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Canon EOS-1D Mark III review: Canon EOS-1D Mark III

If you've ever looked at the sideline of a major sporting event and seen a gaggle of huge white lenses, then you've witnessed Canon's dominance in the sports shooting world. Part of the reason for Canon's edge is its 1D series of SLR bodies which, in the form of the new EOS 1D Mark III, will no doubt continue the Japanese camera company's preeminence among the paparazzi, sports shooters, news photographers, and anyone else who has to shoot fast bursts of high-megapixel images. This new SLR feels like a machine gun when set to its Continuous Shooting mode, with which we were able to capture 10-megapixel JPEGs at an average of 9.9 frames per second. Add to that this camera's amazingly low noise, high-end build quality, and vast custom-function menu, and you've got one of the hottest cameras to hit the market this year.


Canon EOS-1D Mark III

Pricing Not Available

The Good

Extremely fast, 10-megapixel continuous shooting. Very low noise. Highly customisable. Well-designed body with weather sealing. 3-inch LCD. Abundant optional accessories.

The Bad

Heavy. May be a bit too large for people with small hands.

The Bottom Line

Canon's EOS 1D Mark III offers a luxurious cocktail of high-resolution, extremely low noise, blazingly fast burst shooting, abundant customisation, and a build quality and ergonomic design among the best you'll find in today's camera market.

At first glance, the 1D Mark III doesn't look all that different from its predecessor, the 1D Mark II N. It still has a built-in vertical grip, with duplicate shutter and control buttons, so you don't lose functionality when changing grips. In fact, from the front, the most noticeable difference is that the Mark III has a steeper slope to the camera top on the nongrip side and a smoother slope from the prism hump on both sides. However, even that is difficult to see unless you're very familiar with both cameras.

Turn the Mark III around, though, and you'll see that things have changed quite a bit, largely due to the addition of a 3-inch LCD. This has forced Canon to move some buttons around to make up for the fact that the LCD now extends to the left edge of the camera. Menu and Info buttons move above the screen, while the playback button drops to below. The Select button from the Mark II N is now obsolete, thanks to the Mark III's Set button, which is mounted in the middle of the large scroll wheel, much like the scroll wheels found on the EOS 30D and 5D. Another feature drawn from those siblings is the tiny joystick controller, which is used to navigate between various menus, among other things.

One of the only problems with Canon's 1D and 1Ds series bodies is that they are big and heavy. Some photographers simply don't want to deal with the weight -- about 1.155kg without a lens -- while those with very small hands often complain that some controls are out of reach. After a long day of shooting, your reviewer's right arm definitely did feel the awesome weight of this camera, but I didn't have trouble reaching any important buttons, even though my hands are on the small side for a man. Canon does place the exposure compensation button a little too far to the left, but since the large scroll wheel doubles as exposure compensation in Aperture- and Shutter-priority modes, it wasn't a problem for me. In case you're worrying about accidental exposure compensation, know that you can disable the large wheel with the three-way off/on/on-with-scroll-wheel switch, which is easy to manipulate with your thumb. Our biggest control complaint is that Canon didn't clearly mark a hard button for white balance. The Func button does let you change white balance when in shooting mode, but it easily could have been labeled as such. We had to consult the manual to find that out.

While the Mark II N used button combinations for bracketing, drive mode, and ISO, the only combo that remains in the Mark III is for bracketing. ISO moves to its own button just behind the shutter button, which we found extremely useful and convenient compared to the old configuration. Drive mode gets doubled up with the AF button, with the two split between the small scroll wheel behind the shutter and the large wheel on the camera's back. Metering and flash compensation get the same treatment, as they did on the Mark II N.

Canon also has added a new viewfinder, which the company says ups the magnification to 0.76x from 0.72x and the viewing angle to 30 degrees, from 28.2, while maintaining the same 20mm eye point and the same claimed 100 percent coverage. Suffice to say that the viewfinder is nice and bright and a pleasure to use for manual focus. If you're the type that likes to change your focusing screen, you'll like the fact that Canon offers 11 different kinds of optional focusing screens for the 1D Mark III. Like its predecessor and big sister 1Ds Mark II, the Mark III includes numerous rubber gaskets to keep dust and moisture out of the camera. New to this model is a redesigned hot shoe that is surrounded by raised plastic and made to mate with a rubber gasket on the new 580 EX II Speedlite, to effectively seal one of the few places that wasn't already sealed on the 1D Mark II N.

At the heart of this camera you'll find a newly developed 10.1-megapixel Canon CMOS sensor. Like all other 1D cameras to date, the sensor is APS-H-sized (28.1 X 18.7mm), which gives the Mark III a 1.3x focal-length multiplier. That means that a 50mm lens will give you a field of view that is similar to that of a 65mm lens. As such, the 1D Mark III's sensor size lands between the full-frame sensors offered by the EOS 1Ds Mark II and the EOS 5D, which have no effective focal-length multiplier, and the 1.5x/1.6x focal- length multipliers found on almost all other digital SLRs on the market. Whenever you turn the camera on or off, the camera vibrates the IR-cut filter to shake away any dust that may have settled on it. If that's not enough, the camera can find dust particles on the sensor, plot their locations, and store that data so the included Digital Photo Professional software can remove the dust spots in post processing.

