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Notes from Canon headquarters  
Thursday, May 31, 2007 | by Rob Galbraith

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Memories of Two Geishas: Rob Galbraith and friends pose for a photo at a Canon dinner in Tokyo (Photo by Scott Heath)

When the invitation comes to join one of the major players in digital imaging on a junket to a land far away, we don't hesitate too long in replying. We've been on a few such trips now, and they're always a good mix of learning and fun. They don't usually take us as far afield as Tokyo, however, which is where we've recently returned after several days at Canon's Shimomaruko-area headquarters as well as the company's Toride factory.
 
The trip, like a similar one Canon staged in 2003, was about giving the assembled group of Canadian and American technology journalists a sense of the company's corporate goals and culture - in 2006, Canon kicked off the third phase of their Excellent Global Corporation Plan - as much as it was about showcasing current products and the Canon-developed technology they contain.
 
It's an opportune time for the company to shine a light on their operations: Canon is on a roll these days, and not just because they're selling lots of cameras. In the last 10 years Canon has grown most areas of their business tremendously, and the camera division has been on fire since 2000 in particular. The result is that among manufacturing companies in Japan, Canon's market capitalization is now second only to Toyota. The 70-year-old company has perhaps never been more formidable.
 
Did we see working samples of an EOS-1Ds Mark III, EOS 40D or EOS 5D Mark II? Nope. In fact, no new products were unveiled on the trip, though we were treated to a first look at Canon's upcoming imagePROGRAF iPF5100 and iPF6100 printers as well as colour management technology that's in development (and will emerge in part with the new imagePROGRAF models). That said, we did pick up numerous bits and pieces of information about Canon and the things it makes during both presentations and impromptu conversations with Canon people at the company's corporate offices in Tokyo.
 
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Mother Ship: Canon's global headquarters in the Shimomaruko area of Tokyo (Photo courtesy Canon)
 
Here is some of what we learned.
 
Three years in the making The EOS-1D Mark III has been in development since 2004. Work on it began in earnest shortly after the EOS-1D Mark II was completed, and work on the EOS-1D Mark III continued even as the EOS-1D Mark II N was being readied for release. Tsunemasa Ohara, Senior General Manager of the Camera Development Centre at Canon and a key player in the development of all EOS cameras, said that his group didn't start out with a plan to release the EOS-1D Mark III during the 20th anniversary year of the EOS system. Instead, it just worked out that way as a natural consequence of the time it takes to create a camera of this type.
 
Seeing Triple: Backed by a three-projector Powerpoint presentation, Tsunemasa Ohara, Senior General Manager of the Camera Development Centre at Canon, discusses EOS digital SLRs. Click to enlarge. (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
 
Better by design The improved high-ISO image quality, cleaner, more natural shadow rendering and resulting broader dynamic range of the EOS-1D Mark III isn't the result of a radical new Canon CMOS sensor design. Rather, it's the sum of a number of small, evolutionary changes:
  • At 7.2m square, the pixel pitch of the EOS-1D Mark III's sensor is identical to the EOS-1Ds Mark II. But the gap between microlenses has been reduced to 0.3m in the new model, from 0.6m in the EOS-1Ds Mark II, which translates to the EOS-1D Mark III's pixels having about the same light gathering area as the EOS-1D Mark II or EOS-1D Mark II N, despite the latter two cameras having a pixel pitch of 8.2m square.

  • Each pixel's amplifier has been enlarged; this has helped to reduce dark current noise in the EOS-1D Mark III by a factor of 1.33X, relative to the EOS-1D Mark II/EOS-1D Mark II N.

  • Banding noise in the EOS-1D Mark III has been lowered by the equivalent of one stop, also relative to the EOS-1D Mark II/EOS-1D Mark II N. This has been achieved largely through improvements in the camera's firmware.

  • New noise reduction routines are employed in the EOS-1D Mark III's twin DIGIC III processors.

  • The EOS-1D Mark III is the first Canon digital SLR to employ 14-bit analog-to-digital conversion, up from 12-bit in previous models. This means the maximum number of tone steps possible in a RAW CR2 jumps from 4096 to 16,384. This is a contributing factor in the camera's smoother shadow gradations, though not the only factor.
Making highlights a priority For competitive reasons, Canon isn't revealing much about the inner workings of the EOS-1D Mark III's Highlight Tone Priority feature. Between what we've been told, however, and our own poking and prodding, a few things are clear:
 
It works! Back in April, when we published our first look at the EOS-1D Mark III, we didn't say too much about Highlight Tone Priority because we hadn't used it much. Since then, we've become believers: switching this setting on really does improve the camera's ability to maintain detail and enhance gradation in bright areas. And it's not just for white highlights, it will work its magic on any colour.
 
