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Canon EOS-1Ds delivers detail, and lots of it  
Sunday, October 20, 2002 | by
Summing up EOS-1Ds image quality is difficult. On the one hand, the camera delivers crisp, detailed photos which are effectively noise-free at ISO 100, and surprisingly clean at ISO 1250. On the other hand, certain 16-35mm photos contain heaps of chromatic aberration, while portrait colour can be too vivid and contrasty.

This article explores both ends of EOS-1Ds image quality, based on several weeks of real world testing of an early preproduction unit. This body has exhibited some oddball behaviour, including blurriness on the right side of extreme wide angle pictures, wonky AI Servo autofocus and a propensity to lock up when mated to a PocketWizard MultiMAX. Given that this body is not fully operational, the only safe assumption is that final image quality is still up for grabs too.

This article is divided into two sections. Use the links below to navigate to a particular section.

An Overview of EOS-1Ds Image Quality

An EOS-1Ds Portfolio

An Overview of EOS-1Ds Image Quality

Reveling in the Detail

Managing the EOS-1D's 11 million pixel photos is hard work, especially for a digital SLR user accustomed to shooting, transferring, processing, editing and archiving files from sub-6 million pixel cameras. Heck, even keeping up with the camera's voracious appetite for CompactFlash cards has been an adjustment for me.

Is the extra effort worth it? Oh baby, and how. EOS-1Ds photographs are just dripping with detail, the sort of detail that appears equally crisp and fine in 5 x 7, 8 x 10 and 12 x 18 inch enlargements. At its best, the preproduction EOS-1Ds body in hand here generates photos that match or exceed the level of clarity of the best 6x6 Hasselblad and Mamiya 6x7 prints I've ever made. Yes, this is yet another digital vs film comparison. But it's not the sort of silly digital-to-scanned-film matchup that pervades photographic publications these days; I mean a real comparison, Mano a Mano, of the best each format has to offer.


Big prints and the EOS-1Ds

In my case, that's fibre-based and RC custom prints from TMax 100 B&W vs both colour and black and white EOS-1Ds photos printed on a Canon S9000. Arguably, in such a comparison, digital should be at a disadvantage, given the use of a desktop inkjet for the digital output. As it turns out, this is no handicap. The smallest landscape detail in EOS-1Ds frames holds up at or beyond the level of the traditional darkroom prints, even when comparing at the equivalent of a 16 x 20 inch enlargement. I'm talking about fine, smooth, photographic detail, free from sharpening-induced pixelation or other digital oddities.

Photos from the current crop of 6MP digital SLR models can't keep pace. Similar-size prints from the Nikon D1X, Nikon D100, Canon EOS D60 and Kodak DCS 760 look reasonably detailed and crisp on their own, but clearly lack the fine detail rendering capabilities of the EOS-1Ds. This is evident at 12 x 18, but it's also evident at 8 x 10 with all but DCS 760 files. Overall, the detail level in the other cameras' photos look good. But the detail in some EOS-1Ds photos is so good that large prints take on a 3 dimensional quality.

If you want class-leading detail from your digital SLR, this camera delivers. Look for only the upcoming Kodak DCS Pro 14n to possibly provide equivalent or greater detail.

The Flip Side: Chromatic Aberration and the "Blur Spot"

Reveling in the extraordinary detail of EOS-1Ds photos has been the highlight of my use of the upcoming full frame digital SLR from Canon. There is a flip side to EOS-1Ds image quality, however, that manifests itself in two areas:

  • Chromatic aberration. Certain wide angle photos show massive amounts of it, enough that it could limit the use of at least the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L lens at its wider settings. Chromatic aberration, where colours appear out of register along the edges of high contrast areas, manifests itself primarily as red and/or green borders, though one cityscape photo also shows some intense colour bleeding in an area of particularly high contrast (the latter problem may not be accurately described as chromatic aberration - at this point I'm not sure). This phenomenon is apparent only in photos taken with two different 16-35mm f/2.8 zooms, not with other, longer Canon lenses. While it's possible that the sheer volume of chromatic aberration is a quirk limited to the preproduction EOS-1Ds that captured the photos, it's more likely that this will be typical of what EOS-1Ds users can expect, at least with some extreme wide angle lenses and certain high contrast scenes.

