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Canon 1DmkIV - Early impressions, 12th March 2010

Canon 1DkIV
Canon 1DmkIV 16 mp 1.3x crop Digital slr

I have been testing the new Canon 1DmkIV this month. The main issues I was interested in were:

1) How does it focus ?

My two "post-submirror fix" Canon 1DmkIII's have focused very well in AI servo and I have many great action images from them. I never experienced the kind of issues that some users unfortunately report, but I am happy to state that the mark IV autofocus is very clearly superior from the outset. Initial acquisition is still very snappy whilst tracking is notably better and the number of in-focus images in a burst is significantly improved too.

My first quick AF test of a new camera is always to tripod-mount it and ensure that after initial focus acquisition, it will focus stably on a static subject in AI servo without continuously attempting to refocus (chatter). My new mkIV passed this test fine, as did both my previous mkIII's. You can't expect your camera to focus on something moving if it can't stably focus on a static target.

I had read that some people find that the mkIV will not focus as well as the mkIII in low light, so I tried focusing on some objects in my living room in the evening in very low light. I found that again, focus seemed absolutely fine, and appeared no better or worse than the mkIII as far as I could tell.

I then had to carry out lens micro-focus adjustments to ensure I was not experiencing any front or back focus issues. I constructed a paper target mounted on a board at 45 degrees. The lens under test was mounted on the camera/tripod and using a cable release, I focused at the lens's widest aperture - on the black line at the centre of the test chart. I usually place the tripod at a distance from the target that seems relevant to the lens focal length, that is, where I can read the chart numbers and determine if they are in or out of focus. Canon suggests using a vertical target and testing at 50x focal length. I find that this is OK as a final check of focus but this method gives no indication which way to carry out the adjustments and the distance seems excessive to me.

I take a quick series of photos at various plus and minus micro adjustment settings, then view them on the back of the camera on the new super-sharp screen and determine whether the camera appears to be front or back focusing. I make the camera refocus each time by defocusing it first.

If I think that the camera is front focusing for example, I take a series of images in triplicate from zero backwards and then view them on my computer screen at 100%. The appropriate camera lens micro adjustment is dialed-in to the camera so that the numbers in front and behind the focus line on the chart are equally in focus.

lens adjustment chart

The chart that I use is available here : Tim Jackson lens adjustment chart

I like the fact that the Liveview now offers autofocus (unlike the mkIII which is manual focus only). In Quick Mode the mirror has to flip down, the camera focuses and the mirror flips back up. This makes a bit of a clack but it is very quick. This ability now permits you to focus on a fixed target, zoom in to 10x and see if you can improve on the camera AF by focusing yourself manually. When you can't better what the camera can do yourself you know the adjustment is correct.

Finally, there is another method of conducting lens micro focus adjustments with the camera tethered to a computer/laptop. It is a clever, accurate and novel method : Lens micro focus adjustment tricks. All you need is the USB lead and the Digital solutions disc that ship with the camera. I found that once I had set up my lenses using the 45 degree target method I got very good correlation when I rechecked using the tethered method. I found that my 500mm f4 required no adjustment but some other lenses were front-focussing and needed adjusting backwards to compensate.

I was now satisfied that my camera was set up properly and I then moved onto taking pictures of my cat as she ran around the lawn. I used ISO 2500 to get a high shutterspeed (1/3200sec at f6.3) on the 70-200 f2.8 IS lens. I selected expanded centre pont focusing in custom function CFIII- 8 and focussed on the cat's head as best I could as she dashed around.

Cat running

100% crop (ISO 2500)

Cat running 100%
Every one of the 22 images in the burst I took were in focus. The 1DmkIII could never achieve this performance, it would nearly always threw up several out-of focus images in the sequence.

Other tests I conducted included my cats running towards me (below) , some tests of a jogger running towards me using the lens wide open this time at f2.8 - and the hit rate was near 100% when I got it right ! This is similar to the performance of the Nikon D3 I hired some months back.

Although I could not test them side-by-side, I feel that the 1DmkIV now equals the D3 in tracking and has the added benefit of quicker initial focus acquisition. I set the appropriate focus limiter setting on the lens and then try to pre-focus at a similar distance to my subject so the camera does not have to hunt backwards and forwards to "see" something to lock onto. Once I attain focus I keep the shutter button half-depressed and take short bursts of images when the time seems right. If I lose focus, I release the shutter button and repress it when I feel I am on target again.

Cat running at the camera

Finally I moved onto some wildlife subjects - some herons flying around and building nests - using my 500mm f4 IS lens mounted on a Wimberly mkII head/gitzo tripod.

