The camera world might have been turned upside down since the last Summer Olympics, but the traditional DSLR showdown that takes place at the Games is still very much on the cards for Tokyo 2020. The challengers this time? The Canon 1DX Mark III and incoming Nikon D6, alongside a mirrorless newcomer in the form of Sony's A9 II.
Like freak athletes, these cameras are very much designed for the niche, elite world of professional sports photography. And after spending a few hours with the 1DX Mark III, we can confirm that Canon’s new flagship DSLR is certainly niche. If anything, the rise of smartphones and small, powerful mirrorless cameras has made DSLRs like this feel even more like monstrous relics from another age.
But the 1DX Mark III isn’t just an interesting camera for the few pros who’ll be lucky enough to wield it at this year’s sports events – it’s a fascinating snapshot of where Canon is in 2020, and where its camera tech might be going. For example, why is it a DSLR rather than a mirrorless camera like the Sony A9 II? And could features like Deep Learning AF, the new Digic X processor and Smart Controller button ultimately appear on cameras that the rest of us can actually afford?
To help answer these questions, we spent a few hours with the 1DX Mark III in Sydney and at Spain’s Ascari racetrack to bring you this hands-on list of the ten most interesting things we learnt about the pro sports camera, and what it might mean for Canon cameras in general. But before we delve into that, here are all the essentials you need to know about 1DX Mark III.
Canon 1DX Mark III release date and price
The Canon 1DX Mark III will be available to buy from the end of February for £6,499.99 (about $8,507 / AU$12,241).
That's a pretty significant bump in price compared to the 1DX Mark II, even taking inflation into account, which came it at $5,999 / £5,199 / AU$7,999 when it arrived in 2016. It's also significantly more than rivals like the Sony A9 II, although we don't yet know how much the incoming Nikon D6 is going to cost.
Still, the 1DX Mark III remains significantly cheaper than a Medium Format camera like the Fujifilm GFX 100, and a slight price increase was to be expected given new features like its Digic X processor, 'deep learning' autofocus and internal Raw video recording.
Canon 1DX Mark III hands-on review: ten things we've learnt about the pro sports DSLR
1. It looks and feels like an EOS-1 DSLR (for a reason)
The Canon 1DX Mark III is a camera that knows its audience – and that audience is pro sports photographers who like to shoot in a very particular way that calls for the familiarity of a DSLR, rather than a mirrorless body.
Canon 1DX Mark III specs
Sensor: 20.1MP Full-frame CMOS
Lens mount: Canon EF
Screen: 3.2-inch touchscreen, 2,100,000 dots
Burst shooting: 16fps (viewfinder) or 20fps (Live View) with AF/AE tracking
Autofocus: 191 Point / 155 f/4 cross-type AF points
Video: 4K RAW/DCI/UHD at 60fps
Connectivity: Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
Battery life: 2850 shots (viewfinder shooting), 610 (Live View)
Weight: 1250g (body only)
Canon says the main reason for this is viewfinder lag. For most of us, the electronic viewfinders in mirrorless cameras have become advanced enough for all our shooting needs, while offering the benefit of showing us the final image before we press the shutter. But for pro sports photographers, the very slight lag of EVFs can apparently still be enough to see them miss a shot.
This isn't the case for all sports photographers – some have happily switched to the likes of the Sony A9 and A9 II – but many have also honed their craft on a Canon EOS-1 series camera, which means the 1DX Mark III looks and feels very similar to its predecessors.
The grip, interface and optical viewfinder are all very familiar, because this camera's audience needs it to be. Of course, these days the 1DX Mark III also feels like a hulking beast of a camera, but Canon has changed the design slightly to shave off 100g of weight compared to its predecessor.
It also has the same rock-solid build and weather-sealing as before to help it survive conditions like the Antarctic Circle. For most photographers, this will be overkill – but for the 1DX Mark III's specialist audience, the OVF and rock-solid build are familiar essentials for their working life.
While the lack of even an optional EVF might disappoint some, the 1DX Mark III isn't a complete design traditionalist – one particularly interesting feature that stood out during our testing it...
2. The Smart Controller is its best new feature
Our favorite design innovation on the EOS 1DX Mark III is its upgraded AF-ON button, which now doubles as what Canon calls the ‘Smart Controller’. This gives you fast, precise control over the AF point and is something we’d love to see appear on other cameras.
