I’m standing at one end of Gabriel skate park, looking at the undulating mounds of gray concrete stretching out in front of me, a mirror of the cloudy sky above. I caught a few raindrops on the drive over, and cross my fingers that it doesn’t start pouring. I’m joined by photographer and ex-Pro Photo Supply employee, Elias Parise, along with pro skater, Alex Foy, who graciously (perhaps naively) agreed to be the photo subject for this review. We’re here to test out Canon’s newest flagship camera, the $6000 EOS-1D X Mark II, that promises more of what everyone wants: power and more power.

Luckily, the threat of rain has kept away most of the park locals, making our job a little easier. I don’t know anything about skateboarding, though, so I hand the camera to Elias. Most of the photos in this review are his, as he’s been skating and taking pictures of skating for at least long as he’s been growing that epic beard. Alex sets up for the first trick and we get to work. Well, Elias gets to work; I get out of the way.

The 1D X Mark II doesn’t look much different from the first 1D X, and even on paper it gives the appearance that not much has changed. Admittedly, my own initial reaction to its announcement was ho-hum. However, there are many subtle improvements and additions that, together, make for a strikingly new product.

One look is all it takes to see that Canon has blatantly and proudly disregarded the trend toward smaller, lighter cameras. Sure, nobody ever expected a pro DSLR to be anything other than a utilitarian monstrosity, but the omnipresence of so many smaller models today, not to mention smartphones, makes the 1D X Mark II stand out all the more. It’s particularly awkward when people see you carrying it into a public bathroom with a 70-200mm lens attached, but I digress.

The Mark II will look and feel familiar to anyone who has worked with a 1D-series camera before, which may be good or bad depending on your preferences. I think ergonomics are often an overlooked aspect of pro cameras, with more emphasis always put into advertising things like ISO sensitivity and shooting speed. It may not be an issue on a tripod or a monopod, but for photojournalists and event shooters, ergonomics are extremely important. That’s where the 1D series has always been a mixed bag, and unless you’re built like a linebacker, the 1D X Mark II can get a bit unwieldy.

 

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II top LCD
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II back
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with 70-200mm f/2.8

Canon claims the design has been updated to better accommodate smaller hands, but this is still a very big, heavy machine. It forces you to hold it in a specific way, with your index finger separated from the rest of your hand by a sharp ledge that protrudes from the grip. To those with larger hands, the design may feel secure and reassuring, but I found it annoying. Any time I stretched my index finger up to press the ISO button, my middle finger would get caught under the ledge. A small complaint, perhaps, but the last thing a camera should be is distracting.

On the back of the camera, the LCD screen is now touch-sensitive, just like the Nikon D5. Of all the additions both Canon and Nikon made to their new flagship cameras, touch screens have got to be the most surprising. But I’m not complaining. In combination with the Mark II’s dual-pixel AF, video shooters can accurately perform rack focus moves with the touch of a finger. I expect many photographers will shoot this camera for years without ever thinking about touching the LCD, but others will appreciate the added functionality it offers.

See fast

With the 1D X Mark II, Canon has adopted the new CFast memory format which will satisfy the most demanding sports and wildlife photographers. The latest CFast 2.0 cards offer write speeds over 400MB/sec and read speeds over 500MB/sec, pushing the limits of what’s capable even over USB 3.

Even with a standard UDMA 7 CF card, the 1D X Mark II can shoot 73 raw files in a single burst — more than double what was possible one the original 1D X. With a CFast card, however, it can crank out 170 14 bit raw files without taking a breath. CFast is also required for 4K video at 60fps, which consumes 5.7GB per minute!

Photo: Elias Parise

Whether people love it or hate it, the exterior of the camera is what it is. Anyone considering buying the 1D X Mark II is going to be more concerned with what’s going on inside, where seemingly modest improvements have led to strong gains in image quality and performance. Resolution has seen a slight bump up to 20MP from 18, continuous shooting has gone up by two frames-per-second to 14 (or 16 in live view with AF locked), and an updated AF module expands vertical coverage (but doesn’t add any additional focus points).