Heron carrying twig

Heron nest building

Young heron

I found that my keeper rate was certainly much higher than with the 1D mkIII, which had a tendency to throw up a few out-of focus shots in most continuous image bursts.The mkIV images that were sharp were usually "tack" sharp - not just "pretty" sharp as they sometimes were with the mkIII. When sniping quickly at ducks and gulls I was impressed at how many were in focus. If I could keep the AF pooint on the target, I felt that the camera did not try to jump to the background to the same degree as the mkIII. There is still a very high degree of skill required from the user and I can usually say that if the focus missed that it was usually my fault - so no excuses now! I experimented with centre point only, expanded centre point and all 45 points and I would say that my findings are in line with Les Zigurski's excellent article .

I can't understand how some testers feel confident enough to analyse and report back on AF capability with great certainty, as it is anything but an exact science. I think that the best that can be done is to build up impressions over time with continual use and practice. I never found that fiddling with the custom functions made a huge amount of difference on my mkIII's performance and I would say the same about the mkIV but it is still early days. However I find I am getting good success with pretty much "out of the box" settings but I change from single point to single point with expansion or all 45 points active according to background complexity and how erratically the subject is moving.

2) What is the image quality like compared to the 1DmkIII and also my reference 1DsmkII full frame camera ?

The 1DMkIII is capable of producing top flight image quality. With the 60% extra pixels I was hoping that the mkIV would produce similar or even better image quality but with higher resolution than the mkIII. In a nutshell that is pretty much what I see in the mkIV's images. The colours coming out of the camera seem a little more vibrant and hold a lot of detail. You can see this in the highlights of this swan below. I shot RAW and I used the Photoshop CS4 shadow/highlight tool a little to maximise detail..

Mute swan
Mute swan - even at this tiny web size, the amount of detail in the silky
head feathers is very apparent.

Mute swan 100% crop
100% crop of the above image


Next I carried out some side-by-side comparisons of the 1DmkIV against the 1DmkIII and the 1DsII with a 100mm f2.8 macro lens fitted in turn to each camera.

In this test, I balanced a feather on the nose of my trusty assistant which I figured would be a good test of resolution in the field. I framed the images identically by moving the camera/tripod. This means that the full frame camera was 1.3x closer than the crop cameras. This mirrors a situation where the subject will allow you to get as close as you want and effectively gives the full frame camera its best chance to excel.

Starting image
Starting image

1DmkIII
1DmkIII 100% crop

1DsII
1DsII 100% crop - The image is larger because it has more pixels

1DmkIV
1D mkIV 100% crop

The images from the three cameras have a family resemblance. The 1DmkIII image is smaller and has lower resolution as it has 10Mp compared to the 16Mp approx of the other two cameras. It consequently appears a little sharper at 100% ( but this differences disappear if the other images are downsized to mkIII size).

I was surprised at how well the new 1DmkIV with its 1.3x crop sensor holds up against my reference - the full frame 1DsmkII. There is virtually no difference at 100% in this test.

The next test was performed at the same tripod to subject distance in each case. This is the situation where a subject may not allow you to get any closer (Focal length limited scenario). These are 100% crops of an old house taken with a 17-40mm f4 lens set at 25mm.

Window - 1DmkIII
1DmkIII - 10Mp on a 1.3 crop sensor

Window - 1DmkIV
1DmkIV - 16MP on a 1.3x sensor, larger than mkIII because it has 60% more Mp on the same size sensor (higher pixel density).

Window - 1DsMkII
1DsmkII - 16.7 Mp on a full frame sensor. The image is smaller than mkIV as a) The full frame camera has a wider field of view and b) It has has same number of pixels as the mkIV but on a larger sensor - so pixel density is lower. It has less resolution than the mkIV at this distance, but still resolves a just little more than the mkIII.

These images have been sharpened equally (300%, 0.3,0) and the mark III has the lowest resolution but is the sharpest at this pixel level. Larger images usually require firmer sharpening. I thought that the mkIV images were a little soft at first before I realised that they require (and take well) a firmer hand with sharpening.

1DmkIV sharpened more
1DmkIV image sharpened a little more.
Now matches mkIII image for sharpness but with more resolution. The benefits of the high pixel density for telephoto work are now very apparent for situations when you can't get any closer to your subject.

To give you a feel of how the high pixel density can be used to advantage, here is a picture of a hare which was a little small in the frame as I couldn't get any closer. If you look at the 100% crop beneath it you can see how hard the image can be cropped and still look sharp, but just as importantly - natural. The full frame 1DsmkII has the same number of pixels and great pixel quality as the 1DmkIV but the image would have to be cropped 1.3x harder for the same framing as the field of view is wider. There will be less pixels on target as the pixel density is lower - so the 1DmkIV has a telephoto advantage.

