Canon 1Ds Mk3 Review

Canon 1Ds Mark 3 Review - First Impressions

I have been delighted with my Canon 5D. It has been used to take thousands of pictures. It has travelled with me across Britain and parts of Europe. I have many great prints from it. It has become a friend! I know how it operates, I know its limitations and I know its foibles. So why go and get a new 1Ds Mk3?

For years my dream has been to use medium format for landscape work and I had set my sights on a Hasselblad V series. But having used digital for some years the idea of going back to film seemed a retrograde step, so until high end digital backs drop in price significantly buying a Hasselblad just isn't an option. I recently started to compare the digital backs from Hasselblad and Phase One against the Canon 1Ds Mk2 and whilst there are certainly differences (not only price) the Canon image quality now compares very favourably with the 16M or 20M pixel backs. Clearly the 39M pixel backs are still in a different league, but the cost is still astronomical and whilst I like large prints, I do not need wall sized posters. Having read as much as possible on the different systems, comparing prices and features, I decided to go for the Canon system after trying a 1Ds Mk2 for several days. And given the 1Ds Mk3 is now available, it seemed sensible to go for the newer version to get a few extra pixels. Whilst the 1Ds Mk3 is not inexpensive, I had other equipment that I could trade or sell to offset the cost of the 1Ds Mk3.

So I am now the proud owner of a 1Ds Mk3, a camera that feels like it is built to withstand anything that could be thrown at it (or indeed it being thrown at anything!) After a couple of weeks I'm liking this camera a lot to the extent that my friendship with the 5D is now being overtaken...

In this short article I am not going to indulge in deep pixel peeping or trying to compare with other new cameras such as the Nikon D3 that others inevitably compare this flagship model against. The 1Ds Mk3 is a very different camera to the D3 - if I had wanted high ISO and very fast burst rates I wouldn't have bought a 1Ds Mk3 so in my view the two shouldn't be compared as apples. They are not like for like. But if you want to read such comparisons please click elsewhere; there's plenty of other sites to choose from.

What I will say about resolution is that it is quite a leap from my 5D. Printing at 20 x 30 with the 5D is possible, but takes a lot of care and significant post-processing to get great results. Printing at that size with the 1Ds Mk3 also takes a lot of care, but it feels easier to get there. At smaller sizes the difference is noticeable too - prints from the 1Ds Mk3 seem to have more detail within the detail.

Another aspect that the comparison reviews focus on is speed - or more particularly the amount of noise at high ISO. I have to say I am not interested in extreme ISO settings as I rarely take photographs in such lighting conditions, but I am fairly confident that the amount of noise at say ISO800 is more or less the same as that at ISO400 on the 5D. That's not very much at all. What this means to me is that I can be comfortable that I can take pictures at ISO400; this can be very useful for wildlife. The Nikon D3 can go much higher, but frankly I don't care.

That's all I will do in comparing the 1Ds Mk3 with the Nikon D3. This article is not about comparisons, it's about my own views on using the 1Ds Mk3 for a couple of weeks. Its about making photographs!


The camera is large and heavy. With a 70-200mm f2.8 L IS lens attached it is heavy and hurts after carrying it on my shoulder for much of a day. I took it out on Boxing Day to take a few pictures of the annual Matlock Bath Raft Race. Whilst the photos are not for exhibitions I am pleased with them in terms of their clarity and sharpness. Again, I do not really do sports or action photography, but it was interesting to have a go. What did strike me is how well the camera handles and feels balanced. I particularly like the vertical grip and shutter release allowing the portrait formats to be taken as easily and comfortably as landscape format. I know this is possible on the 5D with the extra grip, but I have never bought one.

Matlock Bath RNLI Raft Race December 2007
Matlock Bath Raft Race, 26th December 2007 (2007-0202)
Canon 1Ds Mk3, 70-200mm f2.8 L IS
(the near vertical line towards the left is part of the canoe slalom course, not an issue with the camera sensor!)

The menu system on the camera is an improvement and I rather like it. It is easy and quick to navigate to the myriad of options and settings available. Of note is the user menu where you can add your own most used options. I added several to this immediately:

I'm sure others will be added in due course.

Having slots for two memory cards in the camera is a great idea, but I cannot help thinking Canon lost the plot when they opted for one CF card slot and one SD card slot. Why on earth not two CF card slots? The camera provides several save modes including an option to save to both cards simultaneously. If the camera could take two high capacity CF cards you get an instant backup in the event that one memory card fails. Instead we have a half-baked solution. I am currently using one 8Gb CF card and a 2 Gb SD card (the 4Gb SDHC cards are now on order...) and have opted to save a RAW image to the CF card and a large JPEG to the SD card. This actually is rather convenient at present given that Aperture annoyingly does not yet support the 1Ds Mk3...


