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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Review: The Canon EOS 1DX Mark II

I started out in digital photography with the purchase of the Canon EOS 1D Mark II many years ago. That camera quickly became my go to camera for just about everything, including birds in flight.  To this day, that body has a special place in my heart as one which could take abuse, and never fail. Of course until it did fail, and then I had to replace it, but I digress.

For those who have not been initiated into the deep line of Canon cameras, the 1 Series (as it is known), is the flagship DSLR in Canon's line.  It has been a go to camera for the worlds best sports and wildlife photographers.  Indeed, every camera I shoot with, I compare to this line.

I am taking a break today from lens reviews to review the Canon EOS 1DX Mark II.  I will look at fit and finish, capabilities, image quality and the most brutal test of all, birds in flight.  So sit back in your arm chair, grab a cup of Joe and get ready to experience the best of the best Canon has to offer.

The Canon EOS 1DX Mark II


Specifications
  • 14 frames per second (FPS) shooting (must use LP-E19 battery)
  • 21.2 megapixels
  • 61 AF points with 41 of those being cross type
  • Dual Digic 6 and Digic 6+ processors
  • 4K video up to 60 fps
  • 1080p video up to 120 fps
  • Autofocus available at f8 on all autofocus points
  • WI-FI (available via another component - not built in)
  • GPS
  • ISO up to 409,600
  • Lights which flicker (eg. florescents) can be managed with the anti-flicker mode
  • AF points now can be setup to be red instead of the darker black/gray color in the Mark I.
  • Touchscreen during video for better focusing
  • Dual card slots; one slot takes CF and the other slot takes CFast
  • Released April 2016

Build Quality/Fit and Finish

The 1DX Mark II boasts a fully weather sealed and dust sealed magnesium alloy body.  Over that body is what appears to be a rubberized type of material which includes anti-slip surfaces for gripping the camera better.

The camera felt like it was made for my hands and as I shot with it; it felt like an extension of my hand.  There is certainly no room to complain with how this body is built.  It was built for the discerning pro or advanced amateur looking for a no excuses experience in photography.  

Some may find the weight to be an issue with this camera as it comes in at 2.95 lbs.  Let's just say it weighs 3 lbs and be done with it.  It is a heavy camera, and it seems a little heavier than some previous models.  For example, my older 1D Mark II came in at 2.7 lbs and my 1D Mark III is only 2.5 lbs.  

When shooting birds in flight hand held, I had to stop often to let my shoulder rest.  This is a common issue with the 1 Series line, and if the situation permits, I would invest in a gimbal  head for the flight shots.  However, the weight is not all bad.  A heavy camera can produce more stable shooting as it can help balance heavy lenses.

At one point during my testing, I was able, quite by accident to discover just how rugged the housing of this body is.  During the shoot, one of my tripod legs slipped and down went the body.  It landed in the dirt with a thud.  My heart sank; I walked over to the now muddy body, cleaned off the back of it and resumed shooting.  No ill effects were noted for the rest of the shoot.  That is one tough body!

Autofocus

Let me say that I was totally blown away by the autofocus of this camera.  I was able to shoot birds in flight with little difficulty and even in low light.  The camera locked on to my subject quickly and stayed locked.  For the majority of my shooting, I stuck with the general purpose setting on the AF modes.  In this mode, I did find it would grab the background quicker, but that might be what you want.  There are many modes to choose from, and you can easily tailor the camera to what your needs are.

Huntersville, NC - Lanner Falcon,  Sigma 150-600 C @ f5.6, 1/1250th of a second, ISO 8000. Using center point expand autofocus.

Autofocus points can easily be moved using the joystick on the back of the camera, or if you prefer, using the standard wheel and dial approach.  I found both methods to be quick and painless.  It should also be noted that I did dial in a -1 micro-adjust focus correction when using my Sigma 150-600.  

If I were to complain about anything on the autofocus side of things, it would be the lack of autofocus points near the edge.  When I was shooting static subjects, I often wanted to move up past the autofocus cluster to focus on my subject's eyes. This is one area that the 7D Mark II excels over the 1DX Mark II.  The photographer almost has edge to edge autofocus points on the Canon 7D Mark II due to the smaller sensor size.

