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An analysis of EOS-1D Mark III autofocus performance - Continued
August 1, 2008: Does the Canon EOS-1D Mark III now offer reliable autofocus?

This entry in our ongoing analysis of EOS-1D Mark III autofocus recaps and updates our experience with the camera and firmware v1.1.3 loaded, compares that to the camera's autofocus performance with firmware v1.2.3 installed and answers some of the most commonly-asked questions we've received in the past few months, including this one: after more than a year, three firmware updates and a hardware fix, does the Canon EOS-1D Mark III now offer reliable autofocus?

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Nice Try: Canon EOS-1D Mark III (firmware v1.2.3) + EF 300mm f/2.8L IS, AI Servo AF, ISO 1000, 1/2500, f/2.8 (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Introduction

It has been an interesting ride on the Canon AF express since the last major update to this article on December 10, 2007. In the wake of its publication, Canon USA abruptly ended our EOS-1D Mark III testing collaboration. Fortunately, that didn't also signal the end of Canon in Tokyo's efforts to improve the camera's autofocus. While publicly, the company has stated that the "EOS-1D Mark III AF function performed better in [Canon] tests than all previous EOS camera models," suggesting they are officially satisfied with the camera's autofocus capabilities, a different scenario has been playing out behind the scenes.

In the U.S., for example, VIP customers were briefed by Canon pro market representatives at the beginning of February 2008 that engineers had gotten to the "root cause" of the EOS-1D Mark III's remaining autofocus limitations, leaving those customers with the impression that a significant new fix of some kind was coming soon. Approximately six weeks later, key news and sports photographers in the U.S. were given access to the first beta version of what would eventually become firmware v1.2.3, and asked to provide feedback. The beta process lasted more than five weeks and involved the testing of multiple firmware iterations before v1.2.3 was posted for download on Canon's website.

With v1.2.3 released, Canon USA began making plans to bring a group of web reviewers to New York to meet with working shooters who had been involved in the beta testing and who would, presumably, talk about how significant a change to the autofocus this firmware brings about (and as you'll read in this article, EOS-1D Mark III autofocus characteristics are very much altered in v1.2.3). At about this time, we also began to hear from photographers globally that Canon staff - mostly frontline customer service people as far as we can tell - were telling them that v1.2.3 was only a minor update to the AF system (a system which was, before v1.2.3 and after, working fine, said the same reps). The New York plan was ultimately shelved, which might be because a PR effort like this didn't fit with the corporate message that the EOS-1D Mark III's main autofocus problems were already a thing of the past, prior to v1.2.3's release.

Here's the point of this brief summary of Canon's activities these past few months: outwardly, their strategy seems to be to communicate that all is well in the world of EOS-1D Mark III autofocus. Internally, however, it has been a different story. In the first half of 2008, Canon has work feverishly to address complaints about the camera's autofocus, particularly from photographers and publications that Canon wants to see using its bodies and white lenses at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing this month. One result is firmware v1.2.3.

Whether there are more EOS-1D Mark III autofocus changes to come from Canon, we don't know. Whether firmware v1.2.3 is intended to be the fix for the "root cause" of the camera's autofocus problems that Canon USA pro reps whispered about several months ago, that we also don't know (though it seems likely that it is).

What is certain is that the latest firmware for the EOS-1D Mark III, and v1.1.2 for the EOS-1Ds Mark III, represents something other than an incremental effort to fine tune the autofocus in Canon's 1-series digital SLRs. How much of a change the newest firmware introduces, and whether the change adds up to better autofocus, is discussed ahead.

So, Canon has been busy. We've also remained on the hunt for better EOS-1D Mark III autofocus. Starting in early January, we identified - with the help of many of you and the questions and suggestions you put forth in the weeks after the December 10, 2007 article update - four autofocus-related questions we wanted to try and answer.
  1. Is there an autofocus performance difference between newer cameras built at the factory with the revised sub-mirror mechanism and older cameras who had the sub-mirror mechanism repaired?