I have not used the camera supplied software since I bought a 300D several years ago and so I cannot comment on the supplied software as I have not even loaded it onto my computer. I use Apple Aperture for managing and processing my photographs but Apple have yet to release an OS-X update that supports the camera RAW format. So until that update is forthcoming I have set the camera to save both RAW and JPEG images to the two cards as above. I am loading the JPEGs into Aperture for viewing and management and saving the RAWs separately. As soon as Aperture supports the new RAW format I will replace these JPEGs and change the camera settings to save RAW only.

Adobe Camera RAW already supports the 1Ds Mk3 RAW format and I have used that with PhotoShop CS3 to try printing large. I found that a little extra sharpening was necessary than I am used to - I assume the filter over the sensor means the images are a little soft. But with that tweak the images have an amazing amount of "zing" to them and enlarge wonderfully. Canon have issued a note for 1Ds Mk3 users advising of sharpening settings and is worth reading.

It is hugely frustrating that Apple do not yet support this camera RAW format and appear very slow to do so. If the next update does not support the camera I will have to think yet again about moving to Lightroom but the thought of doing so with many thousands of images to transfer... Please Apple, get that support released urgently.

One other point worth noting is that the image file sizes are large and this camera will increase the amount of disk space I use. No question! RAW files are around 24Mb each and even a large JPEG is around 7Mb. Maybe soon time to rethink my storage and backup strategy.


As with other recent DSLRs from Canon and others, this has a dust reduction system built in. It vibrates the sensor automatically when switching the camera on or off (which can be disabled completely or stopped by half pressing the shutter button) to shake dust off the sensor. Despite this I found that several of my early shots had a single "dust bunny" in the sky, so used a blower to attempt cleaning manually. I am happy to say this worked fine and I haven't needed to get out the cleaning kit. Since then, several lens changes and a few hundred further shots I have not found any further issues and wouldn't really expect to for a while. Having said that the camera ended up covered in flour during the Raft Race (above) as a cloud of it came down wind - it is used by many spectators to throw at the rafts and participants. I'm delighted the camera has plenty of seals and fortunately the flour was dry so very easily wiped off.


By buying this camera I have added yet another charger to the shelf of chargers! If only there was a universal battery and charger, but then technology would not improve... The battery is now a lithium iron type and is lighter than before, but it appears to have a much longer life. I have not had to recharge it in the two weeks I have been using the camera and it still shows 77% remaining. Quite remarkable. I do intend to buy a spare battery though as experience has taught me that if you haven't a spare, charged battery you will run out of power just before that must have image presents itself.

Note: I have seen several posts lately that suggest taking lithium iron batteries on air flights to/from the US is subject to restrictions so do be careful to check before flying.

Canon also supply a dual battery charger (used only once so far!) and an adapter to power the camera when shooting tethered or in a studio. I haven't yet unpacked the latter given there are very rarely power sockets available on mountain tops or moorland.


The high resolution of this camera will undoubtedly quickly show up deficiencies in lenses. I found the lenses I had when I bought the 5D were less than perfect so have been steadily replaced with Canon L-series or primes. I'm hopeful that the lenses I now have will not be found wanting as the budget is rather stretched! So far I have tried the 50mm f1.4, 100mm f2.8 macro, 24-105mm f4 L IS, 70-200mm f2.8 L IS and 180mm f3.5 L macro. All have been just great but I have yet to test the wide angle and longer lenses.

Taking pictures with the 1Ds Mk3

Is it fun? Is it enjoyable? Are the pictures OK? Yes to each of these. Although it is still a relatively new toy I have thoroughly enjoyed using the camera and have felt comfortable doing so. It is a pleasure to use although my main gripe is its size and weight. But this was known and I'm used to carrying around a 5D anyway and its not that much larger. The 1Ds Mk3 is comfortable in the hand and the controls are easily accessed with my average sized hands. Someone with small hands (such as my wife) would find this too large for hand held work.

I have spent quite a bit of time staring through the remarkably clear and bright viewfinder, a lot of this down the macro lens. The information in the viewfinder is clear and I just love the fact that at last the ISO speed is displayed. Whilst I try to make a habit of resetting it back to 100 after a shoot, there's always the exception and I have found myself shooting with a setting of ISO400 in bright sunshine before (thinking why are the shutter speeds so high?)

