Canon G1 X Mark II Field Test

Big and beautiful, but is it better?

by Tim Barribeau | Posted: 07/07/2014

12.5mm (24mm eq.), f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 100

Cyclopean is a word that doesn't pop up in casual conversations anymore, but with the Canon G1 X Mark II in hand, it's the term that most readily springs to my mind. Not just for its huge, glaring lens, but also because of its implications of enormousness (though not enormity). It's a camera that seems defined by its largeness. Largeness of sensor, largeness of body, and largeness of price. But having spent a substantial amount of time using it, I'm left wondering who this big, relatively expensive camera is for, and if it packs enough performance to be worth the price and size.

Purely by chance, I happen to have a Sony A6000 on my desk for something else I'm working on, and the two cameras are disturbingly similar in size, shape, and cost, and I can't help but ask myself which I would grab to take out with me for a day of shooting.

The Canon G1X Mark II (powered on @ wide-angle) vs. the Sony A6000 with 16-50mm kit lens.

The familiar. I'm not going to spend long writing about the interface and menu system of the G1X Mark II, apart from the new lens rings and touchscreen which I'll cover below. If you've picked up a Canon camera within the last decade or so, you've doubtless already encountered it, and Canon has got the menu system down to a science. The black backgrounded main menu with long lists of options, and the more frequently used function menu that overlays the live view to quickly adjust shooting settings both work well. At this point, Canon has this system so well refined that if you're a previous PowerShot user you should feel well at home, and a new user should be able to get around it very quickly. Adjusting such crucial features as white balance, image quality, continuous mode, metering and more, takes just a few seconds, and both the info overlaying live view and what appears in the function menu are customizable.

12.5mm (24mm eq.), f/2.8, 1/60s, ISO 400

The body. The exterior and control layout of the G1X II, however, deserves a bit more attention. Canon's G line of high-end point-and-shoots have long been a byword for incredibly resilient cameras. Built like tanks (both in terms of size and toughness), the G1X II feels like it would survive everything short of a full-on nuclear war. The magnesium alloy body feels tough as nails, and is unsurprisingly heavy (563g or 19.9 oz with battery).

12.5mm (24mm eq.), f/4, 1/80s, ISO 125, Vivid

Despite what you might think given the "Mark II" moniker, the G1X II is actually a significant redesign from the original G1X. Gone is the pokey optical viewfinder, and overall the lines and angles of the body have been simplified considerably.

Gone too is the front control dial. The G1X II uses a system of three control rings; one on the back, and two around the lens, one of which is smooth to rotate, while the other clicks between settings. By default, the stepped ring controls the primary setting of your shooting mode (aperture in Av, scene mode in, well, Scene Modes, etc.), with the other two available to customize.

Unfortunately, that stepped ring is one of the primary control mechanisms of the G1X II, and sometimes, it just doesn't work right. It'll take a second or two of adjusting before it starts to register that you're trying to use it, giving you a brief period of frustration when you want to change a setting, but the camera refuses to cooperate.

The tilt-only LCD mechanism is now hinged along its top and bottom allowing tilt up to 180 degrees up (facing forward) and 45 degrees down, rather than being fully articulating, rotating a full 360 degrees around a single joint. However, the newer, higher-resolution LCD has a capacitive touch overlay, which is quite responsive -- tapping to focus or navigating menus with taps and swipes is a breeze, and gives you another method to adjust many camera settings. The sensitivity of the touch panel is adjustable, and touch operation can even be turned off entirely. The gapless LCD design makes the screen easier to see in bright sunlight, though the glossy glass exterior is prone to glare at certain angles, as well as showing fingerprints (but no more that your typical smartphone). Brightness is adjustable in 5 steps, and you can quickly boost it to maximum by holding the "DISP." button for one second, which keeps you from having to dig through to the admittedly buried LCD brightness menu setting. And a second one-second press restores the previous brightness setting. Much of the time I found the lowest setting was plenty bright for most locations, helping to save battery power, but the quick toggle to full brightness when needed is quite handy.

Canon G1X Mark II (left) versus G1X, powered down

All told, the G1X II is a mammoth improvement over its predecessor in terms of looks. It's smaller, sleeker, and just generally a better looking camera. It's still not anything even near what you'd call pocketable, however it's definitely better than it was. But it's still very big.

