Three months ago, I was able to acquire a used Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II in very good condition. To a hobbyist who as been using semi-professional DSLRs (40D and 20D), the professional-grade 1Ds Mark II was a strange beast, both familiar and strange. I have written about my initial impression of that camera in a previous blog post, you can read it here.
During that time, I’ve used it as my everyday camera and have used it on photowalks, a running event, a studio shoot and even a couple of weddings. I have become quite comfortable with its controls and have explored its capabilities.
And what a fine camera it is.
The camera feels really solid, like a rock chiseled out into the shape of a camera and holes carved out to accomodate the lens mount, buttons and battery. The smoothly-contoured vertical grip also feels better in the hand than the blockier vertical battery grips one screws into other cameras. The 1Ds Mark II has the one of the highest levels of weathersealing available in a camera, but I wasn’t able to test this out as it never rained when I used this camera. I will just take the word of the real professionals who count on this camera to take awesome pictures even through mud, rain, snow and ocean waves.
The viewfinder is very large and very bright compared to one on a DSLR with a smaller sensor. The exposure meter inside the viewfinder is on the right side, and not on the bottom unlike most cameras, and the 1Ds Mark II actually has two meters on the side, one for exposure and the other for a useful feature called Multi-spot metering.
Multi-spot metering is a feature of Canon’s 1-series DSLRs that allows a photographer to take multiple exposure readings of the same scene and then average those readings into an exposure setting that will have the best results. This is very useful in the case of challenging scenes that have a wide disparity between bright and dark areas. The Canon Digital Learning Center has a very good article on Multi-spot metering which can be read here.
Autofocus is spot-on most of the time. I’ve written in the local forums saying that the AF of the 40D is comparable to the 1Ds Mark II’s, but I take that back. I’ve shot with both bodies at a fun run event and observed that while the 40D has a fast AF system that quickly locks on to the runners, the 1Ds Mark II is just as fast and more importantly, more accurate. I noticed that I ended up with more in-focus keepers with the 1Ds Mark II and I attribute that to a more accurate AF system. That or my photography skills have instantaneously improved in that short time, so I’m thinking it’s the 1-series AF system. (Before any of you 40D fans start sending me angry emails about that camera’s AF system, I would like to emphasize that I do use a 40D and don’t think that it has a bad AF system. It’s just that the 1Ds Mark II is noticeably better).
And as I’ve mentioned in my first blog post about this camera, the 45 AF points do wonders for AF accuracy. The outer AF points are mostly accurate too and one is really spoiled for choice with regards to the number of AF points. If one is overwhelmed by the number of selectable AF points, one can always select them in groups (this is enabled via Custom Function).
The 16-megapixel full-frame sensor may have since been overtaken by newer cameras like the 21-megapixel 5D Mark II and even the 18-megapixel 550D and 7D, but it is still impressive. The first time I viewed pictures taken with the 1Ds Mark II on my computer, I couldn’t believe that I had taken those images. There was a different look to my pictures (In retrospect this might have been the effect of a full-frame sensor having a shallower depth-of-field than a crop sensor given the same cropping), and the detail captured was frankly amazing to someone who’s been shooting with a 40D. In fact, the sensor is so good that it shows the flaws of excellent lenses like Canon’s top standard zoom, the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM, which exhibits chromatic aberration (purple fringing) in high contrast areas of the image.
High ISO performance is actually decent given that this is a camera with a maximum ISO speed of 1600, expandable to 3200. I’ve shot indoor events and found that shots taken at ISO800 and ISO1600 were very much useable. There is a bit of noise at those levels, but these can be easily removed with post-processing. For shots re-sized for the web, noise isn’t noticeable even if noise reduction was applied in post. I was shooting at those ISO speeds with confidence.
The battery life is stupendous. I’ve never really run its battery dry, even after more than a thousand shots with a considerable amount of chimping (reviewing pictures on the rear LCD) and deleting stuff. I always carry a charged extra battery in my bag, but I’ve never had to change batteries on the field with this camera.
I realized that I may be portraying the 1Ds Mark II as the perfect camera. Which it isn’t.
My first complaint will be the heft. It is heavy camera on its own, but once you add a good lens (a 24-70 lens isn’t a lightweight) it becomes heavier. And since the 1Ds Mark II doesn’t have a built-in flash, you’d have to put an external flash on the hotshoe, which makes it even heavier. This setup can be quite a load, so much so that if I shot the camera for a whole day, my hands would ache for a couple of days afterward. Having it hang around your neck or shoulder isn’t a joke, your upper body will certainly feel the weight. A neoprene stretchable neck/shoulder strap helps, and a handstrap like Canon’s E-1 strap is really a must, in my experience.
Along with a heavy NiMH battery, the 1Ds Mark II comes with a battery charger that is as big as a kid’s shoe box. It’s not heavy, but it is bulky and will take up luggage space when traveling.
The rear LCD screen was small, had a narrow viewing angle, and not conducive to reviewing pictures. To go through different pictures I had to press down a button while rotating a dial. Reviewing pictures is a bit slow too, there is a noticeable lag when reviewing pictures and it seems that the camera’s processor cannot read the big image files quickly; this can get pretty annoying when you need to quickly check a shot. When viewing magnified pictures, I had to scroll up/down and left/right using the two dials on the 1Ds Mark II.
The two-handed way of changing the 1Ds Mark II’s settings was something that I got used to, to the point that I was using the two-handed operation on my 40D and wondered why the settings wouldn’t change. But to be honest I found myself wishing for the ease of use that I had with my 40D. Even the 20D allowed me to change settings faster via the multi-directional joystick at the back.
And as much as I like its fast AF, it’s quite cumbersome to select AF points because you can’t select one directly; to change AF points, one has to use a control dial to scroll left/right across a row of AF points, then up/down using the other dial. By comparison, on a 40D you just use the small joystick to go directly to the AF point you want. And since I’ve used the 1Ds Mark II in events, I’ve found that the camera’s AF will hunt in low-light situations.
Compared to newer DSLRs, the 1Ds Mark II shows its age. Even the lowest-end DSLRs in the market now have bigger and more brilliant rear LCDs and are easier to use. The price of a used one isn’t exactly cheap too; As much as the price has gone down from its original MSRP of US$8,000, a used 1Ds Mark II commands the same price as a brand new Canon 7D.
But when one actually picks up the camera, peers into its big and bright viewfinder, sees the AF lock confirmation dot come on instantly, and hear the shutter click in the way only a 1-series camera can, one immediately forgets about all the bad things about this camera. I can try to explain it in words, but there really is a certain pleasure and satisfaction in shooting a 1-series body that may only be understood if one has shot with one.
In the past several weeks, I have noticed that more and more local photographers have acquired used 1-series bodies given that they have become affordable to more people. A number of them have contacted me and told me that they’re loving their new-to-them old 1-series cameras and would be hard-pressed to go back to a non-1-series camera, even if it was a newer and more modern one.
I’m inclined to agree.
Have you used a professional-grade DSLR body? How was it? Have questions about the 1Ds Mark II? Have your say in the comments section below!