Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II press image

After a conspicuously long five year wait, Canon has updated its top-of-the-line DSLR with the release of the EOS-1D X Mark II. To be fair, the original 1D X was a bit ahead of its time, with an incredibly powerful set of tools that became the benchmark for professional DSLR cameras.

But five years is a long time, and during that period the camera world has changed a bit. When the 1D X arrived on the scene in 2011, Nikon’s top-end camera was the D3S, released in 2009 and starting to show its age. Nikon responded to the EOS-1D X several months later with the D4, which was updated to the D4S in 2014. Canon failed to return a salvo in response to the D4S, focusing instead on a series of updates to the lower-tier professional and advanced amateur bodies, mostly in the form of video updates.

Canon got the jump on Nikon again with the EOS-1D X Mark II, but with a much narrower margin—the Nikon D5 was announced just a month after the new Canon body. For those keeping score, that means that Nikon made three changes to its pro lineup (two complete revamps and one update) in the same time it took Canon to release a “Mark II” version of the 1D X.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II image 1
Photo by David Schloss

In the intervening years the competitive landscape has changed as well. Mirrorless cameras moved from being an enthusiast-level tool to a popular alternative for pros, including complete systems from Sony, Fuji and Leica. Meanwhile, the Pentax brand was reborn, and camera phones got better and better. Very few of these advances put any real pressure on Canon’s top-end camera, but it changed the technology the EOS-1D X Mark II competed in.

Canon has always put a lot into its “Mark” updates, more than most companies, but still the Canon 1D X Mark II feels more like an incremental update to the powerful and market-leading professional body than does something like the Nikon D5, which feels like a full-fledged new version.

Make no mistake, though, the Canon 1D X Mark II is a worthy successor to the original version, though it’s one that feels like it hasn’t quite hit the mark in some areas. The camera has a range of new and sophisticated features and some updates to other operations, but there are a number of head-scratchers in the design as well.

Performance Boost

The EOS-1D X Mark II is powered by dual DIGIC 6+ chips that process images from the 20MP CMOS sensor at a blazing 14fps with the optical viewfinder and 16fps with live view. The ISO range now goes to a native top speed of ISO 51200 and can be expanded to ISO 409600.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II image 2
Photo by David Schloss

The camera can shoot 4K video to 60p internally and capture 8.8MP frame grabs on the fly, but for some reason Canon decided to limit the video output via HDMI to 1080. Perhaps this is to keep the camera from competing with the company’s own cinema cameras, but it’s an odd choice in a world where one can buy a Sony a7S II with full 4K video out over the HDMI port (at 4:2:2) and shoot with Canon lenses with an adapter—for about $3000 less.

The DIGIC 6+ processors, when combined with the right storage card, give the camera an unparalleled level of throughput. It’s possible with a CFast 2.0 card to shoot up to 170 RAW images before the buffer fills and 73 RAW images if shooting with CompactFlash.

At this point it’s necessary to address what is, by far, the oddest choice in the design of the EOS-1D X Mark II—the dual (and very similar-looking) memory cards. CFast is a card format that’s an improvement on the Compact Flash standard, and the cards themselves are incredibly similar looking. The CFast cards offer significant speed and throughput advantages for photographers and videographers, and having the ability to use CFast is great.

That said, Nikon faced the same issue, and its solution with the D5 is a more graceful one. While Canon is backing CFast, Nikon has gotten behind XQD cards, which offer similar performance to CFast but a new form factor. The D5 comes either in a dual CompactFlash slot version or with dual XQD slots. The Canon 1D X Mark II has a single CompactFlash slot and a single CFast slot. These cards, while they’re nearly identical in form factor, aren’t cross compatible.

Putting two similar but incompatible slots in the same camera is a bad idea for a number of reasons. First, it means that photographers are going to need to purchase and carry two kinds of cards (and readers) if they’d like dual-slot shooting workflows. Second, it means a lot of photographers are going to miss shots as they grab the wrong card for the slot that’s full. Imagine a news photographer trying to load a card in their camera in the heat of a breaking event, and having to stop to read their cards to see which is the right one for the slot.

Some of the internal features of the camera have changed; it now has USB 3.0 connections and built-in GPS, which is excellent. The 1D X Mark II lacks built-in WiFi but works with a WiFi module. In 2016 it seems crazy to spend thousands of dollars on a camera you have to plug in to something in order to transfer images to your smart phone or tablet. Nikon, too, lacks built-in WiFi on the D5, and so with each new top-end pro body that’s missing wireless image transfer features in-camera, I feel compelled to mention that this is a big shortcoming. If a $600 camera can have WiFi built-in, so can a $6000 camera. If it’s range that’s an issue, simply have the camera disable internal WiFi when the more powerful module is connected.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II image 3
Photo by David Schloss

Another welcome improvement is a change to the internal AF point display in the optical viewfinder. Canon has responded to shooter requests to make it easier in low light to see the selected AF point, and the Mark II can be set to show active AF points in bright red, with the rest of the points displaying as dots. This makes it much easier to lay focus points on a subject and start shooting.