A simple example is below. It's a full-resolution crop of the setting sun in a wide angle frame, one in which the exposure was set to maintain a smidgeon of foreground shadow detail. It has been shot with Highlight Tone Priority set to OFF. Hold your cursor over the photo to see how the same scene was captured a few seconds later with Highlight Tone Priority set to ON. The exposure and all other settings are identical, the only change is the Highlight Tone Priority setting.
 
Highlight: Canon EOS-1D Mark III at ISO 200, Highlight Tone Priority set to OFF. Hold your cursor over the photo and see how the same scene was captured a few seconds later with Highlight Tone Priority set to ON (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
 
The difference, while not dramatic, is noticeable: the sun's round shape is more distinct and the area around the sun is less blown out when Highlight Tone Priority is enabled in the camera. Also note that applying software exposure compensation in Digital Photo Professional to the Highlight Tone Priority OFF CR2 doesn't restore the level of detail found in the Highlight Tone Priority ON version. In other words, the RAW file shot with Highlight Tone Priority ON contains more highlight detail.
 
What does this have to do with visiting Canon in Japan? Nothing, directly. But while overseas, we discussed this and other EOS-1D Mark III features at length with David Sparer, a former commercial photographer and now Senior Manager of Professional Products Marketing at Canon USA. Sparer offered us the opportunity to publish a Highlight Tone Priority comparison he shot, and because it's a persuasive demonstration of what the feature can do in situations where delicate highlight detail is critical to the success of the picture, we accepted. Sparer handed over his CR2s from the shoot, which we've processed using Digital Photo Professional 3.0.1.
 
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Unveiled: Canon EOS-1D Mark III at ISO 200, Highlight Tone Priority set to ON (Photo by David Sparer/Canon USA)
 
The frame above was taken with Highlight Tone Priority ON. In a Highlight Tone Priority OFF frame of the same scene, most of the detail in the veil disappears, the shading in brighter areas of the dress is different, and the separation between the groom's white collar and the whiter background is almost lost. Darker areas of the suit jacket show very slightly more noise too. It's difficult to appreciate these differences in small pictures on a web page. If what you shoot resembles the photo above, you'll want to check out the full-resolution versions:
These photos are for personal viewing and printing only. They may not be republished in any form without the permission of the copyright holder. This includes the posting of these photos onto another server.
Both photos are in the Adobe RGB colour space, include an embedded ICC profile and have been sharpened using Smart Sharpen in Photoshop CS3. To get a proper look at the photos, download and open them in Photoshop or another image viewer that enables you to magnify them fully.
 
To download, right-click on a link above and select your browser's option for saving the photo to your hard drive. If you view them in your browser, and you're on Windows, they'll look flat, since no Windows browser can properly display photos with embedded ICC profiles. UPDATE, JUNE 13, 2007: the web browser Safari 3 for Windows, just released as a public beta, does colour manage the display of photos with embedded profiles.
 
Note that the pose in each frame isn't identical. The bride's head position in the Highlight Tone Priority OFF version is such that the veil doesn't extend out quite as far. Though as you'll see, it wouldn't much matter if it did, since most of the detail in the veil is lost in the OFF version.
 
A Highlight Tone Priority image is processed differently in the camera, regardless of whether the camera is set to CR2 or JPEG. Specifically, the amount of gain applied during the analog-to-digital conversion step is less. For instance, if the camera is set to ISO 200, the amount of gain applied is similar to or the same as ISO 100, which means more of the highlight detail captured by the sensor is preserved during this early in-camera processing step. This is the main reason the camera can't be set lower than ISO 200 when Highlight Tone Priority is enabled; it requires the extra highlight headroom it gets by applying a level of analog signal boost to the sensor data that is commensurate with a lower ISO setting.
 
After that, it's all secret sauce: Canon isn't publicly describing what is done to the image once it's in digital form, but it obviously involves a modified tone curve that's meant to give Highlight Tone Priority ON photos the same overall tonal look as Highlight Tone Priority OFF ones, but with more detail and smoother gradation in the highlights.
 
Finishing the autofocus In our first look article on the EOS-1D Mark III, we described both the joys and frustrations of using a preproduction body to shoot sports. We also said that at the time the preproduction camera was issued to us we were told the autofocus wasn't finished. In Japan, we learned what Canon's AF engineers had yet to complete prior to shipping, and it's not likely to impact the camera's overall autofocus behaviour. For us, this means the jury is still out on EOS-1D Mark III autofocus until we've used a production camera for a little while. Look for an article in June on this very subject.
 
