Professional SLR Camera The Story Behind the Development of the EOS-1D X
A "monster machine" that takes high sensitivity, high image quality and high-speed continuous shooting to another dimension
Employs entirely newly developed technology
Target specs that were thought impossible to achieve
The recently released EOS-1D X is a flagship-model professional-use digital SLR camera, isn't it? When did the development project begin?
I can't say specifically, but flagship professional-use models are generally released ahead of major sporting events. Of course, that was also the case with the EOS-1D Mark IV.
Area of development: Mechanisms
The EOS-1D Mark IV is a high-speed camera, while the EOS-1Ds Mark III for professional use is a high-image-quality camera. Does the 1D X combine the high speed and high image quality of the two?
It does. However, it doesn't simply combine the performance of the two existing cameras. Both the frame rate and the image quality have been upgraded.
The dynamic movements of athletes and wild animals can be captured in an instant with greater quality than in the past, and it is also possible to take beautiful photos of static landscapes and portraits. This camera alone provides the highest levels of performance for every conceivable professional shooting situation.
What was the first spec decided upon in development?
That would have to be the ability to perform high-speed continuous shooting at 12 frames per second with the 35mm full-frame 18.1-megapixel CMOS sensor. In previous professional models, continuous shooting was possible at 5 frames per second with full-frame CMOS sensors and 10 frames per second with smaller CMOS sensors, so you can imagine how high these specs were at the outset of development.
The specs established for ISO sensitivity were also incredible from the outset. The upper standard limit was set at 51200. The highest sensitivity in existing products was 12800, so some members of the development team were inwardly concerned about whether we could actually achieve this level.
I was one who had such concerns (laughs).
I was too. I thought it would be impossible to make such a monster of a machine.
High sensitivity and high-speed continuous shooting that will transform photojournalism
Needless to say, continuous shooting at 12 frames per second involves capturing and saving images while controlling AE and AF 12 times a second. All this is done while reducing image noise at high ISO sensitivity levels. This was an incredibly high technological obstacle. It isn't something that can be resolved by innovating a single key device, and we needed to develop new technology across the board.
That's right. It is rare for digital camera development to make use of this much new technology. In particular, it is truly unusual not to use designs from existing models for key electrical devices.
The standard ISO sensitivity range is up to 51200, and this can be expanded to the ultrasensitive level of 204800. What kind of shooting situations do you envisage this being used in?
There are various possibilities. These include dark accident scenes that are barely visible with the naked eye and indoor performances where flash photography is not permitted. The camera makes possible the capture of movements and colors that otherwise could not be captured due to low light, or were not of a sufficient level of image quality for use by the news media even if images could be captured. The scope of news photography will expand significantly. I think the EOS-1D X has been able to show that news photography has even greater potential.
Realizes the extremely difficult feat of 12 frame-per-second continuous shooting
The number of AF points has been increased to 61
When enabling an SLR camera to continuously shoot at higher speeds, would the first issue be controlling the raising and lowering of the mirror?
In a 35mm full-frame camera, the main mirror linked to the shutter needs to be large and heavy. The sub-mirror, which is located behind the main mirror and sends light to the AF (autofocus) sensor, is also quite heavy. When these two mirrors are operated at high speed, a bounce effect is inevitable. We call this phenomenon "bucking," and it is necessary to stop it to provide stability.
This "bucking" sounds odd. How do you stop it?
We attached a balancer to efficiently release energy when the mirrors strike, and we enhanced the locking function to securely hold them in place. In the existing product, this mirror bounce prevention mechanism is in two locations, but the 1D X has an enhanced version, which is in four locations. This enables the camera to operate at 12 frames per second. Compared with the 10 frame-per-second continuous shooting speed of the existing model, this is a reduction of just 0.017 seconds per frame, but this difference was huge in terms of the mechanical technology.
My team's mission was to ensure the AF operates accurately for each frame, even at 12 frames per second. Moreover, it not only had to be faster than in the past, there was also the added condition of improving AF performance. This performance was achieved by raising the precision of focusing by increasing the number of AF points to 61 from the 45 used in the existing model, while also enabling the focus to track objects based on information received from the AE system. This increase in AF performance required a certain amount of time, so increasing AF speed presented a twofold obstacle.
How did you overcome this?
