Canon 7D and 1D Mark IV: new 1D and 1D junior

TL;DR version: A long diatribe on how the latest Canon releases completely underwhelm in the face of competition, especially from Nikon.  The 7D is a decent upgrade that’s completely overrated simply due to marketing. The 1D Mark IV sounds nice and has the capability the 1D Mark III probably should’ve had – unfortunately its functionality has been completely eclipsed by Nikon’s D3(s) and even D700, which unlike the 1D’s 1.3x crop sensor, are able to pull double-duty as both heavy duty sports bodies and general purpose cameras.

Canon's 7D, which is essentially a 60D with fancy marketing and a higher price tag

Canon's 7D, which is essentially a 60D with fancy marketing and a higher price tag

It’s interesting to see how much an effect marketing has on the general photography consumer. Over the past few months, Canon has released a couple of moderate upgrades, one of which has been hailed as revolutionary and game-changing, and the other which was met with a big collective yawn and cries that Canon has fallen behind the cutting edge and is playing catch-up with Nikon. The biggest difference? One camera was given an incremental version number, and the other was given a new model number as the start of a different series.

Take the actual specs of the two cameras, listed as features in relation to their predecessor model:

Camera A:

  • 18MP sensor vs. 15MP sensor
  • ISO100-12800 vs. ISO100-12800 (unchanged)
  • 19pt AF, one f/2.8 cross-type vs. 9pt AF, one f/2.8 cross-type
  • 8fps continuous vs. 6.3fps
  • 100% frame, 1x magnification viewfinder vs. 95% frame, 0.95x magnification viewfinder
  • Wireless flash control onboard vs. wireless flash control with additional accessory
  • 1080p (30/25/24fps) video vs. no video

Camera B:

  • 16MP sensor vs. 10MP sensor
  • ISO50-102,400 vs. ISO50-6400
  • 45pt AF, 39 f/2.8 cross-type vs. 45pt AF, 19 f/2.8 cross-type
  • 10fps continuous vs. 10fps (unchanged)
  • 1080p (30/25/24fps) video vs. no video

The Canon 7D

Camera A, of course, is the new Canon 7D, which is essentially a 60D successor to the 50D, and Canon’s new crop body for sports/action. While it has modest spec improvements over the 60D, there’s very little here that is game-changing – the sensor remains the same size, gets a paltry 20% increase in resolution that is likely to mean nothing with most lenses (the 50D’s 15MP sensor’s Nyquist Frequency (maximum theoretical resolution) already exceeded the resolving power of most Canon lenses – see dpreview’s test on a consumer Canon 18-200 and Canon’s high-end 70-200 2.8).

Improvements have been promised in the ISO department (and if you look at the preliminary sample shots from imaging-resource, there’s a considerable improvement on the 7D over the terrible 50D, which finally brings it to or slightly above D300s levels), but the range stays exactly the same.

AF points have been increased from 9 to 19, which will improve tracking, but the number of fast and accurate f/2.8 cross-type sensors remains exactly the same, at just one (the center point).

The jump to 8fps is a bigger jump than in years past (where the 20D already had 5fps back in 2004), but this like resolution runs into diminishing returns – the jump from 6.3 to 8 helps but doesn’t transform it into a useful sports camera, unlike say the jump from a Rebel’s slow 3.4 to 6.3 (it’s 26% vs. 85%).

Viewfinders are viewfinders – a nice improvement but having a Canon 20D and switching back and forth from its 95%, 0.9x mag viewfinder and my 5D all the time, not one that is going to make or break the shooting experience.

The two game-changers that the 7D provides are the now-standard video functionality, and wireless flash control (a built-in ST-E2 essentially, powered by the camera’s pop-up flash). Video capability opens up an entirely new realm outside the domain of still photography, and wireless flash capability allows for much more creativity in off-camera lighting straight out of the box, without requiring photographers to buy and carry along a bulky extra master flash or ST-E2 transmitter.

So at the end of the day we have a moderate step up from Canon’s previous 50D, that does sports photography somewhat better than any crop body before it, but still lags far behind not only Canon’s “pro” body (1D now has bigger 1.3x sensor, ISO100k, 45 AF points with 39 cross-types, and similar 10fps), but even the similarly-priced D300s from Nikon (lower ISO6400, but the same 51 AF point system as the D3, and 8fps with battery grip), as well as the now bargain-bin D300 (ignoring lack of video capability).

Despite its greater action capability, it’s still not the all-around do-everything solution that a camera like Nikon’s D700 is – despite having very adequate action capabilities (unlike Canon’s 5D Mark II), it still lacks the full frame sensor, which puts it at depth of field, dynamic range, and ISO noise disadvantages against its larger-sensored relatives.

So at the end of the day, you have a crop camera that gives you moderate sports capability, though it’s still nowhere near as powerful as the professional line, and doesn’t deliver the image quality or lens compatibility of full-frame cameras. Which sounds an awful lot like an xxD series camera, except Canon’s chosen a new single-digit model designation (“7D”) which has Canonite fanboys everywhere at their altar ready to and pony up an additional $500 (+42%) price hike over what a “60D” model would have cost.

Canon 1D Mark IV

The Mark IV is probably a very worthwhile upgrade for Mark III owners, given that camera's shortcomings, but is woefully inadequate when placed alongside Nikon's D3s

The Mark IV is probably a very worthwhile upgrade for Mark III owners, given that camera's shortcomings, but is woefully inadequate when placed alongside Nikon's D3s

Canon’s 1D Mark IV is Canon’s two-and-a-half-years-in-the-making update to their much-maligned Canon 1D Mark III camera. As documented by Rob Galbraith, among others, the 1D3 had developed a reputation for fickle continuous AF tracking, to the point of being unusable by the standards of some.

