Canon 1D Mark III Review

 
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Canon EOS-1D Mark III (Prototype) Imaging Characteristics
High ISO, incandescent light source

NOTE: All Canon EOS-1D Mark III images shown here are from a prototype camera: production models may show improved image quality, please don't view the results shown here as final!

By Dave Etchells
Several readers expressed interest in what the Canon EOS-1D Mark III's high-ISO performance looked like under a more challenging light source than our studio HMIs. - They very rightly pointed out that daylight-balanced lighting represents something of a best-case in terms of high-ISO image noise. By contrast, household incandescent lighting (about 2800K color temperature) is a very tough light source to deal with, because its very warm-toned color balance requires a significant boost of the blue-channel gain, the channel most susceptible to noise.

While I want to avoid shooting all our test shots with the prototype sample, and then having to go back and re-shoot all of them again once we get a production model to work with, I felt that the issue of image noise under difficult lighting was an important one to address, important enough to justify the added effort involved.

I shot my long-suffering wife Marti in our "Indoor Portrait" set, which is primarily lit by 60-watt household incandescent bulbs, with fill lighting provided by a pair of 120-watt floods shining through cloth diffusers. This is indeed a very warm-hued light source, measuring about 2800K on my Minolta color meter, a value that's supported by the good color balance produced by the Mark III when I set the white balance to 2800K, as seen below.

I shot this series with the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II lens, stopped down to f/5.0, where it's very sharp. The crops below show the results from the Mark III next to those from the 1D Mark II N, shot with Canon's excellent EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens, stopped down to f/3.5.

I've inserted comments below the crops themselves, but the overall conclusion is pretty clear: While the 1D Mark II N turned in a really excellent performance, the Mark III clearly betters it by a noticeable margin. Trying to pin it down to a specific differential based on these shots is a judgement call, but to my eye, it looks like a good f-stop's worth of improvement.

 

EOS-1D Mark III (prototype) vs EOS-1D Mark II N
Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II @ f/5.0 Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L @ f/3.5
ISO 100
ISO 100
Starting out at ISO 100, the Mark III's image is slightly softer, but I attribute this to slight movement of either Marti or the camera during the ~0.4 second exposure (dropping to 1/5 second at ISO 200). ISO 100 gives cameras the best chance at producing low-noise images on this shot, but probably doesn't represent real-world conditions for most photographers. Even with a f/2.8 or faster lens, shutter times at ISO 100 under this light level are just too slow for most live subjects. Needless to say, both the Mark IIN and Mark III deliver absolutely pristine images at ISO 100 under this light source.

One note though: I didn't refer back to the IIN's shot before shooting the Mark III here, so the exposure on the III is a little brighter. (Perhaps 1/4 - 1/3 of a stop.) Marti's position is also slightly different, so her face has a bit more light on it in the Mark III's shots. Looking at her hair though, the tones there are very close to each other, and that's where we'll see most of the impact of noise-suppression processing, so I do think the crops here represent a pretty fair comparison between the two cameras.

ISO 200
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 400
At ISO 400 and above, the Mark III's shots are nice and sharp, thanks to the higher shutter speeds; every bit the equal of those from the Mark II N. Still virtually no noise visible in these crops, and both cameras are doing an excellent job of holding onto the subtle detail in Marti's hair. (The very subtle tone-on-tone detail between strands of slightly differently-colored hair is where you tend to first see the impact of noise-suppression processing.)
ISO 800
ISO 800
At ISO 800, we start to see just slight loss of subtle detail in some parts of the hair, but you have to really squint to see it. There's just the slightest softening of the Mark III image overall. Were it not for the unforgivable pun, I'd say that it'd be splitting hairs to find fault with it. :-)
ISO 1,600
ISO 1,600
At ISO 1,600, both cameras visibly lose sharpness and detail, but remember that we're pixel-peeping 250x250 crops from 10- and 8-megapixel images here. On my Apple Cinema display (about 100 pixels/inch), this magnification corresponds to a 39-inch wide print from the Mark III!

In the shots above, I can start to see a little image noise in the Mark III's image, but it's certainly far from obvious, even at this magnification. The noise is somewhat more evident in the Mark II N's image, but that camera does a surprisingly good job too.

ISO 3,200
ISO 3,200
At ISO 3,200, the Mark II N's image starts to fall apart, while that from the Mark III holds together very nicely. Noise is clearly evident in parts of the hair, and is slightly so in the shadowed areas of skin tone, but it's still amazingly low.


At ISO 6,400, the Mark III's image is looking a little the worse for wear, but would still be quite usable at smaller print sizes. (When we printed this at 8x10 on our Canon i9900 studio printer, it was just amazing how good it looked: Download a copy and try a print for yourself, to see what I'm talking about.)

It's very much a judgement call, but to my eye, the Mark III at 6,400 looks slightly better than the Mark II N at 3,200.

ISO 6,400

Hmm - what about that f/5 aperture I was using with the Mark III though? After I'd shot the above images with the Mark III, it occurred to me that some readers might be concerned that the f/5 aperture would be penalizing the Mark III somewhat, because there after all would be less light hitting the sensor. I really didn't think that this would be an issue, since these exposure times were all in a range where dark-current leakage shouldn't be a significant factor. (In other words, only at longer exposure times would the length of the exposure itself make an appreciable difference in the amount of noise present.)

Rather than leave the results in question (not to mention having to deal with the flood of reader emails), I decided to re-shoot the series, this time using our Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, shot wide open. (At the moment, this is arguably the best lens f/2.8 prime that we had laying around.) The crops below compare the results with this lens at f/2.8 with the results from the 50mm at f/5.0.

Interestingly and somewhat vexingly, while I adjusted the exposure time the same number of stops (five-thirds stops) as the aperture was opened, the 100mm f/2.8 shots came out slightly darker. - This raises a question I've long wondered about, but have never explicitly tested: How well calibrated are different lenses with respect to each other, in terms of how much light they let through at a given f-stop? It appears in this case that the 50mm lets in somewhat more light than its f-stop would indicate, relative to the 100mm.

Despite the difference in brightness levels, looking at similarly-toned parts of the image, it seems pretty plain that the differences in exposure time really make little or no difference in the noise levels seen.

Prime Lens Sharpness/Noise Comparison
(w/ Canon EOS-1D Mark III Prototype)
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 @ f/2.8 Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II @ f/5.0
ISO 100
ISO 100
All the 100mm shots are softer than the 50mm ones at f/5: This is to be expected because the 100mm at f/2.8 is softer than the 50mm at f/5.0. (You can check their respective test results on SLRgear.com to verify this for yourself.) This first shot is softer yet, probably due to minor camera movement during the relatively long exposure: To frame the image appropriately, I was shooting across the room from Marti, a good 12 feet or so away from her. At that distance, almost microscopic camera movement could produce the blurring seen in the crop above. I was using a pretty sturdy tripod and being very careful about how I pressed the shutter button, but as noted it wouldn't take much to blur the image by a couple of pixels at a working distance of 12 feet.
ISO 200
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 800
ISO 1,600
ISO 1,600
ISO 3,200
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
ISO 6,400

 

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