Canon 1D X Mark II Field Test Part I

Big & bulky but oh so fast: The 1D X II hits the sidelines

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Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II: 400mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 12,800

Getting reacquainted with Canon's flagship 1D-series cameras

As a long-time Canon user, I've had a chance to use a number of different Canon cameras, including a brief time with a beat-up, old 1D Mark II N that I purchased as a backup camera. Most of the time, though, I've stuck with smaller cameras, like the 7D and 5D Mark II. The old 1D Mark II N was big, heavy, had an outdated battery and tiny, low-res LCD screen, but it was built like a tank, had fantastic autofocus and still took excellent photographs for what was then about a six year old camera.

Since that time, I sold off that trusty 1D and haven't had the need for a $5-6K 1D-series professional DSLR for my personal, non-professional photographic pursuits. As a now-hobbyist photographer, a 1D-series camera is way more camera than I need, but when it came time for us to review the new 1D X Mark II camera, you better believe I jumped at the chance.

Being Canon's latest and greatest flagship camera, one designed for lightning-fast performance and speedy AF, I wanted to test the 1D X Mark II under more appropriate conditions than what I typically go for. Cue a handful of emails requesting media credentials for a variety of local sports teams. So, for this first installment of our Canon 1D X Mark II Field Test, in addition to discussing my take on the camera's handling and design, I put the 1D X Mark II to the test photographing both soccer and rugby, which offered a variety of fast-paced, fairly unpredictable subjects.

Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II: 400mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 800

Big & heavy, but the 1D X Mark II is built to take a beating

Before we get to the sports, let's begin with the exterior and how this "beast" of a camera feels in the hand. If you're accustomed to large, gripped DSLRs, then the Canon 1D X Mark II will probably feel like familiar territory. I, on the other hand, now use the compact Olympus E-M1 as my primary camera or otherwise grab the smaller Canon 7D. Turns out it's easy to forget just how bulky and heavy these all-metal, weather-sealed 1D-series camera can be, especially when you mount a sizable lens like a 70-200mm f/2.8! It was definitely a full-on different experience hand-holding such a setup for multiple hours of shooting.

With the exception of the weight, the Canon 1D X II feels fantastic in the hand thanks to it's excellent ergonomic grip. The contoured handgrip fits in my hand perfectly without being overly bulky, and the deep finger-shaped indention really adds a nice feeling of security while gripping the camera. I would guess that my hand size is rather average, and I find that non-gripped DSLRs fit in my hand very nicely. In fact, I own a battery grip for my personal Canon 7D and rarely find the need to use it for ergonomic reasons -- heck, I don't even have a grip for my E-M1. However, when it comes to the 1D X Mark II, its inherent gripped design is very welcomed. You have a much fuller, more secure grip, plus the added benefits that come with a grip, including the portrait-oriented controls as well as the handy secondary info screen. When using hand-holdable lenses like the 70-200 f/2.8, this combo is still quite heavy, and having that extra full grip that a 1D-series offers is great.

Typical controls, only minor differences to other EOS models

In terms of controls, the 1D X Mark II is, more or less, very similar to Canon's other high-end EOS models. Overall, there's perhaps a bit more spacing available between a number of buttons around the camera, and some, like the multi-directional joystick button, are slightly larger on the 1D X Mark II compared to other EOS models. However, the overall layout of buttons and dials are very similar and should pose very little confusion to seasoned EOS users.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference to a 1D-series camera compared to other EOS models is the lack of a traditional round mode dial. The shooting modes on the 1-series cameras are fairly straightforward, with just Program Auto, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual exposure modes. For one, there's not much need for a mode dial for just four shooting modes. Furthermore, the simplicity of buttons rather than a movable dial mechanism helps with the camera's overall durability and weather-sealing. Usability-wise, I'm not sure if there's a clear advantage one way or the other, as I'm simply more accustomed to a traditional mode dial.

