Canon maintains its industry-leading position with the 16.7-megapixel EOS 1Ds Mark II, the highest-resolution small-format digital SLR. Intended for studio and landscape photographers who prefer the size and flexibility of 35mm-style cameras, the 1Ds Mark II sets a new benchmark for performance and image quality. With a wealth of upgrades, this camera succeeds and surpasses Canon's original EOS 1Ds, introduced two years earlier.
As a Washington, D.C., correspondent for News.com, CNET Reviews' sister site, I used the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II to shoot everything from press conferences and studio portraits to evening cityscapes. With the exception of one major glitch, I came away impressed with the camera's craftsmanship and design. The downside: its price will keep it out of the reach of everyone but professionals and a handful of amateur photographers. Canon's 1-series cameras tend to feel like they're carved from a solid block of meteoric iron, and the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II is no exception. In terms of handling and ruggedness, there's no comparison with consumer-level digital SLR cameras. A 1-series model has to be used to be appreciated.
The no-compromise body design of the 1Ds Mark II hews closely to that of the original 1Ds. Controls on top of the camera are identical, as are its shape and weatherproofing elements. The Mark II is well suited to professional use, and anyone familiar with other 1-series cameras will encounter few surprises. Newcomers to Canon's professional line, though, might be taken aback by its heft. At 3.4 pounds with battery, the 1Ds Mark II is no featherweight.
On the back of the camera, you'll find two displays. The smaller shows shooting-related settings that photographers tend to access less frequently, including white balance, resolution, and file type (raw, JPEG, or both). You can use a custom function to swap those readouts with the ones that normally appear on top of the camera: ISO setting, file number, and shots remaining.
The larger display offers the same type of menu options and image review that any digital SLR owner should be familiar with. Scrolling through menu options is faster than on the original 1Ds, a zoom button has been added, and the LCD is noticeably brighter, as is the blue backlight for night photography.
Anyone used to the layout of Canon's EOS 10D or EOS 20D will encounter a brief period of adjustment when switching to the 1Ds Mark II. There's a vertical grip that's integrated into the camera rather than being available as an optional attachment. And menu items are divided horizontally rather than vertically. Altering a menu item requires holding down a button and spinning the rear wheel. This is a highly customizable camera, however, so you'll be able to reprogram many controls to operate just the way you like.
The only design choice that I found irksome was the dual use of the Delete button for erasing files and for canceling that process. I also encountered one minor problem when using the 1Ds Mark II for studio photography: two different PC cords repeatedly fell out of the connector on the camera's side and had to be taped in place. I never had that problem with the original 1Ds. Because the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II incorporates a full-frame sensor, it can use Canon EF-mount lenses, especially wide-angle lenses, to their fullest. Other Canon digital SLRs feature sensors that are smaller than a frame of 35mm film, which results in a narrower angle of view when Canon EF-mount lenses are used. The EOS 1D line has a conversion factor of 1.3X, for example, and the EOS 20D has a conversion factor of 1.6X. Canon EF-S lenses can't be used on the 1Ds Mark II.
Canon's EOS 1Ds Mark II is probably the most feature-laden, capable, and customizable digital camera available today. In addition to five menus, it offers 21 custom functions and 32 personal functions that let you alter virtually any option the camera offers--there are even choices such as reversing the direction of the command dials. Expect to spend some time configuring this camera to your taste.
Even though I own an original 1Ds, Canon has squeezed so many new features into the Mark II that I soon found myself itching to upgrade. Probably the most dramatic change is an optional wireless transmitter that supports the 802.11g protocol--a terrific choice for studio photographers and one that Nikon has offered since 2003. A more important change, at least for low-light shooting, is the ability to choose an ISO speed of 3,200, up from the 1Ds's miserly maximum of 1,250.
Other improvements include an orientation sensor, a video-out, and a handy zoom feature, which could probably be improved if the image were sharpened while being displayed. One intriguing change, which also appears in the sports-oriented EOS 1D Mark II, saves the camera's configuration settings to a memory card. That's a boon to photographers who use different bodies but want the same settings. TIFF filenames use Canon's new CR2 suffix.
Even with the 1Ds Mark II's configurability, I think that Canon skimped in a few ways. The Mark II offers two media slots--CompactFlash and SD/MMC--and can save photos to both at once. But why can't images be manually copied from one card to another? Why can't raw images be designated for storage on one card and JPEG on the other? Why can't images be saved in the correct orientation but always displayed in a way that uses the entire LCD screen? Why can't mirror lockup be toggled more easily? Any camera this advanced is also a handheld computer. Camera manufacturers should take advantage of that functionality. What a photographer expects from a professional camera is consistent, reliable performance. The Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II lives up to its 1-series reputation and performs just as a top-of-the-line camera should. However, that doesn't mean the 1Ds Mark II is the speediest camera around. Nikon's D2X can shoot at 8fps in its low-resolution mode and the Canon 1D Mark II snaps a zippy 8.5fps. The 1 Ds Mark II takes 4fps, roughly a 20 percent improvement over its predecessor. What makes the Mark II shine is its full-frame sensor and its whopping 16.7 megapixels--perfect for jaw-dropping enlargements that rival the performance of a digital back attached to a medium-format camera.
With an EF 16mm-to-35mm lens attached and a SanDisk 1GB card inserted, the 1Ds Mark II took about 0.2 second to start up and capture a photo (in fact, start-up was so quick, it was difficult to measure accurately). Set to save highest-resolution JPEG images as quickly as possible, it recorded 63 in 15.5 seconds before the buffer filled. That translates to 4fps, which is consistent with Canon's claims. The camera was equally speedy with raw images, but its buffer filled after 11 of them. Thanks to the new Digic II processor, emptying the buffer completely took just 17 seconds.
The 1Ds Mark II's viewfinder offers a 100 percent view and its 21-zone evaluative metering is excellent. So is the 45-point autofocus; I rarely found myself switching to manual focus. What's probably more important is Canon's choice to add E-TTL II, which gives a noticeable improvement over the earlier flash system. Taking a bad flash photo now requires some effort.
As you might expect, the Canon 1Ds Mark II uses the same rechargeable nickel-metal-hydride battery as other 1-series digital cameras in Canon's lineup. I found it capable of lasting through two busy days of shooting, roughly twice the performance of the original 1Ds. Battery stamina did drop in below-freezing conditions. The Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II's image quality is superb. The original EOS 1Ds delivered superior performance, but Canon managed to best itself with the Mark II. The difference is especially obvious in low-light situations. Noise remains extremely minimal at ISO settings below 640--comparable to the Canon EOS 20D's noise levels--and even photographs taken at ISO 1,200 are surprisingly smooth.
The 1Ds Mark II's true rivals are 22-megapixel digital backs for medium-format cameras from companies such as Phase One. Those digital backs do seem to offer better image quality. But they aren't as convenient to use as a small-format SLR, and they sell for around $30,000.
The downside of the 1Ds Mark II's image quality is that your lenses must be up to the task. There's little point in spending so much for a camera and shackling it with inferior glass. I found that my 2X teleconverter wasn't up to the demands of the Mark II. Using the camera to its fullest also means exacting photo technique and large memory cards. Anyone shooting raw images should have at least two 4GB cards.