Despite being a sizable piece of kit, the G1X II actually has a very shallow grip compared to the G1X, which I found a bit annoying over long shooting periods. However, Canon does sell an alternate grip for an extra US$30. You simply unscrew two tiny hex screws with the included Allen key and swap grips. The replacement grip is noticeably more comfortable, and doesn't actually add to the bulk of the camera at all, thanks to the huge and protruding lens -- so I don't understand why Canon doesn't include it in the bundle, unless it's to keep the clean lines of the G1X II as they stand. [Editor's Note: The European version of the G1X Mark II includes the add-on grip. U.S. buyers can purchase the accessory separately, or you can buy a special kit with the grip exclusively from Canon's online store.]

With the G1X's less than stellar optical viewfinder now gone, the viewfinder hordes will no doubt be out and baying for blood. While the Mark II lacks a built-in option here, you can attach an external EVF-DC1 electronic viewfinder into the hotshoe. This nifty clip on accessory features a high-res LCD with 2.36 million dots, a high eyepoint, a dioptric adjustment range of -3.0 to +1.0, can tilt 90 degrees up for top-down shooting, and has an eye sensor to automatically power up. In use, it works very well, with a bright screen that's crisp and easy to read. But, it's ~US$240, consumes more power than the LCD monitor, and is one more thing to cart around and potentially lose, not to mention the added bulk while attached to the camera. However, if EVFs are your thing, it's nice that this option is available.

12.5mm (24mm eq.), f/5, 1/1250s, ISO 200
62.5mm (120mm eq.), f/4.5, 1/1250s, ISO 200

Lens. Perhaps the most noteworthy new addition to the new edition is the lens. The previous generation G1X had a 28-112mm equivalent f/2.8-5.8 lens, where the Mark II gets a 24-120mm equivalent f/2.0-3.9 optic. Wider, longer, and faster at every step of the way. As far as upgrades go, that's one to take your breath away, an improvement if ever there was. The G1X II can also focus much closer than its predecessor in macro mode (5cm or 2.0 inches versus 20cm or 7.9 inches at wide angle).

The Mark II's lens barrel does not have filter threads, but Canon sells a filter adapter for US$30 (FA-DC58E) that attaches via the bayonet mount and accepts 58mm filters, and there's an optional lens hood (LH-DC80), also listing for US$30. (Both can't be used simultaneously, though. Note that these are different part numbers than their G1X equivalents, and the G1X II does not accept the G1X's Macrolite Adapter either.) Unlike the G1X which had an external lens cap, the G1X II's lens has a built-in lens cover.

The new lens continues to include a built-in 3-stop neutral density filter. With the faster f/2 glass, you're going to want to be able to keep your bokeh and depth of field nice and shallow, and with a neutral density filter you can do that even in bright light. But I would have liked the option for it to kick in automatically when overexposed. Speaking of bokeh, the new lens has a nine-blade iris diaphragm, up from six blades in the original, which should help create more pleasing bokeh when not shooting wide open.

12.5mm (24mm eq.), f/2.5, 1/25s, ISO 3200

But the biggest complaint I had was because of that insane lens speed. It's a feat of engineering that lets the G1X II's lens hit f/2 in a 5x wide-angle zoom, but it's one that also has significant drawbacks. Something as seemingly minor as the difference between f/2 and f/2.8 can produce dramatically different images. The problem? When wide open at the f/2 setting, the lens produces an unpleasant, localized flare around bright or high-contrast objects (likely due to spherical aberration), to the point where I'd very seriously consider not using it at that setting if I could avoid it, but it can produce some noticeably shallower depth of field shots.

f/2.0 vs f/2.8 (100% crops)
12.5mm (24mm eq.), f/2, 1/250s, ISO 125, Vivid
12.5mm (24mm eq.), f/2.8, 1/160s, ISO 125, Vivid

To make matters worse, if you put the G1X II into any sort of automatic exposure mode, if very swiftly defaults to opening the aperture to f/2, even when it could get away with leaving it a bit more closed. While the one stop exposure difference between f/2 and f/2.8 isn't anything to sneeze at, with a sensor this size, you should have enough latitude with ISO and shutter speed that you can push those a little and keep it away from f/2.

12.5mm (24mm eq.), f/2, 1/320s, ISO 320, Vivid
12.5mm (24mm eq.), f/5.6, 1/60s, ISO 500, Vivid

Above is another example. The first was shot at f/2, the second at f/5.6. There's soft and dreamy, and then there's throwing Vaseline on the lens. When you pull back a bit, it's not so noticeable (like in the image below), but be careful, once you get to pixel peeping, it's definitely still there.

12.5mm (24mm eq.), f/2.0, 1/640s, ISO 200

At more ordinary apertures, like a venerable f/5.6, the issue all but vanishes and sharpness is excellent. The first image below and then a zoomed-in shot show an impressive amount of detail in the wooden walls. Thus, the G1X II is a camera that one needs to be aware of its shortcomings -- but if those are properly accounted for, it can do some impressive things.

