Canon 1DX Mark II Field Test Part II
Canon 1DX Mark II Field Test Part II
The flagship pro sports shooter heads out of its element in beautiful Newport, Rhode Island!
By Mike Tomkins | Posted: 08/18/2016
In our first Field Test of the Canon 1DX II DSLR, my colleague William Brawley put this pro shooter through its paces, giving it quite a workout at rugby and soccer games and scoring some really great shots.
In the process, Will confirmed that this camera really lives up to its billing with great ergonomics, oodles of scope for customization, and absolutely blazing performance in general, especially in the autofocus and burst capture departments. He also came away thoroughly impressed by the 1DX II's image quality.
It's off to the sea in beautiful Newport, Rhode Island
We could pretty much have left it at that and wrapped our review as was, but a superb shooting opportunity presented itself that would give us the chance to see how the 1DX II took to some rather less fast-paced subjects.
At a press event in Rhode Island, Canon gave journalists including myself the chance to shoot alongside accomplished round-the-world sailor, pro photographer and Canon Explorer of Light Onne van der Wal, whose jaw-droppingly beautiful marine imagery is equally at home in a glossy megayacht brochure or hanging on an art gallery wall. And as well as the opportunity to learn from Onne's considerable nautical photography experience, we also had access to boatloads of high-end Canon glass, not to mention various accessories for use with the 1DX II.
It was simply an opportunity to good to pass up, and so we're pleased bring you our second and final Field Test of the Canon 1DX Mark II!
A whole lot of camera, the Canon 1DX II is packed with controls, features and customizability
There will inevitably be a little repetition here, as while Will had already written our initial Field Test, this trip to Rhode Island was to be my first opportunity to handle the 1DX II. And it was something of a baptism of fire: I literally received the camera only an hour or so before heading out for the first shoot.
No question, there is a lot to learn here. This is a professional tool, and like most such tools the 1DX II is not just packed with external controls, it's also extremely customizable and configurable. To the newcomer, that can translate to a pretty steep learning curve, but for the experienced shooter it means the camera comes to fit you and your needs like a glove.
It's testament to the fact that Canon has put a lot of work into honing the designs of its 1D-series cameras that I was able to figure out the basics pretty quickly, despite the complexity of this camera. Pretty much straight out of the box -- well, out of the camera bag, as Canon had already unpacked and bagged all my gear in time for my arrival -- I was able to get sharp, well-exposed shots.
In between subjects, I familiarized myself with the menu system and tweaked some of the settings to my liking. If you're interested in a rundown of the main controls and how they differ from other higher-end Canon EOS cameras, you'll want to read the first Field Test, as Will already covered much of this.
Built like a tank and with the heft to match, this is a very durable pro tool
Perhaps the first thing I noticed, though, is the 1DX II's tank-like nature, and I mean that in a couple of ways.
The Canon 1DX II is an extremely solid, high-precision camera indeed, with not even the slightest hint of flex, creak or weakness anywhere. Every control has a good feel to it, and every joint and seam is perfectly aligned. And it all feels like it will stay that way.
More than a few times over the years I've heard folks joking about cameras you could use to hammer in tent pegs: Well, the Canon 1DX Mark II is unquestionably such a camera, offering the durability and dependability that pros crave.
But it's tank-like in another way, too: It's also a fairly large and heavy camera, especially with an equally high-quality, durable optic mounted. I've shot with plenty of high-end pro gear over the years, but they aren't my daily shooters. There's a lot more consumer and enthusiast gear out there to review, after all.
By the end of a couple of days shooting with the 1D X II, almost all of it handheld and with some fairly heavy glass to boot, I was actually getting some occasional muscle spasms in my hands and arms. Shooting with high-end gear like this gives you quite a workout, and gives me a healthy respect for the pros like Onne who do it on a daily basis, year-round. (Doubly so from the rolling deck of a boat, constantly adjusting your position to try and keep your framing steady.)
If you're new to the 1D-series, you'll get used to the weight. And similarly high-grade gear from rivals is pretty similar in size and weight, so it's not out of the ordinary. It will take just a little getting used to for those moving up from enthusiast-oriented gear, though.
A really great selection of lenses for a photography cruise on Newport Harbour
Our first day's shooting started onboard the beautifully-restored 1969 motor boat M/V Gansett, as we sailed around Newport Harbour shooting photos of the many interesting yachts and motorboats we passed, and familiarizing ourselves with all of the gear. As well as the lenses in our own personal kits, there were quite a few more optics to choose from.
In all, I shot with six different lenses on the two-day trip. By far the majority of my shots were taken with the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, with the next most-used optic being the Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM. I found these a very nice and versatile pairing, with the two together accounting for about three-quarters of my shots.
