The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II is the company’s latest flagship camera. Its lineage and price tag make clear that it’s aimed at professionals, but what does that really mean? We’ve had our hands on a prototype, so click through this slideshow for a closer look the all-new Canon EOS-1D X Mark II.
The first thing to notice is how similar the body layout and design is to previous models. More so than any other part of the market, pro-level cameras need to be consistent with their predecessors. Working professionals need to be able to pick up the new camera and use it perfectly, the first time they take it out. This may not mean using it to its full potential but, at the very least, it needs to perform as well as the camera they’ve been using.
To give some idea of how familiar pro shooters become with their cameras, our team photojournalist Jordan Stead’s first response upon picking up the camera was: ‘I noticed the AF selection joysticks have changed. They’re larger and less pointy.’ Indeed, the AF selection joysticks are considerably larger, gaining 5D-series-style crenelations around the edges, while maintaining the portcullis-like surface pattern.
Unfortunately, leaving everything the same isn’t always a good thing, as it can mean the camera’s behavior doesn’t keep pace with its evolving feature set.
The EOS-1D X II lets you use Auto ISO in manual exposure mode and allows the use of exposure compensation to set the target brightness. However, the +/- exposure compensation button on the top plate doesn’t work in M mode: instead you need to customize a different button to set exposure compensation, or remove your eye from the viewfinder and use the Q menu. This makes little sense when you have a dedicated exposure compensation button.
A gripe, and a like
There’s also no quick way to switch between having the camera automatically select a starting AF point vs manually selecting one in continuous AF tracking (AI Servo with iTR). Instead you have to dig through the menus to specify this. We believe some photographers will want to manually choose their subject by selecting an AF point and initiating focus with it, but it would be nice to quickly switch to an auto mode – where the camera selects the nearest target – to respond to a quickly changing scenario.
While we’re on the subject of quickly switching AF modes, though, it’s worth highlighting one of our favorite custom controls: OneShot<–>AI Servo and AF<–>. Assigning a button to these features allows you to quickly swap between single and continuous AF, and between two AF area modes commonly used (e.g. single point vs. all 61 points). This allows a photographer to quickly adapt to changing scenarios.
Making a class-leading AF module better
By now Canon shooters should be very familiar with the 61-point AF system that debuted in the 1D X, and a version of which can also be found in the 5D Mark III and 5DS/R cameras. This module has been updated for the better in the 1D X II. It offers 24% more vertical coverage, by moving focus points further apart, which also increases the central AF area by 8%. The center AF point is now sensitive down to -3EV in One-Shot AF, which will be a boon for low light – and we think particularly wedding and event – photographers.
Speaking of wedding and event photographers – one consistent complaint leveled at the 1D X was the lack of continuous AF point illumination. This could make it difficult to, for example, follow a dark subject on a wedding dance floor with your center AF point long enough for it to lock focus. In these situations, we’d often find ourselves activating the AF grid (which lights up all points red) on a 5D Mark III just to get a glimpse of where our selected AF point was in relation to the subject.
With the 1D X II, you can choose to have AF points constantly illuminated, with your selected AF point indicated by red-lit square brackets, while every other AF point is indicated by red dots. Two levels of brightness that are user-selectable control how bright red points appear. In AI Servo mode, you can have your selected AF point lit red as long as the subject is in focus, but we’ll withhold judgement on the exact implementation until we’ve been able to use a production camera.
Intelligent AF with a 360k-pixel RGB+IR metering sensor
The metering sensor on the 1D X II has experienced a significant increase in resolution. With 360,000 RGB+IR pixels, it’s the highest resolution metering sensor we’ve ever seen. This should lead to accurate metering, and also enables the camera’s anti-flicker shooting feature, which delays the shutter firing so that it syncs-up with the brightest moments of the fluctuations that occur with some artificial lighting.
But the implications of a high resolution metering sensor are most exciting for autofocus. Why? Think of the metering sensor as a low resolution image sensor that can be used to find faces and recognize objects so it can tell the AF system which points to use to follow them (something Canon refers to iTR, and we generally refer to as subject tracking). The main image sensors of DSLRs can’t be used to do this (as they can on mirrorless cameras), because they are blocked by the reflex mirror between exposures. However, the metering sensor, embedded in the viewfinder hump, can see the scene in front of the lens whenever the mirror is down. This has prompted the use of increasingly high resolution sensors to provide the cameras with scene and subject awareness. For example, Nikon announced a 180,000-pixel RGB metering sensor in their recent D5/500 announcements (we analyzed its implications here).
So how does it work? Our initial impressions are that subject tracking remains a bit erratic and highly dependent on your shooting scenario – in other words, on the face of it, not as versatile as Nikon’s class-leading 3D tracking. While we’d expect it to remain very good at following subjects well-isolated in depth (typically distant subjects shot with telephoto lenses, such as birds), it doesn’t appear to be quite accurate enough to track, say, the eye of a face.
