Canon 1DX vs 5D Mark III

canon 1dx camera vs canon 5diii

I used a Canon 5D Mark II for years for medical photography in my office, but when the Mark II started spending more time at home than it did in the office, I knew it was time to buy another camera. That’s when I started the exhausting process of researching the differences between the Canon 5D Mark III and the Canon 1DX. I knew I wanted an upgrade from the Mark II, and long story short, I wound up owning both of them.

The Mark III and the 1IX are both very impressive machines, but they serve very different purposes, and, at least in my opinion, they are not interchangeable. Here is how I came to the decision to get both, and my recommendations about which one to get if you only want or need one of them.

This is a real-world, hands-on, practical review… not a review of the spec sheets.

canon 5d mark iii vs 1dx

If you are looking for a technical review with tons of specs and charts, you may want to look somewhere else. I’m going to leave that to the pros who make a living reviewing photography gear, and I don’t think it’s beneficial to rehash spec sheets over and over again. Lloyd Chambers, Ken Rockwell, and Steve Huff all have excellent review blogs where you’ll find every technical detail you’ve ever wanted, and then some.

This article is simply my opinion of the practical differences between the two cameras that had an actual impact on my everyday photography. When I was trying to make a decision about which camera to purchase, I had a hard time finding un-biased, real-world reviews, and I found myself spending hours scrolling through forum threads trying to find something other than debates about the minute technical differences between these two devices. I wanted to read about everyone’s experiences using the cameras instead, but I couldn’t really find that.

So, that’s exactly what I decided to write about… my experience with the Canon 1DX and the 5D Mark III.

Why did I upgrade from the 5D Mark II to the 5D Mark III?

The first camera that I bought for personal use was the Canon 5D III even though most of the reviews at the time didn’t suggest that it was a worthy upgrade over the Mark II. Right away, I knew that it was completely worth it, and ended up selling the Mark II because it felt obsolete after using the Mark III for just a few hours. First off, the Mark III has a significantly better LCD screen, a more responsive shutter button with far less lag, an infinitely better viewfinder, and a more comfortable hand grip. That right there justified the upgrade in my mind, but then I realized how vastly superior the AF system is, and that was the icing on the cake… which is ironic because 95% of my lenses are manual focus.

The AF system on the Mark III is really what makes the Mark II obsolete. It’s faster, it tracks better, it’s more customizable, and it makes the camera so much more capable. I do have a few AF lenses (the Canon 85mm f1.2  II, the Canon 135mm f2, and the Canon 100mm f2.8 Macro), and I can tell you that using the Mark II feels like you’re using a point-n-shoot after spending just a few minutes using the Mark III, regardless of whether you’re an autofocus shooter or a manual focus shooter.

Now, on to the real reason why the new AF system was the icing on the cake for me with this upgrade… the huge grid of selectable AF points. The Mark II only has 9 selectable AF points, but the Mark III has 61 (41 of which are cross-type). I have to admit that I’m a total sucker for subject isolation and bokeh, so I shoot wide open a lot. Before I got into manual focus, I used the standard focus-recompose method with my AF lenses, so that’s the method that I tried to adapt to manual focus shooting when I discovered it, but that didn’t work too well. I realized very quickly that I had to start selecting a peripheral focus point if I wanted to have any kind of accuracy in my wide open shots, and I felt incredibly limited by the 9-point system of the Mark II. The Mark III changed that completely for me, so much so that even if that was the only difference between the II and the III, it would still be worth the price of the upgrade. I’m convinced that you shouldn’t focus-recompose if you’re shooting with larger apertures, so if you enjoy that style of shooting, or if you are even curious about it as something that you might want to learn, don’t even consider the II, buy the Mark III.

Why did I decide to test out the Canon 1DX if I was so happy with the Mark III?