To process the data from the sensor, the camera uses a pair of Canon's Digic III processors, making it the first dual-processor camera that I've ever seen. Instead of the 12-bit analog-to-digital converters found in Canon's other cameras, the Mark III uses 14-bit converters, which theoretically allow for more tonal gradations than their 12-bit brethren. A dedicated AF processing unit drives the camera's 45-point autofocus system, which includes 19 cross-type points. For comparison, both the EOS 5D and 30D sport only one cross-type point, while Canon's 16.6MP 1Ds Mark II has a mere seven cross-type points. Cross-type AF points provide a higher level of sensitivity than standard points. The points are both user-selectable and groupable, so you can fine-tune the AF system as you like it.

Exposure metering options are just as sophisticated as the AF system. The camera uses a 63-zone through-the-lens (TTL) metering system that offers full-frame evaluative metering, centre-weighted average, and partial and spot metering. According to Canon, the partial option uses the centre 13.5 percent of the frame to determine exposure, while the spot setting uses 3.5 percent and can be set to the centre or linked to the AF sensor in use, or you can choose up to eight spot readings and let the camera average them. Canon calls this last option "multispot metering." In our field tests, the 1D Mark III yielded remarkably accurate exposures and was rarely fooled by tricky scenes, but the 3D colour Matrix Metering found in Nikon's D2Xs -- with its 1,005-pixel sensor and onboard database of comparison image data -- barely edges out the 1D Mark III's system when it comes to very tricky situations. Ultimately, though, this may be a matter of preference on my part, since the Nikon tends to err on the side of caution in preserving highlight detail by slightly underexposing in some situations, while the Canon will serve up what is traditionally a proper exposure. Really, you can't call either approach "wrong." If you're really worried about highlights, though, you can activate the Mark III's Highlight Tone Priority custom function, which extends the upper portion of the dynamic range to help preserve highlight detail.

While most photographers likely will stick to a neutral colour mode, the 1D Mark III offers an entire Picture Style menu in which you can quickly adjust sharpness, contrast, saturation, and colour tone to change the overall look of the images you capture. In addition to six presets, which can each be modified as you see fit, there are three user-defined settings so you can make up your own. Among the presets is a monochrome setting, which includes filter effects that mimic traditional (yellow, orange, red, and green) black-and-white filter sets. In addition to the filters, there are also toning effects, such as sepia, blue, purple or green. The black-and-white filter effects are subtle, but do a decent job of approximating the effect of real filters. Best of all, you can access the Picture Style menu from a dedicated button next to the Func button, so if you want to create different styles for different situations, it's easy to switch between them quickly.

Including the one mentioned above, the Canon 1D Mark III has 57 custom functions. Just for reference, the Nikon D2Xs has 42. Both of them can be customised extensively, and it would behoove any owner of either camera -- or of almost any midlevel or higher digital SLR -- to read the manual to find out how to tweak the camera to suit her/his shooting style. If you own a previous 1D series camera, don't assume that the number-labels of specific custom functions will be the same on the 1D Mark III. Some functions lend themselves to one-time settings, such as the ISO speed range, which lets you set the highest and lowest available ISO from among the camera's range of L (aka ISO 50) all the way up to H (aka ISO 6,400). While the camera displays L and H for these two extremes, they show up as either 50 or 6,400 in your images' EXIF data. Other custom functions, such as the number of bracketed shots (from two to seven), or linking spot metering to the selected AF point, lend themselves to more frequent changes. Thankfully, Canon groups the custom functions into four submenus to make it easier to find the one you want to change.

Canon officially joins the live-view SLR revolution with the 1D Mark III, which lets you frame images with the big 3-inch LCD on the back of the camera instead of the optical viewfinder, should you choose to do so. Once the Live View mode is enabled in the setup menu, all you have to do is press the Set button to enter Live View mode. When you do, the camera locks the mirror up, thereby cutting off the optical viewfinder, and you are restricted to manual focus. Conveniently, you can use the playback zoom controls to zoom in either 5x or 10x on your subject, to aid in manual focusing. Canon doesn't set any strict limits on how long you can remain in Live View mode, but it does mention that the sensor heats up in Live View mode and that you may encounter a thermometer icon on the LCD once the camera reaches a certain temperature. We never encountered this icon when we used Live View mode, but if you typically shoot in very warm environments (studio hot lights anyone?) you may encounter it. As you may guess, shooting at higher ISOs should make the sensor heat up faster than at lower ISOs. Canon also warns that increased temperatures can lead to increased image noise.

