A Real-World Review of the Canon 1D X Mark III

Photography Gear

As many of you know, I have been lucky enough to have a Canon EOS 1D X Mark III in my possession for more than a month now. People have been asking me to review this new top-of-the-line camera, but I really wanted to put it through its paces in order to do a fair review.

There are lots of photographers or tech reviewers who write reviews of a new product, basically looking at the spec sheets, or holding it in their hands for a couple of minutes. But in my mind, there is no better way to review a product than to use it as my primary camera for a while and really get to know it in detail.

Now that I have become pretty familiar with the ins and outs of this camera, it is time to share my findings with all of you.

So… on to the testing.

I took the camera out of the box and was happy to see that the body is very similar to the previous models, with buttons and joysticks right where I expect them. I was also happy to see a familiar battery and charger that is basically the same as the previous model.

The one big difference is that the new camera has two CFExpress card slots, which as many of you know, I was really hoping for. I like this for two reasons:

1. I like having the two extremely fast cards instead of one fast card and one legacy card format which slows everything down. This is really important because I always shoot RAW images to both cards for redundancy.

2. I like having 2 card slots using the same card format. I always found it frustrating to have a CFast slot and a CompactFlash slot in the same camera.

The first photos taken with the Canon 1D X Mark III were taken in my backyard. I like to use a new camera for non-client shoots for a while to build trust and familiarity with the camera and memory cards. The last thing I would do is use this camera on a paying job before I knew how to control it. I need to know that the images will be captured correctly in the camera and stored correctly on the memory cards before using it in a real-world situation.

This was also a time for me to try out the new CFExpress cards from ProGrade Digital. I had inserted a 512GB card in slot 1 and a 1TB card in slot 2, so capacity was not a problem!

The first couple of photos were of my dog, Cooper, who was nice enough to pose for me. It was my first time holding the camera and trying to the new smart controller for moving the focus point (more on that in a little bit). No fast action here, but it gave me a chance to inspect the image quality of the camera, which looked really great.

We were dog-sitting for a friend and our dog Cooper decided to play with Milo and give me some action shots. This was the first time trying the fast burst shooting of 16fps. The first thing I noticed with the 1D X Mark III was that it felt totally familiar in my hands.

Having used a 1D X and a 1D X Mark II in the past, I felt right at home shooting with the new body. The one big difference is that the new model has a touch screen LCD. I have gotten used to this on my Canon 5D Mark IV and find it very useful when shooting in the field.

Shooting at the fast burst rate enabled me to catch this shot of Cooper with all four paws off the ground. (Cooper forgets that he is 8 years old and still thinks he is a puppy).

This was my first chance to play around with the new smart controller. What is the smart controller? Canon took the back button focus button and added a new twist. This button now acts as a virtual joystick, so that if I move my thumb along the back of the button, the focus point will move accordingly. This can be incredibly handy, but also takes some getting used to.

There were a couple of times when I pushed the back button to focus and inadvertently moved the focus point to a location I did not want. But, with time, I have gotten used to this and really appreciate the feature a lot. What I have found is that the smart controller is optimum when shooting portraits, but I still prefer a locked single point of focus for sports.

My last trip, before all this COVID-19 craziness, was to Las Vegas for the WPPI show. I was not planning on bringing my 1D X Mark III to Las Vegas, but right before leaving, I had the offer to meet up with my buddy Drew, Canon USA’s top tech guy, who offered to help me customize the settings to get the most out of the new features of the camera. That turned out to be awesome, and I will tell you more about that in a minute.

While at the show, there was a rain booth set up for people to photograph models dancing in water. I saw this as a perfect time to try out these new settings.

I used the new 1D X Mark III at it’s full speed at 16 frames per second, with a Canon 24-105mm lens to capture the dancers. The super-fast frame rate of the camera allowed me to capture them at the peak of action.

The newer focus system also did a very good job of locking in on the dancers as they moved around at a fairly quick pace.

