and is just as light hungry as the D60. In fact I have found that most exposures are a little too light when left with “0” compensation, and I am often forced to use minus compensation to get correctly exposed pictures. The meter is no more or less accurate than other EOS models, which is perhaps an area that Canon needs to work on when compared to other manufacturers cameras (Pentax and Nikon spring to mind.). With digital cameras exposure is less of an issue as you can easily check it and set it up before the shoot, which is something that I have now learnt to do by default.
Really all I care about with a digital camera is the final image that it produces. The 1D uses a 4.1 Megapixel single plate CCD sensor (as opposed to its slower CMOS counterparts) This yields a RAW file size of 12.1 MB at 300 dpi, which in turn gives a print size slightly under A4. This has been the cause of many negative reviews for the EOS 1D, as most observers have commented that the file size is simply not big enough. When asked, Canon stated that they chose to use a smaller chip to ensure that the performance of the 1D matched what their clients (professionals) needed. Reading between the lines, they are saying that “at the time” using a 6MP chip they would needed to trade in their frame rate for increased resolution, something they clearly did not want to do. This situation will change with the advent of new technology but for now this is their reasoning and as a professional user I can understand it.
Admittedly the 12 MB file size is a little small and I would have preferred it to be nearer 20 MB, but remember my usage is not a common one amongst the 1D customer base. For press and sports photographers, whose main clients are magazines, this file size is quite sufficient and the blazing speed of the 1D gives them a competitive edge. My clients are still suspicious however of receiving a 12 MB file, so I simply interpolate the images up to whatever image size they require. Several of my 1D images have been reproduced to dps (double page spread) size in good standard magazines, whilst one was recently used at 4 metres for an advertising campaign. All the clients, who were suspicious of digital beforehand, were pleased and surprised with the result and now ASK for my digital images. For your information interpolation is common within this industry, some camera manufacturers now even put the interpolation within their camera software to give a bigger image than the chip can provide. You must also remember that file size is no real indicator of the image quality and resolution. Independent tests have shown that the 1D produces a much better resolution than its file size would first indicate.
But what about the final image? In my experience as a RAW shooter, the 1D produces a beautiful clear image with accurate colours. The chip works best when set to an ISO of 200, something which took a little getting used to but now I accept it without question. In fact I have just finished using it on the second instalment of my South African project, and this time took comparison images with an EOS 1V loaded with Provia 100F film. In every case, especially in low light, the digital image looks much better than its film counterpart. Check out the Hippo image for proof. I have heard some professionals comment that at high ISO settings of 100 and above some banding can occur in the dark areas of an image, but I have never tested this so cannot comment. The bottom line is that in my experience I prefer my 1D images to any of that from my 35mm film cameras.
To be honest all software (Canon, Nikon etc) that I have used for digital cameras leaves something to be desired. The Canon Zoom Browser is a minefield and should be avoided at all costs. I found that the TWAIN application and RAW Converter software were the most useful, allowing some pre-processing of RAW images before conversion. The TWAIN software, via a firewire connection, allows the user to specify the processing parameters mentioned above, together with a glut of personal functions to suit your every need. So the Canon software is OK but to be honest I use the Breeze Browser (www.breezesys.com) to process my images. It now supports the 1D, is very simple to use and allows me to do everything in one simple step.
So there you have it, the good, the bad and the ugly (err that’s me) features of the 1D. I have found that the 1D is a great camera to use; in fact it performs like a film camera and not a digital, which is a positive advantage. Like all cameras it has its quirks, mainly due to performance considerations that anything else, and it has clearly been designed for the professional market. Everything is geared for speed and throughput, and to provide the best image possible. To be honest it is really geared for the professional user, the photographer who needs these capabilities on a daily basis.
So the question remains - would I recommend the 1D to a non-professional photographer over the cheaper Canon D60. To answer this fully would take a few pages of text, so I ask you to first think of why you want a digital camera. As I have shown above, if you a professional photographer who needs the blazing speed and customisability of the 1D then this will be the only choice. Likewise if you are a serious non-professional, who has the money to spare and wants a top end digital SLR, then the 1D is again the winner. In our partnership, as you may well know we use a system of cameras including, the EOS 1D, the D60 and the Pentax 645 (for landscapes, animal portraits and wide angle). We tend to use the 1D for high action / dangerous wildlife work where we may have only a few seconds to get the shot and leg it for the safety of the vehicle. The choice is yours, I hope that my pictures show here that I made the right one, the EOS 1D is a machine – and it works.
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