First, by increasing the sensitivity of the AF sensor, we reduced the amount of time that light needs to be held in the element for measuring distance. Furthermore, we adopted a faster AF algorithm and boosted the operation speed of the corresponding circuit. The development of these improvements involved reducing times by thousandths of a second here and there.
Area of development: AF system
Well ... to a layperson, it sounds like it would be enough to make your head spin.
The tiniest difference in speed can have a significant effect on specs. Many developers put their heads together for days on end to shave off a thousandth of a second.
DIGIC 4 imaging processor included solely for AE!
Such increases in speed all require power in their respective areas. This is especially true for the mechanical area, which uses motors, but it also applies to the sensors, microprocessors and circuits. However, from the perspective of my team, which was in charge of reducing power consumption, since battery capacity is limited, we wanted to enable the camera to be used as long as possible and to capture as many images as possible, so we couldn't just say, "Yes, please use as much power as you want." The teams in each area fought tooth and nail over power consumption (laughs).
I see. Increased speed is also related to the issue of power consumption. It was mentioned that the AF system and the AE system were linked together. AE has come a long way in the EOS-1D X, hasn't it?
Yes, we built a tremendous system. It would've been inconceivable until now, but we included a 100,000 pixel RGB metering sensor, as well as a DIGIC 4 imaging processor just to control the sensor and handle metering and automatic exposure.
That's quite an elaborate setup!
I really think so, too. As a result, it's possible to analyze entire images as scenes, and accurately determine exposure by recognizing even colors and people's faces. It's the first time we've ever incorporated this revolutionary new function in a Canon SLR camera.
DIGIC 5+, which enables high image quality and high-speed continuous shooting
Approx. 18.1-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor
The CMOS sensor and the imaging processor are the two core technologies that hold the key for realizing high sensitivity and high image quality during high-speed continuous shooting, right? First I'd like to ask about the CMOS sensor. What are some of its features?
Because it is a 35mm full-frame sensor, it has a large light-receiving area, but in addition to that, it utilizes a microlens design to gather light in each pixel without waste. Furthermore, noise has been dramatically reduced through innovations within the internal circuitry to realize rich gradation performance.
This CMOS features the ability to read out at high speeds despite the high resolution it offers of approximately 18.1 megapixels. Specifically, this was achieved by doubling the number of channels from the number used in the previous model to 16. This is the base that enables high-speed continuous shooting.
Area of development: Imaging firmware
What do you mean by channels that read out from the CMOS?
It refers to a unit for the number of pixels read out in a signal at a single time. In order to achieve high-speed performance, we need to either shorten the processing time required to read the signal from an image, or we need to increase the number of pixels read at once, that is the number of channels for read out. Time time, we succeeded in greatly increasing speed by boosting the number of channels.
I see. Next, I would like to ask you about the DIGIC imaging processor that creates an image based on the signal received from the CMOS. The EOS-1D X has two DIGIC 5+ image processors, right?
DIGIC 5+ has approximately 17 times the processing power of DIGIC 4. By using two of them in parallel, it's possible to capture high-quality images at 12 frames per second, even at high ISO levels.
Every version of the DIGIC imaging processor offers considerable room for customization, and performs at their best when built upon. Mr. Sugimori, this time around it was your team that focused on this task, right?
Yes, we worked closely with the team that developed the DIGIC 5+. I'm proud that our team was able to get the most out of the capabilities offered by DIGIC 5+.
It was a challenge to develop firmware for controlling the imaging system while bringing out the best performance of DIGIC 5+. Compared with the previous model, it feels like we've raised the level of development a few steps.
Working to reduce noise through all possible means
When pursuing high image quality, one factor that must be addressed is noise reduction. Even when using a high-performance low-noise CMOS sensor, noise becomes conspicuous as ISO sensitivity increases. The EOS-1D X's specifications enable image capture at the unbelievably high ISO level of 204800, so noise reduction with DIGIC 5+ must have posed some problems.
Yes, we made use of a completely new algorithm to deal with noise. Noise reduction in image processing can lead to a soft image with reduced resolution if taken too far, or a rough image if not performed sufficiently. In other words, it's hard to strike the proper balance for noise reduction.
Area of development: Image processing
Doesn't electrical circuitry also constantly emit noise that can affect image quality?
