Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Canon 1Dx Mark III review

Hummingbird and Flowering Currant

The days of dSLR cameras are numbered. But even though Canon announced it’s concentrating its development efforts on mirrorless cameras, its brand new top-of-the-line camera is… a dSLR.

Given that the new Canon 1Dx Mark III is likely to be one of the last dSLRs ever, is it worth investing in one for wildlife photography? After using one for nearly two months, I think it is. The camera is a much more substantial upgrade than its specifications might suggest. Its autofocus system is nothing short of revolutionary. The new smart controller, which helps you quickly select autofocus points, almost justifies the upgrade by itself. But the camera suffers from some infuriating glitches and quirks, even after a firmware update.

Because of the stay-at-home order and closure of public lands where I live, the images in this post aren’t quite as varied as I would have liked. That said, I have spent a lot of time experimenting with its settings and trying it in challenging autofocus situations. In this post, I’ll share my early experiences in the context of using it for the kind of work I normally do. I have not used it to photograph test charts. If that’s your interest, DPReview has a good side-by-side comparison.

Snow Geese Flock and Sun, Skagit Valley, Washington

New autofocus system
The autofocus system of the Canon 1Dx Mark III represents the biggest leap over its predecessor. When shooting through the viewfinder, you have 191 autofocus points potentially working for you — and 155 of those are the extra sensitive cross-type. The previous model had 61 total points and 41 cross-type.

But the difference goes beyond the tripling of the autofocus points. The new system also seems substantially smarter. AI and “deep learning” are making their way into a lot of photography tools these days, and Canon says it invested heavily in training this new system.

Sports photographers will perhaps notice the greatest improvement. The camera is now able to recognize the human eye and focus on it. I rarely photograph people, but I did get to try that feature with a pre-release camera at a Canon-sponsored event. They hired a boxer to throw punches toward me, his gloves often obscuring his face. The camera was locked on his eye whenever it was visible. I got plenty of in-focus images even though I was out of my element.

I used a production camera with the first two generations of firmware for this review and came away even more impressed as I used it in my own work.

Face detection isn’t enabled for animals — with birds, the camera seems to gravitate toward breasts and tails — but the autofocus system still seems intelligent. I like to show wildlife in the context of its environment and will often use an animal as a smaller element in the image. With previous Canon cameras, I found it took some effort to keep the camera from jumping from your subject to the background. The Canon 1Dx Mark III is almost flawless right out of the box. When it locks on a subject, it does a phenomenal job tracking it. It’s so reliable that I now often use larger autofocus zones rather than selecting single points. I didn’t trust those zones before.

Honeybee and Flowering Currant, Washington

My favorite autofocus experience came when I was looking for a different way to photograph my flowering currant bush, which was becoming a tired subject during the lock down. I decided to try to photograph the bumblebees and honeybees that visited the flowers. I set the autofocus system to use all points and kept pressing and releasing the shutter halfway until it locked on a bee. Then I fired the camera in burst mode as the bee buzzed from flower to flower around the frame. I was simply astonished when I discovered that the bee was in sharp focus in the vast majority of those shots. It’s simply amazing when you consider that the movement of the bees was very erratic, that they often passed behind flowers, and that they are such small subjects.

The bee tracking worked so well that I wish Canon would develop a new autofocus selection mode. I’d like for you to be able to select your subject by using a single autofocus point, but then use all available points to track it. Given its performance in the bee test, I think such a system would work. The only hard part was getting it to focus on a bee in the first place.

Snow Geese and Mount Baker, Skagit Valley, Washington

Canon’s autofocus system is highly customizable, which can be a blessing or a curse. While you can tune it to your exact needs, the sheer volume of options can make it hard to find the perfect recipe. For the previous camera, Canon ended up creating a technical guidebook just for the autofocus system. (Update: There's now a special AF guide for this camera, too.)