Honestly, it was just curiosity. You know the old saying, curiosity killed the cat. Well it killed my wallet too, but it was worth it. Here’s why…

1. The 1DX is faster. WAY faster. The 1DX is capable of shooting at 12fps (14fps if you allow the speed to vary with the aperture size). If you’ve never shot with a camera this fast before, be prepared to be impressed. Even the sound of 14fps is impressive, let alone how quickly you can capture images. If you’re shooting stuff that moves fast, and especially if you’re making a living by shooting stuff that moves fast, you don’t have a choice… you need the 1DX. I shoot mainly in New York City where everything moves fast, so it works miracles for me here. Also (I didn’t anticipate this by the way), the fast frame rate helps me with manual focus wide-open shooting because I can compensate for my own body motion by shooting fast frames. When your depth of field is a few millimeters shooting at f/1.4 with a Zeiss 85mm, almost any motion could make or break your shot. I have pretty steady hands, but I still appreciate the fact that the 1DX can slam out 14fps and get me my shot even if I’ve had too much coffee or if the wind blows me off a few millimeters. The Mark III can’t do that. Plus, it’s not just the frame rate that’s faster. The entire camera is snappier, including the write speed to your CF card. You won’t notice any delays even if you shoot 6 bracketed shots at 12fps with the image size set on fine-Large + RAW… it’s amazing. The Mark III can’t do that either.

2. The 1DX is better metering. MUCH better. Ken Rockwell said that he couldn’t appreciate the supposedly better metering of the 1DX, but the test shots he posted were taken outdoors in broad daylight with a bland subject way off in the distance. With those conditions, I’m not sure that I could tell the difference between the 1DX and a PowerShot, so I decided to test it out for myself with the most extreme and awful lighting conditions I could find. I wanted to see if the more expensive, more advanced technology of the 1DX produces when it needs to. Please excuse the ridiculous subject matter here (I laughed at it myself when I was writing this) because these very ordinary images actually do a good job of demonstrating how much better the 1DX is at metering a complicated scene.

All of these photos were shot handheld (because no one shoots with a tripod in real life) with the same lens and the same settings in Aperture Priority Mode, which is not only my most common mode, but also the best way to test how smart the camera actually is when it comes to metering. The first set of four photos were taken in front of an open refrigerator, so the subjects were illuminated horribly with a backlighting incandescent bulb in the fridge itself, and a directly-overhead fluorescent bulb on the ceiling… pretty much the worst lighting situation you can imagine. The last four photos were taken in a room with a window that faces due east and gets blasted with morning sunshine. The sun backlights everything and makes good metering incredibly important.

Canon 5D Mark III on the LEFT    |    Canon 1DX on the RIGHT

The 1DX wins hands down. The subjects are metered better in every photo, and that translates into more detail and much better exposure. Because the focus point on the 1DX is attached to the metering system, even in evaluative mode, the camera processes it’s exposure based on the entire scene, but with a slight consideration to what you are focusing on. It’s a very intelligent system that does produce noticeable improvements in real world shooting, even in very poor lighting conditions like the ones these tests shots were taken in.

In addition, for a given aperture, the 1DX will accomplish a better exposure in a much shorter exposure time. The Mark III’s exposure times were much longer (1/40-1/50) than the 1DX (1/100-1/125) with the same scene, same lighting, same metering mode (evaluative), and same aperture (f/5.6). Shooting handheld at 1/40 with the Mark III makes it much more difficult to get sharp focus without any motion blur from your own body movement. Getting the same shot is MUCH easier shooting at 1/125 because the quicker exposure freezes the scene faster and lessens the chance that you own motion will blur the frame… the 1DX wins in a big way with this, especially since I’m a manual focus shooter.

3. The 1DX has a better AF system, especially when it comes to tracking. I don’t shoot autofocus lenses often, but when I do it’s nice to see how well the 1DX tracks active subjects. When it locks on, it really locks on, much better than the Mark III does. Even with the slow-focusing Canon 85mm f1.2 II lens, the 1DX still locks onto everything but the fastest moving subjects.

4. Canon 1dx M.Fn button customizationThe 1DX has an extra option for customizing the M.Fn button. It’s only one extra option, but it’s a big one, at least for me. The 1DX allows you to set the M.Fn button to toggle between your Custom User Profiles, which is incredibly convenient. I have a custom profile for black and white shooting, and a second one for fast motion shooting. I can toggle back and forth between these modes in a fraction of a second and without taking my eye away from the viewfinder. It seems like such a small change from the standard mode dial on Mark III, but it makes a HUGE difference in the real world.

5. The 1DX is indestructible and weather sealed. The Mark III made the Mark II feel like a toy, and the 1DX does the same thing to the Mark III. The 1DX has a truly professional build quality that you can’t appreciate until you hold it. It’s heavy, solid, and obviously ready to take a beating if you need it to. I feel much more comfortable taking the 1DX out into the rain or snow than I do with the Mark III, no question about it.

