Thursday, November 6, 2014

Canon EOS 7D Mark II Review

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:

  • 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 tagging

  • In other words, this is the consumer-level EOS 70D in semi-pro working clothes. That's the impression that you get from reading the specs, but in actual use, its more like a scaled-down 1Dx. Yes, 1Dx, not 5DmIII.

    Updated November 6, 2014: Image samples from production units added, content expanded upon in all of the article sections. It turns out that the image quality from the 70D holds up nicely against all other APS-C competitors. 

    Build and Design

    In straightforward appearances, the 7D Mark II is simply a scaled-down 5D Mark III, only easier to hold. The camera subjectively feels slightly smaller and lighter than the original 7D. The main reason is that the grip has been re-profiled with better hand-holding comfort. The change is similar to what happened with the Nikon between the D800 and the D810... recognizably the same camera but being updated from a tactile standpoint. Canon states that the 7D Mark II has the same level of weather sealing as the 1Dx; for a pictorial description, have a read over at LensRentals. The enhanced weather sealing also applies to the optional BG-E16 vertical grip. The shutter mechanism has a softer sound than with the original 7D, and is more akin to that on the 5D Mark III. Normal shooting is quieter than the old camera and quiet mode is even more so. The shutter rating is 200,000 cycles, which puts it right up there with the current batch of semi-pro cameras.

    Control layout will be familiar to anybody who has used the Canon semi-pro bodies. The reach to the button cluster on the right of the camera is fairly comfortable... more so than the 5D Mark III because of the lighter weight of the 7D Mark II. A welcome plus that you don't get with the 70D is the joystick/AF point selector. Curiously, Canon has also added a small spring-loaded multi-function lever around the joystick that can be used to quickly cycle through the AF points. (It's placement and operation is very similar to the live view lever on the Nikon D7000). Some people will like the additional nub control and other will find it superfluous. Note that this means that there are no less than three different ways to cycle through the AF points; via the joystick, the new lever or by the command dials.

    SD and Compact Flash slots

    With the double card slots, you can configure the camera's file-writing options, e.g. backup on second card, JPEG and RAW split, overflow, etc. The buffer will hold approximately 30 shots in RAW mode before filling, which is a substantial lead over its nearest rival, the Nikon D7100.

    The ports on the left side of the camera: USB 3.0, HDMI connectors, microphone socket, PC studio flash and N3 remote control socket. For those stepping up from the lower-tier EF-S cameras, this means that the remote cords are different for the 7DmII than they are for cameras like the 60D and T5i.

    The camera comes with the new LP-E6N battery, which has a higher capacity than the original LP-E6. The 7D Mark II will use both, but in terms of battery efficiency, the 7D Mark II seems to be a bit on the power hungry side. CIPA rating is 670 shots per charge when shooting through the viewfinder. This is less than the 7D, which is rated at over 750 shots, and also less than the the 6D (1,090 shots) as well as the 5D Mark III (950 shots), all of which were rated with the older LP-E6 battery.

    One other thing to watch out for is Canon's propensity to not play nice with aftermarket batteries. On a camera that uses LP-E6 batteries, if you use a non-Canon battery the camera will detect it, report minimal charge on the top LCD and then ask if you want to continue. Clicking "yes" gives you normal camera operation and a proper read-out of the battery condition. It gets worse; while the cameras are compatible with aftermarket batteries, the official Canon chargers aren't.

    65 Point AF Module

    7D Mark II Viewfinder, 65 AF Points

    The driving reason for what seems to be ergonomic overkill on AF control is that there are now quite a lot of AF points to cycle through. Compared to the 19-point diamond pattern used in the 70D and the 7D, the new 65-point all cross-type unit has a rectangular layout and fills a considerable portion of the viewfinder. This is much more useful for rule-of-thirds composing and maintaining focus tracking on erratically moving subjects.

    Subject tracking intelligence is expanded with the new iTR capability (Intelligent Tracking and Recognition). The system is better able to track moving subjects than the original 7D (which was no slouch) and is able to guess when objects pass between the camera and the subject; the Nikon equivalent is that system's "3D-Tracking" mode. For example, in the situation where the photographer is shooting a football (American) game, the camera can maintain tracking on the player with possession even with other players cutting in front of the line of sight. This brings up a point about what separates a professional-level camera apart from a consumer-oriented camera. Fast frame rates are something to be expected in modern cameras, but maintain focus and exposure tracking on a moving subject requires an investment in computational hardware.

    In practice, the system is very good, but not without some shortcomings. Though you can achieve rapid frame rate bursts as advertised the focus lock isn't always consistent throughout the burst period. If you are tracking objects that are coming towards you, the camera seems land the focus the most preciously at the beginning of the burst and towards the end, but it does seem possible for the focus to fall behind the subject in the middle the sequence. As capable as the 7D Mark II is, its helpful to remember that it mimics the capabilities of the 1Dx, but it doesn't replicate them. The 7D Mark II is "sporty" but if you don't expect the very best Olympic calibre performance, then you'll do fine. It's more than enough motion tracking ability for anybody who isn't shooting sports, that's for sure.

