Hands-On Review: Canon EOS 1D C

When the Nikon D90 arrived in 2008, followed shortly by the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, they ushered in a new era of DSLR videography, thanks to its pioneering ability to capture and record 720P HDTV video. Most of the early reviews of the camera failed to appreciate how much closer the world of video and still photography were about to become. When other companies rushed to add video features to their cameras the world of DSLR video took off, spawning new careers and new cottage industries.

In the six years that ensued photographers have toyed with the idea of being able to capture video not for the sake of producing a movie but rather to capture stills from fleeting moments of time. The best frame rates on a DSLR hover around twelve-frames-per-second yet video is captured at 30 or 60 frames-per-second.

How incredible would it be, for example, to capture a video of a crying and fussy newborn and not miss the fleeting second when her eyes are open and a smile darts across her face.

Or for the wedding photographer, the idea of capturing the ceremony without a shutter making a disruptive cacophony is as much about access and stealth as it is about moments.

Unfortunately even full 1080 HDTV is too low resolution to make a really useful frame grab, producing a still image that’s just 2.1 megapixel resolution. That’s enough for a small shot on a broadsheet but not enough for a spread in a magazine or as a print for a discerning client.

Which brings us to the sea change that is 4K, a video format based on the HDTV standard that has a horizontal resolution of 4000 pixies (versus the 1080 pixels of HDTV) and thus can produce an 8 megapixel image frame grab. Cameras are offering 4K video recording in addition to the HD capture that’s already standard. Among the most notable 4K-capable is the Canon EOS-1D C.

Based on the flagship EOS-1D X, the 1D C is identical to its predecessor in almost every way with the added power of 4K imaging. Canon consider this a separate class of device from the 1D X, listing it under their Cinema EOS system of DSLR bodies designed to be used for capturing video and they refer to it as "the first Canon DSLR specifically designed for video." That strikes us as a bit odd, since the 1D C is essentially a 1D X with added features, just like the 5D Mark III and 5D Mark II added successive video features to the original 5D—wouldn’t they be the first specifically designed for video?

It’s also different from the C500—a SLR-shaped system with video-specific controls, which is also part of the Cinema EOS system. To be clear, what you’re getting with the 1D C is the same form factor and still-photography features, but with the ability to record full 4K video on CompactFlash. Canon have beefed up the camera’s internals and added a better system to keep the processor cooler when capturing video.

These video features increase the retail price of the camera by from the $6700 for the 1D X by just north of $3000 to $10,000 for the 1D C, so the question is—does the 1D C offer the frame-grabbing photographer enough value to justify the price?

Getting 4K video capabilities into the 1D C was no small feat. The device is the first to record 4K to a CompactFlash card and it uses some impressive Motion JPEG encoding to compress the file without needing an external recording device.


The Canon EOS-1D X is an astonishing camera. The 18.1 megapixel sensor has an ISO range of 100-5100, expandable up to 204800, it can capture 12 frames per second (14 in a Super High Speed Mode) and focuses on images using a 61-point AF sensor powered by dual Digic 5+ processors. Even the metering system gets its own processor, which makes the 1D X an incredibly fast, incredibly accurate camera. The body is completely weather sealed and massively strong, the camera feels like a precision weapon in the hand.

But it’s also much easier to use than many previous Canon 1D cameras, thanks to changes to the control layout and the menu systems. The directional joystick found on the back of the camera makes it easy to cycle through focus points while a new menu system makes selecting the autofocus modes easier. These improvements make it incredibly easy to cycle through the body’s array of focus systems without needing to look in a manual.

For example a dedicated menu provides settings for things like "erratically moving subject" instead of relying on icons or cryptic focus mode names. There is also an in camera description of settings and how, for example, the chosen mode deals with an object that suddenly darts into the frame. This makes it much easier to pick the correct focus tool for the job and makes missed shots less likely.

Since the EOS-1D X has been oft-reviewed since it was announced in 2011, suffice it to say that the 1D X is an incredible camera and it makes an amazing platform for the 1D C. For the purposes of this review we’ll assume that the photo capturing backbone of the 1D C is exceptionally well covered.

Before I continue, I just want to point out that the idea to test the Canon EOS-1D C form a frame grabbing point-of-view came from Canon’s PR department. They knew that they had a solid camera with the 1D-X but thought it would be interesting to look at the 1D-C in this particular use case. I’m not recommending that all photographers consider shooting 4K video for frame grabs, or that the 1D C isn’t a stellar still camera in its own right. Nor am I trying to imply that a 4K frame grabbing system is the only use for the 1D C.

Lights, Camera, Stillness

Since the value proposition of the EOS-1DC is that it allows the photographer to capture 4K video and grab stills, I primarily worked with the system as a video-capture tool. With that said, I only connected an external HD display during one shoot—mostly to test that the external HD functionality worked—and I didn’t shoot with special video rigs.

That’s because I think that the Digital Photo Pro users of the Canon 1D C are mostly going to be still photographers looking capture 4K stills in a pinch or the occasional 4K video work.

Those that are primarily using the 1D C for video will of course have rigs and boom mics, as well as a host of gadgets designed to make it easier to use the camera as a video capture device. I have no doubt that the 1D C will perform as well in full-on SLR-video mode as would any other SLR.

I took the 1D C on a number of shoots, including location work on a farm, in a studio and capturing portraits of newborn. Each of these shots revealed some of the limitations of the camera’s frame grabbing prowess, but also the potential of the technology.