The 70-200mm is, admittedly, fairly heavy. (It was the second-weightiest lens I shot with on the trip, behind the 400mm f/4.) But it provides greast image quality and very worthwhile image stabilization. I'd certainly have preferred the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM over the 24-70mm f/4, as the latter isn't as bright and also gets rather soft in the corners on full-frame bodies, but sadly that lens wasn't available to me.
Of the remaining four lenses, I shot with the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM and Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM the most frequently, opting for either of these two optics about equally often. The 100mm f/2.8 Macro obviously is great for close-ups, but I used it even more for portraits and just as a short tele lens. (Yes, the EF 70-200mm is probably about as good as -- if not better than -- the 100mm Macro at the same focal length, but it weighs twice as much, so switching to the 100mm gave me some respite every now and then.)
The 400mm f/4, meanwhile, is a really impressive optic -- it's hefty, yes, but still light enough to be feasibly shot handheld even paired with a heavier body like the 1DX II. And it's pretty nicely balanced, which helps.
I rounded out my shooting with the Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM and Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L. The latter in particular I'd love to have gotten to shoot with more, but hadn't anticipated its availability and didn't have a tripod with me. Coming to grips with an unfamiliar tilt-shift lens handheld. And the 11-24mm f/4 was a great choice when I really wanted a wide, wide view of my scene, but I tend to prefer shooting a bit more tightly-framed, so it wasn't used as much as some of the others. That's not a knock on the lens, though, so much as a commentary on my shooting style.
Testing performance with a high-speed powerboat shoot
With some early shots under our belts, it was time for something a bit more challenging. Onne had arranged for a friend with an extremely fast powerboat from Outerlimits to meet us for some high-speed passes. I mounted the 70-200mm for this shoot, figuring it'd give me some space to zoom out if the powerboat came closer to ours than I'd anticipated, but would also would give me a fair bit of reach if it was further away as I was expecting.
I considered dropping the shutter speed for a blurred background -- something of a trademark of Onne's own work -- but with only a few passes in which to get my shots with an unfamiliar camera, and not having tested my high-speed panning chops for a few months either, I decided to err on the side of caution instead. I dialed in a shutter speed of 1/4,000-second in Shutter Priority mode to freeze the action and let rip.
From memory, we were told that the powerboat's top speed was somewhere around 70-80mph, and it was passing pretty close to our own boat, giving the 1DX II's autofocus system quite a workout. It proved more than up to the task, keeping the powerboat in focus pretty much all of the time. Of course, that's no surprise -- this is a pro camera, after all, and the boat was a reasonably big subject that wasn't moving very erratically.
Still, I came away impressed because the closing speed and amount of panning required to track it were both very significant, and yet the 1DX II handled it with aplomb.
Shooting a yacht race with the Canon 1D X Mark II
A yacht race was starting in Narragansett Bay, and we arrived just as the boats were getting ready.
For something which seems very peaceful at first glance, with yachts moving near-silently through the water, the start of a race can be a pretty exciting thing. You can't cross the start line even one second early, but it's to your advantage to be as close as possible to the start line -- and moving as quickly as possible -- in that final second before the race gets underway.
And more than that, it's also advantageous to be in a position where other sailboats are caught in the dirty wind that's just come off your own sail. (And equally, not to let another yacht put you in that same position.)
What this means is that in the final minutes before the race starts, there's a whole lot of frantic jockeying for position -- and then at the last moment, the racers are all unleashed almost side-by-side. That made for some great photos, and we too had gotten the M/V Gansett very close to the start line.
I started off shooting with the 70-200mm lens, but quickly decided that even as close as we were, the 400mm was the better bet. It let me frame the yachts much more tightly, and increased the foreshortening so that each boat seemed to be almost touching the one behind it.
The incredible performance of the 1DX II really paid dividends here, because it let me rattle off bursts of exposure-bracketed shots in raw+JPEG format really quickly, without concern for my buffer depth. That gave me the opportunity to try different framing and lenses without having to wait for the camera to catch up, and without the yachts getting away from me.
Even for a relatively sedate and predictable subject compared to the soccer and rugby which Will had shot, the speed of the 1DX II was a very freeing thing. And the really bright, roomy optical viewfinder really gave me a strong feeling of connection to my subject.
Overall, I was very pleased indeed with how my shots from the yacht race came out. Canon had some of its imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 printers on hand, and I had several of my images printed up at 17 x 22-inches which show great detail, even from quite close up.
Bear in mind that all of my images in this review are straight as they came out of the camera; I lightly edited these before printing, and they really pop. They're going to look great once framed and hanging on my office wall!
