1D Mk IV: My Hands-on Impressions

An admission. In terms of cameras, I have an embarrassment of riches to choose from.

As an educator, photojournalist, and general purpose photographer who gets called on for all manner of shoots, I “need” (euphemism for “I rationalize my way to”) the best equipment. It’s just a cost of doing business. I have a Canon 1Ds Mark III, a 7D, and a new 1D Mark IV. I am also familiar with the 1D Mark III, which I recently sold even though it was only lightly used – this having been my favourite camera.

I have done mini reviews of the 7D on this blog – now I thought it might be good to compare the 1D Mark IV to the previous Mark III, and to my other cameras. Here is my 1D Mark IV pictured a few hours ago:

The following is not a thorough technical review.While I am of course thorough in trying all the camera’s functions, I think there is enough material on the web, including Canon USA’s excellent 123-page white paper, to outline all the functionality and changes. Also, this is not an exhaustive image comparison. There’s enough of that already, too.

Instead, this is the real-life impressions of an actual user – and one who has recently owned or used all other recent Canon cameras, as well as Nikon, Sony, Olympus, and Pentax cameras.

So, continue after the click…

There are no bad cameras, but you have to choose. I am a Canon shooter for several reasons. One, I like Canon’s interfaces. I watch people struggle to understand cameras, and Canon does a better job than others at keeping them simple. Nikon’s vertical menu tabs and “longer-than-the-screen” lists of functions, not to mention the “everything turns the wrong way” confuse millions of users worldwide – do these guys only do focus groups with engineers? Not that Canon is perfect (who on earth thought of function names like “AI Servo” for “Continuous Focus”?), but they’re much better than others. Also, the great range of Canon lenses. All good!

12800 ISO, 1/100th sec, f/2.8

So when the Mark IV came out I ordered one to replace my still-new Mark III. Even without knowing the specs, I knew that I had to have it since it would only improve on an already excellent camera. When I read the specs, they made me even more eager: better autofocus, more pixels with lower noise, and more: all sounded great.

So how, after week one, do I feel the camera delivers? What are the new features I really like, the ones I actually use and benefit from?

These benefits can largely be divided into “visible” and “not as visible, but very important”.

The latter category, the “behind the scenes” improvements, is the largest. That is why the Mark IV feels like just a minor upgrade. Like Snow Leopard versus Leopard: you just about have to check the badge to see whether you are using a Mk III or a Mk IV. I do not mean the improvements are not important: they are just “under the hood”.

Wendel Clark, 1 Feb 2010, 1D MkIV

The invisible:

This “invisible” category includes:

  • More pixels – I don’t really need them, but the Mark IV’s 16.1 Megapixels puts the camera roughly on par with the 7D and puts it in the same area as the 1Ds Mark III. This gives me more ability to crop or to do studio shots.
  • Better controls (many switches and buttons have been slightly overhauled to make them more convenient or more reliable).
  • Better, faster: UDMA-card compatible. M-RAW mode available. And so on.
  • Video. It’s there and it’s good (but since there are no dedicated buttons for it, it’s hidden).
  • Many more small improvements.
  • The big one: many internal improvements to the focus system. For example, when manually selecting a focus point,  39 of the 45 focus sensors are now cross-type, meaning they will detect both horizontal lines and vertical lines if you use a good lens. And they can all be selected when you are picking one, not just 19 of them. You don’t really see that – you just benefit by the camera focusing more accurately, more quickly, more of the time.
  • And most importantly, the AI Servo auto-tracking has been improved (it is now called “AI Servo II”). Since I shoot few moving subjects, I have not yet really benefited from this. No doubt I will, when I shoot sports, and I will report then. So far, my first impressions are that it is very good. That said: it is hard to tell without extensive testing. The 7D, while perhaps not being quite as good, at last allows me to see where it is tracking the subject, and thus makes it easier to judge how well it is working.

A note about focus. Canon claims enhanced low-light focusing ability. No doubt they are right, but I do not see that: if anything, I see “OK” low-light focusing. A lot of hesitating and hunting. But what I do see is more consistent focus. Even when focusing on static subjects, when shooting wide open at f/1.4 or f/2, the Mark III often gave me two out of five photos of a stationary, contrasty subject way out of focus. The Mark IV so far seems much more consistent. And that is a feature I am willing to pay for!

hand-held, 5000 ISO, 1/100th Sec, f/2.8

The visible:

The above are all “internal” changes that I do not see when I hold the body. The changes that I benefit from and easily notice are of course the ones I enjoy most. And these are not always the obvious ones!

