The EOS-1D series is at the pinnacle of the still cameras within the Canon brand, it is the workhorse of many professionals that gets the job done, day in and day out no matter what the conditions are. With the introduction of the EOS-1D X in 2011, Canon moved from the 16 Mega-pixel APS-H (~1.3X crop) sensor in the EOS-1D Mark IV to a 18 Mega-pixel full-frame sensor in the EOS-1D X while delivering 12 fps RAW continuous shooting speed. The EOS-1D X set the standard for both AF and high ISO performance for Canon users. In my review of the EOS-1D X, I found it great for photographing birds in flight (BIF). Five years later, the EOS-1D X remains the camera of choice for myself and many other working professionals specializing in such disciplines as wildlife, sports, action and photo journalism.
In February 2016, Canon announced the much-anticipated successor to the EOS-1D X, the EOS-1D X Mark II. The second iteration of the “X” family features a 20.8 Mega-pixel full-frame sensor. The continuous shooting speed has been increased from 12 fps to 14 fps (or 14 fps to 16 fps without AF shooting JPEGs). The EOS-1D X Mark II is compatible with CFAST2.0 memory cards. The CFAST interface enables it to read and write to CFAST2.0 media at very high speeds (>500MB/sec). This means that the buffer depth during continuous shooting has significantly increased when shooting RAWs as compared to the EOS-1D X which is limited by its UDMA7 interface. The EOS-1D X Mark II also features 4K video recording and many advanced video-related features to compliment its video function. Since I do not shoot video I’ll skip the video functions for this review. Perhaps the most notable upgrade relative to the EOS-1DX for still shooters is the new high density reticular AF II system. It is a completely new system with both major hardware and software improvements as Chuck Westfall, Canon U.S.A.’s technical adviser explained in an interview on my blog a few months ago.
The table below summarizes major improvements in the EOS-1D X Mark II relative to the original EOS-1D X.
Externally, there is little difference between the two cameras. The button layout is identical between the two cameras. This means that the EOS-1D X users will feel at home, they can grab the camera and start shooting. The image below shows EOS-1D X Mark II side-by-side with the EOS-1D X. The EOS-1D X Mark II has a slightly deeper grip, but overall it feels very similar to the EOS-1D X. Both bodies weigh 54 oz/1530 g.
The EOS-1DX Mark II now features a USB 3.0 port as well as a headphone jack for video recording. The 3-pin remote control terminal has now moved to the right side of the camera just above the vertical shutter release to make room for the headphone jack.
The EOS-1D X Mark II features a higher resolution LCD that is also touch sensitive. In practice, it is hard to tell the difference between this screen and the lower resolution screen on the EOS-1D X, both have very high DPI. The touch function can only be used for Live View (LV) focusing. To focus, simply tap on the subject on the screen and the camera focuses instantly. The Live View AF is MUCH faster with the EOS-1D X Mark II, than on the original EPS-1D X, thanks to the new dual-pixel CMOS AF, which is a simplified form of phase-detect AF using the pixels on the image sensor. The camera focuses almost instantly and without any hunting, the EOS-1D X on the other hands, takes a second or two to lock focus in LV mode and it often hunts.
It’s a shame however, that the touch screen cannot be used to operate other camera functions such as image review. Basic functions, such as zoom using a two-finger pinch or browsing by swiping would have been nice. This would make the image review much easier when the camera is attached to a big white, such as the EF 600mm f/4 IS II and placed vertically on the ground or is attached to a gimball or to a harness system. I hope Canon can add such functions via a firmware upgrade. Still lacking are back-lit buttons that would make it much easier to operate the camera in the dark.
Canon have also redesigned the joystick on the EOS-1D X Mark II for both the horizontal and the vertical grip. It is now slightly larger. I like to set the joystick to directly select the AF sensor on all my Canon bodies.
