Next year, the basic design of the Canon EOS 1D series camera will be 10 years old, yet it won’t have changed much more than to shift four button positions to make way for today’s larger three-inch rear colour screen. Familiarity is important to the largest segment of photographers who’ll buy the latest version – professionals upgrading from earlier versions, which they may well continue to use alongside the new Mk IV – and remains a major factor in each redesign.
There’s still a top-plate LCD, and a secondary rear mono LCD below the big screen. The large rear command wheel, the trio of left-hand, top-mode setting buttons, the on-off switch, which locks out or enables factorial compensation as you wish, the sizable battery and built-in vertical grip all date back to the first 1D in 2001.
The EOS 1D Mk IV is, however, a completely new camera internally. There’s hardly anything of the original left inside the magnesium alloy body with its 76 weather seals. Canon’s great achievement is to have kept nearly all the ergonomic design intact over four generations of its main sports action and news DSLR camera.
The Mk IV is virtually identical to the Mk III. Mike Burnhill, European product specialist for digital SLR and lenses at Canon Europe, emphasises how important this is for the pro market, telling me, “Photographers liked the interface of the Mk III and we got lots of good feedback.”
Even the incorporation of HD 1080 video, to the same range of industry standards as the recent EOS 7D, has been designed to interfere as little as possible with still shooting. There is a small FEL button next to the shutter release. A few configuration steps via the menus and this becomes a second shutter release that immediately starts video filming, after you have first focused using the main release. Further presses pause and resume filming while leaving live view active. Pressing the shutter takes a still picture and interrupts the video for a second or so; pressing the main control wheel SET button ends video/live view and returns to normal operation.
It’s so fast to use that I was able to shoot video clips with the camera still held to my eye, not even looking at the screen. Keeping my left eye open, the position of the subject relative to the visible lens hood or lens served as a reference, and I could even follow action or pan across a scene. What made this possible was that simple shift from main shutter release to the adjacent button to activate video instantly.
Dealing with the video function briefly, it’s identical to the 7D – true 24, 25, and 30fps at 1080p, with higher speed 50/60 at 720p. It’s streamed, not Motion JPEG, so individual frames cannot be extracted in-camera (unlike the Nikon D3s), so you need to do that in post. The stereo mic input remains auto gain, mic only, no line input provision, and no manual setting of audio level. Burnhill says Canon is aware of the shortcomings of this configuration, and it’s something that’s being worked on.
The 1D Mk IV has an ISO range from 100 to 12,800, with expansion to a (saturated exposure) L 50 at the low end and a digitally boosted H1, H2 and H3 up to 102,400. If you’re wondering how to say that, Canon has the answer – it is known as ‘ten twenty-four hundred’. Auto ISO is set by default to use 100 to 12,800 but can use the full range. Video always uses the basic range.
I found the after-dark performance of the 1D Mk IV so compelling – partly because of its unerring autofocus in the murkiest conditions – I ended up shooting a stack of dusk and street-light shots. Brassai would have loved this camera. The use of a 24mm f/1.4 L USM II lens helped.
The 1D Mk IV is a complex camera requiring detailed personal setup to perform well. The press and sports corps with experience of each 1D model in turn will pick it up, dive into the menus, and spend 20 minutes configuring a few dozen of the hundreds of selectable options.
You can save the result as a profile of the camera setup on a memory card, and load it into another body. Intelligent hire services will load something appropriate for the hirer. However, it comes out of the box new with all its 45 AF points active in a fully auto mode, live view and video functions unconfigured. To help, Canon has a new (PDF downloadable) brochure that goes a long way to explain exactly how to override and change the defaults to create a camera that nails focus and exposure on your typical subjects.
The biggest change is from 10 megapixels to 16. This has been achieved without reduction in the 10 frames per second AF/AE-capable burst rate by using dual Digic IV processors and a CF/SD card drive capable of writing at up to 130MB/s. Canon UK has tested cards up to 90MB/s and can find nothing faster yet – “the cards are not as fast as the camera, it’s future proof,” comments Burnhill.
The burst can be maintained for 12 seconds, or 121 large JPEG files, before the buffer encounters any slowdown caused by card speed. I tested cards from around 7MB/s to 40MB/s and you hardly notice the card speed difference, the buffer clears so fast after each sequence. The 16-megapixel size reduces battery stamina from around 2000 shots to 1600. “Two batteries will last all day,” was Burnhill’s view until I pointed out that at full speed, the Mk IV could eat a fully charged LP-E4 in three minutes flat!
The rear screen is a big three-inch 920,000-dot type with a hardened glass face. I praised the 7D for its glass screen (lacking in the earlier higher-end 1D models). This goes further; its short-wavelength is coated for near total elimination of reflections, and the gap between glass and LCD is filled with a layer of photo-elastic polymer, which cuts out all internal air-to-protector surfaces. The result is the clearest, toughest hard glass rear-view screen you’ve yet seen.