  • It starts with the screen. A crisp, sharp, contrasty 900,000 pixels, as opposed to one quarter of that on the 1D Mark III. “Who cares”, you might say. Except it is incredibly important for me to see how sharp my images are going to be. Prior to this, I would not really know until I saw them on my Mac. Now, I get a much better impression straight away which tells me if I need to re-shoot – and it also makes me feel better about my images, which leaves me happier. Happiness is good.
  • The second noticeable improvement is the inclusion of an auto ISO mode. “Surely as a pro you don’t use this?”, you might say – but you would be wrong. I love it. No, I do not use it in all circumstances – shooting an event with flash I do not want ISO to take over from my manual settings, thanks very much! – but I do use it in low-light ambient light situations where I want to get the shot. Combined with the ability to shoot at higher ISOs, it is fantastic. In fact, auto ISO is a way to force me out of old habits like “never go above 400 ISO for an event”.
  • Another biggie is the whopping 23 frames of full-sized RAW images I can shoot at 10 fps in one burst, even when using a slow memory card. While this is slightly less than the Mark III, I never quite got that on the Mark III somehow, and here I do. Plus of course the images are 60% greater in size.
  • Live View mode, present on the Mk III without autofocus, now has the same autofocus options as the 7D. While I seldom use it, at least now it is a more practical option when I do.
  • The Mark IV has video. While it lacks the easy-to-use controls of the 7D, it has the same quality. Superb 1080p video including the 24 fps that movie people like. I am not a videographer, but in the media world, the ability to deliver multimedia is getting more and more important.
  • The ability to shoot in lower light by using ISOs of up to 12,800 normally, or three stops higher as extra “high” modes, which I think must stand for “high noise” is another bonus. My test shots show that the Mark IV does well – while not as well as the Nikon D3S, it does better than my previous cameras – as well as the 1D Mark III and with 60% more pixels.
  • I note that the Mark IV has better white balance than the Mark III. Not as good in Tungsten as the 7D’s, but better than the 1D Mark III’s. Yes, I know – when you shoot RAW, not important. Just one of those little conveniences.

As a RAW shooter, many improvements in image processing make no difference to me. I do not create JPGs so all the improvements in how well the JPGs are created are moot. Peripheral lighting correction, noise cancellation: all this leaves me cold. “You can do it in DPP” is meaningless if you do not use DPP. I use Lightroom, like most Pros.

Hand-held, 1600 ISO

About high ISO: I put some “out of the camera” test images here, where I compare available light shots from the 1Ds MkIII and the 1D MkIV:

Michael’s Low-High ISO Test Images

These small real-size crops from larger images  all have their exposure/ISO information attached. Take them with a pinch of salt since they were not treated and were read into Lightroom, not Canon DPP. So you should make up your own mind, but I am impressed with high ISO performance. While it is not nearly as good as the Nikon D3S’s, they look ever so slightly better than the 1Ds MkIII’s and are indeed usable at up to 12800 ISO, so the default “high” range appears to have been chosen well by Canon.

And do not worry too much about noise, either. Shoot something at 12,800 ISO and print it as a 4×6 and you will be hard-pressed to see any grain unless, of course, you look for it.

1600 ISO

See this, from yesterday’s post: a 12800 ISO image, with simple Lightroom noise reduction, then saved as 1200 pixels wide:

The unchanged:

What has not changed is the excellent sturdiness of this camera, the user interface, the waterproofing, the solid feel, the ergonomics in general.

Some of the features are outstanding but under-used: the multi spot meter, for instance. Select spot metering and hit the FEL button repeatedly and the camera will average the spot measurements you do this way. If you are shooting a bride and Uncle Fred has a dark grey (darker than a grey card) coat and light grey pants (lighter than a grey card), just spot meter average between both in this mode, and now you are set up to shoot the bride standing next to him perfectly.

And the bad?

It’s not all good news: there are things I would have liked to see that are absent.

The big disappointment is the absence of so many of the 7D’s focus system improvements. I suppose the Mk IV was developed prior to the 7D, so we will have to wait until the 1Ds Mark IV to see these. Thus, the 7D’s excellent new internal LCD viewfinder screen is absent, as are several of the various focus spot selection modes (like “spot focus”, except when using certain long lenses; and auto-select within smaller areas).