Update, June 19, 2007: We've now published an analysis of EOS-1D Mark III autofocus performance based on shipping cameras.
 
Millions served By the end of 2006, Canon had shipped about 27 million EOS cameras (film and digital) and about 30 million EF-series lenses since the inception of the EOS line in 1987. Also by the end of 2006, in about a 10-year period, Canon has produced 83 different compact digital camera models and sold about 63 million of them. The company has sold about 200 million Canon cameras since the first commercial model was released in 1937, and intends to keep making film cameras as long as it's financially practical to do so.
 
As a portion of Canon's overall business, cameras (both still and video) have grown from 9.0% in 1997 to 11.7% in 2000 to 25.1% in 2006. The strong growth of the camera division within the company in the last six years is almost entirely because of Canon's market success in the digital arena.
 
Small but profitable Masanori Uchidoi, Group Executive for the Photo Products Group, says that Canon's professional photography products such as 1-series cameras and L-series lenses are a small but important part of the company. That's because its pro products are the source of much of the technological innovation in the camera division, innovation that trickles down to the rest of the line. Plus, he says, pro products provide a stable source of profit (though presumably this profit represents a very small part of Canon's immense earnings these days).
 
About 30,000 photographers are Canon Pro Service (CPS) members worldwide.
 
No more whittling Though almost all of the early-stage prototyping of new Canon cameras is now done on computer, the transition away from handmade balsa wood prototypes only began in earnest in the last six or seven years. To help make this point, Canon showed several handmade mockups, including a wooden EOS-1D attached to a wooden EF 200mm f/1.8L.
 
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Lightweight: Views of balsa wood mockups of an EOS-1D and EF 200mm f/1.8L. Click either of the two bottom photos to enlarge. (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
 
Made in Japan Canon cameras are designed at the company's headquarters in Shimomaruko. All EOS cameras plus most Powershot compact cameras are manufactured at two factories in Oita. Sensor design and fabrication takes place in Ayase. Most EF lenses are designed and built in Utsunomiya.
 
Since 1997, Canon has moved away from assembly line to cell-based manufacturing, including for the production of cameras and lenses. The Japan trip included a tour of Canon's Toride copier factory to see cell-based manufacturing in action.
 
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Cells R Us: A copier being assembled inside Canon's Toride factory (Photo courtesy Canon)
 
Printmaking During the trip, Canon showed off elements of its Kyuanos colour technology, including a way-cool demonstration of screen-to-print colour matching under different types of ambient light. (Canon has a colour matching test room that must be the envy of colour geeks worldwide.)
 
Canon researchers have developed their own printer profiling methods as well as their own system for compensating for print colour shifts under different lighting types. The latter capability will be in the Windows printer driver that accompanies the upcoming imagePROGRAF iPF5100 and 6100 printers, as well as the extra-cost Poster Artist for Windows software for these printers. There are no immediate plans, however, to release Canon printer profiling software.
 
In 2006, Canon claimed 11% of the wide-format printer market worldwide.
 
The Pixma Pro9500 printer was delayed while engineers tackled mechanical design flaws that negatively impacted its printing of black and white, says Katsuichi Shimizu, Chief Executive of Inkjet Products Operations. Correcting the problem took about a year, but the printer is now shipping.
 
Looking ahead Canon intends to offer a new file format in future digital cameras, says Masaya Maeda, Chief Executive of Image Communication Products Operations for Canon. The format could be in addition to or in replacement of either JPEG or CR2 RAW, but the company is still studying its options and hasn't committed to any one format as yet.
 
OLED displays will emerge in Canon digital cameras at some point, but not before 2009, says Maeda.
 
Canon has recently begun making CMOS sensors for certain Canon consumer digital video camera models, in addition to its digital SLRs. One interpretation of this move is that it's Canon's first step towards incorporating its own CMOS sensors in PowerShot cameras, which currently utilize CCD sensors made by Sony.
 
Canon is aware of the growing interest in video at newspapers and wire services. But, says Tsunemasa Ohara, Senior General Manager of Canon's Camera Development Centre, the company is not at the point of commercializing a video product aimed at this market.
 
Supersize The trip wasn't all work. We also had an opportunity to photograph the power and athleticism of sumo wrestlers at a local sumo stable.
 
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Vise Grip: Training at a sumo stable in Tokyo (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
 
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