The EOS-1DX Mark II also features a new battery back, the LP-E19 and a new charger. It has a higher capacity (2700 mAh) compared to the LP-E4N (2450 mAh) used in the EOS-1D X. The EOS 1D-X Mark II and the supplied charger are backward compatible with the old battery but the continuous shooting speed will decrease to 12 fps. In practice the battery life of the EOS-1D X Mark II is excellent. I could easily get 2500+ shots on a single charge even with the GPS on. The GPS module doesn’t seem to drain the battery, as it does with the EOS 7D Mark II, where I have to make sure the GPS remains off. Just like the old chargers, the new dual-charger can only charge one battery at a time instead of both batteries at the same time, I wish Canon would address this issue.
Overall the EOS-1D X Mark II remains similar to the EOS-1D X in form, size, and weight.
Image quality comparison:
In this section we will compare the RAW image quality of the EOS-1DX Mark II to the EOS-1D X, which is the current high ISO champion among EOS bodies. At low ISO’s there is hardly any difference between the cameras. As I rarely use ISO’s lower than 800 so the comparisons were done at ISO 800, 1600, 3200 and 6400. The first group of images are of standard 18% grey calibration targets to show noise in uniform areas. All samples were converted with Canon DPP 4.4. Luminescence noise reduction was set to zero and chrominance noise reduction (which does not affect detail) was set according to DPP 4.4 RAW conversion Guide. Please click on each image to expand and view at 100%.
Note: all images in this review will be resized automatically to fit your browser, please click on each image to see the details.
As seen from the crops above there is little difference between the high ISO noise characteristics of the EOS-1D X and the EOS-1D X Mark II. Both sensors operator close to the shot noise limit (the fundamental limit of an image sensor) and are free of any pattern noise. The grain, when using Canon DPP 4.4 for RAW conversion, is very tight and can be easily removed with noise reduction without affecting the details much. The samples above were shot with the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM.
I also compared image quality for a simulated wildlife subject. I attached real game feathers to my decoy owl and took test shots with EOS-1D X and 1D-X Mark II side by side. The images were shot in ambient light with EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II mounted on a tripod. Remote release was used. I then converted the CR2 files using Canon DPP 4.4 using the most optimal settings for each camera as outlined in the new DPP4.4 RAW conversion Guide. Canon DPP uses propitiatory demosaicing and NR algorithms tailored to each camera’s image sensor. As you can see below, it does a great job of suppressing grain at high ISO without degrading the critical feather details.
Note that subject in the EOS 1DX Mark II image is slightly larger and shows a tiny bit more detail upon close inspection, this is from the added ~2 Mega pixels (20 vs. 18). The difference, however, is pretty small.
Again, the results were almost identical. Although both cameras go to some insanely high ISOs, the highest ISO with an acceptable image quality for me is typically ISO 6400. Beyond ISO 6400 the image becomes too noisy to produce a large, high quality output. For web presentation or for small prints, the higher ISOs could be used with careful processing. See an example made at ISO 10,000 below. During the tests, I also noticed that the Auto White Balance was much more accurate with the EOS-1DX Mark II. I have always had to set the WB manually for the EOS-1DX to get an accurate color rendition.
Low ISO Fixed Pattern Noise
The EOS-1DX Mark II seems to also have improved the fixed pattern noise (FPN) that is often seen in uniform areas when raising very deep shadows at low ISO’s or during very long exposures (or when trying to recover a severely underexposed image). At high ISO’s the signal to noise is limited by shot noise, so user will not observe FPN. Therefore, this issue is irrelevant to majority of the EOS-1D users who stick to high ISO’s for action and low light photography. Having shot with the EOS-1D X for four years I cannot recall even one instance where I encountered this issue, nevertheless it is a welcomed improvement.
The night scene below combined long exposure with a high dynamic range scene to create a torture test for the sensor. The image was made with EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II at 200mm. ISO 100, 5 second exposure at f/4 on tripod.
Below are 100% crops from the RAW capture from each camera, after the exposure was raised by +3EV with DPP 4.4 and shadow recovery was set to +4. The difference between the results from the two sensors is quite striking. The EOS-1D X Mark II can “see” into darkness while the same area shows visible vertical banding and much less details in the EOS-1D X image.
