Ready for anything:
family photography with the
Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

A black-and-white shot of a little boy at the park climbing a wooden climbing frame. Photo by Helen Bartlett.
Family photographer Helen Bartlett works with energetic, unpredictable subjects, so she has to shoot on the move and use natural lighting, which often means challenging low-light conditions, and this is where Canon's new flagship action camera comes into its own. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens at 1/3200 sec, f/1.6 and ISO320. © Helen Bartlett

Photographing lively children in low light might not have quite the same glamour as shooting, say, international skiing action or a sea eagle plucking a fish out of water, but it's equally challenging. Canon Ambassador Helen Bartlett has been a professional family photographer for 16 years, and in that time has had plenty of experience in capturing great pictures in difficult conditions.

Helen shoots informal, natural-looking family portraits inside clients' homes, and often in parks or playgrounds. Setting up artificial lighting isn't usually practical for these shoots, so she has to work in whatever light is available on the day.

Coming away from the shoot with sharp, well-exposed, top-quality images is essential; her shots are displayed as large framed prints for clients' walls, up to 150x100cm in size, or often up to 60cm wide on a double-page spread of a 30x30cm album.

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Until now, Helen has mostly worked with a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II – unusual for a family photographer, considering that this camera is typically associated with shooting sports and wildlife. She was particularly excited to try out its successor, the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III. As it turned out, the shoot took place over a few wet days, but the combination of rain, cloud, poor light and some very active children provided the ideal conditions to test out the camera's state-of-the-art features including AI-powered autofocus, high ISO performance and increased frame-rate.

Here Helen talks about what she needs from her kit, and how the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III exceeded her expectations.

What do you look for in a camera?

"For me, using the Canon EOS-1 series is about having a camera that I know is the best available, and one that will help me take good pictures in quite difficult situations. If you're operating at the top end of the market, you need to be producing a top-end product in every way. I'm making life easy for myself by getting the best camera in the world to help me do that."

A  small child standing by the side of a park bench, photographed through the ironwork of the arm of the bench.
Creatively composed portraits make really interesting shots, but they can be difficult to capture because, as Helen knows, "children are never still for long". So she makes good use of the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III's fast autofocus and up to 20fps continuous shooting (16fps when using the optical viewfinder). Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/1000 sec, f/1.6 and ISO250. © Helen Bartlett

What kinds of lighting conditions do you work in?

"Sometimes I'll go to a place and it will be a gorgeous, light-filled house, and other times people might be renovating a house and staying in the smallest flat they can fit into. Taking pictures of four small boys in a basement flat on a rainy day is not unusual, and that's a really challenging situation – you've got to deal with kids bouncing off the walls and terrible lighting."

Why don't you use artificial lighting?

"I'm usually moving around from room to room, so I can't set up beautiful lighting to get the perfect shot. The kids might refuse to stay in one place, or might be there for two seconds before they're gone. Everything I'm doing needs to be really fluid because I'm always on the move. So having something that works in very low light, with excellent autofocus, is absolutely key for me, and the Canon EOS-1 series is the best for that."

The Canon EOS-1D X Mark III and the Mark II.

12 ways the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III improves on the Mark II

How does the new flagship EOS DSLR improve upon its predecessor? Discover 12 key upgrades that will really make a difference to you.

Is build quality, including weather sealing, essential for your work?

"Yes. Working with kids, I might be out in the pouring rain, or on the beach, or someone might accidentally tip a bottle of bubble liquid all over my camera. Having a camera that can survive everything that's thrown at it is really helpful. If I go to the beach, I try not to put my camera down in the wet sand, but it happens, so I need robust build quality and excellent reliability. With the Canon EOS-1 series, I can take a lot of pictures knowing it's always going to perform and not going to break."

In what situations did you try out the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III?

"I had the camera for a couple of days in October and it was cloudy or raining every day. I did one shoot with a boy and his parents at the grandparents' house, and a couple of shorter shoots, such as at a park with a family. You never quite know what's going to happen in these shoots, but that's what makes them interesting."

