Returning to the Canon EOS 1D

The Canon EOS 1D was released in 2001 as Canon's new flagship digital camera, similar in many ways from the EOS-1V professional film camera, it was an obvious step into the digital era.

Fast forward to 2017 and photography has entered a whole new world, with 50 million pixel sensors available and 24mp as an expected standard.

So why even talk about a camera that has 6 times less resolving power than the cheapest DSLR available? Simple. Image Output.


Canon EOS 1D notable features

- 4.2 million pixel Panasonic CCD sensor

- 8 fps

- 45 autofocus points

- Large bright viewfinder

- Built for punishment

- Vertical Grip


For eight months I have been photographing wildlife with a Canon EOS 7D, I have become very familiar with its strengths and weaknesses and know how to stretch its limits. And this is my problem, the 7D has its limits. Not its resolution, speed, accuracy or anything you'll read in a review, I have found the image output restricting my creativity.
 I hate having to work on images after the fact, I prefer to MAKE the image in the moment and forget about it. The idea of coming home and sitting at a computer desk doing custom white balance adjustments, or tweaking colour profiles makes me want to put my head through the wall. There are valid artist/photographers who can push reality with software and create masterpieces, they know who they are and I'm not one of them.

With the 7D I had to use software to bend the images to my liking, I was becoming an image editor and wasting my evenings at a computer desk.

Little Egret Sunset

Canon EOS 7D

This image had flat colours and contrast even with in camera saturation increased, fixed in software but with such beautiful light this shouldn't be necessary.

I experimented with Canon's first full frame camera the EOS 5D, the output was more saturated and contrasty compared to the 7D. This halved the time I spent at the computer desk, but eventually I was hitting the limits of the AF capabilities. To no fault of the camera, it was designed for landscape and portraiture not for powering huge prime lenses in low light.

Female Kingfisher Flying

Canon EOS 5D


Although this image came out as I wanted, this is the only frame that was usable out of 6.

I then discovered an old relic, the Canon EOS 1D.

The idea of heading into the field with a camera with less pixels than my £50 phone was daunting, what if the photograph of a lifetime happened? I'd be stuck with a barley usable file.

But to my amazement the image output was everything I was looking for, rich, defined and brilliantly rendered. So what's going on?

Ken aka the Angry Photographer says it best, its all about gain and the 1D has buckets of it.


Compare below the difference in pixel pitch each camera has

Canon EOS 7D - 4.29 µm
Canon EOS 5D - 8.2 µm

Canon EOS 1D - 11.57 µm


I have zero experience with signal to noise ratios or anything even remotely related, but its not hard to see that the EOS 1D has a significant advantage. Even digital medium format cameras have a smaller pixel pitch, for example the Pentax 645D sensor's pixel pitch is 6.03 µm.

But what about that 4.2 million pixels? Surely that cant be usable? Well I viewed the files on a Panasonic 4K 58” display, and all I can say is WOW! Everybody I show has no idea its only 4 mega pixels, I can't even believe it. Sure side by side a 5D file with my nose on the screen you can tell, but who does that to a print on the wall?

Kingfisher with Dragonfly Lavae #01

Canon EOS 1D

Although the resolution is only 2464 x 1648 the rendition is excellent, almost no editing required for this image.

Every camera made today and tomorrow is a compromise in one form or another, the way I look at it is perfection is boring and uninspiring. In some ways the EOS 1D is less forgiven than film, I've had to rethink everything when creating images. I could make 50% crops from the 7D and not think twice about large prints, even the 5D had excellent cropping potential. To get the best out of this camera, cropping must be avoided at all costs. This makes getting action shots very difficult, perfect framing has to be accomplished. The Canon EOS 1D is definitely not for everyone.

Exposure leniency is very limited on the EOS 1D, underexpose by 1stop and mountains of shadow noise appears, and over exposure is very difficult for the camera to handle. This could be due to the 12 bit files, but I'm not a software engineer and have no experience comparing bit rates.

Negatives aside, I found something I wasn't expecting form this antique, its perceived sharpness is incredible. I found my 600mm lens on the 7D was lacking wide open, but on the 1D it has excellent rendition. So much so that to make the image comparisons comparable, I had to add extra sharpening to the 7D files.

Lastly my favourite feature of this camera is the workflow.

I open the raw files in Canons DPP, chose the correct white balance, set picture style to standard, sharpness +3 and turn off all noise reduction. And that's it for 90% of my photographs, very few need extra tweaking in Photoshop. The colour is usually so saturated that I rarely have to increase it, contrast is always good and I never feel like I need to boost the image in anyway.

Female Kingfisher #16

Canon EOS 1D

Flash sync @ 1/500

Unlike other DSLR cameras the EOS 1D can flash sync up to 1/500, twice that of my 7D. Anybody who knows anything about lighting knows this is a huge deal, with flash triggers I've managed to sync up to 1/800. This is entering leaf shutter territory!

Below are monochrome samples form the Canon EOS 7d & 1D

Canon EOS 7D  in camera sharpness set to +5

Canon EOS 1D  in camera sharpness set to +3

Canon EOS 7D 

Canon EOS 7D (crop)

resolution - 2310x1540

Canon EOS 1D

Canon EOS 1D (crop)

resolution - 1092x728 

Below are colour samples form the Canon EOS 7d & 1D, this is where the 1D really shines! The 1D has punchy colours while the 7D has a different pallet all together, the 1D colour rendering is similar to Fujifilm slide film.

(The depth of field change is due to the larger 1D sensor)

Canon EOS 7D 5000k, standard picture profile, in camera sharpness set to +5

Canon EOS 1D 5000k, standard picture profile, in camera sharpness set to +3

Canon EOS 7D

Canon EOS 7D 

Canon EOS 1D

Canon EOS 1D

Below are portrait samples from the Canon EOS 7d & 1D, Identical settings except white ballance. The 1D still has better perceived sharpness compared to the 7D, even with the additional sharpening the 7D can't compete. Note how much greener the jumper is from the 1D, no matter what I did to the 7D I couldn't get the correct green without ruining the skin tones. (Framing change is due to the larger 1D sensor)

Canon EOS 7D custom white balance, Neutral picture profile, in camera sharpness set to +5

Canon EOS 1D custom white balance, Neutral picture profile, in camera sharpness set to +3

Canon EOS 7D 

Canon EOS 1D

So would I recommend anybody buy a EOS 1D? Yes and no.

If you do wildlife photography you're going to miss a lot of shots (and I do), simply because there is no sensor cropping available at 4.2mp. The rear display is possibly the worst I have ever used, almost impossible to read in normal sunlight.

The camera reads my 4gb compact flash cards at 2gb, reducing the capacity to approximately 300 raw files. It does not use modern lithium batteries, so extras are a must especially with the age of the equipment. You cannot focus check with the screen so no zooming in after shots, just like film you have to find out the hard way.

But if you can handle those restraints, then you will be rewarded with amazing results.

We should remember photography is an art form, it doesn't matter what resolution you're using. Nobody is calculating the effective resolution of the Mona Lisa, or commenting on the lack of dynamic range in the worlds most moving photographs. Cameras are tools and should be used accordingly, do not lust after the latest technology. Search for the tool that will help you create your minds image, and for me its a 16 year old camera that nobody seems to care about.

copyright Kieran Elson 2019