John Hess reviews the Canon EOS 1D mkIV – the latest offering of Canon’s flagship 1D camera.

The HD-DSLR camera revolution is about 2 years old now and there’s still a considerable amount of controversy in certain circles surrounding their use. Basically it boils down to two camps – one group of filmmakers who never had access to great equipment who all of a sudden have in their hand a camera that can mimic the look of film. And the other camp is a group of filmmakers who’ve had the access to that great equipment and now have to deal with this new toy. For the first group, the shortcomings of HD-DSLR cameras are the price of entry for great video, the latter, they’re just one more reason to dislike the current “fad”

Well since much hyped season finale of House being shot on Canon 5d cameras – it’s pretty clear that these cameras are here to stay – at least until camera companies come out with something better. And they will…

Which brings us to the Canon EOS 1D mkIV – many thanks to B&H Photo for sending over an evaluation version of the camera. The Canon 1D is Canon’s flagship DSLR camera, the 4th generation adds the “HD video” that we’ve been talking about.

Being that this is FilmmakerIQ – we are going to focus almost exclusively on the video aspect of the camera. That’s not to say that this camera doesn’t take some extraordinary photos – it does. Coupled with a fast 10 frames per second burst, this camera is an excellent choice for sports and nature photography.

Photo credits by Paul Seeber (first two) and John Hess (final)

But what really drew my interest when I saw a pre-production model at NAB last April was the low light performance of the 1D. I pointed the camera at a dark shadow and by pumping up the ISO (a measurement of the gain on the sensor – the higher the ISO value, the more light sensitive the sensor is but you’ll have more color noise), I could make that black turn white on screen.

So just how low does it go?

So the first thing I did with the 1D was to pit it up against my 5d MkII (which I purchased about 2 months ago) in a low light cage match to the death!

Here’s the full length comparison:

I used a Canon 1.4 35mm lens for the shot (courtesy of B&H Photo), the difference between the framing was due to the 1d’s 1.3 crop factor.

I first set out to shoot in my garage but I found out that the light creeping in through the cracks of the door were actually too much. I moved into the downstairs bathroom which had total darkness where I began to search for smaller and smaller devices that could be used to light a subject. Yes a Cell phone and a Match could do the trick. Both the 5d and the 1d were capable of handling low light – but the 1D just took it further. Even the faint glow of a black screen on the 5d was visible if held a few inches away from the subject.

Now it’s really important to pause here and make one clarification. The 1d is not night vision – it will not see where there is no light. It’s not magic. You still need light. The revolution is now anything that emits light – can now become a light.

A Real World Test

To put the camera through some more real world paces, I put the 1d to use on a short experimental film titled, “Pitch Black”. It’s a story about a woman, temporarily blinded in a car accident who is attacked by a psychotic killer and ultimately ends in mortal kombat in the basement – a typical Saturday night at my house.

Follow the production with the script, schedule, preview and other news in our own Pitch Black FilmmakerIQ Group

So instead of me telling you what this camera can do, I’m just going to show you some untreated footage from the camera – For the look of the final movie I generally desaturated the footage to create a more moody tone. This will generally reduce the amount of color noise that seeps into the picture at high ISO values – that’s why Philip Blooms 1d Study of Prague looked so amazing – it was in Black and White!

Here’s a sneak peak I’ve put together (this does mix some footage from the 1d with footage from our secondary Canon 5d mkII camera)

The 1d in standard lighting

All of the following images are straight grabs from the video. These grabs have not been treated for color and are uploaded in the original 1920×1080 size. The only additional compression was converting the images to JPEG.

We starting off with some of the day scenes and we were able to get a very natural look using only the sunlight through the windows. This enabled the production to move very quickly without having to reposition lights. That’s because there was only one – the sun and it repositions itself automatically so you do have to move to keep it where you want it.

The 1d on a “Set”

Now Moving to a “well lit” set type environment – in this shed set (which was a real shed) we utilized 4 small lights: one Dedolight 150w as a key, two 250w Lowel Pro-Lights (filling the back and one on the talent) and a 500w Lowel Omni all dimmed to well under the 1150 total watt capability. All the lights had either CTB (daylight filter blue) or a dichroic filter (to simulate daylight).

Here’s an even smaller “lit” scene. This time with a Dedolight 150w alone and a piece of foam board as a bounce card.

So far so good. But the fun really happens at night.

The 1d Afterhours

This entry way shot was done with a Dedolight 150w with a CTB (daylight filter) gel projecting a window pattern (using the Dedolight Projector) with another Lowel Pro-Light (250w) with dichroic filter bounced off the ceiling providing some fill.

Here we are at the the accident – this was lit with a 2k fresnel light about 15 feet away and car headlights. The 1d was in the driver seat of a car about 10 feet from the subject. We used a hose spraying water on the windshield to simulate rain.

