Professional-grade DSLR camera bodies have a certain mystique for most photographers. They are supposed to be chock-full of features, have instant-lock autofocus, a bazillion autofocus points, blazingly-fast shooting speed and virtually indestructible. More than any other kind of DSLR, being seen with a pro body in public gives the impression that one is a professional photographer. Their single-digit model names (for Canon and Nikon, anyway) inspires awe in the wielders of lesser models.
As a user of Canon’s 40D and 20D semi-professional cameras, I have also found myself wondering what it’s like to shoot with a pro body. I’ve previously spent a few minutes with a Canon 1Ds Mk III and a Nikon D2x, and even shot them, but was only limited to clicking the shutter and looking at the resulting photographs in the rear LCD display. Those moments didn’t really tell me anything about how one uses a pro body.
A few weeks ago I chanced upon a 1Ds Mark II in very good condition and with a very good price (way way way down from its release price of US$8,000). I couldn’t pass up this chance to evaluate one of Canon’s top DSLR bodies and acquired it. So what’s the fuss about pro bodies? Let’s find out!
There are already several reviews done by photography experts elsewhere on the net: Digital Photography Review, Luminous Landscape, and The-Digital-Picture.com have extensive reviews of the Canon 1Ds Mk II. This post will be about my experience with a pro-level 1Ds Mk II as an amateur who has been using semi-professional level Canon DSLRs for the past three years. And just to be clear, this is an article about a camera that was released late 2004 and has since been replaced by the 1Ds Mk III.
The first thing that one notices with a 1-series DSLR body is its size and shape. With its integrated vertical grip, the 1Ds Mk II looks like a square with a hump on top when it’s facing one. To many photographers this is a familiar silhouette because consumer- and semipro-level camera have optional vertical battery grips, but one will also notice that the 1Ds Mk II’s vertical grip is part of the body. The 1Ds MkII is about the size of a 40D/30D/20D with a battery grip attached. The hump housing the full-frame glass prism and viewfinder is also noticeably curvier than the ones on DSLRs with built-in flashes.
The weight and build quality are the next thing to be noticed, once it’s picked up and held. The 1Ds Mk II and its big NiMH battery feels significantly heavier than a semipro body with battery grip and two batteries (e.g. Canon 40D or Nikon D90). And it sure does feel like it could survive anything; I wouldn’t be surprised if 1Ds Mk IIs around the world will be keeping cockroaches company in a post-nuclear holocaust world.
To me, the magnesium-alloyed semipro bodies like the 20D and 40D bodies felt more solid than a plastic-covered consumer-level DSLR (these plastic-covered cameras actually have metal frames inside so they’re quite sturdy too), but the 1Ds Mk II felt like it was carved out of solid rock. The 1Ds Mk II’s integrated vertical grip added to the solid feel, primarily because my 40D’s battery grip was the typical screw-on type and had a tendency to loosen while I shot with it.
The weather seals around the memory card compartment and battery were made of rubber, and the rubber flaps covering the 1Ds Mk II’s interface ports fit really tight and I had to pry them open. Openings like the card compartment and the battery are secured with a twist-lock mechanism. The 13V NiMH (not Lithium-Ion unfortunately) is big and heavy. One gets the impression that the 1Ds Mk II can also be used as a deadly weapon in addition to being an excellent photographic tool.
The full-frame sensor means that one can have a large and bright viewfinder. In the case of the 1Ds Mk II, the viewfinder has 100% coverage. This means that what you see in the 1Ds Mk II’s viewfinder is what you’re going to see in your image file. With other DSLRs with less viewfinder coverage (let’s say 98%), the image sensor actually captures a bit more of the scene than what you can see through the viewfinder. The 1Ds Mk II’s viewfinder meter is also on the right side, and not on the bottom as most of us are familiar with.
The 1Ds Mk II also feels like the 20D and 40D that I’m so familiar with: the button layout, the control wheel near the shutter button is there, and there’s a big control dial at the back. So far so good, then one looks for the Mode dial… and it’s not there. Consumer- and semipro-level cameras have a Mode dial on the side of the camera. Also known as the PASM dial, it allows a photographer to choose the shooting mode by turning the knob. The 1Ds Mk II (and other 1-series camera) doesn’t have this.
Instead, the 1Ds Mk II has three buttons where the Mode dial’s supposed to be. One of these buttons is the Mode button. To change between Program AE (P), Aperture Priority (Av), Shutter Priority (Tv) and Manual (M) and Bulb (Bulb shooting was considered a shutter speed in excess of 30 seconds in non-1D bodies) modes, I have to press and hold the Mode button with my left hand and select the shooting mode with the shutter control wheel with my right hand.
By comparison, I could change between P, A, S and M modes on my 20D and 40D with a simple twist of the Mode dial. The two-handed (or two-fingered) way of changing the shooting mode on a 1Ds Mk II was just my introduction to the alien world of pro-level bodies.
In fact, I found out that most of the setting changes required simultaneous two-handed operation, usually involving holding a button down while turning the shutter wheel or the control dial at the back, then releasing the button to confirm selection. There’s no “SET” button on the 1Ds Mk II’s rear dial, so confirming a settings change usually means taking your finger off the button that was held down (the 1Ds Mk III now has a “Set” button -LL). This applies to changing AF modes (One Shot/AI Servo), shooting speed (single shot, burst, timer), metering mode (evaluative, partial, spot).