  • The "Blur Spot." That's what we've been calling it around the Little Guy Media offices, anyway. It's an image quality problem that is so odd, and so pronounced, that I'm assuming it's limited to this preproduction body. The Blur Spot is an area on the right side, and only the right side, of wide angle photographs that is well, blurry. It's not present in 16-35mm f/2.8 photos shot at 35mm. But below about 26mm, it becomes evident that a large portion of the right side of the frame is blurry, though not in the corners. As the focal length creeps towards 16mm, the effect increases. It would be easy to dismiss this as a lens alignment problem, except that it occurs with two different 16-35mm f/2.8 lenses. The problem is so acute that it really must be limited to this body. In the unlikely event that it's not, however, it's something for prospective EOS-1Ds purchasers to keep an eye out for, since it has hampered the use of the 16-35mm f2.8 at settings wider than about 28mm.

Canon Colour

Photographs of colour patch charts and real scenes reveal the EOS-1Ds as being from the same colour family as the EOS-1D and the EOS D60. In a message in the forums on the site, D60 user Peggy Bair summed up the colour from her camera this way:

I noticed that the skin tones (as well as other parts of the photo) seem overly saturated. I love the desaturate feature that helps tweak images but thought I'd ask here if there are others who have already found "comfort" settings for, say, portraits. I like the saturated colors for landscape but it (is) too much for skin.

This has been my exact experience with the 1D and D60 on each camera's default settings, and the 1Ds is no different in this regard. Autumn scenes have looked great; portraits, particularly of people who have a hint of redness in their cheeks, can become overly vivid. As with the other two cameras, this is principally a function of the default tone curve that Canon colour scientists seem to favour, which makes for overly heavy shadows and overly intense skin tone colour at times.

Fortunately, this isn't a limitation of the imaging sensor, because a custom tone curve makes a world of difference in the 1D and 1Ds. Ultimately my solution for Canon cameras has been to create a custom camera profile using ColorEyes; armed with that, Canon colour and I get along just fine.

The point of the story is this: if you spend your photographic day shooting real people, sometimes lit with a softbox, and sometimes lit with the noonday sun, you'll probably find the EOS-1Ds' default tone curve too heavy. You may also find the colour processing to be too saturated, especially in the reds, even on the so-called low saturation settings: Color Matrix 4 and Color Matrix 5. Fortunately, this is solvable by moving away from Canon's defaults to tone and colour processing of your own choosing.

This article is about demonstrating what the camera delivers right out of the box, however, and as such all photographs have been processed using the standard tone curve on Color Matrix 4 (Adobe RGB). If you find the photos to be too heavy in the way I've described, keep in mind that there are solutions. But also make your opinion known to Canon representatives, since Canon digital SLR designers seem to be under the impression that more colour is better colour. And for what I typically photograph, that isn't the case.

Note: Be sure to read the Viewing Tips sidebar to ensure that your computer is configured to view the photos in this article with maximum colour accuracy.

The heavy colour approach isn't Canon's exclusively. But Canon does seem to lead the way in this regard. You'll see an example of what I mean below.

Noise, or Lack Thereof

A CMOS sensor that produces fairly clean image data, coupled with some really good behind-the-scenes noise processing, means EOS-1Ds photos at ISO 100 appear on screen and on the printed page to be noiseless. In fact, there is almost a complete absence of digital graininess in the colour channels at the camera's base ISO. Scratch a little deeper, by opening up the shadows a lot, and there is definitely noise present, coupled with an odd green colour shift. But this is in extreme cases only, and shouldn't impair image quality except when performing extreme shadow rescue operations.

