DCRP Review: Canon EOS-1Ds
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: Sunday, December 8, 2002
Last Updated: Monday, December 9, 2002

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One year ago, I was writing a review of Canon's EOS-1D professional digital camera. This D-SLR cost $6,000, and featured a 4.15 Megapixel CCD. As it turns out, I never got around to reviewing it. It's a shame, because most of the work was already done.

Jump ahead one year, and the new ultimate camera from Canon is the EOS-1Ds. This 11 Megapixel monster will set you back nearly $8,000. For those who want major resolution and have an investment in Canon lenses, this is the camera for you. By the way, the 1Ds uses a CMOS sensor, rather than a CCD.

I don't get around to reviewing stuff like this very often, so enjoy this special look at the EOS-1Ds!

What's in the Box?

Like all D-SLRs, the EOS-1Ds is sold without a lens or flash. Canon included a 28 - 135 mm lens and the 550EX flash along with my review camera. Here is what you'll find in the 1Ds kit:

  • The 11.1 (effective) Mpixel Canon EOS-1Ds camera
  • NP-E3 rechargeable NiMH battery
  • NC-E2 battery charger
  • DC coupler kit
  • Eyecup
  • "Body cap" (covers the lens mount)
  • Neck strap
  • Hand strap
  • FireWire cable
  • CD-ROM featuring EOS Digital Solution and Adobe Photoshop LE
  • 175 page manual plus separate software manual (both printed)

My review setup... about $10,000!

Since Canon gives you a bare bones setup, it's really up to you to build the bundle. The camera is compatible with most Canon lenses and Speedlites. So if you already have those, odds are they will work. No memory card is included.

Charger (at left) and battery

The 1Ds has a very large NiMH battery that slides into the bottom of the camera body. Canon estimates that this 12V battery will last for about 600 shots when used in moderate climates. It has a whopping 19.8 Watt/hours of power, the most I've seen, by far. Buying a spare battery will set you back $130, though.

The battery charger is has two connectors for two batteries. I don't think they are charged at the same time, though. Fully charging the battery takes about two hours.

If you want to just plug the camera into the wall, you can use the included DC coupler kit. You replace the battery with the coupler, which looks just like the battery you just removed, except for an extra plug. You plug the AC adapter into the wall and plug it into the coupler, and you're set.

When it comes to accessories, the sky's the limit on SLR cameras. If it exists, it will probably work on the 1Ds. That includes flashes, lenses, filters, remote shutter release cables, and more.

Canon includes a Photoshop plug-in for getting the images off the camera via the FireWire connection. Unfortunately, neither the FireWire connection nor the plug-in are Mac OS X compatible, so you'll need a card reader or a reboot to Mac OS 9 to use it. Things work smoothly in modern versions of Windows.

The EOS-1Ds's manual is pretty good -- and you'll need it, as the 1Ds is very complex. There aren't too many "notes" at the bottom of the page, and everything is explained pretty well. There is also a large manual covering the software for both Mac and Windows.

Look and Feel

Just like Nikon's D1X, the EOS-1Ds is a big camera that means business. It's bigger and heavier than most SLR cameras (it's based on the EOS-1v 35mm camera), but at the same time, is exceptionally easy to hold. The right hand grip is large, and depending on the lens, there's plenty of room for the left hand as well. The camera's build quality is nothing short of amazing. Canon tells me that the camera is waterproof and can be used in a downpour. I took their word for it.

The official dimensions of the camera (minus a lens) are 6.1 x 6.2 x 3.1 inches (W x H x D) and it weighs a whopping 1.26 kg without a battery, flash, or lens. That's a whopping 2.8 pounds! My arm was exhausted after carrying it around for 30 minutes.

Let's take a 360 degree tour of the EOS-1Ds now:

Here is the front of the camera, minus the lens of course. I will use this opportunity to mention an important issue about removable lens digital cameras: dust. On most other cameras, the lens is sealed to the body, so no dust can get in. This is not the case on pro SLR digitals, which I learned the hard way when I had the EOS-1D.

