Wildlife Photography with a Canon 1Dx

Gerry van der Walt All Authors, Gerry Leave a Comment

If you’ve been following the blog you’ll know that a few weeks ago I visited the Madikwe Game Reserve with a Canon 1Dx and a Nikon D4.

Canon 1Dx for wildlife Photography

I am the first to say that photography is about the photographer and not the gear but let’s be honest, there are few things as exciting as holding and testing a new camera to see what all the fuss is about.  Yes… we all geek out on tech every now and then!

I spent four days in Madikwe with my good mate Gavin Tonkinson and we were lucky enough to have amazing sightings which gave me a lot of time to see what these two super cameras can do.

For the purposes of this blog post I am going to focus on the Canon 1Dx as, to me, it was quite exciting to shoot the best professional camera that Canon has ever produced.

Now this is not going to be a normal review where I quote all the specs, show you images of me with the camera or compare the two cameras.  You can find info and images like that anywhere online and to me, as a wildlife photographer, it is more important to see how a camera performs in real world situations rather than shooting in a controlled environment and pointing it at paper with lines and colors on it.

I have chosen a number of images not on merit of them being awesome wildlife images but rather to show and describe what I experience in the field – photographically speaking.

With all of that said, here goes with a few thoughts on how the Canon 1Dx performed in the field.

Large But Pleasant

As mentioned in this post, the 1Dx is large and heavy.  I love that!

In wildlife photography we often use large lenses and to me it just feels better to have a large, chunky camera body.  Sure, with the way technology is going size doesn’t matter and you get small cameras which packs a serious punch but for what I do the 1Dx is perfect.

During our visit I was either using the new Canon 500mm f/4 IS II lens or the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II and with both these lenses the camera felt very well balanced.  To me it just feels better to have a large camera I can hold on to rather than a smaller body and that’s also the reason I normally add battery packs to the smaller cameras I use.

For travel photography the 1Dx might be a bit large to carry around and you might want to opt for something smaller but based on what this camera can do I would probably still choose this as my carry around camera.

Ergonomically Perfect

On top of just feeling good and heavy in your hands the buttons and dials on the 1Dx are perfect.

WIldlife Photography with the Canon 1Dx - Gerry van der Walt

I love the large control dial on the back.  It makes navigating the menus and various functions dead easy and even though I don’t ‘speak Canon’ all that well (yet) I was never lost and could find my way around the camera with ease.  You can see that Canon definitely put some thought into the layout of the buttons and it can be seen in small things like the ISO button which is slightly raised which makes it feel different to the rest and allows you to find it without looking up from the viewfinder.

The controls I use most often for wildlife photography includes:

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  • Aperture & Shutter Speed
  • ISO
  • Exposure Compensation
  • Autofocus mode
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To me the layout of the controls was so simple and intuitive that within 10 minutes of our first lion sighting I was comfortable and changing my settings, both simple and more advanced, quickly and without having to look up from the viewfinder.

Plenty of Juice

During the 4 days I shot just over 800 images on the 1Dx.

On top of this I spent a lot of time looking through the menus, reviewing images and generally faffing around with the camera.  It’s also worth remembering that I was using IS on both lenses which also uses quite  bit of battery power.  I did not charge the camera once during the 4 days I was there and when I packed my camera bag on the last morning the battery was just under half.

When I am on a photo safari I would normally charge my cameras every evening but as an exercise I was suitably impressed with the battery power on the 1Dx.

The Noise Discussion

Ask any hardcore Nikon user what makes the brand I am sure that low light shooting and noise will come up immediately.

Now I do think that with an understanding of Lightroom and how noise reductions and sharpening works together you can get usable images from pretty much any make and model of camera.  I personally feel that a lot of photographers pay way too much attention to this and I still maintain that I would rather get a slightly noisy / grainy image than not get the shot at all.

That being said, I was very keen to see what the 1Dx could do in lower light conditions as, let’s be honest, that’s when a lot of the good stuff happen in the bush.

Since we had the luxury of taking our time I waited for the light and the pushed the ISO up.  Here are some of the results.

Wildlife Photography with the 1Dx - Gerry van der Walt

Canon 1Dx, 500mm, 1,250, f/7.1, ISO 1250

Image taken at 17h56

As a rough rule of thumb you always want to try and get your shutter speed to 1/focal length.

As we were following three Wild Dogs the light kept on changing due to heavy patches of clouds so I had to keep on checking and rechecking my shutter speed.  As the dog stopped and looked at us I dialed up the ISO to try and get a shutter speed of 1/500.  I wanted to keep a slightly larger DoF to get the whole dog sharp and in focus so decided to keep the shutter speed of 1/250 at an ISO of 1,250.

Handheld, I fired off this shot.