At ISO 1250, properly exposed pictures are still eminently usable, thanks to a complete lack of pattern noise. The noise that's there is both randomly distributed, which makes it less offensive to the eye, and easily muted by the Quantum Mechanic Pro noise reduction filter. In fact, properly-exposed ISO 1250 night football photographs look stunning at 12 x 18 inches.

The scenes I've photographed at the camera's higher ISO settings - ISO 800, 1000 and 1250 - have been assisted by some near-freezing temperatures, since a chilled image sensor produces a cleaner picture. The cold weather benefit, however, is minor; the noise-reducing effect of cold weather benefits long exposures more than short, higher ISO ones. Still, the higher ISO photos available for download are perhaps slightly cleaner than higher ISO test chart photographs taken at room temperature. So, consider the photographs to be on the ideal side of what will probably be typical from this camera in available darkness.

An EOS-1Ds Portfolio

The photographs in this section seem to be typical of what the preproduction EOS-1Ds body is capable of, demonstrating both its strengths and weaknesses. Some photos, particularly those that tax the detail-grabbing limits of the camera, are available as full-resolution photos, converted from RAW on default settings using Canon's File Viewer Utility, then saved out of Photoshop 7.01 as baseline optimized JPEGs at a quality setting of 11. You can safely consider these photos as being faithful to the RAW originals.

I've selected photographs that show detail, colour, noise and chromatic aberration. Not available for download are photos that show the worst of the Blur Spot phenomenon, though you will see it creeping into several wide shots. In fairness to Canon, I've chosen not to play up this aspect of EOS-1Ds image quality, since I'm confident, or at least I'm really hoping, that the problem is restricted to this EOS-1Ds body, or this EOS-1Ds body and the 16-35mm.

Without further ado, the photographs.

Detail

Like all photos from cameras equipped with optical low-pass filters in front of the sensor, unsharpened EOS-1Ds images appear soft when opened and viewed at 100% magnification in Photoshop. Following my standard practice of sharpening twice - once to counter the blurring effects of the low-pass filter, and again later to counter the softening effects of most ink-on-paper printing processes - EOS-1Ds prints sing. But, unless otherwise marked, the full-res photos below are unsharpened.


A 100% magnification detail from an EOS-1Ds photo, before (left) and after first-pass sharpening

Regular readers of this site know that I advocate making good-quality prints, then assessing those, in addition to what you see on the screen, before deciding what you do and don't like about EOS-1Ds image quality. My first sharpening pass for EOS-1Ds photos has been with Photoshop's Unsharp Mask filter, dialing in an Amount between 300-450%, a Radius of 0.3 and a Threshold of 0-2. That's immediately followed by a Fade Unsharp Mask step, with the Fade function set to Luminosity. Try it and you'll see how EOS-1Ds detail jumps out, and how the final print improves from this first sharpening pass (coupled with whatever sharpening is required later, after the image is resampled for the output size and printing process).

Note: For an overview of the sharpening process, see an article I authored for another web site called Understanding Sharpening.


Zoom|Full-Resolution
Camera: Canon EOS-1Ds (preproduction)
Orig. File Format: RAW
Lens: EF 16-35mm f/2.8 (at 35mm)
ISO: 100
Shutter: 1 second
Aperture: 13
Color Matrix: 4 (Adobe RGB)
WB: Auto
Sharpening: Standard/0
Conversion from RAW: Canon File Viewer Utility

Notes: The full-res version is unsharpened. Open in Photoshop as an Adobe RGB (1998) file to ensure accurate viewing (including overly heavy shadows, typical of Canon's standard tone curve processing).

