Monday, January 10, 2005

A Happy But Expensive Accident; Hello EOS-1D

On Friday I drove two hours through the recently heavy LA rain to photograph the Oregon State women's gymnastics meet at Cal State Fullerton. Armed with my press pass I had unprecedented access... in CSU-Fullerton's tiny gym.

But after the first event my camera died. Completely. The pro photographer next to me, Jeff, took notice. He points to his bag and says, "I've got a backup 1D over there. Go ahead and grab it." My jaw dropped open. In 2001 the Canon 1D was the pinnacle of professional digital photography. A $5,000 camera. A 1D was attached to all those white lenses you've seen at the Superbowl the last three years. It has since been replaced by the 1D MkII, thus its relegation to being a mere backup.

Canon EOS-1D: Unbelievable
The first thing I noticed was that it was heavy. About 3.5lbs without a lens. Add my 1.5lb 135mm f/2L lens and you've got a beast on your hands. Jeff quickly set the camera up for me - I had no clue how to use it. Even though I'm quite experienced with Canon cameras, their pro-level interface is a whole other ordeal. It took a minute or two for me to figure out just how to change my exposure settings.

  Canon Digital Rebel: No comparison
When I looked through the 1D's viewfinder I almost gasped. The viewfinder is so large, so clear, and so bright. I felt like I was staring at a poster in there. I could see everything and could accurately judge focus. My Digital Rebel's viewfinder is tiny, dark, and nearly impossible to discern focus at all. After a typical day of shooting with the Rebel, my eyes are so strained and tired that I can barely see.

Small viewfinders are a problem with all SLRs with smaller sensors, including Canon's new and highly lauded 20D. Both have a 1.6x crop factor, meaning it's only 63% of the size of a normal 35mm optical system. The 1D's less severe 1.3x crop factor makes its viewfinder at least 23% larger than the Rebel's. I don't know why this crucial difference isn't considered more often.

Then I put my finger to the shutter release. I half-pressed to focus the lens and accidentally took about four rapid-fire shots before I even realized what I'd done. It was SO FAST!! 8.3 frames per second by most accounts. Not only was it fast but it was undescribably smooth. The shutter release was superbly responsive to varying degrees of pressure. The mirror slap and shutter actuation were closer to a "whir" than the usual "ka-chunk". And at 8.3fps that whir sounds more like a soft fan cutting through the air. The moving parts cause no perceptible physical force - they're all dampened to avoid creating camera shake.

And at 8.3fps there's a mere 0.12 seconds between frames, allowing you to capture the precise moment desired.

The viewfinder blackout time was remarkable. All SLRs go black when you trigger the shutter - the mirror has to move out of the way to expose the film or sensor plane. The 1D blackout time was perceptible, but only just. Slower than instantaneous but faster than a blink. 45ms to be exact.

The sensitive trigger and the immense response time make it feel as if you merely think about shooting and it happens. No joke. The camera feels psychic. And I'm not the first person who's ever said that. The Digital Rebel on the other hand has a very noticeable delay (200ms?) that forces you to anticipate the timing of shots before the moment actually happens.

Here's why the psychic comment isn't completely unfounded: The 1D has a ridiculously fast 55ms response time. Nerve impulses take between 8ms and 1000ms to travel the length of your arm to your brain. That means that when you take a shot, your eye might see the mirror actuation before the nerve impulses from your fingertip can tell your brain that you pressed the button.

I haven't even mentioned the solid, nigh indestructible build construction. The lighting-quick autofocus. The servo autofocus tracking of moving objects. The incredibly fast processing speed allowing for immediate image display. The 16-shot frame buffer in RAW mode, even during 8.3fps bursts.

Needless to say I had to buy one. And did. Picked up a three-year-old used 1D from eBay from a pro in Illinois on Saturday. What was a $5,000 camera in 2001 is now a mere $1,500. With about 50,000 shots on the camera's shutter it still has a ways to go before reaching its factory-rated 150,000 shot lifespan.

However, the 1D is three-year-old technology. Even my feature-stripped Rebel benefits from its two year advantage in sensor R&D. Its 6.3MP (MegaPixel) CMOS sensor exceeds the capabilities of the 1D's 4.2MP CCD sensor. I hope the 1D can keep pace well enough with the Rebel's image quality. But I may have to keep both cameras - one for sheer speed, handling, and performance. Another for pure image quality. Not ideal, but it'll have to do until the 1D MkII drops in price. The 1D MkII is the best of all worlds. The paragon. And one day it will be mine.

I got everything I could out of my Digital Rebel and learned enough to outgrow it in fifteen months. And now I'm absolutely thrilled to join the ranks of photojournalists everywhere (the majority of which are still shooting with the original 1D). It's a huge dent in my bank account, but it's well worth every penny.


Post a Comment

<< Home