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Having owed all the Canon 1D(s) bodies except for the CCD-sensored 1D original, it was inevitable that the 1D X Mark II would beckon.  Iím not usually an early adopter, but unlike the response to its predecessors I got in the preorder queue once Mark II specs were announced.  Although the 1D X is an outstanding body, the Mark II promised some attractive upgrades that made taking a chance worth the risk of early teething problems, and my first impressions are that that promise has been fulfilled.  Full spec lists are plentiful on Internet, so Iíll limit this discussion to apparent difference makers for the types of photography I enjoy most: long lens wildlife and nature, especially birds, and professional tennis.  There's also a varied mix of general purpose, travel, family, macro, and multi-flash setups.  (For more on photographic use cases, see Custom Shooting Modes.)  The upgrades that stood out as most significant were:

  • Upgrade from 12 to 14 frames per second (16 in live view)

  • All 61 focus points selectable with f/8 lenses (up from one with four helpers)

  • 4K video at 60 fps with Dual Pixel AF tracking, 8.8 MP frame grabs, and up to 120 fps HD

  • Better dynamic range and noise performance due to on-chip analog-to-digital converters

Other specs also suggested improved performance and useability.  The bump from 18 MP to 20 MP was a bit meager but better than nothing.  AF sensitivity was increased from -2 EV to -3 EV.  Also of note was the RGB metering sensor increase from 100K-pixels to 360K.  Linked with the AF sensor, this promised to further enhance AF subject tracking.  Return of red AF points was a welcome plus.  GPS was new, and Iíll admit that it would help on landscape trips.  Last but not least, additional customization options -- up to five My Menu screens and a new customizable Quick Control screen -- were welcome upgrades to an already excellent user interface.

To Heck with Specs

Specs are nice but my main use of this camera is to capture quality images in difficult circumstances.  This often means telephoto lenses, frequently with extenders attached, sometimes in action situations, and in less than ideal light.  So I want to know how it performs when things get tough.  But really, that isn't so far from this camera's intended market segment, so my expectations should be in line with many who are interested in the Mark II.

Rarely do I use a camera at the base ISO setting of 100.  For long lens nature subjects I only shoot at ISO 200 or 400 on sunny days with static subjects.  Add an extender and ISO goes up.  For lesser light or action ISO goes up.  And, while increased low ISO dynamic range is always welcome (more is always better), by somewhere around ISO 400 to 800 the DR curve for all cameras flattens and hits the same downward slope.  So itís rather obvious that for my primary use cases low ISO DR just isnít a compelling feature.  However, high ISO noise performance is.

With all that in mind, hereís how I see the 1D X Mark II stacking up based on a short period shooting passerines in a heavily wooded and deeply shaded back yard with a telephoto and 2X extender -- an f/8 combination -- followed by a week at a national wildlife refuge.  Keep in mind, these are impressions based on limited use in very specific circumstances.  Note that I do not feel the need that some seem to have, i.e. to justify purchases by inflated praise where none is merited -- negatives are noted.

  • AF microadjustment went smoothly with both my intermediate and long telephotos, with no more than +/- 3 needed for bare lens, 1.4X and 2X extenders.

  • No chance to evaluate focus tracking yet, but on well-lit subjects autofocus snaps in quickly and decisively -- but then so did the 1D X.  Havenít compared the AF sensor sensitivity increase from -2 EV to -3 EV side-by-side with the previous 1D X but the benefits seem real.  However, the increase is not magic; more would be better.  With a 600mm II and a 2X, in low light against a low contrast subject, the camera still hunts. 

  • Composition with all 61 autofocus points available on f/8 lenses, e.g. 600mm II and 2X extender, is just outstanding.  With almost any bird photography situation this can be the difference between success and a lost image.  Flash fill is also a big win.  With center point only one must not only focus but as an added time-consuming step one must then lock in a pre-flash prior to recomposing.  Else the recomposed subject will be over-flashed since the (centered) flash sensor may be (presumably) looking out into nothingness after recomposing.

  • No chance to use 14 frames per second yet.  Restrictions include lens wide open, and in order to have sufficient depth of field for the song birds Iíve been shooting Iíve stuck with f/10 or f/11.  Other restrictions include a shutter speed of 1/1000 or higher and a battery charge of 50% or higher.  Shutter speed isn't a problem since action and high shutter speed go together (why else would one use 14 fps?).  However, keeping a charged battery at hand during a full day (and night) of tournament tennis will be a problem, see below.

  • Initial assessment of battery performance was not promising -- but the camera was new and there was a lot of chimping and fiddling with settings at first.  However, once shooting commenced in the field at a refuge things flattened out and the camera easily exceeded its rated 1200+ frame capacity.  However, for all day sports, one suspects a second battery is in the future -- especially considering the 14 fps/50% battery charge requirement.

  • The multi-controller joystick changed shape again, from the tall and conically shaped bumps on the 1D X to a wide, shallow nub similar to that on the 1Ds III and the 1D IV.  Supposedly this is an improvement.  I may be the only user who thinks this way, but I detest the low shape.  It's just flat out more difficult to manipulate.  I'm guessing gloves will be a problem.  Sometimes change isn't progress.

  • Some have complained that the LCD is off and the image color palette is different from the 1D X, a bit yellower.  To me, the LCD is just fine.  I won't know for sure until I have a session with Grandpa's favorite portrait subject, but so far all seems OK -- in good light blue jays are still blue, gold finches are still yellow, and cardinals still make great Christmas cards.  Capture One renders a little warmer compared to Canon DPP's somewhat cool portrayal, but neither is accurate on all colors in poor light.  In limited use so far, DPP does a better job of debayering and removing noise without destroying detail.  I will say that (in my opinon) no Canon 1D body, 1D X included, has bested the 1Ds Mark III color palette.

  • Internet consensus is that while low ISO DR has improved from the 1D X high ISO noise has not -- although the banding characteristic of previous Canon designs seems to have disappeared.  I havenít compared the two under controlled conditions yet, but I donít see any improvement.  For passerines, I prefer to stay at or below ISO 6400 in order to preserve detail in feather barbs.  This is a disappointment, particularly since Nikonís D5 seems to have jumped ahead by about 2/3 of a stop above ISO 6400.

Thatís it so far.  Hereís the summary, in tabular form:

First Impressions of Canon 1D X Mark II Features & Performance

Major Feature

Observed

First Impression

14/16 frames/second

Not observed

N/A

61 AF pts w/ f/8 lenses

Used w/ 600mm II & 2X III

Highly effective

4K video w/ frame grabs

Not observed

N/A

On-chip ADC DR & noise

High ISO noise only

No visible improvement

 

 

 

Other Features

Observed

First Impression

AF tracking

Not observed

N/A

AF sensitivity -2 EV > -3 EV

Impressions, not systematic

Effective but could use more

Added customizations

My Menu & Custom Quick Control

Highly useful additions

Is the Mark II the step forward advertising promised?  It is the undisputed class leader in many areas -- frame rate, all AF points selectable at f/8, 4K video with DPAF tracking -- along with outstanding customizability.  Conversion to on-chip ADCs promised better low ISO DR and less high ISO noise.  But, while low ISO DR has improved -- but not caught up with rivals, according to tests -- high ISO noise has remained virtually static.  Perhaps it was too much to expect Canon to match its competitors in the first generation of a long delayed and much needed conversion to a more modern sensor technology.  Clearly more work is needed.  On the other hand, the 1D X was so good in so many other ways that it was difficult to top.  The Mark II is even better -- and it will be worthwhile for many; for others the 1D X will continue to be more than enough.

© 2016 Michael W. Masters

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