Canon EOS 1D X review

5 out of 5
£4975

For

Super fast burst rate, incredible battery life, hard as nails build quality, detailed AF system, great image quality and class-leading dynamic range

Against

No clean HDMI out or headphone jack limit professional movie capture, it's heavy and expensive, should have been firmware 1.1.1 from the get go, live view sees no further advances

Various put-backs and delays had plagued the Canon EOS 1D X's path to the shelves, but Canon was in no rush to put out an inferior product. After all this is touted to be the world's best full-frame professional DSLR camera, as its near-£5000 body-only price clearly asserts.

It's been more than a full year since we first saw the full-frame Canon EOS 1D X in the, so to speak, flesh. We've been playing with it for several weeks to ensure that no stone - or, indeed, menu option - has remained unturned. This is one detailed and thorough piece of kit.

Just how successful is the EOS 1D X in its bid for professional DSLR perfection?

A clear professional

Some might gasp "silly money", but the 1D X's high price is a reflection of its heavyweight features. It's not a casual bit of kit by any means, nor would we want it to be.

It's big and heavy in the hand, but properly supported and the camera's great to use in both portrait or landscape positions. We do find the portrait orientation's array of buttons to be a teeny bit of a further stretch, but it feels more natural flipping between the two over time.

Dust and weather-sealed, the 1D X is no stranger to a bit of the wet stuff. And true to the UK's delightful bounty of wind, rain and general misery in the run up to the colder Christmas climes, the camera body was more comfortable taking a weather-related beating than our less technologically advanced bodies. Short of dunking it in a pool of water there's not a lot of mud, sand, dust or rain that'll slow this camera down.

The all-encompassing 100 per cent field-of-view optical viewfinder is fantastic in use, and the 3.2in 1,040k-dot screen plays back images with exceptional clarity and colour.

Speed demon

As well as an 18-megapixel full-frame sensor, the Canon 1D X's premier feature is its 61-point autofocus system and staggeringly fast 12 frames per second continuous shooting mode. It's tempting to don a suit and shout, "Say hello to my liddle friend" with each long hold of the shutter. It's machine-gun-esque clatter is not only hugely satisfying, it's also quicker than any other professional DSLR out there. It's this which makes the 1D X a considerable force to be reckoned with, and the standout feature that warrants the high asking price. Lock the mirror up and sacrifice both auto exposure and autofocus and that burst can stretch yet further to 14fps.

That's what the 1D X is all about: speed. The autofocus system is super fast and the complexity of the way it can be set up is full of precision detail.

There are six autofocus pre-sets, called "cases", that range from "versatile multi purpose" to "erratic subjects moving quickly" that each define the system's three main responses: tracking sensitivity, speed of acceleration/deceleration and how rapidly the autofocus point will switch from one to another. It's this kind of detail that just isn't available in consumer cameras, and it's an essential part of this Canon's tapestry of features that make it just so good at shooting moving subjects.

Not only that, but it's highly customisable too. Each of the three responses can be adjusted to a +/-2 sensitivity and saved in order to tweak the set-up to respond as you want it to. Much the same can be said about the display of autofocus points too: view none, the active central point, hide the focus point upon focus being made and all manner or other options are available within the settings, including whether focus has to be absolute before the shutter will fire and whether preference can be given to speed rather than focus of the successive shots. Phew. Exhausting. But exhaustively brilliant.

Low-light performance is exceptional too. Sensitive to -2EV, the autofocus system is capable in very limited light. It does slow a little, but being able to quickly acquire focus when shooting nothing more than tea lights is impressive nonetheless.

However the live preview using the rear LCD screen is one area in which Canon has not advanced. It's workable enough, but it's not pushing the limits like some other more recent live view technologies are.

Worth the wait

Although impressed with the Canon body that was delivered, there was one niggling nuisance we found with the 1D X's continuous autofocus system: it doesn't visually update the selected focus point by highlighting that point in red.

At least that was the case when we first took delivery of the camera. On 22 October 2012 Canon issued its firmware v1.1.1 to the world - an update that corrected that very issue. We do think that the camera should have been to its v1.1.1 standard upon launch, particularly after such long delays, but hey, it's here now. And by gosh it's awesome.

Those familiar with the 61-point Canon EOS 5D Mark III's autofocus system will be right at home with the 1D X, as they are one and the same, right down to low light sensitivity and their 41 cross-type sensors, five of which are sensitive to f/2.8.

READ: Canon EOS 5D Mark III review

A big ask will be from the upgraders. Because a tool like this is built to last a long time, as was the 1Ds Mark III, it's often possible to skip a generation without too much worry. Compared to its full-frame predecessor there are a lot of extras to be had from the latest: a considerably faster burst rate and more advanced focus system are the obvious highlights. The drop in resolution may seem an oddity, but read on below for the ins and outs of image quality.

