Announcement Review : The Canon 1Dx Mark II

I've been a cheerleader for the original 1Dx since mine arrived just before the London Olympics.  It built on the framework of the 1D Mark IV and the 5D Mark II to make a superbly capable professional camera.  I loved it then, and it is my go to body to this day.  When word started to leak that there was a new version imminent, lots of folks asked me what I thought.  I was very clear then.  The only thing that would make a Mark II extraordinarily compelling would be a significant increase in dynamic range.  The Mark II was officially announced on Feb 1, 2016.  Let's take a look at the announcement and see what Canon has done.

As they say in comedy, Timing is everything.  Had Nikon not announced the D5 nearly a month ago, reactions to the 1Dx Mark II would have been more positive.  As things roll out, and based on specs, this is either a strong second place for stills against the as yet unreleased D5 and against the a7S Mark II for video.

I thought it was odd that when I went to the main web site for Canon Canada and Canon USA to see nothing posted as of 0900 Feb 2 about the announced product.  Mr. Google helped me find the press release.

I will be respectful.  I cannot offer insight into the usability of the new camera as I have not seen one.  Canon does not care what I think, and never reaches out for input or with review products (unlike Nikon, Fujifilm and Olympus).  So when I review a Canon product, it's because I can get one on loan, or it's done on behalf of a retailer, or I bought it.  Thus, this post will relate solely to the press release.

So what's the fundamental uplift?

The new body moves to 20.2MP from 18MP.  Not really a big jump, similar to the shift from the D4s to the D4.  I think that this is perfectly reasonable because the camera is built for pros who often have to shoot in crap light.  That said, Nikon has announced an ISO top limit of over 3M in the D5 where the 1Dx Mark II caps at 409,600.  There is only a one stop native ISO improvement over the original 1Dx.  I do shoot the 1Dx at 25,600 for high school football and it is awesome.  For a brand new body in 2016, I would have hoped for a much higher maximum native ISO.

Canon states up to 14fps and up to 16fps in Live View.  I can push my 1Dx to 14fps so long as I don't care about Autofocus between shots.  Same deal here.  Faster Live View stills which may matter to some, but not me because I only ever shoot from Live View in a studio situation.

Dual Digic 6+ cpus, which is an evolutionary bump over the dual Digic 5 cpus in the 1Dx.  A larger buffer on the CFast slot gives a RAW buffer limit of 170 frames.  That's a nice spec, but really supports more spray and pray than shooting with intent.  The original 1Dx is rated at 39 RAW frames in the buffer.  That depends on the amount of data in the frame.  I have pushed mine in test to 51 frames before it stopped firing.  More than sufficient for my needs and probably the needs of most.  Do the math.  With AF locked out at 14fps, that means holding the button down for over 12 seconds.  That means I could just hold the button down at the start of a bronco ride and get frames to cover the entire 8 second ride with room to spare.  That would be a lot of culling.

Speaking of memory, the new body offers one CF slot and one CFast slot.  CFast could be argued as necessary for 4K video, and the specs say that the camera can push over 500MBps shooting 4K at 60fps.  I can agree with choosing CFast for this use case.  I only hope that the rapine pricing for CFast cards takes a big drop.  They are no faster than an SSD drive but cost on average six times more for the same amount of storage.  If you are only shooting stills, CFast is expensive overkill.

There's a new external wireless transmitter.  Fortunately you can use the wireless transmitter from the 1Dx and C300 if you already spent the insane amount of money being charged for one.  I understand wireless not being built in, but seriously, $800 for a wireless adapter?  Are these guys high?

Digital Lens Optimizer to help correct aberrations in camera.  This is touted as new, but there was aberration correction in the 1Dx too, if the firmware had a profile for the lens.

61 points of AF, with all capable of delivering AF at f/8   That's a minor step up from the 1Dx, but AF coverage is still very central to the frame.  Both Sony and Nikon will beat this up every day after school.

There is an improved predictive AF algorithm for continuous focus.  I love the efficiency of the predictive options in the original 1Dx, if they are improved, sports photographers will love this.

There is now continuous red illumination of AF points in the Viewfinder.  This existed in the older 1D units then was removed.  People complained so they put it back as a new feature.  That's not a feature, that's correcting a screw up.