  2. Since bright sunlight seemed to be the environment that gave the camera's autofocus the most difficulty, would cutting the brightness with neutral density filters help?

  3. Does the EOS-1Ds Mark III have the same autofocus characteristics as the EOS-1D Mark III? While one could reasonably assume that it does, we wanted to see if that's what day-to-day use of both cameras would reveal.

  4. How well does the EOS-1D Mark III's autofocus deal with static subjects? We deliberately steered clear of this topic back in December, for the simple reason that we had directed almost all efforts into figuring out if the camera could focus on moving subjects, and hadn't yet spent the time necessary to give an opinion about how well the EOS-1D Mark III with firmware v1.1.3 tackled something like a portrait.
This update answers these questions, and delves into detail about the autofocus performance changes that come with firmware v1.2.3. We can't cover all the possible lenses and all the possible ways a photographer might choose to use the EOS-1D Mark III and EOS-1Ds Mark III, but we have tried to cover an additional base or two in this update by widening the discussion to include the questions above.

FAQ

As with most of the bigger installments of this ongoing article, we're rolling out the information in FAQ format. Let's get right to the meat of the matter:

Q. How does EOS-1D Mark III autofocus with firmware v.1.2.3 loaded compare to v1.1.3?

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Up to Date: Upgrading the firmware in an EOS-1D Mark III
To appreciate how different v1.2.3 is, you'll want to start by getting familiar with the camera's autofocus characteristics with v1.1.3 inside. You can do that by reading the December 10, 2007 article update.

In the months since it was published, we've done plenty more photography with the EOS-1D Mark III and firmware v1.1.3. Additional time behind the camera hasn't added up to a view of it that's especially different than what we wrote late last year.

Well, at least we don't feel the need to change any of December's conclusions. That article update was about how the camera handles moving subjects, and as it notes, the EOS-1D Mark III + v1.1.3 has a tendency to overestimate how rapidly a moving subject is moving, with semi-constant bouts of frontfocus being the result.

If we were to revisit the December 10, 2007 article, then, we'd add to rather than rewrite what it says, based on what we've learned subsequently. These two additions would top the list:
  • First, while we identified bright, sunny conditions as being the environment that tripped the camera up, what's now clear is that the tendency, with v1.1.3, to overestimate subject speed is present in more types of light than just sunlight; the only thing that changes with the light is the degree to which the problem makes itself apparent.

    Harsh midday sunlight is the toughest on this camera's autofocus with v1.1.3 loaded, and the highest number of blurry photos are the outcome, as described in that update. But other light doesn't make the problem vanish. In this way, the camera's routine of spontaneously focusing in front of the subject for several frames in a sequence shows up in v1.1.3 EOS-1D Mark III files shot in noon sunlight, under cloudy skies, in typical gym and arena lighting and all other lighting environments we've tried.

  • Second, the EOS-1D Mark III with v1.1.3 loaded imagines forward motion in stationary subjects to such an extent that it can make the camera infuriating to use for seemingly simple photos like a full-length portrait. This camera, this firmware and a bread-and-butter lens like the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS will produce many, many blurry frames of static things, for no reason that can be determined by looking at the pictures.
With all that as an intro, here's a summary of the AI Servo characteristics and differences we've found between firmware v1.1.3 and v1.2.3 in the EOS-1D Mark III:

EOS-1D Mark III with firmware v1.1.3 An EOS-1D Mark III with the revised sub-mirror and firmware v1.1.3 installed can rapidly and accurately focus when the AF system is first engaged. For any type of shooting that involves composing, autofocusing and tripping the shutter all in one quick motion - such as trying to snare a crisp photo of a diving volleyball player - this camera delivers the goods.

As soon as ongoing focus tracking of a moving subject is part of the equation, autofocus speed remains impressive, but autofocus accuracy drops. That's because, regardless of the subject or lighting, the camera frequently overestimates the rate of motion and then injects several frontfocused frames into the take. The full-resolution sequence below is what the camera does, with this firmware version loaded, when tracking a moving subject (in this case a runner moving at a moderate pace).

