Canon’s 7D was more than just a popular camera. Released in the late Cretaceous period (aka 2009), its 18MP sensor, 1080p video mode, and 8 frames per second continuous shooting were all nothing short of revolutionary on a sub-$2000 machine. It’s sturdy, magnesium body was bulky, but practical for professionals who needed a camera that could take a licking and keep on ticking. All this is to say, there’s a reason the original 7D lasted as long as it did without being replaced. But now, five years after its release, its time has finally come, as the aptly-named 7D Mark II is officially here.
The rumor mill was alive and well over the past couple of years with glorious expectations of what this new 7D would be. Eager camera geeks (such as myself) drooled over the possibilities of a brand-new, multilayer sensor, 4K video, and 12+ frames per second continuous shooting. There was even a short-lived rumor that the 7D Mark II would go full-frame. Canon, finally, seemed to have something we could get excited about. Unfortunately, all of these rumors, as is now apparent, were simply too good to be true. But does that mean the Mark II is any less remarkable? Not at all.
The 7D Mark II arrived with a more modest spec list, but some features are still drool-worthy. The sensor is the same 20MP CMOS unit from the 70D, complete with dual-pixel AF for fast live view autofocus (think video). 1080p video returns, but now with up to 60fps recording at full resolution. As for the burst rate, we get a slower-than-rumored-but-still-really-fast-so-don’t-complain 10 FPS. The one specification that stayed true to the rumor is the incredible, 65-point AF system. In short, the Mark II represents a series of incremental steps over the original, improving on every aspect, but not bringing about a new revolution. Then again, to expect anything more is silly, really. How much revolution do you want from one product line? (For comparison, today’s smartphones are lightyears ahead of the original iPhone, but not one has been as revolutionary.) So the 7D Mark II is exactly what it should be, if not exactly what people were dreaming about.
However, there is one area where I really wish Canon would have stepped up their game: video. Since the launch of the GH4, Panasonic has been absolutely dominating the low-budget filmmaking market on specifications; they now have four enthusiast-friendly cameras that shoot at 4K resolution. I hoped Canon would compete with Panasonic here (heaven knows Nikon won’t), but no such luck. After all, Canon pretty much singlehandedly rewrote the book for indie filmmaking with the original 7D, so it seemed to make sense that the Mark II would continue the trend. But what I, and many others, failed to consider was that it was never Canon’s intention to create a great video camera with the 7D. The camera succeeded in that regard simply because five years ago, there wasn’t any competition. Today, there are so many options for low to medium-budget filmmaking, including Canon’s own Cinema-EOS line, that the 7D as a video camera just doesn’t make sense. It is, as it was always intended to be, a camera that allows still photographers to integrate video into their workflows. To be sure, it is not that the video mode is by any means bad, it’s just that with so many other options out there, I don’t anticipate filmmakers using this as an A camera.
As a still camera, however, there are lots of reasons to be happy. The 7D Mark II is an amazing low-cost alternative to Canon’s flagship 1D X. Like that camera, the 7D Mark II features an impressive level of weather-sealing, a big upgrade over the original. Personally, I can attest to it surviving a medium amount of customary Columbia River Gorge precipitation, but I have no doubt that it would survive much worse. For sports and wildlife photographers, this can be very important. Additional good news for that demographic: the 10 FPS burst rate is paired with a decent frame buffer, allowing for about 100 continuous JPEGs or 30 raw files before shooting slows down (I recommend using a fast card to mitigate this issue). Additionally, given the APS-C sensor, you get more reach for your lenses compared to the full-frame 1D X, meaning the 7D Mark II might actually be a better choice for many photographers, even before taking price into account. I’m not a wildlife photographer, but I tried my hand at it out at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Reserve with a 600mm f/4 lens, which gave me a 960mm equivalent field of view thanks to the sensor’s 1.6x crop factor.