12.5mm (24mm eq.), f/5.6, 1/400s, ISO 100, Vivid
62.5mm (120mm eq.), f/5.6, 1/320s, ISO 100, Vivid

Softness issue aside, the maximum aperture of f/2 provides for not just an impressive amount of light, but also really soft bokeh for a point-and-shoot. No, out of focus light points aren't going to look quite as nice as they would on an SLR with a good, fast lens, but it's still very smooth. And it also means that you don't need to throw the camera into macro mode and focus very closely to achieve that effect.

12.5mm (24mm eq.), f/2.0, 1/60s, ISO 2500

Even at full 120mm equivalent zoom, the lens is impressively fast with a maximum aperture of f/3.9. Some point-and-shoots can barely hit that bright at wide angle. While still obviously a cropped sensor, so the depth of field is greater than you'd see with the same aperture on full frame, it does provide the sort of subject isolation that you'll rarely see on a point-and-shoot. Even more so than when zoomed out, at full tele, being able to have the lens wide open at f/3.9 allowed for some immensely pleasing subject isolation of the sort that can be hard to achieve otherwise. It's one thing to pull that off when you're just a foot or so away from your subject, but when further afield, it's a very nice effect.

62.5mm (120mm eq.), f/3.9, 1/320s, ISO 125, Vivid

Shooting. Shooting with the camera is fairly straightforward, once you're accustomed to its considerable weight (563g or 19.9 oz). After all, this thing is heftier than an A6000 with 16-50mm kit lens (468g or 16.5 oz), thanks to that magnesium alloy body and substantial lens, though admittedly, an A6000 with an equivalent lens would be heavier. But generally speaking, it handles admirably. In normal lighting conditions, it felt fast to focus, and the wide-angle lens makes it work quite well as a street camera (but again, the size means it's not very subtle).

I did have problems with the battery display, with the indicator dropping from half full to being completely dead over the course of less than an hour of light shooting (I grabbed just 42 shots), but that's hardly a problem unique to this camera. Still, battery life isn't great for the size of camera, CIPA rated at only 240 shots per charge, though there is an Eco mode that'll stretch battery life to 300 shots by turning the LCD down or off more quickly. Unfortunately when shooting with the optional EVF battery life is even worse, rated at a rather dismal 200 shots.

As mentioned above, autofocus felt pretty responsive to me, and IR's lab performance tests agree, revealing it's much improved over the G1X, especially at wide angle. Prefocused shutter lag was pretty quick, but a bit slower than average. Startup time (including taking a shot) took about two seconds which is slower than most ILCs, though they typically don't have a zoom lens to deploy.

Single-shot cycle times were okay at just over a second, but nothing to write home about. Burst mode performance with focus and exposure locked at the first frame was decent when shooting JPEGs, measured at 5.26 fps with no apparent buffer limit. However when shooting in RAW mode, burst speed fell to only 1.45 fps, and in RAW+JPEG mode, it fell yet again to 1.27 fps. And enabling autofocus or live view during burst shooting slows the G1X II further. With AF enabled, the lab measured 3.03 fps for JPEGs, but only 0.81 fps for RAW and 0.75 fps for RAW+JPEG. These rates are much slower than most ILCs or premium compacts, and of course mean the G1X II is not well suited to action photography unless you're willing to live with JPEGs only as well as focus being locked at the start of a burst. At least buffer clearing with a fast UHS-I card isn't a problem, never taking more than four seconds.

After using the Canon G1X Mark II for a substantial amount of time, I find myself unsure as to if I love the thing, or dislike it. When used correctly, it seems capable of producing some truly wonderful images -- but to do so involves successfully accounting for its myriad of flaws.

There's a lot the G1X II can do well, and that's mostly thanks to that relatively large sensor that it packs away under its magnesium skeleton. The 1.5-inch CMOS sensor is capable of some impressive levels of detail, as you can see in the image below. Even zoomed in, the G1X II's enormous lens does an excellent job of keeping things looking sharp.