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Coming at You: Canon EOS-1D Mark III (firmware v1.1.3) + EF 300mm f/2.8L IS, AI Servo AF, ISO 200, 1/6400, f/2.8 (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The result can be less than stellar, but still mostly acceptable, such as when tracking a basketball player charging towards the basket, or unacceptable, such as when tracking a sprinter in a 100m race.

When the subject is stationary and a telephoto lens is used, sound the alarm: the EOS-1D Mark III plus firmware v1.1.3 will frequently imagine forward motion where there is none and produce numerous out of focus pictures.

Regardless of what we've tried to shoot with the EOS-1D Mark III and firmware v1.1.3, the responsiveness of the AF system has never been a concern. That is, the camera's ability to quickly take an autofocus reading with its AF sensor, crunch the AF sensor data within its DIGIC III processors and then send a focus command to the lens is not in question with this camera and firmware version. In fact, we've yet to use another camera that can touch the EOS-1D Mark III's AF speed (well, except for the EOS-1Ds Mark III). It's what has made the Mark III series so powerful for shooting volleyball action here.

Its autofocus problems stem from the fact that the camera will very quickly send the lens to the wrong focus distance at times, and once there it can take two-three frames for the AF system to recover. This doesn't happen in the volleyball action photo scenario, because there is virtually never any tracking involved, the autofocus system is engaged for only the briefest moment before the photo is taken, and the first photo (or only photo when you shoot with strobes) usually contains the moment.

Most other sports involve more tracking, more keeping the AF system active for a time before firing a frame, or keeping it active while firing off a burst of frames. And tracking is when the autofocus errors occur with the EOS-1D Mark III and firmware v1.1.3, regardless of whether the subject is holding still or going fast.

EOS-1D Mark III with firmware v1.2.3 An EOS-1D Mark III with the revised sub-mirror and firmware v1.2.3 installed improves dramatically the camera's ability to hold focus on static or slowly moving subjects with a telephoto lens. The camera's tendency to imagine forward motion doesn't go away completely, but it's muted to the point where it hasn't been a problem here. The camera - in conjunction with the lenses we depend on - has becomes quite usable for shooting things that are staying in place.

Focus tracking is a mixed bag: it does a better job of following slow moving subjects, or fast moving subjects whose distance to the camera is changing gradually: a competitive sprinter running across the frame rather than coming straight on, for example.

In this instance, the camera produces fewer groupings of frames in which the focus shifts out in front of the moving subject, and when the focus shift comes, the EOS-1D Mark III tends not to drive the lens quite as far ahead of where it should be. But when tracking a subject whose distance to the camera is changing rapidly, the camera produces about as many unusably out of focus frames as before, which means for the shooting of track events, or sports like soccer and football, the EOS-1D Mark III is largely unchanged.

The frontfocus shift, when it happens, isn't usually as pronounced (you can compare the animated sequence below with the one in the previous section for an approximation of how v1.2.3 takes the edge off the focus error, most of the time), but as the downloadable sequences coming later in the article show, this actually does little to boost the overall number of properly focused or nearly focused peak action sports pictures. This is both because the frontfocus shift can still be significant, and because v1.2.3 also adds a few more instances of spontaneous backfocus to the camera's repertoire.

The EOS-1D Mark III with firmware v1.2.3 produces more out of focus frames than it should in the sort of frontlit or cloudy conditions under which autofocus typically performs best.

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On the Run: Canon EOS-1D Mark III (firmware v1.2.3) + EF 300mm f/2.8L IS, AI Servo AF, ISO 200, 1/6400, f/2.8 (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

When the active AF point is over an area of low contrast and the subject is in motion, the changes in firmware v1.2.3 hurt the EOS-1D Mark III's ability to maintain focus. A low contrast area can be comprised of an entire player when shooting in backlit conditions, or it can be a shadowy pocket of dark fabric when shooting in frontlit, contrasty afternoon sunlight. The effect of this ranges from the camera taking noticeably longer to bring the subject into focus to the camera locking up briefly. Which in turn means more blurry frames than before, or no frames at all when the camera stops firing.