Image quality

Despite being nestled at the top of the Canon DSLR tree, the camera hierarchy isn't dictated by resolution by any means. The 1D X's 18-megapixel sensor may seem almost conservative compared to the 36-megapixel Nikon D800 and 24-megapixel Sony A900 cameras out there. But to compare it that way would be unjust: the trait of the top-spec models is that their sensors don't cram in the resolution - take a look at the Nikon D4, for example, which has a yet-lower 16-megapixel resolution.

READ: Nikon D4 review

The question is more whether the 1D X's output size is bothersome or not, largely because it's less resolute than the far more affordable 5D Mark III.

It's a yes and no answer. While the 1D X's shots are still large enough to crop into, and resolute enough to provide blistering amounts of detail, the 5D Mark III does have a slight resolution advantage. But here's the clincher: the 1D X offers class-leading dynamic range from its mid-high ISO shots.

Raw files are choc-full of information, sometimes to their detriment without processing. Coloured light sources, for example, are saturated and lack the contrast boost of their JPEG counterparts, as shown below, but some tweaking and they look glorious.

JPEG (bottom left) vs. raw (top right)

Could Canon have upped the resolution? Probably, but that may well have been at the cost of dynamic range, AND previous conversations with Canon representatives have confirmed that the company is unlikely to make a sensor higher resolution than 22-megapixels any time soon. We think the 18-megapixel mark is fitting for a camera of this type, and its results are unquestionably spectacular.

The 1D X is sensitive from ISO 100 through to a mind-boggling ISO 204,800. Above ISO 25,600 where the settings are "extended" and blacks fail to be quite black, image noise is escalated and detail lacks, but there are few cameras that can output such high ISO shots. But before that - such as the unprocessed raw shot taken at ISO 12,800, below - the results are still spectacular:

ISO 12,800 (untouched raw file, JPEG conversion)

But it's the more commonly used low-mid settings that impress the most. For when you need that extra dash of sensitivity to keep movement "paused", or the lens reaches its widest aperture and needs to be compensated with a raise in sensitivity, there's no fear of doing so with this camera. In fact we'd say it's about two-three stops better throughout the range compared to the APS-H sensor Canon 1D Mark IV, which will make a huge difference for fast-paced sports and low-light shooting where it's unlikely you'll be shooting below ISO 800 should a long lens be in use.

ISO 1600 sample image

With a focus system that's sensitive to -2EV we've had a lot of fun snapping handheld shots in city twilight with staggering results too. It's a mixture of performance and sensor capabilities that make up just how good the Canon's images can be - it opens the toolbox right up to make the trickiest of conditions accessible to shoot in.

Throughout testing we had the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L USM attached firmly to the front at all times. It's sharp, but we known from previous experience that there are plenty of other top-class Canon lenses out there too. They may not be cheap, but for the best of the best Canon sure does get a tick in the box.

Movie magic and madness

Canon had established itself as the frontrunner of movie capture in DSLR cameras, but despite plenty of good from the 1D X, there are some serious omissions from its features.

On the positive side, the full-frame sensor can capture 1080p clips at 30, 25 or 24fps and there's a microphone input. The quality is excellent, ALL-I compression is available at 24fps, and although autofocus isn't available it is possible to live adjust aperture and other settings.

But then there are the downsides: there's no headphone output or clean HDMI out for uncompressed preview and recording to an external device. If you're not buying the camera for its movie capabilities then you may not care, but for the top-of-the-line model to miss this out seems absurd for its near-£5,000 asking price. It's not by accident either: the movie-industry-targeted Canon 1D C adds all the bells and whistles but doubles the price. Yup, that's £10k for just the body.

Verdict

Good things come to those who wait. And wait we did. Three years after the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, and more than a year after its initial reveal, the 1D X has lived up to its hype. It's a stormer of a DSLR that stomps all over its predecessors.

There's little bad to say about this camera. Well, that might depend if you can afford it or not. If £5,000 for the body is way out of reach - and we suspect that it will be - then look to the 5D Mark III model which has a large number of the 1D X's features for a cut of the price.

Although video lacks all the bells and whistles that it ought to, firmware 1.1.1 should have been the base operability from day one, and ergonomically we prefer the Nikon D4 - but existing Canon users with lenses are about as likely to go and sniff around the other camp as, well, you can finish that line with whichever inappropriate joke you fancy - on the stills front the 1D X is one impressive shooter that's perfect for studio, sports and low-light photography.

This is no casual snapper; the Canon EOS 1D X is an incredible tool. It's super fast and that's its main selling point. But it's also strong, has a battery that more or less refuses to die per charge, and produces images with class leading dynamic range. You see where we're going with this: the 1D X is an astounding pro-spec DSLR worthy of all kinds of brilliant accolades.