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Playing With Canon’s New Big Guns

Gear Talk

Canon’s 1Dx and 600mm f/4L IS II lens have been two of the most sought after (and repeatedly delayed) items in their inventory for the past year or so. Now, Canon is finally shipping them with some regularity, and we took this opportunity to put this new combo through its paces.

I love photographing birds. A few years ago, I started with a Canon 100-400mm lens and a Rebel XTi, and shot from the comfort of my car. Eventually, I moved up to a Canon 1D Mark IV and a 600mm f/4, or a 500mm f/4 lens.

The 1D MKIV/600mm combo became a favorite, and I managed to capture some really cool images with it that are part of my Natural History portfolio.

Humingbird shot with a 1D Mark IV and the Mark I 600mm lens

Humingbird shot with a 1D Mark IV and the Mark I 600mm lens

Of course, since then, Canon has introduced its successor to the 1D MKIV and the 600mm f/4. The 1Dx takes over where the 1D MKIV left off, introducing a bigger sensor and better high-ISO performance, among other things, whereas the new 600mm Mark II comes in at slightly shorter and much lighter than its predecessor.

I took this combo out for a spin to see if it would match up to my old favorites. As with my previous reviews, I focus more on the shooting experience out in the field, rather than lab tests and results.

Handling

Canon 1Dx

The first thing I do with a new camera is go through the settings to customize it to my specifications. The Canon 1Dx’s menu system is a lot like the 5D Mark III’s, which itself borrows a few things I loved from the 7D, such as the visual representation of the button layout and the easier-to-understand autofocus settings menu. Customizing the 1Dx took just a few minutes, and didn’t necessitate a look at the manual, which I had to do every so often with the 1D MKIV.

The layout of the buttons is a lot like the 1D Mark IV, with some marked improvements. On the Mark IV, the depth of field preview button is located to the left of the lens mount, and there are no other buttons, save the lens mount button itself. The DOF preview button is just a tiny nub, easy to miss.

Depth of Field Preview button on a 1D Mark IV

Depth of Field Preview button on a 1D Mark IV

For the 1Dx, Canon appears to have taken a page from Nikon’s book. The DOF preview button is higher up, and has changed from a mechanical nub that just activated the stop-down lever on the lens itself, to an electronic button. Right next to it is a multifunction button that can customized to fit your needs.

Canon took the whole thing one step further and added identical controls for shooters using the 1Dx in portrait mode, allowing for more fingertip control regardless of orientation.

1Dx Button Layout

1Dx Button Layout

Physically, the 1Dx is heavier than the 1D MKIV, but not so much that it takes a toll. 1D MKIV users will adjust very quickly to this new body.

Canon 600mm f/4L IS II

Three pounds makes a whole lotta difference.

The new version of Canon’s 600mm lens is 3.2 lbs lighter than its predecessor, and while that might seem like much, 3.2 lbs does make a substantial difference when you’re lugging it on top of a tripod and gimbal head down a trail to get a better angle on some pelicans.

Handling the new 600mm is an exercise in pure joy. I never shoot these lenses without a gimbal head, so once I’m squared away, I don’t tend to notice the weight of the lens, as it’s perfectly balanced on the gimbal. It’s the getting squared away part that’s a pain, and the reduced weight of the lens was once again a blessing as I adjusted the gimbal’s settings.

The 1Dx and the 600mm f/4 Mark II, balanced on a Custom Brackets Gimbal

The 1Dx and the 600mm f/4 Mark II, balanced on a Custom Brackets Gimbal

Size-wise, the new 600mm is just a half-inch shorter than the Mark I, so no big improvements there.

But honestly, that reduction in weight? Worth the price alone.

 Performance

Look, let’s be honest. We know that every successive iteration of cameras and lenses is going to be better than their predecessors. So I could tell you that the 1Dx and the 600mm Mark II are a lot better than the older versions, but that’s too much like stating the obvious.

