Canon EOS 1D X Mark II - a wildlife photography real world review (pt. 1)

Canon EOS 1D X Mark II

On Canon's camera bodies line-up the 1-series has always been the flagship and highest ranked. This is no exception, the EOS 1D X Mark II, as its name implies is the second generation of the already remarkable EOS 1D X. The 1D X is a 18.1 megapixel full frame, professional level body that crosses-over two lines of bodies, the 1D and 1Ds, hence the "X". The 1D was a cropped sensor camera (1.3x) providing high frame rate count (10 fps on the latest 1D Mark IV), and the second, a full frame sensor camera which provided better imaging performance. In other words, it was the best of two worlds.

The 1D X became the preferred choice for professionals and committed enthusiasts, especially those in the field of action, sports, wildlife and journalism, and Canon eventually discontinued the 1D and 1Ds lines. It has an awesome auto focus system and it's build like a tank to withstand the elements and tough work conditions. 

Hands on the 1D X Mark II

Now, the second generation arrives showing improvements throughout the board. All the numbers have been increased but to us the most important specs are the following:
  • 20.2 megapixel 
  • 14 fps continuous shooting for up to 170 RAW frames, 16 fps in Live View
  • Improved 61-point AF
  • Up to 61 AF-points supported at f/8 max aperture 
  • AF working range down to EV -3
  • Improved AI Servo
  • Expected better ISO performance 
  • Enhanced precision and performance metering sensor
It also has amazing improvements on video and other specs. For a more comprehensive list of features please check out other online reviews.

The 20.2 megapixel count is not impressive in comparison to our favourite camera (7D Mark II) which has the same megapixels and if you have to crop a picture made on the 1D X Mark II to equate the field of view of a 1.6x cropped frame you will only get to roughly 8 megapixel, in addition, you will increase the size of grain and any distortion. On the other hand, if you do not have to crop on the full frame body you won't have this issue. In despite of the inconvenient pixel density, a better sensor and ISO performance could compensate the bad; this is something we had to test. 

Before we enter into the subject matter, we would like to thank Canon Professional Services for lending us a brand new camera to perform this real world review over a weekend. Now, we will show our results on the first day testing the camera with a super telephoto lens and will arrive to our verdict below.


The test (pt. 1)

We headed to Parque Natural Metropolitano and entered the forest to test the camera on one of the worst conditions we could face. Low light, hight humidity, fast moving subjects and distant subjects that do not fill the frame were all usual.

For this part of the test we decided to match the 1DX2 with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II and a 1.4x teleconverter. Our first impression was: "we miss the crop factor", even thou the 840mm (600 + 1.4x) provided better reach than our usual 700mm (500mm + 1.4x) it was way shorter than the 1120mm  (700mm x 1.6x) equivalent on the 7D2.

Honestly, the morning was not great, we started very late due to rain, and we only got nice pictures of a Streaked Flycatcher (Myiodynastes maculatus) that allowed us to shoot at plain 600mm to get lower ISO (the pictures below are cropped):

Streaked Flycatcher (Myiodynastes maculatus)
600mm, f/4, ISO 400, 1/40 sec., + 1 2/3 EV, no flash

Streaked Flycatcher (Myiodynastes maculatus)
600mm, f/4, ISO 400, 1/40 sec., + 1 2/3 EV, no flash

Streaked Flycatcher (Myiodynastes maculatus)
600mm, f/4, ISO 400, 1/60 sec., + 2 EV, no flash


The subject was backlighted and in poor light which gave us a good impression of how good was the AF system and the dynamic range. We also tested the new capability of focusing with all the AF points at f/8 maximum aperture pairing the 600mm f/4 with a 2x TC. Unfortunately, our focusing technique was in bad shape, and we couldn't get any worthy picture; at least we can testify that it works as advertised, and we are sure that in better conditions it will be useful.


Side by side comparison

The day become cloudy again, with threats of rain. This was even better because we could continue our test under adverse conditions. So, we moved to Gamboa and Pipeline Road after a nice tradicional Chinese lunch. 

Once in Pipeline Road we found the perfect subject to make a side by side comparison between the 1DX2 and the 7D2, it was a Basilisk (Basiliscus sp.) seating still and in poor light condition. It's important to disclose that both cameras were previously calibrated with the lens (alone and paired with TCs) and both cameras had the same settings except for two things:
  • on the 7D2 the max ISO was limited to 1600 and the min shutter speed to 1/15 sec.
  • on the 1DX2 the max ISO was limited to 3200 and the min shutter speed to 1/30 sec.
this was set this way to take advantage of the expected better ISO performance of the full frame body



Basilisk (Basiliscus sp.)
1D X Mark II RAW image
840mm, f/5.6, ISO 2500, 1/30 sec., +1 EV, no flash

Basilisk (Basiliscus sp.)
7D Mark II RAW image
840mm, f/5.6, ISO 1600, 1/15 sec., +1 EV, no flash

Both shots above are non-cropped and non-post-processed, and were made from the same distance, fixing the tripod and lens, then switching bodies. You can observe the obvious difference on field of view between a full frame sensor and a 1.6x cropped sensor. Also, we have to note that increasing the ISO on the 1DX2 allowed us to use a faster shutter speed which resulted on a sharper image. Lastly, note that color rendition differs, nothing critical since this can be adjusted in post-processing.