We were somewhat surprised by this, given the pinpoint precision Nikon 3D tracking is capable of with a far lower resolution 91,000-pixel RGB metering sensor, and given the accuracy with which the 1D X II itself tended to focus on eyes of faces in One-Shot AF (with 61-point Auto AF). Our guess is that when it comes to iTR, Canon continues to rely heavily on distance information to subject track, which may serve it well for birds-in-flight, distant wildlife, and sports photography, but is known to have its limitations.
In other words, it’s not just about how many pixels your metering sensor has, but how you use them. It should be noted though that these impressions are based on limited use of a pre-production camera, so we’re not drawing any definitive conclusions at this stage.
Face detection in viewfinder shooting
Face detection in OVF shooting is nothing new: cameras like the original 1D X, 5DS, 7D Mark II, and most full-frame Nikon cameras also have this ability. But with the 360,000 RGB+IR pixel sensor, the 1D X has the potential to recognize faces better. Does it?
In our brief time with the EOS-1D X Mark II, face detection indeed appeared to work very well. When the camera is set to iTR (Face Priority), and 61-point mode with Auto selection, in single AF (One-Shot) mode the camera is really good at finding the nearest face and focusing on it – and it even appears from our initial testing to prioritize eyes or the plane of a person’s cheeks. Traditionally, we’ve found face detection in OVF shooting on Canon cameras like the 7D Mark II and 5DS to focus on the nose – possibly due to the low resolution of the metering sensor and the camera ostensibly just telling the PDAF system to focus in the general vicinity of the face (dedicated PDAF systems tend to prioritize the nearest object – like noses). With the spatial resolution of a 360,000-pixel RGB+IR sensor, though, we expect the eyes to be distinguishable features, and we found the majority of shots shot with ‘Auto’ AF area with face priority to be focused on or near the eyes, less so the nose. The system was also good at not getting confused by objects obstructing parts of faces – impressive.
That said, results were less impressive in continuous AF mode (AI Servo), where iTR kicks in and can lead to erratic results. In Servo 61-point AF with iTR, we found the camera to start on or near the eye of a detected face, but then wander off to a nose, or the subject’s hair. This is consistent with our previous experiences – we’ve found iTR to be somewhat inaccurate at sticking to your initial subject (e.g. the eye of a face), potentially due to its heavy reliance on distance information over pattern recognition for subject tracking. However, we would’ve expected the 360,000-pixel RGB+IR sensor to significantly increase the accuracy of iTR for subjects such as faces and facial features, and nearer objects in general. Yet our initial impressions are that if it does, it’s not obvious (as yet).
Please note, though, again, that our initial assessment is based on use of a pre-production EOS-1D X Mark II.
As well as offering familiar ergonomics, the camera offers a good degree of backwards compatibility. For example, the Mark II uses a new battery, the LP-E19 but is still able to make use of the LP-E4 batteries used by its predecessor.
This means that any professionals who’ve built up a collection of LP-E4 batteries with their previous cameras. However, the difference between the two isn’t simply a matter of capacity: reverting to the older packs will see the maximum continuous shooting rate from from 14 fps (with 16 fps in live view) back to the 12/14 fps rate offered by the original 1D X. The new battery also offers an impressive figure of 1210 shots on one charge, according to CIPA standards.
CFast / Compact Flash
This attempt to maintain backwards compatibility risks adding complications, though. For existing users, the camera includes a CompactFlash socket but to cope with greater data throughput, the main slot uses the outwardly similar but physically incompatible CFast format.
We have concerns about the wisdom of using two such similar cards alongside one another in the high-pressure circumstances the 1D X II will be used in. It’s a concern echoed by pro shooter Jordan Stead:
‘I’ll probably stick with [CompactFlash] for now: there don’t seem to be enough advantages to CFast if you’re not shooting 4K,’ he says. ‘Also, I’d worry about whether you can accidentally try to mash the wrong card into the wrong slot, because they’re so similar. If you’re on the sidelines, dealing with runners [running cards back from the camera to a laptop], they’re not going to know the difference – I’d worry about them breaking my card reader or bringing me the wrong card.’
With a CFast card, the camera can shoot nearly as many Raw files in a burst as the original 1D X could manage with JPEGs (170 vs 180), meaning that beyond the increase in storage required, there’s effectively no performance cost to shooting Raw.
The significance of this may not so much be a question of having such a large buffer, but in the fact that it essentially removes one of the key limitations to shooting Raw.
‘For the shooting I do, [a 12 second buffer] is unnecessary,’ says Stead. ‘I can’t remember ever shooting more than 3 or so seconds in a burst, but it’s good to know that you’re never going to hit its limit.’
What is it?