12.5mm (24mm eq.), f/5.6, 1/250s, ISO 100, Vivid
12.5mm (24mm eq.), f/5.6, 1/640s, ISO 100, Vivid 26.8mm (51mm eq.), f/5.6, 1/800s, ISO 100, Vivid 62.5mm (120mm eq.), f/5.6, 1/800s, ISO 100, Vivid

The Canon G1X II's dynamic range is however a bit of a disappointment, as is alluded to by the lost highlights in some of the clouds in the gallery shots above and below, though these are in-camera JPEGs (with i-Contrast off) which tend to have somewhat high default contrast and therefore contain lower dynamic range than what's possible from RAW files with careful processing. Still, according to which analyzes raw data, the G1X Mark II's sensor has a dynamic range at base ISO that is significantly lower than the Sony RX100 II's (10.8 vs 12.4 EV), and also lower than the much smaller-sensored Canon G16 (11.7 EV). The G1X II roughly matches the RX100 II at ISO 400 and above, though, and dynamic range is much higher than the G16's at ISO 400 and above. Compared to ILCs with current generation Four Thirds and APS-C sensors, the G1X II also lags quite a bit in this metric. For example, the Olympus E-M10 manages 12.3 EV of dynamic range at base ISO, while the Sony A6000 scores 13.1 EV, though the gap does improve at higher ISOs.

18.4mm (35mm eq.), f/5.6, 1/800s, ISO 100. Click here for Adobe Camera Raw conversion with highlights recovered.

Some of the shooting modes are an awful lot of fun. While it doesn't have quite the array that you'll see on some other cameras (even some Canons), there's still plenty to like. For instance, the top two images below were both shot in Star Nightscape mode, and third used Canon's Star Trail mode, which stacked an exposure taken every minute or so over the course of an hour. It looks very impressive when zoomed out, but when you jump to 100%, you can see little gaps in the star trails.

Star Nightscape Mode
12.5mm (24mm eq.), f/2, 5s, ISO 400
12.5mm (24mm eq.), f/2, 15s, ISO 800
Star Trail Mode
Up close at 100% (inset crop), you can see small gaps in the stacked multiple exposures.
12.5mm (24mm eq.), f/2, 30s, ISO 400

Wi-Fi. The G1X Mark II's Wi-Fi features are fairly robust. Canon gets brownie points for allowing it to connect to smartphones, tablets, computers, printers, other cameras, and cloud services, where many of the competition will only do smartphones and tablets. And you can connect your camera to your phone using both an ad-hoc connection from the camera, as well as having both on the same network.

Canon's PowerShot cameras use a different app than their EOS counterparts ("Canon CameraWindow" in this case, as opposed to "EOS Remote") and with the app, you can of course browse and save photos and videos to your mobile device (iOS and Android).

New this time around is the remote shooting capability that was sorely lacking on the PowerShot G16, however manual controls are quite limited, and there's no remote video recording (though the EOS version lacks that as well). Exposure is automatically set, without any support for PASM modes or exposure compensation, however flash and self-timer can be enabled as well as controlling the zoom lens. Unlike the EOS counterpart, there's no tap-to-focus capability with the app. Overall, using the smartphone app was pleasing and remote shooting was fast with barely any delay, although there's a bit of lag to adjust the zoom.

If your phone supports NFC (Near-Field Communication), which as of press time is limited to select Android devices, the G1X II supports that connection protocol as well for quick and easy pairing.

Of course, like many smart device-paired cameras these days, you also have the ability to geo-tag images using the smart device's GPS capability. (Like the G16, the G1X II does not have built-in GPS.) To enable the location tagging option, simply snap some photos with the app, then return to the menu and transfer the location data to that previous set of photos. It's a bit of a hassle with a multi-step process, though, and you can't leave the app up on your phone and use the camera 'manually' to take photos -- it needs to be done with the app.

Video. As with most modern cameras, the Canon G1 X Mark II has Full HD video recording capabilities (1,920 x 1,080), along with HD (1,280 x 720) and VGA (640 x 480) resolutions, all at 30p. Unlike Canon's DSLRs, the G1 X II is rather limited with its video recording features with all exposure settings, apart from exposure compensation, adjusted automatically. One very strange behavior is regarding the built-in ND filter. Typically used for still shooting to use slower shutter speeds or wider apertures in brighter conditions, the ND filter is also available in video mode on the G1 X II. However, since the camera is set to Auto ISO in movie mode, activating the ND filter doesn't darken the exposure as you may expect, but rather makes the camera bump up the ISO making for a noisier, grainier video.

Video quality itself, while adequate for a point-and-shoot camera, is not up to par with Canon's EOS cameras, despite a larger-than-average sensor for this kind of camera. Fine detail is not bad, but colors look a bit desaturated at default Picture Style settings, dynamic range is limited with some blown highlights, and moiré is quite strong in certain subjects and surfaces. There are also visible compression artifacts, which are particularly noticeable when shooting more complex, highly-detail scenes (i.e. see the wide angle view in the sample video below).

