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Worth every penny…

Oh yeah, it’s time to give the Gear Beat some love. Hmmm, I’ve had the Canon 1D Mark IV for 2 ½ years. Think it’s time for a review? Uh, yeah. For years I had lusted for the image quality and high frame rates of the 1D Mark III. But, I didn’t care for just 10mp on a 1.3x crop sensor. So, I decided if a 1D Mark IV was released with at least 15mp and maintained 10 fps and 1.3x crop sensor, I’d buy it. Well, in October of 2009, the announcement was made and my preorder went in minutes later. Here are the specs:

SENSOR:  16.1 mp, 1.3x crop

FRAME RATE:  10 fps, up to 28 RAW images in a burst


ISO:  100-12,800 (standard), 25,600 (H1), 51,200 (H2), 102,400 (H3)

AUTO FOCUS:  45-point TTL CMOS sensor, 39 cross-type for F/2.8 or faster lenses

MOVIE MODE:  1920×1080 at 30, 25 or 24 fps, 1280×720 at 60 or 50 fps, 640×480 at 60 or 50 fps

LCD MONITOR:  3.0 inch TFT LCD, 920,000 pixels, 7 brightness levels


STORAGE:  Compact Flash slot (UDMA support), SD card slot (SDHC support)

DIMENSIONS:  6.1 x 6.2 x 3.1 in.

WEIGHT:  With no battery:  2.6 lb, With battery:  3.1 lb

OK, for those of  you coming from smaller cameras, this one is big and heavy. It is built like a tank and could literally be used as a weapon against an assailant. It is sealed 10 ways from Sunday, and 1D series Canons have been known to be dunked completely in water and come out unscathed (don’t try this at home). Some people have been known to spray the mud off of them with a hose. I first started using this camera when I began taking sunrise pictures for The Day That. We needed to be there for the shot, rain or shine every day. So eventually, I simply began relying on the camera’s own sealing and dispensed with the rain cover. I even went out into driving rain storms with no cover to take shots. Of course, I needed to use a weather sealed lens. I have total and utter confidence in this camera’s weather sealing and construction quality.

Now, what have I been shooting with it?  Everything.  Weddings, portraits, landscapes, concerts, sports, cityscapes, and most especially… wildlife and nature. You can see some of my shots on this blog and on 500px. After the sunrise job dissolved, I started concentrating on wildlife. I discovered my favorite bird is the Red-Tailed Hawk. And Eagles are also a joy to see and photograph. This camera can shoot like a machine gun 10 fps and it does a good job of maintaining focus at those speeds. This camera is ideal for shooting anything moving in low light. Concerts are a great example. It is dark, and the lights are always changing color and position on the band. And the band members are always moving. So, high frame rates at high ISO yield some great keepers that slower and noisier cameras would miss.

Special mention goes to ISO performance. This camera is so good at high ISO, low light photography, that it literally extends my day. Animals tend to be active late in the day just before nightfall. Now, birds in flight photography requires around 1/1000 sec shutter speed (give or take). In low light, that means the ISO has to be cranked up. With my 50D, I’d be done at ISO 3200. With the 1D Mark IV, I don’t even bat an eye at ISO 12,800. And with a decent exposure, I can get a decently noise-recoverable shot at ISO 25,600. The versatility this gives in terms of lens choice, aperture choice, shutter speed, and how late or early you can shoot, is so comforting!

Image quality has to be given center stage as well. With 16mp on a 1.3x crop sensor, it has a decent pixel density (equivalent to 26.5mp on a full frame sensor). So, I can crop into a shot and retain detail better than probably any full frame camera that has fewer than 26.5mp (assuming equal focal length and distance to subject). And the 1.3x crop sensor creates a field of view for my lenses that simulates 30% more reach than the same lenses would have on a full frame sensor. So, a 400mm lens appears to have the same reach as a 520mm lens would on a full frame sensor. So, less cropping is necessary. But, if cropping is necessary (which it always is with prime lenses) there are pixels to crop into. And there is just something about the images coming out of this camera. There’s a depth and accuracy that’s hard to put into words. Of course, lens choice is paramount. But, even with the same lenses, in difficult lighting situations, color and contrast accuracy is far better retained with this camera than with any other that I’ve used. I’m spoiled by this camera.

Autofocus was given massive attention in this model. The previous model (1D Mark III) was accused of dropping frames in the AI Servo mode. So, Canon made sure this camera would focus. It locks and stays locked on the subject with tenacity heretofore unseen in cameras (except for maybe the recently-released 1D X, which has a 100,000 pixel metering sensor that aids tracking by sensing shape and color, but that’s another story). And to seal the deal, Canon provided multiple sensitivity adjustments and first subject/second subject priority settings. So, for example, if there are tree limbs all around, you can set the tracking sensitivity low, so it won’t try to grab the tree limb when the bird flies behind them. But, if there are no obstructions around, you can set the sensitivity high so it will acquire the bird quickly and allow you to change subjects quickly.

Intangibles are abundant, but I’ll try to tangify them. This camera lets me get my whole-hand grip on it and it just feels right. The integrated battery grip is perfectly formed for both landscape and portrait shooting so you don’t have to contort your shutter finger over the top of the camera in portrait orientation. The sound of the shutter is just quality and precision. Other, lower cost camera shutters just sound cheap and clunk in comparison. The materials of everything in the camera are top grade, high performance and durable. And there’s just something special about knowing you have the right camera for any situation, rain or shine, sports or landscapes, wildlife or portraits. This camera not only does it all. It does it all with highest of standards. Anything else might fail you, but not this camera.

Are there downsides? Yep. I can always list opportunities for improvement in my gadgets.

  1. In extremely low light, it sometimes has difficulty locking focus unless there’s a clear area of contrast for it to grab.
  2. The Autofocus points are rather big, so it may be difficult at times to pinpoint a spot to focus on if there are obstacles in the way or you are shooting through a fine-mesh fence.
  3. When holding the camera in portrait mode, it’s a far reach of the thumb to the multi-controller for when you want to change your default autofocus point.
  4. 1.3x crop, an advantage for wildlife shooting, is a disadvantage when you want more width from your lenses such as when you are shooting an event inside a building etc. Also, the potential for ISO performance improves with increased sensor size. This has been borne out by the new 5D Mark III and 1D X full frame cameras Canon released this year that have higher rated standard ISO levels (5D Mark III is 1 stop better, 1D X is 2 stops better).

So, 2 ½ years after purchasing this camera, is there anything newer I’d prefer? As of now (July 2012), no. I like to shoot wildlife the most. So, the newer full frame cameras don’t give me the reach (with my prime lenses) or crop-ability I have with my 1D Mark IV. Now, if a new big-megapixel full frame pro body comes out with over 30mp, I will certainly give it a look, since it would provide even more detail for landscape shots, more crop-ability, and more width for event photography to complement my 1D Mark IV. I would like another body of the quality of my 1D Mark IV to put another lens on, so I don’t have to swap lenses in the field.  But, this baby still rocks my world.

This is a heavenly body! It should be for $5000.  And it’s worth every penny.

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