Canon EOS 7D Mark II First Impressions

When I first picked up the 7D Mark II at this year’s Photokina show, it struck me how similar it feels to the 5D Mark III. I thought that if image quality is there, I would definitely buy one. Due to this similarity with the 5D Mark III, I instantly knew that ergonomics and handling will be great. The only haunting question was image quality, but lacking any useful reviews, I had to place my order without knowing anything about it. My primary goal was to certify the camera for my ShutterCount app – and actually using it for photographing birds came as second. Purchasing blindly wasn’t that big risk, because if it somehow turns out to be something I don’t like, I would be able to easily sell it given the high demand.

And as you may guess, I really like the 7D Mark II. But being a perfectionist, I don’t think everything is as glorious as marketing materials may suggest. Some of my observations may look strange, or don’t even important to you and your style of photography, but this is what I think of the camera.

Handling

As I mentioned, handling is virtually identical to the 5D Mark III. I can switch between them effortlessly. The 7D is a tad smaller, and is on the edge of being comfortable in my large hands. Buttons and dials are almost the same on the two cameras, with two notable differences.

First is the lever around the joystick. This can be assigned to a few different functions. In my setup, it is used to switch AF point selection modes. This is a huge time and frustration saver, as I’m still unable to switch them with the M-Fn button without concentrating on what I’m doing. The problem on the 5D Mark III is that I have to press the AF point selection button, then use the M-Fn to switch the selection mode. There’s no way to toggle between those modes with M-Fn directly. But on the 7D Mark II the lever can be programmed to switch between these modes directly. This is a huge addition to the already great Canon user interface.

The other difference is not so great. On the 7D Mark II only the outer edge of the rear dial rotates, while on the 5D Mark III the whole dial (well, except the SET button) rotates. I find it way easier to handle the 5D Mark III style dial.

The use of LP-E6N (and LP-E6) batteries is a big plus. I have a total of four of those, and their small size as well as the small charger makes life much easier than with those giant 1-series batteries and chargers.

Firmware

While a well though out control layout is absolutely required to provide a good user experience, the software behind these controls is equally important. I generally like Canon’s modus operandi and menu structures, but find their cameras lacking in customization options. As a developer, I don’t get why they limit the set of assignable functions for some buttons…

The 7D Mark II is a combination of a step forward here and marketing bullshit there.

What is a step forward in my book is that you can program two buttons on the back of the camera to initiate AF. For example I generally use the AF-ON button in single point selection mode (or whatever seems appropriate at the moment), and the * button to initiate AF in automatic AF point selection mode with AI SERVO focusing. This is something I used extensively on the 1D Mark II a decade ago, and is a very welcome addition to the 7D Mark II. But here you can do even more: set AF customization parameters differently for the two buttons. This is a level of customization that I would expect in 2014. I wish that this feature will make its way to the 5D Mark III firmware in the future.

The other one is what seems to be designed by the marketing department. I’m talking about the intervalometer and the bulb timer. Nikons have built-in intervalometers for ages, and it’s great that Canon finally made a step in this direction, just the bad implementation renders it useless. You can’t use the bulb timer together with the intervalometer, and also can’t use mirror lock-up with the intervalometer. But I would only use the intervalometer in these modes… For example intervalometer and bulb timer together is required for executing astrophoto sequences. And I would love to use mirror lock-up and intervalometer together for taking all sort of exposure sequences. That is, the camera’s intervalometer implementation is totally unusable for me. It seems that I’ll have to use Kuuvik Capture‘s exposure sequencing features for the foreseeable future (well, as soon as Kuuvik Capture gets 7D Mark II support).

Image Quality

Let me begin with saying that I completely hate what the original 7D produces. Its images are soft, with a veil over the whole image. I had to massage 7D raws way too much to get results up to my standards. I have two other contemporary APS-C Canons, a 100D and a 650D, plus an older 50D. None of them is great in the image quality department. So I was very curious to see what the 7D Mark II can produce.

What delayed this first impressions post a few weeks is that I needed a version of Capture One 8 with 7D Mark II support. I downloaded Canon’s DPP, but I could cry from what I saw with that. Lifeless, flat, soft images. Even with 5D3 files. Lightroom was marginally better. Then Capture One 8.0.2 arrived and the smile returned to my face.

As a side note, if image quality is important to you, I would strongly recommend to check out Capture One.

I made a little test. Mounted my Sigma 50/1.4 DG HSM Art lens on both cameras, and shot an image at f/5 (to avoid diffraction effects on the 7D Mark II). I didn’t want to equalize angle of view and depth of field between the images, just pixel peep a bit. You can see crops of these below. Images are straight out of Capture One, with no tweaking of any kind.

5D3_1445_2822_crop

100% crop of the 5D Mark III image. Click the image for 100% view on non-retina displays.

Conditions were less than favorable. Flat light due to the thick cloud layer and strong backlighting above the road. Both cameras performed admirably. What surprised me are the rich and deep yellows from the 7D Mark II.

7D2_1445_0165_crop

100% crop of the 7D Mark II image. Click the image for 100% view on non-retina displays.

No other surprises here though. The 20 megapixel resolution of the 7D Mark II is well above what top-of-the-line glass can resolve. You can see lots of empty magnification in the 7D image. The camera requires the very best glass available. I’m fortunate enough to carry some gems in my bag, but even with those lenses I would prefer a 15-16 megapixel resolution. Physics is physics, no matter how marketing folks want to bend reality. I would expect disappointing results with lower end glass.

This is a specialty camera. I plan to use it for birds and astrophotography. Both these genres need a wide open lens, so the very low diffraction limit (f/6.7 or so) is not an issue for me. It produces 1.6x more depth of field than the 5D Mark III at the same aperture, so I don’t have to waste light by stopping down for more DoF for birds up close. Not to mention that I can leave light-sapping teleconverters out of the equation most of the time.

Another thing I don’t understand is raving reviews about the camera’s high ISO capabilities. It’s a stop worse than the 5D Mark III, so ISO 1600 is the absolute maximum I would ever use. If I need ISO 3200, then the 5D3 comes out from the bag. The 7D2 shares the low ISO characteristics with other APS-C Canons, that is, ISO 200 has more dynamic range and bit depth than ISO 100. Speaking of dynamic range, it is a tad better on the 7D2 (11.2 stops @ ISO 200) than on the 5D3 (10.9 stops @ ISO 100). That is, you still have to watch your shadows.

In subjective evaluation, images from the 7D Mark II look markedly better to my eye than those from the 7D. They are also better than other APS-C Canons. But still, APS-C is APS-C, so A2 sized fine art prints are out of reach for this camera.

Closing Words

I haven’t touched AF performance and actual action use, because we are before the winter birding season. I’ll cover those as soon as I will have experience on the topic.

So, to summarize things: this is a very competent image making machine for action and bird photographers, where telephoto reach is at utmost importance. But forget it for landscapes, though. There are no surprises here that defy physics. The camera combines stunning handling with pretty usable image quality. While I would give an A to it as a camera (handling, AF and such), image quality only receives a B (because of the needlessly high resolution and its side effects).

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