Canon's release notes for v1.2.3 say that it "[i]mproves the stability of AF accuracy in AI servo AF when shooting extremely low-contrast subjects continuously," but actually using the camera with v1.2.3 inside, in the light described in the previous paragraph, produces the exact opposite experience. Autofocus performance is noticeably degraded by v1.2.3 when the moving subject being autofocused is deeply in shadow or backlit.

The adjustments Canon engineers have made to the autofocus algorithm in v1.2.3 have also slowed slightly the camera's initial autofocus. Blazingly fast autofocus from a cold start, which is a defining characteristic of v1.1.3 (and all firmware revisions before that), is still mostly there in v1.2.3, it's just not quite as blazing.

While we're sure about this, it's hard to quantify the slowdown and then find the right words to describe the extent of it. Also, autofocus quickness isn't everything; accuracy is a whole lot more important, though the two obviously intertwine when what you're shooting requires the camera to do its thing at full speed. For us, getting a true picture of the extent of the slowdown will probably have to wait until volleyball season gets underway this fall. But the slowdown is there nonetheless.

We've also encountered many more instances of the EOS-1D Mark III's frame rate decreasing mid-sequence as the camera gives the AF system a bit more time to gather and process focus data (as it's designed to do when C. Fn III-0 is set). With this camera and v1.1.3 loaded, the light levels really have to drop and/or the subject has to be quite dark before the camera will stop clipping along at 10 fps most of the time. With v1.2.3 the camera still fires at 10 fps and does so plenty. But unexpected slowdowns have occurred enough times now for it to amount to a small but notable difference between v.1.2.3 and v1.1.3.

Summing up The EOS-1D Mark III with v1.2.3 loaded offers much better and quite usable autofocus for stationary or slow moving subjects, righting one of v1.1.3's most pressing autofocus problems. But it now offers middling or even poor autofocus when tracking a low contrast subject that's on the move, and mixed performance for tracking a subject that's on the move and the light is frontlit, overcast or indoors. And the raw speed that has typified EOS-1D Mark III autofocus to date, while not gone by any means, isn't quite as speedy.

It all adds up to a camera whose autofocus is better, worse or about the same as before, depending on what you're photographing. EOS-1D Mark III autofocus has improved a lot since the camera was released mid-2007, but as of firmware v1.2.3 it still has some distance to go.

Q. Does all of the above apply to the EOS-1Ds Mark III too?

Runner: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III (firmware v1.0.6) + EF 300mm f/2.8L IS, AI Servo AF, ISO 200, 1/8000, f/2.8, Click photo to download full-resolution sequence, 9 pictures, 44.3MB (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
Every word about the EOS-1D Mark III and firmware v1.1.3 applies equally to the EOS-1Ds Mark III with firmware v1.0.6 installed.

It shares the same tendency to imagine or overestimate forward motion and the same difficulty holding focus on a stationary subject. At times, the out of focus shift hasn't been quite as strong with the EOS-1Ds Mark III with the earlier firmware, and occasionally the camera will shift focus behind the subject too, but that's the extent of the differences we've spotted between the two models prior to the late-April 2008 firmware updates for both.

Click the thumbnail at right to download a ZIP archive containing a full-resolution sequence shot with the EOS-1Ds Mark III (firmware v1.0.6) and EF 300mm f/2.8L IS of the same athlete at the same track that was a major part of EOS-1D Mark III testing last fall. As you'll see, this camera with this firmware version will shift the focus in a manner similar to the EOS-1D Mark III with v1.1.3.

