On Trial – Canon EOS-1D X Mark II
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?
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.
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.
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.