As I mentioned, Drew sat down with me to give me pointers on the new camera. And there is a lot to learn on this new piece of hardware. The Canon 1D X Mark III looks a lot like the Canon 1D X Mark II, but looks can be deceiving. What is under the magnesium alloy body is very different from the previous model.

One of the biggest differences of the 1D X Mark III is the new face and head detection. I was shown how to tweak the camera to take advantage of the face and head detection covering most of the frame. This means that once I locked in on a person, it would follow them even if they moved off-center from the lens.

I got credentials to shoot the San Jose Earthquakes game and put the camera to a test. I mounted the Canon 200-400mm lens to the 1D X Mark III and found the focusing system to be noticeably faster and more accurate than the 1D X Mark II.

I would lock focus on a particular athlete and then let the camera follow them from that point. As long as I kept the athlete in the frame, the tracking stayed on them, even if someone briefly ran in between them and me. This allowed me to capture images like this, where the Earthquake player is in perfect focus even though he is not in the center of the image.

The camera is capable of shooting 16 frames per second (fps) when using the shutter and 20 fps when in live view mode. This is great except that I can not imagine shooting a sporting event in live view and trying to follow fast action using the screen on the back of the camera. But, needless to say, 16 fps is plenty fast and allowed me to easily capture the peak of action during the game.

Even though I was shooting in RAW mode using the ProGrade Digital CFExpress memory cards, I never once filled the buffer of the camera. These cards can transfer 1600MB/s per second, which is nothing short of amazing.

I kept the camera in Auto White Balance for the entire afternoon and found it to be very accurate in the representation of the colors.

Note: Some of you may be wondering about the video capabilities of the new camera. But since I am primarily a still photographer, I will leave the video review to the experts who know that side of the business way more than I do.

My next test of the camera was in a completely different environment. My niece and her husband asked if we could take portraits of their one-year-old son. This time I was using the camera at higher ISOs indoors and going outside with different lenses.

Patrick did not move at the speed of a soccer player, but he definitely moved faster than a year ago, when I took his baby photos. Once again, the 1D X Mark III (this time combined with the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens) was tack sharp on his eyes.

After taking a bunch of portraits of the little guy on the grass and standing, they asked if I could get some photos of him in the swing. As soon as I started photographing him, I realized that this was a perfect test of the new focus system.

The following images really help tell the story of this new face and head tracking.

Using back button focus, I locked focus on Patrick and then hammered the shutter at the full speed of 16 fps. Even though his head was moving off-center of the frame, the focus stayed perfectly on him. You can scroll through the following images to see how accurate this was!

I figured that the black swing would interfere with the focusing of his face, but that was not the case.

This sequence is a perfect example of how I set up the shot. In this image (above) I locked focus on Patrick when he was dead center and the focus point was right on this face.

Then, as he was going back and forth, I just held down the back button and the focus points moved with him.

You can see here that his face is well off the center of the image, but the focus is still perfect. If I were to try this with the previous Canon models, I would have had to move the camera and lens to keep the focus point on his face. This would have been very difficult to do and would have yielded a lot less useable images.

The Canon 1D X Mark III has a newly designed 20.1-megapixel CMOS sensor which is ample for most of my photography. Do I wish for a little more resolution? Maybe. I do like the file sizes of the Canon 5D Mark IV which captures at 30.4MP, but having clean images at higher ISOs is still the most important thing to me. And I know that cramming more megapixels onto a sensor can degrade the high ISO sensitivity.

A couple of weeks ago, I was doing a portrait shoot for a young lady who was about to have her bat mitzvah. Well…until it was postponed due to the Covid-19 virus outbreak. For this shoot, I used the Canon 1D X Mark III with a Canon 600EX-RT flash mounted on the hot shoe of the camera.

Canon has designed a new low pass filter for better lens sharpness, and the image quality of the camera is exceptional, with the colors, skin tones and clarity being everything I was expecting from a pro camera. I don’t fully understand how the new DIGIC X image processor works, but I can tell you that everything in this camera is fast. From focusing speed, the processing of the image, to data transfer to the card.

