Canon EOS-1D X review

The Canon EOS-1D X is a great choice for sports shooters and photojournalists, but is likely an overkill for most shooters.
Photo of Canon EOS-1D X

The Canon EOS-1D X ($6,799 direct) is a camera that just screams professional. It’s physically imposing, with a big design that incorporates portrait and landscape shooting controls and loads of control buttons. The 18-megapixel full-frame image sensor is impressive in low light, and the autofocus system features 61 selectable points. Its banner feature is the ability to shoot at an impressive 14 frames per second, a figure that is sure to please photographers who make a living capturing fast action. If you need this type of camera, you know it, but it’s not perfect. For non-pros, another Canon full-frame camera, the EOS 6D, is a better choice. It’s a comparative bargain and our Editors’ Choice for full-frame D-SLRs, but its burst shooting capabilities and its autofocus system pale in comparison.

Design and Features
Like its closest competitor, the Nikon D4 the 1D X features a design that incorporates vertical shooting controls in addition to the standard horizontal ones. Other enthusiast-oriented D-SLRs, including the APS-C Pentax K-5 IIs and every full-frame D-SLR on the market, offer a vertical shooting grip as an add-on accessory. The grip houses a huge battery—it’s rated for more than 1,110 shots using the viewfinder, though extensive use of live view will reduce that figure. The 1D X measures 6.4 by 6.2 by 3.3 inches (HWD) and weighs 3.4 pounds. Like other top-end cameras it features a magnesium alloy chassis, covered in hard polycarbonate and a grippy textured leatherette. The body is protected against dust and moisture, and the image sensor features a self-cleaning mechanism to help reduce the occurrence of dust spots.

The viewfinder is a pleasure to use. It’s a pentaprism design that covers 100 percent of the frame and offers 0.76x magnification. That’s slightly larger than the 0.7x finder found in the Nikon D800. The difference doesn’t sound like much on paper, but the 1D X shows a noticeably larger image in its finder than the Nikon when viewing the same subject through a lens of identical focal length, focused at the same distance. The default focusing screen is clear and bright, but you can change it out to one that best suits your purposes. Canon offers screens that are ideal for macro photography, as well as one with a split-image focusing aid.

There are more controls than you can shake a stick at strewn across the camera’s ample body. Two pairs of control buttons surround the lens mount—by default one activates the depth of field preview function and the other resets the active focus point to its default location. Like most of the controls on the camera, these can be customized to your liking.

There are three buttons on the top to the left of the viewfinder. The Mode button lets you toggle between aperture priority, shutter priority, manual, and other shooting modes; just press it once, use either the rear or top control wheel to change the setting, and press it again to set it. The AF-Drive button serves two purposes—press it and the top control wheel adjust the autofocus mode, while the rear wheel sets the continuous shooting mode. The third button operates in a similar fashion, giving you control over the metering pattern and the flash compensation. (There’s no flash built-in; this function only applies when using the 1D X with an E-TTL Speedlite.)

To the right of the finder you’ll find a button to active the backlight for the top-mounted information LCD, and others to adjust white balance, exposure compensation, and ISO. On the grip there’s the standard shutter release, a programmable M-Fn button, and a control wheel. These, along with the AF-ON, exposure lock, and autofocus point select controls that live on the top right corner of the camera, are duplicated on the vertical shooting grip. Rear shooting controls are limited to a control wheel, a button to switch between the optical finder and live view, the Q button, and two directional controllers that serve the same function.

The Q button brings up a menu of shooting settings on the rear LCD, and it’s also the easiest place to go if you want to customize the 1D X’s controls. From its Custom Controls submenu you’ll be able to adjust the behavior of the shutter release, the AF-ON button, both directional controllers, both control wheels, the exposure lock button, the depth of field preview button, both M-Fn controls, and the Set button. With a little bit of effort you’re able to configure the 1D X to best suit your tastes.

The rear LCD is big at 3.2 inches, but it looks small when framed by the 1D X’s body. Its resolution is an impressive 1,040k-dots. It’s a bit sharper than the 920k-dot display found on the Nikon D800, but even looking at them side-by-side it’s hard to notice the difference. There are some additional controls underneath the rear LCD. Four buttons control image playback and allow you to add voice notes to images. There’s also a monochrome LCD on the back of the camera; it shows you which card slot is active and shows the selected file format.

