The Canon EOS 1-Ds Mk II was released in 2005, and represented the peak of professional digital camera technology at the time, with a rather incredible price tag of £6,000 to match. It was the top dog of SLRs for a number of years, and when I was shooting professionally in 2007, I could only dream of being able to afford one. Fast forward to 2022 – seventeen years on from the initial release – and I have only just picked one up… for the modest sum of £120.
If you don’t just think that I’m nuts, you might well see this as a sad testament to the disposable nature of digital cameras given the rapid advances in technology. After all, the 1-Ds Mk II is, by many counts, essentially obsolete when you compare it to even the cheapest of consumer cameras available nowadays. For example, the Canon has a maximum (actual) ISO of 1600, and can only shoot 4 frames per second… compared to a max standard ISO of 320,000 and 11 frames per second of the cheap Sony ZV-E10.
So why did I buy one? Surely it was just chucking money away on old rope?
To answer that, I need to give a bit of context. When I was far younger and doing a lot of work as a photographer, my cameras took a hell of a beating. From getting covered in beer, caked in mud, or hit with an aubergine at festivals (yes, really), to general clattering in dark nightclubs, they needed to stand up to a lot of abuse. At the time, I shot with two Canon 5D Mark I bodies – one slung over each shoulder – and they were built like tanks. No matter what I threw at them (literally), they just kept functioning. It was unbelievable.
I still use a Canon 5D for my nightclub shots, and I know that it will easily last for another decade, given the relatively light usage it now sees. Its incredible build quality was emphasised recently when I’ve taken in my Sony bodies to shoot some on stage events at the Cathouse. Despite being technically superior to the 5D in every way, it felt like if the Sony A7 took one bad knock, it would be game over, whereas I knew there was no such risk with the Canon. In an environment like that you need to have complete confidence in your gear, and that is something you don’t get with many of the modern bodies folks use.
I could happily go on shooting with the 5D indefinitely. However, there is one big design flaw that I’ve encountered over the years. Specifically, with the battery grip. While the camera itself still functions perfectly, for whatever reason, over time the optional battery grip starts to fail and report that there is no power left, even when the batteries are fully charged. This might not seem like a big deal, but the grip makes the whole thing far more stable, and is a big contributor to its solidity.
New v. Old
So if I’m in the market for a replacement, then why not get a brand new Canon DSLR, rather than some relic from sixteen years ago? The reasoning is fairly simple:
- Full Frame Sensor. The 5D has a full frame sensor. Normally people want full frame for the superior performance at high ISO, or the image resolution, or something else. In my case, full frame is important because it allows me to get the true field of view from my wide angle lenses, which is important when shooting in cramped clubs. If I drop down to a cropped sensor, I then have to find different ultra wide angle, autofocus lenses to compensate, which is not just an added cost, it’s also especially difficult to do.
- Build Quality. I know for a fact that these old cameras are built like tanks, since they were designed for the professional market, something which is especially important for what I want. The consumer level SLR bodies from Canon do not have the same kind of ultra rugged nature.
- Cost. All of the above really comes down to the fact that to get a modern body with the key equivalent features I like from the 5D, it will cost me an inordinate amount.
- Unnecessary. I sold all of my professional lenses many years ago when I decided I wasn’t going to actively pursue it as a career. Despite them being very nice indeed, I didn’t get much joy in using them outside of work… preferring to shoot with weird old manual focus lenses and rangefinders. The only times I really need an SLR are those where the features of the 5D are enough.