How does it work? The surface of the button is now touch sensitive and just moving your thumb over it either sideways or vertically will move the focus point, exactly the way it would when using the joystick. Canon told us to think of it as “an optical mouse, turned upside down, with your thumb now a desk – so instead of moving the mouse over the desk, you’re moving the desk over the mouse”.
Once you’ve found the AF point you’re after, you just press the AF-ON button to activate autofocus. In practice, the smart controller is a much quicker and easier way to select AF points than the joystick, although it can take a little getting used to.
This is because, out of the box, the Smart Controller is quite sensitive – a slight move can push your AF point further away than you want it. Thankfully, there are options in the camera’s menu system to reduce its sensitivity, or to switch it off completely if you’d prefer to stick with the joystick instead.
A couple of other bonuses help elevate it beyond gimmick status too. Firstly, the Smart Controller is both weather-resistant and compatible with gloves, which means you can use it in most shooting conditions.
There are also two Smart Controller sensors – one for vertical shooting, and one for horizontal – and it’s available when shooting through the viewfinder or with the mirror up in Live View.
3. Its new Digic X chip is the start of a new family of processors
At the heart of the 1DX Mark III is a new Digic X chip, which Canon says will be the start of a new family of camera processors. These will apparently be tailored to each camera – you won't get the same Digic X in a Canon M series, for example – but they will all come under the umbrella name 'Digic X'.
It's tricky to say precisely how much of a leap this is from the current Digic 9, but compared to the dual processors in the 1DX Mark II, Canon says it can crunch computational data 380 times faster and process images three times quicker.
This brings a few benefits. Aside from impressive shooting speeds (more on that later), the most interesting thing for Canon fans, particularly those who've been jealously watching Sony take autofocus to new heights with features Real-time Eye AF, is that it powers what Canon calls 'deep learning' autofocus.
Like the Canon EOS R, the 1DX Mark III has Face- and Eye-detection autofocus in Live View, but the new Digic X processor takes that baton and runs it into new autofocus territory that could help Canon close the gap on Sony's class-leading AF...
4. It has 'deep learning' autofocus that will appear on future Canon cameras
While we were mostly shooting cars rather than human subjects during our brief time with the 1DX Mark III, one of its most interesting features is 'deep learning' autofocus for identifying and tracking human subjects – particularly ones whose face is obscured by helmets or glasses.
This is Canon's response to Sony's 'A.I-based' object recognition, which can detect and process eye location data in real time. Canon dismisses claims that this kind of tech is true 'A.I', stating that cameras don't yet have the processing power to do that.
Instead, 'deep learning' is an external program that crunches a giant image database and is then loaded onto the camera. In other words, the 1DX Mark III isn't yet able to continuously teach itself better autofocus in-camera, even if its database can be expanded with future updates.
Right now, this deep learning AF effectively steps in when the limits of Face Detection are reached, like when a face is obscured by a helmet or isn't vertical in the frame. This lets it do things like lock onto a person's head, even when their back is turned to the camera.
While we weren't able to test this feature extensively during our brief time with the 1DX Mark III, its face and head tracking did perform very well in Live View – and Canon did also say that deep learning AF will ultimately appear on more enthusiast-level cameras, as long as they have a Digic X processor.
Current Digic processors simply can't crunch the amount of data needed to make deep learning viable on cheaper cameras. As Mike Burnhill, Professional Imaging Product Specialist for Canon Europe, told us: "You could put it on a slower processor, but there'd be horrible lag from it not recognizing you're halfway through a sequence. It's got to be seamless. There's no point having this amazing technology if it takes ages to kick in."
But for those hoping to see enthusiast-level Canon cameras start to match their Sony counterparts, he added: "Obviously those technologies filter down all the time. What the deep learning is doing is starting to teach the camera how the photographer thinks." We look forward to giving the feature a proper test on a full production model soon.
5. It feels faster than a Sony A9 II – and has a virtually unlimited buffer
One of the Canon 1DX Mark III's most impressive features, and one that really marks it out as a pro sports camera, is its burst shooting power. For most of us, a Nikon D5 or even D500 offers more than enough speed in most situations, but the 1DX Mark III takes things up a notch – even outpacing the new Sony A9 II.
