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CANON EOS 1D MARK II MINI REVIEW
First impressions

SMALL PRINT: Image samples on this page are converted using Capture One Pro 3.5 beta version, and shown by permission from Phase One (thanks!). Original size photos were converted in C1 to 16 bit TIFF (ProPhotoRGB color space, noise reduction at 3/4 setting, except 1/4 setting on oboist portrait, 'soft look' sharpening 200/0, and then saved as 8 bit sRGB JPEG in Photoshop without any further modifications apart from adding some IPTC data. All images photographed and copyright Pekka Saarinen 2004 - all use other than image quality evaluation (e.g. printing, viewing) is prohibited. PLEASE DO NOT LINK DIRECTLY TO THE IMAGES, POINT PEOPLE TO THIS PAGE INSTEAD. All activity is logged.

From D30, D60 and 10D to EOS series 1

Thanks to excellent staff of Rajala Camera Pro Shop Helsinki I got my Mark II from one of the first batches in Finland. This camera is so immensily popular that without preorder there is virtually no chance of getting it before fall. I preordered in early February. I still kept my 10D as backup camera. I also got Canon 85/1.2L - it is one of the sharpest lenses in the world which makes it a fine companion to Mark II.

As this new camera has totally new AF system and new user-interface (compared to 10D) I have taken it slowly and with humble attitude - I want to learn this tool and not push my old habits and expectations into its way. The user-interface is different from 10D as every command needs two buttons. This is at first odd but in few days became a second habit. The design is obviously there to prevent accidental change of parameters. It also makes it possible to reach more settings with fewer buttons. All important settings can be set without going to menu system.

Big part of UI is the viewfinder and Mark II has a very good one. It is bright, shows 100% of saved image, absolutely straight (not always case with D30/60/10D) and has very clear markings which do not eat attention from main image. At last I can see ISO in viewfinder. Successful manual focusing is quite possible with Mark II and the nice thing is that you can change focusing screens (they are not too expensive either). I will surely try a couple of alternative screens soon.

One of the most obvious changes when you upgrade 10D to Mark II is 1.3X crop factor. Wide angle is more like wide angle and on long lenses you loose some reach. Most lenses feel a bit odd first and it will take some time before you mentally tune yourself to the new focal system. Choice of lenses may change: with 10D you collected extreme wide angle and zoomed quite far with 200mm, now you can cope quite nicely with 17-40 and you start wishing for 300 and 400mm lenses. With Mark II L series lenses are very recommended, because fast AF needs fast and accurate lenses and sharp camera is not sharp without sharp lenses.

Full frame (1Ds)D30, D60, 300D, 10D1D, 1D Mark II
1422.418.2
1727.222.1
203226
355645.5
508065
7011291
80128104
100160130
135216175.5
200320260
200+1.4x448364
300480390
400640520
Effective focal length comparison, units in mm.

The camera is very well balanced and I find it much easier to get "exactly in level" shots than with 10D. Shutter release button is very sensitive so it also contributes to less camera shake when shooting. Vertical shutter is more sensitive than horizontal, but one can get used to it in a day. I always use * button for focusing so there is no need to keep shutter release half pressed - this helps a lot with such a fast camera.

Speed is a big advantage of this camera. With 8.5 fps burst mode and extremely fast shutter response plus big buffer you won't miss a shot. I went to shoot some Fencing competitions and when I wanted to catch a touché I was always on time. Impressive responsiveness. All functions including preview display and format are extremely fast and faster cards (I used Sandisk Ultra II) do help, too. Microdrive is ok, but you do notice the speed slowdown in some occasions like waiting a burst write. Mark II is quite a card-eater because it is so fast and fun to shoot with.

The shutter/mirror click is noisy, but not harsh. Optional mirror noise reduction works really well: when you press shutter release the shot is taken but the mirror is only reverted to original position (slowly) when you raise your finger half way. Excellent feature.

LCD is bright and sharp - zoom in and you can tell if shot is in focus and sharp. I'm not using JPEG so can't tell much about good color space and sharpening settings. Images appear on screen instantly. RGB histogram is useful and I really like the slow highlight alert blink speed.

Battery just works. Dual charger is good to have but seldom needed. The way I shoot I change batteries about every other day so if you start with a fresh one there is absolutely no need to change them during a shoot session. The three-state status display seems quite accurate - of course one could wish for a percentage scale there.

Metering

Metering is very accurate. Previously with D30, D60 and 10D I was M mode guy 99% of the time. Now with Mark II I seem to use Av mode a lot. Metering works really well and compensation is easy (displayed clearly in viewfinder).