Dual Pixel AF gives proper autofocus during video.  This debuted in the 70D and I had my C300 upgraded to include it.  It's the best always on autofocus that you will find in a DSLR, albeit it works in Movie mode and Live View.

The rear LCD is now a touchscreen.  Most touchscreens I have hated because I am left eyed and my nose activates the screen.  Recent Nikons have been very good.  So long as my nose doesn't make changes, I will be happy.  Not that I spend much time using touchscreens since I have the camera at my eye.  Won't be a problem, because apparently it's only active in Live View, does not operate in playback mode and cannot be used for menu selections.  File this under why bother.

The metering sensor increases to 360k of metering points.  This is a three fold improvement, not that I have ever had an issue with the 1Dx metering poorly.  Unfortunately for Canon, their competition have much denser metering capabilities.

Canon has developed a new battery and charger with about 10% greater shot count.  Fortunately if you own batteries from a 1Dx they still work.  The new charger will work with the older batteries.  This is a very good initiative by Canon and I am happy to hear this.  There is also a new AC adapter, but initial specs do not say whether the AC adapter from the 1Dx will work with the 1Dx Mark II.

Where the 1Dx Mark II leaps ahead is in video.  The camera shoots 4K video at up to 120fps.  This creates a significant amount of bandwidth, hence the requirement for the CFast card.  The camera will also push full 4K out the built in HDMI port to an external recorder.  This gets past the tax enforced limit of a single clip exceeding 29m 59s.  I would push 4K out to my Atomos Shogun because of its larger brighter display and that I can load SSD drives into it for one sixth the cost of a CFast card.  Oh wait, apparently I cannot.  The HDMI port will only push 1080p.  Yup if you want 4K the internal recording is seemingly the only option.  That's a failing grade right there.  120fps is only available at FullHD, but even 60fps 4K is a great offering for those who want to shoot video.  In truth I don't know a lot of pro stills shooters who are that heavy into video, but I am and would welcome the flexibility.  

What I find troubling are the video missings.  There is no focus peaking.  There are no zebra patterns.  There's no support for Log gamma.  These are givens amongst serious videographers.  I could buy a Sony a7S Mark II body and a speedy metabones adapter.  For a lot less than a 1Dx Mark II..  Canon also caps the max ISO in video mode on the 1Dx Mark II, unlike the outstanding high ISO they deliver in their CINE cameras.  It should be noted that the ISO jump came to the CINE line through a firmware update, so who knows what Canon might choose to do via firmware changes.  We saw Magic Lantern on the original 7D change the camera from passing useful for video to being a killer video camera.  I'm still sad I sold mine when I bought the unimpressive 7D Mark II.  So while there are video enhancements, it really smells like Canon is delivering as little as possible to avoid sucking revenue out of their CINE camera line.  I get a manufacturer not wanting to be parasitic on its own products, but it also behooves an organization to pay attention to the competition.

The camera incorporates built in microphones and audio recording, like most all other DSLRs.  A headphone jack has been added that was missing on the original 1Dx.  I confess to nagging consumer products about being missing a headphone jack, but in the time I've had my 1Dx, the number of times I have recorded primary audio to the camera is exactly once.  Most often I use a preamp in front of the camera, that has quality preamps for low impedance microphones, some basic mixing controls and the ability to record audio off board.  I do use the internal audio, but only as a sync track for the higher quality off board audio.  Having had the opportunity over the last few years to work with video professionals, they all do this, none of them depend on in camera audio.  Apparently the Full HD at 120fps is only available without audio, which seems odd, and I would wait to see if this is in fact true.

The camera is tagged at $5999 USD and is scheduled to start hitting dealers in April 2016.  I was so hopeful to see a really revolutionary option from Canon.  What I see here is barely evolutionary and with too many decisions that cripple what the camera should be doing.  While neither the Nikon D5 nor the 1Dx Mark II are actually shipping, Nikon is WAY AHEAD on specs.

Am I calling my local CPS affiliated dealer to place my pre-order?  No, I'm not.  And while I am not in the position to buy one right now anyway, I confess to being a bit disappointed that I don't even want to.