The A9 II has a burst speed of 10fps when using the mechanical shutter – that’s twice as fast as its predecessor, but significantly slower than its new Canon rival, unless you switch to the 20fps electronic shutter (which can, albeit increasingly rarely, result in rolling shutter issues).
That's why the 1DX Mark III's performance here is so impressive. While you're limited to 16fps when using the viewfinder, in Live View via the screen it can hit 20fps with both AF and AE tracking – and that's with either the mechanical or electronic shutter.
That's unusual, because mechanical shutter speeds usually lag behind their electronic counterparts. We certainly found that speed very handy when shooting speeding cars at Marbella's Ascari racetrack, particularly as the 1DX Mark III's buffer is virtually unlimited.
How is the buffer so big? This is mainly down to the camera's use of new CFExpress cards. Like the XQD cards used by the likes of the Nikon Z6, these aren't cheap – a 256GB one will set you back $399.99 / £410.95 / AU$848 – but they do offer incredible read speeds of up to 1.8GB per second.
This all means the 1DX Mark III can maintain its 20fps burst shooting for an unlimited number of JPEGs and, incredibly, 1,000 Raw images (compared to just 170 Raw files on the 1DX Mark II with a CFast 2.0 card). While we weren't able to push it to these limits, we can confirm it shot relentlessly in long bursts with no noticeable slow-down.
6. The autofocus is incredibly precise, but there’s no Animal AF (yet)
Canon has really outdone itself with the 1DX Mark III’s autofocus performance – it’s fast, precise and picks up moving targets in the blink of an eye.
There are a total of 191 AF points on the sensor and, for those shooting in live view mode, the frame is divided into a respectable 525 segments that covers 90% of the horizontal frame and 100% vertically.
While we weren’t able to test the camera in low light, we did shoot indoors where the lighting wasn’t perfect and yet managed to achieve some pretty good results, with camera locking onto a subject’s head, face or body very easily.
Speaking of faces and heads, Canon has upped the ante when it comes to tracking performance. Straight out of the box, the 1DX Mark III can recognize and track faces and heads and, while using Live View mode, adds eye-detect AF into the mix as well.
When using continuous shooting, a new tracking algorithm allows the camera to detect a situation and automatically change shooting parameters in real time, whether obstacles come in between your subject and the camera, or whether your subject suddenly appear, accelerates or decelerates – handy when you have no idea what the next second is going to be like.
However, face, head and eye detection only works for humans at the moment – after all, it is a sports camera – although the camera could have a wider appeal if animal recognition and tracking could be added via a firmware update at a later stage.
At the moment, though, Sony is light years ahead with its AF system and we’ll need to test the Canon further to see if it can outdo anything Sony has to offer.
7. The buttons are finally illuminated – and it handles better than its Sony rival
Anyone who has used the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II will instantly feel at home here. Despite its clunky design, the camera is remarkably ergonomic, although some users with small mitts might find it hard to hold onto for longer periods of time. On the other hand, the redesigned grip on the Sony Alpha A9 II (it’s deeper and larger than on the original A9) is a more comfortable option than the Canon.
Still, the 1DX Mark III does have a few other advantages over its Sony mirrorless counterpart, the first of which is illuminated buttons on the rear. These have been available on cameras like the Nikon D5 for a while now and are good news for anyone who needs to shoot in darkened arenas. With rear button lights, no one else need get disturbed while the user doesn’t need to fumble around to find what they’re looking for.
Another advantage we should mention is Canon’s superb and user-friendly menu system. Compared to the Sony A9 II, setting up the 1DX Mark III is almost child’s play even if you’ve never used a Canon camera before.
Both Sony and Canon have improved the weather sealing in their specialist sports cameras, but whether the 1DX Mark III can hold its own in harsh climes remains to be seen.
8. It has surprisingly powerful 4K video powers, but lacks IBIS
Considering the 1DX Mark III is mainly aimed at pro sports photographers, Canon has armed it with some pretty potent video-shooting powers that put it right up there with hybrid cameras like the Panasonic S1H – at least from our early play with it.