In Mark II's metering system the best new thing (for people upgrading from 10D) is multispot metering. This comes handy in many situations when you have a complex scene to shoot and you want to make sure that first shot has perfect exposure. Put the camera to e.g. Av mode (M mode does not work here), select aperture and start picking metering spots. Each spot meter result is displayed as a dot next to light meter in viewfinder, and as you have enough of them you can shift the whole 'package' up or down to fit the dynamic range as well as possible if required exposure is wider than exposure latitude. Camera uses that info for calculating shutter speed in realtime. Very convenient and intuitive. You can expose a complex scene perfectly with one try.

Haven't use flash much (only few 550EX shots), but enough to see that it is virtually impossible to overexpose with it, it handles reflections and difficult situations very well. Some underexposure may still happen depending on metering and subject which means ETTL-II is not yet that final solution to flash algorithms. It is a big improvement, though, and very welcome for people like me how like to shoot instead of hitting FEL all the time.

Focus

If you've had a 10D the first thing to ask is focusing accurate? Naturally I was curious much HP focusing (1/3 DoF accuracy) delivers. And it does. With 85/1.2 I can nail eyes easily without worrying about AF errors. 45-point AI servo is simply amazing. If you do high speed action then don't think twice about getting Mark II. Although it is not idiot-proof (I've proven this many times) it will with your help keep the focus remarkably well. It will take some time to learn it though. Learning what various setting do and how needs time and real world shooting.

When you use the one and only one AF point the focus is incredible accurate (in decent light, see below). The highest accuracy is available only with any of the 7 hp (1/3 DoF accurate) focus sensors and the rest are 1 DoF accurate. This slight reduction of accuracy can be in some cases seen on enlargements - but generally normal precision sensors are as usable as high precision ones.

There has been no focus hunting with this camera. Focus just "happens". Of course the AF speed is lens-dependant - 70-200L works really well, but naturally e.g. 85/1.2 is slower. One minor complaint is that the thumb button * which can be set for AF and AI Servo hold is slightly too stiff in my camera, sometimes the focus does not kick in unless I take care of pressing it to bottom, and if I don't take care it will stop AI from time to time. Perhaps this stiffness will change when the camera is used for a while. I showed it to Canon repair and they said it was normal, 10D * is looser because the rubber pad under the button is not as securely attached as in Mark II.

By my experience the AF will look outside current focusing point if focus is not achieved, even when you select only one point. Obviously, this is done as a 'safety measure' to avoid total lack of focus lock. I did some practical tests and to me it seems that in low light the AF algorithm prefers to pick the closest 'good' point, if it does not find anything contrasty on user-selected sensor(s) it looks for whole AF frame for stronger contrast - if there is none it searches areas closer to photographer, obviously trying to ensure that subject is still in initial DoF plane -- when you work with e.g. 1.4 this may produce the dreaded front focus. Custom function 17-0 does not seem to affect this as I hoped (I think it works only when AI servo tracking is in use). I would like to emphasis that this is a situation which MAY happen only in low light shooting when targeting complex subjects (e.g trying to pick a specific subject from a crowd) and even then it depends a lot on subject(s). I've had many shots where the subject was in very dark without any clear contrast available and the AF nailed exactly what I aimed at nicely.

Please note that my explanation of how Mark II AF 'thinks' is purely empirical. If anyone at Canon would like to clarify/correct this I'll be happy to post it here. I'm a shallow DoF low light photography freak so these things are very important to me. It could well be that if you shoot 2.8 and up you'll never notice these things. To increase above low light accuracy you have an option to change a focusing screen for easier MF, small corrections can easily done with realtime MF lenses. Other option available to all EOS's to help low light focus is to use ST-E2 as focus assist. But mostly this is not needed, and definitely not in decent light - focusing is extremely accurate.

Image quality

What about the image sharpness? Well, if you get soft images from Mark II then you have problems with lenses, technique, file format settings or conversion software. Mark II can deliver what your lens can: it will make difference between best and next best lenses. Hand holding technique and subject movement really shows. One reason for sharpness complaints may be also in the fact that people move from 1D to Mark II i.e. from 4mp to 8mp. This means you will need to have more shutter speed to keep acutance good. With bigger image DoF get's more 'real'. In-camera sharpening does not bite so well as it does with small (e.g. 1D) files. Some 1D and D60 users complain about Mark II's in-camera sharpness. I think this is because those cameras have very strong in-camera sharpening - even "unsharpened" RAW is natively mildly sharpened in D60, in Mark II it is apparently not.

