Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II SLR Review

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Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II

Steve's Conclusion

How do you improve on what was widely regarded as the best studio/commercial dSLR available, the EOS 1Ds? That was the challenge faced by Canon's engineers, and they responded with the 1Ds Mark II. The most touted improvement is the Mark II's 50% increase in resolution, from 11.1-megapxels to 16.7-megapixels; it produces whopping full frame images of 4992 x 3328 pixels compared to the 1Ds 4064 x 2704. In addition to resolution, the Mark II offers improved responsiveness and a greater range of sensitivity.

The first thing you'll notice about the Mark II is its physical presence. Equipped with battery, CF memory card and Canon EF 16-35mm f2.8L zoom lens, it tips the scales at just over five pounds. It's no light weight, but the Mark II is well balanced, especially with a flash unit attached to its hot shoe. The rugged all-metal body is also quite large, measuring 6.1 x 6.2 x 3.1 inches. But the size of the body is actually a benefit, providing enough space for the logical and ergonomic location of its ample buttons and controls. The body is also well sculpted for comfortable hand-holding in both landscape and portrait orientation. All of the Mark II's covers fit snugly and seem capable of withstanding the rigors of professional use. The switches and other controls have a positive, professional feel.

Contributing to the Mark II's size is the large NP-E3 Ni-MH battery pack, the same battery used in the 1Ds and 1D Mark II. The Mark II is more efficient in its power use both by Canon's specifications and in actual use; I was able to capture over 1400 images before the low battery warning appeared, including a lot of time exploring the menu system on the LCD display, and including a two second image review.

A pro spends a lot of time looking through the viewfinder, and the Mark II's does not disappoint. Its eye level glass pentaprism covers the full 100% of the captured image, allowing for precise composition. It has a large 20mm eye point, comfortable rubber eye cup, and dioptric adjustment (-3.0 to +1.0) for viewing ease. It even offers interchangeable focusing screens, allowing you to choose from the standard microprism and nine other types to suit your subject or shooting conditions. There's lots of camera and exposure information displayed, including: AF points, focus confirmation light, shutter speed, aperture, manual exposure, ISO speed, exposure level, flash ready, FP flash, FE lock, flash exposure level, JPEG format, and number of remaining shots. The viewfinder is bright, informative and exact, precisely what a professional needs.

Complementing the Mark II's excellent viewfinder are its three LCD displays. The 2-inch color LCD monitor is used for image review and menu access. It is the same physical size as that on the 1Ds but has almost twice as many pixels (230,000 vs. 120,000.) The menu options are large enough to be easily read, and the LCD's brightness control makes it usable even in bright sunlight. Although its surface is scratch resistant, the LCD is not equipped with a protective cover; you will want to store and handle it with care. Playback mode is very flexible, offering choices of shooting information and histogram displays along with the image. An improvement over the 1Ds is the ability to magnify the image up to 10x for critical field review. But if you are shooting RAW, the LCD displays the unsharpened image, and it will be impossible to field-check focus. It's better to shoot RAW + Small JPEG with sharpness set to 5; the Mark II will display the sharpened small JPEG, enabling a critical focus check. The top and rear LCD panels combine to provide a complete display of camera settings. The top panel contains shooting parameters such as aperture, shutter speed, shooting mode, metering mode, drive mode, AF mode, battery condition, and number of remaining shots; the rear panel displays image size, ISO, memory card and White Balance settings. Custom Function 8 allows you to switch the display of ISO and number of remaining shots between the two panels. Considered as a whole, the viewfinder and LCD displays provide the clarity and completeness demanded by professionals.

Considering the enormous image files it is capable of producing, the Mark II is a very robust performer. From power-on until the first shot was captured took only 3/10 second, and it took the same to wake it from auto power off and capture the first shot; you will not miss many unposed spontaneous moments with the Mark II in your hands. Pre-focused shutter lag is almost non-existent, measuring less than 1/10 second. Autofocus shutter lag varied based on the number of AF points being used; it ranged from a remarkably fast 1/10 second when using a manually-selected single AF point to 2/10 second when using auto AF point selection with a high contrast subject. Shot-to-shot performance was also impressive; I was able to capture images at 3/10 second intervals in single shooting mode.

The 1Ds Mark II is not billed as a sports shooter; Canon reserved that distinction for its sibling, the 1D Mark II. But with a continuous image capture rate of about 4 frames per second, it moves the enormous content of those frames at an incredible rate. Using a fast 80x Lexar 4-gigabyte CF memory card, the Mark II captured between 31 and 42 Large JPEG images at 4fps (dependent on image content/ JPEG file size), with subsequent shots coming at 9/10 second intervals as the buffer emptied. It took about 26 seconds to empty a buffer full of Large JPEG's to the CF card. As with the 1D Mark II we tested last year, the 1Ds Mark II was even faster using SD media. Using a SanDisk Ultra II 512 MB SD memory card, it captured between 41 and 60 Large JPEG images at 4fps (again dependent on image content/JPEG file size), with subsequent shots coming at 7/10 second intervals as the buffer emptied; it took 21 seconds to clear a buffer full of Large JPEG's. These results were obtained shooting at ISO 100 and JPEG quality 8.

