Monday, September 15, 2014

Launch Review: Canon 7D Mark II First Impressions

Canon's 7D Mark II is late to the party. Very late, as in Chinese Democracy late. It's the camera that many people have wanted, but so much time has passed, one wonders if they've moved on to wanting something else by now. The original EOS 7D was announced in September of 2009, making its customers the second-most long suffering group in modern photography. The group that has waited the longest is the audience for the D300s successor; that camera was introduced a month ahead of the 7D. In the ensuing years, both cameras were much beloved by their respective camps. The Canon has arguably aged more gracefully, though that's not saying much since most of the EF-S lineup hasn't evolved as fast as the rest of the industry. The headline specs for the7D Mark II are:

  • Magnesium alloy body
  • 20.2 MP CMOS sensor with Dual-Pixel CMOS AF
  • New 65-point AF, all points cross-type
  • Continuous shooting: 10fps
  • Dual DIGIC6 processors
  • ISO 100-16,000, boosted to 52,000
  • Shutter rated to 200,000 cycles.
  • New RGB+IR new 150,000-pixel metering sensor
  • 1080p video at 60fps
  • Built-in GPS

  • In other words, this is the consumer-level EOS 70D, but in semi-pro working clothes.

    If you are one of the long-suffering Nikon D300 users who was waiting for a D400 but got the D750 instead, the 7DmII is pretty much everything that you were looking for, minus the better sensor technology that you get with Nikon. The control lay out is like a mini-5D Mark III, which is a very good thing, as that was up until now, the only non 1Dx Canon that had a separate AF point toggle. This makes the 7DmII and the 5DmIII the most ergonomically complete mainstream camera bodies for Canon... and not to belabour the point... the camera bodies that are closest in terms of ergonomics to what Nikon shooters are used to. As reasonably quick the the AF systems are on the 70D and 6D, the overall experience is slow compared to using a 5DmIII because of the ergonomics of setting the focus point.

    You cannot speak of the 7DmII without mentioning the missing hypothetical D400 that many people were expecting for Photokina 2014. One company has finally returned back to a winning formula, the other is plunging ahead into uncharted territory. The difference comes down to how optimistic the camera companies are about the current state of the market. The key question:  Is there is a viable professional market for APS-C DSLR cameras any more? It's not that this is not a well-specified camera and that there will not be people to buy it, but professional and semi-professional cameras live by the catchet of being the tools of working pros. Canon didn't actually abandon this group when they let the 40D and 50D cameras slide into the consumer-ish 60D and 70D cameras: they made the full frame cameras affordable enough to migrate working users up towards cameras like the 5D Mark II and Mark III.


    The press-release literature:

    "65-point* all cross-type AF system for high-performance, accurate subject tracking with EV -3 sensitivity (center point) for focusing in extreme low-light conditions
    An EOS first, the EOS 7D Mark II features 65 all cross-type AF points* for high precision AF at remarkable speed. Cross-type AF points ensure stable AF that is not influenced by the subject’s shape or color. On the EOS 7D Mark II, the AF points are spread over a wide area of the frame, enabling faster AF, wherever the subject lies. With a central dual cross-type AF point of f/2.8, AF is enhanced with lenses faster than f/2.8. And thanks to this new system, AF is possible even in dim lighting as low as EV-3."

    On paper, this is a higher-spec AF unit than that used on the 1Dx or 5DmIII, which "only" have 41 cross-type points.  While that may be true, bear in mind that the autofocus system is not just the total number of features, but how those features are implemented. AF performance is almost always superior on the upper-level cameras because of corresponding increases in internal computing power. That said, the 7D and 70D have a simple (by today's standards) but well-implimented AF system that locks quickly and tracks accurately. 

    Though there doesn't seem to be much in the way of movement on the hardware side of the sensor equation, there will likely be firmware improvements to how the Dual Pixel autofocus system handles. The original implementation on the 70D worked brilliantly as first introduction to the technology. However, as good as it was in tracking distance information depth-wise relative to the camera, the system was less successful tracking objects side-to-side across the frame. This is a more difficult operation to do, as it requires combining the depth information from the phase detection circuitry with shape/colour recognition from the general sensor bed. Sadly, the 7DmII does not appear to have made any improvements on this front in live view mode, but there appear to have been improvements made for continuous tracking in movie mode.

    In any case, as good as the Dual Pixel autofocus system is, it's still not good enough for dedicated videographers. On the 70D, the focus is quick and accurate, but the constant-adjusting and micro-movements make for slightly unsettling viewing. This is partly why videoographers prefer manual focusing: even if the focus isn't always perfect, it's preferable to have smooth but imperfect focus transitions rather than quick and accurate microadjustments. In other words, the live view autofocusing on the 7D is well suited for the documentary and action shooter, but the 5DmIII is still the preferred tool of the wedding crowd.


    Though it has similar specifications to the 70D sensor, Canon says that it is not. This is reasonable given that it has been a year since that launch; any chances will be along the lines of tweaks and optimization, not whole-scale redesign. Since the burst rate of the 7DmII is 10fps versus the 70D's 7fps, its reasonable to assume that there needed to be changes in the way the data is read off of the chip. Even though the native ISO stats are somewhat improved over the 70D, don't expect much in the way of real-world improvements. manufacturers know that the ISO figures are the first numbers that people turn to when they look at the spec sheet; it would be a poor marketing department that would let a camera go out with out one number looking "better" than the previous generation. However, if there haven't been any major changes in the way Canon manufacturers sensors, then there isn't going to much in the way of change either.

