Real World Test : Canon 7D Mark II in crappy arena light

For this story to make sense, I must be clear on something.  I bought the 7D Mark II for two specific use cases, both tending towards longer lenses and both tending towards a preponderance of crappy light.  So you understand, the use cases for the camera are wildlife and sports.  Last night, I along with my good friend Will du Plessis, trundled off to the Aurora Community Centre to photography an OJHL match between the Aurora Tigers and Lindsay Muskies.  We both were shooting the 7D Mark II with the Canon 70-200/2.8L IS II.  To learn how the 7D runs at higher ISOs in horrible lighting, read on...Don't get me wrong.  I love shooting OJHL hockey.  The players really want to be there, work hard and are hoping to get picked for the minors or to head off to University on a hockey scholarship.  The arenas however, leave a lot to be desired from the lighting perspective.  This isn't the Air Canada Centre, the Aurora Community Centre is lit by banks of T8 fluorescent tubes which while white are not particularly bright. I never liked shooting my original 7D beyond 1600 ISO.  After that the noise became annoying and the contrast really started to flatten out.  When I did the test shots with the 7D Mark II, I found that it started to fall off badly after ISO 6400, so I went with the intent to shoot the whole game at ISO 3200.

The camera was set to aperture priority with the lens cranked wide open to f:/2.8.  ISO was set to 3200 and exposure compensation was +1 ⅓ stops.  I hope that this would give me decent enough shutter speeds to freeze action without turning every image into a grainy sack of mush.

Let me say up front that I am not yet acclimated to the 7D Mark II.  Enough has changed to put me behind the curve on it.  Some things are similar to other cameras such as the Case options for AF similar to those in the 1Dx.  When I shoot the 1Dx, I use Case 4 AF and did the same on the 7D Mk II.

My go to kit for hockey up to now has been the 1D Mk IV with a Sigma 120-300/2.8 stabilized lens at ISO 2500.  The Mark IV does a great job and the 1.3 crop gives me up to 390mm effective focal length, that I rarely use.  The 7D Mk II, has a 1.6 crop factor so with the 70-200 that should have ended up about 320mm.  First learning. For a recreational hockey arena where I want tight shots and not to have to crop away dead space more than 30%, 320mm is too short.  So next time out, the Sigma 120-300 is back on point.

The AF in the 7D Mark II is very fast.  It is not fast like the 1Dx but comparable in AF performance to the 1D Mark IV and that's very good indeed.  I was a bit off my game having not shot hockey in a while so I felt out of sync a bit and it showed in the images.  Shots were clean in the viewfinder and accurate on the LCD.

I shot in RAW (as I always do) and using a Sandisk 32GB Extreme card rated at 120 MB/s I never managed to fill the buffer.  I did find that high speed burst at 10fps was overkill and low speed at 3fps was inadequate.  Fortunately the 7D Mark II allows you to set your low speed burst rate.

I tried the anti-flicker setting on the camera.  I honestly cannot tell if it made a difference at all so next time I shoot without it.  I've also programmed the camera for back button focus only because I found that having focus on the shutter button resulted in extra frames because the trigger is a bit light compared to either of the 1D models that I have.

I set the camera to AWB and that worked out pretty darn well and left the Auto Lighting Optimizer turned off.  Never have found a real use for that since I tend to expose to the right most of the time.    Since I shoot RAW I don't worry about the colour space or picture style crap but I do set AdobeRGB and Neutral if only to get the LCD JPEG to look as much like the RAW as possible.

About 700 frames knocked two batteries in the grip down to about 75% so decent enough performance.  Shots on the LCD looked fine but Canon has changed the Info display and it no longer tells me the information I want to see the way I want to see it.  Instead they have replaced it with a scrolled display that shows all the JPEG setting cruft instead of the basic exposure info with a full sized image.  Those Canon folks build a nice camera, but they still do not understand User Interface.

The game was heavily dominated by the Aurora Tigers until the third period so I did not get the variety of images I would have preferred but that happens sometimes.

I pulled the CF card and put it into my card reader to import the images to Lightroom and to my horror, every image looked like it was on an acid trip to LSD World.  Arrrggghhh!  So I tried Photo Mechanic.  Arrrrgggghhh!  Then I decided to stick a fork in my eye and try to get the current Digital Photo Professional from Canon's site since Mac's don't come with DVD drives.  No problem so long as I manually TYPE IN THE THE FRICKING SERIAL NUMBER FOR EVERY DOWNLOAD!  Canon I have two words for you numbnutz and the first word rhymes with truck.  No one would actually steal your crappy software, so pull hard and reverse the cranio-rectal inversion you are suffering from.  Jerks.

Well that didn't work either.  But I knew that the 7D Mark II could save in RAW and to both cards and it worked, so I pulled the card from the Lexar USB 3 Card Reader on Mac Pro the cylinder and went down to the studio to try it in the Lexar Firewire Card Reader on Mac Pro the cheese grater.  Every image is just fine.  Hmmm

Is it the Lexar USB 3 reader?  Is it something in the new Mac Pro?  Is it some ghost in the machine?  I went back upstairs and put the SD card in the reader.  It has some RAW images on it.  They imported fine.  Hmmm I plugged the CF card into the reader again and checked again.  Everything is perfect.  Two hours lost in failed imports and assorted futzing about but it all worked the second time.  I still don't know why but have made a note to myself that unless I am in a rush, to use the cheese grater and push the RAW files right to the NAS and import them from there, rather than off the card reader.  Maybe the card is too fast for the reader on LR import.  Still don't know.

Anyhoo.  Lightroom does actually have a RAW converter for the 7D Mark II.  I am not certain that it is a GOOD RAW converter yet.  As yet, DXO does not have a RAW converter for the 7D, it's due in December.  I have found on other occasions that the DXO RAW converter does a better job than the Adobe one.  I did try Apple's RAW Converter with Aperture and I think it did a better job.  RAW conversion is a big deal to me, and even after post processing, I found the Lightroom files kind of flat, whereas the Aperture versions were better and with a lot less work.

So what about the noise?  Well when I did the studio test using studio heads in big light shapers, the 7D Mark II was excellent to 6400 ISO.  I was less impressed with it in crappy lighting in the arena.  For higher ISOs to look good, you need good light with decent contrast and I just wasn't getting that in the arena.  Noise at 3200 for hockey is about the same as the noise at 6400 with studio lighting.  Still a long way better than the original 7D, but not as good as I hoped it would be.

In fairness, I need to give it another shot.  I may take a trip to the Ray Twinney Centre to shoot a Hurricanes game.  The Hurricanes are my hometown team but the current owners are challenging and I gave up shooting the team about a year ago because for every nag with the Canes, the Tigers arena and people are welcoming.  Sadly the Twinney Centre has better lighting.  I will also turn that flicker thing off and try shooting with the longer glass to eliminate the need for so much dead space cropping.  I was hopeful to avoid the weight of the 120-300/2.8 and it's required monopod but I will give it a shot regardless.

I've attached a few images from the culled stack, none are awesome but they will give you a sense of what you can expect.  All images were processed in Lightroom for a minor exposure bump of +⅓, lifting of the shadows a bit, increased clarity, pushing the black point left and lifting the white point marginally.  Clarity and a bit of vibrance were added.  The image then round-tripped through Nik Sharpener Pro 3 and Nik Dfine 2 noise reduction.

Thanks for reading and until next time, peace.