Camera Review: Canon EOS-1D X

October 5, 2012

By Dan Havlik

Well, that was certainly quite a build up. The first time I saw the 18.1-megapixel, full-frame Canon EOS-1D X, Canon’s latest flagship digital SLR, it was at an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) briefing way back in October 2011. At the time, the U.S. was still reeling from the fallout of the debt-ceiling crisis; the New York Jets were just starting an NFL season that seemed full of promise (but ended in a familiar crash and burn); and photographers were gearing up for the 2011 PhotoPlus Conference + Expo in New York City, where news about the 1D X would draw lots of attention.

But as the months went by and no actual 1D X camera bodies became available, the crowd grew restless. The original ship date for the 1D X was March 2012, but that month came and went without cameras. Canon’s goal was to have the fast-shooting (14 frames per second) 1D X in pro-photographers’ hands for the Olympic Games in London, but many had hoped they’d be able to get it well in advance to work through the inevitable bugs. (Anyone remember the Canon EOS-1D Mark III?)

Canon eventually readjusted the 1D X’s ship date to mid-June and, little by little, the long-awaited camera made its way to photo agencies, into stores and, eventually, into photographers’ hands. Though we never got an explanation from Canon on why the camera was delayed, the early word we heard from photographers who used the 1D X at the Olympic Games was that it was rock solid. After the debacle of reported focus problems on the 1D Mark III and the positive if unenthusiastic reception to the 1D Mark IV, this must have been music to Canon’s ears.

I received a Canon 1D X test unit soon after the Games ended and put it through its paces while shooting a documentary project I’ve been working on, along with using the camera to capture sports and fast action. Here’s what I thought of Canon’s biggest pro-DSLR launch since the original 1D.

Beast Mode
Canon’s top-of-the-line 1D series digital SLRs have always been imposing pieces of photographic machinery, and the 1D X is probably the toughest looking hombre of the bunch.

While the all-black (naturally), rubberized, gasketed and sealed 1D X will likely draw some unwanted attention if you bring it out in public—“My, what a big camera you have. Does it take good pictures?”—it’s built tough for a reason. Any serious photographer who shoots along the sidelines of a game in mixed weather conditions or goes out on a dodgy assignment where your gear is liable to be splashed, muddied, bumped or, in some cases, accidentally dropped, will appreciate how sturdy Canon makes these flagship models. The Canon 1D X could be the best of the breed.

At the same time, for all its robustness, the 1D X does feel about as big as I’d want a DSLR to be. (If it were any larger, it would start brushing up against the medium-format camera category.)

The 1DX is slightly taller and deeper than the 1D Mark IV—6.2 x 6.4 x 3.3 inches for the new camera versus 6.1 x 6.2 x 3.1 inches for its predecessor—and heavier—three pounds versus 2.6 pounds—and you feel all of that when you’re shooting with it. Part of the 1D X’s added heft comes from a new magnesium alloy chassis while the extra thickness is to accommodate a new LAN port, which features a gigabit Ethernet jack capable of 1000BASE-T transmission speeds.

This is a feature I initially loved but now have somewhat mixed feelings about. While I see the appeal for photojournalists of being able to transmit their images directly from their cameras to their editors—wherever they are located—via an Ethernet link, it seems a touch dated. Yes, a wired line beats Wi-Fi every day of the week for speedy transmission of RAW files and video (of course, the 1D X shoots full HD). But why not give the 1D X built-in Wi-Fi as well? For the camera’s recession unfriendly asking price of $6,800, you’d think it would be thrown in standard.

Instead, Canon is hawking the WFT-E6A Wireless Transmitter with support for 802.11n for $600. Canon also sells the GP-E1 GPS Receiver for the 1D X, which logs latitude, longitude and elevation along with Universal Time Code, for $300.

Serious Package
Add on these various accessories and one of Canon’s equally imposing (and heavy) L series white lenses and the 1D X becomes a serious package. There are some who might be turned off by a bigger DSLR in an imaging world where everything, including pro gear, is becoming smaller and more streamlined, but there are also some who might prefer the beefier build. The 1D X does feel mighty good in your hand.

It also has some subtle but considered design changes. Along with a 3.2-inch 1,040,000-dot LCD screen on back, which has new zoom control in playback with pre-registered zoom points (1x, 2x, 4x, 8x and 10x), the 1D X has a larger monochromatic top panel for eyeballing settings.