So among the things promised by the new Mark IV is a completely revamped AF system, now with more than twice as many f/2.8 cross-type sensors (39 vs. 19 previously).

The Mark IV also supports a native ISO up to ISO12800 with a boost up to ISO102400 (we’re now up to 10 stops over ISO100), which gives it a range of 4 stops greater than the Mark III (which went up to ISO3200 native, ISO6400 boost).  For those who shoot in low-light constantly, this is a pretty big game-changer in-and-of-itself, regardless of the actually ISO quality (almost anything will be better than shooting at a native ISO3200 and having to digitally push those images).

The only other changes of note is the same 1080p (30/25/24fps) video mode, and a significant bump in resolution from 10MP to 16MP (60% increase), though the sensor stays the same at a roughly 1.3x crop.

The 1D Mark IV isn’t a monumental leap by any means – if all goes well it will be what the Mark III probably should have been – workable AF without glitches and a large high ISO range for low-light shooting.

However in my opinion, Canon bungled greatly here by again opting for an 1.3x APS-H sensor.  When Nikon’s D3 came out, it exposed one of the biggest knocks against the 1D series, which was its limited flexibility due to the crop factor altering angles of view for full-frame lenses and its larger mirror preventing compatibility with smaller crop lenses.  While it’s a fact that pure sports shooters may not care much for, it prevents the 1D from serving as a general purpose camera for the other big “professional body” market: journalists.  While the D3 can pull double-duty shooting with a 70-200mm or 300mm telephoto one event, and switch over to a all-purpose 24-70mm standard zoom the next, all general purpose lens options for the 1D are extremely awkward. Consider:

  • The typical 24-70mm standard zoom provides an angle of view equivalent to 31-91mm. Nowhere near wide enough
  • The next widest zoom, Canon’s 17-40mm f/4, provides an extremely short 22-52mm. Not nearly enough versatility.
  • And if you want f/2.8, Canon’s 16-35mm f/2.8 gives an even smaller 21-46mm range.

For this exact reason, of course, Canon hopes to upsell you to their $8k 1Ds series, and ideally make you pay more than double ($13k total) for what Nikon neatly fits into a single D3s body for $5k.

Canon diehards will claim, of course, that with the 1D and 1Ds bodies, Canon simply offers the best of both worlds – maximizing range with the 1D and maximizing resolution with the 1Ds. But Nikon has already shown this argument to be utter crap with its D3x and D3(s) tandem. Birders aside, the “crop factor” argument of extending focal length range holds little weight – yes the out-of-camera image appears to be “closer”, but photographers often forget a crop sensor is exactly that – a crop of the full-frame image. The exact same result could be achieved by taking photos with a larger sensor of same pixel density, and manually cropping the images down later. The upshot of crop sensors is that greater pixel density can be achieved while retaining fast shooting speeds (you’re processing less pixels than a larger sensor would), but the vasts majority of users (sports photogs and journalists shooting for newsprint and online) aren’t coming close to utilizing the full resolution capability of their cameras. The downshot of crop sensors are the increased depth of field, higher noise, lower dynamic range, and less margin for framing error, which are all very real effects that show up in everything from poster prints to low-res newsprint and online photos.

The only metric by which the Mark III can hope to compete is with high ISO quality, but with both more pixels and a smaller sensor than not only the Mark III but Nikon’s competing D3s (Mark IV ends up with 3.1MP per cm2 vs the D3s’ 1.4MP/cm2), the chances of reaching parity with, much less greatly exceeding, competitors seems slim.

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2 Responses to “Canon 7D and 1D Mark IV: new 1D and 1D junior”

  1. Dan says:

    I believe that this article contains a factual error regarding the AF system in the 7D. The 7D has a greatly improved AF system with 19 cross-type, not just one, and appears to be very responsive.

    Viewfinders are not just viewfinders for pros who rely on the viewfinder for every shot to compose the image. Any improvement in the viewfinder is welcome and advantageous. The viewfinder in the 7D is very good.

    The movie making capability of both the 7D and 1D4 is remarkable, as evidenced by what is being accomplished in the short time since it has been available. Nikon’s movie capability is paltry in comparison.

    I do totally agree that it is nonsensical and nothing more than marketing hype for Canon to increase pixel density to a point that is beyond what their lenses can resolve and to a point that results in a less than steller signal-to-noise ratio. In fact, that is the reason why I will not be purchasing the 7D for myself. [Had the 7D been issued as a 10mp or 12mp APS-C camera, I would have purchased one.]

  2. Billy says:

    I use the 7D strictly for sports photography and having gone from the 50D, I would have to disagree that the 7D is a “moderate step up” from the 50D. In my opinion, there’s no comparison, particularly from the perspective as a sports shooter. With the 7D, ISO 6400 is useable without the need for Noise Ninja and even 12,800 is useable with the noise reduction tool. And 8 fps on the 7D is a big jump from the 6.3 fps of the 50D. That may not sound like a leap but in practice, the extra 1.7 fps makes a difference. When tweaked correctly with the 19 focus points, the 7D also focuses faster and more accurately tan the 50D and the dual processors is big factor, too.

    What I would like to do is compare the 1D Mk IV to the 7D to see if the nearly $3,000 price difference is worth it. Some of the reviews I’ve seen that it’s definitely not, apart from higher ISOs and 2 more fps.

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