We've also shot the EOS-1D Mark III with v.1.2.3 alongside the EOS-1Ds Mark with v1.1.2, and can say that most or all of the autofocus algorithm changes made to the EOS-1D Mark III are in the EOS-1Ds Mark III now too. Static focus stability - which was a real source of telephoto shooting troubles with the EOS-1Ds Mark III through the early months of 2008 here - is much improved, though some twitchiness remains. In outdoor sports photography, both models will shift focus incorrectly several times in a sequence, though the EOS-1Ds Mark III tends to shift the focus further in front of the subject than the EOS-1D Mark III. Put another way, the autofocus performance from each camera is very similar, but the EOS-1D Mark III seems slightly better overall.

We haven't experienced frame rate slowdowns with the higher-resolution camera really at all, but this may be owing to the EOS-1Ds Mark III's shooting rate already being half the EOS-1D Mark III's maximum to begin with. And we haven't used the EOS-1Ds Mark III enough in the sort of shadowy and/or backlit shooting situations that trip up the EOS-1D Mark III to say whether its autofocus suffers as much with the new firmware. Based on everything we have shot with the higher-resolution camera and v1.1.2 firmware, however, its autofocus shares more similarities than differences with the EOS-1D Mark III and v1.2.3.

There's one notable exception: a sunny day workaround for the EOS-1D Mark III's so-so tracking, one that can up the camera's in-focus rate a lot, doesn't seem to help out the EOS-1Ds Mark III to the same degree. This, along with the other small autofocus performance differences described in the previous couple of paragraphs, may or may not point to an intentional differentiation in the algorithm controlling autofocus in the EOS-1D Mark III or EOS-1Ds Mark III. There's more about the workaround later in the article.

Q. What bodies and lenses have you used to evaluate the new firmware?

We've tried to factor out potential sources of focus problems, such as a lemon camera or calibration error, by using multiple focus calibrated bodies and lenses. The gear we've used to check out EOS-1D Mark III firmware v.1.2.3 and EOS-1Ds Mark III firmware v1.1.2 is:
  • EOS-1D Mark III with sub-mirror repair, May 2007 production, focus calibrated
  • EOS-1D Mark III with factory sub-mirror revision, February 2008 production, not focus calibrated but confirmed to be adjusted correctly
  • EOS-1D Mark III with factory sub-mirror revision, April 2008 production, focus calibrated
  • Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, November 2007 production, focus calibrated
  • Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II, not focus calibrated
  • Canon EF 50mm f/1.4, not focus calibrated but confirmed to be adjusted correctly
  • Canon EF Canon 135mm f/2L, not focus calibrated but confirmed to be adjusted correctly
  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS, focus calibrated
  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS, not focus calibrated
  • Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS, focus calibrated
  • Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS, not focus calibrated but confirmed to be adjusted correctly
  • Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS, focus calibrated
The majority of the new firmware shooting was done using the bodies and glass marked as focus calibrated above, with one exception: we did extensive side-by-side shooting with both our own focus calibrated 300mm and a brand new one sent by Canon USA that was uncalibrated (except for factory calibration).

Q. You haven't written much about static focus in previous article updates, can you say a bit more about what the problem has been and how it's better now?

With either the EOS-1D Mark III and firmware v1.1.3 or the EOS-1Ds Mark III with firmware v1.0.6, AI Servo autofocus won't hold still on a static subject. With shorter focal lengths we've never had too much trouble, going right back to the earliest days of the EOS-1D Mark III. But photos shot with telephoto lenses reveal these cameras' annoying tendency to frontfocus spontaneously, and to a degree that will make plenty of frames in an extended sequence, or even frames snapped one at a time with the autofocus active throughout, unusably blurry. The problem has surfaced on assignment and in testing with the following lenses from the group above:
  • Canon EF Canon 135mm f/2L
  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS
  • Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS
  • Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS
This static focus instability has come up shooting wide open or stopped down, with or without strobes, with the camera pointed at athletes resting on a bench, while shooting head-to-toe portraits, photographing speakers at a podium, during helicopter aerials, players shooting free throws in basketball and..., well, you get the idea.

