NEW! Canon 1DX Mark III

In January, Canon announced their latest top-end pro DSLR. While it looks pretty much the same as the 1DX Mark II from the outside, those appearances are very deceiving since it’s all new on the inside. In fact, the new 1DX Mark III’s specifications are rather mind-blowing actually. From a pure performance standpoint, the speed and buffer are stunning: it can shoot at 16 fps with full mechanical shutter and full AI Servo autofocus tracking, and in Live-View mode with mechanical second-curtain shutter, that actually increases to 20 fps, with full live-view Servo AF tracking by utilizing Canon’s dual-pixel AF. Remember, this 20 fps in Live-View is still with a mechanical shutter, so no banding or distortion issues that you would likely have with a full electronic shutter high-speed shooting, which some other cameras are also capable of. If you do want/need to shoot silently, then there is a full electronic shutter mode in live-view as well, which also runs at 20 fps, but unless you need the silence, the mechanical second curtain would the preferred mode.

For a taste of what 16 fps sounds like, have a look at my (somewhat jittery) Instagram video posting here: Canon 1DX Mark III at 16fps

The buffer is large enough that even when shooting at those incredibly high frame rates, you can go on, and on, and on… and on. The 1DX Mark III will keep shooting raw+jpeg files for 1,000 frames, or more, something that I did not test since I don’t want to prematurely wear out the shutter! That said, the shutter durability is rated for 500,000 cycles so the 1DX Mark III has a good chance of outlasting any other DSLR anyway. To support such high speed shooting, the new shutter mechanism features carbon-fibre shutter blades, and there’s also a new fully servo-controlled mirror and AF sub-mirror assembly, with no more reliance on spring-loaded return mechanisms for the primary or secondary mirrors. And no, that was not a typo earlier: one-thousand frames (or more) of raw+jpeg buffering! In contrast, let me remind you that the 1DX Mark II only managed about 81 shots when shooting raw+jpeg pairs, so this is a more than a 10-fold improvement in buffer depth!

No doubt also helping the 1DX Mark III’s responsiveness and impressive speed, are the new dual, high-speed CF Express memory card slots. CF Express has the same form factor as XQD, but has even faster read/write speeds, the fastest type of memory card on the market right now, as far as I know. The 1DX Mark III really is about speed; fast AF, an incredibly responsive shutter release with super short VF blackout times, near instant boot times, near instant playback… I noticed nothing in this camera that lags in the slightest.

In the spirit of making the camera faster and more responsive, Canon has also innovated when it comes to moving the focus point. There is still the fantastic focus-point joystick, the little nub that can be nudged in any of eight directions to move the AF point around, comfortably falling right under your thumb when you pivot it to the left, plus a second one when holding the camera vertically. To augment those nubs however, the two AF-ON buttons are now larger, with flat backs, and actually have sensors inside to detect swipe gestures that you make with your thumb. Very cool! You can see the large black circles on each AF-ON button in the photo below, behind which hides the sensor tech to detect your thumb movements…

Canon calls them Smart Controllers. Using them does take some getting used to, but this enables much faster repositioning of the AF point. In fact, even when the button is pressed down during AF-ON focus tracking, you can dynamically nudge around the focus point, fine-tuning as you track. That does require a bit of practice, and if you find the touch control, well, too touchy, there are a total of 5 different sensitivity settings. In addition, you can turn the touch feature off entirely, or only have it activate when you push the AF selection mode button first, the one at the very top right of the back of the camera when you are holding it horizontally or vertically. Speaking of settings, I’d say the 1DX Mark III is easily the most customizable Canon DSLR yet. There are a huge number of shooting, playback and control customization options!

The backbone behind all of this responsiveness, is Canon’s newly developed imaging processor dubbed “Digic X”, which is said to be 380x as fast as the older “Dual Digic 6+” processors that were in the previous generation camera.  This enables RAW movie recording (more on that later), shooting in the advanced new HEIF format (High Efficiency Image File), improved AF performance, and much more sophisticated (and faster) JPEG and HEIF in-camera image processing.

Canon’s HEIF is a 10-bit-per-channel compressed file format that has both higher quality than JPEG, and yet still smaller file sizes. Unlike Apple’s 8-bit implementation, Canon’s version offers improved tonal gradations as well as HDR support. At the moment, support for high-bit HEIF files is scarce, but then that is why you can still choose to shoot regular 8-bit JPEGs instead of HEIF in the 1DX Mark III, at least until such time that the new file format is more widely supported. Canon has definitely planned for the future here.

When it comes to its AF system, the 1DX Mark III now has a total of 191 AF points when shooting with the viewfinder, with 155 cross-type sensors that work from EV -4 to EV 21, which is significantly expanded over the range the 1DX Mark II had. With lenses as slow as f/8 (primes or zooms with a teleconverter), there are still 65 cross-type AF points available. When you are shooting in live-view with Dual-Pixel AF, there are a whopping 3869 AF points which cover nearly 100% of the image. In live-view, the AF luminance range is from EV -6 to EV 18, allowing low-light AF in much darker conditions (3 stops darker) than the Mark II did. You also get full AF support up to f/11, so for example you could use the 800mm f/5.6, or the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 with a 2x teleconverter and still get full AF in Live-View.

Live-view AF offers eye-detect AF up to 20 fps, but even conventional AF through the viewfinder supports human body and head-detect AF, by leveraging both the new AF sensor which boasts 28x the pixel density and 40x the processing speed of the one in the Mark II, as well as the new 400,000 pixel RGB+IR metering sensor with a dedicated Digic 8 processor. This RGB+IR sensor handles AE processing and assists with advanced AF subject recognition. Canon has also used “deep learning” AI to develop new AF algorithms that are more reliable at detecting human heads in a variety of situations, especially during sports competitions when those heads might be hidden by helmets, or otherwise be seen in unusual or partially obscured positions.