Canon 1D X Mark II (top) vs. Canon 5DS/R (bottom): Besides the obvious lack of a traditional mode dial on the 1D body, note the differences in the arrangement and function of the four buttons above the LCD.

One small difference, compared to other EOS cameras, is that 1D models have a simpler set of functions assigned to the four buttons in the front of the top-deck LCD, whereas on many other EOS cameras, three of these four buttons serve a dual purpose depending on which control dial you rotate. On the 1D X II, the settings for metering mode, drive mode, AF mode and flash exposure compensation are instead located on the left side of the camera next to the primary mode button. This is, of course, an extremely minor detail, that's for sure, but for those with a deep-set muscle memory, who can remember these buttons' positions without looking, it might take a bit of adjustment going to a 1D-series camera. Thankfully, the 'ISO' button on the 1D X II, just like other applicable Canon DSLRs, features a small but noticeable extra bump to help differentiate it from its three neighbors just by touch.

Lastly, the 1D X Mark II sports an all-new feature never before put on a 1-series body: a touch screen. Now, for day-to-day still photography, the touchscreen here might not be of much use, as it's only "activated" while in live view for photos or video recording. For instance, as I photographed sports, I only used the optical viewfinder. If you do want to use live view, the touchscreen works great. It's responsive and provides accurate tap-to-focus capabilities, but that's pretty much the extent of the touchscreen functionality on this camera. That being said, for shooting video especially, the touchscreen is a very handy feature for making quick, on-the-fly focus adjustments and to initiate AF subject tracking (which works quite well thanks to the Dual Pixel CMOS AF).

Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II: 400mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 1000
This image has been edited. Click image for full-res edited version, or click here for the original photo.

The Canon 1D X Mark II offers lots of control customization

In terms of customization, the 1D X Mark II is highly configurable to suit your shooting style. The camera offers 11 primary customizable buttons, all of which can be re-programmed from a single menu. This Custom Control menu is also accessible via the Quick ('Q') menu on the back of the camera, making it quite easy to configure your controls practically on the fly. For example, I much prefer to use to back-button focusing, especially when shooting subjects like sports or wildlife, and the streamlined access to the Custom Controls menu let me do this in just a few moments.

Hefty, yes, but the 1D X Mark II is a fast, flexible pro-level tool

Overall, from a usability standpoint, apart from the, um, impressive weight, the 1D X Mark II can be very easy and straightforward to use. Given its focus as a professional-level tool, the 1D X II is very streamlined with no extraneous shooting modes or funky filters and creative effects. It's much more a "pure" camera, if that makes sense, which I quite appreciate. On the other hand, the sheer amount of customization, either to the control scheme itself or the various minutiae of performance settings, AF tweaks, numerous exposure-related settings and much more, can feel a bit overwhelming, especially to a non-pro such as myself. Of course, you don't need to spend hours tweaking this setting and that. Right out of the box, the Canon 1D X II can capture amazing photographs, but, as I said, this camera is a professional tool, and it offers an amazing range of fine-grained customizations that pros can use to help get the job done depending on the need.

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II: 70mm, f/2.8, 1/3200s, ISO 250, +0.3EV

Sports Photography: Home sweet home for the Canon 1D X Mark II

Sports photography is one of the main use-cases for a camera such as the Canon 1D X Mark II. As someone who's photographed sports many times, as I worked for a local newspaper company, I was eager to try my hand again at this fast-paced, difficult subject matter. With its super-fast 14fps burst rate, high-performance AF system, a new 20MP full-frame sensor and updated dual processors, and improved high ISO sensitivities, I knew testing the 1D X II on the sidelines would be an excellent way to get a feel for not only its speed and AF performance, but also how the camera handles higher ISOs.

Photographing soccer with a 400mm f/2.8 lens

My first outing was an evening soccer match for the Atlanta Silverbacks. My personal selection of Canon lenses weren't appropriate for this sporting event, so my lens of choice was a 400mm f/2.8L IS II from our IR's headquarters. To be honest, a 1-series and 400mm f/2.8 lens was a combo that I've always wanted to use to photograph sports of some kind. Now, I had my chance!

