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The unrestrained 1D X Mark III proves Canon still knows how to lead. Will it?

This story is part of our continuing coverage of CES 2020, including tech and gadgets from the showroom floor.

Canon finally spilled the beans about its new flagship DSLR, the EOS-1D X Mark III, this week at CES. It’s pretty much everything a camera nerd could hope for.

While it will undoubtedly be an extremely good professional still camera, I’m more interested in its video features. Not because I plan on buying one, mind you — I, like most people, have no business spending $6,500 on a product that doesn’t come with four wheels attached — but because it shows that Canon is finally willing to reclaim the throne and actually take video seriously outside of its Cinema EOS series. This gives me hope about the future of Canon’s other product lines.

A hope, I hope, that is not in vain. Canon has disappointed me in the past, and I don’t fully trust that it won’t do it again.

A long time coming

I almost switched from Nikon to Canon in 2010. Almost.

I owned a Nikon D300 at the time, a semi-pro DSLR that didn’t have a video mode. Canon had just released the Rebel T2i — the highest end of its low-end DSLRs — and brought with it Full HD video at 30 frames per second as well as 60-fps 720p that people were conforming to 30 fps in post for liquid-smooth, 2X slow motion.

I was in awe.

Here was a beginner camera that cost hundreds of dollars less than my semi-pro Nikon, and it could do something my camera couldn’t.

Why didn’t I switch? Choice paralysis, mainly. I worked at a camera store surrounded by shiny new toys, and it was very hard to make up my mind. But I was always envious of Canon owners — at least, for a while.

I’m glad I didn’t switch. Since 2010, Canon stopped being a leader in video innovation. After the breakout success that was 2008’s EOS 5D Mark II, a camera Digital Trends labeled as one of the most influential of all time, I expected Canon would double down on its video gamble with the Mark III.

That didn’t happen. Mark IV? Nope.

Sure, each new model was better than the last, but not by enough to keep pace with the competition, particularly from Sony and Panasonic.

The transition to mirrorless didn’t help Canon, either. Both the EOS M and EOS R series are woefully restrained when it comes to video, plagued by 4K crops, rolling shutter, and framerate and autofocus limitations on some models.

Even Nikon — yes, pokey old Nikon who’s never had a video department — now easily outclasses Canon in the mirrorless video game. Its Z 6 and 7 are very capable video cameras, even offering RAW 4K output — albeit only via paid firmware upgrade.

But the sands are shifting again. The Canon EOS-1D X Mark III has the best video mode ever put into a still camera, at least based on specs. 5.5K internal RAW recording. Oversampled 4K in 10-bit 4:2:2 Canon Log. 4K/60p HDMI output. And of course, the latest-generation Dual Pixel Autofocus with face and eye-tracking.

For the first time in over a decade, Canon didn’t hold back — and it feels good.

Canon, please keep up the momentum

As much as I want to believe the 1D X Mark III hails a bright new future for the rest of Canon’s cameras, I’m skeptical.

The 1D series has always been extra. It targets the highest-level niche in photography and is likewise very expensive, giving Canon the freedom to pour on power and features. The margin is high. The market is is a predictable size. A 1D is a known quantity. Putting everything you’ve got into it isn’t a risk, not like it would be on a camera with a lower price and broader audience where the competition is much stiffer.

The 1D X Mark III is also expensive enough that Canon probably doesn’t have to worry about it cannibalizing Cinema EOS sales. But put its video features into a $3,500 5D Mark V (I’m speculating)? Well, there might be a problem.

But for Canon’s customers, that’s not a problem — it’s a solution. And while Canon has given me little reason to expect it would see eye-to-eye with its customers on this issue, I’m hopeful it will, or at least that it will be pressured into it.

The market is much different than it was in 2010. The definition of “professional filmmaker” has expanded to include throngs of YouTubers and influencers. Solid video is essential to any camera brand that wants to remain relevant in the 2020s. Even Fujifilm has thrown crop-free 4K, 10-bit log output, and eye-tracking autofocus into a sub-$1,000 camera.

Canon would be wise to follow suit. No, I’m not expecting RAW video in the next Rebel, but Canon has a lot of room for improvement in all of its sub-$6,500 cameras. High bitrates, C-Log, full-width 4K, internal 10-bit recording … these are a few of the things Canon could easily implement in its portfolio.

What’s coming is anyone’s guess, but the EOS 1D X Mark III at least makes a bold statement: Canon is ready to be a leader again.

Let’s see more of that.

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