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Buying a 14 year old DSLR in 2017

Buying a 14 year old DSLR in 2017

Photography in 2017 in one phrase: All about the gear. Living in a world of social media, marketing dominates. The market is flooded with feature-filled cameras, 4k this, IBIS that. Heck, even digital medium format is starting to become affordable with the release of the Fuji GFX. So what did I go and do? Buy a 14 year old camera. So how does a decade old camera hold up in 2017? Is it something beginners should consider?

Introducing, the 1DS Mark II, released in 2004 by Canon.


As many of you guys may know, I shoot Sony. My workhorse kit is Sony. I shoot portraits on Sony. I shoot weddings on Sony. That being said, I missed the touch of a Canon, and I’m bored. Honestly, just bored.

The Canon 50L f1.2 have been sitting around collecting dust, rarely seeing use adapted on my Sony A7R2 anymore. Adapting glass is great and all, but it just doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t inspire me. The weight is all thrown off and it’s boring and a hassle and slow. Perhaps it’s the weather. It’s the beginning of March in Chicago, and we’ve experienced a crazy blizzard.

Not sure what it is, but I know that I’ve been feeling inspired, or at least wanting to feel inspired. Is that a thing?


I didn’t want to go dish out some major dough to get the same shooting experience with my Sony. So I thought about re-buying a 5D classic. Oh man, the skin tones on that camera is unarguably the best in the 5D series. Also the highlight fall off. But as I was looking at Canon’s older full-frame offerings, the 1ds series caught my eye. I’ve always dug the square format ergonomics, and I’ve read the shooting experience with the 1D series will leave little to be desired.


So I checked eBay. Saw a listing at $430 in decent condition, ending in 35 minutes. I stalked it. Someone had cranked it up to $490 towards the last minute of the auction. I placed a max mid of $500 just three seconds before the timer was up. I won the bid.

Here are some of my very first photos with the camera on the first day I got in the mail.


First thing’s first, I have to grab my girlfriend and harass her into posing for me so I can test out the handling before taking it outside. The first thing I notice, the backscreen LCD is abysmal. Similar to the 5D Classic technology, it’s really good for checking composition and using graphs to check photo information, such as clipping. I don’t care too much about it, to be honest. Moving on.


Second huge thing I notice -it takes two hands to operate this camera. Coming from the 5D series, shooting Sony, shooting Fuji -it took me by surprise when I found myself confused on how to change basic settings, like drive mode, or ISO, or metering modes. I quickly googled “1DSII MANUAL” and got to reading. Skimmed over some pages in three minutes, and I was good to go. Definitely not as intuitive as some of the newer cameras. But then again, this is Canon’s professional 1D line, and even the modern 1DX/1DC I believe utilizes the same handling. So it’s not an age thing in this case.


My favorite test is to use the window as the main light, as it’s easy and I can get good quality light from it. You can also notice from the photo above, I place my subjects in front of the window to check for focus speeds in back-contrast type images. The 1DS-ii performed fine. Nothing that screamed guns blazing, but it did its job just fine.


It’s so easier to catch candid type moments with a DSLR, because the focusing system is so much faster. Not saying that the focus SPEED is slow on the Sony, but the method of choosing a focus point is faster working on the Canon. I don’t like to use eye-focus or any of that jazz, so perhaps if you were utilizing those methods on the Sony, it’d be just as fast. But for me, I’ve missed easily getting images like this. Also, not worrying about having the buffer lock up my camera.

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Next, we headed for Montrose Harbor, about 30 minutes from sunset, when it was 20 degrees. Why? Because I needed to test the camera, damn it. Knowing my luck, I ALWAYS miss golden hour. Oh well, at least we were able to catch the last few rays of that golden soft light at the harbor.


In the image below, I bumped it up by +0.33 in exposure, compared to the image above. You can see that with an older sensor, the dynamic range and ISO performance is vastly different than today’s camera technology. You can see some loss of detail and sharpness, but overall the image is still pleasing. Placed side by side, sure you can see the difference, but if you are able to capture the essence of the moment, these things will matter less and less.


It’s getting darker and the ISO performance limitations of this camera is starting to show. If I wasn’t shooting f1.2, it’d be very difficult for me to get the correct exposure and maintain a hand-holdable shutter speed. Something to take into consideration if you are seeking solely clean images.

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I remember pulling this image below in LR and I was blown away by the color and tones. Something about Canon’s older sensors that produced marvelous images. Sure, the newer senors are amazing, but perhaps it’s the flaws that give character. You can definitely notice color noise.


Throughout my experience in shooting, I’ve realized not everything has to be in focus, 100% of the time. Shooting wide open with the 50L at f1.2, in theory I should have used a specific focusing point to get accurate focus. I was lazy and cold, so I shot wide open, used center focusing point, and re-composed my frame. I kinda like the natural softness you get from not having a 100% focus. I think it goes well with the ambient light.

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PSA -film cameras are excellent props.

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Check out the tones in the image below. I’m speechless. This camera is 14 years old!


Image below is very close to SOOC. I bumped up some contrast, and that was it. IN the frame, you can see the gorillapod and RX100IV that we were using when we tried to vlog. It was way too cold.


One of my absolute favorite image from this first session below.


This is the shot.


Chromatic aberrations are fun. Sony gear is so technically engineered, I haven’t seen lens imperfections in a while. I’ve missed it.


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Image below is close to SOOC, with some bumped up contrast in post.


Not sure if it’s this 1DS-ii sensor, or the 50L, or a combination of both, or maybe the lighting at the time of shooting -but there is something magical about this setup. The bokeh produced is fairy-tale like. I don’t recall the tones and bokeh being this soft and gradual with my 5Dc. I’ll have to keep shooting to test it out. Right now, I think I found some photo inspiration for the Spring.



Image below was taken when sitting in my GTI trying to warm up. At max ISO, I think at H mode, so we’re looking at 3200 ISO. Applied +25 setting of NR in LR. Looks fine.


Obligatory bokeh balls sample image below.


Got home, busted out the Speedlight. Works just as it would on any 5D system, shooting manual flash with my Yongnuo 560 IV was a breeze. Flash on camera, bounced on right to wall to diffuse lighting on subject.


Overall, I’m quite stunned at the type of images I am getting from this first shoot. Tonal reproduction and colors are simply amazing. Camera itself is responsive, and feels right. It’s dense sure, but handling wise, it feels good. I might think otherwise if I were to use this for a full wedding day. This camera takes the same photos today as it did when it first released. If anything, I believe the final result would even look better even though it’s the same camera, because software and editing platforms have come a very long way. We an apply noise reduction in post or added sharpening to help push some of the limitations of this camera.

Handling wise, if you have big hands, this camera will grip perfectly. If you are beginner looking for entry into the photography world, this isn’t probably a great choice that’ll give you instant happiness, versus say purchasing an a6000. This thing’s a beast to carry, but it comes down to personal preference. The pros is that it’s full-frame, relatively cheap, and constructed like a tank. IQ is great, and opens you up to Canon’s ecosystem of lenses.

As of now, I’ll be using this as my go-to portrait grab for personal projects. I think I found the inspiration I was seeking for.


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