Hands-On Review: Canon EOS 7D Mark II

At the risk of spoiling the rest of this review, the Canon 7D Mark II is the best APS-C SLR on the market today. It’s fast, it’s capable and it has features not yet found on the top-of-the-line Canon 1D-X.

The question then isn’t whether the 7D Mark II is the best-in-breed, but rather what the role of a professional-level APS-C sized SLR is today.

The History

In 2009 Canon released the 7D, which was built around an APS-C sized sensor. That sensor, which is physically smaller than the “full frame” sensor found in cameras like the Canon 5D Mark III and the 1D-X is typically found in consumer-level cameras.

That’s because the size of a sensor makes a big difference in image quality, with a full-frame sensor at the same resolution providing better dynamic range and lower noise at high ISO or in low light—all else being equal.

Cameras based around the APS-C sensor are generally cheaper than their full-frame counterparts, making them a good choice for the photographic newcomer to the advanced amateur. They’re a good choice for a photographer looking for a decent image without having to pay as much as a pro-level camera.

That makes the high end of the APS-C market an interesting space because the prices of the top-end APS-C cameras are on par with some full-frame bodies. For example, the Canon 7D Mark II currently goes for $1799 on Amazon while the full-frame 6D is only $100 more at $1899. The sensor in the new 7D Mark II is a newly-designed 20.2 megapixel CMOS unit.

The Canon EOS 7D Mark II retains the APS-C sensor size of the original 7D, although the Mark II’s sensor is a newly designed 20.2 megapixel CMOS.

While lenses for APS-C sized cameras are less expensive than full frame bodies, they’re generally designed for more amateur uses—there are a lot of variable f-stop zooms and very few prime lenses. That means that the higher-end APS-C shooters end up using a lot of full-frame lenses and dealing with the sensor crop.

Interestingly, at the time of this writing, Nikon doesn’t even make an APS-C camera at the price point (or with the features) of the Canon 7D Mark II. The Nikon D7100, the highest level APS-C body they offer is available on Amazon for $950, a bit less than half the price of the Canon 7D Mark II.

The User

So who then is the Canon 7D Mark II designed for? Canon says “the…camera is designed to meet the demands of photographers and videographers who want a camera that can provide a wide range of artistic opportunities.” To us that means the advanced amateur, someone stepping up from less expensive APS-C bodies and wants to keep their lenses but get pro features.

The alternate user that Canon is targeting is the professional shooter that’s looking for a super-fast system that extends the reach of telephoto lenses. Since the APS-C sensor is smaller than full frame, lenses designed for a full-frame camera end up having an effective crop of 1.6x, making a 200mm lens work like a 320mm and a 300mm like a 480mm lens. That gives a sports or wildlife photographer a compelling reason to put a Canon 7D Mark II in their bag.

The Features

Everyone I know that has touched the 7D Mark II has said the same thing; “this camera is fast.” The speed of the system, both the performance of the autofocus and the 10 frames-per-second capture rate is mind blowing.

To put the 7D Mark II in perspective, the Canon 6D has a 4.5 frames-per-second capture rate and a street price of $1899. The Canon 5D Mark III has a 6 frames-per-second rate and a price of $3399. The top-end Canon 1D X has a blistering 12 frames-per-second capture rate and an equally blistering $6799 price tag.

The ability to shoot at 10 frames-per-second for almost one quarter the price of the 1D X is compelling.

The back of the EOS 7D Mark II shows the familiar Canon layout. A new thumb-activated switch around the thumb selector that lives above the main control dial can be programmed for a number of tasks like focus zone selection, toggling exposure compensation and more.

If the 7D Mark II were just fast, there wouldn’t be a good argument for it, after all the capture speed isn’t that helpful if the images produced by the system were poor or if it were unable to focus on its target.

Fortunately the 7D Mark II is packed full of features, in fact it has some technology on board that the Canon 1DX and the Canon 5D Mark III are lacking. The specifications of the 7D Mark II read like a checklist of the most current tools available to an SLR.

This starts with the on-chip phase detect technology Canon pioneered and calls Dual Pixel AF. With this technology the Canon 7D Mark II is able to perform phase detect autofocus with the mirror up, both in LiveView and in viewfinder shooting. (Unfortunately the camera doesn’t follow a subject in LiveView, but the ability to perform phase detection is impressive on its own.)

