Canon EOS-1D X Mark II Review – Part 1

The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II is a huge topic, so I decided to slice the review. I also don’t want to reiterate specs or things that you can find on popular photography sites, instead I’m going to talk about aspects that are important to me.

So first of all let me put all I’m going to write into context.

I buy cameras for two purposes: as development and test hardware for my Kuuvik Capture and ShutterCount apps, and of course to take pictures. While I have two bodies in my bag, three or four additional cameras are sitting on the shelf to cover each and every firmware variant and operation paradigm Canon produced since 2008. Well, who said developing software is a cheap undertaking?

This gives me a great freedom to try different bodies and put those into the bag that fit my photographic needs the best possible way. But at the end of the day I make a living using these cameras, this way or that, so all of them should contribute to the bottom line.

There was only one missing piece in this set: a 1-series camera. I loved and used a 1D Mark II for 8 years or so, but skipped the following generations. The Mark III generation because of the autofocus issue, and because I still think they are the worst digital EOS-1 bodies ever made (you may disagree, but I’m sure you haven’t spent any time developing for them in this case). Just mentioning the 1Ds Mark III gives my better half the shivers… And the Mark IV because we needed funding for other things that time.

Then the 5D Mark III came along, and I haven’t felt the urge to purchase a 1D X for myself. For neither purpose. We started using loaner and rental units for development and testing. As time passed, things started to look less rosy: arranging rentals and loaners could be time consuming and costly (not to mention that they almost always screw up our schedule), so the decision to get a 1D X Mark II was made well before even the camera was announced. We just didn’t want to invest in outgoing technology and waited.

On the photography front, my main interests are landscapes and birds, with a bit of architecture and product photography spread along the way. My photographs either end up in commercial use or in large fine art prints, and high resolution is an advantage in both cases.

My A camera is an EOS 5DS R, which I found to be a great choice for everything I photograph. Yes, I could use a few more frames per second and faster buffer write speeds, but the camera proved to be perfectly usable even for action. Before the 1D X Mark II arrived, the B camera was a 7D Mark II. But because the images coming out of the 5DS R are way better, I haven’t used the 7D for months. Now the 1D X Mark II is the B camera, and I’m curious how it performs.

Ok, with this background let me begin discussing the 1D X Mark II.

Oh, one more thing. Since I have no financial interest in talking you into buying a camera (unlike most of the review sites), I’ll be honest. Just like with a friend talking about the 1D X Mark II over a drink.

TL; DR

It is a good camera, image quality is among the best I’ve seen from Canon (surpassed only by the 5DS R). There are some quirks and stuff that bugs me, though. Some of them can be worked around, but you’ll need to live with others. As always, if you fancy buying this beast, I’d recommend to rent it first to see whether it fits your working style and needs.

Lovely colors – even at higher ISOs

This is something you’ll notice even on the camera’s LCD (on which all images look disturbingly soft in 100% magnification, just like they did with the 1D Mark II).

Long Lens Landscape. 1D X Mark II with 500mm f/4L IS II + 1.4x III

Long Lens Landscape. 1D X Mark II with 500mm f/4L IS II + 1.4x III.

The image above was shot at ISO 1600, and it looks gorgeous on a wide gamut monitor. Sadly, part of the depth and brilliance of colors was lost when I converted it to sRGB for web display.

CFast 2.0 is really fast

You really want to use a CFast card with this camera. But be sure to get a fast one. I’m using a 64GB Lexar Professional 3500x card. Not because of the capacity (32GB would be my preferred choice for a 20 megapixel camera), but because of the 445 MB/s write speed. Smaller cards (including the 64GB SanDisk bundled with the camera) usually have lower write speeds around 240 MB/s. This is hugely important: with the faster cards you have virtually no buffer limit when shooting RAW. The 170 frames limit mentioned in the tech specs is what you get with the slower cards.

But be aware that moving images at this speed generates a lot of heat. The card, and even the camera’s grip becomes hot after extended use.