There was one anomaly though. When I take portraits, I almost always do so in a slow burst mode. There is no need to shoot at 16 fps, and yet I never have my cameras set to a single-shot mode. I don’t like the single-shot mode since I always want to be prepared to shoot multiple images when if a perfect moment arises.

With every other Canon DSLR I have used, the slow burst mode is a predictable sequence of shots. I hit the button and I get “click….click….click”. Weirdly enough, when I had my flash on the camera and I was shooting outdoors, the frame rate was a bit erratic. I expected “click…click…click” at a predictable pace and instead I got “click..click…click.click.click” or “click…click.click…..click”. I am hoping that this is something that Canon will fix in a future firmware update.

After using the new camera for numerous shoots, I felt comfortable using it to create images at a client’s bar mitzvah. For their portraits, I loved using the smart controller to easily move the focus point out of the center and taking full advantage of the 191 focus points.

While spending time with Canon in Las Vegas, I was also shown how to use the 1D X Mark III in mirrorless mode. Since the mirror is locked out of place, this allows me to shoot with absolutely no shutter noise at all. Combining this silent mode with the face tracking autofocus is a real game-changer.

For this bar mitzvah, I was using the Canon 200-400mm lens on the 1D X Mark III, mounted on a Gitzo gimbal fluid head and tripod. It was awesome to lock focus on the boy’s face and let the camera track his movements while I silently took photos.

While shooting this way, I came across another weird anomaly. As I mentioned earlier, I like to shoot in a slow burst most of the time. When taking these photos, I had the camera in Live View mode (essentially shooting mirrorless) and also had the camera set to slow burst. But when I hit the shutter release I saw that the camera was capturing at the fastest burst rate of 20 fps.

This is complete overkill for an event like this. I sent a text to the Canon expert from the back of the Temple and he replied back and told me that when in Live View, the camera will capture either a single shot or full speed. There is currently no in-between. This is something else that I hope is changed in a future firmware release.

When I photograph events, it is quite common for me to shoot full RAW for the service and then switch to a smaller file size for the party. In the past, that meant that I would switch my files from RAW to MRAW. On the Canon 5D Mark IV, that meant that I was switching from a file size of 30MP to 17MP and a resolution of 6720×4480 down to 5040×3360.

So you can imagine my surprise when I got to the party and went to change the 1D X Mark III to MRAW and it wasn’t there. All I saw was RAW and something called CRAW, but both were listed at the same resolution of 5472×3648. It was time for another text message to my Canon contact asking for urgent help.

He explained to me that MRAW has been replaced with CRAW (in the new CR3 files) and that even though they are the same resolution, the CRAW file is more compressed. I recently tested this and found that an image taken in RAW was 25.8MB and the same exact image at CRAW was 14.3MB in size. When zooming in at 400%, I could see how the increased compression decreased the quality a bit, but it was only a slight difference.

I love the idea of having the same resolution with higher compression than a smaller resolution.

There are certain key moments during a bar mitzvah celebration, and the family members being lifted in the chair is one of them. For the last 6 years, I have relied on the Canon 1D cameras to capture this moment. Why? Because the focus system is more accurate than the Canon 5D and the camera can write to two cards faster than the less expensive cameras.

The Canon 1D X Mark III definitely proved that it could lock focus even in low light, and wrote to the two CFExpress cards faster than my flash units could keep up.

With all of this said, there are still features of the Canon 1D X Mark III that I have yet to explore, and I look forward to doing so in the near future. As many of you now know, the Summer Olympics in Tokyo has been postponed. This postponement is a major disappointment for the organizers, the athletes, the public, and me. I was so excited to use this new camera at the Games. But I guess that will have to wait for a while longer before I get that chance.

Looking on the positive side, it gives me that much more time to get familiar with the new camera before the big event.


P.S. For more of my reviews and photos, you can follow my personal blog.


About the author: Jeff Cable is a photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find more of his work on his website, Facebook, and Instagram. This article was also published here.

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