Right off the bat, you guessed it, the weight of this combo is rather daunting. The lens is obviously massive with a very large barrel of a lens hood. Add the 3.3lbs (1.5kg) 1D X Mark II on the end, and you have a rather bulky rig. But this is a rig you use with a monopod, and once up and running, it works great. The tripod collar plus the gripped design of the 1D body made it very easy to flip back and forth between vertical and horizontal orientations as well as compensate for any monopod tilting as I maneuvered the camera around to get my shots.

Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II: 400mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 2000, +0.3EV
This image has been edited. Click image for full-res edited version, or click here for the original photo.

As expected, the Canon 1D X Mark II has fantastic autofocus

The autofocus performance is fantastic, and even with the very shallow depth of field you get with a 400mm lens at f/2.8, the 1D X II kept up with the fast-paced action shot after shot. As with the predecessor, the 1D X Mark II's autofocus and metering system uses its own dedicated DIGIC image processor -- this time its own DIGIC 6 rather than a DIGIC 4 chip in the Mark I -- which should help provide increased speed and accuracy. Based on my experience, the 1D X Mark II does indeed perform extremely well with both fast and precise autofocus.

The 1D X Mark II, like a number of recent EOS models, offers a range autofocus presets, or "Cases," with various adjustments to different AF performance parameters depending what types of subjects are being photographed. For this first soccer match, I didn't do much tweaking in terms of AF performance fine-tuning, except for setting it to "Case 4," which the camera specifically mentions is appropriate for soccer. Here, the camera increases the AF tracking responsiveness to +1, which helps the camera adjust focusing for erratic subjects that move quickly at various speeds. Given my understanding and experience with 1D-series cameras, I wasn't all that surprised to find that the 1D X Mark II's AF system performed very well in keeping up with the fast-paced soccer players as they ran and weaved across the field. I also felt that the camera did a great job at maintaining consistent tracking on my intended player despite other players darting in and out of view between the subject and me.

Although to capture this photo clearly involved a good amount of luck, it's a great example of how the Canon 1D X Mark II, with the appropriate AF settings, was able to maintain decently sharp focus* on my intended subject as I tracked him through this play. (*If you zoom in, you can see that the player's face is a bit soft, as the sharpest part in focus is, in fact, the bottom of his shoe.)
Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II: 400mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 10,000
This image has been edited. Click image for full-res edited version, or click here for the original photo.

As for the AF Area mode I used, for the most part, I set it to the 9-point 'Expand AF Area: Surround' mode, which, as the name suggests, offers a single manually-selected AF point surrounded by eight helper AF points. I also tried the 9-point 'Zone AF' mode, which utilizes a block of nine AF points for focusing. Very rarely did I end up with mis-focused shots, which I'm almost inclined to chalk up to operator error, such as failing to keep the AF point(s) on my intended subject; the use of the AF point expanding and Zone AF area modes, I feel, helped maintain a good keeper rate of focused images, since it would have been quite difficult keeping a single AF point on a fast-moving soccer player, especially while using the 400mm supertelephoto lens.

What buffer limits? The 1D X Mark II easily chews through frames

When it came to burst speed and buffer performance, it was definitely something I didn't even have to bother worrying about. The 1D X II, at 14fps, simply fires off frames like there's no tomorrow. Using a new super-fast CFast memory card, you can shoot frame after frame with no noticeable slow down, and you can instantly begin reviewing images on the camera with out any apparent delay, in my experience. The 1D X II even lets you limit the number of continuous shots to a still staggering 99 frames, but I got no where near filling the camera's buffer capacity of around 70 or so frames with RAW+JPEG enabled. I mainly found myself needing to only shoot sequences in short, quick bursts, but I did capture a few moments with a burst of around 10-20 continuous frames, and the 1D X II handled those with ease.

Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II: 400mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 10,000

A quick aside about the memory card situation in the 1D X Mark II: Unlike the predecessor, the Mark II takes a page from the 5D Mark III's playbook in that it offers dual card slots, but of two different types -- one CF and one CFast. If you're chock-full of "classic" CompactFlash cards, you'll probably want to budget for some of the new CFast-format cards (along with a new card reader). CFast is, well, fast. As mentioned, the buffer performance is amazing, especially when using the new CFast card. Also, off-loading images using a CFast card reader is impressive as well. As a quick test, I timed a full memory card dump using a Thunderbolt CFast card reader. I was able to copy around 36GB of image files directly onto a USB3-connected hard drive in a little less than seven minutes.

Personally, I would have liked dual card slots of the same type and format. Not only would that be much simpler in terms of what kinds of memory cards you need to carry around, but it would also allow for two memory cards of the same read/write speed and capacity, which might help avoid any potential performance issues (for instance, Canon recommends using CFast cards for 4K video capture). For shooting sports, I did try a dual card setup -- with JPEGs written to the CF card and RAWs to the CFast one -- but I never experienced any issues or slow-downs.

OK, back to shooting…

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II: 200mm, f/2.8, 1/3200s, ISO 320, +0.3EV

From a different perspective: Capturing sports with the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II

For a bit more manageable setup, I got the chance to see a second Silverbacks soccer game as well as rugby match the following day using the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, and a 1.4x TC II at times. This combo performed rather well, though I did miss that sweet super-shallow depth of field and subject isolation I got with the 400mm. However, you gain a more flexible, lighter rig that's much easier to maneuver quickly, which is great when photographing fast-paced events such as these. That being said, I was still rather surprised at the heft of this combination. Toward the end of matches, I was thinking to myself, "boy, an E-M1 and 40-150mm f/2.8 sure would nice right about now!"

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II + 1.4x TC II: 280mm, f/4, 1/2500s, ISO 200, +0.3EV

When needed, it's very easy to tweak AF performance parameters

While the performance of the camera itself obviously didn't change, I did notice the AF performance was just a touch slower, especially when using the 1.4x teleconverter, which was to be expected. However, even without the teleconverter, the 1D X Mark II and the 70-200mm sometimes missed focused completely during a burst of shots, despite what I thought was a good effort on my part to keep the AF point(s) over the subject. In addition to the various AF presets, you can individually tweak the various parameters of each AF "Case" as needed. While using the 70-200mm, I ended up modifying the Case 4 AF preset, tweaking the Tracking Sensitivity to -1 with the aim of increasing the ability to maintain focus on subjects even if they move out from under the AF point. I also experimented with increasing the Servo AF's tracking responsiveness from Case 4's default +1 to a +2 factor. This was to help track subjects that move much more erratically, which I felt was needed especially during the rugby match as players juked and weaved around each other very quickly. Overall, while I didn't do a scientific test or anything, I do think the AF performance with the 70-200mm was improved after my tweaking, though despite that I still got a few missed shots, as you can see in the example below.

Here is a sequence of three frames shot using the 70-200mm f/2.8 (200mm, f/2.8, 1/3200, ISO 125), where even after tweaking the tracking sensitivity and responsiveness, the camera and lens still managed to miss focus on a few frames.

(Images here are screenshots from Canon Digital Photo Professional with AF point display enabled.)

Don't worry, be happy: Crank the ISO all you want.

Capturing sports often necessitates fast shutter speeds of at least 1/1000s, which usually results in needing higher ISOs. Both soccer matches I covered began in the early evening with early summer sunny conditions, to the late evening with nighttime conditions and rather dimly lit artificial stadium lighting. As such, I was able to capture shots at the wide range of higher ISOs. The rugby match, on the other hand, took place on a bright sunny afternoon, during which I never needed an ISO above 640, even with shutter speeds reaching 1/2500s or faster.

Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II: 400mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 20,000
This image has been edited. Click image for full-res edited version, or click here for the original photo.

Given Canon's long history and the high marks given to its predecessor, it's no surprise that the Canon 1D X Mark II can capture excellent images. Though not a big jump in resolution from the 18MP 1D X, the new 20MP 1D X Mark II captures terrific images at lower ISOs. Detail is nevertheless very good, and allows for a decent amount of cropping, if needed. Color reproduction at default settings looked pleasing and realistic, and dynamic range was quite good in my experience, letting me uncover shadow details and pull back bright highlight areas. However, the metering performance was very good, and I rarely found myself needing to adjust exposure compensation all that much or do any heavy exposure changes to RAW images in post. Using Evaluative metering, the camera's default mode, I did find that in scenes with lots of contrast, such as with the foreground subject in shadow and a brightly lit background, images needed some positive exposure compensation or a bit of shadows adjustment in post in order to get a properly exposure subject. In these cases, as you can seen in the example shot below, the camera had a tendency to expose more for the background.

In this shot, you can see that a good swath of the field is in shadow, while the stands in the background are in bright sun. This is a tricky scene to expose for, and I needed to boost up the exposure compensation a bit in order to at least somewhat better expose for the shaded players. If I were to edit the RAW file for this shot, I would still boost up the shadows a bit more.

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II + 1.4x TC II: 240mm, f/4, 1/2000s, ISO 1000, +0.7EV

The Canon 1D X Mark II captures excellent high ISO images

The real story here, however, for the subject matter I've shot, is the camera's high ISO performance, which, suffice it say, is very good. The two soccer games I photographed ended up needing very high ISO sensitivities towards the latter half of the game. I decided to set the camera to manual exposure mode and use Auto ISO, in order to maintain not only a fast shutter speed of around 1/1600s-1/2000s but also lock the aperture to the fast f/2.8 aperture.

Towards eight o'clock, the ISO was hovering around ISO 2000, but once the sun had fully set and the artificial stadium lighting was on, the ISO climbed up to around 12,800 and even sometimes up around ISO 20,000 and beyond. Overall, I was very impressed by the high ISO performance of the 1D X Mark II. Images in the "mid-range" of higher ISOs, such as ISO 2000 or even 6400, are quite clean and still show a lot of fine detail. Sure, by zooming in to 100 percent, you can see evidence of noise (and NR processing with JPEGs), which isn't unexpected. You're not likely to print photos at 100% magnification, though, and at normal print sizes or image resolutions, the photos are crisp, clean, and display vibrant colors.

Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II: 400mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 25,600
This image has been edited. Click image for full-res edited version, or click here for the original photo.

At the more extreme ISO levels, noise is, of course, much more of an issue and is more noticeable. Image softness is apparent to some degree, but, again, at normal resolutions, the images look very good to my eye, especially if you get the exposure right in-camera so as not to need any major exposure boosting in post. I was rather impressed with the amount of fine detail I could see even while at ISO 25,600. Although I never needed to shoot at any higher ISO sensitivities, I feel that the camera could surely handle, especially with careful RAW processing and noise reduction techniques.

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II: 70mm, f/2.8, 1/3200s, ISO 10,000, -0.3EV

Part I Summary: Flagship performance from a flagship camera

All in all, I found the Canon 1D X Mark II to be a solid winner in the image quality department, at both low and higher ISOs. The camera's autofocus performance is also top-notch right out of the box, and yet also allows for lots of fine-tuned adjustments depending on the subject at hand. And, as a professional tool, it offers the wide array of features and customization to both the imaging pipeline and to the external controls in order to get the job done comfortably and reliably. Given the pedigree of the 1D-series, this is perhaps not all that surprising for what is Canon's 10th EOS 1D-series camera. This is Canon's flagship camera, after all, and one should expect flagship-level results. Thankfully, the 1D X Mark II delivers.


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