The other feature that’s a big upgrade is the autofocus system. Where the 7D had a measly 19 points, the Mark II has a staggering 65—all of which are cross-type (being sensitive to both vertical and horizontal lines for increased accuracy and speed). Combined with new tracking modes, this system has potentially huge benefits for any type of action photography. I say potentially huge because in my one day with the camera, I couldn’t really figure out how to get the AF system to work the way I wanted it to. One of my biggest complaints with the Mark II, in fact, is how convoluted it’s AF menu is. Canon tries to simplify things by offering settings for different “situations,” but the situations in the menu system don’t seem to line up directly with real-world situations, and hence it just makes things more complicated. What I wanted was a way to set a single AF point that would then lock on and track my subject anywhere in the frame. As far as I can tell, there is no way to do this—AF tracking seems to be only available when using expanded area or full area autofocus. If you have a subject that’s filling the frame, that’s fine, but when you’re trying to track a distant bird flying over a field, it simply doesn’t work. Even the smallest group AF setting that allows for subtract tracking covered too much area, meaning the camera was constantly locking on to the ground, a tree branch, or anything else near my subject instead of my subject. As a result, I ended up shooting lots of 10 FPS bursts of perfectly-focused blades of grass, with some nice out-of-focus birds in the background. I decided to not use tracking and just shoot in AI Servo mode with a single active AF point. (If anyone knows how to set the camera for a single AF point that tracks, please let me know!)
All of that said, I was otherwise impressed with the camera’s performance. When it’s not confusing me, the focus is lightning-quick, and you really can just lay into the motor drive and listen to it click away nearly endlessly (for JPEGs, anyway). It felt a little awkward shooting an APS-C DSLR after last reviewing two full-frame ones, and it’s no secret that I prefer the larger frame and accompanying viewfinder. For a crop-sensor DSLR, though, I found the 7D Mark II’s viewfinder to be pretty great. It includes the same information overlay technology first seen in the 1D X, so you can see virtually every camera setting without taking your eye away from shooting position. Even better, the settings will glow red when you press the corresponding button on the camera. So, for example, pressing the AF/Drive button highlights those settings in the viewfinder, making it easy to see your adjustments. I turned on every available overlay just to see how it looked, and while it got a little crowded, I quickly grew accustomed to it. (Different displays can be toggled on and off individually, so if you find any of the overlays to be distracting, it’s easy to get rid of them.)
Like the 5D Mark III, the 7D Mark II features an excellent silent shutter mode, including silent continuous mode, which is helpful when you need to shoot discreetly—say, during a wedding ceremony. Another new feature, a first for Canon, is the inclusion of a built-in intervalometer. Nikon has offered this for years, so it’s nice to see Canon finally including it in the camera, rather than forcing you to buy an expensive external intervalometer. Interval shooting is great for capturing time-lapses or star trail photography, which seems to be getting even more popular these days. However, Canon’s implementation of it on the 7D Mark II is somewhat limited: you can choose a total number of shots that ranges from 1 to 99, or “unlimited.” I imagine “unlimited” will run until the card fills up or the battery dies, but why can’t I just set it at 199? Or 999? Or 9,999? Oh, because Canon wants me to buy an external intervalometer for that… (Which, admittedly, Pro Photo Supply would happily sell me.)
At the end of the day, the 7D Mark II is a very welcome upgrade to the original, a camera that stays true to the 7D DNA and offers important improvements. But I can’t help but feel that Canon should have mutated that DNA a little more to ensure this camera’s survivability in the wild of today’s market. Especially when it comes to crop-frame cameras, people are increasingly choosing mirrorless. The bulky 7D Mark II looks like a relic from the past. What’s more, the original 7D was a jack of all trades, but the Mark II is a specialist. It’s not that it can’t do all the things its predecessor did, but simply that, nowadays, so many other cameras can. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than sports and wildlife photographers being genuinely excited about this camera. That said, if you fall into that category and your budget is not $6800 (the price of a 1D X), then the 7D Mark II offers a very good reason to be excited (just make sure you put in the time to figure out the AF settings). In fact, it may even win over photographers who had been in the market for a 1D X, depending on their specific needs. And for Nikon sports pros waiting for the mythical D400, making the switch to Canon has probably never looked so attractive. After five years in the making, though, I can’t help but wonder: is the 7D Mark II the way of the future, or simply Canon’s powerful last hurrah to professional-level APS-C DSLRs?