Performance and Conclusions
The 1D X is one of the fastest-shooting cameras on the block. It starts and grabs a photo in about 0.5-second, manages a shutter lag that is virtually unnoticeable (0.05-second), and can rattle off shots at speeds of up to 13.9 frames per second in a special high-speed shooting mode. That requires you to shoot in JPG with locked focus and exposure, and limits you to about 56 photos at that rate, with 6.7 seconds required to clear the buffer to a 90MB/sec SanDisk CompactFlash memory card.

The standard continuous shooting mode maxes out at 12fps—we got about 11.8fps in our tests—but in that mode the camera can adjust for exposure and focus after each photo. If you shoot in Raw+JPG you are limited to a scant 17 shots at that rate, and switching to Raw only doubles that to 34 shots. If you shoot JPG you’ll be able to grab 85 shots before the camera slows; regardless of file format, about 8 seconds is required to clear the 1D X’s buffer. The Nikon D4 is slightly slower at 10 frames per second, but can go a bit longer—71 Raw+JPG, 80 Raw, or 192 photos with an XQD memory card; or 61 Raw+JPG, 65 Raw, or 112 JPG shots using CompactFlash. If you’d like to shoot at a slower pace, you can configure the continuous high and continuous low settings; the former can be set from 2 to 12 shots per second, the latter from 1 to 11.

Our tests showed that the autofocus system was quick and accurate. In standard indoor lighting conditions the camera locks and fires almost instantly, though it does slow to about a second to do the same when it’s very dark. Live view focus is a bit slower, 1.7 seconds, but even in dark conditions it slows down just a little bit to 1.8 seconds. Compare this with the relatively bargain-priced EOS 6D; that camera requires about 0.4-second to focus in good light, and 1.6 seconds in dim light. In live view modes those speeds lengthened to 2.3 seconds and 2.7 seconds, respectively.

I used Imatest to check and see how the 18-megapixel image sensor handles image noise at high ISO settings. It’s an impressive performer, as it keeps noise under 1.5 percent through ISO 12800 using default settings. It’s in line with other Canon full-frame cameras; both the EOS 5D Mark III and 6D deliver similar images at high ISO settings. The Sony Alpha 99 and Nikon D800 only keep noise this low through ISO 6400. There is some smudging noticeable with JPG images at ISO 12800; it’s not evident at ISO 6400, but it’s much less than you see with the Alpha 99. You can adjust the in-camera noise reduction to your liking—it can be turned off, set to low, to standard, or to high. If you’d rather process each file individually, you can shoot in Raw.

Raw images are noisier at higher ISOs, as no reduction is applied, and have a bit of a grainy look. There’s an impressive amount of detail in ISO 12800 Raw images, so you can apply noise reduction as you see fit in software. The pattern of the noise is tighter and finer than it is when looking at our Raw test shots captured with the Alpha 99, proof that the lower-resolution 18-megapixel sensor does a better job when the light gets very low when compared with the 24-megapixel sensor in the Sony camera. We reviewed images side-by-side on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W in order to determine which best balanced noise reduction and detail.

Video is recorded in 1080p30, 1080p24, or 720p60 quality. Movie files are saved in QuickTime format, with your choice of ALL-I or IPB compression. The footage looks great, with crisp details and the ability to capture video with a shallow depth of field, depending on the attached lens. Autofocus works during video recording, and it’s quite fast and quiet when paired with the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM lens. But it’s still a contrast detect system; the focus has to hunt until it finds the ideal focus point, go a little further, and snap back into sharpness. If you’re using the 1D X for any serious video work, manual focus is recommended. If you want a full-frame camera that does a better job with video, consider the Sony Alpha 99 as an alternative. It has a fixed mirror design with an excellent eye-level OLED for full-time phase detect focus, even when recording video. It also supports balanced XLR audio input via an optional adapter, and records in 1080p60 using the AVHCD codec.