The four picture sequence below is an example of the focus shift that occurs when shooting multiple frames and the autofocus is active. It's a full-resolution crop of a photo taken with the EOS-1Ds Mark III (firmware v1.0.6) + EF 135mm f/2L from a helicopter.

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Into Focus: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III (firmware v1.0.6) + EF 135mm f/2L, AI Servo AF, ISO 200, 1/3200, f/5.6 (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

One hour in the air generated 596 photos in all, and 36 instances of the focus shifting like this for two or more frames. There probably would have been more focus shifting if the EF 50mm f/1.4 wasn't on the camera for part of the aerial session; for whatever reason, this lens, and other normal-to-wide lenses we've used, haven't exhibited the same weirdness.

The photo below was made during an assignment to generate marketing photos for an elementary school this past winter.

Sharp Student: Canon EOS-1D Mark III (firmware v1.1.3) + EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS, AI Servo AF, ISO 400, 1/250, f/2.8. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Photographing with the EOS-1D Mark III and EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS, my goal was to be as much of a fly on the wall as possible, but unfortunately, to workaround the focus shift problem, I ended up leaning on the motor drive in the hope that many frames shot would equate to a few frames sharp.

In addition to bringing more attention to myself than I wanted by shooting this way, it meant having to later wade through row upon row of thumbnails like you see below, to find a frame that had both a moment and was properly focused.

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Motor Driven: A browser full of thumbnails from the EOS-1D Mark III (firmware v1.1.3) + EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS (Photos in screenshot by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Sometimes, like in the aerial example, it's not obvious what triggered the frontfocus problem. Other times, the trigger is apparent - like a speaker at the podium turning her head slightly - but not why the camera shifted focus about two feet closer when the camera-to-subject distance changed only three or four inches.

If you want to see more examples, download the full-resolution sequences below. Two are from the EOS-1D Mark III (firmware v1.1.3) + EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS, the third from the EOS-1Ds Mark III (firmware v1.0.6) + EF 300mm f/2.8L IS.

As in the past, the downloadable example sequences are pulled mostly from the world of sport, partly because it's what I personally shoot a lot of, and also because my number one shooting gig at the moment - and the one that involves mostly static photography - is for an oil company that doesn't want the photos I make for them to be displayed here.

That said, the basketball sequences below capture the essence of the problem, one that hasn't been limited to sports photography (and as you'll see further down this page, is dealt with pretty handily by the newer firmware).

Click on a thumbnail to download a ZIP file containing all the pictures in that sequence (processing notes).

Click to download sequence
Click to download sequence
Free1: Canon EOS-1D Mark III (firmware v1.1.3) + EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS, AI Servo AF, ISO 3200, 1/500, f/2.8. Click thumbnail to download full-resolution sequence, 9 Pictures, 42.3MB (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media) Free2: Canon EOS-1D Mark III (firmware v1.1.3) + EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS, AI Servo AF, ISO 3200, 1/500, f/2.8. Click thumbnail to download full-resolution sequence, 9 Pictures, 43.2MB (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media) Bench: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III (firmware v1.0.6) + EF 300mm f/2.8L IS, AI Servo AF, ISO 3200, 1/500, f/2.8. Click thumbnail to download full-resolution sequence, 8 Pictures, 92.8MB (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Rounding out the list of static focus troubles we encountered before the firmware updates is a problem with the Mark III series autofocusing on low or no contrast stationary subjects. This would sometimes translate to the camera misfocusing without ever finding the correct focus, or not autofocusing at all. During a full day of shooting at a local conference centre, in mostly lousy light, the camera struggled or failed to focus perhaps a dozen times. To make it through the event, it became necessary to swap the EOS-1D Mark III for an EOS 5D.

The photo below, shot on a different occasion, is a good example. In flat, fading light (the softbox wasn't brightly illuminating the subject during focusing of course), a tripod-mounted EOS-1Ds Mark III and EF 500mm f/4L IS danced around the correct distance but refused to bring the athlete into proper focus.

