10.18.2011

Canon EOS1D X

This is NOT an equipment review!  I'd heard rumors about this camera for several weeks.  I didn't know it had been announced until I got a phone call this morning from my favorite "sales associate" at Precision Camera.  Seems my friend, Paul, woke up this morning, saw the press release on DP Review and promptly ordered one from the same guy.  Ian (my retail camera consultant) called to let me know that he'd already placed me on the reservation list to get one of the first five cameras to come through the door.  I don't have to worry about it for a while.  It won't be here until March 2012....

The specs are interesting since they point to a new understanding of the professional market by Canon.  They are combining their two lines of professional cameras, the 1D xx high speed sports cameras and the 1Ds xx high resolution studio and everything else cameras.  The camera will feature a full frame sensor with 18 megapixels, a 12 or 14 fps shot to shot speed and a stated increase in overall IQ compared with all previous cameras.  I think it's safe to say that they have no intention of leaving the dense pack market completely to Sony and Nikon so I'm fairly certain we'll see a "5D-like" camera with a wildly high pixel count in short order.  Canon is taking a cue from the stellar noise and quality performance of the Nikon D3s cameras and updating the sensor tech to give buyers an overall level of resolution that will be convincing enough for most uses.

But, in a sense it's a vindication of what I and many others have been saying for the past few years.  To wit, the endless race for densely packed megapixels was a run in the wrong direction.  There's a sweet spot and the sweet spot seems to be defined by the size of each sensor node.  This is why files from cameras like the Kodak DCS 760 could look so sweet.  The pixel wells in that camera are 9 microns across.  The current APS C and m4:rd's cameras are less than half that size.  And the pixel wells in the 1Ds Mk3 are also 1/3 smaller.

While the bigger pixel surface area theoretically yields more dynamic range and less noise the DCS 760 was early enough tech to have some issues with noise at anything other than it's base ISO.  But over the span of the professional, digital timeline discerning photographers have consistently found that big pixel cameras trump little pixel cameras when it comes to ultimate image quality (not counting resolution beyond native numbers).  The Nikon D2h coughed up a beautiful file with really wonderful colors....as long as you kept the ISO down.  I have a magazine cover for IBM to prove it's stealthy capabilities.

Lately I've tested bunches of Canon cameras including:  the 5Dmk2, the 7D, the 60D, the 1Dmk2N and the 1dsMk2.  While the technical specs of the first three cameras are all really great the files which have the colors and tones I enjoy most are from the 1Dmk2N.  The second place finisher is the 1Ds Mk2.  These are the two cameras with the largest pixel sizes.  Neither of them is as quiet as the 5, 7 or 60D's but I'm betting that most of the improvements in noise characteristics came from improvements in the high speed processors that pull the information off the sensor and "package" it for inclusion on the memory cards.  At ISO 200 the cameras are all great.  The older cameras just have a different color response.

The larger pixel sizes are also not affected by the physics of diffraction in quite the same way.  A sensor with pixel wells that are twice as big as a competing camera all other things cancelled out, would have better sharpness at smaller apertures and this might be just what the doctor ordered for architecture and product photographers who often shoot at f11 and f16.

The change in pixel density philosophy at Canon shouldn't surprise anyone after the introduction of the Canon G11 two years ago.  The company ratcheted the sensor resolution back from 14 megapixels to 10 megapixels in an attempt to provide files that looked sharper on consumer monitors and which had much less high ISO noise.  Most users welcomed the "regression" because, overall, the files looked better and were easier to deal with.

I welcome the step back.  I bought a Canon 5Dmk2 a while back and I dread using it to produce full sized raw files.  When I shoot portraits I routinely throttle the whole mess back to the M size raw file (1/2 size). Don't get me wrong, the big files look great.  Full of fine detail and all that.  It's just that most of the time the files get used at much smaller sizes and I hate the idea of endlessly filling hard drives with big, fat files that basically aren't going to go anywhere.