The Canon 1Dx Mark III gives you five autofocus scenarios to simplify your options. While the previous camera also provided scenarios, I find they are more reliable with this model. I tried four of the five, but came away most impressed with the more generic, default settings. Auto, where the camera “automatically adapts to subject movement,” and case 1, which is described as a “versatile multi-purpose” setting, both delivered consistent, excellent results.

I found case 2, which tracks the subject while ignoring obstacles, was slightly more prone to jumping to other subjects in certain situations. I noticed this most when I was photographing hummingbirds feeding and flying in a thick shrub. I think the camera detected more movement in the flowers, which were blowing in the breeze. I had the same issue with case 4, which prioritizes subjects that change speed dramatically. Depending on your subject and shooting style, those modes could very well be useful to you. In my case, though, I found the all-around modes worked so well that I’m not finding a compelling reason to use anything else. The multi-purpose case 1 successfully tracked herons as they flew through a dense forest, even when they flew behind trees.

Great Blue Heron in Flight, Kenmore, Washington

The camera’s performance in Live View mode is supposed to be even more impressive. Nearly 4,000 autofocus points are built into the imaging sensor itself allowing you to focus on moving subjects while shooting using the rear LCD. I tried it, but I found it so awkward to photograph using the rear screen that I eventually gave up. The results were okay, but I’m sure my technique was the limiting factor.

My one annoyance with the autofocus system is that it sometimes struggles to alternate between subjects that are close and far away. The hummingbird I photographed would feed about 10 feet away from me but take breaks on a branch about 50 feet away. The Canon 1Dx Mark III had no trouble getting the close action but would not even try to focus on the distant branch until I manually adjusted the focus ring to bring it into clearer view. That said, this is not a situation that I expect to run into often.

Ring-Necked Duck Landing on Promontory Pond, Seattle, Washington

Smart Controller
With more than triple the autofocus points, Canon has introduced a new tool for selecting the one you want. It’s called the smart controller and it’s sort of like an optical trackball. While the controller doesn’t move (it doubles as the autofocus on button), it’s able to sense the movement of your thumb and it moves the selected autofocus point accordingly.

I frequently change autofocus points. As my subjects move around the frame, I like to change the autofocus point so that I can vary the composition. For the most part, the smart controller is an incredibly useful feature that has helped me more quickly respond.

I am somewhat frustrated by the sensitivity of the controller, however. To be sure, you can adjust the sensitivity of the controller on a five-point scale. My issue is that the sensitivity does not adapt to the size of your autofocus selection. The amount of motion to move a single autofocus point from one side of the viewfinder to the other would completely wrap around the display and then some if you are using the nine-zone autofocus selection.

In other words, the level of sensitivity that’s appropriate to adjust a single autofocus sensor makes the controller almost impossible to use when your selection area is larger. I think the controller would be so much more intuitive if the amount of motion needed to cover a distance was the same.

As it is, I find the level 4 sensitivity to be ideal for selecting single focus points. You need to drop the sensitivity to level 1 or 2 to be able to accurately control the camera with the nine-zone autofocus selection. I ended up putting the camera back into its default level of 3 but being very delicate when using larger focus zones. That, however, eliminates the speed advantage of the smart controller.

By default, the smart controller is active only after pressing the autofocus selection button. I like having it always active. In settings, use custom function 6, “custom controls,” to set the smart controller (it’s the AF-On icon with the arrows) to “direct AF point selection.” Set custom function 7, “smart controller,” to “enable.” (This is also where you adjust the sensitivity of the controller.)

Canon warns the smart controller may not work with gloves. I did a limited test while wearing the heavy gloves I used for winter photography. I could activate the smart controller, but I couldn’t control it. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the smart controller is an additional, optional feature. You always have the ability to select focus points by using the joystick, which does work with gloves.

Early Willow Flowers, Seattle, Washington

Image Quality
Somewhat surprisingly, the Canon 1Dx Mark III does not provide any improvement in resolution. Its sensor captures 20 megapixels, exactly like its predecessor. While I would like more resolution, the camera still offers some noticeable and useful improvements.