Five Tall Things: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III (firmware v1.0.6) + EF 500mm f/4L IS, manual focus, ISO 100, 1/250, f/5. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

After a few minutes of struggling with the camera, and with the light going away, engaging Live View mode and then manually focusing saved the day. While we might have chalked the autofocus problem up to light that was simply too tough for any camera's AF, a 5D mated to the same lens accurately autofocused the same scene without incident during scouting a few evenings earlier, plus a Nikon D300 attached to an AF-S VR Nikkor 300mm f/2.8G IF-ED, set up alongside the EOS-1Ds Mark III at the actual shoot, was able to autofocus and get the distance right on the first try.

That's a bit of detail about what has been wrong with EOS-1D Mark III and EOS-1Ds Mark III static subject autofocus. With v1.2.3 firmware loaded into the former, and v1.1.2 loaded into the latter, the situation brightens considerably.

Take helicopter aerials. As described above, the EOS-1Ds Mark III (firmware v1.0.6) and EF 135mm f/2L teamed up to create three dozen instances of focus shifting in one ride back in February of this year. While in the air again earlier this summer, with the same camera but v1.1.2 firmware inside, mated to the same lens flying inside the same Robinson R44 Raven II helicopter following nearly the identical route over Calgary, Canada and shooting many of the same areas on the ground, we could spot only two instances of focus shifting out of 659 frames shot.

Basketball season was all done here by the time the new firmware emerged, so we gathered two players in their practice jerseys and took them back to the scene of the crime: the same court in the same facility that had given the Mark III cameras static focus troubles throughout the season.

The reenactment included both free throws and bench shots, using the EOS-1D Mark III, EOS-1Ds Mark III, EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS and EF 300mm f/2.8L IS, and both old and new firmware. The difference the new firmware brought about was startling: with v1.1.3 in the EOS-1D Mark III and v1.0.6 in the EOS-1Ds Mark III, the multi-frame frontfocus shift was present in all sequences, and in some it was so pronounced that the blurriness could be seen even when viewing small thumbnails. In testing, as in actual games, the problem was as bad as ever.

Loading v1.2.3 into the EOS-1D Mark III and v1.1.2 into the EOS-1Ds Mark III almost completely eliminated the free throw and bench focus shifting. Looking over several dozen comparison sequences shot with the same lenses, it's apparent that the firmware change doesn't make the static subject frontfocus shift problem disappear entirely - it's still a characteristic of the AF system in this shooting situation and others - but it calms things down to the point where we can't reasonably complain about it.

The left thumbnail below links to a free throw sequence shot with the EOS-1D Mark III and firmware v1.1.3; the middle thumbnail is a link to the same thing, but shot with v1.2.3. The right thumbnail links to another v1.2.3 example sequence, from rugby. Click on a thumbnail to download a ZIP file containing all the pictures in that sequence (processing notes).

Click to download sequence
Click to download sequence
Free3: Canon EOS-1D Mark III (firmware v1.1.3) + EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS, AI Servo AF, ISO 6400, 1/1000, f/2.8. Click thumbnail to download full-resolution sequence, 17 Pictures, 99.2MB (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media) Free4: Canon EOS-1D Mark III (firmware v1.2.3) + EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS, AI Servo AF, ISO 6400, 1/1000, f/2.8. Click thumbnail to download full-resolution sequence, 22 Pictures, 128.4MB (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media) Incoming: Canon EOS-1D Mark III (firmware v1.2.3) + EF 300mm f/2.8L IS, AI Servo AF, ISO 400, 1/4000-5000, f/2.8. Click thumbnail to download full-resolution sequence, 13 Pictures, 34.4MB (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Almost without exception, every stationary or slow moving assignment or test we've done with the new firmware loaded has shown the same improvement, across the full range of photography that we do: corporate events, aerials (as already discussed), sports, press conferences, cityscapes, environmental portraits, personal work and more. Plus, a return visit to the elementary school - scene of the EOS-1D Mark III focus shift mess at the start of the year - went much more smoothly (though the EOS-1Ds Mark III showed a little bit too much focus error still).