I have found the extra depth of the camera a blessing (for portrait oriented work) and a curse. When mounting my Canon 180mm lens onto a tripod using the supplied tripod plate it clashes with the Manfrotto quick release clamp. It took me a while to spot this but turning it at a right angle has fixed this - although it does mean the tripod head handles are not in the same place any more, something else to get used to.

Freesia (2007-0263)
Canon 1Ds Mk3, 180mm f3.5 L macro lens

With a big lens (like the 70-200mm f2.8 L IS) the weight and bulk is significant and carrying around on a strap all day will be felt. However a smaller "normal" lens such as the 24-105mm f4 L IS is much more comfortable. It is highly likely that this lens will become the most used lens on this camera, just as it found its way onto the 5D.

Bottom Moor, Matlock
Bottom Moor, Matlock (2007-0281)
Canon 1Ds Mk3, 24-105mm f4 L IS lens

The real proof of any camera is its ability to help the photographer making great photographs. At a technical level I have no doubt that this will be the case. But will its size put me off taking it with me? Only time and my aching back will tell. I have found that for many hikes I took the Leica M8 rather than the 5D, but the resolution of the 1Ds is so much greater I imagine the appeal of larger prints may outweigh that. For now, then, the 1Ds Mk3 is a tool that I am very happy to take with me and use.

Update - 6th September 2008

I have now been using the 1Ds Mk3 since December 2007 so I thought it time to provide a short update to the original review to provide some views and thoughts of what this camera is like to use, how it performs and whether it lives up to my expectations. The short answer is that this camera is just superb. I use it everywhere, take it everywhere and takes photographs with it everywhere I go. It is large but it handles wonderfully and starts to feel much more natural. I don't want to simply dish out superlatives for several reasons, the foremost being that I have not compared it with loads of other cameras - only those I have owned and that is not very many! Secondly, I want to convey something of what it is like to use, that rather subjective view of what it feels like when in use.

When I first started using the 1Ds Mk3 I was using a Leica M8 with several Leica Summicron lenses. The Leica optics were wonderful and the camera is small, light and delivers excellent image quality with those lenses. But I rapidly stopped using it. Apart from the obvious weight and size comparison, I found there was little need to use the Leica and I actually preferred using the Canon. Even on a hike, I started to take the Canon rather than the Leica. At one point I actually took both - the Leica with the wide lenses and the Canon with the big lenses, but that soon stopped as I found I just was not using the Leica any longer. So I eventually decided to get rid of the Leica. That was a real disappointment to me as I explained in my update to my M8 User View article.

But what about the Canon 5D? I still have that camera and do use it on occasions, mostly with a 50mm f1.4 lens. Now the 5D feels a small, lightweight camera and I have no plans to get rid of it. But I do find the handling of the 1Ds Mk3 to be much easier than the 5D. It feels better in the hand, it is more responsive, the controls feel more natural and it just snaps to when I want to use it. Of course, the image resolution of the 1Ds Mk3 is significantly greater than the 5D, but those images from the 5D hold up extremely well against anything the 1Ds produces especially in low light environments when the ISO is dialled up to 1600. But as I noted before, the level of detail in the 1Ds images is just better - as long as a good lens is used. There seems to be more detail within the detail. I'm not one for pixel-peeping, but in a large print the detail is just that bit finer and leaves a much richer feel to the small details within a print.

Bergen Tall Ships Race
(2008-6749) The Tall Ships Race has arrived in Bergen, Norway, August 2008.
The amount of detail available in this image is astounding.

In the early days of the 1Ds Mk3 there was no support by Apple either within the OS-X operating system or Aperture for the camera's RAW files. This is thankfully a problem of the past and I shoot exclusively in RAW using Aperture to manage almost everything. There is a big downside to this - file size and disk space consumption. I get through an enormous amount of disk space and the 160Mb drive on my MacBook Pro is forever needing attention to provide more space. What I now do is to copy all new RAW images onto the laptop disk, import into Aperture and review to quickly weed out those that can be deleted immediately. I do find that the number of keepers has increased with the 1Ds Mk3, but then I never used to approach a subject with a view to getting as many shots off as possible. Once I have backed things up (should be the subject of another article...) I use Aperture to start to move earlier projects (or shoots) off to the external drive that is always connected when using the laptop on the desk. At present I have most of my files from 2008 on the main drive and everything from previous years stored on the external drive. But I have just had to move off my music, podcasts and much else so the next time I do this I will start moving earlier 2008 projects off too so I can reinstate some of my other data. This may sound a bit clumsy but it is actually easier and less hassle than it may sound. But I do so wish that laptop drives were much, much larger! Just in case you wondered, I am fanatical about backing up and have other external drives to back up all my data and a regime to do so. I have worked for many years in the IT industry and know from experience that one day something will go wrong - it's not if, but when! The point of this rambling paragraph is that files from the 1Ds Mk3 are large and will rapidly eat up your available disk space. It is essential to ensure that you have a strategy and hardware to cope with the extra disk space needed, and absolutely imperative that your backup approach also makes provision for the extra storage consumption.