Canon is really trying to emphasize the importance the new burst rate, but I’m not sure if photographers actually care as much as Canon wants them to. After our review shoot, Elias asked me if it was possible to “turn the speed down.” Luckily, it is: both high-speed and low-speed continuous shooting rates can be set to one’s preference. For a select few photographers, the additional frames may truly come in handy, but I expect many simply won’t care.

This sequence, for example, is a little bit too ridiculous:

To keep up with all that speed, the 1D X Mark II now supports both CF and the new CFast cards. There is a dedicated slot for each — the two card types may look similar, but they are entirely different and incompatible with one another. I personally would have preferred Canon went the route of Nikon and the D5, which can be ordered either with dual CF or dual XQD cards. CFast is a great format, with speeds currently up to 525MB/sec, but if you need that kind of speed, you can’t exactly rely on a standard CF card to back you up. Furthermore, photographers who don’t need the speed of CFast could probably also do without the price, but there’s no other option if someone just wants to have a second card in the camera. Sure, prices will eventually come down, but they almost assuredly will remain above the price of CF.

Even without the fast memory and best-in-class burst rate, there’s still plenty of reasons to be excited about this camera. Take the new sensor, which is much more improved than its meager resolution increase would suggest.

Thanks to a new on-chip analog-to-digital converter, the 1D X Mark II has the best base-ISO dynamic range of any full-frame Canon, ever. It still falls behind current full-frame sensors from Sony (which are also employed in many Nikon cameras) but it’s great to see Canon making improvements here. Significantly, the 1D X Mark II offers noticeably more exposure latitude than its most direct competitor, the Nikon D5 (which doesn’t use a Sony sensor). Unfortunately, this is as much a result of Nikon taking a step back as it is Canon taking a step forward.

A regular practice in digital photography, which appears to be especially common among Canon shooters, is to “expose to the right.” This means, overexpose the image (shift the histogram to the right) in order to saturate all the pixels as much as possible, thus burying the noise and locking in the cleanest results. The problem with this approach comes in high contrast scenes, where overexposing to increase shadow detail results in clipped highlights. With the lower noise floor of the 1D X Mark II, more detail can be pulled out of the shadows in post, without needing to overexpose the image when taking it, thus preserving highlight detail, as well. Although it’s far from the the best example, I have illustrated this effect below.

In low light scenes, the Mark II’s high ISO performance is also admirable. With a maximum sensitivity of 51,200, it only matches its predecessor, but ISO can now be expanded up to 409,600, a stop above the original 1D X. Noise performance is good, but in my experience, this is where the Nikon D5 retakes the lead. The amount of noise is not terribly different between the two, but the quality of noise favors the Nikon, with the Canon showing more chroma noise which impacts the color depth of the image. Overall, though, the 1D X Mark II offers impressive image quality across the board, and this is what I see as reason numero uno to make the upgrade.

4K Footy

The 1D X Mark II represents the biggest jump in DSLR video since the 5D Mark II, offering DCI 4K resolution (4096x2160) at 24p, 30p, or 60p. Full HD can be cranked up to 120p for slow motion. 4K is cropped from a 1:1 pixel readout and uses the same codec as Canon’s 1D C, recording 4:2:2 color in 8bits at a data rate up to 800mbps.

Due to import tariffs on video cameras, recording time is limited to 29:59 in order to avoid being classified as one. There is no technical reason the 1D Mark II can’t record video indefinitely, thanks to a new heat duct pipe design that keeps the sensor cool while recording. On the downside, HDMI output is limited to 1080p. One possible reason for this is that Canon wants to avoid cannibalizing sales of its Cinema EOS cameras.

Photo: Elias Parise

As with any pro DSLR, image quality isn’t everything. Photographers need to be able to depend on their cameras to work all day, every day. The 1D X Mark II features a shutter tested to 400,000 actuations and introduces a new LP-E19 battery that offers 10% higher capacity. (Don’t worry, though: your old 1D X batteries will still work in the Mark II, albeit with a burst rate limited to about 12 FPS.)