Even though the resolution has not changed from the previous version, the clarity of the Canon 1Dx Mark III files seems a little better. It has a newly designed low-pass filter, which is supposed to help it better capture detail while reducing moirĂ©. My work doesn’t lend itself easily to using two cameras side-by-side, so I didn’t even try such a comparison. But I am intimately familiar with the output of the Canon 1Dx Mark II and I am sure that the files from the Mark III are better. In particular, the files seem sharper. I don’t find myself using sharpening plug-ins anywhere near as often. It is a subtle difference, though, and not one that would by itself justify the upgrade for me.

I think the high ISO performance improvement is more impressive than even Canon claims. The Canon representatives told me there is a one-stop improvement in the Mark III. I was comfortable using the Mark II up to ISO 3200 — occasionally going up to ISO 6400 in special situations. With a one-stop improvement, ISO 6400 would be acceptable to me and ISO 12,800 would be OK if I really needed the extra sensitivity.

That one-stop improvement claim likely comes from analyzing test charts and doesn't account for the fact that the noise in the Canon 1Dx Mark III is much finer and less offensive to the eye. I’m often willing to push the camera to ISO 16,000.

In the previous version, unsightly blotches of color would begin to mar images at ISO 6400. With the Canon 1Dx Mark III, the noise is almost entirely like a fine grain. You don’t even need advanced AI software tools to remove the noise. Files clean up nicely with Neat Image.

Crows, Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn - Bothell, Washington

With some processing, I’ve been able to get ISO 12,800 files from the Mark III look largely like ISO 1600 files from the Mark II. Some very fine detail is undoubtedly lost, but the quality is good enough to where I’ve occasionally stayed out to do wildlife photography in natural light a half hour after sunset. Once you get up to ISO 20,000, however, color noise becomes noticeable and can be difficult to remove, although I was able to get acceptable images by processing them with Topaz DeNoise AI. I’m not going to make a practice of using the camera at such a high ISO, but it did allow me to capture crows in flight with the planets Mars, Saturn and Jupiter in the background — an image I wouldn’t have even attempted with previous cameras.

I shoot all my work in the RAW format, however, with a brand new camera I also capture JPEGs in case the third-party converters haven’t caught up. Photoshop, DXO and Capture One all support RAW files from the Canon 1Dx Mark III. While I don’t plan to use the in-camera JPEGs for anything, I can say that they are of very high quality. I find the default level of noise reduction to be a little aggressive for my taste, but the colors and tone are phenomenal. I wouldn’t have any issue sending those files directly to publishers.

Pied-Billed Grebe Hunting, Promontory Ponds, Seattle, Washington

Burst mode
The Canon 1Dx series of cameras, like the 1D models before, are designed for speed and the 1Dx Mark III is a little faster than its predecessor. The 1Dx Mark III can capture up to 16 frames per second when shooting with the viewfinder. That’s up slightly from the 14 frames per second that the 1Dx Mark II could capture.

Does that incremental improvement make much of a difference? With wildlife photography, timing can be everything and there’s always a chance that one of the extra 2 frames per second will capture a bird with a better wing position, for example. In practice, I haven’t found myself capturing images that I wouldn’t have been able to get with the prior version, but I am still glad for the additional speed. With the 1Dx Mark III, Canon has switched to the new CFExpress memory card format, which has no trouble keeping up with the bursts. The camera’s buffer is supposed to be able to hold 1,000 images.

Ring-Necked Duck Diving, Promontory Ponds, Seattle, Washington

The even more welcome improvement, however, is that the viewfinder blackout period is noticeably improved. With dSLRs, the mirror has to retract during an exposure, blacking out the viewfinder. The blackout period with the 1Dx Mark III is so short that I’m finding it even easier to pan with moving subjects. Of course, with mirrorless cameras, there is no blackout period — the viewfinder is always active — so they do have an edge.

