Canon EOS 1D Mark IV

Canon EOS 1D Mark IV

With the release of the EOS 1D Mark IV, Canon has once again demonstrated that they don’t fully understand what photographers are really looking for these days. Somehow Canon can’t seem to let go of the megapixel race and seems to think that what we’re all really looking for is more megapixels on our cameras and even larger images, even if that has to happen at the expense of image quality. This while a constantly growing number of photographers worldwide, who’re using Canon equipment daily, are complaining and asking for less megapixels and a full-frame sports / journalistic camera. Nikon clearly appears to understand this with the release of the Nikon D3s.

Once the king of image quality, for the last 3 years Canon seems to have lost touch with the market. As far as image quality is concerned it started going downhill with the EOS 50D, which came with a sensor that produced more noise and banding than anything else. Then came the EOS 5D Mark II, which also suffers from noise and banding issues even at ISO 100. Other image quality issues on the 5D Mark II such as the black dot problem were ‘fixed’ in a firmware update. Then came the EOS 7D which produces images that contain more noise compared to a 2 year older camera, namely the EOS 40D, while it also appears to suffer too much from diffraction issues when using high f-stops due to the high pixel density on the sensor. The same can be said about the Rebel line of cameras and for example the G10. The G10 got equipped with a 15MP sensor that, similar to the EOS 50D, produced more noise than anything else. It was so bad Canon went back and released a newer model, the G11, which has a smaller 10MP sensor capable of delivering much better image quality.

In the case of the 1D Mark IV (1D4 in short), the image quality is comparable to that of the 2 year old 40D. This is not surprising considering that the pixel density on the sensors in both cameras is 5.7µm. So the noise levels are practically the same. However the sensor in the 1D4 benefits from advances in sensor development in recent years and, among other things, does not suffer from the banding issues that can sometimes be seen on images taken with a 40D at high ISO values. Some reviewers, such as Lloyd Chambers, have argued that the 1D4 produces the best image quality to date compared to previous Canon camera models, and I agree with this. But this isn’t such an achievement when you consider that the last 3 (semi) professional DSLR models released by Canon all suffer(ed) from various image quality issues. It’s like a kid in school who has been receiving D’s constantly and gets praise when he finally receives a B.

Because when you look at it, Canon has given us image quality that, currently, isn’t worth much more than a B. The A goes to Nikon for their image quality on the D3s. If you look at reviews of the 1D4 around the Internet, you’ll find reviewers (who by the way are all Canon users) who are wishing Canon had given us the image quality produced by the D3s. One example is this review done by a Danish photographer, here’s what he had to say (translated from Danish):

It would have been better if Canon had made the files smaller and improved high ISO as such 12,800 were usable.

In another 1D4 review, the reviewer looks at the noise in files produced by the 1D4, and says that it almost looks “D3s like,” but not quite:

As stated previously, regardless of ISO (even 102,500!) there is no banding (even when heavily processed), and the pleasantness of the grain is particularly distinguishable from 12,800 ISO and higher as compared to all other cameras tested. One might say, the grain is almost… “Nikon D3s like” (…gasp! I know!)

If Canon had kept the 1D4 at 10MP or 12MP at most, the 1D4′s image quality could have matched the D3s. But as it is right now, the D3s is the clear winner. Juza Nature Photography has done an excellent comparison of image quality between the 1D4 and the Nikon D3s. You can clearly see there just how good the Nikon D3s actually is. It is really quite unbelievable. I’ve written about such image quality before in my EOS 7D review, and I’ve said there that I am quite sure that Canon today is capable of delivering this kind of image quality, but simply refuses to do so, choosing to compete with megapixels instead. And the old stupid argument about the resolution advantage even though there’s more noise clearly doesn’t apply here. Yes the 1D4 (16MP) has more resolution compared to the D3s (12MP), but clearly the resolution advantage doesn’t matter when you view the images from these two cameras side by side, and in fact, the 1D4 images become so noisy at higher ISO values that you’d have to use noise reduction software on them which will also remove detail from your images. So in the end, you’re actually better off using the D3s.

