And here it finally is, the much hyped and awaited Canon EOS 1D MK II, the company’s third “professional” specification camera. The first was the EOS 1D, released a few years ago now, but which created the benchmark for so much to follow with its fast response, autofocus and ability to shoot almost continuously without lockout. This camera was aimed squarely at Pro Sports and Press photographers and soon made an impact. Compared to other DSLRs on the market at that time it was a dream, the only grumbles concerned the small fize size – 11MB (TIFF) and noisy images at high ISO. A year later Canon released the EOS 1Ds, aimed squarely at the studio market, with a whopping 31MB image but at the price of a small buffer and tendency to quickly lockout during shooting. I bought the 1Ds as soon as it came out to replace my 1D, have loved shooting with it and have learnt to live with the small buffer. Now finally Canon have released the successor to the original 1D, the 1D MK2, with promises of a 100% increase in file size, relatively noise free images at all ISO levels and superior buffer performance.
On paper it all sounded great so I immediately placed an order through Wex Photographic and was one of the lucky few to get one from the latest shipment. It’s not often that I buy a camera on faith, not least so that I write a review of it, but the 1D MK2 promised much that would be useful to me.
As usual this will be a staggered test over a few weeks as that is the only way to get a grip on what the camera is actually doing and how it performs. So these are my findings so far, I will update further in mid July after I return from Finland. Also the review is from the photographic standpoint – how it performs under real shooting conditions and the image quality from a professional’s standpoint will be my main considerations. Of course I’ll mention all the terminology but will make no apologies for missing out some of the functions as they simply aren’t useful to many of us. For those of you that want a complete nuts and bolts review covering every aspect of the camera then after you’ve read this one I suggest that you check out Phil Askey’s at www.dpreview.com.
Finally all images shown in this review are converted as shot and are not corrected in any way, shape or form.
Technical Specifications and Highlights
Ok, let’s first take a look at the main technical specifications and feature highlights:
- High Resolution Single Plate CMOS sensor, 8.20 effective megapixels
- JPEG Large and RAW images are 3504 x 2336 pixels, in other words great prints to A3 and beyond
- Improved 45 point autofocus
- 21 zone TTL full aperture metering with several options
- Shutter speeds 1/8000th sec. to 30 sec.
- E-TTL II flash capability with EOS Speedlite for allegedly improved flash operation
- Double drive bay – 1 CF card slot and 1 SD card slot
- Water-resistant body
- New processing software – Digital Photo Pony (ooops I mean Professional) and internal algorithms
- New LCD zoom function
- 1.3x effective magnification
- Plus lots of extra bits that don’t matter a jot to most of us
One of the main claims for this camera is its superb autofocus speed. So far I haven’t seen any reviews really put this to the test, so I decided to take it right to the wire. I’ve always loved falconry; the sight of seeing a falcon swooping past my head at breakneck speed is one I’ll never tire of. A falcon’s flight is very fast, unpredictable and more importantly it’s a very small object in a very large background. Trying to get sharp images of a falcon in full flight would be a superb test for the 1D Mk II, as I’ve only managed it once on several attempts with my 1Ds. So Geoff (a falconer friend of mine) and I assembled the select team of specialists – a Peregrine Falcon (the temperamental speed merchant), a Lanner Falcon (the always willing speed merchant) and a Saker Falcon (the aerial acrobat). All would exhibit very fast, erratic flight and would test my ability as a photographer almost as much as the 1D MK2. Setting up the camera for motion is easy; I chose AI Servo autofocus, selected all 45 autofocus points and manually worked out my exposure with an aperture of f4. Lens wise I chose my much loved 70-200 f2.8L IS with a 1.4x teleconverter as I knew that I’d need the quickest focusing lens that I owned to stand any chance. I chose a fast CF card too – Integrals i-Pro 2GB with a 6MB/sec write speed. Finally I set the Custom Function 20 to “Fast” to allow the AI Servo to have its maximum sensitivity. ISO was originally set to 200 but raised to 400 and 800 as I was playing hide and seek with the sun. So the time of the great dual approached, who would win, Rouse or the mighty falcons.
Thirty knackering minutes later I had my answer – the falcons won 3-0. The good news is that the 1D MK2 had indeed nailed a lot of shots that I knew nothing else would. Once the autofocus locked on I found that it held out really well and I could see that the focus was retained throughout the whole sequence of the falcon’s pass. Of course the performance wasn’t totally perfect; I did experience some problems with the 1D MK2 locking on during the first few seconds of the motion, particularly when against the sky. Notably against a pure blue sky the performance was a lot better, as it was when the sun was out, both of which were no surprise to me. One intermittent problem I noticed was that the focus sometimes froze when switching from one subject area to the next. This problem was inconsistent but happened a few times so it’s worth mentioning; to correct it I just dabbed the shutter button down and the autofocus snapped into place.
I tested this further whilst photographing Red Throated Divers taking off and landing. In the cases where the autofocus had plenty of time to lock on I found that more time than I would like it didn’t quite lock on. It was close, but not perfect. Taking my finger off the fire button briefly and back on again seemed to “wake up” the autofocus and it snapped straight on. Very weird. I have heard from fellow sports professionals of a similar problem and so know it is definitely there.
