2012-12-14

Canon EOS-1D X review by Will Cheung

Announced in late 2011, Canon’s flagship has taken a little time to come to market. So has the wait been worth it? Very probably. Words & pictures Will Cheung.

A flagship, whether it’s in a car, TV or hotel brand, has to be outstanding. It’s meant to be the pinnacle of what can be achieved and while it might be very expensive, it shows that the brand is worth buying into and there’s something to aspire to. A mediocre flagship is pointless.

The EOS-1D X announced late in 2011 is Canon’s flagship DSLR. And it’s definitely not pointless. It shows the brand at its brilliant best whether that’s with regard to build, features or performance. When I say build, I think a more appropriate word is construction. You only have to pick up the Canon EOS-1D X to appreciate this is a seriously rugged machine constructed to withstand heavy use in the most arduous conditions. There are 76 waterproof and dustproof seals around the body. It’s a very solid piece of engineering and it does feel like you could bang in nails with it. Ruggedness, however, comes at a price. In the case of the 1D X, the penalty is weight. The body alone hits the scales at 1.34kg – coincidentally, the same as the Nikon D4. It’s a seriously hefty piece of kit. Couple the EOS-1D X to a 24-70mm f/2.8 or 70-200mm f/2.8 and you have a combination that will seriously test your wrists. One side benefit is that the combination’s heft helps to banish camera shake at slowish shutter speeds.

Putting the camera’s formidable build qualities aside, the EOS-1D X has plenty more to justify its flagship status. It can shoot at 12fps at full resolution. In large Jpeg, I got 156 frames in continuous mode before the camera drew breath. In full-size raw mode, the maximum number of frames was much lower but still an impressive 35 shots. This is important as the camera is aimed at action and press photographers. If discretion is required, silent mode reduces noise and vibration to low levels.

Responsiveness is very good, with a fast start-up time and there’s the option to reduce the camera’s shutter lag time. in normal default mode the shutter release is controlled to aid stability but turning this off means shutter lag time drops to a claimed 0.036sec at maximum aperture or 0.055sec with the lens stopped down to a maximum of three stops.

Allied to sheer shooting speed is a highly advanced autofocusing system. To give you an idea of the system’s complexity, the AF’s setting handbook, downloadable from Canon, runs to 47 pages of A4. There are no fewer than five tabs in the menu system for AF alone.

Canon has tried to help, providing six AF pre-sets or ‘Cases’ you can use as a basis for experimentation. You can fine tune three parameters, namely tracking sensitivity, Accel/decel tracking and AF point auto switching.

To put some flesh onto those bones, tracking sensitivity means that the camera can be set to either quickly switch AF to a new subject entering a scene (using a + value), or for the camera to continue to hold focus on the original subject (using a –value). Accel/decel tracking can be tailored to suit subjects that start/stop or change direction suddenly. Finally, AF point auto switching comes into play in multiple Af mode. the + settings set the camera up for erratic movement in any direction and the higher the + value the quicker the switch to another focusing zone. The six Cases automatically set the three parameters to suit. So, for Case 5 erratic subjects moving in any direction, the AF point auto switching is set to +1 and the other two are at zero. One aspect of the EOS-1D X that is not truly ‘flagship’ status is resolution. There are a mere 18.1 megapixels the Cases and focusing parameters are just one aspect of the AF system. 

The EOS-1D X has a 61-point AF system and those points can be chosen individually, automatically or manually, or you can set groups of sensors to work together. In Zone AF, the 61 points are divided into three blocks, left, right and centre and each block is divided into upper, central and lower zones, giving nine zone options in total. And there’s more… of the 61 points, 41 are cross-type sensors for lenses of f/2.8-4 maximum aperture. This drops to 21 cross-type sensors with f/5.6 lenses.

In the context of a review, we’ve probably gone on enough about the AF system but you can appreciate how complex and versatile it can be. If you don’t (or are unlikely to) own an EOS-1D X but are curious about the system, download thefree AF setting guidebook from here.

Without real sports to focus the EOS-1D X at, I instead aimed it at traffic on a motorway, vehicles coming around a roundabout, a running dog and some kids playing. The camera behaved impeccably, achieving consistently acceptably sharp pictures with sure-footed assuredness. The Af system is amazingly effective and quick even without all the extra fine tuning that is possible.

One aspect of the EOS-1D X that is not truly ‘flagship’ status is resolution. There are a mere 18.1 megapixels so a little way short of the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, which boasts 24.3 megapixels. This, of course, is because the EOS-1D X’s emphasis is on fast-shooting rather than out and out quality. Still 18.1 megapixels are enough for most photographers and a file from the camera is still big enough for an 17x11.5in print at 300dpi without any interpolation. A processed 16-bit file size is 102MB.

There is a great deal to enjoy when it comes to handling, although the inescapable fact is that it’s a significant weight. The body design, however, is excellent so no problems with a secure grip and using features like the command dial, ISO and exposure compensation buttons, and the exposure lock all promote fine handling. Personally, I would have preferred a larger AF-On button to make it impossible to miss, but that’s a minor, subjective point. All round, the EOS-1D X is without doubt a massively inspirational camera.

Is the Canon EOS-1D X worth the money? In terms of specification and performance the answer has to be a resounding yes. It’s a remarkable camera, capable of almost anything you ask of it, and it’s physically engineered to last too. The AF is amazing. In the short time I had the EOS-1D X I didn’t get to shoot any sport and although I have the hand-eye co-ordination of a sloth, I think this camera would more than make up for my inadequacies. The more I read and experimented with the camera the more awestruck I became. If it does half of what Canon claims it can, this is one amazing machine.

Focusing is a crucial part of any camera but the EOS-1D X has so much more to enjoy: the fast, smooth motordrive, for example, and the option of silent mode when you need it. Then there’s the capable exposure and white-balance systems. Image quality is top too, even at ISO 51,200. I can’t imagine anyone investing in this Canon being disappointed. It’s a true flagship.

AT A GLANCE SPECS
Street price
£5000 body only
Sensor 18.1-megapixel CMOS sensor with dual DIGIC 5+ processors
Image dimensions 5184x3456 pixels
Storage Two CompactFlash slots
ISO range 100-51,200, expandable to ISO 50 and 102,400 (H1) and 204,800 (H2)
Metering patterns 252-zone Evaluative, spot, centre-weighted, partial using 100,000 pixel RGB sensor
Exposure compensation +/-5EV in 0.3 0.5, 1EV steps, AEB +/-3EV 2, 3, 5, 7 frames
Autofocus 61-point, with 41 cross-type AF points in different modes including face detection and Live View
Shutter 30secs to 1/8000sec
Shooting speeds Up to 12fps in Raw/JPEG with AF and AE, up to 14fps in JPEG mirror locked up. Drops to 10fps at ISO 32,000.
Video 1920x1080 resolution (30, 25, 24fps)
Size (Wxhxd) 158x164x83mm
Weight 1.34kg (body only)

Words & pictures Will Cheung.

Please CLICK HERE for more information and to purchase the Canon EOS 1D X.

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