And several other upgrades have also been made that reduce any impact of the larger file sizes that Raw brings. The speed of the Ethernet port has been increased from 100Mbps to 330Mbps while the new WFT-E8A Wi-Fi accessory now supports the substantially faster 802.11ac standard. There’s also a USB 3.0 connector, giving plenty of high-speed options for file transfer.
All of these make it easier to transfer large files off the camera quickly, however you’re delivering your images.
On the go
On top of this, the camera’s post-shot in-camera Raw processing has been improved, and it’s now possible to apply all the digital lens corrections previously offered by Canon’s Digital Photo Professional software in the camera as a post-processing option. This allows lens-specific distortion, vignetting, chromatic aberration and color blur to be corrected. The camera’s JPEG engine also gains a diffraction optimizing function that tries to correct for diffraction if you shoot using small apertures.
The 1D X II also features built-in GPS. ‘GPS is cool, too – it’s another thing that the camera is embedding for you, meaning that you don’t need to stop and add that information yourself,’ highlights Stead.
Looking closely at the EOS-1D X II’s video capabilities tells an interesting story. The camera still lacks the focus peaking and zebra warnings offered on the Cinema EOS cameras the company makes for professional video work. And, for that matter, the Log Gamma option that appeared on the 1D C (so it’s not clear whether this camera eliminates the need for a 1D C II). The camera can also only output 1080 footage over HDMI, which suggests Canon doesn’t expect (or want) it to take the place of one of its more video-focused models.
Video for non-videographers
Saying that the 1D X II doesn’t appear to be designed for professional video doesn’t mean it can’t offer video for professionals; it merely depends on which profession. With its touchscreen-operated Dual Pixel AF system, the 1D X II should be one of the easiest cameras to capture footage with if you’re not an experienced videographer. The autofocus should be able to refocus without distracting focus wobble simply by tapping the screen. What’s more, tracking sensitivity and AF speeds can be adjusted for movie recording, allowing videographers to optimize continuous focus for their particular application.
We’re a little perplexed, though as to why this Dual Pixel AF isn’t available for continuous AF in stills shooting. Clearly, continuous Dual Pixel AF is possible (Movie Servo AF), yet it’s simply disabled for stills.
The only thing we’re surprised to see is that it doesn’t appear to be possible to use Auto ISO and exposure compensation when manually exposing in video. Setting the shutter speed and aperture, then leaving the camera to use ISO to maintain a pre-specified brightness is one of the easiest ways to shoot.
But what about 4K?
The biggest upgrade in the camera’s video spec is the addition of 4K shooting but, interestingly, this can only be captured using the Motion JPEG format and the wider-than-16:9 DCI 4K aspect ratio (4096 x 2160 pixels). Both of these choices seem odd: the All-I H.264 compression the camera uses for its 1080 footage would be a more efficient choice of codec and the 16:9 UHD flavor of 4K is better suited to certain applications.
However, along with 4K capture, the 1D X II includes tools to grab 8.8MP frames from its 4K files: at which point the decision to save every frame as an individual JPEG makes slightly more sense. Wedding shooters might even use this feature to document receptions in complete silence: despite the 1D X II gaining a continuous silent drive mode like the 5DS/R, it’s not all that silent.
The 1D X II also gains a headphone jack, important for monitoring sound levels during video recording.
Overall, the EOS-1D X II looks pretty much exactly as we thought it would look. It’s a solid, high-performance DSLR that works in basically the same way as its predecessors. It improves on them in several respects, but does not represent a major paradigm shift in either Canon’s state-of-the-art, or the digital camera market as a whole. This isn’t a criticism – this is what progress looks like at the very top of the market, where letting working professionals get the shot they need matters a lot more than piling on fancy features.
That said, there are two main ways in which we think the camera may prove particularly significant, once it gets into the hands of pro photographers.
The first is autofocus performance. Canon has been developing its iTR autofocus tracking for some time and there’s still a chance it’ll shine when put to use in the field (despite our initial impressions). And in the EOS-1D X Mark II, Dual Pixel AF makes its debut in full-frame format. This not only offers fast, precise, and decisive AF in video, but also accurate and quick AF in Live View for stills shooting, albeit of static subjects, without the need for lens-specific calibration, ever.
The second area in which the EOS-1D X Mark II could raise the bar is workflow. The 1D X II features a series of improvements that could make Raw shooting much easier to incorporate into a high-speed press photography workflow. Equally if it helps stills-focused photojournalists to shoot effective video clips, it could prove to be much more of a breakthrough than it initially seems.
It’s this second aspect that caught Stead’s eye: ‘Everything seems designed to help get the images out of the camera and onto the wires as quickly as possible, without the need for a computer – whether you’re a JPEG or Raw shooter. It looks like the perfect sports/wire service camera.’
Articles: Digital Photography Review (dpreview.com)