To download a full-res version of this photo that has been first-pass sharpened (Amount: 450% Radius: 0.3 Threshold: 0, luminosity only) and adjusted to open the deep shadows, click here. This version has been sharpened particularly aggressively to give a sense of the fine detail limits of the EOS-1Ds. Normally, I would selectively back off on the sharpening in lit signage and other detail that looks best without much sharpening, but to keep things simple I've hammered the entire photo with the same intensity of Unsharp Mask.


Zoom|Full-Resolution
Camera: Canon EOS-1Ds (preproduction)
Orig. File Format: RAW
Lens: EF 16-35mm f/2.8 (at 23mm)
ISO: 100
Shutter: 1 second
Aperture: 13
Color Matrix: 4 (Adobe RGB)
WB: Auto
Sharpening: Standard/0
Conversion from RAW: Canon File Viewer Utility

Notes: The full-res version is unsharpened. Open in Photoshop as an Adobe RGB (1998) file to ensure accurate viewing (including overly heavy shadows, typical of Canon's standard tone curve processing).

This photo shows perhaps a slight drop in fine detail, relative to the 35mm frame above. It also shows the beginnings of the Blur Spot problem on the right side of the frame.


Zoom|Full-Resolution
Camera: Canon EOS-1Ds (preproduction)
Orig. File Format: RAW
Lens: EF 300mm f/4.0 IS
ISO: 100
Shutter: 1/400
Aperture: 14
Color Matrix: 4 (Adobe RGB)
WB: Auto
Sharpening: Standard/0
Conversion from RAW: Canon File Viewer Utility

Notes: The full-res version is unsharpened. Open in Photoshop as an Adobe RGB (1998) file to ensure accurate viewing (including overly heavy shadows, typical of Canon's standard tone curve processing).

This photo, while crisp, is not as crisp as similar photos shot with an EF 300mm f/2.8, though the differences are slight. I noticed this first in actual photos, then compared the results from lens resolution test chart images; sure enough, the 300mm f2.8 appears to be the sharper lens overall, at least when mated to the EOS-1Ds. This may not be news for some, but it was for me, since with lower-resolution digital SLR cameras I'd never noticed a difference between these two Canon lenses. EOS-1Ds fine detail rendering is so good that subtle lens differences like this begin to present themselves.


Zoom|Full-Resolution
Camera: Canon EOS-1Ds (preproduction)
Orig. File Format: RAW
Lens: EF 16-35mm f/2.8 (at 24mm)
ISO: 800
Shutter: 1/1600
Aperture: 5.6
Color Matrix: 4 (Adobe RGB)
WB: Auto
Sharpening: Standard/0
Conversion from RAW: Canon File Viewer Utility

Notes: The full-res version is unsharpened. Open in Photoshop as an Adobe RGB (1998) file to ensure accurate viewing. The pancake-flat light gets a needed contrast injection from the EOS-1Ds standard tone curve.

Excellent detail for ISO 800, with pronounced blurring on the right side of the frame - the infamous Blur Spot.


Zoom|Full-Resolution
Camera: Canon EOS-1Ds (preproduction)
Orig. File Format: RAW
Lens: EF 16-35mm f/2.8 (at 16mm)
ISO: 100
Shutter: 1/4
Aperture: 11
Sharpening: Standard/0
Conversion from RAW: Canon File Viewer Utility
Colour to Grayscale Conversion: Photoshop Channel Mixer

Notes: The full-res version is unsharpened. Open in Photoshop as an Adobe RGB (1998) file to ensure accurate viewing.

This photo is presented again, in colour, below, but it was originally conceived as a black and white photo, and so is shown in black and white here.

Chromatic Aberration

The EOS-1Ds is not the first digital SLR camera to exhibit noticeable chromatic aberration. Both the EOS-1D and Kodak DCS 760, for example, are subject to this as well, when certain wide angle lenses are attached. These three cameras all have something in common: their sensors are larger than most other digital SLR cameras, with the EOS-1Ds sporting the largest of the trio, at almost 24 x 36mm.