Button placement has also improved. There’s a dedicated white balance button on top of the camera now, a new Live View button on the back near where you’d place your thumb, and a Quick Control button (actually a mini-joystick) above the control dial for changing settings on the fly and another “Multi-controller” mini-joystick below it. The front of the camera has four user assignable buttons, two for vertical shooting and two for horizontal shooting.

The optical viewfinder has 100-percent coverage, 0.76x magnification and 20mm eyepoint, and everything looks clear, sharp and true-to-life through it. (Sorry, but an electronic viewfinder just can’t compare.)

There’s also a slightly redesigned graphical user interface, which hasn’t been drastically overhauled but is much improved. The menus are simpler with clear fonts and agreeable color themes, and scrolling through them is quick and intuitive, especially if you use one of the joysticks. In general, Canon’s 1D series menu system has been tidied up and I appreciated that.

I also appreciated that the 1D X now has two, CompactFlash (UDMA 7-compatible) card slots. Yes the CF format is ancient but it works and photographers have tons of these cards, making 1D X storage a plug-and-play experience. (I still think Nikon’s biggest misstep with the otherwise excellent D4 was replacing a CF slot with one for those new XQD cards.)

Full Featured, Full Framed
The 1D X has so many features it would take a day and a half to name them all. Thankfully, many are very useful and not just “me too” functions Canon slapped on to fill out a press release. I’ve mentioned a few already but three obvious highlights stand out: the image sensor, the performance speed and the autofocus system.

Let’s start with the sensor, where Canon hits it out of the park. The 18.1-megapixel, full-frame CMOS chip that Canon installed in the 1D X is one of the best I’ve tried in a DSLR. Individual pixel size is 6.95 microns—1.25 microns larger than the 1D Mark IV sensor and .55 microns larger than the 5D Mark II—and the CMOS chip provides a good balance of decent resolution with excellent low-noise shooting at high ISOs in low light.

Even at ISO 51200, I got very clean images with surprisingly low noise. (A few years ago, these shots from the 1D X would easily pass for ISO 6400.) I used the camera to shoot a project I’ve been working on, photographing the wild ponies of Chincoteague Island, Virginia. The versatility of the camera’s low-light shooting chops—especially when capturing 14-bit RAW files, which gave me tons of latitude—with its overall speed make it an ideal photojournalist’s or documentarian’s camera. The camera’s ruggedness and weather sealing were also handy, especially when I waded through salt marshes with the 1D X slung over my shoulder. (Mountain biking with the heavy 1D X crammed into a photo backpack, however, was not so much fun.)

I rarely needed to use flash with the 1D X and, aside from the time it would take me to pull the big, heavy camera and lens (I shot with the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, which is an excellent lens incidentally) out of my photo bag, the camera kept up with my shooting pace, which can border on frantic when I’m in a groove.

I don’t, generally, shoot in high-speed bursts unless I’m photographing sports, in which case the 1D X’s 14 frames-per-second (fps) high-speed mode (for JPEGs only) and 12 fps RAW burst mode, are probably as fast as you’ll need unless you like to spend hours weeding through frames, trying to pick out the best ones.

Sports Shooting

The 1D X’s new AI Servo III mode with focus tracking did a great job locking in on players in soccer matches I shot, where the unpredictable movement of the players can be a challenge for a camera. Speaking of focus, the 1D X uses a 61-point High Density Reticular AF with 41 standard cross-type focusing points (for apertures as small as f/5.6) in the central area and five high-precision cross-type points (for maximum apertures as small as f/2.8). There has been much hand wringing about Canon’s AF systems in the past, particularly when the maligned 1D Mark III was introduced, but I think they’ve got a winner on their hands with the 1D X’s autofocus.

The camera is powered by Dual Digic 5+ Image Processors but Canon has dedicated a separate Digic 4 Processor just to handle autofocus and metering. (The company has dubbed the 1D X “the camera with three brains,” which is kind of corny but not totally inaccurate.) One seemingly small but significant benefit of all this processing speed is that the mirror blackout period when you press the shutter is virtually non-existent—Canon estimates it at 60 milliseconds—so you barely lose site of your subject when firing off a frame. If you’re photographing a fast-moving sprinter like Usain Bolt or a speeding Formula 1 car, this can make a big difference between getting and missing the shot.

