Canon EOS-1D Mark IV Review

- gear & tech, photo news

Can Canon lay the ghosts of the 1D Mark III to rest?

The EOS-1D Mark IV is the latest incarnation of Canon’s EOS-1 series of digital SLRs, used by legions of  professional photographers worldwide. This new camera incorporates HD video-recording and an incredible 50 to 102400 ISO range. But it’s the Mark IV’s fully redesigned auto focus system which was the most highly anticipated feature, for Canon has a lot riding on it: it had to solve serious technical issues which plagued the 1D-Mark III and prompted so many professionals to switch to Nikon. Read my Canon EOS-1D Mark IV review after the jump.
Canon has a lot riding on its latest top-of-line EOS dSLR. Aside from needing to make a great camera, the company also has to retrieve the ground – and reputation – lost by the last 1D, the Mark III, following its release in 2007.

In that model, complex technical issues affected the revamped 45-point autofocus system in a large number of the cameras. Despite firmware releases and hardware service recalls, many pros felt the system remained flawed.

Canon’s problems were compounded when its main competitor, Nikon, release a potent and problem-free professional D3 just a few months later. With an effective marketing campaign and an enticing upgrade path, the D3 will be remembered as the camera that prompted many professionals to switch, and one which dealt an unexpected blow to Canon’s long-time dominance in the pro market.

Fast forward to 2010. Can the EOS-1D Mark IV restore Canon’s reputation? Will it satisfy the professionals for whom it was built?

In essence, the Mark IV is a powerful computer with a lens attached. It shares many of its predecessor’s features such as a staggering 10 still frames per second, extensive moisture and dust seals, and highly configurable function set. The Mark IV’s key improvements, meanwhile, are a 16.1 megapixel resolution (10 on the Mark III); a vastly increased 50-102,400 ISO range;  superb low-noise 1080p HD video; and a total redesign of the autofocusing system.

Visually, apart from a larger rubberized connector cover, a higher resolution LCD screen offering great clarity, and the presence the triple perforation under the EOS-1 badge (onboard microphone), it’s hard to differentiate the Mark IV from its earlier incarnation.

Several years ago, Canon’s pioneering HD-capable EOS-5D Mark II kicked the door open onto a world of high definition moving images. The Mark IV follows the lead by offering video but in a much more refined fashion. The Mark IV does HD video better than any camera I have come across. And it does so in all flavors: 1080p at 24, 25 and 30 frames per second; 720p at 50 and 60fps; 640×480 at 50 and 60fps. The quality video files generated by the Mark IV will undoubtedly appeal to professional filmmakers – not so much because they are HD, but because they exhibit very little of the visual noise typical of higher ISOs.

As the rumor of software allowing the direct editing of H.264-encoded video grows louder, the necessity of transcoding movie files to a less computer-intensive format – for faster, more efficient editing – will decrease. Expect to see the 1D Mark IV at the heart of many documentaries and films.

The video function is impaired by the lack of a strategically placed button for the activation and stopping of video recording. Canon would naturally think twice about changing a layout that has become second nature to millions of pros, but the tiny flash exposure lock (FEL) – located next to the shutter release – doubles as a start/stop button and is more awkward to use than the EOS-7D or the more recent 550D.m The Mark IV also lacks audio level control. The audio gain is automatic with both onboard or external mic. Hopefully this will be addressed with a new firmware upgrade.

Of course, the Mark IV’s main purpose is to capture still images with extreme focus precision. As a user of the EOS-1D Mark III, I was very curious to test the Mark IV’s new focus tracking with fast-moving subjects. To do so, I shot a series of football games with the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS lens, a popular telephoto among sports photographers. I also couldn’t resist introducing the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6 L IS to photograph surfers at Wellington’s Lyall Bay. Both sports are wildly different in terms of motion patterns, but tailoring the camera’s focusing system is a task easily accomplished via a series of custom functions. Suffice it to say, those settings can be saved and recalled at any time, a testament to the Mark IV’s remarkable versatility.

At the base of the revamped 45-point Ai-Servo focusing are 39 super-sensitive cross-type points (compared with 19 on the Mark III), re-written software algorithms and a focus processor specific to the Mark IV. The goal of all this is to ensure the camera accurately follows a subject after focus is acquired – just like your eye. The initial focus acquisition occurred faster than I was accustomed to on the Mark III, and I was impressed by the Mark IV’s ability to keep track of the main subject throughout multiple and long frame bursts. I hadn’t experienced all the issues that plagued the Mark III, however the Mark IV seems less likely to automatically jump focus to zones in front of or behind the immediate area under the focus point(s).

Equally impressive and much improved is the Mark IV’s ability to remain on target, regardless of new objects crossing the frame or momentarily obscuring the tracked subject. It’s something EOS-1 cameras have always been capable of, but until now I’ve always found fine-tuning this feature a bit hit and miss. In my tests using a variety of focus settings, I consistently ended up with more in-focus images with the Mark IV than my Mark III.

Focusing aside, the Mark IV’s vast ISO range is a remarkable feat made possible by two key Canon technologies: gapless microlenses (more light can hit each sensor photosite) and two DiG!C 4 processors. A higher 16 megapixel resolution means cramming more photosites on the same sensor surface. Doing this increases noise when high ISOs are needed. On the Mark IV the two DiG!C processors work in parallel to deliver outstanding image quality at very high ISO. Images shot at 25,600 ISO on the Mark IV are comparable to the Mark III’s 6400. The highest sensitivity setting – 102,400 – is more for emergency use, where a very, very noisy image is better than none. Offering higher ISOs reduces the necessity for expensive fast-aperture lenses for low-light photography, and gives the ability to photograph scenes that would require much slower shutter speeds.

Canon’s professional EOS-1D Mark IV should put to rest the upheaval of three years ago, offering a powerful tool that meets the need of the most demanding and capable photographers or film makers using digital SLRs.

Comments are closed.