Want to change ISO? You press and hold the AF and Metering buttons at the same time, then use the shutter control wheel to select the ISO setting you want. Wait. That’s THREE fingers in total. On my 40D, I only have to press the ISO button with my right finger, move that finger to the control wheel half an inch away, dial in the ISO level, then half-press the shutter button to confirm my setting and be ready to shoot. I can even change the ISO without taking my eye off the viewfinder (a dedicated ISO button has been added on the Mk III -LL). This three-finger settings change also applies to changing Bracketing and Drive settings.
Menu navigation also requires holding down the Menu button while scrolling. To zoom in and out while reviewing a shot, one has to hold the Display button while pressing the Zoom In and Zoom Out buttons. The same applies to deleting pictures.
The 1Ds Mk II is also missing the small multi-control joystick (thumbstick?) found in the xx-series of DSLRs like the 20D and 40D. This joystick is used to navigate menus, and scroll vertically/horizontally across a photo being reviewed zoomed-in, and to select AF points. The functionality offered by the joystick is facilitated through the 1Ds MkII’s dials. A bit cumbersome, compared to the joystick (this feature has since been added to the Mk III).
I may sound like I’m complaining, but I’m not. While the one-touch controls in consumer or semiprofessional cameras are admittedly easier to use, they are also easier to change accidentally.
For instance, the protruding Mode dial found on my 40D and all non-1 series bodies can be accidentally turned and set to another mode if it brushes against something, say an errant finger or shoved into a bag. One can pick up a camera and immediately shoot to capture a moment, shoot off a few frames, and find that one has been shooting in the wrong mode.
The controls of the 1D/1Ds were designed for professionals who need to deliver the pictures that count. They can’t afford to have settings changed by accident, their cameras should be ready to shoot with the settings they were left at. That is why most, if not all, settings on the 1Ds Mk II and all other 1-series bodies should be changed deliberately; one has to make a conscious decision and put a bit of effort to change the settings. Aside from the two-handed settings change, the On-Off lever switches are also stiff, and requires quite a bit of pressure from the thumb to change.
This new (to me, anyway) way of doing things isn’t difficult at all, just different. In fact, I believe that users of Canon’s consumer-grade DSLRs (e.g. those without the control dial at the back) will be somewhat familiar with the controls of a 1D-series body. This is because for them to change Aperture setting in M Mode, they have to simultaneously hold a button down with their thumb while their forefinger adjust the dial near the shutter button.
Aside from the tough construction, there are also other improvements found in professional-grade bodies which put them clearly above other models.
Autofocus performance is one. The 1Ds Mk II in particular, has 45 selectable focusing points available for focusing accuracy and these can be selected in groups. The 1Ds Mk II shares the same autofocus system as the speed-oriented 1D Mk II, with tweaks to make it more appopriate to a full-frame system. AF speed is still reasonably fast compared to today’s models, and the 45 AF points are still above what is available in the current non-1D series cameras. I recently tested the 1Ds Mk II in a shoot, and I find that being able to compose the scene and setting the focusing point exactly where you want it results in better focus accuracy than using the focus, then recompose technique on my 9-AF point 40D.
There’s also a dedicated image quality button at the back, so you can quickly select between RAW and JPEG quality levels without fiddling with a menu. 1D-series bodies also have a secondary LCD information display. This is quite useful because it’s actually easier to look at the back of the camera than having to twist your hands to look at a display on top of the camera. I also like the blue LCD display light instead of the orange one we have on other cameras.
In addition, the 1Ds Mk II has two memory card slots. One for Compact Flash, and another for SD cards. Each 1Ds Mk II also has image filename that starts with a 4-character string that is factory-programmed and unique to it (e.g. “XXXX0001.jpg). This cannot be changed and is also quite useful in quickly identifying which pictures came from the 1Ds Mk II when sorting.
The main power switch even has settings for silent mode shooting: When switched to the normal “On” setting, the 1Ds Mk II will not beep (e.g. when it achieves focus lock). This is very useful when discretion is required in a shoot. To turn the beeps on one has to push the power switch up another notch. The first time I got the unit, I was stumped because the camera wasn’t beeping when I turned it on.
For someone who’s used to Canon’s semi-pro cameras, I have to admit that the 1-series of DSLRs is both reassuringly familiar and strange. It’s like an old friend: the grip feels the same, my right finger automatically finds the control wheel by the shutter button and the right thumb, the big control wheel on the back. But the 1Ds Mk II is significantly different in operation compared to the ones I’ve had, and I’m probably not going to be able to change settings on the fly as quickly as I did with my 40D and 20D.
The controls aren’t the only changes I’ll need to adjust to. When I said early on that the 1Ds Mk II was heavier, it’s really heavier. I’ve spent a day lugging around a camera bag with the 1Ds Mk II couple with the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens, and I could feel the bag’s shoulder strap digging into my shoulder; the same lens and my 40D with dual batteries in the vertical grip feels lighter.
I’ll need more experience with the camera so that I’ll get used to its operation and heft.
And what better way than to go out and shoot a lot with it?
What’s your experience with a professional-grade DSLR body? I’d like to know more about it, feel free to comment below!