1D4 VS D3s

1D Mark IV and D3s Image Quality

The image crops above are much smaller crops taken from the review by Juza Nature Photography. Head over to their review to see the larger crops and be able to judge things like detail and see the quality at other ISO values. In the small crops above, it’s clear that the D3s beats the 1D4 when it comes to image quality. Even at ISO 100 the 1D4 shows some color noise while the D3s image looks as smooth as you can ever expect to get an image from a DSLR. The colors also look a lot better on the D3s. The D3s is so good that the ISO 1600 image on the D3s comes close to the ISO 100 image on the 1D4!!! Who the fuck would care about more noisy megapixels if you can get smooth and creamy looking images like this?? And if you look at ISO 102400, the 1D4 simply produces unusable garbage. I’ve said it many times before, but apparently Canon thinks we’re all stupid. They did it before when they said they couldn’t include better autofocus technology in the 5D Mark II because the body was too small. Including ISO 102400 the way it is on the 1D4 quite frankly is an insult to our intelligence. In the same way, Canon could have included ISO values up to 819200 and have that on the box as a feature. The images would be absolute crap, but hey, you can make them! Looking at the ISO 102400 sample from the 1D4, I can’t help but think that what happened is that Canon saw after the D3s announcement that the D3s was capable of taking images at ISO 102400, and at the last minute they added that feature on the 1D4 as the H3 setting just so the 1D4 and the D3s features would look more comparable on paper and the D3s wouldn’t have the edge. Stupid marketing at its best. This might also explain why Canon ordered everyone to take down their sample images taken with the 1D4 shortly after they announced the 1D4, because they probably weren’t quite finished with tweaking the higher ISO output.

The good news is that so far Canon appears to have addressed the autofocus shortcomings from the 1D Mark III, and all reviews I’ve seen up till now are very very positive about the autofocus capabilities of the 1D4. Photographer Brad Mangin wrote about his experiences with the 1D4 autofocus system and was quite pleased. Photographer Justin Gryba while also quite pleased with the tracking capabilities of the 1D4 autofocus system discovered some inconsistencies and bad performance in low light conditions. Apparently Canon crippled the Spot AF feature on the 1D4 when compared to the EOS 7D. On the 1D4 the Spot AF feature can only be used with the very expensive long lenses with an AF Stop button, while on the 7D you can configure the camera to use Spot AF with all lenses. Because of this, the accuracy of the AF system on the 1D4 in low light is not as good as it could be, and as Justin shows in his review, is even worse than the 5D Mark II. This is a serious issue if you expect to use the 1D4 for events in low light conditions, such as weddings, where you simply can’t use lenses with an AF Stop button. For the details on this head on over to Justin’s website to read his review. Fortunately Canon should be able to address this issue with a firmware update. The functionality we want is already included on the 7D, it’s just a matter of enabling it on the 1D4. After reading Justin’s review, please contact your local Canon representative to request this feature to be added. This is a very important find by Justin and he deserves the credit. Let’s hope Canon listens.

The 1D4 will be a good camera overall for Canon users. After the 1D Mark III autofocus fiasco, Canon users worldwide were desperate for a working professional DSLR and the 1D4 will be able to keep them reasonably satisfied for a while. It won’t help Canon to win back those users who have already switched to Nikon, because Nikon has the better bodies right now and they’re working hard on the lenses. It probably also won’t convince many users to stay with Canon who have already decided to switch to Nikon. But it will convince many Canon users who already have a lot invested in Canon to stick with Canon gear for the coming 3 years. It’s the easier path to take. But deep down inside, at any event, they’ll all know that the Nikon photographers with the big black lenses and a D3s logo on their bodies will have the edge.