Daytime Sample Video
1,920 x 1,080, H.264, Progressive, 30 fps
Download Original (121.5MB MP4)
Nighttime Sample Video
1,920 x 1,080, H.264, Progressive, 30 fps
Download Original (46.4MB MP4)

Full-time AF works well, with nice smooth transitions when focusing from near to far subjects, though there were a few times I noticed it had trouble re-focusing on a foreground subject at full tele. You can tap-to-focus, that again uses a nice, smooth transition, but the transition itself is pretty slow. And there's also manual focus, which is quick to toggle thanks to the dedicated MF button on the rear of the camera. As with still shooting modes, you can turn on focus peaking in manual focus mode (or when AF+MF mode is enabled), and the camera gives you the choice of red, yellow or blue overlays as well as a low and high setting for peaking sensitivity. Oddly, while you can adjust focus manually prior to recording, you can't manually focus during recording. However, peaking will remain active before and during recording.

Audio recording is pretty bare-bones despite the G1 X II being a pretty advanced camera. There are two small mics on either side of the playback button on the top deck for stereo audio, but there's no external mic input, no recording volume adjustment and only a wind noise filter option.

Summary. The G1X II is obviously a camera aimed at skilled shooters, both in price and variety of settings. But that does mean that some of the more fun features that we see in other cameras (and other Canon modes) don't seem to have made the transition to this slightly more dour camera. There's no panorama mode, and the G16's 120fps video isn't there (I assume because of the much larger sensor). All told, the G1X II is a brute that needs to be babied. An impressively solid device, capable of very good things, as long as you're aware of its weaknesses. But that raises what is perhaps the most pertinent question: who is this camera for?

$800 is not pocket change. Even for the most gear obsessed of us, $800 gives pause for thought, and considerable research. And the Canon G1X Mark II costs $800. Purely by chance, I have on my desk another $800 camera at the same time, the Sony A6000. From a distance, they're all but indistinguishable. When turned off, the G1X II has a slightly smaller lens and grip, but both are still large enough that the minor size difference won't make it any easier to fit in your pocket. The G1X II is 3.4 oz heavier than the A6000 with its kit lens. The A6000 also has an APS-C sensor, built in EVF (which adds an extra $240 to the cost of the G1X II), as well as much faster autofocus and a far better burst speed of 11 fps. So which one should I grab if I'm heading out the door?

The Canon G1X Mark II (powered on @ wide-angle) vs. the Sony A6000 with Zeiss 16-70mm f/4 lens.

To be fair, though, if you mount a lens to the A6000 that gives you close to the equivalent range and speed, something like the Sony E 16-70mm f/4 OSS Zeiss for example (yes, the 16-70mm f/4 isn't as long or as fast, but the A6000's higher resolution and better high ISO performance help to mitigate that), the G1X II's cost, size and weight suddenly seem quite reasonable, as that lens alone is ~$1,000, is about 3 inches long, and weighs almost 11 ounces.

But, I hear you say, the A6000 is an ILC. The G1X II is a point-and-shoot, and fills a very different niche. Fair enough. But how does it stack against them? Look at our Comparometer images between the G1X II and the well-loved Sony RX100 Mark II. Even with the ISO cranked up high, you'd be hard pressed to see much of a difference. The RX100 II has a much smaller sensor, but at the same time is a much smaller camera. You can actually put the RX100 II in your pocket, it takes images that are arguably on par with the G1X II's, and it's $100 cheaper. The G1X II might have a faster lens, but with the newly released RX100 III, even that benefit is lessening.

And what about the other large sensor compacts? Can the G1X II compete with the $800 Ricoh GR? Sure, it's got a single-focal-length lens, but if sensor size and optical excellence are what you crave, and cost isn't a factor, it makes a compelling argument.

At $800, the G1X II doesn't take images as well as some equivalently priced mirrorless cameras, it's far bigger and bulkier than the RX100 II without sufficient image quality improvements to justify the difference, and it doesn't quite compete with truly large sensored compacts. There's something to be said for its magnesium frame, though, and its fantastically fast 5x zoom lens; but if it's a heavy weight, and you have to stop it down anyway, is that enough?

For many people, the Canon G-series (and perhaps the Panasonic LX series) were the first name in point-and-shoot cameras for more advanced photographers. Professionals, journalists, and serious hobbyists kept them in their bags, at the ready, as a smaller alternative to an SLR. While the G1X II is a notable improvement from its predecessor, both externally and internally, with the explosion in other high-end compacts, I'm just not sure that it can retain that position.


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