Ok, so that’s the servo dealt with, but what about the accuracy of the normal one shot autofocus. To put it to the test I took my 1D MK2 to Alaska with me to work on Grizzlies. You can read the full story of this trip on www.naturephotographers.net but for now just take it as read that I had to work very quickly and accurately. I can say that for the whole trip the 1D MK2 never caused me to miss a shot and shooting alongside my 1Ds, I could see that I was definitely nailing more with the new kid on the block.
So what did I think of the new 1D MK2 autofocus? Well, overall I did find that when the 1D MK2 locked on, it was very fast indeed and very accurate. I can say that hand on heart it allowed me to shoot much quicker than I would have done with the 1Ds and I probably hit more. Still though I am a little unsure when using it due to the freezing problem that I mentioned above, which means that I cannot just assume that the autofocus has locked on. This is probably no bad thing as it makes me concentrate on getting the shot, but of course I’d prefer it if the camera didn’t do this.
One point to make about a new Custom Function 21. The manual says “Shooting is possible even while focus has not been achieved. Even though the focus is not quite sharp, at least you will have a picture”. Huh? I can see in some press applications that something really newsworthy would apply to this rule, but for everyone else (and I mean 99.99999999999999% of us) this function needs to be left at its default setting. If the image is not in sharp focus then it should not be taken as no amount of post processing can fix it if it isn’t sharp in the first place. Just a comment as some of you might be tempted to set this function, don’t unless you’re creating art!!
The falcon test above also proved a superb test for the new buffering capabilities of the 1D MK2. The manual states that the buffer will hold a maximum of 20 RAW images and 40 JPEGS (large) before becoming full. Experienced Canon users will know that Canon uses an intelligent double buffering system to free up more buffer space during shooting, thus reducing the chance of total lockout. During one of the Peregrine Falcon swoops it arched up in the air and looked back on Geoff, almost hanging in mid air. The focus locked immediately, I held down the shutter button and quickly filled the buffer with 20 shots. I was then locked out for a second or so until the buffer freed up space for an image and I was allowed to shoot again. Initially I just accepted this as it happens a lot with the small buffer of the 1Ds, but after a while I began to realise that the buffer wasn’t clearing out as fast as I’d expect. With the original 1D the buffer was really cleared out quickly, but then again the file size was under half that of the 1D MK2. But that was also several years ago and you’d have expected technology to have come on leaps and bounds since then.
In the confines of my studio I set about checking out the timed performance of the 1D MK2 buffer. The results are subjective of course and will not be 100% accurate but at least they will give you an idea. First I used an Integral standard 512MB CF card, and took 20 consecutive RAWs to fill up the buffer:
Time after lockout when 1 shot available – 1.4 seconds
Time after lockout when 5 shots available – 12 seconds
Time after lockout when buffer cleared – 42-43 seconds
With the 2GB Integral 6MB/sec card the buffer cleared in 37 seconds, which you would expect as it’s a faster card.
Of course my test was an extreme one and on very occasions in a typical year would I expect to shoot so much in one burst. Of course many of you might have applications where you will need to shoot high bursts (for example sports pros) but in this instance you’ll be no doubt shooting JPEGS and will rarely if ever even see the buffer full! To balance this argument still further I should point out that at no time during my Grizzly Bear test did I ever lock out the camera or lose a shot due to slow response. I know for a fact, because I had it there and used it on occasion, that I continually missed shots with the 1Ds due its small buffer. So in reality we should all be grateful for the vastly improved performance, but I did expect a slightly quicker clearout of the buffer.
New Zoom Function
The MK2 has an all new zoom function to inspect images via the LCD and I found this to be really superb. Using a combination of the thumbwheel and rear dial it is simple to navigate around an image and the zoom is held even when scrolling from image to image which I found particularly useful. Usually of course I would recommend against using the zoom due to battery drain, but the MK2 seems to have a much better performance in this area; I was also using the Quantum Compact battery to power the camera so this was hardly an issue. Well done Canon, a well though out function.
The 1D MK2 comes supplied with two disks – one containing the camera drivers and EOS Viewer utility and one containing the all new Digital Photo Professional RAW application. Since the latter seemed to be a big step forward I naturally installed it and tried to use it to process my images. I looked at the DPP with a totally open mind as I wanted Canon to have produced a good RAW utility as Nikon have, but after 5 minutes I found myself searching the internet for details of the independent browser support. The problem with the DPP is one of workflow, it just doesn’t make sense. Feature wise it has no drag and drop facilities (had to use the cut&paste from my mouse to get my images from the CF card), the thumbnails appear out of focus when viewed at the largest setting, limited adjustment controls (read very limited) and worst of all no sharpening option. Now I always advocate sharpening at the final stage of post processing but the 1D MK2 is well known to have a soft image and could do with a little sharpness tweak at processing time. So why oh why have Canon left out any means of sharpening it with the DPP, since working on the 12 bit RAW image data is the most efficient place to tweak the sharpening. Of course sharpening is provided with the EOS viewer application, which of course doesn’t make any sense at all. Why Canon have shipped two applications that both do half a job I can’t really see, when logic would dictate that one good one would suffice. Fortunately the Digital Photo Pony (my new name for it because it’s a load of old pony) is not the only player on the market and the independents are just starting to release support for the 1D MK2. Come on Canon, surely producing good software isn’t that hard?
During the first week of using the 1D MK2 I became increasingly concerned about the image quality. Every image I took seemed to be soft, i.e. not quite as sharp as the images that I have been used to on the 1Ds. As always I had the camera set to the minimum sharpening level, which is the best way to do it unless you are Press and need usable images straight from the camera. Speaking to a couple of people at Canon I was told that this has been their philosophy to get rid of the noise problems at high ISO, by effectively giving us a slightly softer image. As I said I was initially disappointed with the results, but now have started to appreciate that the soft image is actually quite good. The detail is there in the picture, it just needs a little sharpening to bring it out. Of course the problem here is that DPPony doesn’t provide a sharpening option, which means you have to sharpen in Photoshop (i.e. not with the RAW data). This fact aside I can say that they images have now grown on me and I realise that they actually sharpen up beautifully. To confirm this I sent a few test files to one of my agents (a worldwide name) for them to evaluate. They extrapolated them to both 50MB and 300MB and said that the images were superb, relatively noise free and took sharpening very well indeed.
Now that I am experienced with the camera I am becoming used to the softness and in fact I now prefer the images to those from my 1Ds. On my recent trip to Finland I left the 1Ds behind and took only the MK2.
The one shining light that is without doubt is the image quality at high ISO, it is simply superb. Very little evidence of noise, even upto ISO 800 and beyond. In fact I have begun shooting almost exclusively at ISO 200 as it’s probably better than the 1Ds at ISO 100 (and I get an extra stop too).
Not something that I would normally comment on but the 1D MK2 is a noisy camera. Whilst in my diver hide I noticed how noisy a friend’s camera was, and he was on the far side of the pool. Several times the bird was clearly disturbed by the camera noise, so much so that I was forced to reduce the drive to single frame. Some photographers of course will love this as they want to be “seen” as a photographer, speaking personally as a wildlife photographer it could be a bit of a pain for the shyer species.
As I mentioned at the start the MK2 has two slots for storage cards, one for the usual CF / Microdrive and a second for an SD card. I have asked the question many times of various people in the trade but have never really received an answer as to why the SD format was chosen. Admittedly it’s the new rising star, compact and offering lots of storage, and I can see the attraction of having two cards in the camera at once; when one fills up the camera automatically switches to the other, right? Wrong. When the CF card fills up there is no automatic switch, just a message in the viewfinder and an unresponsive camera. Switching to the SD card is not straight forward either, which makers me wonder why it was included in the first place. I can see the merits of having two cards, but with the current implementation it’s actually quicker in the field to replace the CF card. This is a minor issue as most of us will rarely use this but I felt that it should be mentioned as it’s being sold as an advantage.
I have heard a few grumbles from the pro sports crowd that the colour balance from the 1D MK2 is slightly off. The specific comments were from Formula 1 photographers photographing a red Ferrari. So far in my experience the colour balance seems to be fairly low key and true to form, certainly in low light the excessive reds of previous models are not so apparent. Again I think that Canon have probably done this deliberately to help with post processing although I can see the argument from my pro colleagues. To my eye the colour balance seems pleasing to the eye, but I have yet to see how it handles extremes of colour.
Perhaps the worst aspect of using a DSLR is trying to get a balanced flash exposure. The DSLR sensor is so sensitive to light that most attempts result in an overexposure. The MK2 comes with an all new E-TTL2 flash system that promised much; to test it I used Biffa my friendly Giraffe. The exposure was a difficult one, the sky was pretty bright but Biffa was much darker, so how would the Mk2 cope. The answer is that whilst it tended to underexpose slightly, it was only slightly and could easily be corrected by a ½ stop compensation. I spent a whole day testing it and can honestly say that the MK2 E-TTL2 flash system is much improved over it’s predecessors.
So their it is, hopefully a reasonably complete field test of the issues that matter with the 1D MK2. My honest conclusion is that, despite my mumbles and grumbles, it is the leading DSLR at the moment from Canon. Whilst the 1Ds offers a bigger file size, this is more than negated by the clean images and superior performance of the MK2. But I still use my 1Ds and will use both to their merits, until the much vaunted 1Ds MK2 is announced (which the rumour mill thinks will be at PhotoKina in September). However that camera will definitely be a mortgage job, so the 1D MK2 is a much better bet for the masses, as long as you are aware of the issues that I have raised here. To be honest most of them are minor issues, my one piece of advice however is to buy some independent software – don’t be ponied by the Pony!
So far so good is my honest rating. For me to be willing to use this camera on two important trips to Alaska and Finland should show you that it is coming up with the goods. As always there are a few little niggles that I have but these can all be worked around with little or no thought. In Finland I’ll be testing the performance of the camera in very low light conditions, plus also the new E-TTL flash system. I’ll be in touch as soon as I get back, happy snapping!