That's right. We were working to increase speed in all areas, so the interior of the camera is filled with sources of noise, such as the microprocessor for controlling mechanisms, the DIGIC image processors, motors, and power supply circuits. The first step we took to address the problem was to consider a layout that would not be affected much by anticipated noise sources. Next, we identified each noise source by conducting repeated tests, and changed components and the layout. We also inserted a filter in response to noise entering via circuit wires, and employed a shielding seal for noise flying through the air. These were about the only physical measures that we could take, as it's impossible to completely eliminate noise. All that was left was to remove the noise with DIGIC 5+.
There was also the issue of heat generating noise within the CMOS sensor itself. When shooting continuously, the internal temperature steadily rises due to heat from the device. The development team members shared their thoughts and ideas about how to let the heat escape, and we were able to meet our target.
With a sense of mission, the development team prevailed in the aftermath of natural disasters
Unexpected impact of the Great East Japan Earthquake
The EOS-1D X is a "monster machine" among digital SLR cameras. What factors do you think led to the success of the development?
Setting extremely high goals and not settling for compromise as we set out to achieve them. I think this tradition of development was the primary reason behind our success.
All of the members of the development team clearly had a sense of mission to overcome some very high hurdles.
This sense of mission, or passion, may have been more like an obsession (laughs). It's easy to lower a target, but I think not doing that is just the way Canon does things.
Was there anything else that was made possible through Canon's strengths?
The accumulation of technology through the in-house production of not only optical technology, such as lenses, but also such key parts as sensors and image processors, obviously worked in our favor, but on top of that, the collaborative strength between various technology fields also provided benefits during development.
I feel the same way. Every time we faced an issue, the team leaders immediately got together to consider how to address it. The leaders are all professionals in their respective fields, so I think the effectiveness of such collaboration was fully brought out.
The accumulation of technology from those that preceded us and the sense of unity that they have passed down to us are what support Canon today.
Since it occurred when you were in the final stages, did the Great East Japan Earthquake have a significant impact on development?
It did have an effect. We were at a loss because we didn't know when the prototype components would be delivered. You can't skip testing with prototypes.
The electrical components in particular were affected. We had made quite a few requests with part manufacturers that had factories in the Tohoku region. Nevertheless, we managed to absorb most of the delay in the schedule. That was thanks to the efforts of the parts manufacturers.
Even a monster machine like this is a stepping stone for the next one
Is that so? That must've created quite a headache for you. The release date for the EOS-1D X, however, had already been decided. How do you think such a monumental product will be received by the market?
Of course, more than anything else, we hope the EOS-1D X will fill the ranks of sports photographers.
Of course that would be great, but we would like to earn high marks among the discerning eyes of professional photographers. Nothing would make me happier than having a pro use the camera in a way we hadn't anticipated and say, "I was able to take a photo like this!" or, "I couldn't have taken this shot with any other camera!"
Area of development: Electrical circuits
To put it briefly, I want it to be the best, and continue to be considered the only professional model, until Canon releases the next "ultra-monster camera.
I feel the same way. However, rival manufacturers won't just sit idly by, and even with a product like this, it's clear that we must view it as a stepping stone to the future and work to improve upon it.
Even if well received in the market, we mustn't stop evolving. I think our mission will remain the same: to find ways to upgrade the performance, functionality and usability required by professionals.
So, evolution not for the sake of technology, but for the user. Thank you all for your time today.
The challenge of simultaneously boosting sensitivity and image quality while providing high-speed continuous shooting ... although the developers of the EOS-1D X winced when first faced with this challenge, they achieved their goals by persevering in their efforts without compromise. While the various hardships they faced were, of course, different in each field of technology, the energy and passion dedicated to the project was undoubtedly the same. This interview provided us with glimpses of the unity and collaboration the various members of the development team shared.
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Interview & Composition
Born in Fukushima prefecture in 1955. Became a freelance writer in 1990 after working as an editor at a news service and publisher, and managing an editing production agency. He is active in a wide range of publications, including management information journals and job-transfer publications. In recent years, he has contributed many articles to media portal sites, with the development of technology and products as one of his main areas of focus.
- Area of development:
- Area of development:
- Electrical circuits
- Area of development:
- Image processing
- Area of development:
- Imaging firmware
- Area of development:
- AF system
- Studio Zoom Lens for 4K Broadcasting
- CMOS sensor
- 3-D Machine Vision Systems
- 4K projector
- Network camera
- Mixed Reality System
- Professional-Use 30-inch 4K Display
- Large-Format Inkjet Printer
- Professional Inkjet Printer
- Professional SLR Camera
- Commercial Photo Printer