To handle all those split-second shutter releases, Canon’s strengthened shutter durability in the 1D X to 400,000 cycles. Not something mom and pop photographers will care about, sure, but pros will likely be thankful for that sturdiness.

If there’s a downside to the Canon 1D X for sports photographers, it’s that the camera won’t give your long lenses as much “throw” as the previous mode. Yes, while a full-frame DSLR with larger pixels will help with low-light shooting, you don’t get the same amount of magnification as when shooting with a smaller, “crop” sensor camera.

For instance, the Canon 1D Mark IV with its 16.1-megapixel APS-H sensor offers 1.3x magnification, turning a 70-200mm lens into, approximately, a 91-260mm lens. And where a 400mm lens turns into a 520mm monster when shooting with the 1D Mark IV, with the 1D X, it’s still a 400mm lens. Photographers who shoot wide love full-frame sensors, but those who have come to depend on that extra kick of magnification from an APS-C/H chip, might have tougher time adjusting to the 1D X.

In the Studio and on the Set
And what about studio photographers? Because the 18.1-megapixel 1D X is a replacement for both the 16.1-megapxiel 1D Mark IV and the higher resolution 21.1-megapixel 1Ds Mark III, where do studio and commercial shooters go when they need that extra boost of resolution?

It’s a fair question, I think. For the type of documentary, nature and sports subjects I shot with the 1D X, the resolution was more than enough. If you’re doing fashion work, advertising, beauty, still life or product photography, 18.1 megapixels might be right on the border (even with the 1D X’s 14-bit RAW files). And if you’re shooting images for billboard-size advertising campaigns, you might want to consider renting a medium-format camera instead.

Similarly, while the 1D X’s furious 14 fps high-speed mode is impressive, it seems overkill for studio shooters as does the sturdy, weatherized body. Though high-ISO performance is greatly improved with the 1D X over the 1Ds Mark III, that’s less important to studio photographers who shoot at lower ISOs using controlled lighting. At the same time, the 1D X’s flash sync speed is 1/250 of a second, which is a respectable rate for studio lighting. And that’s the puzzle of the 1D X: By trying to appeal to the best of both worlds, it risks disappointing some.

The only thing that might discourage movie shooters is that the size and weight of the 1D X does not make it ideal for placing at high angles, such as mounting it on a jib for a modified crane shot. Otherwise, it has most of the premium movie features in a pro HD-DSLR these days, including 1080p HD video recording (24, 25 or 30 fps) in two compression formats; a stereo microphone jack; and Move Time Code recoding. A headphone jack, which I find essential to audio recording for movies, is noticeably missing from the 1D X, however.

On the other hand, I like that Canon has upped the movie file size limit to 4 GB (or clips of up to 29 minutes and 59 seconds), adding in a splitting function that creates a new file internally without losing frames.

The Bottom Line
The Canon 1D X may be expensive but make no mistake, you get a whole lotta camera for $6,800. If there’s anything I can say that’s critical of this superstar DSLR from Canon—aside from a few minor things like a missing headphone jack, etc.—it’s that the camera seems to try to be too many things for too many photographers. Sure, sports photographers will love its speed and durability, while photojournalists, documentarians and street photographers will like its full-frame sensor and low-light shooting skills. But where does that leave studio photographers? While I could certainly see the 1D X used in a studio or commercial photography environment, its 18.1 megapixels of resolution and outdoorsy camera build wouldn’t necessarily make it my first choice there. (Medium-format camera makers might be wise to accentuate this when trying to get DSLR shooters to make the jump in class to their models.) Also, while the 1D X has top-line video chops, it wouldn’t be the first product I’d recommend for aspiring cinematographers and directors: it’s not quite designed for that kind of work. Having said all that, the 1D X is a wonderful camera and, perhaps, the best DSLR I have ever shot with. It produced image files that were gorgeous in a range of lighting conditions; it felt tough, reliable and fast all-around; and despite being on the slightly beefy side, its elegant design, both physically and in its interface, made it feel like riding on the back of thoroughbred. With its latest flagship DSLR, Canon’s 1D X hits the mark.

Pros: Incredibly fast frame rate and performance speed; beautiful image quality even in extremely low light at extremely high ISOs; tough, sturdy build with an elegant overall design despite its beefy size; a boatload of features, most of which are extremely useful

Cons: Expensive; no built-in Wi-Fi; no headphone jack; studio photographers might find the resolution wanting

Price: $6,800 (body only);

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