Canon EOS-1D X Mark II Review – Part 2

This 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 different cameras including the 1D X II may also be useful for you.

Dynamic range

You may already saw at the usual camera testing sites that the 1D X Mark II has a dynamic range that’s practically identical to the competition, so “Canon is back in the game”. While this is true, let me approach the topic of dynamic range from another angle. Which is prints. I know that only a few of us print anything at all, and that may explain the number of people obsessed with the extreme dynamic range of today’s sensors. But in reality it is a double-edged sword.

Ink on paper has about 6 or 7 stops of dynamic range, so if you have anything with more range, you may need to be careful when preparing the prints to keep pleasing tonal relationships and prevent posterization. Too much contrast after setting the black and white points could also be an issue that needs to be mitigated. So the saying “be careful what you wish for – you may get it” is really holds in this situation.

Puffin Portrait at Látrabjarg

Puffin Portrait at Látrabjarg

Of course it helps in exposing naturally high dynamic range subjects, like the blacks and whites of puffins. But the dynamic range collapses quickly with increasing ISO, so you may not have that much to work with.

All in all, the 1D X Mark II is state of the art, but I had no complaints about the 5DS R either.

High ISO

As I mentioned in Part 1, I print large, and thus resolution is an important aspect of all images I keep. And despite the hype (may I call it marketing bullshit?) of the camera seeing in the dark in those extremely high ISOs, I consider 6400 the maximum usable ISO. Fine details are starting to get eradicated at 3200, though. The only use I have for the higher values is for preparing long exposure compositions.

I use the camera a lot with the 500mm f/4L IS II and the 2x III teleconverter, and my base ISO in this case is 800 – resulting in very clean images. The following image was taken with this combo at ISO 3200 during the Icelandic summer night.

Redshank at Night

Redshank at Night

RAW file bit depth changes a little with ISO changes. You get the highest usable bit depth (13.81 out of the theoretical maximum of 14) between ISO 125 and 200. At ISO 100, you get 13.71 bits, and 13.65 bits between ISO 320 and 51200. Higher bit depth meaning better tonal separation. I still have a habit to only use whole stop ISOs to avoid the ill-effects of digital compensation when using third stop values. At low ISOs (100 and 200) you have to make a tradeoff between dynamic range (better at ISO 100) or bit depth (better at ISO 200) based on what you photograph.

CFast 2.0 image corruption

Firmware 1.0.2 has been released yesterday to address the possible image corruption with SanDisk CFast 2.0 cards. I also experienced a corruption on my Lexar 3500x card. It looked different than the SanDisk issue, the image was cut after a few kilobytes. I don’t know whether the culprit was the card or the camera, but installed firmware 1.0.2 nonetheless. Should the problem happen again, I’ll let you know.

Resolving fine details

While shooting a couple of long exposure images, picked up the 1D X Mark II with the Zeiss Apo Sonnar T* 2/135 lens to make some detail shots, just like the following one. Handheld, since the tripod was already occupied by the 5DS R.

Landmannalaugar Detail

Landmannalaugar Detail

The camera is prominently useful for landscape work. While not in the realms of the 5DS R in terms of sheer resolving power, the images are full of fine details. It seems that Canon opted for a weaker anti-aliasing filter in this case (unlike my old 1D Mark II, which had a pretty strong blurring filter).

Due to the relatively low resolution, less shooting discipline is required. Shooting a 135mm manual focus lens handheld is not a problem (something I failed to do successfully with the 5DS R quite a few times). It is also less demanding on lens quality (although using high quality glass pays off), and you can stop down to f/11 without diffraction becoming an issue. All these add up to a more casual shooting experience than the 5DS R.

So I arrived to a very interesting point. While both the 5DS R and the 1D X Mark II have their strengths in different areas, and I prefer to choose them based on these strengths for each image, the other one could do almost as well. I would be in deep trouble if I could keep only one of them.

To be continued…

A Year with the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM

I’m using the “new” 500mm Canon for slightly more than a year now, so it’s time to share my opinions on it. During the last year I had posted a bunch of images made with this lens attached to various camera bodies (1D X Mark II, 5DS R, 5D Mark III, 7D Mark II), which further illustrate the capabilities of this gem.

Why upgrade?

