Rather than beat around the bush with a long, meandering introduction and make you meticulously read all the way to the conclusion, I’ll just come right out and say it.
The Canon 1DX is the best camera I’ve ever used. Hands down. By far.
Ok, now that that is out of the way, I’ll get down to a few of the specifics — the things I love the most about it and a few of the things I wish Canon would fix/change. While I’ve been very impressed by the 1Dx, I firmly believe there is no such thing as the perfect camera and the 1DX is no exception.
A few words about the nature of this review. First, this review won’t get into pixel peeping. There have been plenty of those out there, and a quick google search will net you plenty of 100% crop comparisons examining the high ISO performance of the 1DX versus the D4 or the 5D Mark III. Second, I’m not endorsed by Canon. They didn’t give me a free camera nor did they ask me to review their gear. Third, this review is not intended to be by any means exhaustive or to be loaded with technical analysis.
Rather, when I got my hands on the camera in mid July, I held off the temptation to write a quick “initial impressions” review after a few days worth of use. Instead, I wanted to really get familiar with the camera, use it in a variety of different environments and see how it did over several months of use after the initial high of having a new (and expensive) piece of gear wore off. In the just under two months that I’ve had the camera, I’ve shot over 40,000 images between 5 weddings, 2 NFL football games, numerous portrait sessions, a commercial shoot, and a multitude of MLB baseball games. In other words, plenty of time to establish a few opinions.
The first thing that probably any 1DX owner will tell you about the camera is that it is highly customizable. Almost to a fault (notice I said, “almost”). Pick up two different 1DX cameras belonging to two different owners and the cameras are probably set up wildly differently. For example, on one of the cameras you may find the “set” button located in the middle of the wheel on the back of the camera changes the camera’s ISO settings, while another owner may have the same button designated to change the camera’s white balance, picture style, open the menu, playback the last image, or a myriad of other options. In the “custom controls” menu on the camera there are 11 different buttons that can be designated to control a variety of functions that you set up directly in the menu system. Ultimately, each photographer can set the camera to function exactly the way they want it to and designate what buttons they want to control which features.
One of the great features with the new 1DX I haven’t heard talked about much is how Canon has incorporated much of the owners manual in the camera menu itself. Even with all the different customizations available, I’ve rarely had to open the 400 page owners manual. With many of the different options available in the menu, you can hit the “info” button on the camera and a quick explanation of the different options available pops up conveniently on the screen.
This is particularly helpful navigating the different AF settings available on the 1DX. Canon organizes the different main settings on the 1DX into different “cases.” You select a case based on the subject you’ll be shooting and how you want the camera to react and anticipate that subject’s movement. Rather than go into each of the cases in great detail here, Canon has put up a very helpful guide to understanding the 1DX’s autofocus settings here.
Overall, my experience of the 1DX autofocus has been great. The camera consistently achieves a lock with the subject very quickly and tracks the subject exceptionally well, rarely recording out of focus frames even while shooting at 12 frames per second. While I’ve experimented with most of the different AF cases on the 1DX, generally I’ve stuck to the Case 1 which is meant to be an all around general purpose setting. Most wedding shooters would have little reason to ever change off of Case 1 and for the weddings that I’ve photographed, the camera’s AF performance has been nothing short of superb. Portrait photographers might make use of Case 6 which covers “Subjects that change speed and move erratically” when perhaps photographing young children playing or running around on a playground.
As for sports, Case 1 seems to cover baseball quite well, though baseball in my opinion is hardly the place to put a camera’s AF system to the ultimate test. Football has been slightly trickier and I’m still playing around trying to find the best particular settings. While shooting football, there are times when I want the camera to continue to track a subject regardless of what obstacles may come between the camera and the subject (case 2), then other particular moments, when I want it to “instantly focus on subjects suddenly entering the AF point” (case 3), and others when I want to set the camera to be optimized for subjects that may move erratically in any direction (case 5). In my experience, photographing football, the AF performance has been “good”, but not exceptional, however I’m willing to give the camera the benefit of the doubt and expect that as we get farther along into the season I’ll figure out best how to set the camera up to get even better results.