The future currently doesn’t look very good for Canon. They appear to be struggling to keep up with Nikon, and mostly because of their own shortsightedness and stupidity because they have the potential to blow Nikon away. But because of their fooling around they are giving Nikon a lot of room to catch up. Nikon has already surpassed Canon when DSLR bodies are concerned, and they are now working hard to close the gap with their lenses. They’ve released an updated 70-200mm f/2.8 lens that appears to match the new Canon version and just yesterday, Nikon announced the long anticipated 24mm f/1.4 professional lens along with a new 16-35 f/4 lens (read more here). According to recent information, they also have their new professional 35mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4 primes in the works (patents have been filed) and these should be released soon. In 2011 Nikon will probably not only have closed the gaps in their lens lineup, but will also have the better quality optics. Add this to the already better Nikon DSLR bodies and flash system, and you can start to see that the future doesn’t look very good for Canon. For the short term, the release of an updated D700 body with the sensor from the D3s will be like a knife through Canon’s heart. They know it’s coming, and there’s nothing they can do about it.

As a Canon user, I hope I won’t have to make the difficult decision of having to switch to Nikon in 2011. The only thing keeping me back right now is the huge investment I currently have in Canon gear. Otherwise, I’d have been a Nikon user already.

Update February 11, 2010: Rob Galbraith has just published his findings on the autofocus system of the 1D Mark IV, and it doesn’t look very good. As you may know, Galbraith, a sports photographer from Canada, was the first who pointed out that the 1D Mark III had autofocus issues back in 2007. He has now done some tests with both the 1D Mark IV and the 1D Mark III, and also tested the D3s along with the 1D Mark IV, and although it does appear that the 1D Mark IV is an improvement compared to the older model (which isn’t saying much because the 1D3 had tons of issues), it still has some issues making the autofocus system from the D3s a better choice. Here’s some of what he had to say:

Add it all up and the conclusion is inescapable: the EOS-1D Mark IV has an AF system that is capable of greatness but is also so bewilderingly variable that there’s no way to trust it, especially for outdoor sports. Indoors, EOS-1D Mark IV autofocus performance has been less variable, but our results from speedskating and basketball are simply not up to par. If this is the best the company could muster, after the autofocus debacle of the EOS-1D Mark III, then it’s official: Canon has lost their autofocus mojo.

To sum up, our experience with the D3S’ AF system is that it’s trustworthy and dependable enough for us to be confident using it for peak action sports. Not perfect: it needs to be a bit faster off the line, in addition to the other quibbles we’ve mentioned. But it does work as needed most of the time, which is in stark contrast to the experience of the EOS-1D Mark IV in the last month.

Go over to read his full analysis and to check out the tons of sample pictures.

So I guess this makes things a lot worse for Canon than I initially thought and explained above. The 1D4 appears to be an improvement compared to the 1D3, but will it be enough to keep Canon users happy and loyal to the brand? We know that when the image quality is concerned, the Nikon D3s is the clear winner. And now it looks like even for the autofocus performance, you’re better off using a Nikon D3s. It really is quite a sad situation, and as Galbraith briefly shows in his article, the competition using Nikon gear is going to have a real advantage over you if you’re using Canon gear.

Update February 12, 2010: Photographer Lloyd Chambers posted some remarks about the D3s image quality and it’s worth taking a look. Here’s some of what he had to say:

The Nikon D3s handles ISO 3200 superbly. The flag shot at right was also pushed by 2/3 stop = ISO 5000 equivalent. Yet the noise is minimal, and the color true. I also shot at ISO 12800, and I’ll be pitiqualated if I wasn’t even more impressed than I expected. The Nikon D3s is truly a breakthrough camera.

The Nikon D3s is a low light dream camera. Couple that with some good low light lenses and you’re in low light photography heaven! As I mentioned before, Nikon is currently working hard to update their lenses for low light photography (this means lenses with small aperture values). They’ve already announced the 24mm f/1.4 and they’ll be releasing their new 35mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4 lenses in the future. The fact that these lenses were not yet available is what made a lot of Canon users hesitate to switch to Nikon. Canon users have long enjoyed the ability to use the 24mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.2, 85mm f/1.2 and 135mm f/2 lenses. The results you can get using those lenses are simply amazing. But now that Nikon will also have them very soon, especially in combination with an excellent body as the D3s, I think many will make the switch as soon as they can afford to.