I had used the Mark I version for 10 years, and it was a stellar performer, so why I decided to upgrade to the Mark II? For two reasons: weight and image quality. Let’s begin with the latter. When I tried the old 500 plus the 1.4x III extender on the 7D Mark II for the first time, I thought that something went wrong with the lens. After making several successful astrophotos during the winter of 2014-15 (using the bare lens), the lack of sharpness I encountered with the extender was discouraging. So much that I stopped using this combination completely, and ordered the Mark II after a week or so.

Once the Mark II arrived, I had the opportunity to compare it with the old one – and man, it makes a huge difference on high resolution cameras! The Mark II with the 1.4x III attached is sharper than the old one with no extender. And it doesn’t stop here. The following image pretty much summarizes the quality of images one could expect from the 500mm f/4L IS II.

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Whinchat Singing

Richer colors, and complete lack of the “busy background” that was a signature of the old lens + teleconverter combinations. The transition from sharp to unsharp areas is pretty fast, just like with my Zeisses. Images coming out from the contemporary Canon super-telephotos (300 II/400 II/400 DO II/500 II/600 II) are stunning. There’s no point in talking more about image quality, since they offer the best money can buy. But there are other important aspects to discuss.

Like size and weight. The Mark II is about 800g lighter than the Mark I. This is a huge difference. I can put an additional TS-E 24mm or Zeiss 2.8/15 in the bag and still have the same total weight as before. Thinking about size/weight/reach is an important factor when you select a super-tele.

Why 500mm?

When it comes to birding, the longer is almost always better. My reasoning to get the 500mm originally, and to stick with the same focal length when upgrading to the Mark II, was the following. 300mm is too short. The 400/2.8 II is too large and heavy for the focal length. The 600 II is a great lens, but… Well, I have a rule that everything I bring into the field (with the exception of the tripod and the MacBook Air) must fit into my Gura Gear Bataflae 32L backpack. And the 600 doesn’t fit – at least with my other gear already in the bag.

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Black Tern Looking for Bugs

Sometimes I long for the 600, like when shooting the image above, but with high resolution cameras I have the freedom to crop a bit. The 400 DO II is also a great lightweight lens, but a bit short considering the locations and birds I photograph. This leaves the 500. Long enough (especially with teleconverters) for my needs, small enough to fit into the bag, light enough to handhold for extended periods of time (at least with smaller bodies like the 5DS R and 7D Mark II, with the 1D X Mark II it’s on the fence of being too heavy). The wider angle of view (compared to the 600) provides a little protection against inadvertently cut wings and feet, and it’s easier on the tracking mount (both in terms of weight and tracking accuracy) when shooting the heavens above. Not to mention that you can buy the 500 plus a Zeiss 2.8/15 from the price of the 600…

Handling

Mark II super-teles are less front-heavy than the old ones (partly due to the removal of the protective glass from the front). So you think they are lighter than they really are. With the 1D X Mark II the balance point is under the lens collar, but with smaller bodies it’s right under the focusing ring. Which is problematic if you are handholding the lens – you need to be extra careful not to turn the ring.

I really like that the focusing range selector has been moved out of the central switchboard to the neck of the lens. It’s much easier accessible place when the lens is mounted on a gimbal.

Proper technique is important with all long lenses, and the 500 is no exception. But you also need to watch for air turbulence. I’m serious. Astronomers are long aware of the fact that hot air bubbles or even wind gusts can influence telescope image quality. For example on a cold fall morning on a lake, just an hour after sunrise the air is so turbulent that you can’t make a sharp image of anything more than 20-30m away. It’s not a showstopper, just something one needs to be aware of.

Focusing is quick and accurate (if you did your homework and had properly micro-adjusted the AF), but adding teleconverters could slow focusing down. I’d recommend to check out my AF drive speed comparison with different camera bodies.

Overall, the lens is a dream to use. On tripod or off, it just works the way expected.

Accessorize!

There are a few things I immediately replace on/add to a super-tele. First I add a LensCoat. But I don’t put all the pieces on – leaving the focusing ring and the lens collar out. I prefer to focus with the original ring, and don’t like the sticky tape on the collar. This also makes my lens unique, and can easily tell which is mine when shooting with friends.

The second thing is a custom lens foot. I wrote about the 4th Generations Design foot (and a few other accessories) in a previous piece, and albeit a different one, I use a 4GD foot on the Mark II. This time the CRX-5L (the “low” version). It fits nicely, and also allows storing the hood in the reversed position. Speaking of the reversed hood and storing the lens. The Don Zeck cap I bought for the old 500 works nicely with the new one.

sdf

5DS R + 500mm f/4L IS II + 1.4x III on a Skimmer Ground Pod and Mongoose M3.6 Head

Another piece of equipment I grown to love is the Skimmer Ground Pod. I use it when photographing from a boat or otherwise need to be close to the ground. You can see on the picture above the complete rig I used for photographing great crested grebes last fall. What’s the camo thingy around the lens? It’s the part of my ghillie suit that normally goes over the gun.