Overall, the RAW image quality of the EOS-1D X Mark II is quite similar to the image quality stained with the EOS-1D X when shooting BIF or other action at high ISO’s. Looking at the back of the camera, the in-camera JPEG’s from the EOS 1D-X Mark II appear to have much better processing compared to the EOS-1D X. The JPEG’s files are cleaner and look sharper too with less halo artifacts, but I as never shoot JPEG’s so I’ll move on to the next section.
So far, it doesn’t look like the EOS-1D X Mark II is really a significant upgrade to the EOS-1D X for still photographers. But that’s not the end of the story. The AF software and hardware have been completely overhauled in the EOS-1D X Mark II. AF is the single most important factor for photographers who like to shoot wildlife action and in particular birds in flight.
For two weeks after I got my new camera body, we had cloudy skies and showers here in northern CA. I only had two opportunities to test the camera at my regular locations where I had shot with other cameras before. First I worked with my EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II with 2X Extender III. This combination had proven quite capable with the EOS-1D X, but it offered only the center AF point. The first time I tried this combo with the EOS-1D X Mark II, I was simply blown away by the AF performance. The percentage of critically sharp files was noticeably higher when shooting birds in flight in low light. At times, I forgot that I was shooting with at f/8.
The example above at ISO 10,000 is certainly above my comfort zone, it was taken after sunset. The catchlight was added in post processing. It is meant to demonstrate the AF capabilities of the EOS 1DX Mark II in extreme low light/low contrast situation with the maximum aperture of f/8. The original EOS-1DX (and pretty much any other camera on the market) will often just quit trying to track the subject in such low light condition. This lucky tern was flying fast as it was being chased by other terns.
Below is another example. The Green Heron was photographed in light rain in very dark conditions. Again, these were not an ideal conditions for in-flight photography given the poor light. But it is a great example of Canon’s new AF prowess.
In many cases I got 80%-90% tack sharp files in a burst sequence with this combo. This is a noticeably higher percentage than what I was getting with the EOS-1D X. Some of the improvement comes from the fact that all AF points are now available. And, I can use a larger expansion mode. I mostly use center point with expansion for BIF photography. Lastly, the EOS 1D X Mark II’s new AF software and hardware is fundamentally better at tracking BIF against complex backgrounds.
Below is another example of a fast bird in flight, this one in better light with the EOS-1D X Mark II and the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II and Extender 2X III. There were 30+ frames in this sequence and all but one are critically sharp at the pixel level.
Earlier this month I traveled to Southern California to shoot peregrine falcons. These raptors are the fastest members of the animal kingdom. They are often difficult to photograph as they nest on tall cliffs and fly very fast. Photographers have to acquire and lock focus on the falcon in just a split second before it disappears behind a cliff. This was a great opportunity to put the new camera through some serious testing. Furthermore, I had photographed in this location before with the EOS-1D X so I had a good idea of what the old camera was capable of under similar conditions.
The skies were overcast all the time. There was some fog earlier in the morning which made it an even more challenging situation for the AF system. I mainly used my EF 600mm f/4 IS II (bare and with extenders) for this shoot because I had previously used the same gear with the EOS-1D X. When shooting with the EOS-1DX Mark II, I immediately noticed an improvement in acquiring and holding focus on the falcon against varied rock, beach and wave backgrounds in very low contrast conditions. This was true even when the bird was filling only 15-20% of the frame.
The image below isn’t necessarily very attractive given the busy background, but it does make a point about the AF capabilities of the new body.
The example below shows a juvenile peregrine in a high-speed dive. Nature has blessed these raptors incredible speed; some birds have been clocked at 240 mph!. Their ability to manueuver in flight is also amazing. While observing these birds their immense speed becomes even more apparent when they cover a vast area of open ocean in a matter of seconds! They gain speed by folding their wings almost like a fighter jet with variable-sweep wings. I had seen this behavior last time as well, but was not successful in capturing it. Situations like thes are as tough as it gets for BIF.
The image above was particularly difficult because even with careful tracking and with 14 fps you only get one or two frames against color before the falcon exits the frame or is obscured by a cliff. In this case I was able to create two frames and both were tack-sharp.
What I noticed immediately was the consistency and the stability of the AI servo tracking. I have many sequences of 30+ in-flight frames that are all tack sharp. It almost feels too easy capturing the ideal frame with the EOS-1D X Mark II.
The buffer depth with the EOS-1D X Mark II is virtually unlimited when shooting with a CFAST 2.0 card. I used a pair of 64GB SanDisk Extreme Pro CFAST 2.0 cards for this shoot. It’s amazing how fast the camera can empty the buffer with the CFAST card, I can barely see the card activity LED come on.
During the shoot, I noticed that when the CFAST card was almost full, or when I deleted a large number of files on the card after it was full (as opposed to formatting the card), the camera slowed down after a deep burst. Most likely this is because the CFAST card is moving data internally to make room for the new files that are being dumped by the camera. This operation can take seconds to complete and during this time the camera will not operate. Ideally, when this happens, the camera should immediately switch to the CF card and allow the user to continue shooting. I have contacted both SanDisk can Canon support regarding this issue; they are working on it and mentioned that a solution is likely soon. I will update this section once that comes to fruition. For now I recommend carrying plenty of CFAST cards so that you can insert a freshly formatted card as soon as a card is almost full. That done you can continue shooting at full speed.
Update: Canon have updated the EOS-1D X Mark II firmware 1.02 to address the possible corruption of data with EOS-1D X Mark II and SanDisk CFAST2.0 cards.
I really wish that Canon had included two CFAST 2.0 slots instead of a CFAST slot and a CF card slot. Working with two media is cumbersome; you need to carry two kinds of card readers. And the slower write speed of the CF card is limited by the UDMA protocol. Memory card prices drop quickly thanks to FLASH technology scaling so I don’t see the justification for staying with an obsolete media, especially when a memory card is just a fraction of the total cost of an EOS-1D X Mark II camera body.
The frame below shows a male peregrine in a high-speed dive,. The males responsibilities include feeding all the loud and hungry juveniles as well as protecting them from any danger in the skies above.
The sky was cloudy all day but that actually helped in the afternoon since the juveniles and parents were more active later in the day when the sun would have been too harsh without cloud cover. These conditions were quite challenging for the AF system, given the low contrast between the falcons and the backgrounds at this location—the ocean with waves and some colorful cliffs. Overall I had many more keepers compared to last time I shot flight at the same location with the EOS-1D X.
The peregrines have amazing control at high speed; I often saw them bank at very high speed–, that must be quite a few G’s!
Below is an example of a very challenging chase situation for AF, with both birds flying at high speed and changing direction almost constantly against a very busy, contrasty background. The camera held focus very well; all the frames in the sequence were tack-sharp even when the birds veered off center a bit.
The GIF animation below shows all the frames in this sequence. Click on the image to see the animation.
Low light in the morning gave me good opportunities to test the real-world high ISO performance of the camera. The images below were taken at ISO 3200. The RAW files are clean and sharp and don’t show much noise at all when converted with Canon DPP 4.4 using the recommended recipe in the new DPP 4.4 Guide.
Below is a 100% crop from the image above, straight out of DPP 4.4 with no sharpening or additional noise reduction beyond the RAW conversion parameters. there is a little bit of noise when viewed at pixel level, but the grain is very tight and can be easily removed using selective noise reduction as outlined in the post processing guide. It is possible to make very large quality prints at high ISO with this camera. I have to mention that the original EOS 1DX was also great in this regard. I recall producing museum quality prints 46″ wide from images taken at ISO 5000 for the San Diego Natural History Museum Birds of the World exhibit. You can see that image here.
The image below was underexposed by about a stop at ISO 3200, I was able to recover the details with no issue using DPP4.4
The image below shows the juvenile falcons right after breakfast–a starling–was delivered by dad. The upper falcon is holding on to the prey—the starling’s head is visible right by the upper bird’s talons. To get both birds in focus I used focus stacking: I focused on the upper bird and took a few frames then I immediately moved the focus point to the lower bird and snapped a few frames. The two frames were blended together in Photoshop CC to produce the image below. Just as I did with the EOS-1D X, I set the joystick on the back of the 1D X II so that I can use it quickly change the selected AF sensor when hand holding a big white.
The juvenile birds were often very active late in the day when the breeze picked up; they were constantly chasing larger birds that wandered into their airspace. This bird was going after a pelican, a bird much larger than itself. The pelican bailed quickly.
This is another frame that shows the juvenile peregrine diving at a juvenile pelican. Most of the time the chase was happening far out on the ocean. This wasn’t ideal for closeup detail, but nevertheless, it was fun to observe and document the action.
I also saw the juvenile falcon go after and “attack” an RC jet that someone was flying in the area. The falcons are incredibly intelligent; The juvenile was flying side by side with the RC jet trying to gauge its competence and find its vulnerabilities. Once it found a weak spot (the elevators) it attacked in an attempt to knock them out. It did not succeed, at least this time. I heard that eh falcons had taken out several RC planes in this location.
Another interesting interaction that I observed was between a juvenile peregrine and a curious ground squirrel. The squirrel was trying to sneak up on the falcon from behind, perhaps to taste the freshly killed dove. It must have been a brave squirrel. Although peregrine falcons prey almost exclusively on other birds, it must have been scary for the ground squirrel o be close to the talons.
Note that it was pretty much impossible to get both the squirrel and the peregrine sharp in the frame above since they were not parallel to the back of the camera. The image above is a composite of two images, I first focused on the peregrine and snapped a few frames then I quickly moved the AF point to the squirrel and got a few frames. Fortunately the squirrel and the peregrine didn’t move between these frames so I was able to cleanly blend the frames with both subjects sharp in the frame.
The frame below shows typical interaction between two juvenile falcons, they are exchanging a leaf (instead of prey!) to practice their skills.
One of the perks of 14 fps with the large buffer (with a CFAST 2.0 card) is the ability to document the entire course of action. The sequence below shows a food exchange between an adult and a juvenile falcon. Conditions were not ideal for making quality frames, but I managed to make a sequence that tells the story. Click on the image to see the animation.
I also tried the EOS-1DX Mark II at Bolsa Chica Wildlife Preserve in Huntington Beach, CA. I usually shoot at this location at least once a year so I have had the opportunity to try a variety of different lenses and camera bodies there. This location is ideal for photographing coastal birds including terns, skimmers, pelicans, herons, and shorebirds. On my last visit I mainly use my EF 400mm F/4 DO IS II at this location. The light weight of this rig makes it possible to track terns when they dive for fish. I concentrated on the post dive “roll” frames that are more challenging but also more interesting. After the birds emerge from a dive, the terns shake the water off by rolling themselves really quickly in flight.
During the first evening at this location, again I had to deal with cloudy skies and low light again. Although the combination of the EOS-1D X and the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II + 2X Extender III performs quite well for in-flight shots (see my review and follow-up), it wouldn’t be my first choice for shooting in low light if other options are available (such as the EF 600mm f/4 IS II)
With the EOS-1DX Mark II however, my experience shooting with this combination in low light was a very positive one. In fact, for most part I could not tell that the 2X extender was attached. Note that with this combo the maximum aperture is reduced to f/8.
With the EOS-1D X Mark II, it is almost too easy to nail the roll shots; in fact, I made many frames on this outing that depicted this behavior. To further verify my impressions, I switched bodies during the shoot,; the differences in AF were quite noticeable. Although I was very happy with the combination of the original EOS-1DX and the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II + Extender 2X III, when compared to the EOS-1DX Mark II, the EOS-1D X hunted more and is AF is less sure when you are attempting to hold focus on a BIF for a period of more than 2-3 seconds against varied backgrounds.
Below is a head-on view; frames like this are more difficult to capture as the tern is flying rapidly towards the camera.
The yellowlegs below caught me by surprise by flying across the canal but I still managed to grab a few frames. The light was low but the EOS-1D X Mark II didn’t seem to care much even when a 2X extender III was attached to my EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II.
The last frame is of a Black Skimmer trying to grab a small fish as it fished the surface of the canal. Its head and beak are rotated backward as it grabs the fish in flight and its nictitating membranes are closed to protect its eyes.
Summary and conclusions:
When the original EOS-1D X came out in 2011, it was a significant upgrade in every dimension relative to the EOS-1D Mark IV it replaced. Thanks to the EOS-1D X’s superior image
quality and the then completely new AF system, I was able to make certain types of action/BIF photographs with a level of detail and clarity not possible before. After using the EOS-1D X Mark II extensively in the field, I can report that it is a significant upgrade over the EOS- 1DX when it comes to capturing BIF and wildlife action shots; most of the improvement is in the AF system. The AI-servo tracking is a lot more sure or stable than before when dealing with complex backgrounds and fast birds. The camera doesn’t appear to slow down, even when tracking in low light; it always delivers the advertised 14 fps. The high ISO performance is just as great as the original EOS-1DX,. It is capable of producing large museum-quality prints at ISO up to 3200 with ease and in certain cases, up to ISO 6400. In combination with Canon’s DPP 4.4 for RAW conversion, the grain is tight and uniform and can be easily removed in post processing without affecting the fine details. For web presentation, ISOs as high as 10,000 are usable. The improvement in lower ISO shadow noise and dynamic range is welcome but should not be a significant deciding factor for BIF and action photographers.
One could argue that the EOS-1D X Mark II isn’t a significant upgrade relative to the EOS-1DX for photographer who don’t shoot action and birds in flgith, but then again, this is an action camera made around the concept of speed. I am sure it will be well received by the professional sports’ photography community as well. The combination of the new AF system, 14 fps and almost unlimited buffer depth (when used with a CFAST 2.0 card) makes the 1D X II a winner. In the hands of a skilled bird photographer, it significantly increases the keeper ratio for those creating action and in-flight images.
It would have been nice if Canon had increased the resolution to something in the 24- 26 mega-pixel range, but that would probably have reduced the frame rate. The EOS-1D X Mark II has an array of 4K video features as well that are not covered in this review. I wish the touch function wasn’t so limited and could be used for image review as well.
It is worth noting that for the first time, despite the added features, Canon has actually reduced the price of an EOS-1D class camera relative to its predecessor, at least here in the US. The original EOS-1DX retailed for $6900 back in 2011 without any additional accessories. The EOS-1DX Mark II retails for about $6000 with a 64GB SanDisk Extreme Pro CFAST2.0 card and reader (those with a retail value of about $300). So Canon have effectively lowered the price by ~20% even without considering inflation. So kudos to Canon, my verdict is hugely positive.
-Best in class AF for BIF and action shots with any Canon series II super-telephoto lens/Extender combination.
-Full AF array available at f/8 with fast precise AF.
-Excellent high and low ISO image quality, dynamic range and pixel-level sharpness.
-At the time of this review, EOS-1D X Mark II is the fastest DSLR on the market capable of shooting RAW at 14 fps (JPEG at 16fps).
-Virtually unlimited buffer depth when using a CFAST2.0 card.
-Higher capacity battery, GPS does not drain the battery.
-Cheaper than its predecessor (US).
-Rapid LV AF. Mirror now stays up during LV shooting, thus tripod operation can be completely silent (useful for some setup situations).
-Array of 4K video functions (for those who use it).
-CF plus CFAST2.o card slot as opposed to dual CFAST2.0 slots.
-Touch function very limited, almost useless for still photography.
-No back-lit buttons, these would make the body much easier to use in the dark.
-No built-in WiFi while many lower-end cameras readily include this feature. Optional WiFi module is pricy.
-The dual battery charger can only charge one battery at a time.
-The supplied CFAST2.0 card reader doesn’t support thunderbolt 2, it is stuck with slower USB 3.0.
(C) 2016 Arash Hazeghi, no reproduction allowed without written permission.