When I first used the 5D I used 2Gb memory cards and thought they were huge. I now use 8Gb cards in the 1Ds Mk3 which have the capacity for around 300 RAW files. This sounds a lot, but a wedding shoot can easily run to 1000 or more shots which means several cards. That's more than 20Gb of disk space required to store and another 20Gb to back them up... Being a bit paranoid I use both the CF and SD cards in the 1Ds to store the images and I normally set the camera to write to both cards simultaneously. This means I have a backup in camera - great if either a card fails or I loose one! On a few occasions I have set things to write to one card and then switch to the other when full - this would be ideal for sports or some natural history work when the frame rate will be high and difficult to break to change the memory cards. I am somewhat bewildered why Canon have chosen to have one CF and one SD slot in the camera rather than two CF slots. CF cards are faster and larger capacity (today) than SD cards, so SD cards feel a retrograde step. But then consumer cameras all tend to use SD cards, so presumably SD cards are the future?

(2008-5876) Briksdalen, Norway.
This would be a good candidate for HDR - but not necessary with the 1DsMk3!

The menus on the 1Ds are excellent and easy to find things. I particularly like the user configurable menu which I have used to group together all the commands I use on a regular basis - to format cards, set WB, mirror lock-up, etc. One missing feature, however, would be extremely useful to me and that is a camera "persona" setting. I use the 1Ds Mk3 for several types of photography which require several different settings and it would be great to save these as a group to quickly return to when needed. For example, I might have a landscape setting which uses a low ISO, manual mode, one shot AF, a custom WB, mirror lock up, write to both memory cards, etc. A sports or bird watching setup might use a higher ISO, shutter priority, AI-servo, high speed continuous shooting, etc. To go through these between shoots is a shade tedious and would be so much easier to be able to save a named set of settings. Different lenses often require different shooting styles and settings - I would so like to be able to have these set up as pre-defined setups.

I commented above about the battery. It is quite remarkable and seems to keep going forever. I still habitually carry a spare charged battery but have never had to change it. However, I have not yet taken the camera anywhere really cold which is much more likely to drain the battery much faster.

The dust removal system also works extremely well. I have only once cleaned the sensor, and that was "just in case" rather than having to rid it of spots. But I do regularly use a blower in the chamber when changing lenses, clean the rear of lenses and try to take care.

OK, so what about taking pictures? I struggle to find fault with the camera. The focussing is spot on (and I've never experienced the sort of problems recorded about the 1D Mk 3 AF), exposure is excellent, white balance is usually spot on and the great handling makes it easy to handhold both portrait and landscape formats. I have used it with everything from a 15mm fisheye to 500mm lenses but my "normal" lens is the 24-105mm f4 L IS lens. I'm occasionally troubled by a bit of distortion with this lens but sharpness is not a concern. My other regulars are:

Something I have certainly noticed with the 1Ds Mk3 is the dynamic range available. This has a marked impact on images and the level of information contained in the shadows - the implication being that shadow detail can be easily pulled back without loosing highlights, assuming of course that exposure is set to ensure highlights are not blown out. I personally maintain that this means HDR techniques are not needed as much with this camera, and anyway I very rarely find images that I like using an HDR approach - they looks unnatural to me.

So, overall, the 1Ds Mk3 have lived up to everything I expected of it and I'm absolutely delighted with it. I use it lots, very rarely picking up any other camera. Of course it could be better and I'm sure the next version will be, but for now I'm perfectly content with the camera and do not feel it constrains me in any way.

At the time of writing this it is highly likely a replacement for the now relatively old 5D will be announced. Will be interesting to see what technological developments will find their way into or at least shape the next 1Ds series camera...


Some additional reviews of the 1Ds Mk3 are available at:
Luminous Landscape
Phil Holland