There is an external mic input, which is a boon for run-and-gun documentarians and for other projects where the in-camera mic isn’t up for the task, but there’s no headphone jack, so you can’t monitor the audio as it’s recording as you can with the Nikon D4. There’s also a mini HDMI port, but it doesn’t allow you to send clean, uncompressed video to a field recorder as you can with the D4 or Canon’s own 5D Mark III. Starting video recording is a bit of a process; you have to dive into the menu and toggle the live view mode from still to video recording in order to access it. A physical switch to change this setting would be a welcome addition. The 1D X is compatible with Canon EF lenses, but it is not compatible with APS-C EF-S lenses—they simply won’t mount. Nikon and Sony offer compatibility with their APS-C glass via in-camera crop modes that only use a portion of the sensor. The 1D X isn’t a camera that shooters stepping up from an APS-C body are likely to consider, so this is less of an issue than it is with the 6D.

Other connectors include a mini USB port, so you can plug the camera into a computer for file download of tethered shooting, a PC sync socket to connect studio strobes, a remote release connector, and an Ethernet port. Photojournalists working in buildings with Ethernet will be able to instantly transmit photos back to a photo editor on the same network via Ethernet. There’s no Wi-Fi in the camera, but the WFT-E6A Wi-Fi adapter ($599) is available. It’s meant for use in a similar environment—it doesn’t pair the camera with your smartphone. There’s also an add-on GPS module available for geotagging—it’s priced at $390. The only full-frame camera with Wi-Fi and GPS built in is Canon’s EOS 6D, and the Sony Alpha 99 sports a GPS, but no Wi-Fi. Like most pro cameras, the 1D X uses CompactFlash memory—there are two slots, and they can be configured in a number of ways. You can mirror files, set one for Raw and the other for JPG, or set it up so that the second card is only used after the first fills up.

The Canon EOS-1D X is a beast of a camera, best put in the hands of photographers who need a body that will focus in an instant and can rattle off shots at staggering rates. It’s a camera that you know that you need, if you need it. It’s not perfect—there are a few shortcomings, mostly related to video recording. A camera with clean HDMI output, like the Nikon D4 or Canon EOS 5D Mark III, or one with fast phase detect autofocus and balanced XLR audio input capability like the Sony Alpha 99 are better choices there.

But if you’re in need (or want) of a camera that can rattle off shots in rapid succession, the 1D X is a solid choice. It gives you access to Canon’s extensive lens library, which has a few lenses the competition can’t match, including the lovely EF 50mm f/1.2L USM. Longtime Nikon shooters with similar needs are likely to prefer the D4, even though it doesn’t quite match the 1D X in terms of frames per second; if you’ve got an established collection of Nikkor lenses and are more comfortable with Nikon ergonomics, limiting yourself to shooting at 10 frames per second isn’t likely to cause you to miss too many shots.

Despite its impressive specs and performance, the 1D X is a bit of a niche camera. For most shooters looking to enter the world of full-frame, our Editors’ Choice Canon EOS 6D is a better choice. It’s smaller and lighter and doesn’t focus or fire as quickly, but still delivers outstanding image quality and accepts the same EF lenses as the 1D X. The EOS 5D Mark III lies in between the two in Canon’s full-frame family; it’s got a few extra features that the 6D lacks, including a 61-point autofocus system, a flash sync connector, and a CF card slot, making it a better choice for event shooters and studio photographers. Looking only at the top-end of the full-frame market, of which there are few choices, we rated the Nikon D4 slightly higher. Its video features are a bit more rounded, its high ISO performance is impressive, it can shoot for longer bursts at 10fps, and it’s a bit less expensive to boot.

Specifications
Dimensions 6.4 x 6.2 x 3.3 inches
Interface Ports mini USB, mini HDMI, Mic, Remote, PC Sync, Ethernet
Megapixels 18 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.08 seconds
LCD dots 1040000
LCD size 3.2 inches
Touch Screen No
Media Format CompactFlash
Maximum ISO 51200
Type D-SLR
GPS No
Boot time 0.5 seconds
Sensor Type CMOS
Weight 3.4 lbs
Lens Mount Canon EOS
Video Resolution 720p, 1080p
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
LCD Aspect Ratio 3
Image Stabilization None
Shutter Lag 0.05 seconds
Sensor Size 36 x 24 (Full-Frame) mm
Viewfinder Type Optical

Verdict
The Canon EOS-1D X is a great choice for sports shooters and photojournalists, but is likely an overkill for most shooters.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
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