Also, due to the new viewfinder LCD, the 7D allows me to see the AI focus tracking in action in a much better way than the Mark IV. (In the Mark IV, to see the selected spot when using AI Servo I have to go to focus spot expansion to the entire focus area, using custom function III-8, option 3, which then stays selected when I am not using AI Servo). What we do get is orientation-dependent focus points (you store them separately for horizontal and vertical shots). So just one visible feature is included from the 7D’s “harbinger of what is to come” list. What a shame that so much of it has not made it into the Mark IV.

Also missing is the Quick Setup screen, and in general, the greater amount of customization the 7D allows. On the 7D, I can assign almost any function to any button. Not quite, of course, but it is very flexible. The 1D Mark IV offers much less of this.

In general, even an amateur-level Nikon camera offers more customizing settings than a 1-level Canon body, and alas, that has not changed. It seems to me that Canon controls their market by leaving functions out; Nikon expands its market by including extra functions. Why, for instance, can I not set the auto ISO’s limits (except by setting all ISO limits, so I cannot set higher ISOs manually)? Why can I not name the three “custom setup sets” I can create, so I can remember what they are for? I hope and pray one day modern people inside Canon will get the upper hand and will write software that fixes all these. This can be done: most of these are software only and can be implemented on the existing camera. But holding his breath, Yoda is not.

I see that in Lightroom, after the initial embedded JPG loads and the screen switches to the converted RAW data, the images switch to “rather dark” – two thirds of a stop below what I would like to see (and what the embedded JPG shows). Perhaps Canon has changed the RAW encoding somehow between the Mark III and Mark IV, and has not told Adobe?

One other request to Canon. I cannot hold the camera vertical using the integrated grip, since I use the little joystick to set the focus point position – and that is inaccessible when you hold the camera sideways. Can we have another joystick, or one that is better positioned, on the Mark V please, Canon?

The long and short:

So where does all this leave me? With an incrementally upgraded camera that starts where the Mark III left off. The Mark IV is now more my day-to-day photojournalism camera, and will stand me in good stead for the next years. Which is good, because it will be years before I can afford another camera.

Is this upgrade worth it? To me it is. Will the 1Ds Mark IV add what is missing here? Presumably. But I will not be able to afford one, and anyway, the 22/17/16 Megapixels I have in my current cameras are more than enough. The bottom line: if you shoot events, weddings, sports, or headshots for a living, then the 1d Mark IV is probably worth your time and money. I’d go and order one at Henry’s (if you’re Canadian) or at another trustworthy retailer now. There is still a shortage (hello, Olympics), so there may be a wait.

UPDATE17 Feb 2010: when you use all 45 focus points, you cannot spot meter to the focus point. It will just spot meter on the centre. To tie metering to the focus point, you have to reduce the AF points to just 19.

So in practice, unless I want to wave about wildly, there will be no spot metering or multi-spot metering if I use all focus points. Back to 19 points – which negates a reason I bought the 1D Mark 4 over the Mark 3 I had before. Shame.

0 thoughts on “1D Mk IV: My Hands-on Impressions

  1. Pingback: Canon 1D Mark IV Review « www.peterwestphoto.com

  2. I’m always amused by how brand-biased we get as photographers, even when we’re actively trying not to. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of different people, different preferences, but I’ve always found Nikon’s menu system more logical to me and little things like the inability to name custom settings on Canons you mentioned, infuriating 🙂 I’m sure it’s pretty much impossible for anyone not to get attached to the brand you happen to use on a regular basis, and since pretty much no one uses both Canon and Nikon regularly… we’ll always be left with rabid fans in both camps, even though both systems will always have their own advantages and flaws.

    (I’m certainly not trying to say your review sounded like that of a rabid fan… I found it very balanced. It’s just interesting to me how differently the same menu system can be viewed by two different people.)

  3. Hi Craig,

    Agreed, but in this case it’s not me. I find all menus fine. I shoot both Canon and often enough Nikon as well.

    Rather, it’s the thousands of students I teach every year. Consistently, they have trouble with Nikon’s system. Three things are majorly troublesome: They do not recognise that the menu extends below the screen so they miss functions. They also do not understand the difference between tabs and functions. Finally, the final “OK” is often forgotten.

    This is very consistent: when I have 15 new students in a Nikon class I know I will spend probably 20 minutes longer helping people with their menus than in a similar Canon beginners class.

    Of course once you learn, it’s all easy. It’s that initial learning though!

  4. Thanks, very good review. It’s interesting to see that more and more photographers are putting their findings on the web. It’s much more reliable to the common user then all the controlled tests.
    Have a question; as you are a Mac-user why Lightroom and not Aperture?