As usual, along with this new SLR comes a new version of Canon's Digital Photo Professional software for RAW processing. This new version (3.0) is very similar to the last version. We did notice, however, that it runs more smoothly on Intel-based Macs than the previous version, and it now officially supports Windows Vista. If you prefer to use Adobe's Camera Raw plug-in with Photoshop, you may be as irked as we were to find out that Adobe forces you to upgrade to Photoshop CS3 or Photoshop Elements 5.0 if you want to use the latest update, which includes the 1D Mark III as well as Fuji's FinePix S5 Pro, Nikon's D40x, Olympus' E-410 and SP-550 Ultra Zoom, and Sigma's SD14. That's a mean piece of corporate tomfoolery on Adobe's part, especially considering the fact that pro-level photographers who would use the 1D Mark III helped make Adobe the powerhouse it is today. If you can't yet justify the expense of upgrading to Photoshop CS3, remember that Elements costs significantly less and could serve as a quick way to get the new Camera Raw, especially for pros who may have decided against upgrading to CS3. Other third-party Raw processors, such as the latest version of Bibble, have also begun adding support for the 1D Mark III, so if you decide against a CS3 upgrade, there are other options available.

In addition to all the nice features of the camera body itself, the 1D Mark III is made to work with a very wide variety of Canon's optional accessories. This includes an array of Speedlites; one of the most comprehensive assortments of lenses available today; the WFT-E2A wireless file transmitter, which lets you send files to a computer via the 802.11g wireless standard; and the OSK-E3 Original Data Security Kit, which lets you verify that images have not been tampered with. Of course, there are many more accessories, but listing them all here would be excessive.

As our testing analyst Matthew Fitzgerald quipped, the Canon 1D Mark III is "a rocket ship." The camera took 0.1 second to start up and capture its first JPEG and took 0.4 second between shots when capturing subsequent JPEGs. When shooting Raw, the camera took 0.5 second between shots. Shutter lag measured 0.4 second in our high-contrast test, which mimics bright shooting conditions, and 1.1 seconds in our low-contrast test, which mimics dim shooting conditions. Our lab tests were performed with Canon's EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens.

Continuous Shooting basically lived up to Canon's 10-frames-per-second claim. We were able to capture full 10-megapixel JPEGs at a rate of 9.9 frames per second with the camera set to its highest quality JPEG compression setting of 10. Canon's claim is based on a lower compression setting of 8, but either way, it feels like you're firing a machine gun (without the recoil or death) when you shoot with the 1D Mark III in high-speed Continuous Drive mode.

Just be warned, if you do shoot 10MP images in Raw+JPG mode, you'll fill up your CF or SD card extremely fast. Full size Raw images from the Mark III can easily be 14MB or 15MB, while large JPEGs at the highest quality setting hover around 7MB.

The Mark III represents a major shift for Canon away from the nickel-metal-hydride battery found in previous 1D models (and stretching back to pro-level film bodies too) to a new, much shorter, lithium-ion battery. The 2300mAh battery looks almost identical to the one used in the Nikon D2Xs, though we wouldn't try to interchange them. Canon rates the battery to provide up to 2200 shots per charge, and though we didn't test it, we believe them. After a full weekend of shooting many hundreds of shots in Raw+JPG mode, the battery hadn't even drained halfway. Of course, along with the new battery comes a new charger, so professionals or companies that have invested in extra batteries and chargers for older 1D models may be annoyed to find that they have to buy new spare batteries and chargers. The charger that comes with the Mark III can charge up to two batteries at once, though only one battery comes with the camera.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate faster performance)
Time to first shot  
Raw shot-to-shot time  
Shutter lag (dim light)  
Shutter lag (typical)  
Canon EOS 1D Mark III
Nikon D2Xs
Sony Alpha DSLR-A100
Fujifilm FinePix S5 Pro
Pentax K10D
Nikon D80

Typical continuous-shooting speed (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate faster performance)

Image Quality
Images shot with the Canon EOS 1D Mark III can be absolutely stunning. Colours look extremely accurate, and the automatic white balance does an excellent job of neutralising colours under a variety of lighting situations. The only times it became confused was in situations in which there was mixed lighting, and even then it produced pleasing, if not absolutely spot-on results. If paired with a sharp lens, the 1D Mark III can produce images with a vast amount of fine detail.

However, where this camera really shines is its ultralow noise. Even at its highest sensitivity setting of ISO 6,400, we were able to make pleasing prints. On a monitor you'll see a covering of fine, multicoloured grain, but there's still an impressive amount of shadow detail and finer detail, especially for such an extreme setting. At lower sensitivities, images are extremely clean, and noise doesn't even begin to show up significantly on monitors until you reach ISO 800.

If you can afford the cost of the 1D Mark III, and are a Canon shooter who doesn't absolutely need the higher resolution of the 16.6MP 1Ds Mark II, then this camera is a no-brainer. Nikon shooters who are reading this might even begin to second-guess their beloved brand, but with rumours flying about a possible D3, you'll probably want to wait and see if Canon's top competitor can match this. It's going to be extremely difficult, though, as this is one of the best digital cameras we've ever used.