The larger screen does push a few button positions around, but they are all review or secondary uses, not the critical shooting controls. These remain as they were, but greatly improved with added ‘pop’ for a tactile response when pressed, even wearing gloves (most of the time, during this test in The Borders where I live).
The screen image will look better, and so will out-of-the-camera JPEGs. The default Picture Styles have been adjusted. Default sharpening is stronger, with setting 3 the default out of seven steps. In Faithful and Neutral modes nothing has changed, and these are recommended for professional video where ‘grading’ will be used to match scenes. In Standard mode, which most will use for stills, contrast is punchier, colour more vivid and sharpness higher.
In-camera sharpening is linked to ISO, to avoid increasing noise at higher settings.
In addition to the more “consumer-like” and web-friendly look of the Standard and Portrait styles, the Mk IV has improved white balance. It still does not remove all the warm cast from tungsten, as this would look wrong. It is fine-tuned for stadium lighting, leaving just a hint of warmth.
The AF module and its processing is the other really big change in addition to more pixels. “The 45-point AF looks the same as the Mk III, but the hardware is entirely different,” Burnhill explains. “The 39 cross-type f/2.8 sensors are more sensitive. The 7D offered Spot AF on the central sensor only, the 1D Mk IV offers Spot AF on any of the selectable f/2.8 sensors.
“We now have full 45-point AF point selection, as opposed to 19 of the Mk III or 11 of the Mk II. All points are now selectable, where some used to be just assist points. There are 39 cross-points and six line-points where the Mk III just showed 39 in total.”
You can set the Mk IV to show the same familiar 19- or 11-point configuration as the earlier cameras, if you are trading up and need to be up to speed without studying the new camera. Canon states that many f/4 L-series lenses will perform better with the f/2.8 sensors, despite not being f/2.8, and it is publishing a list. “This includes, for example, the 17-40mm f/4 and most telephoto L lenses,” says Burnhill. “With an f/5.6 lens, you still get all 45 sensors, but only the central one acts as a cross, and it will work down to f/8. With the listed f/4 lenses, all the cross sensors work as a cross.” Burnhill adds that long lenses have true AF sensor points larger than the marks shown in the finder, but wide-angles are sensing within the marks.
The AF algorithm is changed too. “There are two parameters for an AF system – speed and stability. The Mk III AF system was based primarily around speed. It can give a false reading and the AF can jump suddenly. With the Mk IV, we have introduced double sampling. There is a second check if the system detects that the subject has jumped suddenly; focus will not change straight away.”
He showed a graph comparing a “volatile, fast responding system” that jitters widely around the focus point of a moving subject, and a stable tracking path claimed by the Mk IV. “The AF tracking is improved if you can lock on to a subject for about half a second before you start shooting,” he tells me. I put that to the test at Edinburgh’s Raceland karting centre, about the only sports or action activity taking place, with snow and then hard frost cancelling all football and rugby within reach. It seems justified; sudden framing and shooting got sharp single frames without very accurate predictive tracking, and occasional focus errors; a smooth lead-in following the subject in AI Servo mode resulted in much better tracking once a burst was under way at 10fps, and no focus errors.
The 1D Mk IV has micro AF adjust, as well as Shading Correction, with a built-in initial database of 40 lenses. Some of these are inappropriate for the Mk IV – old 28-90mm basic kit lenses from film days. “The user can select any lens from the solutions DVD, remove some from the camera and replace them. There are discontinued lenses being added all the time to the database. I think we have now covered most of the lenses ever produced,” he explains. It is mostly wide-angles and short zooms that need the shading correction.
Inconsistent AF has always been a worry for photographers. One reason was explained by Burnhill, as it applies to the extremely large area AF arrays used by the 1D 1.3x and full-frame cameras. “As large AF sensors expand with temperature, the AF performance is affected,” he says. “We would like to have AF points at the extreme edge of the frame, but the lens and silicon parts of the AF module expand with temperature at different rates and physics gets in the way – there is no magic solution.
“This is one reason manufacturers tend to keep their AF sensors as small as possible, to avoid thermal shock problems. The camera is calibrated for the operating temperature range shown in the manual, and it’s at its best around 20°C. The AF sensor has its own thermometer, which can help recalibrate AF within certain ranges; it does take extreme temperatures to go beyond this.”