The easiest way to prevent this is not to remove the lens very often. If you switch lenses, there's a chance that crap will get in the body. You can use an air blower to clean the sensor if need be.

One of the great things about the EOS-1Ds is that the CMOS sensor has the same dimensions as 35mm film. That means that your lenses work as advertised. Before, you'd have to multiply the focal range by something like 1.4 in order to find the true focal length. Not so with the 1Ds -- 28mm - 135mm is just that. You can use any lens compatible with the EF lens mount (more or less). Odds are that yours will work just fine.

There are just a few other items on the front of the camera. Just to the left of the lens mount is the self-timer lamp. To the lower left of the lens mount is the depth of field preview button. Over on the other side, you can see the lens release button. At the top right of the photo is the white balance sensor.

Although the 1Ds lacks an AF-assist lamp, it can use the one found on an external flash.

If you like buttons and wheels, the 1Ds is your camera. The back of the camera is covered with them, and I admit to reading the manual since I had no clue how to operate the menus when I first used a 1D last year. Intuitive, it is not.

Here's why: on most cameras, you hit the menu button and then use a four-way switch to move between items. It seems that four-way switches are taboo on pro SLRs, so you have to use the wheel. Instead of just turning the wheel to change things, you have to hold down a button (Select, for example) and then turn the wheel. To select a menu item, you just release the Select button. Moving between photos in playback mode works the same way.

The 2" LCD is only used for reviewing photos and using the menu system. Like all real digital SLR's (at least expensive ones), you cannot preview a shot on the LCD. You must use the optical viewfinder.

Not surprisingly, the optical viewfinder is very large and easy to see. As you'd expect on an SLR camera, it covers 100% of the field. There is exposure information on both the bottom and right sides of the viewfinder. When you lock focus, small red squares illuminate to show you what part of the frame the camera is focusing on. These red squares are also used when you're manually selecting the focus point. There is also diopter correction for those with less than perfect vision.

With that out of the way, here is what the buttons on the left side of the LCD are for:

  • Protect image / Record sound clip (up to 30 sec with each photo)
  • Menu
  • Select (for moving around menus)
  • Display (enters playback mode, changes info shown in it) / WB bracketing (button 1 of 2)
  • Delete photo

The two buttons below the LCD are for:

  • Quality (more later)
  • White balance / WB bracketing (button 2 of 2)

These two buttons can illustrate another quirk about the EOS-1Ds usability. You probably noticed that there were two buttons for white balance bracketing. You have to hold both of these down, and then turn the wheel, to activate this option. To clear settings, you hold down both of the buttons above. As I said, it takes some getting used to.

The white balance choices are excellent on the 1Ds, as you'd expect. They include:

  • Auto
  • Daylight
  • Shade
  • Cloudy
  • Tungsten
  • Fluorescent
  • Flash
  • Custom
  • Color Temperature
  • 3 personal WB settings

That's right, with the 1Ds you can actually set the color temperature you want to use for white balance. The range is 2800 - 10000 °K, in 100 °K increments. You also have the option of using the custom mode to shoot a white or gray card, and use that for "white". You can store your favorite white balance settings as well.

The LCD info display just below the main LCD is one of two such displays on the camera, both of which are backlit if need be. This one shows the current white balance, quality, and size settings, as well as folder name and file number (among other things).

Getting back to buttons now. Just right of the LCD is the main command dial, used for changing settings. You can disable it, so you don't accidentally change something. To the lower-left of that is the microphone. Moving to the right, we see the power switch. There are two "on" options: one with a beep sound when focus is locked, and one without. Just right of that is the release for the CompactFlash slot (more on this in a bit).

The three buttons at the bottom right and top right are the same: they are redundant. The ones at the top are when the camera is in landscape orientation, and the ones at the bottom are for portrait orientation. My description will be for the top buttons.