    Therein lies the rub. Canon's on-chip AF system system was innovative, but it's a complex system where every photodiode is potentially a phase-detection element. More is not necessarily better, though. As time whet on newer cameras like the Sony A6000 managed to do the same feat with more traditional on-chip phase-detection hardware. Another worrying trend of Canon-philes is the seemingly endless parade of non-advancing sensor tech. Compared to Nikon, Canon is standing still, first dragging on the 7D 18mp sensor through multiple iterations until the 70D, now apparently doing the same with the 20.2mp chip. Meanwhile Nikon has steadily upgraded its sensor APS-C sensor offerings, sometimes bringing in new designs, sometimes tweaking existing ones. There's a reason for this discrepancy, and it comes down to what ought to be a Canon strength. Canon, being a much larger corporation than Nikon, is also more vertically integrated and carries more of its manufacturing facilities under its own umbrella. Canon has access to its own internal sensor fabrication facilities which is a positive in terms of controlling manufacturing costs, but it has left them at a disadvantage because of the capital costs required to update sensor manufacturing facilities. Nikon doesn't own their own chip making plants; they must source or commission their sensors from third parties like Sony or Toshiba. This has allowed them to be more nimble, picking and choosing which supplier part to be the best for any particular model. The disadvantage is that Nikon does not truly have control over its manufacturing destiny, which was evident when their Nikon 1 partner, Aptina, was acquired by another company.

    For a further discussion of the characteristics of Canon sensors versus those made by other manufacturers, read here


    While there are expanded video recording options, the lack of 4K is somewhat of a letdown... though only from the point of view of expectation. Though few people are prepared for a 4K workflow, cameras like the Panasonic GH4 and Sony A7s have gone some ways to establish 4K video as an achievable thing in the mind of consumers. What matters more for the time being is high quality 1080p footage, which is still the predominant video format for the vast majority of end users. Also, the exclusion of 4K is a canny nod to the mission of the 7D Mark II. If you are professional videographer and you are using the 7D Mark II, you are likely doing so on a more constrained budget than the typical 5D Mark III user. That means less to invest in a 4K workflow; though not cutting edge, 1080p is not merely adequate for the 7DmII, it's mission-appropriate.

    Note also that lack of an articulating screen or touch screen controls. From an ergonomic perspective, the 70D is a batter dedicated video camera that the 7D Mark II.


    Not a big thing by any means, but it's about time. Again, from Canon:

    "Improved custom controls and built-in intervalometer and bulb timer for expanded creativity. An EOS first, the EOS 7D Mark II offers time-lapse fixed-point shooting and long exposures without the need for a remote control. The EOS 7D Mark II’s interval timer takes from 1 to 99 shots at preselected intervals, ideal for shooting flowers as they bloom or clouds drifting through the sky. Its built-in bulb timer keeps the shutter open for a designated amount of time, perfect for night photography, or to capture the flow of traffic on a street corner."

    This is a simple feature that should have been added ages ago. No more fiddling with external shutter timers for night sky photographers.


    New battery: LP-E6N, which is apparently compatible with the LP-E6 used in the 70D, 6D and 5DmIII. Battery life is rated at 670 shots when shooting through the viewfinder. This is a bit of an odd figure considering that the 7D is rated at over 750 shots, the 6D can do 1,090 shots and the 5D Mark III is rated at 950 on the older LP-E6 battery. In any case, Canon obviously did not draw attention to the shorter battery life of the 7D Mark II compared to its siblings.

    One other thing to watch out for is Canon's propensity to not play nice with aftermarket batteries. Currently, on an LP-E6 camera, if you use a non-Canon battery, the camera will detect it and ask if you want to continue. Though that may be the case in the future, there is very little that Canon has said about the new battery and given present trends, one does not expect the lack of generosity to abate any time soon. WE may find out soon enough if part of the differences in the new 'N" batteries is additional circuitry for the camera to recognize as one of its own.

    (Note: There are some extreme-weather aftermarket batteries available. These are able to withstand prolonged exposure to cold temperatures due to extra insulation built around the core of the battery. However, the extra space that is taken up by the insulation also reduces the volume of the functional part of the battery. Hence: less battery life.)

    Concluding Thoughts

    The 7D Mark II appears to be just enough camera to carry the professional EF-S concept forward for another generation. "Professional" in this case means in terms of build and features, but the question remains regarding how much the pro market will continue to shift to full frame.

    There is one group of people who have been clamouring over a camera like this from both the Canon and Nikon camps: birders. Bird photography is a niche area of the market, but they tend to be one of the most affluent and engaged members of the photographic community. It takes a lot of money to (photographically) shoot birds as the necessary lenses aren't cheap. Given the pixel density and greater reach of a crop sensor system, the 7D Mark III is a much more practical system to use than the equivalent system on a full frame camera.

    Otherwise, the same virtues that made the 7D a hit camera are all present in the 7D Mark II. Unlike the Nikon lineup where there is a stark disconnect between the APS-C and full frame lines, the 7D Mark II ties the family together, so to speak. It's very much a mini-5D Mark III, having the handling virtues of the high-end cameras in an affordable package.

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