Battery life with the LP-E19 is up to 1210 shots based on CIPA testing; a fair amount, but not best in class. However, CIPA testing rarely conforms to real-world use. Between the two of us, Elias and I shot over 1500 exposures on one battery, and still had over 50% charge remaining. It may not match Nikon’s boastful claim of the D5 achieving 8,000+ exposures, but it shouldn’t really leave anyone wanting, either.

Sports shooters will also be impressed with the autofocus system, although it certainly wasn’t a slouch on the 1D X, either. In fact, on paper, the Mark II doesn’t look much better than its predecessor, as both feature 61 AF points. Canon is quick to clarify, however, that it is a brand new system, which is evidenced by the expanded vertical coverage of the points. Also, all AF points can now work on lenses with maximum apertures of f/8, which is great news for birders and wildlife shooters who may be using f/5.6 telephoto lenses with teleconverters. (If you fall into this camp, make sure you have a version III teleconverter in order for AF to work properly.)

The AF system is further improved by the 360,000-pixel metering sensor. That high-density, color-sensitive array helps track moving subjects more accurately than the AF module could do on its own. I must admit, I didn’t spend enough time with the camera to actually figure out how to turn on subject-tracking (I know, amateur), so I stuck to single point AI Servo mode. What I can comment on from experience is the AF speed, and it’s very fast.

The two images below are the first two frames of a sequence shot at 14 FPS. As you can see, the first exposure is out of focus, but by the second (1/14th of a second later) the camera had already achieved perfect focus — and it remained that way throughout the rest of the burst. This is made more impressive by the fact that the subject was moving toward me and I was shooting wide open at f/2.8.

By the time we had confidently put Canon’s new flagship through its paces, the sun finally broke through the clouds. I snapped a few last shots to take advantage of golden hour, and then packed up. I admit, it took me a while to warm up to the 1D X Mark II, if for no other reason that its ergonomics. By the end of the day, though, I was impressed.

Cameras like this exist because there are photographers who depend on them. They are the freight trains of photography, able to take on any load and tackle any environment. They aren’t pretty, they aren’t even friendly, but they’ll get the job done better than anything else.

The EOS-1D X Mark II may be Canon’s flagship by default, but it’s a position it would easily earn if it had to. While contented 1D X shooters may feel fine holding off on this generation, the Mark II represents solid improvements over its predecessor that don’t show up on paper. Moreover, this camera is ushering in a new era for Canon. We’ve already seen similar sensor improvements, albeit in a smaller format, come to the EOS-80D with respect to dynamic range.

It may not look much different than the long line of cameras that preceded it, but with the 1D X Mark II, Canon isn’t looking back. Spec sheet aside, this is the most forward-thinking pro DSLR to come from Canon in some time.

Overall assessment

  • Studio 81%
  • Photojournalism 91%
  • Travel 60%
  • Casual 47%
  • Filmmaking 72%
Score explanation

This is our assessment of a camera’s usability based on both objective and subjective measurements in four categories. Each category’s score is a function of all measurements, but with different weights.

Studio – A high rating in this category means a camera is well-suited to use in a studio environment, where size and weight don’t matter and lighting can be fully controlled. This score is most affected by resolution, while ISO sensitivity and cost are negligible.

Photojournalism – Cameras that perform well in this category are generally good for concerts, weddings, sports, and travel photography. This score is most affected by ISO sensitivity, build quality, and performance (AF and continuous shooting speed, battery life), while resolution is negligible.

Travel – Above all else, a good travel camera is one you can take with you anywhere. Size and weight matter most to this category, while build quality and ISO sensitivity are also important.

Casual – A casual-use camera is one that you can easily carry with you and is great for family pictures, vacations, hiking, etc. This score is most strongly affected by size, weight, and cost.

Filmmaking – This score looks at all the video features of a camera, such as video resolution, frame rates, and audio inputs and outputs. Keep in mind, this score is provided in the context of a camera being reviewed for its still photography first. A high score in this area does not necessarily mean you should shoot your next blockbuster indie skate rap video on this camera.

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