The leftmost and rightmost buttons are both for focus points. You can define a point in the frame to focus on, and you can store it so you can easily get back to it later. The button in-between (AE lock) will lock the exposure settings for six seconds, giving you time to recompose and take the shot.

Here is a close-up of the back of the camera, with the CompactFlash slot open. This is, of course, a Type II slot, and the 1gb Microdrive works great. Do note that using the Microdrive will put more strain on the batteries than a regular CF card. I found it difficult to open the door sometimes.

Finally, let's move onto the top of the EOS-1Ds. The buttons over on the left side may have confused you already, so here's my explanation. The buttons have one function when they are pushed, but can also work in combination with the surrounding buttons (like the WB bracketing on the back of the camera). That's what those arrow-looking things between the buttons are. The basic functions of these buttons are:

  • Mode (Program, manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, depth-of-field)

  • AF (One shot, AI servo) - you'll use the former for stationary subjects, and the latter for moving subjects

  • Metering (evaluative, partial, spot, center-weighted) / Flash exposure compensation (-3EV to +3EV in 1/3EV increments)

For the truly hardcore, you can even do multiple spot metering measurements -- up to 8 of them per photo.

Most of the "modes" I listed should be familiar to everyone, but here's a review of what they do:

  • Program mode: camera chooses best exposure settings

  • Aperture priority mode: you choose aperture, camera chooses appropriate shutter speed. The aperture range will vary depending on your lens. On an 16 - 35 mm lens, for example, it was F2.8 - F22.

  • Shutter priority mode: you choose shutter speed, camera chooses aperture. The shutter speed range is 30 - 1/8000 sec. There is a bulb mode available as well, which keeps the shutter open for as long as the button (or more likely, remote shutter release) is held down

  • Manual mode: you set both aperture and shutter speed

  • Depth-of-field mode: you choose two points in the field, and the camera makes sure both will be in focus

Now, here are the functions you get when pressing two buttons at once:

  • Mode + AF = AE Bracketing (-3EV to +3EV in 1/3EV increments for three successive shots)

  • Mode + Metering = Drive (Single-frame, continuous, self-timer (10 and 2 sec)

  • AF + Metering = ISO (100, 125, 160, 200, 250, 320, 400, 500, 640, 800, 1000, 1250) - you can also activate ISO 50 via the Custom Functions menu

The EOS-1Ds has a nice continuous shooting mode, though it's not nearly as impressive as that of its predecessor. It can shoot up to 10 shots in a row at a 3 frames/second, even in RAW mode.

Getting back to our tour now -- at the center of the photo is the 1Ds's hot shoe, which as you'd expect, supports most of Canon's EX-series Speedlites. Some of the fancy features that you get with the EX-series Speedlites on the EOS-1Ds include:

  • E-TTL autoflash: the camera measures the flash exposure using a pre-flash
  • High-speed sync - the flash can be used with all shutter speeds on the 1Ds
  • Flash exposure lock (similar to AE lock but for flash exposure)
  • Flash exposure compensation and bracketing
  • E-TTL wireless autoflash with multiple Speedlites

Do note that in order to use that high-speed sync for the flash, you'll have to put it into that mode. Otherwise, the flash will only use 30 - 1/500 sec shutter speeds.

How do non-Canon flashes work? Quoting the manual, "the EOS-1Ds can synchronize with compact, non-Canon flashes at 1/250 sec or slower. With a large studio flash, the sync speed is 1/125 sec or slower."

On the right side of the picture are, you guessed it, more buttons, plus the main LCD info display.

Just like with the bottom LCD info display, this one is backlit. This display shows about every setting imaginable. The manual provides all the details about that.

The buttons just above the info display are for the LCD backlight (left button) and exposure compensation (right button). Exposure compensation is -3EV to +3EV in 1/3EV increments.

Above that is the FEL button, secondary command dial, and shutter release button. The FEL (flash exposure lock) button will fire the flash once and store the exposure setting for 16 seconds.

Enough buttons! Let's move onto the sides of the camera now.

Here's one side of the camera, where you'll find the I/O ports and the battery release.