From Burnhill’s explanation of this, it becomes clear why the longer ranging-base of f/2.8 AF points – compared to the typical f/5.6 of most DSLRs – added to an array covering most of the 1.3x format’s field of view could demand such calibration. Add to it the thermal expansion of the camera body, the imaging sensor itself (designed to cope with running warm), and lenses (the grey-white painted ones are designed to stay cooler on hot days). You have a whole set of variables; perhaps the camera should be tested, strictly, at 20°C. For me, 0°C just had to suffice…
I wasn’t able to shoot the variety of action images needed to test the AF claims. Burnhill described the settings appropriate for ice hockey versus regular hockey, for example. The weather “won” every fixture.
First, I must admit to being a 7D/5D body format admirer and no fan of the extra bulk in the 1D series. That’s because I travel about and walk a lot when shooting, there’s not much sitting on side. Nor do I need a weapon to bludgeon my way through a press pack.
The 1D Mk IV’s excellent high ISO quality – certainly up to 12,800 – got me out with the camera at dawn, dusk and after dark in some really cold and unpleasant weather. I normally shoot stabilised and the supplied 24-105mm lens offered that. My experience a year ago with the same lens on the 5D Mk II was not good, and too many shots were poorly focused.
The Mk IV focused perfectly with all the four lenses supplied (24mm f/1.4, 100mm f/2.8 non-IS macro, 24-105mm and 70-200mm f/4 IS). Running through rain or snow to reach a spot before the light changed doesn’t improve hand-steadiness, nor does shooting with gloves. But this camera consistently turned in pixel-sharp results.
After two weeks with the 1D Mk IV, I ordered a vertical grip for my Sony A900. OK, the Canon shutter is far smoother and the whole 1D body is built more solidly, but it was the two-handed gloved grip on the large body with its added vertical grip bulge that finally made me see why such a large and heavy camera can be preferred. It helped me to get stable, sharp images.
I used centre-spot focusing nearly all the time. It may seem a waste of the 45-point module, but it’s how I work. The centre point is also the most sensitive and accurate. Just occasionally, in near-darkness, it couldn’t find a mark.
The 24-105mm performed far better on this 1.3x format and with the benefit of the Mk IV’s focus module. The whole camera/lens assembly just seems far better aligned and calibrated than the 5D Mk II I was using alongside it. It’s two-and-a-half times the price, delivers a smaller file size, cropped format, but the success rate on all manner of subjects was better. The 1.3x crop factor made the 24mm minimum focal length of my lens kit equal about 32mm. That’s not very wide. But the 70-200mm became, in effect, like a 90-260mm f/4 and that’s a rather useful range.
For the hirer of the 1D Mk IV, countless advantages are lost. The EOS Utility software and Picture Style Editor between them allow the owner – anyone who has time to spend a day or two setting the camera up – to fine tune settings and performance from the comfort of a computer screen.
The Mk IV has registers for author and copyright holder as well as owner; important when EXIF data may be your only way to prove authorship of images. The Mk III only allows the owner to be entered for EXIF. This information is also embedded in raw, as is GPS data with the appropriate accessories. JPEG is felt to be a vulnerable format; it’s too easy to strip data out. The raw file provides ultimate proof of origins.
The Mk IV has the small and medium raw options, many JPEG size and raw combinations, and split, sequential or backup saving using the two card slots. Picture desks often want a smaller JPEG fast – 16 megapixels is large – but the demand from Getty and Reuters, consulted about the camera, was for saving full-size raw files on one card while the Wifi connection transmits small JPEGs.
The larger studio or agency can set up one Canon and save the configuration, copying it to many bodies. It can also be saved on a memory card, and applied to hired bodies. Factory default reset erases all that after use.
I have some reservations about the Mk IV. One is that despite sustained pressure on Canon from users, the mic input for video doesn’t officially handle line sources and has no manual gain level adjustment. Another is that the Canon video format does not allow still JPEGs to be extracted in-camera for Wifi sending, unlike Nikon’s frame-by-frame Motion JPEG format. It has been suggested that stills and video clips stored on separate cards, as with raw/JPEG split, would be a good firmware upgrade if Canon can achieve that.
But the Nikon format and 2GB limit on single file size leads to a restriction of five minutes’ filming at 720p where the Canon models can capture 1080p for an unlimited time, with higher data compression. That five-minute Nikon limit has caught me several times with performances ending mid-shoot. And the Canon built-in sound is less prone to clipping and breaking up, even with auto-gain.
The multi-pin interface socket used to connect the WFT-E2 Wifi unit that clings to the side in a weather-sealed pod, offers more potential than currently used for remote control and viewing functions. To connect external USB storage or a GPS unit, the WFT-E2 is needed as an interface. There will no doubt be third-party openings, as there have been for video grips and shoulder stocks, viewing hoods and related accessories.
I can understand why evolution in the 1D series has been conservative. It’s a camera intended for those who will want to be totally familiar with it when they open the box Many will just keep using it as before, treating it as a file-size upgrade only. They will be getting much more than that, though.
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