05 October 2010

Test Driving a $10,000 Camera

My job in times past has sometimes involved document photography, for which we've used various high-end commercial and professional cameras. I've never used this gear myself. I'm a project supervisor, not a technician. We no longer do this kind of work ourselves, but a pile of our old gear is temporarily parked in my office. Looking at it the other day, I realized I've never pulled any of it out for a test drive. And since it's the nicest equipment I'll probably ever touch, it suddenly seemed irresistible to take it for a spin while I had the chance.

The best digital camera we have is a Canon EOS-1Ds MkII. The 1Ds is Canon's flagship model, though the MkII version is a generation old. Its dinky 2" LCD tells its age, but it's still a thoroughbred and built for serious combat. With a beefy Canon 28-70mm f/2.8L lens on it, it weighs almost six pounds.  I was really starting to notice the weight after just 30min. But I would expect it to contain a bit of metal. The camera cost $8000 new and the lens about $1200. Just the filter on the front cost more than the last compact camera I purchased.

So what's it like using a $10,000 camera? Not so simple. It took me 15min just to figure out how to run it. Three screens, lots of buttons, a single dial (no knobs), and menuing that is completely unlike other Canon DSLRs. I shamefully had to consult the manual.

But shooting with it was a lot of fun. The first time I held it up to my eye was a revelation. The viewfinder is the biggest and brightest of any Canon. Compared to a Rebel-class viewfinder, this baby is IMAX. And then I pushed the shutter, and jumped with surprise. The shutter response is crisp and instantaneous, and sounds amazing. If this were a car, that shutter sound would be the throaty snarl of a Ferrari V12.

The 1Ds MkII has a 16mp full-frame sensor, which means that unlike most DSLRs, there is no crop factor for 35mm lenses. This also demands more of the lens. I was surprised to find that even with this premium L-series lens there was vignetting in the corners when shot wide open at 28mm. The filter may be a bit to blame, though this is a known problem with this lens on this camera. The 1Ds simply demands more of the lens than the film cameras it was originally designed for.

One big upside of a full-frame camera is you have a shallow depth of field that both gives you more creative options and imparts what has come to be regarded as "that pro look" (since compacts can't do it). This lens allows close focus to about 1.5ft, at all focal lengths, which for a non-macro lens is very good. It lets you do this (random desk shot, sorry):

This lens produces fantastic color and contrast, especially for a zoom. I am not a flower photographer, but flowers were what I had to photograph nearby. And I have to admit, the light was perfect and the results beguiled me. My only disappointment is how easy it was to get commercial-quality images with such a great camera and lens. Even just 10 years ago pros were sweating at their craft with fussy Hasselblads and Fuji Velvia slide film to produce work that, in technical terms, was inferior to what a rank amateur like me could get 20 minutes after picking up this camera for the first time.

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