Brown hare

Brown hare taken on a very dull day at ISO 800 with 500mm f4 IS plus 1DMkIV, beanbag, car as hide.
Brown hare 100% crop
100% crop of above image. Very good detail at this magnification would permit me to crop the image to pretty well any size I want for printing.



3) What is the ISO performance like compared to the 1DmkIII ?

This is a low light test of ISO carried out indoors on an old collection of butterflies (with the glass removed). The lens used was a 100mm f2.8 and I used a tripod/cable release and mirror lock up as the shutterspeeds were very low. The focal point was the head of the black and green birdwing butterfly at the case centre. The butterfly scales provide a good indicator of detail and the black of the butterfly and the white background show up noise well.

Starting image :



100 % crops (using ACR 5.6 as RAW converter) :

1d4 100 iso
1d3 100 iso
1d4 200 iso
1d3 200 iso
1d4 400 iso
1d3 400 iso
1d4 800 iso
1d3 800 iso
1d4 1600 iso
1d3 1600 iso
1d4 3200 iso
1d3 3200 iso
1d4 6400 iso
1d3 6400 iso
1d4 12800 iso
1d4 6400 reduced to 1dIII size
1d4 25600 iso
1d4 reduced to 1dIII size + Neat image
1d4 51200 iso
1dmkIV 3200 iso - DPP

Nikon 3200 iso
Nikon 6400 iso
Nikon D3 iso 3200
Nikon D3 iso 6400

Conclusions on noise

There is a problem when viewing images at 100% size when they are from cameras of different Mp counts. The larger output camera should show more detail but could appear a little softer and with more noise as you are looking at it much bigger on the screen.

Both the 1DIII and 1DIV when correctly exposed look very impressive up to 1600 iso. Both cameras retain very good detail up to 6400 iso, with fairly equivalent noise when the size difference is taken into account. I reduced the 1dmkIV image to 1dmkIII size and the images are pretty much identical. I also applied Neat image noise reduction to the reduced 1dmkIV image and it does look very usable. This was in line with my expected level of performance from the 1DmkIV, but I was really surprised that the 1DmkIII came out as well as this too.

The 1dmkIV can go on to be used at iso settings of 12800, 25600 and 51200. As far as I am concerned these settings are only useful for small web-sized viewing and are just marketing gimmicks. The two highest settings are just plain daft in my opinion.

I have a couple of 100% crops at 3200 and 6400 iso taken when I hired a Nikon D3. I have included these above in the comparisons. Although they are of a different subject taken on a different day, they give a good idea of the Nikon D3's noise capability. They look pretty similar to the two Canons at the same iso - I was surprised that the 1DmkIII was so similar to the D3. The latest Nikon D3s is said to have 1 stop better noise than the D3. So Canon has done well to retain the same noise performance as the 1DmkIII despite 60% more pixels on the same sized 1.3x sensor, but to expect it better on noise and be competition for the D3s in this respect is wishful thinking.

Finally I wondered how a 3200 iso image from the 1DmkIV would look when converted with the Canon DPP software. It does show a little less luminance noise (granularity) than the ACR5.6 conversion but worse chrominance (colour ) noise. So I will continue to use ACR as my preferred converter.

In summary then, Canon have retained the good noise performance of the mkIII but I am disappointed to report that I can't demonstrate evidence of any actual improvement in my tests although this is hard to establish conclusively as the filesizes are significantly different.

Plus points of the 1DmkIV

I am very pleased with the autofocus ability of the MkIV in both one shot and AI servo. It is not perfect - nothing is, but it is a definite improvement on the mkIII and appears to be at least a match for the Nikon D3 I tried some months back but I would like to be able to compare the two cameras side-by-side to come to a positive conclusion.

Great resolution and general image quality from the 16Mp sensor is very satisfying. The files appear to look very natural, take cropping and firm sharpening well and lack any on-board noise-reduction artifacts that I have observed on othe rcameras such as the Canon 40D and 50D 1.6x crop cameras. I was expecting that ultimate image quality would remain with the full frame 1DsmkII, but I was surprised and pleased to discover that they were remarkably similar. I suspect that only the 21 MP Canon 1DsmkIII or 5DmkII or 24Mp Nikon D3x could beat it.

High pixel density and good per-pixel quality is excellent for working with more distant subjects and should give the Canon 1DmkIV a big advantage over the 12 Mp full frame Nikon D3s when shooting side-by-side in a focal length limited scenario. This is often the case with birds.