Releasing the battery is a multi-step process. You flip the lever down, twist, and then press another button, and out it comes.

Let's take a closer look at those I/O ports, where are safely covered by weatherproof rubber covers.

From top to bottom, the ports are flash sync, remote shutter release, and FireWire. There is no USB support on this camera, so you'll either need to buy a FireWire card or a card reader. Or, a Macintosh (shameless plug).

On this side of the camera, you can see the redundant controls for when the camera is in portrait orientation (down at the bottom). You can turn them off so you don't accidentally screw something up.

Finally, here is the bottom of the camera. Down here you'll find the metal tripod mount and a third strap mount.

Using the Canon EOS-1Ds

Record Mode

When you have a camera with no lens to extend, it usually starts up very quickly. The 1Ds is no exception -- it's ready to go almost instantly. There is no "live view" of the frame on the LCD before you take a shot. You only see the picture after you've taken it.

This shouldn't come as a surprise, but in terms of AF/shutter lag performance, the 1Ds is as good as they come. Focusing was very quick, except in low light when it had to hunt a bit. Shutter lag was nonexistent.

Even though it's writing huge 11 Megapixel files, the EOS-1Ds still has excellent shot-to-shot speed. Regardless if you're shooting JPEG, RAW, or RAW+JPEG, the camera can take another shot as fast as you can compose it.

The EOS-1Ds does not have a TIFF mode. Rather, it uses a lossless RAW format, which you then process on your computer using special software. The big advantage of RAW is the file size: it's substantially less than the size of a TIFF. You can also fool around with the exposure settings with a RAW file, since it's the raw CCD data. As I alluded to, you can record RAW files alone, or save a JPEG file along with them.

Let's take a look at the many image size and quality choices on the EOS-1Ds:

Image Quality Image size Approx. file size # of images on 128MB card (not included)
RAW 4064 x 2704 11.4 MB 8
4064 x 2704 4.1 MB 25
1.7 MB 65
2032 x 1352 1.4 MB 80
RAW + Large/Fine N/A 15.3 MB 4
RAW + Large/Normal 12.9 MB 6
RAW + Small/Fine 12.6 MB 7

After reading the above chart, you'll probably agree that you need a huge memory card to truly enjoy the 1Ds!

I'm going to describe the recording and custom function menus in this review. Be warned that the latter is lengthy!

Recording Menu

  • Custom WB - choose an image to be used for custom white balance setting; this is usually a white or gray card.

  • Color temp (2800 - 10000 °K) - pick a color temperature for white balance

  • Parameters - you can have up to three sets of processing parameters, that include the following settings:
    • Tone curve
    • Sharpness level
    • Pattern sharpness
    • JPEG quality

  • Color Matrix (1 - 5) - select from the following:
    • "Natural looking hue and chroma"
    • "Hue and chroma suitable for portraits. Effective for rendering skin tones"
    • "Hue and chroma similar to high-chroma slide film. Effective for making colors clear."
    • Adobe RGB chroma
    • Image low-chroma. "Effective for making color tone moderate."

  • RAW+JPEG recording (RAW + Large/Fine, RAW + Large/Normal, RAW + Small/Fine, RAW only)

  • Review (off, on, on + info) - whether the image is shown on LCD after it is taken. Can also show exposure info/histogram if you want.

  • Review time (2, 4, 8 sec, hold)

  • Noise reduction (on, off) - reduces noise in long exposures. Increases amount of time between shots.

Setup Menu

  • Auto power off (1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 30 min)

  • File numbering (A-Reset, Continuous, M-Reset)

  • Date/time

  • Card format

  • Sensor cleaning

  • LCD brightness

  • Firmware - update your firmware if need be

  • Language (English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese)

That was the easy part. Now, take a deep breath, here comes the Custom Function settings.