A father and child laugh as the child bounces into the air in the bedroom.
Helen found the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III's AI-based AF amazingly effective, tracking her subjects' faces even when they are tumbling and bouncing around. "The autofocus was absolutely spot-on all the time. It was incredible," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/160 sec, f/2.8 and ISO8000. © Helen Bartlett

What were your first impressions of the camera?

"I thought it was very similar in feel, build and menu structure to the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, which is good for me because I don't really like change. I find learning to use new equipment really stressful, so the fact that I could pick up the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III and it felt like the Mark II was a real bonus – it does everything the Mark II did, but better."

How did the autofocus perform?

"The autofocus was absolutely spot-on all the time. The new autofocus algorithm, which uses deep learning to recognise and follow a subject, was incredible. When kids are jumping around on beds, for example, the camera will find their faces and follow them. If a child is jumping and spins around, when they turn back the camera will focus on their face again. The autofocus on the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III was snappier than on the Mark II and seems more accurate, particularly indoors."

A black-and-white shot of a little girl on a park swing, with the background blurred behind her.
Helen found that the smart controller on the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III makes it easier to select AF points, moving rapidly between the 191 focus points in the viewfinder. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/25 sec, f/11 and ISO250. © Helen Bartlett

Since you don't use artificial lighting, what ISO do you shoot at?

"On the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, I usually go up to ISO8000. On the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, I was shooting at ISO10000, and the images look great at high ISOs. This means I'll be able to move up a notch or two in my everyday work, which is going to be really helpful. You can take it up higher with no problems. It's certainly going to give more flexibility with low-light work."

What's your favourite feature on the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III?

"I love the new AF point selection control – it's so quick. That made me really happy. The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II has 61 AF points but I set it to use the main nine of them, because it's easy to jump quickly between those nine using the joystick. But with the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III I don't need to limit myself to just nine, I can use all 191 available focus points because, with the smart controller, it's much quicker to move between them. That gives me more flexibility for interesting compositions because I can move the focusing point as fast as the children are moving around."

A laughing man hanging upside down from a metal frame in the playground, with a smiling child behind him.
Shooting family portraits means not only working in challenging conditions, but having to be ready for anything. "You never quite know what's going to happen in these shoots," says Helen, and that's why she values exactly the same features that sports and action photographers look for in a camera. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens at 1/1600 sec, f/1.8 and ISO1600. © Helen Bartlett

Any other features that will be particularly useful to you?

"Live View tracking. When you're photographing in people's homes, you're working around furniture and things on the walls. It's not a clean shooting environment, so anything you can do to make it clearer – without moving things around – will help. Using Live View and shooting from interesting angles, down low or up high, is going to give a different viewpoint, and sometimes you just can't get yourself in those corners, so you have to hold your camera in position. Using Live View tracking is going to be a game-changer. It will give me a lot of creative advantage in terms of composition, especially with the movement I get in a lot of my shoots, because children are never still for long."

What makes the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III worth the investment?

"In many ways, everything we do as photographers is to give ourselves a competitive advantage. I have used the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II because very few people in my genre are using it, and that means I can take pictures other people can't – and get clients that others can't, so the cameras pay for themselves. It's a commercial no-brainer. The Canon EOS-1D X Mark III will give me even more of an advantage. That's why I'll be jumping on it, because I want to take advantage of everything it offers. It will allow me to push myself and take pictures I can't take at the moment, which is also what makes it fun. You have to keep pushing yourself, pushing the technology – and working out how that technology can give you opportunities."

Written by David Clark

Helen Bartlett's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their family photographs

A Canon EOS-1D X Mark III on the bark of a tree. Photo © Fergus Kennedy / Verri Media Ltd


Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

Life is full of unrepeatable moments. Capture more of them with the EOS-1D X Mark III and tell your visual story to the world. It’s the ultimate creative toolkit, with superb low-light performance, deep learning AF and 5.5K Raw video. "It will allow me to push myself and take pictures I can't take at the moment, which is also what makes it fun," says Helen.


Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM

A professional grade wide-angle lens with a natural perspective, an f/1.4 aperture and low light capabilities.

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

A professional-quality standard zoom that offers outstanding image quality and a fast f/2.8 aperture throughout its zoom range.

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