Instead, take a look at this:

17-burst shot of a Pelican in flight

17-burst shot of a Pelican in flight

The burst above was one of perhaps six or seven such sequences of between 8 to 15 shots each that I took that day. Now, with the 1D MKIV and the old 600mm, I’d end up with perhaps one or two shots in 17-shot burst that would be out of focus. To me, that was totally acceptable, especially when tracking something fast-moving like birds.

In the sequences I shot that day, I had exactly one shot out of focus. That’s one shot in about 80 frames.

Looking back on sequences shot with the 1D MKIV/old 600mm, I noticed that this trend stretched across all my images, not just the high-speed burst sequences. Doing some rough math (very, very, rough math, with lots of margin for error, in a very unscientific manner), I’d say my average over 300 images went up about 30% or so.

Now, some of it I can credit to the fact that I may just be getting better at this whole photography schtick, but not all of it. The 1Dx/600mm combo just kicks some major tush, and it’s become my go-to when the migratory birds come through the San Francisco Bay Area.

Great Egret touchdown

Great Egret touchdown

The 1Dx’s simpler autofocus options have made it easier to test and choose various AI Servo modes, and I was able to drill down and find a setting that worked well for me. Moreover, using the 1Dx with the 600mm enables the use of a larger number (21) of cross-type AF points on the sensor for some scary-accurate focus tracking. I’ll have to check to see if the same number of cross-type AF points are available with the Mark I 600mm.

The thing that never ceases to amaze me is the amount of detail these cameras can now capture. The 1Dx has nominally higher resolution than the 1D MKIV (18.1MP vs 16.1MP), but it can still capture and render some astonishing detail.

The image below, for example, is a 2MP crop from a 1Dx capture. Even close in, there’s plenty of detail in the bird’s feathers and you can actually kinda tell that it’s eating a worm or eel of some kind (yuck).

This image is actually about a 2MP crop from the original 18MP image

This image is actually about a 2MP crop from the original 18MP image

The Image Stabilization in the 600mm Mark II is also said to be much improved. Given that this new lens is about 3 lbs lighter than the Mark I, I decided to test its effectiveness. So I drove to the top of Mount Tamalpais, then shot the image below while handholding the 1Dx/600mm combo.

That’s the San Francisco skyline, shot from about 13 miles or so away.

Handheld shot taken from the top of Mount Tamalpais.

Handheld shot taken from the top of Mount Tamalpais.

Ridiculous? Yes. At that distance, any perceived loss of sharpness or detail is more due to atmospheric distortion, as the image below shows.

100% crop of the skyline shot

100% crop of the skyline shot

Handholding the 600mm, even in its lighter incarnation is no easy task, but it’s nice to know that the IS can help with that. Also, people do look at you with more respect when you lug that beast around.

Conclusion

The 1Dx is a beast of a camera – in every possible good way. Listening to that shutter go off at high speed is like music to any photo nut’s ears. There’s simply nothing else like it in Canon’s lineup, and using this camera is a pleasure in every single way. The new menu systems in the 1Dx really simplified what was a somewhat confusing list of options in the 1D MKIV, and the autofocus, already great in the MKIV, is just flat-out scary-good in the 1Dx.

The 600mm lens turned out to be a real treat. With a max aperture of f/4, I’m very, very curious to see what this lens can do on a 7D. That’s – let’s see, math here – 600 x 1.4 x 1.6 = 1344mm! Ooohh… the possibilities…

But even on “just” a full-frame camera, this new 600mm is lighting-fast and razor-sharp. Whatever magic juju Canon put into it in the form of flourite elements and ED glass is working wonders for it. This is now the big gun for wildlife shooters, I think, despite the existence of the Canon 800mm f/5.6, if for no other reason than the ability to stick that 1.4 Extender on it and get even more reach.

Ultimately, the old 600mm Mark I is still a fantastic lens in every where. The new one improves on it in the same way that the 1Dx improves on the MKIV – by making what was there better, rather than gunking things up with unwanted new features. Nothing feels extraneous on this body and lens; they are pure function that happen to be followed by excellent form.

 

All bird images Copyright © 2012, Sohail Mamdani. All rights reserved. 

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Sohail Mamdani is a writer and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. You can find his portfolio on his website at sohail.me as well as on 500px and Flickr.

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