A myriad of autofocus options are available on the 1DX Mark II.  I used Case 1 for my testing.  I also primarily use this mode on my 7D Mark II.


Low Light Performance

At only 21 megapixels, Canon was making every attempt to make this camera a low light monster.  When shooting birds in flight, I started shooting at 8:00 am in a forested area.  This is a low light time in the autumn season. I was able to shoot without difficulty at ISO 8,000 and still have usable shots.  When shooting static subjects I dropped back to ISO 6400 to produce very usable shots.  Compare this to my Canon EOS 7D Mark II and I would definitely be in trouble at 3200 and above.  This camera saved my bacon on this day.  The shot below was taken at a whopping ISO 20,000.  Although I would not try to make large prints from this shot, it does show just how versatile this camera is.

Huntersville, NC - Eurasian Eagle Owl,  Sigma 150-600 C @ f5.6, 1/1250th of a second, ISO 20,000. Using center point expand / AIServo autofocus.

Image Quality

I hesitated to even write anything on image quality because at this price point, it better have astounding image quality, but I decided to go ahead with my thoughts on it anyway.

It, of course, has amazing image quality.  I found the level of detail to be more than enough and the "cropability" of the final product to be just as amazing. Meaning that even after cropping, I felt like the final product held good detail.

However, because of the low light work I was doing, I was not able to test it at 100 ISO.  I think at that level I would have been completely blown away.  Even  at ISO 3200 though, it was astounding.  Much better than my crop sensor bodies (of course). Below is a static shot of a golden eagle photographed at 3200 ISO using fill flash to bring out facial detail.  I would have no issues with making 30 inch images even at this ISO.

Huntersville, NC - Golden Eagle,  Sigma 150-600 C @ f6.3, 1/250th of a second, ISO 3200. Using single point/AIServo autofocus.

Where I found the image sensor lacked was in dynamic range.  I thought it did a fair job in the shadow detail, but I found that recovering highlights was only slightly better than my 7D Mark II.  This is something I am hoping Canon can correct in the near future.  My Canon 1D Mark III can recover highlights that would never be recoverable with modern cameras.  The newer and higher megapixel sensors simply cannot recover these highlights (with maybe the exception of the higher end Sony cameras).

Video

I did shoot three videos over the course of a weekend of shooting, but shooting video was not my primary goal with this test.  However, let me say that shooting video was much better than it is on my 7D Mark II due to the touch screen autofocus.  I could easily touch anywhere on the LCD and shift focus from one object to another.  This ability would also make special effects like pull focus possible.

This camera also supports 4K at 60 fps, which is welcome, as Canon has been slow to provide this to its non-cinema lines. Now, if slow motion is your primary style of shooting, you will only get 120 fps at 1080p. Seriously though, If you are that into video, and want to stick with Canon, either get a dedicated cinema DSLR or get one of their professional video cameras. I will address the video shooting more in my podcast and YouTube channel.

Conclusion and Wrap up

The autofocus is completely stunning and took even me a little by surprise.  For that reason alone, I highly recommend this body.  I may even pick one up on the used market myself in a few years just for flight. 

If you are only interested in image quality and have no need for fast action photography, I would look at the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV or maybe even an older 6D. 

So, 6,000 dollars?  Is it worth it to you? My advice to you, if money is an obstacle, is just to wait until it comes down on the used market.  In a few years, this camera will be down below $1,000 US and will be a great bargain.

If you want a camera with similar functionality and don't mind giving up the full frame sensor, consider the Canon EOS 7D Mark II which can be picked up on the used market for under $1,000 US. Although the 7D II isn't quite as performant on the autofocus side, it has amazing detail and most of the features this body has to offer.

If you want to stick with the 1 Series bodies, but can't afford this body, consider a used 1DX or 1D Mark IV.  You will have to drop down to 18 megapixels on the 1DX and 16 on the Mark IV, but I can tell you they have amazing autofocus and image quality. 

In the end purchasing a camera like this is about weighing the pros and cons for your style of photography.  No one can tell you what your needs are, but I hope this helped you to understand who this camera is for, what features it has and what kinds of trouble you might run into.

Video Review of the Camera...
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