If the 1DX is so amazing, why did I keep the 5D Mark III?

As I said at the beginning of this article, the 1DX and the Mark III are both very capable machines, but they are also very different from each other, and absolutely not interchangeable. The comparison between the 1DX and the Mark III is not the same as the comparison between the Mark II and the Mark III where one is clearly superior to the other because it is an upgraded version of the other. The 1DX is not an upgraded version of the Mark III… it’s a different camera altogether. That being said, here’s why the Mark III didn’t get sold or returned after I tried the 1DX:

  1. The Mark III is smaller. MUCH smaller. Let’s face it, size does matter. Carrying around the 5D Mark III is a job in itself, but all you have to do to reset your expectations for what “heavy” means is carry a 1DX for a while. The 1DX is huge and noticeable in the same way that the giant white Canon 70-200II is. You’re not going to be taking any candid shots with the 1DX, so if you’re into street photography, you need another option. Not only is the camera itself huge and conspicuous, but you can’t hold it without a strap of some kind, even if you have very strong hands. It’s just too big. So the combo of a huge camera and a photography strap makes you all the more noticeable to people around you. The grip on the Mark III is so comfortable in my hand that I can carry it around almost all day with no strap, and it let’s me stay out of sight when I want to be.side by side canon 1dx vs canon 5diiicanon 5diii vs canon 1dx sitting side by side
  2. The Mark III is quieter. MUCH quieter. Let me put it this way… the 1DX is louder than the Mark III even if the 1DX is in Silent Mode and the Mark III is not. It’s not a subtle difference, it’s a big difference. Silent Mode on the Mark III is fantastic, but it’s a joke on the 1DX. You can literally take the Mark III anywhere, but you have to be very careful with the 1DX.
  3. I enjoy shooting with two camera bodies. I use almost all manual focus prime lenses, so having two camera bodies is a blessing. Two cameras = less lens changes = less wear and tear and less hassle all around. My favorite combo is a longer lens on the 1DX so I can take advantage of the speed and metering for specific subjects like people or objects, and a wider lens on the Mark III for landscapes and scenes where there is no single subject that would benefit from more frames or better metering. This combination works really well for my style, and it’s really enjoyable. I carry the 1DX on a BlackRapid Metro strap, which is excellent, and the Mark III in a small lens bag behind me.

It’s that simple. There are dozens of other technical differences between these two cameras, but not all of them will not impact your everyday photography. The short list of key differences I mentioned here allows me to do things with each camera that the other one cannot, and here is a real-world example of what I mean by that.

A few months ago, I took both cameras out for a photo walk in New York. I ended up being out for close to 8 hours and took thousands of photos. The two places that I spent the most time were at Rockerfeller Center and The Met, and if I had not had both of these cameras, I would have been completely out of luck at one of these venues.

Shooting flags at Rockerfeller Center on a windy day: the 1DX rocked it.

The light was gorgeous that day, but the wind was kicking these flags around something fierce. I had a Zeiss 35mm f1.4 manual focus lens on my 1DX, and I easily convinced myself how amazing it is to be able to shoot at 12fps. With the wind blowing like it was, and the flags flapping all over the place like they were, there is absolutely no way I would have been able to get these crisply focus shots without the speed of the 1DX. I’m not going to pretend that I’m skilled enough to say that I can manual focus on something moving as fast as these flags were. I’m not. The 1DX just gave me dozens of frames to look through, and it did it FAST. The Mark III just can’t keep up with this kind of motion, and I would have missed so many shots that, to this day, are some of my favorites. The better metering of the 1DX helped on the backlit shots too.

Shooting indoors at The Met on a quiet afternoon: the 5DIII saved the day.

The wind started to get to me, so I decided to go to The Met for a break from the outdoors. I took the Mark III out of my bag, put the 1DX away, and spent the next 3 hours wandering around this incredible museum with hundreds of other people enjoying their Sunday. When I started shooing, I realized right away that my shutter was too loud and that it was eventually going to disturb someone. I switched to Silent Mode and problem solved, for real. Silent shooting with the Mark III is not a minor detail, it’s a major one. You have to be very brave (or very inconsiderate) to shoot indoors with a 1DX… it’s just too loud, even in Silent mode. Out in the noisy city it allowed me to get shots that I could not have gotten with the 6fps of the Mark III, but indoors in a quiet public setting, it’s unusable. I would have missed all these wonderful shots if all I had was the 1DX that day.