Our friend Taky was ready to be our side by side test subject but we ended using the basilisk. 

Below you can see the final results after post-processing the images, including sharpening and noise reduction. The 1DX2 was sharper presumably due to reasons stated above. Even cropped, the 1DX2 photo provided as much details as the 7D2 one, disregarding the inferior megapixel density of the former.  

Basilisk (Basiliscus sp.)
 1D X Mark II post-processed image and cropped to match 1.6x crop

Basilisk (Basiliscus sp.)
7D Mark II post-processed image


We published both pictures above and asked people to guess which was made with the higher-end camera. Right and wrong guesses were virtually tied.


King Swallowtail or Thoas Swallowtail butterfly (Heraclides thoas neacles, syn: Papilio thoas)
840mm, f/5.6, ISO 800, 1/30 sec., no flash

The king swallowtail or Thoas swallowtail (Papilio thoas) is a butterfly of the family Papilionidae. It is found in the southernmost United States, Mexico, Central America and South America (as far south as Argentina and Uruguay). The caterpillars feed on the leaves of citrus plants Rutaceae but have also been reported as feeding on a member of the genus PiperAdult Thoas swallowtails fly year round in the tropics, feeding on nectar of a variety of flowers, including Lantana, Stachytarpheta, and Bougainvillea among other species. The wingspan is 100–130 mm, which allowed us to make this shot from a relative large distance with a 600mm lens plus a 1.4x extender.

As we got to Gamboa we observed a group of Southern Lapwings (Vanellus chilensis) being harassed by a group of Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus), we got our tripod as low as possible and made some shots at ground level. Later, we found a very sneaky Rufescent Tiger-Heron (Tigrisoma lineatum)  neatly picking a stick for its nest.


Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus)
840mm, f/5.6, ISO 400, 1/100 sec., +1 EV, no flash


Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus)
840mm, f/5.6, ISO 400, 1/80 sec., +1 EV, no flash


Southern Lapwing (Vanellus chilensis)
 840mm, f/5.6, ISO 400, 1/80 sec., +1 EV, no flash


Southern Lapwing (Vanellus chilensis)
 840mm, f/5.6, ISO 400, 1/80 sec., +1 EV, no flash


Rufescent Tiger-Heron (Tigrisoma lineatum)
   840mm, f/5.6, ISO 1000, 1/40 sec., +1 2/3 EV, no flash


Rufescent Tiger-Heron (Tigrisoma lineatum)
  840mm, f/5.6, ISO 1250, 1/40 sec., +1 2/3 EV, no flash


Rufescent Tiger-Heron (Tigrisoma lineatum)
    840mm, f/5.6, ISO 1250, 1/40 sec., +1 2/3 EV, no flash


Rufescent Tiger-Heron (Tigrisoma lineatum)
 840mm, f/5.6, ISO 1600, 1/40 sec., +1 2/3 EV, no flash


As we reached 5:15 PM on Pipeline Road we faced the last test of the day,  a White-bellied Antbird (Myrmeciza longipes) located on the thicket, it was dark and we could hardly distinguish the bird, so we opted to go with the plain 600mm lens without TC, disregarding the fact that we were not able to fill the frame as we would like. The camera was good focusing on these conditions. 

White-bellied Antbird (Myrmeciza longipes)
 600mm, f/4, ISO 800, 1/30 sec., +1 EV, no flash


White-bellied Antbird (Myrmeciza longipes)
  600mm, f/4, ISO 3200, 1/40 sec., +1 EV, no flash


The verdict (pt. 1: Super Telephoto Wildlife Photography)

The EOS 1D X Mark II is simply amazing. Everything is as good as advertised, making it worth every penny. Unfortunately, it provides more than what we need e.g. great video features or absurd ISO. It's also more than we can afford at this moment since we have preferred to invest in glass (yes... as you might have guessed as of now, we now have a 600mm). 

The side by side comparison shows us that having good glass is more important, and we are pretty sure that we can get the same results with a modest (in comparison to the 1DX2) body like the 7D2, with the value added of 1.6 more reach which also helps getting more details into the frame. 

As stated on our previous review, a full frame body will come very handy but yet we can justify investing US$ 6,000 on a single body (that's equal to four 7D2 bodies). A full frame for us is very useful for macro (incoming second part of this real world review), larger animals that fill the frame, or tame little animals that get close enough.

The 5Ds/5DsR and even the ageing 1D X seem to be better options from an economical standpoint for wildlife photographers like us but if you have the money and want the best Canon camera in the market then, hands down, buy the 1D X Mark II because you will get decent megapixel, the fastest frame rate, the best AF, metering, dynamic range and ISO performance available on the Canon world, and now you could use AF on all the focusing points with a 2x TC and a 500mm or 600mm f/4, or a 800mm f/5.6 with a 1.4x. Just keep in mind that with the kind of money you buy a 1D X Mark II you could either buy a 5DsR plus a 7D Mark II.

Please stay tuned because soon we will have a second part testing this camera for macro photography.

To be continued...