If you want to learn more about what chromatic aberration is, and what causes it, here are some web sites to check out:

Note: Strictly speaking, chromatic aberration is an aberration of the lens, not the camera. BUT, digital camera sensors, and how they respond to the light that strikes them, play a role in enhancing chromatic aberration in a way that film doesn't. As such, I've chosen to talk about this optical abnormality as being a camera problem, though it's probably more precise to say it's a problem with certain 35mm SLR lenses that may not be optimized for large-sensor digital SLR cameras, even though they are fine for film camera use. Since that describes virtually all 35mm SLR lenses from Canon, Nikon and others, however, chromatic aberration today becomes a problem that larger sensor digital cameras are destined to enjoy more of. Even if you don't have one of these cameras, or a digital camera at all for that matter, you can still treat yourself to some chromatic aberration. Simply shoot with an inferior-quality wide angle lens.

What EOS-1Ds chromatic aberration looks like is easy to demonstrate. One frame, taken with the 16-35mm at 16mm, captures the essence of this image quality hiccup. Shown below are two sections pulled from the left side of the frame. Note the green and red trim on the Delta and Telus buildings, and the bleeding of the reflected light in the upper windows of the Telus building.


100% magnification view of an unsharpened EOS-1Ds photo


100% magnification view of an unsharpened EOS-1Ds photo

To view a larger, 100% magnification section of this photo, one that has been first-pass sharpened, click here. For another example of chromatic aberration, download the full resolution version of the photo below. You'll see green colour fringing in the ribs of the corrugated metal tunnel. The fringing increases towards the edge of the frame.


Zoom|Full-Resolution
Camera: Canon EOS-1Ds (preproduction)
Orig. File Format: RAW
Lens: EF 16-35mm f/2.8 (at 16mm)
ISO: 100
Shutter: 1/4
Aperture: 11
Color Matrix: 4 (Adobe RGB)
WB: Auto
Sharpening: Standard/0
Conversion from RAW: Canon File Viewer Utility

Notes: The full-res version is unsharpened. Open in Photoshop as an Adobe RGB (1998) file to ensure accurate viewing.

This photo is the full colour version of the black and white photo from the previous section. In the full-resolution version, you'll see green fringing in the ribs of the corrugated metal.

Chromatic aberration as extreme as this will only rear its ugly head when the scene conditions are right. Lots of contrast in the objects at the edges of the frame, as well as aberration-prone colour combinations, can translate into heaps of out-of-register edge detail. Shoot a different scene, where the edge detail is, say, a relatively flat green and against blue, and there may be no evidence of chromatic aberration. Turn the lens towards something contrasty, with lots of white against black, and suddenly, the effect returns.

A different model of Canon wide angle (ie a prime wide angle, not a zoom) may produce different results. And the shipping EOS-1Ds cameras may not suffer as greatly from this problem. Having said that, the amount of chromatic aberration in preproduction EOS-1Ds photos is pretty much in line with what I was expecting, given the dimensions of its imaging sensor. If so, one or more Canon wide lenses, including the versatile 16-35mm f/2.8, may not be usable at their widest settings in all situations.

Colour

Landscapes really come to life with the EOS-1Ds. The saturation and contrast boost injects welcome punch into relatively sedate scenes. Vistas with good contrast and vividness already, however, are in danger of having their colour run down the front of the monitor, so intense can be the photographed result. And this is on Color Matrix 4 or 5, which are the least punchy of the camera's 5 colour look settings. Overall, I really like EOS-1Ds colour for outdoor pictures in which human subjects don't figure prominently, but I'm always on guard for too vivid colour.

Note: Be sure to read the Viewing Tips sidebar to ensure that your computer is configured to view the photos in this article with maximum colour accuracy.

Here are some examples:


Early fall near Banff, Canada (Zoom)


Lonely football fans (Zoom)

Note: Neither of the above photos is available as a full-res download. The landscape scene is overly afflicted with the Blur Spot, while the lonely fans are backfocused, so neither is a candidate for pixel-by-pixel examination.

