Feb 22, 2008
David Schloss, Technology Editor

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
My first digital camera was an Apple Quicktake 100 digital camera, which was a 640x480 resolution "compact" camera that hit the market in 1994. This was a huge deal. There was almost nothing comparable on the market; a digital camera for consumers was just about unheard of and only the pros had been exposed to digital at this point. The shutter lag on this camera (and the successive Quicktake 150, which I also owned and still have) were horrible. I have vivid memories of attempting to photograph mountain bike races, and in order to capture an image, I would send an assistant a few hundred feet down the trail. When he shouted "They're coming!" I'd hit the shutter release button and hope that I got shot.

Fast forward to today. As I write this, I'm sitting beside the Canon 1Ds Mark III, which boasts a mind-boggling 21-megapixel sensor in a 35mm-format body. While Nikon's recent D3 is obviously aimed at the general shooter (with the 12-megapixel sensor and 10 frames-per-second capabilities), the Canon 1Ds Mark III is going after a different market: the studio photographer who currently has to drop $30,000 on a camera back (not including the body) to break that 20-megapixel barrier. That makes the nearly $8,000 price tag of the 1Ds Mark III much more reasonable, I suppose.

Those who have already read reviews of the other Mark III body, the 1D Mark III, will be familiar with the general feature set of the 1Ds Mark III. While most of the changes are subtle, they're significant. The back of the body features a new three-inch LCD screen, which is not only gorgeous, but is much more practical now that Canon has added a thumb-selector button and revamped the body's menu-based user interface. The result is a camera that's much easier to use, with less fumbling and almost no time spent staring blankly at the menu-screen scrolling wildly to figure out where the correct setting is.

From the rear-panel user-interface (UI) advances alone, the 1Ds Mark III is a much better camera than the previous Mark II. Another smart touch is the relocation of the ISO button to the top right of the camera, directly between the rear and front control dials, making it very easy to switch ISO. (More practical would have been inclusion of an auto-ISO mode as Nikon has done.) Aside from these external changes (and the relocation of buttons on the rear panel around the new bigger display), there's not much new to the cosmetics of the camera. We'd still like to see Canon do away with the itsy-bitsy selection buttons, which are nearly impossible to press with gloves on, and take a look at Nikon's UI which has buttons on the top left panel of the camera. (Although in fairness Nikon squanders this bit of real estate with buttons that control things like Bracket and Flash, while the ISO and WB buttons are still relegated to the back).

There's also no reason to design a UI that requires pressing two teeny buttons at the same time to trigger a feature, and Canon couldn't move away from this system fast enough.The body also includes the same dual-card slots of the Mark II, a CF and a SD slot, which is handy but we'd prefer if they'd move to dual CF slots like Nikon's D3.

The biggest changes in the Canon 1Ds Mark III are inside the camera. The company has stepped up from the 16.7MP sensor in the 1Ds Mark III to a 21MP full-frame CMOS imager. This is a rather gigantic leap in resolution, and were it not for the utilization of dual-DIGIC processors (as opposed to the single DIGIC processor in the Mark II) the camera would likely be painfully slow, but the Mark III flies at a five-frames-per-second rate, with a 12-shot RAW image buffer. Most digital backs have a per-image capture rate in the range of one per second, which makes the Mark III, at least on paper, significantly faster.

However, this is comparing apples to oranges to some degree, as the sensors in the pro backs are significantly larger which makes them able to capture a 48-bit image as opposed to the 14-bit from the Canon. That means that the image off a digital back will still have a greater tonal and dynamic range. Of course we come back to price, and that 48-bit image will also have a price tag at least double that of the 1Ds Mark III.

Another feature in the Mark III is the dust-reducing sensor cleaning mode, which vibrates the sensor to shake off dust. In our test, this is an enormously useful feature and it's one that the D3 does not have.

For some time, the rumors of the Mark III included a new greater-than-full-frame sensor, the reasoning being that packing so many pixels into the size of a 35mm image can introduce image artifacts and can make for very noisy images at high ISO. The speculation was that Canon would move to a new sensor size in order to combat these issues and prevent such a large resolution sensor from being disturbingly noisy. This did not come to pass, and while it might some day, it would require a new lens system.

While shooters are currently raving about the high-ISO quality of the Nikon D3 system, our recent tests show that the Canon 1Ds Mark III, which comes from a line of low-noise bodies, has some spectacular performance as well. We shot with both cameras in a mixed-light environment at ISO 1600 to 3200 and both came away with low noise. While in the past the Nikon system would have been far behind the Canon, they're both creating great results, with the Canon having surprisingly low-noise. In other words, Canon shooters shouldn't have to worry about switching platforms in order to get low-noise images.

The only thing odd about the Canon 1Ds Mark III is the hole it has left in the company's lineup, a camera with a sensor around 16MP that has at least the same frames-per-second rate as the D3. When the Mark II was king, the company produced a fast camera in the 1D Mark II (8MP, 8FPS) and the slower, but higher-powered 1Ds Mark II (16MP, 4FPS), which roughly parallels the split between the current 1D Mark III (10MP) and the 1Ds Mark III (21MP). This puts the average Canon 1Ds Mark III shooter who wants the better features of the Mark III line into a bit of a bind, having to choose between dropping $8,000 on a camera with a sensor size quite possibly larger than they'll ever need, or picking up the 1D Mark III, which lacks a full-frame sensor (and has been licking its wounds since the focus issues were revealed.)

We wouldn't be surprised if Canon had been waiting for the D3 to drop in order to create a model that out-specifies the D3 (the 1D Mark III N perhaps?) and fill in that hole. In the meantime, the 1Ds Mark III is one hell of a camera!

The latest addition to the PDN family, the PDN Gear Guide in print, has a total circulation of 30,000, and covers the latest and greatest in photographic equipment. Initially created in 2006 to be the official guide to PDN's annual flagship photography event, PDN PhotoPlus International Conference + Expo, the PDN Gear Guide is now also available online for gear news and updates 365 days a year.
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