Canon EOS-1D X Mark II: Hands-on Review

If you want a top end full frame Canon today, you could go the route of an EOS 5DS, offering a whopping 50.6MP sensor, or, for roughly double the price, you could go for an EOS 1D X Mk II, with a more modest, but still impressive, 20.2MP sensor.

Seems like a no brainer, right? Half the price and over double the pixels! But, as you would expect, there’s a bit more to it than that. The ‘more pixels better’ boat sailed quite a while ago now. While the 5DS is no doubt a superlative tool for the specialisms for which it was created, having fewer pixels in a given size of sensor (in this case, 24x36mm) means each photoreceptor is larger. Larger pixels are able to capture more light oven a given period of time, and are thus more sensitive. In addition, comparing sensors of the same size, those with larger pixels can lend an image an apparently smoother, and by some subjective criteria ‘sharper’, look, than those with smaller, and more crammed together, pixels.

Top ISO of 409,600 (Hi3). A quite ‘noisy’ image, but still impressive to be able to shoot at f/4.5 and 1/160sec under these conditions of street lighting at night.

While the EOS 1D X Mk II features a new 20.2MP sensor, it offers only slightly more pixels than that of the model it replaces, the EOS 1D X, with its 18.1MP. This, compared to the 50.6MP sensor of the 5DS may appear modest, but the 1D X Mk II is designed for high frame rate and low light shooting. With its dual Digic 6 processors, it offers up to 14FPS (16FPS in Live View), and an ISO setting of up to 409,600 (Hi3) (although shooting speed is reduced to a maximum of 10FPS if an ISO of 102,400 (32000 at low temp) or higher is set). Compared to this, the 5DS offers 5fps, and an ISO of up to 12,800 (Hi1).

The Nikon D5 meanwhile, which sports a similar number of pixels, offers a top ISO of 3,276,800, although, to put this in context, you need to remember that ISO is an arithmetic scale, which means that each time the sensitivity doubles, so does the number representing it, so you fairly quickly end up with some very high sounding numbers, and ISO3,276,800 is in fact only three stops faster than ISO409,600.

ISO51,200, subdued natural lighting coming through corrugated plastic sheeting. The high sensitivity enables handholding, close up, to achieve a clean sharp image at f/18 and 1/640sec.

ISO51,200, subdued natural lighting coming through corrugated plastic sheeting. The high sensitivity enables handholding, close up, to achieve a clean sharp image at f/18 and 1/640sec.

I was very interested to give the EOS 1D X Mk II a try at its top ISO setting. When I was a youth, shooting on 35mm film, I’d push ISO400 films like Kodak Tri-X and Ilford HP5 up to ISO3200, achieving golf ball grain and ultimate high contrast. Once, I got hold of some Kodak Recording Film RE2475 (nominal speed ISO1000), which I could push to ISO6400, producing better results, with more mid-tones, but still grainy. Then Kodak T-Max 3200 came out, with usable results at ISOs of up to ISO 25,000 or more.

And that, at the time, seemed to be the Holy Grail, whereas now, three decades later, here we have a camera with a top ISO of around half a million!

ISO2500, f/18, 1/80sec.

In order to put the camera’s high ISO capabilities to the test, I took it to my local butterfly house, where these large exotic insects live in conditions of tropical heat and humidity, lit through skylights by London’s typically cloudy skies. Under these lighting conditions, to capture the butterflies close up, with apertures small enough to ensure adequate depth of field, would traditionally require shutter speeds so long as to render use of a tripod essential. The cramped conditions of the butterfly house however make using a tripod impractical. The solution? To set ISOs that would traditionally have been either impossible to achieve, or when they could be set, would have created images so grainy that they would have been unusable.

Butterflies emerging from their pupae. Hand held. ISO51,200. 1/100sec, f/20.

So, how did the 1D X Mk II fare? Set at, or close to, its top ISO, it made images that, even subject to close scrutiny, exhibit little grain, and are usable in all other respects. This means, in short, that this is yet one more way in which digital is a game changer, producing results which would, in the past, have been simply impossible.

Although the high ISOs that it can achieve are what interests me the most about this camera’s specification, what will meanwhile no doubt uppermost in the minds of the majority of potential purchasers is its fast continuous shooting speeds. While the 1D X and the 1D X Mk II are superficially similar in many respects, one of the key differences between the two is the enhancement in frame rate with the 1 DX Mk II, up from 12fps on the 1 DX.

“So it’s giving me more of an opportunity to be creative because it’s giving me more of a frame rate … so it’s pushing me further because I know the camera is capable of it; therefore I become more capable.”

Commenting on this, Marc Aspland, Chief Sports Photographer at The Times newspaper in London, who has been shooting on the Mk II since early this year, says, “For the winning goal at a cup final, I will now be getting a chance to capture four, five or six frames of that very, very brief moment in time, at 1/2000sec, when a man kicks a ball. So it’s giving me more of an opportunity to be creative because it’s giving me more of a frame rate … so it’s pushing me further because I know the camera is capable of it; therefore I become more capable.”

This goes hand in hand with the camera’s other enhancements. Says Marc, “I’ve noticed that the autofocus is quicker, even at f/8. Again, it gives me the confidence in that tool to work that way. And I’ve noticed that I can push the ISO so much further than I did previously as a sports action photographer.”