The 1d in the bathroom

Now let’s get in the shower

This first shot is through the cantilever windows. This was shot with a single Dedolight 150w with CTB (daylight filter) as back light. Take a look at our lead actor’s pupils – this something you don’t see in films too often. It is THAT dark.

Here is a still from the actual shower – this was lit entirely with a single NIGHT LIGHT about 5 feet away the shower glass. That’s it in terms of light… Noise wise, it’s starting to creep in, but the nature of the production (and the configuration of the bathroom which had full mirrors on all four walls) would have made it impossible to add any more light (we would have been dealing with hundreds of reflections). In this case, the Canon 1D mkIV made the impossible shot possible.

Now we’re at the heroine’s bedside – this is that Dedolight 150w with CTB (daylight filter) outside the window creating that moon glow key. There’s a Lowel Pro-Light (250w) aimed at the ceiling to get a little bit of fill. And that light that’s filling the actress’s face – her Blackberry!

Steady as she goes

Luckily the Director of Photography Paul Seeber is an accomplished Steadicam Operator – so we rigged up the 1d and dreamed up flying maneuver.

This steadicam shot although it appears dark had to be lit with quite a few lights (at least compared to the other scenes) – a couple of 500w Lowel Omnis outside the windows (with CTB of course) to provide some moon glow- the Dedolight 150w projecting the window pattern at the entry way. and the Lowel Pro-Light (250w) for the fill. All lights were at full capacity. Every other light (including the light outside the door) was there as part of the house.

The reason we had to pump more light in than usual was we wanted to stop down the camera to provide a larger depth of field – when working on steadicam without a remote focus puller it’s impossible to keep things in focus if the dof is too shallow so you want to widen that up to get more room to work. Still the set was dark to eye, and if it weren’t for the 1d’s lowlight prowess, this wouldn’t have been possible.

What’s Black and White, but Red all over?

For the final shot of the movie we find ourselves in the basement. This is an extreme lighting challenge – there was only one Lowel Pro-Light (250w) positioned next to the water heater about 10 feet away from the subject with a red gel on it. In the first image, the placement of the light would be on screen right about 5 feet behind the stairs.

On the second image – the light on the lead actor’s face is generated by an iPhone on a standard screen (no flashlight app needed).

For a bounce, we used a white styrofoam mannequin head – it just happened to be at hand.

I show you this footage because it’s frankly amazing what you can do with a simple light kit and some creativity. You could shoot a movie with only practicals and get great footage – although a few professional lights make the job easier.

In a Nutshell…

The Canon 1d is the top of the line HD-DSLR camera in terms of video on the market today. I don’t think I need to show you any more footage to prove to you that it takes a beautiful image. That said it still comes with all the problems that still plague HD-DSLRs

  • Lack of a good sound input – you’ll either record sound separately (like we did on Pitch Black) or invest in a preamp designed for these cameras.
  • Rolling shutter effects (although less prominant than on a camera like the 5d) You’re going to see vertical lines get slanted when you do whip pans and fast objects will appear to have a jello effect. This is not as noticeable when shoot in 720 60p mode.
  • You can’t view through the viewfinder and an external monitor. It’s one or the other.
  • Line skipping, which is how the camera creates an HD image out of it’s much larger than HD sensor, can cause strange artifacts on objects with tight patterns.

But the Canon 1d does bring some advances to the HD-DSLR table.

  • The body weight and configuration actually makes the camera very easy to hand held shots with.
  • The HDMI now outputs 1080p signal while recording.
  • There is now a 1280×720 60p recording mode which we just talked about – useful for fast action.
  • The 1.3x crop factor will help get a bit more from the lens – although that can be a detriment if you want to maximize your wide angle lenses.

Compared to the 5d mkii, the Canon 1d mkIV does just about everything better. The image is clearer and crisper and the low light performance is better.

If you’re looking to buy the 1d the question is going to boil down to the dollars. At almost twice the cost of the 5d – are those improvements really worth the extra cash? If you shoot a lot of sports where you need to be able to fire off 10 photos a second and then shoot video – then the answer is clear. If your working in the film environment where you can control lighting to an extent – it’s hard question to answer. Yes the 1d is a superior camera to the 5d in just about every respect… but the extra cost over the 5d could go into accessories which you’ll need – not to mention better glass.

The lines between film and video are blurring fast my friends, if it isn’t almost totally gone – As technology marches forward, it’s going to more about what you put in front of the camera than the camera itself. But then again, it’s always been like that.

You can purchase the items featured in this review from our trusted sponsor B&H Video. We don’t recommend B&H because they our are sponsor, they are our sponsor because they are the only store we would ever recommend.

Items from the review:

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Very impressive footage you have their from Pitch Black. I’d like to see the whole thing. It definitely says alot about the camera that you could get some of those shots with your biggest light being a 500w.


Thank you so much..

Mike McDaniel

Thanks, that’s the kind of concise review I like to read and from an actual filmmaker. Too bad the likelihood of me owning a 1D or even a 5D or 7D anytime in the near future is pretty small.

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