Canon DSLRs used to be the belle of the ball, but in recent years have fallen behind as newer, spiffier competition rose in Nikon and Sony with little to get excited about from Canon. 2016 looks like it is shaping up to be the year of change for Canon though, as they have gotten an excellent start with their new high-end flagship, the 1DX Mark II. Rocking outstanding autofocus in both photo and video as well as the best video quality and frame rate available in its class (mirrorless or DSLR), Canon has succeeded in making a modern DSLR that is far and away my new favorite “all-purpose” camera.
When I say “all-purpose,” I mean that such that the 1DX Mark II is capable of being just about anything you need it to. What it lacks in megapixels, it makes up for in image quality, color rendition and astounding video. In fact, the 1DX Mark II is my new #1 video camera (this coming from a guy who focuses primarily on video production work).
Build Quality and Body Design
The 1DX II is a tank. It’s not light, with the body weighing 3.37 pounds, but it is tough as nails. It sports the much sought after “square” body design that feels much the same shooting in either landscape or portrait orientation. The body weighs so much because of the magnesium alloy design that is both dust and weather sealed, which is a must for a camera like the 1DX II.
But with that tough design comes weight, and the 1DX Mark II is indeed quite heavy. With a high-end lens, the entire package becomes a bit ungainly. For sports or wildlife shooters, this might not be a huge deal as you will find yourself positioned in one place for extended periods. For those that like to walk and shoot, the weight can start to be a lot to carry.
The 1DX does not use the same battery type that is found in most other Canon DSLRs, instead using the LP-E19 rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which is rated to provide up to 1210 shots per charge when shooting with the optical viewfinder (the performance of course dips when shooting video or using the LCD). The 1D X Mark II is also compatible with LP-E4N and LP-E4 rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, however the top continuous shooting rate will be slightly reduced to 14 fps in live view and 12 fps with AE and AF.
The Canon 1DX Mark II can fire 14 raw files a second for 12 full seconds before slowing, which is 168 raw images before the buffer kicks in.
The rear of the camera sports a large 3.2 inch, 1.62m-dot “Clear View II LCD” monitor, which is pretty easy to see in both the dark and in bright sunlight. It can be a bit challenging in extreme sunlight, as all monitors struggle here, but it is quite bright and able to be used in most any situation.
That monitor does come with touch control, but only during live view autofocus situations. It’s an odd choice to leave out full touch control, since the touch interface clearly exists on the monitor and they have used touch as a way to navigate menu options on other camera bodies.
The 1DX Mark II does not have a built-in intervalometer, which is a shame.
The 1DX comes with two memory slots, one for CF and the other for CFast 2.0. CFast is what we recommend you use with this camera, as you will get the most optimal performance out of the processor. The Canon 1DX Mark II can fire 14 raw files a second for 12 full seconds before slowing, which is 168 raw images before the buffer kicks in. That’s some serious frames per second, and you’ll need the CFast card’s write speed in order to attain it.
You will also need CFast to get the full 4K at 60 frames per second, which we’ll talk about more later in the review.
Some other body highlights:
- An Intelligent Viewfinder II uses a pentaprism design and offers a bright means for viewing, along with a 0.76x magnification and 100% frame coverage. When using the viewfinder, AF points are highlighted in red for greater visibility in low-light conditions, and the finder can also be configured to display a range of other shooting aids, such as an electronic level, grid, flicker detection, white balance, metering mode, AF information, and other settings.
- A redesigned mirror mechanism helps to minimize mechanical vibrations in order to better ensure sharpness during long exposures or fast continuous shooting bursts.
- The high-performance shutter utilizes lightweight carbon fiber blades for quick shooting speeds and is tested for up to 400,000 cycles.
- Extensive connectivity ports allow for the attachment of various accessories, including the optional WFT-E8A Wireless File Transmitter for remotely controlling the camera from a smartphone or sharing files over Wi-Fi with support for the 5 GHz 802.11ac standard.
In short, the body is extremely well designed, with new hardware features that back up the 20.2MP CMOS sensor and dual DIGIC 6+ image processors. This is not a slow camera, and viewing images as well as selecting menu options is blazing fast.
The 1Dx Mark II uses a 61-point High Density Reticular AF II system, which incorporates 41 cross-type points for increased precision as well as a center point that is sensitive to -3 EV. All 61 phase-detection points support metering at effective apertures of f/8 or larger, which benefits the use of teleconverters and telephoto lenses. Additionally, a separate, dedicated DIGIC 6 processor is used for the AF and metering systems in order to maintain quick performance while recording 4K video or shooting at fast continuous speeds. Canon states that, “as a whole, the AF system has gained approximately 8.6% in coverage in the center, and 24% in the periphery, for enhanced subject tracking across the image frame, and an AI Servo AF III+ algorithm is used to intelligently and precisely acquire focus in single-point, Large Zone AF, or any other focusing mode.”
This is a huge area for a vast majority of photographers considering the 1DX Mark II, and it’s the one area that I think could use a bit of improvement, but that has nothing to do with accuracy or speed.
Let me elaborate.
Yes, the autofocus is incredibly fast and accurate, but after shooting with the Nikon D500, I can’t help but feel like the way you tell the camera how to focus could use improvement. The hardware of the 1DX is totally solid, but the manner in which you communicate to the camera how it should be interpreting objects to focus on is a lot more tedious and challenging to understand than with a competitor camera.
The Canon requires you to select the kind of autofocus you want it to use from a menu, with fine tune adjustments for each style of autofocus. When you have this nailed to what you plan to shoot, you won’t miss a frame. It’s very fast, very accurate and incredibly reliable.
The image above was taken using a low shutter speed, under 1/100 second in order to achieve motion blur, while keeping the subject tack sharp. To nail shots like this not only requires a lot of practice, but it also requires a camera that is capable of fine tuning autofocus in a moving frame to a moving object. The time that the subject is in the right position to the time that the window for shooting has passed is less than two seconds.
No easy task.
The 1Dx clearly succeeds in what I asked of it, but I also had to change the style of autofocus three times before I was able to get the camera to understand what I wanted it to do. This is a mix of both my inexperience with this particular body (this is the first action situation I took the camera into), as well as the somewhat convoluted way Canon has designed the software to work. Yes, it absolutely does the job, but I can’t help but feel like it could have been made easier and faster for the shooter straight out of the box. Sure, you can hotkey many features of the camera to buttons around the lens, and this is likely a non-issue for many potential buyers.
Even beyond the most strenuous of tasks like the one above (where the camera performed admirably), the 1Dx provided no reason to not love what it is capable of.
What is the focusing like during video? In a word: awesome. Canon has really nailed the autofocus-during-video system, and the Dual Pixel CMOS AF in the 1Dx is a perfect example of this. This system integrates two separate photodiodes within each pixel to provide a broad and dense network of phase-detection gathering elements across a majority of the image sensor to reduce focus hunting for faster, more direct control of focus placement.
During video shooting, the aforementioned touch screen can rack focus by touching elements in the scene to change focus in an “intuitive manner.” It works rather well, and is starting to look more natural, that is to say it looks how someone who is actually manually focusing a camera would look. Subject tracking in movies is also heightened due to the Dual Pixel CMOS AF system’s ability to recognize subjects and maintain focus when working within changing or cluttered scenery.
So we’ve covered the raw specs of the sensor and the processor, but what does that mean for images? Canon has been known and loved for the way that the cameras render skin tone, and the 1DX II, though not what one would consider a portrait-oriented camera, is still a stunner when it comes to portraiture. Skin has a warm, lively hue to it that makes photographing people a real joy.
But it’s not only skin that looks good, it’s just about everything. Landscapes, long exposures, quick snapshots… everything seemed to be excellently rendered.
Let’s take a look at how the sensor handles color and shadow gradation. By this, I mean how the sensor is able to perceive the subtle change in a color tone, or the shift in bright to dark. Take a look at this extreme close up of one of the images above:
Notice how many shades of pixels exist between the bridge of his nose down to the shadows under his eyes. It is challenging to count the number of shades, and that’s a good thing. In previous Canon cameras, namely the 5Ds we tested, we made a point that the camera did not do a particularly good job in this area, giving very few shades between major color shifts and appearing almost blocky and pixelated as it transitioned. That is not the case here. Though it’s not the best smooth transition we’ve seen in a photo, it’s a massive improvement over prior sensor performance out of Canon.
The dynamic range is also quite good, but it varies depending on your exposure. In some cases, the highlight recovery is bananas good. Check this out. Here is the original horrible photo:
Highlight recovery was incredibly clean, revealing the details of the overexposed areas except for the lamps (which is understandable):
But the shadow recovery was abysmal, giving us almost no data in the surrounding area:
The benches barely made it in, and hardly an improvement over the original image. The noise that was revealed is also concerning.
That said, there are cases where shadow recovery is great, such as here:
Looking across the results I got in a variety of situations, it appears that shadow recovery is at its best when you are shooting at lower ISOs, while highlights are pretty much the same regardless of ISO. Just bear that in mind when using the 1DX II in the field.
When the dynamic range is at its best, the 1DX II performs exceptionally. But the poor performance in the shadows at ISO 16000 and above leaves a lot to be desired.
Speaking of ISO, the ISO performance in general is solid, but it’s not outstanding in its field. Below are full resolution samples taken from 1600 ISO all the way to the max of 51,200:
Though noise starts to become visible well before, it only starts to become bothersome by 20,000 ISO, and I would consider anything at or beyond 32,000 ISO to be rather useless. This is a vast improvement by Canon standards, but isn’t really up to par with what we have come to expect from competitor products. It’s good, well beyond serviceable, but nothing that makes it stand out.
What’s more, the 20.2 megapixels are considerably smaller than most high-end cameras on the market, smaller even than the high ISO performing Nikon D5 (which stands at 20.8 megapixel). Though I understand the need to keep megapixels down to improve shooting speed, I was hoping for a stand-out performance from Canon here, and received only a “solid” one. It’s hard to fault them for releasing a product that is still quite good at its job, but it is disappointing.
Canon has knocked it out of the park this time, with a camera that not only boasts specs not met by any camera in either the mirrorless or DSLR segment, but follows through with truly outstanding quality.
The 1DX II records in both NTSC and PAL, and comes packed with not only 4K, but 4Kp60, the first DSLR to offer 4K at 60 frames per second, and currently the only camera in either pro or amateur levels to have the feature (looking at both mirrorless and DSLR cameras in the traditional 35mm form factor segment). Basically, it has the most impressive specs of any camera that’s not a camcorder.
4096 x 2160p / 59.94 fps (800 Mbps) / 50 fps (800 Mbps) / 29.97 fps (500 Mbps)
/ 25 fps (500 Mbps) / 24 fps (500 Mbps) / 23.98 fps (500 Mbps)
- High Definition
1920 x 1080p / 120 fps (360 Mbps) / 100 fps (360 Mbps) / 59.94 fps (180 Mbps)
/ 50 fps (180 Mbps) / 59.94 fps (60 Mbps) / 50 fps (60 Mbps)
/ 29.97 fps (90 Mbps) / 25 fps (90 Mbps) / 24 fps (90 Mbps)
/ 23.98 fps (90 Mbps) / 29.97 fps (30 Mbps) / 25 fps (30 Mbps)
/ 24 fps (30 Mbps) / 23.98 fps (30 Mbps)
- High Definition
1920 x 1080p / 59.94 fps (60 Mbps) / 50 fps (60 Mbps) / 29.97 fps (30 Mbps)
/ 25 fps (30 Mbps) / 24 fps (30 Mbps) / 23.98 fps (30 Mbps)
/ 29.97 fps (12 Mbps) / 25 fps (12 Mbps)
“The sensor and processor combination avails DCI 4K video recording at 60 fps and Full HD 1080p recording at 120 fps, along with the ability to record on-board to a CFast 2.0 memory card, or uncompressed Full HD video can be saved via HDMI to an optional external recorder.” -Canon
The video footage is absolutely spectacular, and shockingly the quality of the footage from 24p/30p to 60p in 4K is indistinguishable; they look identical despite the additional data rate that 60p requires.
Right here is the reason CFAST was necessary, as the massive data rates required to write the files can only be handled by CFAST, XQD or a solid state drive.
Because I’m kind of neurotic and work on videos for months before releasing them, I do not have any video feeds for viewing at this time. I do, however, have full resolution screen grabs taken from video shot with the 1DX II that should show how outstandingly beautiful the quality is.
Colors pop and the footage is sharp and crisp. I’m absolutely in love with the video this camera produces.
There are only a two downsides with shooting video with the 1DX Mark II:
- Firstly, the camera does not come with C-LOG, the closest thing to “raw” that video gets before actually taking raw video. Basically, it gives the most freedom in post, by extending the dynamic range in a single shot. Canon’s LOG profile is pretty awesome and was extremely handy on cameras like the XC-10 and C series. It allows you to both make footage have a certain “look” easier, and also can help when you’re matching footage taken on different cameras. It’s a huge shame that it’s not in this camera, and Canon has confirmed with us that it will not be added.
- Secondly, the 1DX II only has what is colloquially known as “cinema” 4K, which is true 4K at 4096 × 2160 pixels (256:135, approximately a 1.9:1 aspect ratio). This is also known as DCI 4K. “Broadcast” 4K is more common, and has 3840 x 2160 (16:9, or approximately a 1.78:1 aspect ratio). This is also known as UHD-1 4K. “Broadcast” 4K has the same aspect ratio as 1080p HD footage, so matching is much easier. With the wider look of “cinema” 4K, cropping is necessary for it to play nicely with any other type of footage. I usually like the option to shoot one or the other, depending on the task at hand. It’s a shame I’m only given one choice with the 1DX II.
These downsides said, I still am using the 1DX Mark II for just about all of my video except if I plan to use a gimbal (the weight of the camera can be a bit much on a Ronin or MoVI). The quality is just so exceptional, I can’t get enough of it.
The Canon 1DX Mark II excels in several areas and doesn’t really fail in any. Though the ISO performance could be better, the weight of the camera might be a lot for some to bear, and the price point is a bit high, these are offset by the quality of the images, the insane shooting speed, the incredible video performance, the autofocus accuracy and the added benefits of the dual pixel sensor. Everything the 1DX has to offer combines to present a stellar camera. The Canon 1DX Mark II is the best all-around professional camera, not just DSLR, that we have ever tested.
The Canon 1DX Mark II is the best all-around professional camera, not just DSLR, that we have ever tested.
Though it’s held back by lacking features like an intervalometer, only at-par ISO and a hefty price tag that will keep it out of range for a majority of shooters, the 1DX Mark II is a joy to use. It’s not perfect, but it comes close enough in nearly ever category to seriously impress.