The 1-Ds Mk II is from the same year as the 5D Classic, and is built like a tank. It has a battery grip built into the actual body itself, which means that it is even more solid than the 5D, with no risk of that additional part failing. My lenses work with it in the same way, and its 17 megapixel resolution is more than is required for what I need. For just over a hundred quid,
How has it been so far? The 1-Ds I got was fairly well used, with a bit of wear on the body and a small scratch on the screen, but me oh my does it feel great. This certainly isn’t a travel camera given the sheer weight of the thing, but the ergonomics of it are incredible – fitting really comfortably in the hand. Both the layout and interface are quite different to the 5D, despite them being released the same year, which I didn’t expect – but they are clearly tuned for professional use, including rapid settings changes and a whole host of options such as quicker access to different shooting profiles, dual card storage (both CF and SD!), and a really impressive expanded set of 45 autofocus points. I’m more impressed with this thing than I think I probably should be, but I can’t quite believe just how good it is for a 16 year old camera. This was one of the first pictures I took with it:
To give it a real test though, I took it out for a spin on my next Cathouse nightclub shift (with the 5D as a backup just incase). At first, I thought I had made a horrible mistake, as I just couldn’t seem to get the exposure right. I’m not sure whether it was because of the way the body evaluated light for the flash differently, or just that after almost fifteen years of shooting the same camera in the same lighting conditions, the shift to another camera was just too much. It meant there was a lot of this kind of thing to test at first…
The hand being the easiest way to After I settled in to the differences though, everything was fine. I suspect that part of the issue was really down to the screen. The display on the 5D isn’t all that good anyway, but the 1-Ds is even worse – and I just don’t think that it represents the pictures very well at all, which threw me off. As for the actual photographs themselves, they came out great. In fact, some of them even seemed sharper than the same kind of shots I would take on the 5D.
There were a few annoyances though. The two handed menu operation which I thought would be faster once I got used to it is actually pretty annoying in practice. It means a lot of memory work for simple operations like deleting pictures or moving between menus. The simplified operation of the 5D is clearly more intuitive, which was demonstrated by Canon adopting the same approach on later incarnations of the 1-Ds. Similarly, I managed to knock the lens aperture from f9 to f2.8 by accident, which is something that isn’t possible on the 5D. That meant a few of the pictures didn’t quite come out the way they should have. I’ll need to figure out a way to address that, because it’s really not great to have to keep checking it.
The Big Problem…
Minor complaints aside, there is one real problem with the 1-Ds Mk II. While I got a few batteries with mine, I didn’t get a charger – just assuming that it’d be easy to pick up a replacement. However, this was clearly a rookie mistake. As it turns out, the camera requires a very specific battery charger – the NC-E2 – one which is proprietary to Canon, and which is apparently like gold dust. The only one I could find on eBay was from Japan, and it clocked in at £200 total. Well, that’s a lie. There was another in the UK listed at £500. Erm. Ok.
In the end, I had to pick up a second, badly broken 1-Ds Mk II which came with a charger. It cost me £60, which was far more than I wanted to pay, but far less than it could have been in the end.
The quality of the shots I got from the 1-Ds was so surprisingly good, and the camera such a pleasure to shoot with, that it got me thinking about how else I could make use of it. It seems like a bit of a shame to consign it to just shooting the odd club night after all. The problem being that I only have two Canon EF lenses, having sold all of my L glass many years ago. Specifically, I’ve got a 20mm f2.8 and a 50mm f1.4, and while they are good quality, they aren’t exactly the most interesting in the world to shoot with.
I thought I might be able to mount my Canon 50mm f0.95 on the 5D, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be possible since it has an M mount. However… I can mount all of my M42 lenses (with a flangless M42-EOS adapter – which is important!), as well as almost all of my M39 lenses – including the dream lens’ wee cousin, the Canon 50mm f1.2. The chunky body of the 1-Ds Mk II also means that I’ll be able to make better use of some of my heavier lenses like the Helios 40-2 85mm f1.5, which has been too bulky for my Sony A7. I guess I just need to find some people to shoot with it now.
The 1-Ds Mk II is a tank, and I love how it feels to shoot with, especially with bigger lenses. In many ways it has quirks and features which feel like a step down from the 5D. The worst of these is the screen, as not only is it quite a bit smaller, it’s really not very good at all. Often I would think that the pictures I’d taken hadn’t come out very well, based on how they looked on that display – but it’s just because the screen itself has such a low resolution. That is a real issue, especially as I tend to confirm shots on the screen due to my terrible eyesight, but it does mean I have to learn to trust what I shoot a bit more.
Overall I am glad that I picked up the 1-Ds Mk II. I would have been even happier with it if I hadn’t had to seek out one of the expensive chargers, as that made it feel like less of a bargain. Anyway, even in 2021 the picture quality of the resulting photographs is more than good enough for what I need – so we’ll see what I can do with it.
If you’re into videos instead, click through to see me talk about it here: