On Trial – Canon EOS-1D X Mark II



It’s taken us a while to get our hands on Canon’s D-SLR flag­ship, but it was worth the wait for what has to be the ul­ti­mate in D-SLR de­sign… in other words, it’s hard to see there ever be­ing a dig­i­tal re­flex that can out­per­form the EOS-1D X Mark II.

Canon has done ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to make its lat­est-gen­er­a­tion EOS-1D the fastest D-SLR on the planet, and it beats its Nikon ri­val in a num­ber of other ar­eas too, but does any­body care any­more?

OVER THE DECADES WE’VE EA­GERLY awaited the reg­u­lar stoush be­tween Canon and Nikon as to who should wear the ‘King Of The SLRs’ crown. It all started in 1971 when up­start Canon launched the cheek­ily-des­ig­nated F-1 to take on Nikon’s well-es­tab­lished F (the F2 ar­rived shortly af­ter) and it’s been game-on ever since. For a while there, it did make a dif­fer­ence and Canon’s bolder take on aut­o­fo­cus­ing – proven right in the end – made it unas­sail­able for quite a while dur­ing the 1990s. The bat­tle has con­tin­ued into the dig­i­tal era with Nikon’s D3 per­haps the last truly sig­nif­i­cant model in terms of at­tract­ing de­fec­tors from the ‘other camp’.

But now things have changed, and for a num­ber of rea­sons. Of course, the pro­fes­sional photography land­scape is very dif­fer­ent and it’s no longer a case of al­ways buy­ing the flag­ship model just be­cause of what it is, rather be­cause of what it does. Both Canon and Nikon make cred­itable al­ter­na­tives which are smaller, lighter and, per­haps most im­por­tantly, more af­ford­able – the EOS 5D Mark IV and D810 with full-35mm size sen­sors, but the ‘APS-C’ D500 more than qual­i­fies here too. Then there’s the rise and rise of mirrorless cam­eras and, in par­tic­u­lar at the mo­ment, a grow­ing em­pha­sis on higher-end mod­els such as Fujifilm’s X-T2, Olym­pus’s OM-D E-M1 Mark II and Pana­sonic’s Lu­mix GH5. Le­ica is in the mix with the full-35mm for­mat SL, but it’s Sony that’s mak­ing the big­gest in­cur­sions into D-SLR ter­ri­tory with its cur­rent A7 se­ries (with an even heav­ier-hit­ting A9 re­port­edly on the way). Then there’s the un­known quan­tity – cur­rently, at least – that is dig­i­tal medium for­mat mirrorless cam­eras, but Fujifilm has al­ready stated that its GFX sys­tem will be tar­geted at the users of pro-level D-SLRs, par­tic­u­larly in ar­eas such as fash­ion, land­scapes and ad­ver­tis­ing.

What all this means is that the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and Nikon’s D5 are de­fend­ing shrink­ing slices of mar­ket share, and it’s hard to see this sec­tor ever be­ing re­stored to its for­mer glory. With model cy­cles in the re­gion of four years, this sec­tor is likely to look very dif­fer­ent again by the time the re­place­ments for th­ese cam­eras are

due. So, as we asked with the D5, is the EOS-1D X II likely to be the last of its line?

Re­flex Ac­tion

What­ever hap­pens down the track, both the D5 and the EOS-1D X II are al­ready pretty much niche mod­els, de­signed pri­mar­ily for ap­pli­ca­tions where speed – and bul­let-proof dura­bil­ity – are es­sen­tial. Nei­ther el­e­ment, of course, is the ex­clu­sive do­main of the D-SLR, but the com­bi­na­tion of an op­ti­cal viewfinder, su­per-fast wide-area aut­o­fo­cus­ing and high-speed shoot­ing hasn’t re­ally been chal­lenged by the mirrorless brands… at least not up un­til now. The OM-D E-M1 II, for ex­am­ple, is a taste of what’s to come – it’s al­ready faster when us­ing its sen­sor-based shut­ter – and ev­ery­body is work­ing on bet­ter sen­sor-based aut­o­fo­cus­ing (as, in­ci­den­tally, is Canon with its ‘Dual Pixel CMOS AF’). Along with EVFs re­fresh­ing at 240 fps, ex­pand­ing lens sys­tems and the po­ten­tial of frame grabs from 6K or 8K video, mirrorless is ready for an all-out as­sault on the high-end high­speed D-SLR.

Canon has worked hard to keep the EOS-1D X Mark II com­pet­i­tive un­der the ban­ner of “Chal­lenge What’s Pos­si­ble” so, in D-SLR terms, it’s an ex­cep­tional cam­era. Canon has looked at ev­ery pos­si­ble spec and asked, ‘Can we squeeze a bit more out of this?’ Bear in mind too, it’s de­signed to re­place two mod­els – the -1D X and the cine­matog­ra­phy-ori­en­tated -1D C. And it’s the pro-level video func­tion­al­ity which mostly puts the Canon ahead of its Nikon ri­val, but there are other key su­pe­ri­or­i­ties such as the 14 fps con­tin­u­ous shoot­ing speed (with full AF and AE ad­just­ment, and with RAW cap­ture), and the afore­men­tioned ‘Dual Pixel CMOS AF’ sys­tem which brings the speed of phase-de­tec­tion mea­sure­ments to both live view and when shoot­ing video. This is not only su­per-fast, but gives ex­cel­lent frame cov­er­age which ben­e­fits the sub­ject track­ing… some­thing Dual Pixel AF par­tic­u­larly ex­cels at. Be­ing able to ad­just the speed of the fo­cus tran­si­tions is a re­ally big plus when shoot­ing video, al­low­ing for the lin­ear­ity and smooth­ness to be fine-tuned. The Canon’s touch­screen con­trols are as lim­ited as the Nikon’s, but it does have the con­ve­nience of touch fo­cus which al­lows for very quick ad­just­ments or easy set­ting of the start point for track­ing. In­ci­den­tally, with the re­flex mir­ror out of the pic­ture in live view, the EOS-1D X II can shoot full-res stills at a re­mark­able 16 fps… but then, of course, it’s es­sen­tially work­ing as a mirrorless cam­era. ’Nuff said.

Built For Speed

The EOS-1D X Mark II is built for speed on quite a num­ber of lev­els, in­clud­ing its duo of ‘DiG!C 6+’ pro­ces­sors and even the de­sign of its CMOS sen­sor. This is, of course, a full-35mm size im­ager, but Canon sticks with a fairly con­ser­va­tive pixel count of 21.5 mil­lion, giv­ing an ef­fec­tive res­o­lu­tion of 20.2 MP.

Canon has looked at ev­ery pos­si­ble spec and asked, ‘Can we squeeze a bit more out of this?’

Nikon takes the same ap­proach with its D-SLR flag­ship and it’s a case of ‘enough res­o­lu­tion’ for the job – an aw­ful lot of images out of th­ese cam­eras will be end­ing up on­line or on the pages of news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines – and max­imis­ing pixel size to the ben­e­fit of both the sig­nal-to-noise ra­tio and the sen­si­tiv­ity. The lat­ter’s na­tive range spans ISO 100 to 51,200 with ex­pan­sion set­tings to ISO 50 at one end and to 102,400, 204,800 and 409,600. Th­ese ul­tra-high set­tings are a lit­tle more re­al­is­tic than the fan­tas­ti­cal claims made for the D5 and which have sub­se­quently proven unattain­able.

The Canon’s sen­sor re­tains an op­ti­cal low-pass fil­ter again be­cause here it’s more use­ful than not… an aw­ful lot of JPEGs will be head­ing straight from this cam­era to the client wire­lessly with­out go­ing near a com­puter. The dual high-speed pro­ces­sors not only de­liver the 14 fps shoot­ing rate, but also Cin­ema 4K res video and the beefed up aut­o­fo­cus­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Also in the pursuit of speed, one of the Canon’s two mem­ory card slots is for the CFast 2.0 de­vice – which also en­ables 4K video at 50 fps and Full HD video at 100 fps (PAL stan­dard) – while the sec­ond is for the stan­dard Com­pactFlash types with UDMA 7 speed sup­port. Has any­body got their dual mem­ory card com­bos right yet? Canon mixes SD and CF on the EOS 5D IV while Nikon hedges its bets by of­fer­ing XQD or CF ver­sions on the D5, but of­fers a curious com­bi­na­tion of SD and XQD on the D500. In purely prac­ti­cal terms, two slots of the same for­mat is more de­sir­able, but both SD and CF are lim­ited in terms of how fast they can go… hence the moves to XQD and CFast 2.0 while main­tain­ing com­pat­i­bil­ity with the ‘legacy’ for­mats. As be­fore, JPEGs can be cap­tured at one of ten com­pres­sion lev­els and in four sizes from 5472x3648 pix­els down to 2736x1824 pix­els. RAW files can be cap­tured in one of three sizes with 14-bit RGB colour. RAW+JPEG cap­ture can be con­fig­ured in any com­bi­na­tion of the above.

Work­ing Class

Canon keeps things pretty busi­nesslike in terms of the -1D X Mark II’s im­age pro­cess­ing func­tions which aren’t even as frilly as the 5D IV’s, but nonethe­less in­clude all the basics; namely noise re­duc­tion for both long ex­po­sures and high ISO set­tings, and the ‘Auto Light­ing Op­ti­miser’ and ‘High­light Tone Pri­or­ity’ pro­cess­ing func­tions for con­trast con­trol and dynamic range ex­pan­sion re­spec­tively.

The in-cam­era lens cor­rec­tions are the same as 5D IV’s and com­prise vi­gnetting, chro­matic aber­ra­tions, dis­tor­tion and dif­frac­tion, plus the 1D X II has the on-board ‘Dig­i­tal Lens Op­ti­miser’ which does ev­ery­thing as re­quired by the par­tic­u­lar lens in use. Again, this is very use­ful for any­body de­liv­er­ing JPEGs straight out of the cam­era.

There’s a mul­ti­ple ex­po­sure fa­cil­ity, but no HDR cap­ture or an in­ter­val­ome­ter. The for­mer is prob­a­bly no great loss, but the lat­ter would seem to have po­ten­tial ap­pli­ca­tions on a sports cam­era. Im­por­tantly, au­to­matic flicker de­tec­tion is pro­vided for deal­ing with the switch­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of gas-ig­ni­tion light­ing (i.e. flu­o­res­cent types) which can af­fect both ex­po­sure and colour bal­ance when shoot­ing at faster shut­ter speeds. Given a lot of sports are con­ducted ‘un­der lights’, this is a very use­ful fea­ture.

There’s a choice of eight ‘Pic­ture Style’ pre­sets, in­clud­ing the Fine De­tail set­ting first in­tro­duced on the EOS 5Ds duo and which pro­cesses JPEGs for in­creased sharp­ness. All the pre­sets also have more ad­vanced man­ual con­trol over sharp­ness via three sep­a­rate ad­just­ments la­belled Strength,

The big Canon is sur­pris­ingly com­fort­able for such a bulky cam­era – the hand­grip has been com­pletely re­designed – and there’s no ques­tion­ing the tough-as­nails build qual­ity.

Fine­ness and Thresh­old. Th­ese work in a sim­i­lar fash­ion to Pho­to­shop’s Un­sharp Mask­ing, so Strength con­trols the amount of sharp­en­ing, Fine­ness de­ter­mines the size of the de­tails which will be sharp­ened, and Thresh­old sets the con­trast level at which an edge will be sub­jected to sharp­en­ing.

The re­main­ing ‘Pic­ture Style’ pre­sets are the sys­tem-wide of­fer­ings of Stan­dard, Por­trait, Land­scape, Neu­tral, Faith­ful and Mono­chrome. The colour pre­sets are ad­justable for con­trast, colour sat­u­ra­tion and hue in ad­di­tion to the sharp­ness con­trols while the B&W preset re­places the colour con­trols with a set of con­trast fil­ters (i.e. red, or­ange, yel­low and green) and ton­ing ef­fects. There’s also an Auto ‘Pic­ture Style’ which ad­justs the pro­cess­ing pa­ram­e­ters ac­cord­ing to anal­y­sis of the sub­ject us­ing AF, AE and white bal­ance data. Up to three cus­tomised ‘Pic­ture Styles’ can be stored in-cam­era.

Points Score

The de­mands of shoot­ing high-speed ac­tion have been fore­most in the up­grades to the EOS-1D X Mark II’s aut­o­fo­cus­ing sys­tem, as is the case with the Nikon D5. It still em­ploys 61 fo­cus­ing points – 49 of them cross-type ar­rays – but the cov­er­age is ex­panded by close to ten per­cent ver­ti­cally, but a more sig­nif­i­cant 24 per­cent hor­i­zon­tally. Ob­vi­ously this is ben­e­fi­cial when shoot­ing mov­ing sub­jects, as are the in­creases in re­spon­sive­ness and speed de­rived from the new ‘AI Servo AF III+’ al­go­rithm for con­tin­u­ous fo­cus­ing.

All 61 points – and 21 of the crosstype ar­rays – work with lens speeds down to f8.0. The five points in the cen­tre are dual cross-type ar­rays with ad­di­tional di­ag­o­nal detectors to in­crease their po­ten­tial for find­ing a con­trast edge on the sub­ject.

Switch­ing be­tween the sin­gle-shot and con­tin­u­ous modes can be ei­ther done man­u­ally or au­to­mat­i­cally when the ‘AI Servo AF’ mode is se­lected. Man­ual AF point se­lec­tion can be in­di­vid­u­ally, in groups or in zones. A group – called ‘AF Point Ex­pan­sion’ – com­prises the se­lected point with ei­ther four or eight sur­round­ing points. With ‘Zone AF’, all the points are di­vided into nine zones (com­pris­ing ei­ther nine or 16 points de­pend­ing on their

po­si­tion), or there’s the op­tion of ‘Large Zone AF’ which di­vides them into just three zones. Of course, au­to­matic point se­lec­tion and switch­ing is avail­able, with sub­ject track­ing reg­u­lated by Canon’s ‘In­tel­li­gent Track­ing & Recog­ni­tion’ (iTR) pro­cess­ing which in­cludes in­put from the me­ter­ing sys­tem.

The ‘AF Con­fig­u­ra­tion Tool’ menu pro­vides a se­lec­tion of six sce­nar­ios which vary the track­ing sen­si­tiv­ity, the ac­cel­er­a­tion/de­cel­er­a­tion rates, and the speed that the points are switched. Th­ese three pa­ram­e­ters are also man­u­ally ad­justable so, for ex­am­ple, the track­ing sen­si­tiv­ity can be var­ied from ‘Locked On’ to ‘Re­spon­sive’ with three steps in be­tween.

AF mi­cro-ad­just­ment is pos­si­ble for up to 40 lenses – ap­plied ei­ther col­lec­tively or in­di­vid­u­ally – and this al­lows for the cor­rec­tion of ei­ther fron­tor back-fo­cus­ing.

In live view or when shoot­ing video, Canon’s ‘Dual Pixel CMOS AF’ comes into play. The sen­sor has two side-by-side pho­to­di­odes at each pixel point, en­abling them to per­form phase-dif­fer­ence de­tec­tion aut­o­fo­cus­ing. The ‘Dual Pixel CMOS AF’ pro­vides 80 per­cent frame cov­er­age (although all the sen­sor’s pix­els are ac­tu­ally split types) with a ‘Flex­iZone – Sin­gle’ mode for man­u­ally se­lect­ing a fo­cus­ing point, but not the ‘Multi’ op­tion pro­vided on the 5D IV. There are also face de­tec­tion and sub­ject track­ing modes which, of course, work on au­to­matic point se­lec­tion. Here the pro­vi­sion of touch­screen con­trols proves use­ful, al­low­ing for the fo­cus­ing zone to be se­lected by sim­ply tap­ping the mon­i­tor screen… which also com­pletes the AF process. And thanks to ‘Dual Pixel CMOS AF’ this is im­pres­sively fast. Here the EOS-1D X II is mas­sively su­pe­rior to the D5 which strug­gles along with con­trast­de­tec­tion AF and with the touch­screen hob­bled to point se­lec­tion only. Man­ual fo­cus­ing in live view is as­sisted by a mag­ni­fied im­age (up to 10x), but there still isn’t a fo­cus peak­ing dis­play which is the much more ef­fec­tive method.

Ex­po­sure con­trol is based a colour-sen­si­tive ‘RGB+IR’ sen­sor which em­ploys 360,000 pix­els to give 216-zone eval­u­a­tive me­ter­ing which is also linked to the ac­tive AF point(s) and fine-tuned by Canon’s ‘In­tel­li­gent Scene Anal­y­sis’ pro­cess­ing. Al­ter­na­tively, se­lec­tive area, cen­tre-weighted av­er­age, sin­gle spot and multi-spot mea­sure­ments are pro­vided. Th­ese drive the usual se­lec­tion of ex­po­sure con­trol modes and the over­rides for the auto modes com­prise an AE lock, up to +/-5.0 EV of com­pen­sa­tion and auto brack­et­ing with ad­just­ments of up to +/-3.0 EV per frame over a se­quence of two, three, five or seven frames.

As on all the re­cent high-end Canon D-SLRs, the fo­cal plane shut­ter assem­bly has been re­designed to min­imise vi­bra­tions as has the re­flex mir­ror mech­a­nism which is ac­tu­ated via a mi­cro­mo­tor (rather than con­ven­tional springs) so it can be slowed to­wards the end of its travel to re­duce bounce which also helps re­duce vi­bra­tions. Shut­ter live is rated at 400,000 cy­cles and, as on the previous model, there’s a counter so you don’t have to keep guess­ing at how many ac­tu­a­tions you’ve done.

The white bal­ance con­trols in­clude the choice of ‘Am­bi­ence Pri­or­ity’ or ‘White Pri­or­ity’ modes for the au­to­matic cor­rec­tion. The lat­ter is the stan­dard way of do­ing things while the for­mer is a de­vel­op­ment of ‘keep warm colours’, but works with what­ever colour cast is pre­dom­i­nant in a scene. Six dif­fer­ent types of light­ing are cov­ered by pre­sets and there’s pro­vi­sions for stor­ing up to five cus­tom mea­sure­ments; plus fine-tun­ing, man­ual colour tem­per­a­ture set­ting and auto WB brack­et­ing.

In The Hand

At one time we wouldn’t have com­mented much about the -1D X II’s size and weight – it was what was ex­pected for a pro-level SLR – but things have changed so now it feels mas­sively bulky in the hand com­pared to, in par­tic­u­lar, Sony’s A7R II. The Le­ica SL – an­other mirrorless full-35mm ri­val – is a big beast too, but still not quite in the Canon’s weight class. That said, the big Canon is sur­pris­ingly com­fort­able for such a bulky cam­era – the hand­grip has been com­pletely re­designed – and there’s no ques­tion­ing the tough-as­nails build qual­ity.

The fully-sealed bodyshell is vir­tu­ally en­tirely mag­ne­sium al­loy ex­cept for one very small panel at the top of the pen­taprism hous­ing be­hind which is the cam­era’s built-in GPS re­ceiver. Cu­ri­ously, though, there’s no WiFi – which you’d think would be handy on a sports cam­era – and an ex­ter­nal wire­less trans­mit­ter is still needed. How­ever, there’s now a new ac­ces­sory unit called the WFT-E8 which is ex­cep­tion­ally

JPEG per­for­mance isn’t the ‘poor cousin’ here be­cause Canon un­der­stands that high-vol­ume shoot­ers don’t often use RAW… es­pe­cially if images are be­ing trans­mit­ted di­rectly from the cam­era.

com­pact and pro­vides 802.11ac wire­less con­nec­tiv­ity.

The viewfinder it­self is, of course, the crown­ing glory of a full-35mm D-SLR with 100 per­cent scene cov­er­age and a mag­ni­fi­ca­tion of 0.76x. Both a shut­ter blind and strength cor­rec­tion are built into the eye­piece. The dis­plays are com­pre­hen­sive and in­clude du­alaxis level in­di­ca­tors plus a choice of grid guides. Ap­par­ently in re­sponse to own­ers’ plead­ings, the ac­tive AF points are once again in­di­cated in red which makes them a lot eas­ier to see – es­pe­cially against a clut­tered back­ground – than the previous black.

There’s no short­age of real es­tate on the big body for ex­ter­nal con­trols and Canon ap­pears to have used up most of it, in­clud­ing for two mono­chrome read-out pan­els sim­i­lar to the Nikon D5. As be­fore, the con­trol lay­out cen­tres around two in­put wheels, the rear one be­ing Canon’s ubiq­ui­tous ‘Quick Con­trol Dial’. For the sake of con­ti­nu­ity with the previous mod­els (in­clud­ing the EOS-1D C), not much has re­ally changed, in­clud­ing the eight-way jog-type ‘Multi-Con­trollers’ –

Big and bold. Canon’s lat­est­gen­er­a­tion pro-grade D-SLR is built to take plenty of pun­ish­ment, but it’s also built for speed.

Rear panel con­trol lay­out is dom­i­nated by the large ‘Quick Con­trol Dial’ which flanked by the eight-way jog-type ‘Mul­tiCon­trollers’ – one each for the hor­i­zon­tal and ver­ti­cal grips.

A fa­mil­iar lay­out to any­body who has shot with an EOS1D se­ries cam­era. Read-out panel can be il­lu­mi­nated, but not the con­trols.

Depth-of-field and multi-func­tion but­ton pair is pro­vided in both the hor­i­zon­tal and ver­ti­cal po­si­tions.

Dual mem­ory card slots are for Com­pactFlash and CFast 2.0… the lat­ter needed to re­alise 4K video record­ing at 50 fps and op­ti­mise the buf­fer ca­pac­ity when shoot­ing at 14 fps.

Rear panel mono read- out dis­play is de­voted to cardrelated info.

Con­trol lay­out is largely un­changed from that of the previous -1D X or, in­deed, of the more cin­e­matog­ra­phy­ori­en­tated -1D C (it re­places both mod­els). It may look busy, but it’s sur­pris­ingly ef­fi­cient.

Stan­dard 3.5 mm mini­jack ter­mi­nals pro­vid­ing for hook­ing up a stereo mic or mon­i­tor­ing head­phones.

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