The autofocus on the 7D Mark II is impressive, with a 65-point sensor that’s capable of detecting focus both horizontally and vertically. That’s especially impressive when compared to the Canon 1D X, which only does dual-direction sensing for 44 out of 65 points. The 7D Mark II can also focus on diagonal edges with wide aperture lenses, something missing in a lot of cameras.

The metering system for the 7D Mark II combines color information with IR light, allowing it to figure out what type of subject it’s focused on in order to pick the right focus point. A face, for example, has a different IR profile than a vase of flowers.

The 7D Mark II also introduces a new control dial, a thumb-activated switch around the thumb selector that lives above the main control dial. Out-of-the-box this selector doesn’t perform any functions but can be programmed for a number of important tasks, including selecting the focus zones, toggling exposure compensation and more.

The EOS 7D Mark II main controls, mode dial and LCD readout.

I’m a big fan of control dials and buttons on digital cameras. If I had my way, all profession cameras would be lined with programmable buttons the way that many enthusiast mirrorless system are and so a new control surface is a big deal.

The camera is so full of features it’s almost impossible to list them all, but they include full HD video, GPS support, dual axis electronic level, 100% coverage viewfinder and much more.

The Body

If you love the Canon 5D Mark III, you’re going to love the Canon 7D Mark II because they have nearly the same layout and feeling. Canon have clearly worked hard to make the 7D Mark II the APS-C twin of the 5D Mark III. This is a big benefit to shooters that, like Canon suggests, pick up a 7D Mark II as a supplement body to their pro gear. It allows shooters to transition between cameras with less of the mental disconnect that usually comes from switching bodies.

The Reach

Hands-down, the 7D Mark II is the fastest camera I’ve ever reviewed. It locks focus instantly and maintains focus in a variety of scenes. I’m particularly pleased that the camera has inherited the simplified autofocus menu that provides choices like “continue to track subject, ignoring possible obstacles” and “instantly focus on subjects suddenly entering AF po
ints” and so on.

Even leaving the system on the default setting “Versatile multi purpose” the 7D Mark II seems to always know what I want to focus on.

I was even able to get the camera to continually focus on an erratically moving subject—my son on a tricycle—at night under nothing more than the light cast from our motion sensing flood lights. The 7D Mark II continued to focus on his face as he zigged and zagged across the driveway. I’ve tried this same situation with many different cameras and almost none performed as well.

It also captures images and processes them at blazing speeds. Even shooting RAW+JPEG at the highest setting the camera can capture images way faster than anything I’ve ever shot short of a top-end professional body.

The Results

Of course this all would be moot if the images from the Canon 7D Mark II weren’t excellent, which they are. The metering was generally spot-on (and easy to override with exposure compensation) which led to perfectly exposed images in just about every lighting condition.

Color accuracy is excellent as well as is saturation and general dynamic range. The images from the camera start to fall apart though at higher ISO and when the scene contains a very wide dynamic range. This, of course, is the achilles heel of APS-C and while the Digic 6 processor used in the 7D Mark II helps to reduce artifacts and noise from the final image, they still can’t compete with those from equivalent full-frame cameras.

In fact, there were a few instances where I was disappointed with the results from the 7D Mark II. On one shoot on a gloomy overcast day in New York City the images from the camera—even at ISO 100—were more grainy than similar shots from a full-frame camera, and were frankly disappointing. This was especially true in any portion of the image with shadows, but was true across the images in general.

When I kicked up the image by using the built-in strobe, the grain issues disappeared, which shows that the APS-C sensor is having typical issues with dynamic range and shadows.

The 7D Mark II is rated to ISO 16,000, though I found it noticeably blotchy and noisy well below that when shooting at ISO 10,000. The Canon 6D is rated to 25,600 and the 5D Mark III to 102,400, so a photographer shooting in very low light would obviously get a boost from shooting full frame.

So here is the paradox of the Canon 7D Mark II. It’s a non APS-C sensor camera with the functions and performance of a full-frame camera, but the image quality of APS-C sensor.

For a photographer looking for the best APS-C sensor on the market, the 7D Mark II is it. But in an era with more affordable full-frame cameras there is less of an argument for its purchase than when the original 7D hit the market.

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