What 4K 4Can’t Do

Before we dive into how well the Canon EOS-1D C works at capturing stills, let’s talk a bit about what 4K can and can’t do, and the workflow needed to grab an image from a 4K device.

While the EOS-1D C is an 18.1 megapixel full-frame camera, 4K video is recorded using just an 8.8 megapixel crop of the sensor and a 17:9 aspect ratio. The stills grabbed from 4K video will be wider and narrower than a full-frame s
till. This will often result in the need to crop an image that was captured in 4K when standard still images are also part of the mix in order to maintain aspect ratios. Cropping the 4K frame grab naturally results in an even lower final pixel count. Frame grabs from 4K video also have lower dynamic range than the native stills from the sensor.

4K video requires a huge amount of storage space. A minute of 4K video takes about 1GB of storage space and high-speed CompactFlash cards are required to keep the camera from filling up the buffer and prematurely ending the video capture. This renders a lot of the CF cards photographers have in their bags useless for 4K video, meaning another outlay for storage. A 128GB UDMA 7 CF card goes for about $225 and a 256GB version for around $800.

You’ll also need some additional software to pull images from 4K video—something like Final Cut Pro or Premiere. You won’t need to have a 4K display to work with 4K video (it scales based on the resolution of the display) and frame grabs exported from the scaled video playback are the full resolution of the sensor. It will help to have a fast computer and plenty of storage space.

Frame Rating

In each of the test shoots I found that video frame grabbing is useful, though a bit cumbersome without the various rigs and setups used by video shooters. That’s because video capturing requires framing on the LCD screen and/or an external monitor. While we worked at first with a compact display that mounts to the camera’s hot-shoe connector, it didn’t feel practical to use that in a mixed still and video workflow.

So I shot mostly using the LCD screen and it’s as difficult to focus on a subject as it is with any other accessorized video-capturing SLR. As a result I found myself relying a bit on using smaller apertures to get more wiggle room in focus depth, which resulted in a different look than the stills from the same shoot.

Studio shots were the easiest to incorporate video—we just set up the model on a mark and pulled the focus and held the model at roughly the same spot, pausing to recompose as necessary. At first it was odd for the model to just move through poses without hearing the reassuring shutter, but that soon passed.

Naturally though in-studio use relies on a different lighting solution—since there’s no shutter release happening there’s nothing to trigger strobes. A well-lit studio with continuous lighting is a must for this sort of frame grabbing use.

Because there’s no autofocus capability during video shooting, so the spectacular 61-point autofocus system is disabled and "which way do I turn the ring?" manual shooting is enabled.

In another shoot I filmed a friend of mine and her newborn as she rocked him on her shoulder. Traditionally the clack-clack-clack of a shutter would disturb her and the tentatively-sleeping baby, so ordinarily I would have held off for fear of intruding on the moment.

Instead I simply shot video of the baby as he fell asleep, nestling his head against her neck. The resulting image is incredibly tender and honest and wouldn’t have been possible with the distracting clatter of a shutter.

After a few weeks of shooting a mix of video and stills with the same camera I decided that using the 1D C for frame grabbing would be best if it were set up as a dedicated video system, with an external display, focus puller assist and a tripod. Without these things shooting video felt like an afterthought.

That means that the best application (for me) would be to use a 4K camera setup at a wedding during the ceremony, toasts and other quiet moments, pulling image from the video as needed.

Grab and Go

The true test of the 4K frame-grab experiment would come not on location but back in my studio when I had the chance to evaluate the images. In order to find the perfect images from dozens chunks of video I imported the footage into Final Cut Pro X, which has a handy shortcut for exporting any frame at the current playhead position.

I exported dozens and dozens of frames grabs and looked at them on a calibrated Apple Cinema Display and was impressed at the quality of the images. Here’s an area where the 1D C’s value becomes apparent, a 4K camera is only as good as the sensor plus the glass you put in front of it, and Canon’s combo is excellent.

To further pick apart the images I printed them on Epson Exhibition Fiber Paper on an Epson Stylus Pro 4900, each of the shots printed full bleed at 13×19. Exhibition Fiber is a paper that reproduces detail with exceptional quality and consistency so it made a great test bed for these images.

While we printed at full width, because of the aspect ratio of 4K video there’s quite a bit of white space on the printed page. However, the detail is exceptional. I showed several prints to photographers and non-photographers alike and they all commented on the quality of the images. They were all astounded when I told them the images came from video. (The professional photographers to a one re-examined the prints at this point, holding them to the light and making a whistling noise.)

Cropping the photos to get a standard still-image aspect ratio results in a much smaller image, and crops didn’t hold up as well at 13×19 full bleed, but the images were still better than any I’ve seen from a four to six megapixel consumer camera, thanks to the incredible quality of the Canon glass and the imaging sensor.

Use Case

Because the 1D C is so great at capturing stills, it’s a less compelling option to bring it on location to capture video and then pull frames from it. With a $10,000 price tag it would be better utilized by a videographer that also needs to grab frames. But when 4K works its way down to the price point of something like a 5D Mark III, it’s game on.

The promise of video still capture has been a long time coming but the technology has never lived up to the hype. With the advent of SLR-based 4K capture, it’s finally possible for photographers to capture stills in a whole new way.

The Canon EOS-1D C is an incredible camera and it’s going to revolutionize 4K video capture. That said, it has a price point so high that it’s not a good choice for photographers with a casual need for still capture. Photographers working in both still and video will benefit from the ability to capture 4K in an SLR body.

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