[PLEASE NOTE: IMAGE TAKEN WITH A BETA SAMPLE CAMERA]
– The cameras used were beta sample models!
– I’m a Dutch Canon ambassador – if you’re looking for a strictly neutral review, this is not the one you are looking for. It’s a personal hands-on from a photographer with 20 years of pro shooting under his belt.
February 3rd, 2016
Yesterday I was one of the lucky few who got their hands on the much anticipated new Canon flagship workhorse: the EOS-1D X Mark II. As ambassador for Canon Netherlands I was invited to join a small, select, group of press people at a drifting school near the famous old Dutch racing circuit of Zandvoort.
With grey skies and howling wind welcoming my arrival I decided to quickly go inside to be warmly welcomed by top Dutch Canon officials and global Canon ambassador Frits van Eldik, one of the world’s leading motorsports photographers (hence the location). Frits has had an important voice in the development of this camera and has been testing it for months. As one of the leading Canon photographers he was the perfect man for the launch of this hands-on event. He genuinely looked so happy to be finally able to talk about “his baby” after months/years of secrecy.
After lunch and introductions, it was time to talk camera. When its specs leaked out on February 1st many blogs were keen to point out the seemingly underwhelming aspects of the camera. Fortunately, as we were told, specs don’t tell the full story – and two hours later I couldn’t agree more.
It is important to keep in mind how this camera was designed and for whom: unsurprisingly, the 1Dx2 is aimed at the fast pace world of news, reporting, sports and action photography. Canon spent a lot of time listening to that user base and designed the camera with their demands in mind: fast usage, no crazy megapixel counts, superior autofocus and most of all: very high quality Jpeg use.
Jpeg use, isn’t Jpeg bad? Well, unless you are doing studio or landscape work (to name a few) editing time is sparse or unavailable for a lot of photographers. Speed is of the essence, images are often sent unedited directly to ftp-servers across the globe so Jpeg has a huge advantage due to its smaller size and flexibility. Editing RAW images is not only too time-consuming, the quality difference is often overstated (yes, fry me for that statement!). However, there is definitely value to having a high quality image in the first place, as long as it’s not too big and easily edited.
With that “dilemma” in mind Canon sat down and completely overhauled its image sensor – their fully in-house designed chip now creates such a low levels of noise itself that images can be edited much more strongly than before. A sensor generates noise, independent of the exposed image. In this one, it’s so little (they call it b-level noise) that it hardly registers at all. So when highlighting shadows you will see far less noise and at a much later point since there is less to begin with.
The most striking example was given by Frits when he showed a photo he took a while ago at 10k ISO during the first light of day. 90 percent of the image appeared to be black until levels were adjusted in Photoshop and a whole landscape suddenly appeared from the darkness. The example seemed so unreal that after the event I asked Frits to show it to me again with the original. Instead he showed me an even more extreme sample of an image with such deep shadows that he himself hadn’t even bother to edit it at all. Not until Canon techs told him to edit it, he started adjusting the image and to his (and my) surprise a whole world materialized from the shadows. From first glance I would go as far to say that 1Dx2 Jpeg quality easily exceeds 1Dx RAW quality.
I was not able to really test high ISO ranges myself but from what I’ve seen on sample photos and in presentation it looks really good. Up till 3200 seems to be (at least) as good as 1Dx at 1600 or 5D3 at 800 – which is great. However, some extremely high ISO samples (10k or instance) looked absolutely amazing but I would like to try out myself and see on my own laptop before passing final judgement.
So while, strictly technical speaking, the camera has seen no improvement in dynamic range the reality of shooting tells a whole different story. The high quality of the Jpeg files will, in my opinion, be the strongest selling point for this camera… that is, together with the mind-blowing autofocus.
As a 1D-series user since 2003 I’ve enjoyed Canon’s slow but steady improvement of the autofocus system over the years. I would say it’s one of the top-reasons why you see so much Canon at most sporting events: they have been able to produce top of the bill sports cameras which, perhaps with the exception of the hard to use 1D3, always do a great job in a fast action environment.
Global Canon Ambassador Frits van Eldik
With the underwhelming reaction to the 1Dx2 specs in mind I didn’t have huge expectations over the rate of af-improvement compared to the previous model. Yes, Frits’ happy face and enthusiastic storytelling did some good in anticipation but when it finally came to handling the camera myself I must admit to being completely blow away by the autofocus performance. Nothing could have me prepared to seeing the camera nailing a near 100% accuracy while shooting spinning cars engulfed in splashing water. Now, perfectly tracking an approaching car is one thing but even when offsetting focus by the widest margins, the camera picked up within split second, even when aiming at the hardest to focus parts.
Even in 20 or so tries I was not able to seriously fool the autofocus, no matter how hard I tried. And trust me; I tried to make it as difficult as possible by late focusing, intentionally pre-missfocussing, using non-middle focus points, everything. Even when taking in account that we were outside on a mildly sunny day – I still did not expect, in all honesty, that such good autofocus was even possible. After having used pro sports cameras for 20+ years – capturing everything from cars, skateboarders, snowboarders, bikes or other flying objects I was deeply impressed. From the first to the last shot.
Canon has one problem left in my opinion: I cannot imagine how they are going improve on this in the future. It’s that good.
These two specs, image quality and autofocus, alone are more than reason enough to spend such a hefty sum on this camera. It’s definitely worth the money and the improvement over the 1Dx is much greater than I anticipated. With all attention focused on the raw specs this camera feels slightly undersold at this point. Not surprisingly; since the two best features are very hard to put into numbers. I’m sure this is not going to last very long. This camera has set the bar extremely high and I feel comfortable predicting that in a few years from now this will be looked upon as a game changing model.
Some other facts worth mentioning:
– This model sees the return of continuously lit autofocus points. Especially when using servo this is a good thing to have back again.
– GPS is now integrated (finally) and I’ve even been told that it can automatically adjust the camera time, a bliss when travelling a lot like I do.
– No WiFi, and don’t expect that any time soon. Magnesium alloy apparently is about the worst material when it comes to transmitting signals especially since most pro users would need too much bandwith and too many channels – technically not possible within such restrictions. The new plug-on dongle now supports 5Ghz and the old one also still works on this model.
– When in live-view the screen becomes touchscreen to set autofocus. I was told this works also very well in video and the camera can even keep track of a face in a small crowd, to the point where it almost becomes scary.
– To accommodate press and sports photographers, images can be cropped in-camera after which they can be sent over WiFi for instance.
– Screen resolution is so high you should be able to tell if an image is in focus or not without zooming in. In reality I kept checking images at 100%, perhaps because I could not believe the focus hit rate was so high.
I guess that’s it for now. Would still like to test live-view mode with wide lenses for instances but improvements on recent cameras have me believe all should be fine on that front. I really can’t wait to take this camera out into the dark environments that I work in – it’s going to be fun! Please feel free to ask me more questions, not sure if I’m able to tell but will try!