Great image quality and also as crisp as can be which means the IS on the new 500mm does what it’s supposed to do and shows the 1Dx isn’s scared of higher ISO settings.

Wildlife Photography with a Canon 1DX - Gerry van der Walt

Canon 1Dx, 500mm, 1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 2000

Image taken at 17h55

The pride of lions were all laying around after a kill that morning so Gavin and I spent the time playing around with all kinds of settings and lens combos.

We would normally, at this time, have had amazing golden light but a bank of clouds covered the sunset so it was pretty dark.

At an ISO of 2,000 I got a virtually clean image.  The out of focus background was smooth and the details in the lions face was perfect.  The only Lightroom adjustments I did with regards to noise reduction was Luminance 10 and Color Noise 25.  That’s all that was necessary.

Wildlife Photography with a Canon 1DX - Gerry van der Walt

Canon 1Dx, 500mm, 1,320, f/4, ISO 4000

Image taken at 18h29

For this image I had to push the ISO way up and I still didn’t get to the desired shutter speed of 1/focal length.

Still, the quality of the image is seriously impressive.  Again, the only adjustments to noise reduction was Luminance 12 and Color 25 and I am sure that even from the web-sized image you can see that the 1Dx produced a pretty impressive result in very low light.

Wildlife Photography with a Canon 1DX - Gerry van der Walt

I shot this image specifically to look for the noise that normally hides in the dark areas of an image.

The image on the left is the RAW file as shot and the image on the right shows the same image with the Shadows and Black sliders in Lightroom punched up to 100.  This is not something I would normally do, or an ISO you would normally have to shoot with but it is a great way to really check for noise.

This is a crop of the middle part of the image with only the above mentioned adjustments applied.

Yes, there’s a lot of noise but that’s to be expected.

Like I mentioned above I lifted the shadows and darks, which normally makes noise jump out at you.  Also, I cannot think that you would ever need to, or want to, shoot at an ISO of 8,000 but hey, you never know.

The image below then shows the result after  I applied noise reduction by pushing Luminance to 20 and Color to 25.

Wildlife Photography with a Canon 1DX - Gerry van der Walt

An amazing difference and it goes to show that you shouldn’t worry about ISO too much.

With a few more adjustments I would have been able to get a very usable image out of this RAW file.  Yes, you need to understand how noise and sharpening works but the quality of your high ISO RAW file also makes a difference.

All in all I was blown away with the high ISO performance of the 1Dx.  Definitely the best I have seen from any Canon camera to date.

Is it better than a Nikon D4?

Who knows, but that is not the point.   When are you ever going to find yourself with both these camera bodies in the field having to make that call?

I have been shooting on a D3s for a long time and the noise handling of the 1Dx is so damn close to this that once I have processed my RAW files you would not know the difference.

The difference will come in with the shots I will be able to get due to the high ISO capabilities and in that department the 1Dx is the best Canon body I have ever shot.  By a long way!

It’s Fast

The 1Dx has , without a doubt, one of the best sounding shutters I have ever heard.  Ever.

And when it’s rattling off at between 10 and 12 FPS it absolutely sings.

For wildlife photography a high frame rate is recommended but not necessarily essential.  You, as the photographer, still have to predict, feel and anticipate the moment.  A fast frame rate is not a reason to just fire at will and then look for the best shot afterwards.  You still need to try and hit the sweet spot yourself and then you just have the fast shutter to ‘back you up’.

I normally try and pick my shots but when necessary, and I’m photographing fast moving subjects or birds, I will fire off three of four frames at a time.

Then you get auto-focus – something the 1Dx excels at.

As it happened I did not have too many opportunities to photograph fast moving animals but I still did what I could to check out the focusing and tracking speed on the 1Dx.

Wildlife Photography with a Canon 1DX - Gerry van der Walt

 We just arrived at the tree where this Goshawk was sitting and, as they always do, it took off as Gavin stopped the car.

I literally lifted the camera and fired away. (Thank goodness I ended up with a shutter speed of 1/1000).

The speed with which the auto-focus locked onto the bird was amazing.  Yes, the background was white and the bird made for a pretty ‘easy’ target but still – it locked on perfectly and stayed with the fast moving subject throughout the entire sequence.  This was the first image and, truth be told, we tried this again and again and the camera locked on each time.  Perfectly!

Wildlife Photography with the 1Dx - Gerry van der Walt

While sitting with a pride of lions, waiting for photo opportunities, I spent some time photographing Glossy Starlings.  There were a couple of them who were returning to the same branch and then taking off in any direction.

One of the settings on the 1Dx allows for fast moving subjects that could change direction at any moment.  All I had to do was get the subject in the middle of the frame and and wait.  The speed and accuracy of the tracking system, and auto-focus, in any direction was superb.