Autumn garden. ISO51,200. f/20, 1/1250sec.

Shooting speeds of up to 16fps aren’t much use without a buffer sufficiently large to cope with them of course and, in another improvement over the 1D X, the Mk II is able to shoot up to 170 raw files or an unlimited number of JPEGs in a single burst.

The 1D X Mk II is also a very effective tool for video, offering 4K image capture, at 30fps and 60fps. Video is captured in Motion Jpeg format, meaning that each frame of video can be extracted as an 8.8MP still. The name 4K refers to a horizontal (width) resolution of approximately 4000 pixels. The use of width to describe the overall resolution marks a change from previous video resolution categorisations such as 1080p, which refer to the number of vertical lines. Using that same convention, 4K would be referred to as 2160p.

Fallow deer, doe, ISO100, 1/80sec, f/4.5. Normal program.

In use, many of the 1D X Mk II’s positive attributes: full frame sensor, large (3.2ins) rear view LCD panel, awesome frame rate (implying suitably robust mechanics to enable it) and weatherproof magnesium alloy shell, make it one hefty burden to carry around. With battery, strap, memory card, lens hood and a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens attached, the 1D X Mk II weighs in on my scales at 2.412KG. However, the camera’s weight and bulk are somewhat offset by Canon’s characteristic ergonomic two grip design, meaning that it is easy to hold steadily (good for hand holding at low shutter speeds with lenses such as the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, which doesn’t have image stabilisation built in) in both the vertical and horizontal shooting positions.

Fallow deer, doe, ISO200, 1/800sec, f/2.8. Switching to aperture priority and opening up, and getting in closer, leads to a more atmospheric shot.

The design of a camera this sophisticated, yet made for instantaneous use in the field, with often no opportunity for a reshoot, has a delicate path to tread, and the 1D X Mk II manages its twin imperatives well. That 3.2ins screen is helpful for navigating through menus nested within menus, should you wish to set up the camera’s many metering, frame rate, ISO and other options to your specification, with a joystick with a robust, proactive feel. Or, if you wish, all of that lot can disappear, and you can get on with shooting immediately, and without encumbrance, the camera’s automatic facilities making a very good job of even quite tricky shooting situations.

Having got used to working with a Canon EOS 70D (albeit a much smaller and lighter camera, designed very much with video shooters in mind) one thing I miss on the EOS 1D X Mk II is the 70D’s articulated rear screen. While I am sure it could be argued that, in the kind of robust conditions for which the 1D X Mk II is designed, an articulated screen could be vulnerable to being snapped off or damaged, I feel that such an option could have been built in, leaving it to users to decide whether to have the screen tucked into body or to have it out on a pivot, as situations demanded. It is, after all, such a useful facility to be able to compose an image while looking down on the screen, or holding the camera above your head, or indeed in many other permutations.

1/320sec, f/2.8. Shot at the wide (28mm) end of the 28-70mm zoom’s focal length range, producing adequate depth of field for this shot, even at the widest aperture.

In another improvement over the 1D X, one facility that the rear screen does share in common with that of the 70D is touch sensitivity. It is however a pity that, in the case of the 1D X Mk II, this is only utilised in Video mode for turning continuous auto focusing on and off, and setting the focus point, and in Live View for setting the focus point, whereas in the 70D, you can scroll through shot images by flicking your screen, and use pinch and grab to enlarge or reduce them. These are actions that we have all become so used to these days, through the use of our mobile phones, that meeting a screen that doesn’t enable them seems positively strange.

The EOS 1D X Mk II is a weighty and robust camera, whose design may seem counter-intuitive when, in many instances, one of the great advantages that we have become accustomed to with digital is that it enables kit to be smaller and lighter, and yet still achieve quality results. However, this is a camera built without compromise for a specific purpose: and if those are your requirements, then this is the ultimate tool for the job.

EOS-1D X Mk II – key features

-• Continuous shooting at up to 14fps for full resolution raw or Jpegs; up to 16fps in Live View.

-• Burst rate of up to 170 raws in continuous shooting at up to 16fps, and 4K movies using CFast -cards in new CFast 2.0 card slot.

-• New 20.2MP full-frame CMOS sensor with ISO range of 100-51,200; expandable up to ISO 409,600.

-• 61-point High Density Reticular AF II system with 41 cross-type points; improved centre point focusing sensitivity to -3EV and compatibility down to f/8.

-• Accurate subject tracking for stills and video with new EOS Intelligent Tracking and Recognition AF with 360,000-pixel metering sensor.

-• View and control over stills and video via the 3.2ins touch panel LCD with 1.62 million dots.

-• Increased resolution and fine detail with lens aberration correction and diffraction correction via new in-camera Digital Lens Optimiser technology.

-• Built-in GPS provides geotag information including auto time syncing with Universal Times Code (UTC) via satellites.

-• New optional Wireless File Transmitter WFT-E8A is compatible with IEEE 802.11ac/n/a/g/b; supporting both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz WiFi bands.

-• Durable and rugged magnesium alloy body with dust and weather resistance for demanding shooting situations.