The bodies are huge but that's a neutral for me.  I need the strength training to maintain muscle mass anyway.  But when I get on my bike and head downtown for an afternoon of shooting just for fun I've got an Olympus Pen EP3 that fits perfectly in my bike bag anyway.

So,  I have high hopes for this camera.  It seems perfectly designed to be an all around camera for professional photographers.  But that doesn't mean I'm going to rush right out and pick it up when March rolls around.  The reservation on the list is a courtesy to ensure I get a camera if I want it.  I can decline when the time comes and the camera will go to the next person on the list.  I think my time might be better spent searching out more bargain cameras whose prices will undoubtably be affected as the supply of new cameras comes to market.  I'll have my eyes on something really sexy.  Like maybe another 1Dsmk2  or maybe a 1d3.  You never know.  March is a long way away.

Anyway, it's interesting to me to see the direction that Canon is taking in their flagship product.  In a way it vindicates the statements made by Olympus.  They basically said that 12 megapixels was the sweet spot for most consumers.  Canon is now saying that the quality of the pixels now trumps the quantity.  A good place to stop.

added 1/2 hour later:  $6900?  Wow.  Thats nearly seven 1dmk2n's at today's market price.  Or 10 Olympus EP3's.....  Some with VF2's.

added on Oct. 19th:  Some  people around the web-o-sphere are already complaining that the 1DX is a failure because it didn't continue the progression toward ever more megapixels.  But I have a simple question.....If lenses can't resolve much more than 18 megapixels on a ff camera isn't increasing the density of pixels kind of silly?  Couldn't you achieve the same size results just by up rezzing the files?  I mean, after all, if the lens is the limit of resolution in the system more pixels isn't going to add more detail, just more size to the files.  Unless you are shooting with some really phenomenal lenses it would all seem moot.  (Contax lens users and Leica 90mm APO Summicron users.....go ahead and bitch..).  A poll of pro's recently done asked about their lens use.  The vast majority depended on the 24-105 and the 70-200L's.  Great lenses but probably straining to put real detail into 18 megapixels...

15 comments:

Timothy Gray said...

It will be very interesting to see if Canon's claims of increased in IQ holds true.

John F. Opie said...

You know, if you were to mount the 10 EP3s on metal frame, carefully spaced to have overlapping viewpoints, with matched lenses and wireless synchronization, you could have a camera array that, when stitched together, would have an enormous image size...just saying, you know? :-)

Oh, and you get 10 by mounting them in a 3x3 array with the tenth camera use to take pictures of people trying to figure out what the heck you are doing...

kirk tuck said...

And I bet if you buy ten at once you get a slight discount....

Tarjei T. Jensen said...

To me the 1Dx is just an upmarket 5D.

Most of the features are fine, but the 23% loss of reach compared to my 1D4 disqualifies it immediately from consideration as my next camera.

It is a lot more likely that I will go for a 7D2 or 7D3 when that time comes.

John Driggers said...

My needs are the opposite of Tarjei--I shoot architecture. So the 23% loss of reach (the crop factor of the prior Canons) translates to a 23% gain in wide angle coverage. Or seen another way, the same angle of view, but achievable with lenses that have less barrel distortion.

That's great news for me.

John Krumm said...

Well, all the big guys are coming, it sounds like. D800 and the two new 5D's, one upscale, one to lure penny pinchers to full frame. Then the D4. I might actually have to try one, maybe just with one nice landscape lens to start (and maybe a 50mm). A nice pile of photon gatherers.

Bold Photography said...

My 500c/m has 2/3rds or so the reach of my 35mm digital... can shoot with up to 17-18 stops of dynamic range depending on the ISO.. er.. film I choose, complete with automatic conversion to black and white or color as I see fit. I'm responsible for the auto focus, and cannot blame the camera if I miss focus. I'm also the source for determining exposure and I'm sure I get up to 1 frame every other second if I practice lots.

Woof.... for another $6300, I can buy a LOT of film....

phloiterer said...