  5. Hi Tov!

    I am a Mac user but also use Windows (rarely) and Linux. But mainly Mac, and I find Aperture great – but Lightroom is better for my workflow needs. I reckon that over 75% of pros now use Lightroom. Mainly, in my case, because I prefer its file handling. It is easier in LR to do the things I want to do without having to stick to Apple’s way of doing them.

    But honestly – they are both great and either is 100 times better than usign Bridge or iPhoto.


  6. Nice review Michael.

    I’m a Canon shooter and love this type of review where the good is posted with the bad. Both Canon and Nikon fans sometimes get a little too over-anxious to scream the praises of their camera (and brand) and forget that there are pros/cons to all systems.

    Thanks for the review…looking forward to reading more about your use of the 1D MKIV.

  7. Hi Michael!

    Awesome review! I just wanna say I agree with you on the fact that LR is better at file handling. I’ve used Aperture, iPhoto, Photoshop and Lightroom and I must say that LR beats them all. I’m not saying that Photoshop or other software isn’t as good as LR but for me, LR does everything I need from organizing to retouching to exporting =)

    As for Nikon menus, I think they are okay (at least on the D90). I haven’t tried the Canon enough to say which one I prefer the most but I’ve spent quite some time to understand what each function on my camera means/does. It’s worth the time when you’re out there shooting and need to make some adjustment.

    Cheers to you all!


  8. check out the review just posted at Canon Rumors: http://www.canonrumors.com/canon-eos-1d-mark-iv-review/

    the author makes a real bit deal about the lack of inclusion of spot af and says it makes a large difference in low light focusing. have you found the same?

    I too wish for more customization (still not happy with the supposed implementation of auto iso – simply copying Nikon’s example would have made a lot of people happy)

  9. Dirk,

    Low light is not superb even though Canon says it is. It is not terrible either. I think spot would make a difference, but not having one of those super lenses with AF Stop button I cannot try it on the 1D4.

    I cannot for the life of me imagine why they left it off…

    And yes re customization. The REBEL now has better functions that the latest 1D? What’s with that?

  10. Canon say, in the new Rebel Press Release: “New for EOS is the ability to set the top limit for automatic ISO,”

    Yes – and why “new”? I mean, isn’t this an obvious feature that Nikon has had for aeons? How much software would it take? Get one engineer to add that function in two days and release new firmware! This is, as said, where Nikon outshines Canon.

  11. Postscript: I mentioned it above, but I really notice how this camera’s RAW images end up a stop too dark when imported in Lightroom. You can even clearly see it in the histogram. That is an issue I hope gets resolved soon.

  12. Kyle – great thinking: I think you are spot on. I actually figured this out an hour or two ago – see my latest blog post of today, here:


    I think that was it – at least to a large extent. There’s still about a half stop difference, but that’s much less than it was.

    Why Canon have enabled this by default? I can only guess.

  13. Thx for your useful tought on MKIV !
    what do you think about the lack of wireless flash control..?
    ( that is present on 7D…)
    why ?

    thx again
    hello from Italy

    • Ciao Ad – come va?

      The 7D is unique in being the first Canon camera to allow remote flash TTL control using the pop-up flash. NIkon has had its “commander mode” for years, and I love having it on the 7D – it saves me an otherwise useless 580 on the camera (“otherwise useless” because you should disable the flash function, so all it does is direct the remote flashes).

      But the 1-series have no popup flash. The large pentaprism makes it impossible to add one without bulking up the camera. So regrettably. we lose that. Yes, I’d like it, but I’ll use the 7D when I want an extra flash. And of course there is a limit to the usefulness: the popup flash is not very powerful.


  14. UPDATE: when you use all 45 focus points, you cannot spot meter to the focus point. You have to reduce the AF points to just 19. That’s pretty useless, and I missed that in my initial review. Big disappointment: no spot metering or multi-spot metering if I use all focus points.

  15. Let me get this right you buy a camera worth $8,000 to take photos of your cat around the living room and then post online (first impressions) to convince us of how great a camera it is?

  16. Not trying to convince anyone of anything Martin. That’s why it’s called “first impressions”. And to illustrate points, the cat will do as well as anything else, you will surely realise as a pro. Noise in a cat image is the same as noise in an image of anything else at all.

    But OK, if you want to see not cats, there are many other images, Posted one just now as a matter of fact:

  17. Pingback: Canon EOS 1D Mark IV – testy, recenzje i zdjęcia

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