By selecting the center focus point and then allowing the camera to use the surrounding points to assist the camera successfully tracked the starlings from the centre all the way to the edge of the frame.

Very handy, and necessary for wildlife photography!

The starlings were obviously quite an easy target to lock onto as they were quite dark compared to their background.  Also, when I was photographing them I did not try to track along with them and just held the camera dead still and allowed the auto-focus and tracking to do what it does.

Wildlife Photography with the 1Dx - Gerry van der Walt

One afternoon we were sitting at a waterhole waiting for some action so I played around with tracking and trying to follow a very fast moving subject.

The doves would land on the water’s edge and then take off in any direction.  This made for a nice exercise in trying to track but remember that now with me trying to move the camera along with the subject, from a standing start so to speak, the tracking system would need to work harder to stay with the subject.

No stress.  On most of the dove shots the camera was able to find and keep up with the doves as the left the waterhole.  I am sure that if I had been using some kind of support that it would have been even easier but the speed and accuracy was most definitely noticeable.

Wildlife Photography with the 1Dx - Gerry van der Walt

While sitting with two young male ellies I was given the chance to also see how the 1Dx tracks on subjects moving away from, or in this case towards, the camera.

I was shooting on a 70-200mm lens at f/2.8 and was shooting nice close up, and kinda abstract, shots of the two elephant as they bumped heads and pushed each other around.

As I lock my focus onto the forehead, between the eyes, of the one ellie he suddenly turned towards us and rather quickly gave us a bit of a mock charge while at the same time lifting his head.  The 1Dx did not miss

a beat and throughout the entire sequence the focus was spot on.

In the above image you can see the in focus area on the ellies’s trunk.  Milli-seconds before this I was locked on to the area between his eyes but as he moved closer and tilted his head, something that would have made it difficult to focus due to the change in distance and angle, the focus was always spot on.

The strong out of focus bands is a result of the f/2.8 I was shooting at but throughout the sequence of images I shot (while laying back due to the large guy’s sudden change of attention) every single shot’s focus was spot on.  Considering the focus was based on the texture of the ellie’s skin that is seriously impressive.

Wildlife Photography with the 1Dx - Gerry van der Walt

I do not normally pay too much attention to butterflies but as I was sitting in Gavin’s garden in Madikwe and I had a Canon 1Dx and 500mm lens combo with me I was pointing it at pretty much anything that moved.

This African Monarch landed a few meters away, just inside the focusing distance of the 500mm lens, so I turned, aimed and fired.  Crisp as anything.

The auto-focus didn’t miss a beat and I got a decent shot of a butterfly.

Overall Thoughts

Since first reading about the 1Dx and what Canon did with it I was keen to get it out into the field.  All in all it really seems that they have listened to what professional photographers want from a camera, and how they use it, and they were able to include it all in this body.

I am not phased about what camera I shoot with.  Let me say it again.  I am not phased what camera I shoot with.

The most important thing is that the equipment I am using is able to produce amazing quality images and allows me to take control of my own photography.  I need to be able to change settings on the fly and know that my camera can keep up.

There is nothing more frustrating than ‘seeing’ a shot but not being able to capture it as my equipment is not fast enough or does not allow me to creatively use the technical abilities by wasting time in finding a button or changing a setting.

WIldlife Photography with the Canon 1Dx - Gerry van der Walt

In wildlife photography things often happen very quickly and without warning.

It is during these times that you want to rely on your camera – that you know how to use and also understand what is possible – to help you to get the shot.

To me the 1Dx is absolutely perfect for wildlife photography and ticks all the correct boxes.  Some twice.

That being said, you need to understand the basics of photography and how the camera works to get the most out of it.  You, as the photographer is still the one magic ingredient that is going to either get that once in lifetime shot or not.

The camera, however fancy it may be, is still just a tool.  In this case a seriously impressive tool but a tool nonetheless.

WIldlife Photography with the Canon 1Dx - Gerry van der Walt

Canon 1Dx, 16mm, 15 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 3200

I had an amazing time in Madikwe with the 1Dx and can, without a doubt, recommend it to anybody looking for a new pro range camera.

Do I Want One?


Until next time.

Gerry van der Walt

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Comments 0

  1. Ze Carrapichano

    Thanks for this review. I love my 1Dx. The only thing I miss sometimes is the 1.6 crop factor of my 7D. Did you let it use all the 61 points to focus or just the cross ones? I have not tested it scientifically enough to conclude what the best setting is regarding that. I am so used to just use one point and track the subject myself…Regarding the battery I could not agree more. I went to Churchill Manitoba to photograph polar bears and was told that batteries ran out in 10 minutes so I took 3 spare ones. I took thousands of pictures but never manage to drain its battery. And this was in -20 to -30C !!!
    Keep posting you photographs. They transport me back to Africa. Keep up your good work.

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