When Canon introduced the 16.7 MP EOS 1Ds Mark II several years ago it became the first digital camera to offer image quality that exceeded that of 35mm film. To be fair, Pop Photo lab and field tests showed that it captured slightly less detail and resolution than a good ISO 100 color negative or slide film, while maintaining higher color accuracy and lower noise. When enlarged, EOS 1Ds Mark II images were clearly superior in side-by-side comparisons with images made from film, primarily due to the graininess of film that obscured detail at high magnification. So now that Canon has stepped up the pixel resolution on the new EOS 1Ds Mark III to 21.1MP, will the slight advantage that film had be gone altogether?
I’m predicting that it will—but more importantly I think that overall improvements to the image quality (color accuracy, noise reduction, contrast, and dynamic range) that have been made possible with technological advancements over the last few years might give the EOS 1Ds Mark III a decided advantage over current Medium Format digital cameras as well! If I’m right, then the EOS 1Ds Mark III will do to Medium Format what its predecessor did to film—convince a whole bunch of pros that can afford it that it’s a better choice.
For starters, most medium format camera systems don’t offer much more than the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III when it comes to pixel resolution. Sure, a few are available with 22MP sensors, and some higher, that exceed it numerically, but the question remains as to whether or not that difference is visible in real world photos instead of just in lab tests using a resolution test target. At this level of pixel magic, the limiting factor might not be the number of pixels but the ability of the camera lens to resolve that detail on the sensor. And I think it’s here that Canon lenses have a decided advantage over the majority offered by medium format companies. I say the majority of those lenses—perhaps not all due to the fact that in recent years medium format companies have offered digitally optimized lenses for most of the systems available. But these lenses typically cost far more than the equivalent L-series lenses available from Canon (which are already darn expensive!) Older MF lenses that were designed and manufactured for use on film-based cameras have decidedly less resolution than needed to get the most out of a high MP imaging sensor. No one really cared when the camera was loaded with film because the lower magnification factor needed to make enlargements (vs 35mm film) disguised that fact. But we discovered that fact in the Pop Photo labs back in 1995.
It will remain an unsettled debate until we get our hands on a production sample of the EOS 1Ds Mark III and run it through our lab gauntlet for image quality. Perhaps a direct shootout with a top medium format contender would make the report more interesting. One thing is for certain: the EOS 1Ds Mark III will be favored on nearly all other fronts over the medium format systems out there due to its lighter weight, higher performance autofocusing system, fast burst rate, and its wonderful 3-inch LCD with live preview. Is it destined to become a medium format killer? Probably not, since those who already own medium format systems will continue to use them regardless of any perceived advantage the EOS might have. But anyone looking to invest in a medium format digital camera system might want to take a closer look at the Canon's image quality and performance advantages when it arrives.