The high resolution of the rear screen is very nice - it is now possible to judge image sharpness at last. The larger RAW buffer is great, and I like the fact that different focal points may be selected in the landscape and portrait formats. I have the portrait orientation set to be over a point that usually coincides with a bird's eye. I am pleased that 45 points are user-selectable again rather than the 19 of the mkIII . Also the crazy method for selecting AF points has been abandoned for the far better earlier system found in the 1DmkII.

The mkIV has HD video - but I can't comment on that as I have yet to find a use for it. Autofocus in Liveview is a welcome addition though for macro and hide work.

Minus points

Although I did not have the Nikon D3s to compare the 1DmkIV against, all indications (from other Internet reviews) are that it has about 1 stop better noise performance than the D3 and so it will beat the 1DmkIV by about the same amount in this respect.

The high pixel density of the 1DmkIV has two negative implications - it puts great demands on lens quality and and I suspect that the camera is more susceptible to camera shake/motion blur. I find that I have to raise my shutterspeed a little to ensure getting a sharp image on the mkIV. I'm not yet certain whether this is because the mkIV has a pretty harsh mirror slap that sets up internal vabration (the shutter certainly makes a fair old clack) or whether this is simply because at 100% on the computer screen, the image is a lot larger than say a 1DmkIII and you are looking that much closer at the imperfections. I have explained this issue in another tutorial called - Do high megapixel cameras produce softer images ?

Although I did not carry out any scientific measurements, the battery life appears to be a little worse than the mkIII even without using video, this is presumably because the processors are working harder.

Conclusion

The 1DmkIII is a great camera that I would recommend it to anyone, but the mkIV is altogether much improved - it is better in many areas, notably AF performance and resolution. Although still impressive, I was unable to demonstrate that Canon have improved on the noise performance as claimed and I am sure that its rival the Nikon D3s would better it by a stop or two. Also although the mkIV is capable of great image quality, I find that the camera puts greater demands on the photographer's technique and also lens quality if the improved performance is to be realised.

The mark IV is certainly an evolution rather than a revolution but the improvements all add up to make it an even better wildlife camera than its predecessor - with the bonus of HD video if required. I feel that Canon has got the balance of filesize/pixel density/image quality just about spot-on for my kind of application so I would strongly recommend it.

Update 22nd March

I was able to carry out a side-by side comparison test of the 21Mp Canon 5DmkII against the 16Mp 1DmkIV.
I used the case of butterflies indoors in low light again. The lens used was a Canon 180mm f3.5 macro lens, Other equipment included a Gitzo tripod/Markins ballhead, and as shutterspeeds wer low, I used mirror lockup.The tripod was moved closer with the 5DII to get the same framing as the 1DmkIV.

Test 1 - Low ISO image quality

Starting image

 

1DmkIV butterfly
1DmkIV 100% crop - 100 ISO
5DmkII butterfly
5DmkII 100% crop - 100 ISO

Test 1 conclusion.

The 5DmkII image is larger because it has 12.5% more pixels than the 1DmkIV. Pixel peeping at 100% shows that the 5DII has a little extra resolution and apparent sharpness. The image quality (IQ) on both cameras is excellent but the full frame camera with the extra pixels wins out as would be expected. What is pleasing is that the mkIV comes so close to Canon's best IQ camera despite the smaller sensor.

Test 2 ISO comparison

1DmkIV 100 ISO
5DmkII 100 ISO
1DmkIV 200 ISO
5DmkII 200 ISO
1DmkIV 400 ISO
5DmkII 400 ISO
1DmkIV 800 ISO
5DmkII 800 ISO
1DmkIV 1600 ISO
5DmkII 1600 ISO
1DmkIV 3200 ISO
5DmkII 3200 ISO
Image not available
1DmkIV 6400 ISO
5DmkII 6400 ISO

Test 2 conclusion

The 5DmkII shows slightly less chrominance (colour) and luminance (granular) noise at each ISO setting - equivalent to approximately 1 f stop. Bearing in mind this is extreme pixel-peeping, the results are very impressive on both cameras. Unfortunately I appeared to mislay the 5DmkII 6400 ISO file somehow - doh ! but the results are still pretty conclusive - both are really usable at 3200 ISO and 6400 ISO at a pinch. I did not explore ISO settings beyond 6400 ISO as I am usually interested in high quality images rather than obtaining an image at any cost.

Overall conclusion

The 5DmkII with 12.5% extra pixels on its full frame sensor has about 12.5% higher resolution and about 1 stop lower high ISO noise than the 1DmkIV. This was to be expected, but the differences are pretty minimal even on these huge 100% crops. In the real world, the differences are slight, but the 1DmkIV has other strengths - a much higher 10 frames per second shooting rate and much higher spec autofocus being the main benefits. As such, the 1DMkIV is a brilliant all-rounder and the best wildlife camera on the market in my opinion at the moment.