Below are some additional static subject photos, plus some in which the subject was moving but the subject-to-camera distance was changing slowly or not at all. These photos were taken with either the EOS-1D Mark III (firmware v1.2.3) or EOS-1Ds Mark III (firmware v1.1.2), and in all cases the autofocus was stable or very nearly so.

The main purpose of this mini-gallery is to give you an idea of the types of scenes and subjects with which the new firmware has performed well for us. The photos with slugs Convocation and Pitcher1 have full-resolution downloadable sequences associated with them ( Convocation is a collection of single frames and short bursts shot over the course of one minute). Click on either of those photos to download a ZIP file containing all the photos in that sequence (processing notes).

Summer City: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III (firmware v1.1.2) + EF 135mm f/2L, AI Servo AF, ISO 200, 1/2000, f/7.1. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
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Highlight: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III (firmware v1.1.2) + EF 135mm f/2L, AI Servo AF, ISO 1600, 1/320, f/2. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media) Convocation: Canon EOS-1D Mark III (firmware v1.2.3) + EF 300mm f/2.8L IS, AI Servo AF, ISO 3200, 1/1000, f/2.8. Click photo to download full-resolution sequence, 12 pictures, 63.4MB (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
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Take a Knee: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III (firmware v1.1.2) + EF 50mm f/1.4, AI Servo AF, ISO 100, 1/60, f/10. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media) Trapped: Canon EOS-1D Mark III (firmware v1.2.3) + EF 500mm f/4L IS, AI Servo AF, ISO 200, 1/3200, f/4. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
Pitcher1: Canon EOS-1D Mark III (firmware v1.2.3) + EF 300mm f/2.8L IS, AI Servo AF, ISO 640, 1/3200, f/2.8. Click photo to download full-resolution sequence, 10 pictures, 35.4MB (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
Panorama: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III (firmware v1.1.2) + EF 500mm f/4L IS, AI Servo AF, ISO 100, 1/60, f/6.3. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

When these cameras are set to AI Servo, the newest firmware is loaded and the subject being photographed is stationary or moving slowly, the results are much better than before: autofocus is now acceptably stable and acceptably accurate. The cameras' tendency to shift the focus is still lurking inside, it's just mostly dormant.

We'll exit this section with three more example sequences. Two are from baseball, taken on the same overcast afternoon as the pitcher photo above, using the same EOS-1D Mark III (firmware v1.2.3) and EF 300mm f/2.8L IS. We shot dozens of pitcher sequences over several innings, and the great majority of those sequences show an AF system doing a good job of tracking the movement of the pitcher from the start of his delivery through to the end. The left sequence is typical; most frames are properly focused. The middle and right sequences show that the frontfocus shift is still an occasional part of the autofocus equation when the camera-to-subject distance is changing gradually.

Click on a thumbnail to download a ZIP file containing all the pictures in that sequence (processing notes).

Click to download sequence
Click to download sequence
Pitcher2: Canon EOS-1D Mark III (firmware v1.2.3) + EF 300mm f/2.8L IS, AI Servo AF, ISO 500, 1/2500, f/2.8. Click thumbnail to download full-resolution sequence, 6 Pictures, 19.2MB (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media) Pitcher3: Canon EOS-1D Mark III (firmware v1.2.3) + EF 300mm f/2.8L IS, AI Servo AF, ISO 640, 1/3200, f/2.8. Click thumbnail to download full-resolution sequence, 7 Pictures, 24.2MB (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media) Limp: Canon EOS-1D Mark III (firmware v1.2.3) + EF 300mm f/2.8L IS, AI Servo AF, ISO 200, 1/4000-5000, f/2.8. Click thumbnail to download full-resolution sequence, 20 Pictures, 56.7MB (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

(This is part 1 of the August 1, 2008 article update. It continues in part 2 on the next page)
Next Page: August 1, 2008 update (Part 2)
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