Race over, and time for a cruise to the Castle Hill Lighthouse
Having spent a good hour or so following the yachts around their course, the race reached its end. And with the sun fast approaching the horizon, we moved on perhaps a few miles to the Castle Hill Lighthouse. It's a very photogenic structure which dates back to the 1890s, and we'd be back here again tomorrow to round out our trip -- but from an entirely different perspective.
For this first evening, we visited the lighthouse from the water, passing the stunning Castle Hill Inn on the way. The late afternoon light gave it a lovely warmth which the Canon 1DX II picked up quite nicely, as you can see in the shot below.
The lighthouse itself was, if anything, even prettier. Rising from the rugged, rocky coastline on this beautiful, sunny day, it gave a sense of solidity and permanance that I rather doubt it entertains in the depths of a powerful storm -- but yet it's somehow clung limpet-like to these rocks for 125 years and change already, so I doubt it'll be going anywhere soon.
I must have taken many dozens of shots of the light from various angles as we approached and then passed it on the M/V Gansett, but hands-down my favorite was that at left. By virtue of managing not to include any other buildings in the background, it gave the scene a feeling of remoteness that most of my other shots lacked. Plus I rather liked this composition.
And with that, it was time to return to the dock for dinner, our first day's shooting at its end. No question about it, I was really, really enjoying shooting with the 1DX II, even if my arms were starting to call uncle from holding aloft a fairly heavy camera and lenses all day long on a moving boat.
There would be no concerns about rolling decks for the following day's activities, though, as we'd be entirely confined to land for the remainder of the trip.
A downtown stroll in beautiful Newport, Rhode Island
Bright and (reasonably) early the next morning, we met after breakfast for a walk around Newport, Rhode Island's historic downtown. And I have to say, I'm rather jealous of Rhode Islanders, because this is one seriously pretty town.
Speaking to Onne, I learned that much of that beauty came thanks to one individual, a lady who had made it her life's work to find colonial buildings at risk of demolition, and then have them moved to (and restored in) Newport. The world needs more people like her, because the result was very photogenic indeed.
Wanting to reduce my load since I'd be on my feet for most of the day -- and knowing that most of my subjects would be up close anyway -- I limited myself to just the 24-70mm for this morning shoot, and then dropped by the hotel room to add the 11-24mm and 100mm Macro lenses before we continued on for a harborside stroll in the nearby Newport Shipyard, which combines both a busy commercial fishing dock and a marina packed to the gills with gigantic, multimillion-dollar megayachts.
With more subjects on hand that had plenty of detail right into the corners, this gave me a nice chance to take a look at the Canon 1DX II's image quality. And we also made an unplanned stop at the Trinity Episcopal Church, whose current building dates all the way back to 1726.
Here, staff kindly allowed us inside and even upstairs, into a section usually reserved for parishioners. Shooting inside the dimly-lit interior of this stunning, historic building gave me a chance to look at higher sensitivities as well.
Excellent image quality for its class, even at higher sensitivities
And as Will found in his first Field Test, I came away pretty impressed with what I saw. As a camera aimed primarily at sports shooters and others who need absolutely top-notch performance, the 1DX II not surprisingly isn't the highest-resolution camera in Canon's EOS lineup.
Even the entry-level Rebel T6i and T6s will give you slightly higher sensor resolution, while the higher-end EOS 5DS and 5DSR offer two-and-a-half times the pixel count. But that's not really the point: These higher-res Canon DSLRs simply can't hold a candle to the 1DX Mark II's performance, nor to its pro-grade build.
And while it doesn't have the resolution of some of its siblings, the Canon 1DX II does a great job with what it has. At least, so long as your lens is up to the task, anyway. With the 24-70mm f/4 mounted, things could get fairly soft in the corners wide open, but with a better-performing optic attached, the 1DX II captured plenty of the finer details, even if higher-res cameras could have held onto a few more besides.
Now, I should note at this point that with the subjects on offer, I didn't need to roam anywhere near as high as the 1DX II's upper sensitivity limit of ISO 51,200-equivalent, let alone its expanded limit of ISO 409,600-equivalent. You'll see a fair few higher-sensitivity shots in Will's first Field Test, not to mention among our carefully-controlled lab samples.
I went up into the ISO 10,000's though, and saw nothing more than fairly minimal noise with a nice tight, film-like grain pattern. And from some playing around at higher sensitivities in the hotel room, I'd say I'd be happy to stray as high as ISO 25,600-equivalent without worries, and perhaps even to ISO 51,200-equivalent or higher if I had the time to shoot raw and then process my images using DxO Labs' excellent PRIME denoising tool in recent DxO Optics Pro releases.