This looks like a superb camera. And I completely agree that it is about time that maximum mp ceased to be the prime directive of camera development. It is ultimately too big for me to really love, but i'd give a lot to have some of its best features in a smaller body. (that sensor, af system, viewfinder, weathersealing, video specs... never gonna happen.)

One note though. You wrote:
"The larger pixel sizes are also not affected by the physics of diffraction in quite the same way.  A sensor with pixel wells that are twice as big as a competing camera all other things cancelled out, would have better sharpness at smaller apertures"

I don't think that is correct. Diffraction merely defines an upper limit to resolution; it does not make higher pixel density cameras less sharp than lower mp cameras at the same aperture. It was the same principle with film; you could manage to attenuate max possible sharpness with velvia at f/16, while never percieving the resolution hit at that aperture shooting tri-x. That didn't mean that the tri-x was higher resolution than velvia at f/16, obviously.

As an interesting aside, i've found in testing that higher pixel counts on digital sensors can actually appear to deliver more resolution than one would predict based on the blur circles. I think it is because the same interpollation and sharpening routine which is necessary in order to counteract the effects of the bayer array and the anti-aliasing filter is fairly effective at reducing the appearance of diffraction blur. Sometimes this introduces 'false' detail, but unless you're doing scientific measurements it doesn't much matter: the appearance of a more detailed image is a more detailed image.

I may rarely actually need high mp photos, but i've found that a) sometimes, of course, one does, and more often, b) higher resolution frees me up to shoot wider lenses. Not because i crop, but because i have confidence that the details the picture needs to include in order to work will be rendered. So where i used to work primarily with a 50mm, i now default to 35, can aspire to more complex compositions.

Ron Nabity said...

Camera sensors are like automobile engines. What good is a 12-cylinder, 480 hp engine when you mostly use it to drive to the grocery store and gas station?

Maybe it's more about that neat emblem on the fender...

David A. said...

It is interesting that people would predict this camera would be a failure. It seems well positioned to please most photojournalists, as well as anyone else who does not need 20+ megapixel images. And, like others, I believe Canon will be releasing a higher resolution camera for those who do.

On a side note, and not being confrontational, or trying to be offensive, I found it interesting that you restate the argument that current lenses limit the sensors. I would respectfully point you in the direction of Ctein (http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2011/09/size-doesnt-does-matter.html#more), who clearly disagrees with that assessment. In fact, in a column written a few years ago, he suggested that sensors could easily reach 80 megapixels and still provide improvements in resolution. I would hate to have to store those images! Again, I don't mean to provoke a war of words on the topic; I simply mention it because it does not seem to be a simple subject.

And, thank you for continuing to post. Like many, I enjoy your writing and the sharing of knowledge you've gained through experience.

Paul Glover said...

I can't help but think that if I had enough money to afford one of these I'd be much more likely to wind up with something that takes 120 rollfilm and enough of said film to last me until long after the new digital uber-kamera has been relegated to yard-sale status.

Richard said...

Kirk,

I am glad to see that you are occasionally posting when it pleases you, which helps by getting arid of the pressure to generate posts even when you'd rather not or are busy or whatever.

Thanks,

Richard

kirk tuck said...

David, Ctein is wrong. I am right. Maybe. It all depends on which lenses.... Zooms? I'm right. Dedicated Macros, maybe Ctein's right. But mostly me.

Mark Davidson said...

I have to agree with you on the futility of ever greater pixel counts. I am an architectural photographer that used a 5D until moving to a 5Dmk2. The mk2 yields beautiful files but not any real usable bump in resolution over an upsampled 5D file. What I DO like is the sensor cleaning and the live view.

Tom said...

I'm a bit disappointed with this announcement. I understand the argument about pixel size and lens resolution, but I was really hoping for a few news lenses with a body that closed the gap with medium format backs; a shoot arts and performance as well as some advertising in those fields, and what holds me back from using medium-format cameras is the 1fps shooting. Of course, every photographer wants the next shiny to be just what they always wanted, but for me the 1dX seems much more aimed at press, sports, reportage and general news photography than anything else.