    Another new mode is flicker mitigation for use in fluorescent lighting. In this mode the camera will monitor the cycling of the ambient lighting conditions in order to capture exposure at the peak time in the cycle. The benefit of this is more accurate white balance under difficult lighting conditions. However, because of the constant monitoring on the part of the camera, this mode isn't suitable for action photography because of the necessary delay waiting for the right time in the light cycle.

    The Dual Pixel autofocus system remains, meaning that the 7D Mark II has similar video capabilities to the 70D. However, it lacks touchscreen control and an articulating LCD display, so video ergonomics are less so than on the 70D. Even though video is now an essential part of photojournalism and assignment photography, this isn't the main focus of the camera, and neither is it the focal point of Canon's marketing push.

    Image Quality

    The image quality of the 7D Mark II is simultaneously underwhelming and wholly acceptable. If you've used the 70D, there isn't much that is different except that the native range is now extended to ISO 16,000. Though impressive sounding, that's only 1/3 EV higher up the scale than what the 70D was able to offer. All manufacturers push the native ISO range upwards at each iterative cycle but the truth is that almost all APS-C sensors top-out at ISO 3200 before image noise and/or noise reduction becomes intrusive for quality work As we'll see, the 7D Mark II clears this hurdle, but not by much.

    This sensor (as used previously on the 70D) gives better subjective images than its synthetic tests would suggest, and given the lofty handling abilities of the 7D Mark II, it would be foolish to dismiss the camera solely because of the sensor alone. However, in an age where "full frame" is synonymous with "professional" the 7D Mark II's output is identifiable as being from a crop frame camera.... if you know what to look for. Detail is perfectly adequate and noise control is thorough, but dynamic range is a tad bit on the tight side; colours tend to clip just as they would on other crop-frame cameras.

    The following is an ad hoc demonstration of the camera's JPEG output quality through the ISO range. The pictures were taken with identical setups; however this does not  lead to identical output; it rarely ever does. Pay attention to the legibility of the soda bottles for detail retention (or lack thereof) as the ISO value rises, speckling in the broad colour patches for overall image noise, as well as the harshness of the reflections and shadows as dynamic range decreases. These samples are not directly comparable to similar samples found elsewhere in this blog because of variable ambient lighting conditions. All were shot at 18mm at f/8; note that because of the difference in crop factors (Nikon=1.5x, Canon=1.6x) the image magnification isn't normalized. Click on images for 100% crop view.

    ISO 100 (70D sample is missing)
    ISO 1600
    ISO 3200
    ISO 6400
    ISO 12800
    7DmII ISO 16000 and D7100 ISO 25600

    Note the difference in exposure interpretation across all three models. The D7100 meters the darkest, while the 7DmII is the brightest. The 70D's interpretation is the closest to what the human eye would have perceived at the time of shooting. Here is a side-by-side example of the 7DmII and the D7100 with equalized exposures:

    Bear in mind that the the Nikon is at a slight disadvantage here, as the larger crop factor means that the magnification is less at the same focal length. Additionally, the D7100 subjectively appears to be noisier than the 7D Mark II, but that is because of the lack of an anti-aliasing filter. There's more detail in the D7100 files, but at higher ISO, you will have to work to get the most out of it.

    The 7D Mark II does an all-around admirable job despite using a sensor platform that doesn't test well on the DxO benchmarks. This deserves greater detail, but the short story is that the DxO composite score that gets widely publicized across the internet is influenced by a number of different factors. Where Canon sensors almost always fall short against the Nikon sensors is in resolution and low ISO dynamic range. At higher ISO (ISO 800 and above) the differences tend to even out between the two camps. While there is truth to the fact that the Canon sensors are technically not as good as those supplied by Sony et al, it must be remembered that the the DxO composite score is a subjective index based on objective facts. If you change the weighting of the index, the final score will be different. In other words, it is indicative rather than prescriptive, and isn't as useful a number as the internet makes it out to be.

    For the 7D Mark II, there is a palpable difference in JPEG rendering compared to the 70D, and even though it doesn't match the D7100's outright resolving power, it produces subjectively pleasing high ISO images. Even though this test was shot with high-ISO noise reduction turned off in all of the cameras, the 7D Mark II is clearly utilizing some form of noise reduction strategy as its images are more de-saturated than the other two cameras above ISO 6400. At this level, fine detail in the  7D Mark II images are lost to the grain of the image noise, but the borders and outlines remain admirably crisp, all things considered. This fits quite well with the 7D Mark II's mission of being an action camera; for sports and moving objects, you aren't looking for the depth of detail that a landscape camera will produce, but you still want to produce a strong and crisp image

    About that ISO 16,000 limit... it goes without saying that every new camera shows improved image quality at high ISO... in JPEG. Gone are the days when serious cameras ignored the JPEG output because their users were RAW shooters. Even though the 7D Mark II is a semi-professional camera, there are professional reasons why JPEG is important. This is especially true for high volume sports shooters who have tight deadlines and no time for post-processing before submission.