One instance where it’s clear Canon has listened to their pro customers is the dual CF card slots. You can set the camera up to automatically switch from recording to one card to the other when the first card is full, or you can have it record to both cards simultaneously which is how I’ve had it set up. Soon after I bought the 1DX, I bought a 64 GB CF card and at weddings, put that card into the second CF card slot while I record to 4 and 8 GB in the first slot. When I come home from the wedding, I download all of the wedding images from the single 64 GB card (I have yet to shoot more than 64 GB at a single wedding). However, if the 64 GB card were to ever become corrupted or lost, I’d have the 4 and 8 GB cards as a backup.
The display on the 1DX is also a major upgrade. With over a million pixels crammed into 3.2 inches, the images you see on the back give you a much better impression of what the image will look like when you download the images into the computer. Even the color is surprisingly accurate. Recently at a football game a fellow shooter and I were comparing images on the back of the camera and we both noticed how much more accurate the color was from the 1DX compared to the Nikon D4. While this matters more to some photographers than it does to others, to me, it’s helpful to have a camera that gives you as accurate an idea as possible of how the images will look when you download it onto the computer and the 1DX does this better than any other Canon camera I’ve used.
While I’ve already stated I didn’t want to get into pixel peeping, it would be shameful to not mention the high ISO performance the 1DX offers. To me, ISO performance is a largely relative subject matter. What is “acceptable” noise to some is completely unacceptable to others. That being said, I find images shot up to ISO 6,400 to be extremely clean and useable for wedding and portrait purposes. Images shot even at 12,800 look great if they are exposed properly. In the two months that I’ve used the camera, I’ve found few situations where I’ve needed to push the camera much higher that.
As for some of the things I wish were different. Without a doubt the biggest flaw in my mind is the transition from having the focus points being illuminated black instead of red, like how they were with every camera Canon had produced before the 5D Mark III. Much has been written on this point, on forums and other articles, and while I have my fingers crossed that Canon may at some point introduce a firmware fix for this, I’m not entirely convinced one is coming (or at least one that will completely satisfy most 1DX and 5D Mark III users).
Moving on, the battery life on the camera isn’t wonderful. This is particularly the case when writing to multiple CF cards. I’ve found that shooting 2,500 RAW images to two CF cards will drain about 80% of my battery. Obviously, however, carrying multiple batteries particularly for long shoots (like weddings) solves this issue. On the note of batteries, while Canon has come out with a new LP-E4N battery for the 1DX, the older LP-E4 batteries for the 1D Mark IV, 1D Mark III, and 1Ds Mark III also work.
One feature that honestly sounds a little cooler than it probably is is the 14 fps. While it is true that the camera will shoot that fast, it’s important to note that both the exposure and the AF are fixed when shooting in that mode. That obviously limits the number of situations where that mode would be useful. Also, keep in mind that the 1DX will only record JPEG images and not RAW images when shooting at 14 fps.
In conclusion, the 1DX is a major step forward. While some studio and commercial shooters may lament the drop in megapixels from 21.1 (on the 1Ds Mark III) to 18.1 on the 1DX, the camera seems to be a wonderful combination of features and specs for the vast majority of sports, wedding, and editorial photographers. Clearly, the $6,800 price tag is a big jump up from the 5D series and even from the 1D Mark IV.
So, is it worth it? That’s a question only each photographer can answer for themselves.
Ultimately, the camera has been worth the investment for me. The combination of the revamped AF system, the wonderful low ISO performance, the customizable controls, and the addition of the dual CF card slots, added to the ruggedness and weather sealing that has always been the hallmark of the 1D line makes this camera a photographer’s dream tool.
About Chris Humphreys
Based out of Denver, CO, Chris Humphreys travels across Colorado and the rest of the United States photographing weddings for discerning couples who want their weddings captured in such a way as to be true to who they are.
Chris has been blessed to have been recognized by several WPJA awards and to be named one of the top 15 wedding photojournalists in the world. Chris is also a sought after speaker and teacher for other photographers.