Does Canon EOS-1D X point the way?

Rhetorical question. Actually, if you read the information carefully, it’s pretty clear that the 1D X is more or less a 1D MkIV (16 megapixels,1.3X frame factor) with the sensor area increased to full frame. The pixels are actually larger than the MkIV so for any given telephoto lens, the true resolution of a sports/news/wildlife subject will be lower.

The 1D MkIV has a 27.9mm x 18.6mm sensor capturing 4896 x 3264 pixels or 175 pixels per millimetre.The 1D X has a 24 x 36mm sensor capturing 5184 x 3456 pixels or just 144 pixels per millimetre. The photon-capturing area, all other things being equal which they probably are not, is approximately 50% greater for every 1D X sensel compared to every 1D MkIV sensel.

That, if you like, can account for half of the one-stop maximum senstivity gain in the new camera; improved microlenses and filters, manufacturing and design will account for the rest. Canon, however, claims that the new Twin Digic 5+ processors are actually responsible for the noise reduction (as well as moiré reduction in video – a related function).

This is from the press info:

“Offering performance up to three times faster than standard DIGIC 5, each processor is designed to manage huge levels of image data while simultaneously reducing image noise”.

So there is no specific claim that the CMOS itself is lower noise, mostly that the Digic 5+ dual processing does this. That is something fairly new in a world which complains about raw file noise reduction. Does it matter whether the final image quality is a result of processing, or the result of a clean readout from a good signal to noise ratio CMOS?

The claim is that the X is two stops better for noise. Having used the 1D MkIV, I can confirm that this is already pretty amazing even at ISO 25,600 and perfectly usable at 6400. If Canon’s claim is correct, the X will be as good at 25,600 and then has a usable 51,200. Beyond this, 102k and 204k EI – the highest ISO equivalent ever in a DSLR – could be usable for extreme conditions in news, military, surveillance. It’s hard to think why else you would be shooting in the dark.

The processors also allow continuous (no limit) 14-bit raw shooting using twin UDMA CF card slots, at 12fps. There’s a huge gulf between the 11 to 18 shot bursts which the Alpha 77 can handle, and never slowing down at all. By swtiching to JPEG, the capture speed can be increased to 14fps and again it never slows down.

The camera itself is very much a 1D but with improvements to the ergonomics and interface which are long overdue. Canon has stuck with a 1990s design because familiarity from generation to generation has been a key point when persuading professionals to buy the new models. Most pros don’t want to see a single button moved a single millimetre, or any change in the way the camera responds. News agencies have actually hired tech support companies to sit down with batches of new cameras and spend an hour making sure all the deeply-hidden custom settings match those on the outgoing gear.

Here’s what Canon says about the X: “The menu system also features a comprehensively redesigned user interface, incorporating Help functions to make camera operation faster, clearer and easier. Additionally, a new dedicated AF tab allows photographers to access and customise AF pre-sets for common shooting situations or subjects, allowing users to concentrate on capturing the moment without the need to constantly adjust camera settings.”

About time too! I have almost been lynched by Canon and Nikon owners alike for taking a new camera out of the box, setting it to P, and shooting everyday scenes only to find half my intended subjects out of focus. But then, I’m testing the camera, not my own ability to configure it. This has been a major problem for all advanced AF models with complex sensors (the X has a 61-point wide AF sensor with 41 cross-type, 5 double-cross and an integrated 100,000 pixel RGB metering sensor which links to AF also provides face and horizon/vertical line detection). Sony does seem to have avoided issues by keeping the A77 AF fairly simple. Anyone who has used a Canon 7D with the wrong focus behaviour set, and seen their chosen subject suddenly zap out of focus just before pressing the shutter, will know that responsiveness and auto selection of focus points can lose pictures.

So I for one am happy to see that Canon has addressed an issue often denied and brought some key AF behaviour control up front instead of buried in obscure custom settings.

Are Canon owners really gearheads? Maybe not. Canon also announced they just passed the 50 million EOS cameras mark, and the 70 million EOS lenses, the same time as the 1D X launch. That’s just 1.4 lenses for each Canon EOS body. Sigma must be doing well. But, as upgrading Alpha owners know well enough, body-only sales are very common these days. And Canon lenses just keep going the same way those old Minolta lenses do. There will be plenty of 1980s glass still in use on this 2011 camera.

Back to the rhetorical question – yes and no. Sony has never had a 1.3X sensor size, so could not do something like apparently increasing the pixel count while actually lowering the resolution (and thus the telephoto true reach). All Sony could do would be to backtrack from 24 megapixels towards 16, on either full frame or APS-C – or keep full frame at 24, and transform the performance and speed of the 9xx series.

For those who feel a bit peeved than Canon’s $7000 camera has just stolen the high-speed crown from Sony’s $1300 Alpha by offering 12fps and a boosted 14fps, just remember that with 255 pixels per millimetre the Alpha 77 captures subjects at a 77% higher magnification (100% pixel view) than the new 1D X and that means your humble A77 user with a 70-400mm SSM G is punching at the same weight as a 1D X user with a 125-700mm zoom.

And that 14fps is achieved with the mirror locked up and the focus and exposure locked on the first frame – strictly a tripod job or one for a steady hand, with no ability to see the subject once the shutter is pressed. And, even though the Canon offers sixteen times the senstivity for low light shootings, the Alpha can actually meter the light in conditions four times darker than the Canon at EV-2 rather than EV0.

These cameras are not competing, obviously, so my comments are not to be taken seriously. It’s just interesting to see how high end consumer SLT technology and specifications compare to fifth-generation heavy duty professional SLR.

– David Kilpatrick