Body Beautiful

The Mark II is virtually identical to the original 1DX, with a few ergonomic tweaks. On the front of the body, the flash mount has gained a small cowling that adds to the height of the pentaprism, and buttons have shifted ever so slightly. On the rear, the live view button now has a switch to change between still and video functions, and the thumb-button has changed shape a bit.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II image 4
Photo by David Schloss

There’s also an updated LCD screen, with 1.62M pixels and touchscreen capabilities, sort of. Here’s the first of the odd design choices—the LCD screen is touch sensitive, but that’s only used for focus in live view. You’d think that a camera that’s got a touchscreen would use said touchscreen for things like menu choices, image review, etc., but that’s not the case. I wouldn’t be surprised if firmware updates added a wider range of touchscreen-capable features, but for now the use is limited to focusing.

For photographers familiar with the EOS layout and design, the camera is a joy to hold. Buttons are in the right place, there’s no need for odd hand positions to reach any controls, and things are where the Canon shooter would expect them to be. The top-end EOS bodies have always felt particularly well sculpted to me, and the EOS-1D X II is no exception.

The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II has a new battery but will also work with the battery from the original 1DX, a welcome note to photographers upgrading the camera who have already spent a lot on additional batteries.

Hocus Focus

Canon’s pro cameras have always been known to have incredible autofocus, and the EOS-1D X Mark II ramps that up. The 61-point “High Density Reticular AF II” system has 41 cross-type AF points and can center focus down to -3EV. Outdoor photographers with long glass and those shooting with a teleconverter, which effectively stops down the minimum aperture, benefit from the camera’s ability to use all of the phase-detection points at f/8 or larger.

The AF system doesn’t use the dual DIGIC 6+ processors on board; it has its own DIGIC 6 processor, which is used for AF when shooting with the optical viewfinder and to run the Dual Pixel CMOS video tracking as well.

This last bit brings up another confusing design element. Canon introduced Dual Pixel AF as a way to provide autofocus when shooting video, and it functions by having imaging sensors capture both image data and focus data on the same pixel. This allows the system to continue to focus when the mirror is locked up in live view shooting. It’s the same type of technology that allows mirrorless cameras that feature phase detection focusing to track subjects.

Canon only uses this AF system in live view and uses a more traditional yet very high resolution sensor for optical shooting. While the Mark II can perform subject tracking and even face detection using the dedicated AF module, it can’t do that with the alacrity of a high-end mirrorless system, which is always focusing.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II image 5
Photo by David Schloss

Clearly there are technological limitations, and the dedicated module provides best-in-class focus for optical shooting, but there are some things that on-chip phase detection does well. This is only engaged during live view video capture.

Now the benefit here is that the Dual Pixel design provides quick and accurate focus and re-focusing when capturing video, a boon to videographers. Circling back to the earlier comments about the touchscreen for a moment, it’s important to mention that it’s possible to focus the camera in video mode by touching on a region of the LCD screen, truly handy.

Canon’s AF updates are said to provide around a 9% increase in performance over the previous iteration of the camera, and there are more modes from which to choose. The focus points in system now provide about 24% more vertical coverage (great for wedding and portrait shooters), and there’s a larger center focus area.

Fast As Jets

To test out the new AF capabilities on the EOS-1D X Mark II, I took the camera to the most motion-filled shoot I could find, an airshow. The arrival of our test Mark II coincided with the Jones Beach airshow, about an hour from where I live. With planned demonstrations from the United States Blue Angel squad of F-18 Hornets, the F-16 Viper demo team, Canada’s Snowbird team, biplanes and, among other displays, a flyover from a brand new F-35 Lightning II, the event had every autofocus stress test available.

The erratic and incredibly fast nature of the performances was a great way to put the Canon through its paces. Flying at hundreds of miles an hour, looping, twirling, stalling and occasionally frightening attendees with low-level passes, the air show had it all. The fact that the show was on a beach allowed me to test various AF stressors as well, things like the subject disappearing into the clouds of its own smoke trails and planes passing low enough to be blocked on from view momentarily by beach umbrellas and spectators.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II image 7
Photo by David Schloss

Thanks to Canon’s verbose AF menu, it was easy to pick the right AF setup for a given performance. Planes crossing behind obstacles, set the camera to ignore things that suddenly enter the frame. A spinning exhibition from the Blue Angels? Erratic subject settings.

The AF system performed nearly flawlessly across two days of shooting full of rapid changes from high to low contrast, bright sun to shadow, and even a fog that rolled in and made it nearly impossible to see the subjects.