    Left to Right: Canon EOS 70D, EOS 7D Mark II and Nikon D7100

    Canon 7D Mark II vs Nikon D7100

    This isn't a direct comparison, as the Canon is edging up to double the Nikon's price and the Nikon is very clearly  a consumer body. That said, except in the most demanding situations, the Nikon will be a close match to the Canon, and in pragmatic terms, is only limited by its cripplingly small buffer. (31 shots in raw for the Canon, 9 for the Nikon.) Lens selection between the two is a toss-up, as neither system is paying attention to pro-spec crop-frame lenses anymore. Canon is perhaps a little better in this regards, but all of their new interesting EF-S lenses are of the STM variety and oriented towards video work. If that is your need, the EOS 70D might be a more appropriate choice.

    If you are in the Nikon camp and waiting for the hypothetical D400 to show up, the 7D Mark II is pretty much the camera that you are waiting for, but there hassle of changing systems will make any switch a mixed proposition. Though the 7D Mark II ergonomics are excellent, they are nonetheless different. In terms of sales to their respective companies, the 7D Mark II is a better platform to drive sales of long lenses than the D7100. Many Nikon bird photographers have tepid feelings about the D7100's small buffer. The 7DmII covers this shortfall and adds faster burst rate. Though extreme telephoto users are a small portion of the overall market, the equipment that they buy carries some of the highest margins, and they themselves are probably one of the wealthiest demographics. For this group of photographers, high-pixel density pro-level crop-cameras are still a thing.

    Canon 7D Mark II vs 70D

    Without a doubt, the 7D Mark II is a better photographic camera than the 70D. It is also much more expensive, costing almost twice as much. If you aren't a demanding shooter but want 95% of the image quality, than the 70D is still an appropriate choice. Even though the 7D Mark II has the cutting-edge autofocus system, the 70D's is inherited from the original 7D. This aspect of the 70D gets the least amount of consideration; for what it is, the 70D's AF performance is quick and reliable. Of course, the reason why this often gets overlooked is because of the 70D's video-centric nature. Though both cameras share Dual-Pixel sensor technology, the inclusion of a swing-out screen and touch control on the 70D make it a much more usable choice for video work. If you have a a 70D, there is no sense in going to the 7DmII, as it is not so much an upgrade as it is a change in shooting style. However, if you are upgrading from a 60D, the 7DmII might be worth a look, as the jump in build quality,  technology and performance is considerable.

    Canon 7D Mark II vs Pentax K-3

    Autofocus, autofocus, autofocus... and also lenses.  The Pentax is a beautifully made, simple to use and ruggedly built. It's AF system is competitive but isn't as clever as the the Nikon's nor is it as dependable as the Canons. However, in terms of body price alone, the Pentax is the absolute steal of the bunch, as its street price is now less than the D7100, roughly half of the entry price of the 7DmII. The problem with Pentax is the pervasiveness... building out a lens system can be tricky if you're local retailer doesn't have access to stock. If you want the build quality of the 7D Mark II but aren't a rigorous action shooting, then the Pentax is an interesting alternative.

    Concluding Thoughts

    Even though the 7D Mark II is like a 5D Mark III in form factor, in operation it is more akin to being a mini 1Dx. This is no small thing as the professional crop-frame portion of the market was long since neglected by Canon and Nikon in favour of full frame, and the mirrorless manufacturers have nothing like it at all. In many ways, this is a traditional camera with traditional virtues that is also being marketed in the traditional sort of way. It has professional-quality capabilities that Canon is very eager to play-up as halo marking for their consumer base. That's where the "semi" in "semi-professional comes from. Cameras like the 7D Mark II and 5D Mark III are workhorses, but Canon can't survive on pro sales alone. In other words, just like its predecessor, the 7D Mark II has to find appeal in the non-paid enthusiast portion of the market in order for it to be sales success. In terms of marketing, this is camera iteration all over again... just like it was in the prime of the DSLR boom. That said, it's a fairly well done camera this time around.

    With thanks to Broadway Camera

    1 comment:

    1. Canon EOS 7D Mark 2 is really for professional use and if you want to taste the beauty of graphic then you should use this camera. Now we talk about it's specification, 20.2MP APS-C CMOS Sensor, Dual DIGIC 6 Image Processors, 3.0" 1.04m-Dot Clear View II LCD Monitor, Full HD 1080p, Dual Pixel CMOS AF with Live View, ISO 16000, Extended to ISO 51200, 10 fps Shooting at Full Resolution.
      Canon eos 7d Mark 2