Some might think that because I’m a Canon Explorer of Light, I’ve always got a full stable of Canon’s latest, greatest cameras and lenses. In fact, I’ve got to make the same hard choices you do about photographic equipment purchases, and any upgrade has to be worth the cost in terms of advancing the capability and quality of my work. In landscape applications, I’ve looked for high-resolution, full-frame sensors and found my most recent dream machine in the 50-megapixel EOS 5DS R. But for action—be it flying birds, pronging antelope, or humans engaging in outdoor recreation—I need speed, and Canon’s new EOS-1D X Mark II delivers.
When I talk about a camera’s “speed,” I’m referring to a set of internal functions that enable the wildlife and sports photographer to capture a fast-moving subject in a wide range of conditions. These functions include capture rate (frames per second); autofocus that reacts quickly and stays with the subject; expanded ISO capability to allow faster shutter speeds with minimal image noise and aperture settings that achieve adequate depth of field (DOF); and a buffer with sufficient capacity to hold a large number of RAW frames before it fills and halts or delays the progression of captures. Speed of operation encompasses the overall handling of the camera, too; I’m looking for design that is intuitive and customizable for different applications and subjects. And now there’s a new standard for DSLRs: a 4K and HD video component with a high frame rate—and the possibility of in-camera frame captures from video. These are the functions and features I tested in the field with the new flagship camera.
Spoiler Alert: I Really, Really Like It
Over the last few months, I put the EOS-1D X Mark II through its paces in a variety of outdoor action environments, beginning with a series of late-winter sessions in wildlife refuges hosting migrating or resident waterfowl. Ducks and geese are quick and skittish, so they challenged my photographic skill as much as the camera. My home in Central Oregon’s high desert environment offers ready access to an abundance of photographic subjects, including diverse bird species and small mammals in my own backyard. At the nearby High Desert Museum, I photographed furred and feathered residents for promotion of the museum’s programs, including a summer educational event that features flights of rehabilitated raptors and owls that cannot be returned to the wild. I also put the camera to the long, long lens test at a favorite state park that hosts an active bald eagle nest each spring.
Central Oregon is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, and I tested the camera with kayakers and body boarders on the Deschutes River and at a whitewater park. Then I took the 1D X Mark II to a tulip farm to see how it performed in a less challenging environment. In all these scenarios, here’s what I learned.
In digital’s infancy, circa 2000, DSLR cameras featured 3MP sensors and capture speeds of 3 fps. In 2012 Canon, hit 12 fps and 18MP with the EOS-1D X. Now, the EOS-1D X Mark II, with a 20MP full-frame sensor, fires at 14 fps, and in Live View (mirror up), the camera tops out at 16 fps—not that far off the standard video format of 24 fps. Capture at 14 fps increases compositional options with action subjects; for example, a three-second burst following flying birds yields 42 frames, allowing the photographer to choose the perfect wing position. Capture rate is critical for success with waterfowl; the camera helped me to catch ducks “walking on water” as they took off. Does it sound too easy? Believe me, it’s not. The photographer still has to be there, anticipate the action, set up on the subject, and follow. But now, the camera’s capabilities make the effort even more worthwhile.
When you’re trying to keep a fast-moving subject framed and in focus, autofocus speed is critical. Fourteen frames per second aren’t worth much if they aren’t sharp. The 1D X Mark II offers the quickest AF system in the Canon line of cameras, but it’s more than fast. It’s extremely sensitive, functioning at very low light levels, down to -3 EV. It’s also highly controllable.
To improve your yield, you can set the camera to fire only when the subject is in focus, or when you tell it to, even if AF has not been achieved. I prefer the latter; when I tell a camera to fire, I want it to fire…now! Removing the AF function from the shutter button and activating the rear AF button enables a combination of settings that really increase the speed and versatility of autofocus decision-making.
There are 61 AF points available in the viewfinder, and all or a portion of them can be activated at any one time with most lenses, even at apertures up to and including f/8. This is a significant expansion over previous pro cameras, which offered only a single AF point when used with a lens having f/8 as its largest aperture. The photographer can select the number of active AF points and also position them within the 61-point area. I use the nine-points expanded option with a slower-moving subject when I want to maintain the focus on a particular feature, such as the eye of a bird. The full AF area works when I track a fast-moving subject and want to have every possible chance to get the subject in the frame and some part of it in focus.
The EOS-1D X Mark II also features six programming modes, or “Cases” for AF, each applicable to different kinds of subjects and shooting situations. I often use Case 2, “Continue to track subjects, ignoring possible obstacles,” when photographing birds flying through forested areas; even when the bird flies behind a tree, the camera holds the focus as it returns to view. Case 3, “Instantly focus on subjects suddenly entering AF points,” tracks unpredictable flying subjects, so as you’re searching the sky for your bird, the camera grabs it the moment it enters the frame. Within each Case, the photographer can further adjust the parameters of tracking sensitivity, acceleration/deceleration of tracking, and AF point auto-switching. Clearly, these settings need to be thoughtfully considered before you begin your photography—not in the heat of capture. If you’re interested in seeing exactly where the camera focused in each of your images, view them in Canon’s DPP software (it comes with every camera).