1. Finder display during exposure (on/off) - displays exposure info and remaining shots during continuous shooting.

2. Shutter release w/o CF card (on/off) - whether the shutter button will work if a CF card is not inserted

3. ISO speed expansion (on/off) - activates ISO 50

4. Shutter button / AE lock button (AF/AE lock, AE lock/AF, AF/AF lock, AE/AF) - define what this button does

5. Manual Tv/Av setting for manual exposure - what dial changes aperture and shutter speed, and whether you can change them without a lens attached

6. Exposure level increments (1/3|1/3, 1|1/3, 1/2|1/2) - those are the increments from shutter speed/aperture and exposure compensation (divided by the | character)

7. USM lens electronic MF (on after one-shot AF, off after one-shot AF, always off) - disables the electronic manual focusing system on Canon USM lenses

8. Top / Bottom LCD panels (Remaining shots / file no., ISO / remaining shots, ISO / file no., shots in folder / remaining shots) - what info is shown on the LCD info displays

9. Auto bracketing sequence / cancel - the order in which AE bracketing shots are taken, and whether the camera cancels AE bracketing when you're done

10. AF point illumination (on, off, on without dimming, brighter)

11. AF point selection method - which buttons operate this function

12. Mirror lockup (on/off) - locks up the mirror before a shot is taken; for super close-up shots

13. Number of AF points / spot metering (45/Center AF point, 11/Active AF point, 11/Center AF point, 9/Active AF point)

14. Auto reduction of daylight sync (on/off) - when OFF, prevents underexposure of a subject in front of a strong backlight

15. Shutter curtain synchronization (1st, 2nd) - for flash slow sync

16. Safety shift in Av or Tv (on/off) - if turned on and settings suddenly become unsuitable, the camera will shift settings to correctly expose image.

17. AF point activation area (single AF point, expand/7 pts., auto expand/13 pts.) - turn this one to help focus on erratically moving subject

18. Switch to registered AF point - which button will switch to registered AF point

19. Lens AF stop button function (AF stop, AF start, AE lock while metering, AF point, AF mode, IS start) - this button is only found on super-telephoto lenses

20. AI servo tracking sensitivity (standard, slow, mod. slow, mod. fast, fast)

00. Focusing screen - choose which type of laser-matte screen you're using. I have no idea what this is 00 instead of 21.

If those weren't enough, there are personal functions as well. These really let you customize the operation of your 1Ds. You set the personal functions in software on your computer. Here's a look at those:

00. Custom Function group registration - for storing 3 sets of custom functions

01. Disables the shooting modes (Program AE, shutter priority, aperture priority, depth-of-field, bulb, manual)

02. Disables the metering modes (Evaluative, partial, spot, center-weighted)

03. Specify metering mode for manual exposure (Evaluative, partial, spot, center-weighted)

04. Set maximum and minimum shutter speeds

05. Set maximum and minimum apertures

06. Registers and switches the shooting mode and metering mode - for presetting a shooting/metering mode

07. Repeat bracketing during continuous shooting

08. Number of shots to be bracketed (2, 3, 5, 7)

09. Change bracketing sequence for C. Function 09-2/3 to +, 0, -

10. Retain the shift amount for program shift

14. Disable focus detection by the lens drive

15. Disable AF-assist beam on external Speedlite

16. Enable automatic shooting when focus is achieved at the fixed point of focus while the shutter button is pressed fully - takes a picture automatically when the subject is at the preset focusing distance

17. Disable automatic AF point selection

18. Enable automatic AF point selection when C. Function 11-2 has been set

19. Set the continuous shooting speed

20. Limit number of shots in continuous shooting mode

21. Enable quiet operation when the shutter button is off after picture-taking

23. Change the timer's time length (6 sec timer, 16 sec timer, post-shutter release timer)

24. Illuminate LCD info displays during bulb exposures

25. Set the default settings when the clear button is on - choose the default settings for the camera to use when it's reset

27. Enable the electronic dial's functions to be used in the reverse direction (main dial, quick control dial, both dials)

28. Prevent exposure compensation adjustment with quick control dial

30. Enlargement mode (shows from image center, shows from last enlarged part)

31. Add original decision data

The above is listed for your information only. The manuals go into much more detail about each function, so you'll definitely want to read those. I have no idea why they skip numbers in the function lists.