The only thing I don’t like about the Mark II (well, besides the balance point being under the focusing ring) is that Canon does not include a screw-on filter holder any more. The lens comes with a gel holder, which I can’t use to mount my light pollution suppression filter for astro work. For this kind of price I’d expect Canon to include both with the lens, but had to purchase it separately (it’s somewhat hard to find: you’ll need the 52WII holder).

Conclusion

I always loved the old 500, and love the Mark II even more. You get splendid images, huge versatility (did I mention that I also use it for long lens landscapes a lot?) in a light, travel-friendly package. If you can afford (or want to lug around) only one super-telephoto lens, this is the one to buy. Highly recommended.

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

The Ultimate Photographer’s Flashlight

As I find myself under dark skies quite often, I carry not one but two flashlights in my bag. One of them is a Petzl Zipka headlamp, used for close range work, such as setting up the camera or finding something in the bag. But there are several other usage scenarios that a headlamp won’t fit into: navigation while you are getting to a location or walking home, searching, warding off uninvited visitors (be they curious humans or hungry animals), and even light painting.

I used several different sized flashlights with different feature sets during the last decade (I’m using the Zipka for more than a decade and it’s still running off of the original batteries), but more than a year ago I found a light that is quite possibly the ultimate in features and durability.

Enter the Nitecore SRT7

The high-end of the flashlight business in dominated by Chinese companies. But these are not the usual low-quality knock-off products you might associate with China. They are top of the class both in design and in manufacturing (the SRT7 is so simple and elegant that it could even carry an Apple logo).

Nitecore is one of these manufacturers, with some unique features in their lights. First of all, the SRT7 is part of their tactical offerings. Nowadays I tend to gravitate towards tactical and military products because of their durability and well thought out features. Not that I would need pistol magazine stabilizers in my pants’s pockets or uninterrupted light during shotgun recoil for a flashlight… Well, actually those magazine holders are pretty darn useful for holding various items…

The Nitecore SRT7 flashlight

The Nitecore SRT7 flashlight

You can see the light above. It is waterproof, shock proof (I exercise both features regularly) and in all aspects built like a tank. It feels well balanced in my hand, and have enough grip on the surface even when wearing heavy gloves.

Along with a very powerful white LED (960 lumens – easily outshines my car’s headlights), you have three colored LEDs: a red, a green, and a blue one. I was interested in the red one when I bought the lamp, and use it heavily during astrophotography. Never used the blue or the green one. The white LED in on the cool side.

But it’s user interface is why I bought it in the first place. It consists of a switch, a rotating ring and a LED. The switch is on the tail of the lamp, and is used to cut power off completely, so that it won’t drain the battery while sitting in the bag. The red LED starts to flash when the battery is starting to run out of juice. The ring is the centerpiece of the user interface.

It is used to switch between the different modes, as well as to continuously adjust the light’s brightness. The continuous adjustment is smooth, with good perceptual uniformity. Turn the ring to the right to increase brightness. At the end of the scale is a “turbo” mode as well as a stroboscope mode (the latter can be useful in self-defense situations). Turn the ring to the left to access the red, green, blue, police-like red/blue flashing and beacon modes. It’s that simple.

Powering the flashlight

The SRT7 can be powered with two CR123 lithium batteries or with a rechargeable 18650 battery. The latter is a standard industrial battery type with added protection circuitry – and is a quite common flashlight power source among Chinese manufacturers. I bought two Nitecore NL189 3400mAh batteries along with the lamp.

18650 battery in an Xtar WP2 II charger

18650 battery in an Xtar WP2 II charger

I’m using an Xtar WP2 II charger for those, as it can provide 1A charging current (compared to the 0.5A of most other chargers). The 1A current is well within the battery’s specifications, and I don’t like to wait for batteries to charge…

This charger has another neat feature: you can turn it into a power source to charge any USB-connected device (such as emergency recharging your phone). The output is a standard 500mA USB port.

Conclusion

It’s hard to add anything else for a flashlight – it’s just a flashlight. Albeit a good one. Highly recommended.