Those are already a lot of improvements, but I am nowhere done yet! Next up, let’s discuss the all-new 20.1 MP CMOS sensor. While the effective resolution has basically stayed the same when compared to the 1DX Mark II, there have been many improvements, including an expanded ISO range (now 100-102,400) with emphasis on image quality improvements in the ISO 6,400 to 12,800 range, which is a range commonly needed by photojournalists, indoor sports photographers or motion picture set stills photographers.

The CMOS sensor is equipped with a new “high detail” low-pass filter which provides 16-points of separation (compared to the usual 4 points) which serves to suppress moiré and colour aliasing while still maintaining excellent sharpness and fine detail rendition. The new, faster Digic X processor also enables far more sophisticated in-camera processing, resulting in JPEG or HEIF files with better resolution and improved edge sharpness with better halo control around high-contrast edges. A digital lens optimizer helps reduce aberrations when shooting some lenses at wide apertures, and helps compensate for diffraction at very small apertures. There is even in-camera clarity control now to help pop low-contrast scenes, or to soften the contrast when shooting portraits, useful when you need the best possible JPEGs (or HEIFs) to quickly send to your office or to a client.Video support is also massively improved! When you record 4K movies, the camera starts by recording oversampled 5.5K footage at full sensor width (no crop factor!), and leverages the insanely fast new Digic X processor to downsample to 4K on-the-fly. This downsampling not only benefits noise levels, but apparent sharpness and resolution as well. Both 4K DCI (4096×2160 / 17:9 – 5.5K oversampled) and 4K UHD (3840×2160 / 16:9 – 5.1K oversampled) are supported. There is also a cropped 4K DCI mode, if for example, you are shooting wildlife and want to benefit from a longer apparent focal length.

The 4K footage can be recorded internally to CF Express with the Canon Log profile at 4:2:2, 10-bit quality, and is rated at 12 f-stops of dynamic range. In addition, you can also record 5.5K RAW Video! Raw movies can be recorded at 24p/25p/30p and 60p with bit-rates of up to 2600 Mbps. That is about 325 Mb per second, or 19 GB per minute! Therefore, a 64GB card will hold less than 4 minutes of raw video. Yikes! In addition, you can record raw video to one card, and simultaneously record 4K DCI (un-cropped) video to the second CF Express card as backup (from 120 to 340 Mbps, depending on frame rate), or as a way to quickly review footage without needing to process the raw video first. Note that AF during raw video recording is only supported at the lower frames rates (24/25/30). If you do want to record to an external recorder, the HDMI port supports 4K output with Canon Log 4:2:2 10-bit footage at up to 60p.

Other video features are high-speed Full-HD recoding at up to 120p with downsampling from the full-width 5.5K sensor readout, 5-axis electronic image-stabilization (which incurs a crop and cannot be used when recording raw), as well as assisted manual focus with live front and back focus indication (enabled by the on-chip Dual-Pixel AF sensors) and of course adjustable focus peaking. One feature strangely absent, is the ability to record Full-HD at 24 fps, but apparently that feature will be added via a firmware update in the future.

Other enhancements include a much higher resolution 2.1 million dot rear touchscreen, with full touch functionality in all modes, backlit buttons on the body, built-in WiFi, Bluetooth (BLE), a GPS with continuous track-logging capability, a Gigabit Ethernet port, USB-C, mic and headphone jacks, an optional advanced WiFi unit (WFT-E9A) with direct ftp and ftps file transfer capability, twice the battery life (2850 shots or over 2 hours of raw video) and more. Even with all these improvements, the 1DX Mark III is actually 90 grams lighter than its predecessor, although make no mistake: it is still a big, serious chunk of a DSLR.

I think Canon’s designation that the 1DX Mark III is “The Ultimate EOS” is no exaggeration. It is one of the most impressive cameras I have ever put my hands on, but unfortunately all these enhancements do come at a price. In Canada, the 1DX Mark III will sell for $8,999 and will start shipping on February 12th. As of this writing, despite the fact that its predecessor, the 1DX Mark II, was actually a pretty darn impressive camera in its own right, we actually have a fair number of pre-orders already. This is possibly due to the fact that Canon has a generous pre-order special with some free goods: you get a super fast SanDisk 512GB CF Express card, a SanDisk CF Express card reader, as well as a second, extra LP-E19 battery pack. All those items are worth about $1,269 with that 512GB card being over $900 at retail. That is an appealing bundle of freebies, but that bundle only applies to pre-orders placed before February 12th. If you think “The Ultimate EOS” is your next camera, then don’t wait too long – it would be shame to miss the pre-order special!

Presuming of course that all these new features and performance enhancements work as well as Canon is advertising, then at the moment, apart from absolute resolution, the 1DX Mark III might not only prove to be the best Canon DSLR ever, but it may even take the crown for the best DSLR of all time from any manufacturer, period. I am predicting that mirrorless cameras are the way of the future though, so whether or not Canon, or any other company, make a flagship DSLR to surpass the 1DX Mark III…. who knows? All I know is that the preproduction camera I had a chance to use for a few days was mighty impressive indeed, with no obvious quirks or hiccups of any sort, at least with any of the features that I tested out. I think I heard my bank account exhaling a sigh of relief that I am no longer shooting with Canon DSLRs!

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