Sadly, the end of the trip was approaching all too quickly. With our morning and afternoon's shooting over -- and you can see quite a few more of my shots from both days' shooting in the gallery, incidentally, beyond those I've selected to accompany this article -- it was time to head back to the ocean for one final shoot. And here too I would learn something more about the 1DX II, although this time it was a little irksome.
An unnecessary limitation in multiple exposure capture
Our last shoot was back at the Castle Hill Lighthouse, as I alluded to earlier. This time, though, we were shooting on land, having made the trek down to the light from the adjacent Castle Hill Inn.
Having chosen my composition, I wanted to really blur out the waves crashing on the rocks beneath the lighthouse, but with sunset approaching, I knew we'd have to leave a fair bit before darkness fell. We had quite a bit of clambering across the rocks to do, after all, and only a few flashlights between us. And I didn't have a neutral density filter with me to lengthen my exposure, either.
I dropped the sensitivity to its extended lower limit of ISO 50-equivalent, and closed the aperture down as far as I dared without unnecessarily softening the image, but there was still too much light left to do more than fairly subtly blur the wave motion. Multiple exposure mode was the answer, but I found myself surprised by a maximum limit of just nine frames in multiple exposure shooting. I could understand such a low limit in a consumer DSLR, as it'd be too easy for amateurs to burn through their shutter life without understanding that such a thing is even possible.
But with a rated life of 400,000 shutter cycles in this pro-grade camera, that's not really a concern. I could work around this very short limit by taking advantage of the fact that you can combine multiple exposure mode with raw file capture, and that each multiple exposure series can be started from a previously-captured raw exposure. Selecting the final raw exposure from the previous multiple exposure series -- and then using this as the starting point for another nine-shot series -- circumvented this low limit.
This did indeed get me some really ethereal, foggy-looking waves down at the waterline, just as I'd hoped for, although the shots didn't make the gallery as I couldn't frame the image without people in the foreground, and I felt their shadows too distracting. But managing more than a nine-shot exposure was an unnecessarily convoluted process, and difficult to do without subtly jostling the camera and changing the composition, leading to an ugly double image. (I was shooting each exposure with a cable release I'd borrowed, incidentally, but this only lets you trip the shutter remotely, and not control the menus.)
I'd love to see Canon relax this limit in the future, as it would make for a rather more versatile multiple exposure mode. But then I'd guess that many photographers will never use the feature in the first place, preferring instead to merge their exposures on the desktop. And really, if that's the biggest concern I could find in my time with the 1DX II -- well, it's not much at all, really. Especially knowing that it can indeed be worked around, even if it requires some jumping through hoops.
Video samples coming soon -- watch this space
One thing I didn't really get the chance to do during my time with the Canon 1DX II was to shoot some sample videos. (Well, that's not quite true. I shot a fair few, but with the subjects on offer, they weren't really intended for public consumption. Clips from a rolling boat deck or of predominantly static scenes in old Newport, the harborfront or the lighthouse wouldn't have proven the most informative. And on my return home, I didn't have access to the quality glass necessary to complement the 1DX II body.
With the camera now back at IR headquarters, I've asked my colleagues to chip in with some sample videos. In the meantime, suffice it to say that -- albeit with less than ideal subjects -- I found video image quality to be very good, especially in 4K mode. And the touch-screen display is absolutely superb for controlling autofocus, especially when coupled with the ability to select the speed at which focus transitions occur. (You can also control this separately for pre-capture AF adjustments and those made during capture.) With slower focus drive speeds, the transitions are very smooth and cinematic.
As I said, though, watch this space for a little more on video capture coming shortly!
(Update: Canon 1D X Mark II 4K Sample Videos added:
Canon 1D X Mark II 4K Sample Video #1
4,096 x 2,160, 60 fps, Motion JPEG
Download Original (2.73GB MOV)
Canon 1D X Mark II 4K Sample Video #2
Dual Pixel CMOS AF Demo
4,096 x 2,160, 60 fps, Motion JPEG
Download Original (3.33GB MOV)
Closing thoughts on the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II
No question about it, the 1DX II is an absolutely spectacular camera. I've had a whole lot of fun shooting with it, and could I justify the pro-grade pricetag, I'd pick one up in a heartbeat. I'm not a regular sports shooter, though, and that's clearly the target market for a camera like this. But if you're looking for a DSLR which prioritizes absolutely spectacular performance first and foremost, and is also built to last while providing top-notch image quality for years to come, the Canon 1DX II should be at the very top of your shortlist!