Skin tone colour can be just fine with the EOS-1Ds, but the standard tone and colour processing, regardless of Color Matrix setting, is best described as unforgiving. Shoot a young model with milky white skin, and what you see is what you'll get: pleasing skin colour. Photograph someone who has lived a little and the results may not be as good. In particular, white skin that's somewhat red can become unpleasantly icky. In fact, stumbling over this problem with the EOS-1D late last year prompted me to create a custom camera profile for that camera, a process I've repeated with the EOS-1Ds with excellent results.

The subject below is a good example of this. Slightly red-faced to begin with, the heavy tone curve, combined with colour processing that accentuates red, results in a portrait that is both unrealistic and unflattering. It's almost hard to tell a that a large softbox is the main light.


Standard tone and colour processing (Zoom|Full-Res)

Switching to a custom camera profile created with ColorEyes brings about pleasing portrait contrast, reminiscent of softbox illumination, and more accurate and pleasing skin colour. This is about as red as the subject's skin is. If you compared the zoomed versions of the two frames you'll get the best sense of the differences.


Custom camera profile processing (Zoom)

This collection of EOS-1Ds pictures wouldn't be complete without at least one frame of my son Fergus:


(Zoom|Full-Res)

For more examples of EOS-1Ds colour, please examine the photographs in the Detail and Noise sections.

Noise

AI Servo autofocus is not functioning properly in the EOS-1Ds preproduction body on loan. As a result, the camera has been relegated to backup duty when shooting sports. Still, I have managed to shoot enough frames at ISO 800 and above to feel comfortable saying that the camera is going to be a decent performer when trolling the upper ISO regions.

Once armed with a production EOS-1Ds, I fully expect to be able to cover night football, indoor basketball and the like, as long as the venue doesn't require more sensitivity than ISO 1250. In fact, if I have a high ISO complaint, it's the lack of one or more ISO increments above ISO 1250 in the camera, since it looks like the EOS-1Ds could deliver usable ISO 1600 pictures if exposed carefully. The only real limiting factor at ISO 1250 seems to be a faint white pixel pattern that surfaces when sharpening the picture for printed output.


Zoom|Full-Resolution
Camera: Canon EOS-1Ds (preproduction)
Orig. File Format: RAW
Lens: EF 300mm f/2.8
ISO: 1250
Shutter: 1/800
Aperture: 2.8
Color Matrix: 4 (Adobe RGB)
WB: Auto
Sharpening: Standard/0
Conversion from RAW: Canon File Viewer Utility

Notes: The full-res version is unsharpened. Open in Photoshop as an Adobe RGB (1998) file to ensure accurate viewing.


Zoom|Full-Resolution
Camera: Canon EOS-1Ds (preproduction)
Orig. File Format: RAW
Lens: EF 300mm f/2.8
ISO: 1250
Shutter: 1/1000
Aperture: 2.8
Color Matrix: 4 (Adobe RGB)
WB: Auto
Sharpening: Standard/0
Conversion from RAW: Canon File Viewer Utility

Notes: The full-res version is unsharpened. Open in Photoshop as an Adobe RGB (1998) file to ensure accurate viewing.


Zoom|Full-Resolution
Camera: Canon EOS-1Ds (preproduction)
Orig. File Format: RAW
Lens: EF 16-35mm f/2.8 (at 24mm)
ISO: 800
Shutter: 1/1600
Aperture: 5.6
Color Matrix: 4 (Adobe RGB)
WB: Auto
Sharpening: Standard/0
Conversion from RAW: Canon File Viewer Utility

Notes: The full-res version is unsharpened. Open in Photoshop as an Adobe RGB (1998) file to ensure accurate viewing.

Minimal noise for ISO 800, with pronounced blurring on the right side of the frame - the infamous Blur Spot.

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