Okay, enough about menus - let's talk photo quality!

The EOS-1Ds did an incredible job with the City Hall night shot. This shot is probably the best I've taken in this location (okay, the full-size image is a little crooked). I did crank up the sharpness a few steps, since I wanted to avoid the soft images the 1Ds takes at default settings. There's a little bit of grain in the sky and shadows, but overall, "wow".

Same story about sharpness settings in our macro test shot. The colors look nice and the subject is nicely focused (thank you, aperture priority mode). Macro focal lengths will vary depending on your lens.

I didn't do a redeye test in this review, since the lens and flash you use will affect how the camera performs in that regard. I would imagine with an external flash you won't have any problems.

One test I did do illustrates the image softness that I have been referring to. At default settings, the EOS-1Ds produces very soft images -- too soft for my liking. Thankfully, you can totally customize the sharpening system that the 1Ds uses. Here's an example:

Sharpness level 0 (default)
View Full Size Image

Sharpness level 1
View Full Size Image

Sharpness level 3
View Full Size Image

Sharpness level 5
View Full Size Image

As you increase the sharpness level toward its maximum of 5, you can see that grain increases. I liked things best at a sharpness level of 2 or 3. Since you have full control over sharpness, you can find a setting that works best for you.

The overall photo quality on the 1Ds is superb -- it really doesn't get much better than this. Images were well-exposed and colors were accurate. I've covered the softness at default settings, and also explained how it can be avoided.

The 11 Megapixel resolution means that you can make some huge prints. I printed the Stanford church picture at 24 x 36 inches and it was stunning.

Don't just take my word about the photo quality, have a look at the photo gallery and decide for yourself!

Playback Mode

The playback mode on the EOS-1Ds is pretty basic. The only features are thumbnail mode, image protection, sound annotations (up to 30 sec), and image information. There is no slide show, DPOF print marking, or "zoom and scroll". Navigating through the images takes some getting used to, just like using the menus.

The camera moves through images quickly -- hold down the select button and turn the wheel. By holding down the display button and turning, you can change what is shown on the screen - one image, 4 images, 9 images, or image info.

Here's what you'll see in the image info mode. Not as much data as I would've expected, especially compared to Nikon's high end cameras.

How Does it Compare?

If you've got the money and an investment in Canon lenses, the EOS-1Ds is one heck of a camera. In addition to being compatible with nearly all Canon lenses and Speedlites, it's one of the most customizable cameras anywhere. Did I mention the 11 Megapixel images? They're a little soft at default settings, but that's easy to fix, using the very complex controls. The camera is intimidating, for sure. Though I haven't tried it, Kodak's DCS Pro 14n is an intriguing competitor, offering 14 Megapixel images for $3000 less using a (mostly) Nikon body. By the way, if you're stepping up from a "regular" digital camera to a digital SLR, the 1Ds is most certainly overkill. But pro photographers will definitely want to add it to their collection!

What I liked:

  • Professional-style (and heavy!) camera body
  • Top-notch photo quality
  • Full frame (35mm) CMOS sensor
  • Every manual control ever conceived (almost)
  • Low noise levels
  • Handy backlit LCD info displays
  • Can use existing Canon lenses and Speedlites

What I didn't care for:

  • Very expensive
  • Not for the faint of heart (controls are intimidating)
  • Images soft at default settings

Right now, the only other super high resolution D-SLR is the aforementioned Kodak DCS Pro 14n.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the EOS-1Ds and it's competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

So how does the photo quality stand up? Check out the sample photos in our photo gallery!

Want a few more opinions?

Be sure to read the reviews from Steve's Digicams, Imaging Resource, and Digital Photography Review! Don't miss their sample pictures either, as they often photograph subjects (read: people) that I don't.


Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not send me requests for personal camera recommendations.

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