Is the Canon EOS 1D MkIV half-baked?

Canon’s EOS 1 range of cameras were the professional standard against which others were judged. Put simply, they are the choice of squillions of working professional photographers, the guys and girls who make a living looking through pieces of glass, who require dependability and high performance in every respect.

Some would argue the range peaked with the EOS 1D MkIIN, at least in the digital realm. Since then the 1D MkIII was released and plagued by a reputation for poor autofocus. Various fixes were instigated by Canon, seemingly with some success, but the simple fact was Nikon had released its D3 and was stealing the march on Canon.

I own a MkIIN and have used the MkIII, and to be honest I thought the MkIII focussed faster, locked on better and was more consistent than my MkIIN. But with these cameras costing $6000 (in Australia) I wasn’t about the upgrade on a whim, especially considering I only shoot professionally for about one day a week – I’m a publisher and the photography is important, but it’s not the only thing I do.

From a specifications point of view the jump to the Mk III wasn’t that great either – 25% more pixels, 10 frames per second instead of 8.5, a better screen on the back, a lighter battery and tweaks to the user interface definitely made it a better camera, but not better enough.

Now we have the 1D Mk IV: 16MP, 10fps, revised autofocus and movie mode. Those specs sound pretty good: I’m always scratching around for a few more pixels, 10fps is enough without being that impressive these days and now I’m making vodcasts for Cycle Torque ( movie mode is basically essential. But looking a little deeper into the specifications makes me think Canon has dropped the ball a little on this one, for the Mk IV doesn’t show the forward-thinking and innovation I expected.

Firstly, it still has the 1.3x crop factor, something we’ve had to deal with since the 1-series went digital. When the first 1D was introduced the technology to mass produce a 24x36mm sensor at anything like an affordable price (if you call the close to $6500US launch price affordable at the time) didn’t exist, so the sensor was built a little smaller. Canon used an even smaller sensor, one with crop factor of 1.6x, in its range of consumer and ‘prosumer’ cameras, and does to this day. The smaller sensor, though, is supported by a range of lenses which are specifically designed and built for it and cannot be used on the full-frame cameras (5D, 5D mkII, 1Ds range). There’s nothing specific for the 1D range and its 1.3x sensor, you have to use the sensors for full-frame cameras – which would be fine, but it screws up the focal lengths of your lenses, especially your wide angles.

My widest zoom runs to 17mm. On any 1D (not 1Ds) it’s effectively 22mm, which isn’t ultra-wide. My 24-105mm f/4, on a 1D, becomes 31-136. Zooms of that range have been built in the past, but a little wide to not very long isn’t half a useful as wide to short telephoto. I’ve also owned three of the 1.6x crop factor Canons, and it was a joy to buy the 10-22mm zoom to once again have a genuine wide-angle lens again (the 10-22 is effectively 16-35 when the crop factor is taken into account).

Truth be told, those two lenses (the 17-35 and 24-105), in particular, feel better suited to the 5D MkII, with its full-frame sensor. On the 5D the 24-105 can often cover every focal length you need, but with the 1D I almost always need to carry two lenses. They never felt ‘right’ on the 1D. In the 1D’s defence, though, long lenses get longer, which is great when you’re photographing a small object (a motorcycle) travelling at high speed (they do over 300km/h at Phillip Island). So my 300 f/2.8 becomes 390mm – and as anyone who has used both will attest to, the 300 is a lot easier to use than the 400mm f/2.8, which weighs about 3 ton more.

So I was hoping the next generation of 1D would have a full-frame sensor, but it doesn’t. Maybe Canon thought it would look like they were copying the Nikon D3 with its 12MP full-frame sensor, but the result is the Mk IV looks like an upgrade of an ageing design rather than anything revolutionary.

An almost essential addition was HD video recording capability: while Canon’s delivered here, it seriously looks like it’s been added in as an afterthought or extra feature rather than a design which points to a merger of the two mediums (stills and video). There’s still no effective autofocusing, going to movie mode isn’t intuitive or quick and the new camera doesn’t even have the full manual control being offered to owners of the 5D MkII soon via a new firmware update. According to DP review shooting video with the MkIV isn’t as simple as on the much cheaper 7D. One very important update to the 5D’s firmware is the addition of audio meters, something the MkIV doesn’t have.

I was expecting so much more. Where’s the XLR audio input, or at least an optional extra to provide professional audio? Where’s the full full set of controls the cheaper 5D will have for audio in a couple of weeks? Where’s the full-frame sensor? Where are the lenses built for video to go with these cameras with their own autofocusing ability?

For the hard-core professional sports photographer, the Canon EOS 1D Mk IV will almost certainly be the best sports camera ever produced by Canon. Whether it will prove to be better than what Nikon is offering remains to be seen.

I’ll probably buy one anyway.