I tested the camera with the 100-400mm f/4-5.6 lens and was able to easily handhold the system. At the 400mm setting, the internal vibration reduction in the lens was welcome, though it made the fast-moving planes bounce around a bit in the lens as stabilization took effect. I had to develop faith that as I was laying the AF point on a plane and it and the plane would seem to bounce around that the camera was indeed tracking.

ISO Performance, Color and JPEG

With the arrival of the EOS-1D X Mark II, I’ve seen a number of conflicting reports from various lab tests of the camera’s high ISO performance and color range. Some suggest that the camera isn’t as capable at creating noise-free images at high ISO as its predecessor; some say it’s better.

The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II has seen the upper end of the ISO spectrum increase to 51,200, which is a stop lower than the Nikon D5’s upper end 102,400. It’s a bit crazy, coming from a film background where ISO 1600 was incredibly grainy and low resolution (compared to an ISO 100 film) to talk about these super-high ISO rates.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II image 8
Photo by David Schloss

But the camera didn’t just get an update to the sensitivity, Canon has upped the ISO range on a camera with a dual-pixel sensor layout. Remember, the 1D X Mark II uses a Dual Pixel design to allow the DSLR to focus during video as if it were a mirrorless camera. Part of the sensor is laid out with pixels that function as focusing elements, not imaging elements, which should result in lower dynamic range and more noise. Instead, the 1D X Mark II has a higher resolution sensor compared to the 1D X and a Dual Pixel layout, but has a higher ISO and similar dynamic range.

After looking at a lot of images from the 1D X Mark II, and pouring over the lab tests posted online, it looks very much as if the 1D X and the 1D X Mark II have similar high ISO performance, but the camera is taking a more aggressive and possibly less-pleasing approach to creating in-camera JPEGs.

One of the problems with using the camera’s JPEG files to compare image quality is that the algorithms used to create the JPEG files have a huge impact on the resulting image. I’ve seen cameras that create super-saturated JPEG files, yet the RAW files contain a good amount of color data without a garish look.

It feels as if Canon took an approach that flattens the overall colors present in the JPEG files and doesn’t particularly help the sharpness in the high ISO images, possibly favoring image noise reduction over sharpness.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II image 9
Photo by David Schloss

Canon’s 1D X wasn’t as good at high-ISO images as were later cameras from Canon, nor some models from Nikon or Sony. The high ISO images from the Canon 1D X Mark II are still noisier than the Nikon D5 or the Sony a7R II, but much better than the previous camera.

The takeaway here from the last 400 words about the ISO performance and color is that people can perform laboratory tests all day every day, but if you were happy with the ISO performance of the 1DX, you’ll be just as happy or happier with the 1D X Mark II. If your purchase decision for a camera comes down solely to ISO and color reproduction in JPEG, there are cameras that are marginally better. Honestly, with good RAW conversion tools, it all likely comes out in the wash.

Video

For shooters who use their camera for video, the Canon 1D X Mark II has some pretty impressive specs. It’s capable of shooting 4K video at 60p (which is what necessitates the CFast slot) and, thanks to the Dual Pixel sensor, can track faces and perform autofocus during video shooting.

But there are also some odd omissions in video—there’s no focus peaking or zebra are the foremost issues—which seem missing solely so that Canon doesn’t cut into its cinema camera lineup. Another decision that seems based on maintaining sales of cinema models is the lack of 4K output on the HDMI port. When competitor cameras produce full 4K output, there’s no reason that the 1D X Mark II shouldn’t be able to as well.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II image 11
Photo by David Schloss

Hardcore video users will likely be disappointed in the lack of LOG support and the fact that the camera captures video as Motion JPEG—a decision likely based around the workflow of pulling stills from video being the primary use case.

If you occasionally shoot video or you want to shoot video so that you can pull stills for a client, then this is a perfect camera. If you’re looking to create a feature film in 4K, other cameras are a better fit.

Conclusion

I just had a conversation with a Nikon-using photographer friend who pulled out some files from his Nikon D3 and used todays’ RAW processing tools on them and was remarking about how great the images from a seven-year-old camera look.

The problem for the 1D X Mark II (and, by extension, the Nikon D5 and any other camera platform) is that this technology is just so good at this point that each version has a decreasing return.

Going from the 1Ds to the 1Ds Mark II was a big jump, as was the jump from the 1Ds Mark II to the original 1D X. As digital cameras evolve, each successive iteration is a refinement. Just a few camera generations ago, every new model was a must-have update thanks to the rapid increases in sensor, AF and other technologies. Now they’re a calculation on return on investment.

The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II is the best camera that Canon has ever made, without doubt. It’s more powerful, more accurate and more functional than its predecessor or any of the company’s other models. For the photographer looking for the best Canon on the market, the 1D X Mark II is the obvious choice.

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