The Canon 1Dx Mark III can become somewhat of a mirrorless camera if you shoot in LiveView mode using the back screen. It improves to 20 frames per second and the display is always on, even during exposures. Again, I found the camera very awkward to operate this way. Its performance was fine, but I got better images when I used the camera like a traditional dSLR.

Anna's Hummingbird and Flowering Currant, Snohomish County, Washington

What I don’t like
For all the dramatic improvements, the Canon 1Dx Mark III does suffer from frustrating faults. The main annoyance is that the camera can be glitchy.

There was a well-documented bug that caused the camera to completely lock-up when shooting bursts if the electronic level was enabled. I can confirm that that bug is fixed by installing the 1.1.0 version firmware.

Even after installing that firmware, the camera has locked-up on me several times in a different circumstance. I suspect it relates to how the camera tries to save power when it’s not in use. The Canon 1Dx Mark III’s battery is rated for 2,850 shots — that’s more than double the rating of the previous camera even though they both use the same LP-E19 battery. On occasion, the camera will go to sleep and will not wake up. I’ve had to pull out the battery to restart it. In two months, this has happened 16 times — 3 times with the most recent firmware.

But the camera’s sleep mode is erratic even when it doesn’t crash. A majority of the time, the camera awakens almost instantly when you half-press the shutter button. A troubling number of times, however, the camera can take 5-6 seconds to awaken. A couple of times, I’ve missed images because the camera did not power back up in time.

You can, of course, change the amount of time the camera waits before it goes into sleep mode. I haven’t done that yet because I’ve used it for non-critical work. I’m also somewhat concerned about how quickly that will drain the battery. With the 1Dx Mark II, I’ve gotten used to shooting all day on a single battery charge, even when working in conditions that are well below freezing. I’m not sure what the battery life would be with the 1Dx Mark III if I have to leave the camera in an always-on state.

The camera’s GPS also flakes out on me occasionally. On a third to half of my outings with the camera, it will lose the GPS signal in the middle of my session, even when I haven’t changed position. Often, it won’t get the signal back. This may or may not be related, but the sleep-mode issue seems to happen more often when the GPS signal has been lost.

I am also having issues transferring files from the CFexpress cards to my Windows PC. The Canon 1Dx Mark III comes bundled with a Sandisk CFexpress card reader, but transfers with it are excruciatingly slow. Even with the reader plugged directly into a USB 3.0 slot (as opposed to a hub), my maximum transfer speed is about 35 mb per second. By comparison, the CFast card reader that was bundled with the 1Dx Mark II transfers files four times faster. And I have tried two different CFexpress cards of different capacities. The poor transfer speeds are consistent. Those cards, however, perform flawlessly in the camera.

Others have complained about the poor durability of the card readers that came with their cameras. A few have reported issues with the spring that holds the card in place. I have not had that issue.

Song Sparrow Singing, Snohomish County, Washington

If you look at the specification sheet, the Canon 1Dx Mark III might appear to be just a minor update. Its autofocus system, however, is truly revolutionary. Even in its default configuration, it does a phenomenal job of tracking subjects in difficult conditions. The new smart controller makes it easier to select subjects, even when they’re moving in unpredictable ways. And I think its low-light performance is an even bigger improvement than Canon claims thanks to the way it handles color noise. The camera, however, does suffer from reliability issues relating to its sleep mode, issues that I hope are fixed in a future firmware update.

If you are interested in purchasing the Canon 1Dx Mark III, you can help support this site by purchasing it through Adorama. While camera reviews are not my primary business, your purchases through this link will provide some income while my exhibit and assignments are on hold. Thanks in advance!

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John Hoffman said...

Thank you for the review. Canon has released an AF guide for the Mk IIII.

LivingWilderness said...

Thanks, John. That guide wasn't available when I first looked and I didn't think to keep checking. Odd that it's not included on the camera page where you download the regular manual and software. In case anybody else is looking for it, the AF guide is here: