For political observers, 2016 undoubtedly goes down as a dreary year (and we write this before knowing the outcome of the election). For camera shoppers, though, it was pretty darn terrific. Both Canon and Nikon revealed their major flagships, the 1D X Mark II and D5, respectively, giving gearheads plenty to agonize over.
The 1D X Mark II is based around a 20.2-megapixel full-frame sensor, a slight step up in resolution from the 1D X’s 18-megapixel imager. It boasts a native ISO range of 100 – 51,200 with expansion options for 50 and 409,600 available. A pair of DIGIC 6+ image processors gives the camera some serious speed–the 1D X Mark II clocks in at up to 14 fps with AF engaged and up to 16fps in live view mode when shooting to the camera’s CFast memory card (there’s also a card slot for CompactFlash). When shooting in JPEG, the camera will keep bursting until you run out of memory space on your card. Switch to RAW, and you’ll be able to save up to 170 frames using CFast memory cards or save up to 73 stills using a UDMA 7 class CF card.
The 1D X Mark II has a new 61-point AF system with 41 cross-type points. All the AF points are selectable and supported to f/8. While it’s the same number of AF points as its predecessor had, the 1D X Mark II covers 24 percent more of the image frame. Canon also tweaked the camera’s AF algorithms to deliver better accuracy in Servo (or continuous) mode, and the AF points will now stay red in the camera’s viewfinder to better assist in composition. AF metering is available down to -3 EV at the center point (in AF-S).
Canon also delivers 4K video recording at the DCI-approved 4096 x 2160 resolution at up to 60 fps in camera when recording to CFast memory. Full HD recording is available up to 120 fps for slow motion. There’s a built-in headphone jack for audio monitoring and a new 4K frame grab feature that lets you isolate 8.8-megapixel still images from your 4K video in the camera.
There’s USB 3.0, built-in GPS, but no Wi-Fi. For wireless image transfers, you’ll need the optional WFT-E8A transmitter ($599).
Owners of the 1D X or other comparably priced flagship DSLRs will know what to expect from the 1D X Mark II. It’s weather-sealed, durable and also huge. “You have complete confidence in the build quality of this camera,” says NJ photographer and director David Patiño, who helped us test the 1D X Mark II. He particularly liked the robust memory card door lock and ergonomic grip. It’s roughly 4 ounces heavier than the D5 and slightly taller and wider, too—putting the “full” in full frame.
There are no mode dials on the 1D X Mark II, so shooting modes and camera settings often require several button presses. While that feature can slow you down a bit, it also ensures you won’t inadvertently bump a dial or activate a setting unintentionally as you scurry about. The design is eminently functional and comfortable.
There’s a 3.2-inch touch screen display, but touch is conservatively implemented. You can touch focus in live view mode, but can’t use touch to navigate menu options or review images.
The 20-megapixel sensor on the 1D X Mark II may be a very modest step up in resolution from the camera’s predecessor but Patiño, a self-described fan of Canon’s color science, tells us the 1D X Mark II didn’t disappoint. While it lacks the resolution of his go-to studio camera, the 5DS, the image quality was still first rate. He shot the 1D X Mark II in the field and in the studio tethered into Lightroom, keeping the ISO between 100-400.
It doesn’t quite deliver in low light/high ISO like the D5, Patiño says, but offers excellent color reproduction and contrast. The camera does an excellent job controlling RAW noise up to ISO 3200, with noise being fairly easy to dispense with in post processing software through ISO 16,000. In JPEGs, noise reduction was quite good—you’re able to push to ISO 16,000 without too much of a hit to image quality. At ISO 25,600 JPEG images lose detail at 100 percent and RAW files are a bit harder to clean up without losing fine details.
The 1D X Mark II does an excellent job with 4K video recording and tops the D5 in terms of both resolution and frame rate. Video is sharp and color accurate though, similar to the D5, there is a crop of the sensor when you switch from stills to video. And, for a flagship product, the 1D X Mark II lacks the C-Log profile available on the XC-15 and Canon’s Cinema series. Also missing: focus peaking and zebra stripes. Plus, you can only output an HD video signal via HDMI, not 4K. It’s inaccurate to say that video is an afterthought on the 1D X Mark II, but it’s also clear that Canon is holding back a few extra features it’s built into its cinema line, making the 1D X Mark II less well-rounded than it could have been.
Another thing to bear in mind: the 1D X Mark II uses the Motion JPEG codec for 4K video recording. The upshot is that it’s easier for the camera to isolate an 8-megapixel still image from your footage but it’s also a very inefficient in-camera codec next to the more commonly used H.264 format. The Motion JPEG bit rates are around 800 Mbps for 4K/60p video. By way of comparison, Sony’s XAVC codec (an H.264 variant) gets about 100 Mbps for 4K/30p video. You’ll burn through memory fast with 4K recording on the 1D X Mark II.
The machine gun staccato of the 1D X Mark II’s continuous firing is so remarkable that we admit to just holding the shutter down for the joy of hearing it rip (don’t judge). The buffer isn’t quite as generous as the D5, but you can still hold more than enough frames for most conceivable action sequences. Sheer speed is nothing without tracking accuracy and Patiño says that the 1D X Mark II can ably keep pace with moving subjects, keeping them sharply in focus. Forget pulling 8-megapixel frame grabs from 4K video. With the Mark II you can snap a 20-megapixel RAW still image at a near-video frame rates, without having to compromise on shutter speed. It’s not completely “can’t miss”—no camera is—but it’s darn close.
Patiño was especially impressed with the moveable group focus points, which could be positioned over a subject and then automatically selected by the camera. For shooting people, he says, the moveable group was excellent. The AF system is also highly customizable and can be fine-tuned for a variety of shooting scenarios. It’s a camera that invites experimentation but can also be a bit bewildering and time consuming when you’re just starting out.
Like most of Canon’s recent introductions, the 1D X Mark II incorporates Dual Pixel CMOS AF technology for focusing during live view and video recording. It’s incredibly smooth and fluid and with the use of the touch screen, you can now select focus points during video recording—the transitions aren’t as gentle as a manual pull, but they’re far less jarring than typical movie AF modes on competing cameras.
The battery life on the 1D X Mark II clocks in at 1,210 shots, per CIPA, very far behind Nikon’s D5 3,000-plus stamina.
The 1D X Mark II is an impressive beast. From focusing to continuous shooting, it delivers incredible accuracy and excellent still image quality, even in lower light. It’s less expensive than Nikon’s flagship, though it offers fewer AF points, a narrower ISO range, lacks Wi-Fi and offers a shorter battery life. If raw speed and high frame rate 4K is your need, the 1D X Mark II is the clear choice. It may not be quite the video machine that serious filmmakers were hoping for, but it still packs a potent video punch. And as a stills camera, it’s formidable.
PROS: Tremendous speed; durable build; comfortable ergonomics; Dual Pixel CMOS AF; excellent AF coverage and speed; solid image quality; good low-light performance; 4K video at 60p.
CONS: Lacks Wi-Fi; some cinema features missing; larger and heavier than competing models; battery life not top-of-class.