So, should you buy the 1DX or the 5D Mark III?

Buy the 1DX if:

    1. you are a professional photojournalist and literally can’t afford to miss a shot… you won’t miss anything with 12fps.
    2. you enjoy shooting subjects that move quickly and frequently… the AF tracking is out of this world.
    3. you shoot in extreme conditions frequently… the build quality is second to none.
    4. you have big, strong hands… the 1DX is very heavy.
    5. you can afford it… it costs $7000.

Buy the 5D III if:

    1. you can’t afford the 1DX… it costs $7000.
    2. you can’t carry the 1DX… it’s massive.
    3. you never shoot in extreme conditions… professional weather sealing costs a lot so don’t pay for it if you don’t need it.
    4. you do a lot of candids, street, or indoor shooting… you can’t hide the 1DX from anyone.
    5. you use manual focus lenses… a lighter camera is much easier to keep steady.

My next dream combination…

Being a manual focus shooter, a naturally want to try the Leica M 240 Rangefinder, and even more so, the Leica Monochrom… and I thought the 1DX was expensive… oh boy. If it ever happens, you’ll hear about it so stay tuned.

I hoped this article helped you make a decision, and please feel free to let everyone know your experiences and thoughts below in the Comments section.

Nicholas Vendemia, M.D.
Founder & Photographer, Vaperture New York
Vaperture.com

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Photo Credit: Vaperture.com, Nicholas Vendemia

5 Comments on “Canon 1DX vs 5D Mark III

  1. Thanks so much this is such a help. I’ve been mulling over this decision for the better part of a year. I even sold my 5D3 to make way for the 1Dx. Now I’m more than likely going to get the 1dx. I shoot mostly fashion photography and a camera as lovely yet slow as the 5d3 was a little irritating to clients living in this generation of no waiting. I often have clients standing over me the whole day and the 4 or 5 seconds it takes to transfer images to the computer while tethered irritates them to no end. I’m hoping the Ethernet connection cuts that down considerably if not, it’s prob back to the 5d3. I’m a little bummed out by the lack of an sd slot since I have a candy bowl full of Lexar pro sd cards but I guess real pros don’t use sd cards or whatever. Thanks again

  2. Hey Lucas, I’m glad the article helped you make a decision. It’s a hard decision to make because the 1DX is such an amazing machine, but so is the 5D3 in a lot of ways.

    I would be a little worried about using the 1DX for fashion shoots for two reasons: 1) the loud shutter, and 2) the physical size. Models and backstage staff can always be a little irritated, and the loud shutter will definitely make that worse, especially if you’re firing away at 12fps. And, the 1DX body is so big that it will make your subjects feel like you’re very much in their faces, which you know drives them crazy after a while. The 5D3 is much quieter, especially if you’re using the silent shutter setting, and it looks more like a “normal” camera from your subject’s perspective.

    The 1DX definitely performs better in low light (but the 5D3 is no slouch either), and the 1DX meters better all around (but again, not a deal breaker over the 5D3). In my experience, the 1DX images were slightly cleaner, which makes sense because of it’s larger pixel size, but again, it wasn’t a huge difference from the 5D3. Sometimes I even wondered whether there was a real difference at all, or if I was just trying to convince myself that there was because I spent the money and wanted to see more benefits than there actually were.

    Let us know how it works out with the 1DX. I’m sure there are a lot of other people trying to make the same decision you did.

    Thanks!

  3. Hello!

    One more 1D X advantage over 5D mark III for manual focus shooters is Interchangeable Focus Screens for precise focusing on wider than f2.8 lenses.

    • That’s absolutely true. I’ve never felt the need to change to a focus screen because I’ve found the AF confirm for MF lenses to be accurate enough for my purposes without even the need to micro adjust. I’m sure there is an element of luck involved in that my cameras and lenses have been well calibrated to each other, so your point about the option for an interchangeable focus screen with the 1DX is a good one. Hopefully Canon allows this option in the 5D Mark IV as well.

  4. Pingback: lightning | Vaperture

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