Being a young technology, CFast 2.0 could cause some compatibility headaches. I selected the 3500x card based on Lexar’s compatibility chart – while the 1D X Mark II is not listed explicitly at the time of writing, it seems that only 3500x cards are compatible with Canon cameras. For downloading images, I use Lexar’s Professional Workflow CR2 CFast reader (the one that has a Thunderbolt port in addition to USB3).

$650 for a power supply and coupler?!?

Someone at Canon has clearly lost his medicine. The AC adapter sells for $400 and the dummy battery for additional $250. To put you in perspective: you can buy a good laboratory-grade power supply for $400. And asking $250 for a dummy battery is outright arrogant. While writing my apps, I prefer to power the cameras from AC power, but these prices are simply unacceptable. Fortunately the good old ACK-E4 adapter made for previous 1-series cameras (around $95) works perfectly. The only downside is that you are limited to 8 fps.

The return of red AF point illumination

For this camera Canon (almost) returned to their former AF point illumination system, where AF points are red, while all other information in the viewfinder is black. You may remember my post about the irritating and unusable illumination system found in the 1DX/5D3/7D2/5DSR, so this is a big relief for me.

But the system is still far from being perfect. The red illumination is too bright (no option to make it dimmer, only brighter), which is rather distracting in some situations. And the inability to switch it back to black is something beyond me.

Cleaner shadows

I’m not the kind of guy who tries to fix badly underexposed images in post with an 5-stop push, but you know, sometimes I screw up. And having the ability to rescue otherwise good images is always appreciated. The image below was a grab shot of a purple heron flying overhead, without paying attention to compensate for the bleak sky – resulting in an underexposed bird.

Purple heron. 1D X Mark II with 500mm f/4L IS II and 1.4x III teleconverter. ISO 400, pushed 3 stops.

Purple Heron. 1D X Mark II with 500mm f/4L IS II + 1.4x III. ISO 400, pushed 3 stops.

A 3-stop push was used, and there is no visible color deterioration and noise even in the dark parts under the wings and body – something that was a stretch for older Canons. It was shot at ISO 400 (my base birding ISO).

A few missing functions

There’s no intervalometer and bulb timer. The shutter count feature is also missing from the external interface (although it’s available in the system information menu). And you can’t set bracketing from the menu. With the exception of the shutter count feature I can’t understand why Canon left these out, despite all their current cameras have them.

Well, you can use Kuuvik Capture for executing exposure sequences and bulb timer, in a more user friendly and effective way than Canon was ever able to implement these, so I’m not really complaining.

Remote release socket on the “right” side

Finally! This is something I wanted for more than a decade. I tend to use L brackets on all my cameras, and the N3 socket is something that needed to be worked around with these brackets – resulting in unwieldy left sides. Unfortunately both Kirk and RRS sell the same 1DX plate for the Mark I and II, but I still hope that some company will make a sleek bracket for the Mark II.

Since the tripod screw was ripped out from my 1D Mark II, I don’t trust single point bracket attachments. Kirk’s two-point attachment for their 5D Mark III/S/SR plate (reviewed here) is way better. Unfortunately there’s no such thing as a sleek 1DX plate with two attachment points, so I’m sticking with a normal plate. Especially because this is a B/wildlife/action camera and not planned to be routinely used tripod mounted with heavy lenses like the Otus 1.4/28 – with the 500mm it’s going to be mounted by the lens.

The USB sleep bug

This is a serious issue if you are planning to use the camera tethered.

If your computer goes to sleep while the camera is plugged in, you’ll permanently lose the connection – until the camera is powered off and back on. This happens with each and every tethering app. And there’s no workaround. Hopefully the bug is in the firmware and not in the USB hardware. All previous EOS cameras I used to date work as expected in this regard.

Continue to Part 2

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Trackbacks

  1. […] for more info on the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II? You may find my review and the AF drive speed comparison […]

  2. […] is the second installment of my ongoing EOS-1D X Mark II review. You can read Part 1 here. My other posts comparing effective reach of the 1D X II with the 7D II and focus drive speed of […]

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