As ISO increases, so does JPEG file size. While I expected performance to fall off at higher ISO's, I found unusual results at ISO 400 and above. These tests were performed using firmware version 1.0.3. At ISO 400, only the first 5 shots were captured at 4fps, with the next 23 shots slowing to a rate of about 2.5fps, and subsequent shots at 1.1 second intervals. ISO 800 slowed the camera a bit further, with the first 5 shots taken at 4fps, the next 16 at 2.5 fps, and subsequent shots at 1.1 second intervals. Increasing ISO to 1600 yielded the initial 5 shots at 4 fps, with the next 16 shots at 2.5 fps and subsequent captures slowing to a rate of one every 1.3 seconds. Finally, ISO 3200 produced the worst performance, capturing the initial 5 shots at 4fps, the next 11 at 2.5 fps, and subsequent shots at a rate of one every 1.6 seconds. Buffer clearing time remained at about 21 seconds regardless of ISO setting. These results varied somewhat based on image content and the resulting JPEG file size, and the JPEG quality setting had a similar impact on continuous shooting performance. I was surprised that the Mark II did not maintain 4fps until its buffer filled, only then slowing the capture rate.

The Mark II's RAW format is a form of lossless compression; file sizes varied with image content and ISO, also affecting the camera's continuous capture rate. Using the Lexar 80x 4Gb CF card and ISO 100, the Mark II captured 11 RAW images in 2.5 seconds, with subsequent shots coming at 1.7 second intervals, and buffer clearing in 19 seconds. AS ISO increased, the full-buffer capture interval slowed to 2 seconds at ISO 400 to 2.5 seconds at ISO 3200. Depth of continuous capture also suffered with increased ISO; at ISO 800 and 1600 the Mark II could capture only 10 images at 4fps, and at ISO 3200 only 9. Buffer clearing was also more time consuming, extending to 23 seconds at ISO 3200. The SD memory card again proved faster than CF; at ISO 100, 11 RAW images were captured in the same 2.5 seconds, but subsequent shots came at 1.4 second intervals and the buffer cleared on 15 seconds. At first glance, those numbers might not seem impressive, but when you consider that the RAW images ranged between 12 and 20 megabytes each, the Mark II can move data from its buffer to memory at about 10 megabytes per second.

The 1Ds creates massive 4992 x 3328 size images that you can almost get lost scrolling inside of when viewed at 100%. While the additional resolution doesn't improve the quality of a full frame 8x10 print, it gives you lots of "cropping room" and still have plenty of resolution left to make poster-sized prints. Professionals will appreciate the additional flexibility of the 1Ds Mark II's 50% increase in resolution over the 1Ds; it's analogous to using a larger format camera in film terms. But don't expect your purchase of a 1Ds Mark II to be the only price of admission to image resolution nirvana; you'll need to make investments in your digital workflow as well in the form of the processing speed of your computer and the storage media (CF, SD, hard disk and DVD writer) necessary to process, store and archive the Mark II's enormous images. The Mark II's quality-8 JPEG images ranged between 4.5 and 13-megabytes in size, and its RAW images 12 to 21-megabytes!

For the ultimate image quality shoot in the RAW format and you're able to do a lot of post-capture manipulation with no loss of image data. If you want to be able to quickly use your images then shoot in standard compressed JPEG format. You can even select the JPEG + RAW mode and capture both image formats at the same time. You can set your own JPEG compression ratio as well as vary the image sharpness, chose one of five color matrix (color space) settings and even upload your own custom tone curves. The 1Ds Mark II's JPEG image quality is awesome, and its RAW images provide the raw materials to create photographs that fit your own definition of excellence.

Some will complain that the images look "soft" but this is something we pretty much expect from high-end cameras that employ some type of low-pass filter over the sensor. You can compensate for this with in-camera sharpening but I prefer to do it in software after capture. An over-sharpened image suffers loss of detail much the same as an over-exposed image so avoid the problem whenever possible. Canon's Digital Photo Professional, which ships with the Mark II, provides a complete set of tools for processing RAW images and provides a preview of their effect on the image - that is, with the exception of sharpening; sharpening is a function of saving a JPEG or TIFF image, and no preview is given. For this reason, I preferred to use the Photoshop Camera Raw plug-in, which provides a sharpening tool whose results can be previewed, and in addition has a Luminance smoothing tool that was quite effective at removing noise from high-ISO shots.

The Mark II's image quality at high ISO is very good. The image noise appears more like the effect of film grain than the imager noise of lesser cameras. ISO 50 produces images that set a standard for what "noise-free" should be. Traces of noise appear at ISO 400 in shadow areas. At ISO 800, a barely-perceptible amount of noise begins to affect highlight areas. At ISO 1600, noise becomes noticeable in shadows and perceptible in highlights, but the images are quite usable. ISO 3200, a sensitivity that is to be avoided on most digicams except when it's the only way to get the shot, produces noticeable noise throughout the image, but it is similar to film grain in appearance; ISO 3200 is a usable sensitivity on the Mark II, especially with RAW images post-processed with the Luminance smoothing tool available in the Photoshop Camera Raw plug-in.

They say that you get what you pay for, and in the case of the 1Ds Mark II, it's very true. We've become accustomed to a trend of new digicams replacing their predecessors with a combination of more/better features and lower price. Make no mistake - the 1Ds Mark II is the new "ultimate digital SLR" in both features and image quality, but Canon has priced it at the same $8000 that was asked for the 1Ds when it was released over 2 years ago. The Mark II is an excellent value for the pro who needs its increased resolution and improved performance, and to the extent that the Mark II enables them to earn more income, they will buy it. But to the rest of us mere mortals, justifying an $8000 camera plus the necessary upgrades in computer and memory resources is a big stretch, one not many enthusiasts and semi-pro's will make. We'll simply have to be satisfied with our 20D's, and enjoy the 1Ds Mark II's images in newspapers, magazines and advertising.

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