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Canon EOS-1 DX: The best of Canon’s full-frame sensors



Canon shook up its digital SLR lineup last year when it announced the Canon EOS-1D X, by positioning it to replace two of its professional DSLRs. Not only did the full-frame 1D X replace the top-of-the-line Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, but by speeding up performance significantly, Canon also positioned the camera as a replacement for the sports-oriented Canon EOS 1D Mark IV, a less-expensive model with a smaller sensor.

By dropping resolution on its full-frame CMOS sensor to 18-megapixels (a compromise between the 1D Mark IV’s 16.1-megapixel APS-H sized sensor and the 1Ds Mark III’s 21.1-megapixel full-frame sensor), not to mention its new Dual Digic 5+ processors, the 1D X is able to shoot at even faster rates than the speedy 1D Mark IV—12 fps continuous shooting (or 14 fps JPEG-only with mirror lock and ISO under 32000) compared to the 1D Mark IV’s 10 fps.

Released this summer after several delays, the 1D X also beefed up the camera’s autofocus and autoexposure systems with a third processor, a Digic 4 dedicated to AF and metering control. The broad sensitivity range (ISO 100 to 51,200) can be pushed to ISO 204,800 in enhanced modes to further improve low-light performance.  (You can read more about the EOS-1D X’s new and updated features here.)

A sports-worthy low-light performer

Canon 1dX
Canon 1dX

The increased focus on low-light performance seems to have paid off: The Canon EOS-1D X’s DxOMark Sports Score (based on low-light ISO), was among the best of all Canon DSLR sensors tested so far and close to that of the best-scoring sensor, the Nikon D3s, which scored a 3253 ISO compared to the 1D X’s 2786 ISO. In fact, a difference in low-light ISO of 25 percent represents 1/3 EV and is only slightly noticeable, so the difference between the Nikon D3s and the 1D X is even less so.

As Canon’s flagship professional DSLR, the 1D X’s DxOMark Overall Score of 82 is the highest of Canon’s full-frame sensors, scoring equivalently to both the new midrange Canon 5D Mark III (which received an 81) and Canon’s previous image quality winner, the 1Ds Mark III (which received an 80), but trails full-frame DSLRs from Nikon, such as the Nikon D800E and D800, which scored significantly higher at 96 and 95 respectively, as did the Nikon D4 (89), which is the 1D X’s closest competitor.

Relatively poor performance on the DxOMark Landscape Score (based on dynamic range) no doubt accounts for the weaker overall score.  The 1D X’s score of 11.8 Evs is well below the highest scoring DSLRs with a good 53 cameras scoring higher, including the Nikon D4.

Improving upon two predecessors

Canon EOS 1D X vs Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III vs Canon EOS 1D Mark IV

Canon 1dX

Not surprisingly, given its newer and larger sensor, the 1D X delivers significantly better image quality than the 1D Mark IV, beating its overall sensor score of 74 by eight points, and should deliver comparable image quality to the higher-resolution 1Ds Mark III, which it beat by one point. This indicates that the 1D X is well positioned to meet its role as both Canon’s top-of-the-line studio camera as well as being the camera maker’s go-to camera for the professional sports shooter.

As previously mentioned, the 1D X’s low-light performance also backs up its positioning as a sports shooter. With an impressive score of 2786 ISO, it outstrips both its predecessors significantly, indicating that the 1D X’s combination of a larger sensor (vs the 1D Mark IV), a new metering system, and the broadest sensitivity range of the three cameras (ISO 50 to 204,800, enhanced) is delivering on its promise. Combined with the continuous shooting speed improvements, the impressive ISO performance will satisfy any sports photographer, though they may balk at the $1,800 price differential between the $4,999 1D Mark IV and the $6,800 1D X.

Canon 1dX

The 1D X’s color depth performance was also solid with a DxOMark Portrait Score of 23.8 bits. The score indicates that the camera will be able to match the 1Ds Mark III in its ability to provide a range of vivid and accurate colors. In comparison with the 1D Mark IV, it scored 1 bit higher, which translates into 2/3 of a stop better in terms of delivering maximum color sensitivity.

The Landscape Scores indicate that there should be no noticeable difference in dynamic range across the three cameras.

Canon EOS 1D X vs. Canon EOS 5D Mark III

Canon 1dX

When comparing the 1D X with its lower-end sibling, the midrange Canon EOS 5D Mark III, we can see that the sensors are fairly similar in performance, which is no surprise as the 5D Mark III (released in a similar timeframe to the 1D X) has inherited many of its big brother’s new technologies.

The 5D Mark III’s full-frame sensor is slightly higher in resolution at 22.3 megapixels vs. the 1D X’s 18 megapixel sensor, but both turn in very similar DxOMark sensor scores. In fact, one-point difference between the overall scores of the two cameras is negligible as are the differences between the Portrait and Landscape Scores. The more significant difference is the Sports scores, where the 1D X scores ½ stop better. 

Canon EOS 1D X vs. Nikon D4 vs Nikon D3s

Canon 1dX

The 1D X’s most obvious competitor in the professional DSLR space is the Nikon D4 and its predecessor, the Nikon D3s. Based on their sensor scores, it looks like the Nikon D4, which was announced a few months after the 1D X and also hit the market this summer, can deliver better sensor performance across the board (and sells for $800 less than the 1D X), whereas the Nikon D3s (which sells for roughly $1,600 less than the 1D X) is much more similar, though the three cameras perform similarly in low light. Keep in mind, of course that the 1D X and D4 have significantly improved features sets, with both offering higher resolution, faster burst-mode shooting, full HD video shooting at 30/25/24 fps, broader sensitivity ranges, as well as nice touches such as a second CF memory card slot, built-in Ethernet connectivity, and optional WiFi. Also note that the D4 has a lower resolution sensor than the 1D X, fewer autofocus points, and can’t match its 12 fps speed in continuous shooting mode.

The tests in which the D4 outpaced the 1D X most significantly are in dynamic range and color depth, although at just under 1 bit difference on the latter, you won’t see a dramatic difference between the two, even if it should be noticeable. The score does translate into a 2/3 of a stop benefit with the D4, but in reality any score above 22 bits is quite good.

For landscape shooters, however, the 1.3 Ev difference between the D4 and 1D X in dynamic range will translate into better details in highlights and shadows, especially at lower ISOs. At ISO 1600 and above, the differences become negligible. Furthermore, the 16 megapixel Sony APS-C sensor  (in the Pentax K5 and the Nikon D7000) performs 2 stops better on this test.

Canon 1dX

A good compromise between predecessors that doesn’t match competitors

The Canon EOS 1D X performed acceptably across the board and looks to be a successful compromise as an update to both the 1D Mark IV (with better color depth and overall quality) as well as the 1Ds Mark III (with better low-light performance).  Sports shooters will have to cough up more cash now, but in return they’ll get the benefits of a higher-resolution, full-frame sensor and significantly better images with a bump in speed nevertheless.

The 1D X doesn’t match up to the Nikon D4 in most tests, and costs $800 more, with image quality that is more comparable to the D4’s predecessor (which can still be purchased for $1,600 less), but the reality on both fronts is that a professional photographer who already has invested in Canon lenses is unlikely to jump ship to either of the Nikons (especially since the D4’s feature set is so similar to the 1D X). But neither is a dedicated Nikon shooter going to run and buy the Canon 1D X.

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