As a sharpening side note a word about common question "why +3 on Mark II JPEG does not sharpen as much as it does in my 1D?". Each camera has its own set of parameters, they are not related and cannot be compared. 10D's +1 may be Mark II's +5. Besides, the sharpening methods are unknown. Mark II does not need any fancy sharpening because the noise is low. If you shoot JPEG then the easy and fast way to add snappyness is plain old USM with 100/.3/0 applied twice.

I save as RAW and I suggest you do, too, as the upcoming C1 update which supports Mark II will make you RAW's look simply wonderful. With Mark II RAW exposure latitude adjusting works better than with 10D, the transition between "over" and "some data" is smoother. Similarly, I got sometimes a slight feel of reduced color bit depth in 10D images (color gradients were not smooth): Mark II is extremely smooth. Want an opinion between DPP and C1? Ok, DPP has good price/performance value as it is free. But C1 is so much better in every aspect and most importantly C1 image quality is excellent. If you shoot Mark II (or any other EOS) and value image quality and fluent workflow then C1 is the tool to get.

Dynamic range is improved over 10D. Now scenes which previously required compromises in exposure and laborious curve adjustments are almost history. I say almost because Mark II dynamic range is still not perfect for all occasions - it is simply much better than before. What I like in Mark II images is that they seem to have smoother gradients and there are subtle shades of color and light are captured with finer detail. It is a relieve to note that problems with burn out foreheads and hair highlights in indoor concert hall shots are virtually gone. If you happen to blow too many highlights for some reason (usually due to user error with metering) you can restore at least one stop back when using RAW file format.

Improved ISO noise helps daily life a lot. Now I can use ISO 1600 without any worries. High ISO's retain good quality in post processing. Shadow areas are usable (no GIF-like artifacts even when you curve them up). The ISO differences are so subtle you often have to check file info to see which ISO was used! Intermediate ISO values are also helpful when you really don't need 1600 and 800 is too little just use 1000 or 1250!. Noise grain is unobtrusive and does not burst into star fields when sharpening with USM. Capture One's noise reduction, Neat Image and Noise Ninja can remove the noise easily, but often there is no need to fully remove it - Mark II's noise, even at ISO 1600, looks natural and holds detail and shadow data very well and it does not show on prints.

As far as I'm concerned ISO 50 and especially 3200 are curiosities only and not for normal use. They do not hold full dynamic range and colors change a little, too. You can push 1600 to 3200 later with good quality. ISO 3200 will come handy if you absolutely need more shutter speed, though - it may get you good quality depending on available light. ISO 50 may be occasionally needed if you don't carry ND filters in bag.

Auto white balance works very well in most situations. Indoors in mixed light you may often end up with slight yellow cast, but this is easily fixable in C1. So, indoor WB is a slight disappointment, otherwise auto WB is an improvement to older models. I like how strong reds or yellows don't kill detail and skin colors are very natural.

There has been some debate if Mark II can produce good and correct red colors. I have done color tests with RAW and C1 and the result has always been that Mark II colors are extremely accurate. If you have problems with color, I suggest to look for the reason in file format, color space used, white balance, wrong exposure. Expecting to 8-bit JPEG to handle dynamic range Mark II can produce is not quite logical. You can get more out by using AdobeRGB but the real quality is in RAW. See attached Kodak Q-60 color target shot.

Overall Mark II image quality is very much like that of good old D30's, which possessed this hard-definable magic, smoothness and 3-dimensionality in its images. Mark II is of course cleaner and sharper and holds much more detail which means it can produce files which can be printed very big, at least up to A2 size. I print now with Epson R800 (while waiting for the next Epson A3 printer based on R800) with excellent results.

The verdict so far is...

I think it is no surprise to hear me say Mark II is absolutely the best camera I have used. It feels great, it is accurate, versatile, reliable and fast, images look great and print great. What more could you ask? One warning though: after shooting with Mark II all previous cameras feel like slow toys and you'll get a severe L-sickness (if you don't have it already). So it looks like my bank account will be in a big circle of confusion from now on.

Feels like Christmas came early this year!

Pekka Saarinen
Musician, photographer, programmer
Helsinki, Finland

Content copyright Pekka Saarinen 2004. My email is my first name @ this domain, if you wish to send comments on this article it would be great if you would post them to the forum for all to see and re-comment. Thanks!

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Weak reds? Get outta here!
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