Ratings for ISO speed, which measures the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light, have become so exaggerated that it’s hard to comprehend what they mean. The highest settings (Nikon at over 3 million, Canon’s EOS-1D X Mark II at 409,600) are, in my opinion, useless for any purpose other than advertising. What does matter is that the usable ISO increases with each iteration.
Higher ISO capability allows us to achieve better quality in low-light situations, but it also enables faster shutter speeds to stop action and/or smaller apertures for additional depth of field. Being able to shoot at 1/4000 second at f/11 or f/16 increases the probability of capturing a flying bird frozen in mid-air and completely in focus. During these field tests, I was able to use 1/8000 sec. and f/16 for the first time, as I photographed whitewater kayakers at 700mm with a 500mm lens and a 1.4X tele-converter. Those are the ultimate camera settings for catching the action and stopping every drop of water flying through the air.
Buffer Size Matters
The importance of buffer space is illustrated by the true story I like to tell about a close encounter with a female elephant and her calf, part of a breeding herd in Botswana, a few years ago. Although we stopped at a respectful distance to allow the group to pass without provocation, “Mad Mama” broke from the herd and charged us. The driver, thinking she was bluffing, was slow to respond; by the time he and I realized this ear-flaring, trumpeting behemoth meant business, there was barely enough time to start the engine and reverse as quickly as a Land Rover can. I stood and fired the camera at maximum speed, documenting the action. As she reached us and began to ram the front of the vehicle with her head and tusks, the buffer filled and the camera just quit. We did escape unharmed, but the most thrilling part of the adventure, that big elephant’s head and ears and tusks, as wide as the space between the headlights, was never caught on camera, because the buffer was full.
The camera I was using had a buffer capacity of only 12 RAW files that was quickly filled, leaving me plenty of time to contemplate my fate instead of where to focus. The EOS-1D X Mark II has a buffer capacity of 170 RAW images in its original specs for CFast cards, but with a Hoodman Steel CFast 2.0 card, I’ve captured 300 RAW images at a continuous 14 fps before the camera slowed down. So I think I’m ready for another elephant encounter, and next time I’ll have a full set of images to document my demise.
4K Video And Frame Grabs
I see DSLR video as a welcome addition to my photographic repertoire, a different creative approach, a useful tool for illustration and instruction, and well worth the effort to master both capture and editing skills. Canon has elevated the potential of video by supporting 4K (4096 x 2016) resolution in the EOS-1D X Mark II.
At four times the resolution of HD (1920 x 1080) video, 4K makes it possible to grab a single frame from a video clip that’s good enough to yield a 30-inch print. When the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II is capturing 4K video, it’s recording a series of 8.8MP single-frame JPEGs at a rate of 30 or 60 frames per second. Think about it this way: it’s the equivalent of a DSLR camera with a motor drive that fires at 60 fps, uses all your lenses, has excellent Dual Pixel CMOS AF, and a top shutter speed of 1/4000 second. Some will say that pointing a video camera at some action, capturing it at 60 frames per second, and editing those 120 frames taken in 2 seconds to get just the right one is really cheating. Just wait until the next generation arrives, at 8K.
You might think it would be tedious to sort through all those frames to isolate a single capture, but there are several ways to do it. The EOS-1D X Mark II has a function in playback to stop the video being displayed on the LCD at the approximate place you want to select a single frame; you can move through that portion of the video in slow motion and then by single frames. When you’ve got the perfect frame on the screen, select an icon that saves it as a JPEG on the camera’s media card. Alternatively, locate and extract single frames in later versions of Photoshop or Canon’s EOS Movie Utility, version 1.5.
Video captured in 4K and at 60 fps can be very interesting when viewed on a 4K TV. To start with, the resolution is fantastic, the depth and color are stunningly beautiful, and the 60-fps capture speed adds the option of mesmerizing slow motion. The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II also captures full HD video at 120 fps (without sound). I can’t wait to photograph the hummingbirds coming to my backyard flowers at 120 fps and 1/4000 sec. shutter speed per frame. It’s not as fast as the very expensive high-speed professional video cameras that capture at hundreds of frames per second but still very impressive when you play it back.
Canon’s revolutionary Dual Pixel CMOS autofocus tracking was first deployed in the EOS 70D. Now in the EOS-1D X Mark II with 4K, it’s a whole new game in DSLR video. This is where 4K video AF tracking of kayakers in white water becomes possible—all you have to do is keep the kayaks framed.
What’s Not To Like?
Canon’s flagship models, like Nikon’s, have traditionally run heavy and large due to their complex features and rugged bodies. This heftiness may be a limiting factor for some photographers. I was disappointed that the EOS-1D X Mark II does not incorporate a time-lapse or multi-capture function, which I use often in my 5DS R, and which makes sense for a camera with a shutter life expectancy of 400,000 activations. And I’m anticipating the day we can capture DSLR video while looking through the viewfinder rather than incorporating a loupe to view it on the LCD screen.
For the serious wildlife or sports photographer, there is no question that the EOS-1D X Mark II is a huge step forward. I’m experiencing success with this camera that I could never have achieved with earlier cameras designed specifically for wildlife subjects. The speed is the thing—autofocus speed, capture rate, ISO—and buffer capacity and 4K video capability further expand all my creative options. After working with a pre-production model of the camera for a short time, I had to have my own. I’m always pushing the edges of photographic equipment, wanting it to be so good that the only limiting factor in my photography is … me. Now the pressure is really on.