Impressively, it can shoot 4K at 60fps and Raw video using the full width of the sensor, which is an improvement on its predecessor's cropped 4K video. If you're a colorist who grades and edits footage, you'll be pleased to hear that the 1DX Mark III also shoots 10-bit 4:2:2 footage with internal Canon Log recording.
Perhaps of more interest to stills photographers who likes to serve their snaps with a side of video are the 1DX Mark III's autofocus skills. Handily, you get Canon's excellent Dual Pixel AF with eye tracking in video, which worked really well in our early tests when focusing on someone walking towards to the camera.
That said, there are still a few limitations to be aware of in video mode. Firstly, you don't get Dual Pixel autofocus when shooting 4K/60p or Raw video – Canon says there's simply too much data to process, between the focusing to the readout. Still, you do get full tracking when shooting 4K in crop mode at 60p or Full HD at 120fps.
Another slight shame is that 4K and Full HD recording is limited to 30 minutes per clip, which feels a bit miserly in these days of unlimited 4K recording from the likes of the Panasonic GH5S (albeit from a far smaller sensor).
Lastly, despite some hopeful rumors to the contrary, there's no in-body image stabilization (IBIS) to be found in the 1DX Mark III. This is because the priority for this camera remains shooting stills through the viewfinder, with Canon sticking to its guns on lens-based stabilization being superior to IBIS (given the accompanying downsides of added bulk and cost) because it stabilizes the light going into the AF sensor.
Like the Canon EOS R, the 1DX Mark III does offer electronic stabilization (with a crop), but it's fair to anyone who's serious about their video will likely want to use this camera with a gimbal.
9. HEIF is the new JPEG
File compression might sound like small fry in the context of a new flagship DSLR, but the 1DX Mark III is a big moment for HEIF – a format that will now likely take over from JPEG.
In a first for a Canon camera, the 1DX Mark III supports both HEIF (High Efficiency Image File Format) and JPEG, though the former is superior in pretty much every way. HEIF files are around half the size of JPEG, while offering better quality in the form of increased color data and fewer artifacts.
Apple pioneered the format on iPhones from 2017 in the form of HEIC files, but with Canon now embracing the 10-bit files (another benefit over 8-bit JPEGs), it should now be adopted by other camera brands and hopefully save us all some much-needed memory card and hard drive space.
10. It has an incredible battery life (when you use the optical viewfinder)
If the main reason why the 1DX Mark III is a DSLR rather than a mirrorless camera is a lack of viewfinder lag (at least, according to Canon), then a close second must be battery life.
One of the main strengths of DSLRs compared to mirrorless cameras remains their superior stamina, at least when using the optical viewfinder rather than Live View. And the 1DX Mark III is certainly ups the ante here, with an impressive 2,850 shots per charge (according to the CIPA industry standard), when you use the OVF.
That's an impressive leap over its predecessor's 1,250 shots, particularly considering they use the same battery – Canon says the boost has come from a variety of factors, including the new Digic X processor, along with a new circuit board and firmware.
Naturally, that battery life figure drops considerably to 610 shots per charge when using Live View. In reality, you'll be using a mix of both the OVF and screen, plus a little video shooting, and in our time with the 1DX Mark III it lasted the whole of an intensive day of shooting, with much of that being continuous shooting.
Mirrorless cameras certainly have their charms, but that kind of battery performance is always appreciated, particularly by pro shooters.
The Canon 1DX Mark III is a rock-solid DSLR with hugely impressive burst shooting power and autofocus talents that make it ideal for its very niche audience – professional sports photographers.
What makes it an interesting camera for the rest of us, though, are the mirrorless flourishes and little innovations that hint at the kind of features we might eventually see trickle down to more affordable cameras.
While we'll need more time to test it properly, the 'deep learning' autofocus is promising, and it's interesting to see Canon both adopt HEIF files and fully commit to full-frame 4K video that has often been hobbled by mandatory crops in the past.
It might feel like Canon is playing it safe in making the 1DX Mark III a comfortably familiar DSLR rather than a mirrorless camera like the Sony A9 II, but this Olympics-ready powerhouse certainly holds its own in performance terms and does also dabble with interesting innovations like the Smart Controller, which we found to be a real improvement on AF joysticks.
We look forward to giving it a full test before it heads to Tokyo 2020 very soon.