David Clapp is a professional landscape and travel photographer from England who recently took the Canon 1DX Mark II on a trip to the Lake District to see how it performs as a landscape camera.
A sports camera in the landscape? Let me welcome you to this article about my experiences photographing autumn with the Canon 1DX Mark II, used solely as a landscape camera during a trip to the Lake District in November 2016.
I have always been an admirer of these world class cameras, ever since I bought the Canon T90 way back in 2002, my first serious 35mm film camera. The legendary 1-series system has been with me on my professional digital photographic journey throughout. Since it’s metamorphosis into the mighty 1DX, it has been extremely hard for the competition to match its performance and technical excellence. Incredible AF performance, high ISO capabilities and virtually waterproof; the 1DX Mark I has been my wild weather / extreme temperature / night vision camera for the last three years, so when I heard a new version with even better refinements was incoming, I snapped up the chance to take it out in the field.
Wielding a 1-series system is like owning a piece of military grade technology. Now most of us don’t exactly ‘go to war’ with our cameras unless we work for the touchlines or the newspapers, but once you buy a 1-series camera, you feel a new level of warrior creativity and I confess it is really difficult to go back. They are the ultimate in build quality, resilience, both large in the hand, heavy in the hand (and I am sure you already realise) very heavy on the wallet. Yet once you have got over the fact that the camera is worth more than both your car and your wife’s after a trade in, you feel literally unstoppable and there is nothing like it in my opinion. My 1DX Mark I wowed workshops, saw children whopping with delight as I demonstrated its machine gun similarities in activities week. It literally laughed in the face of every other puny camera on a trip to Finland last year, performing effortlessly in -41 degrees Celsius whilst others wouldn’t even switch on. On the other hand, I didn’t fair so well - my fingertips were turning blue.
So what do I like about the Canon 1DX Mark II? Improvements. It’s not the same leap forwards the 1DX Mark I took against the Canon 1D Mark IV, it’s a refinement from the gigantic steps that Canon took as they blasted the competition. Now I am not the man to talk to about the intricacies of autofocus case studies, as I take one image every fifteen minutes, let alone fifteen every second. What has excited the most is the image quality, image size, ISO performance, connectivity, GPS and accuracy. It also has a lot of new features that have now landed in the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV - the same focusing, the same Dual Pixel CMOS, but it also takes things to future standards with CFast card compatibility. Anyway, let’s break it down.
Image Quality, Size and Dynamic Range
There is just something about 1-series cameras that have that extra edge on anything else in the Canon line and it was a home coming to see the first round of images. The colours are natural, vibrant and look as though they need very little post processing at all. Anyone who was in The Lakes this year will tell you that it was the best autumn they have seen in a few years and the 1DX Mark II picked up these colours beautifully. It was wonderful having the extra resolution and I can imagine that anyone who has upgraded from the 18mp 1DX Mark I will feel thankful they now have a little room to play with regards to image cropping. With Canon’s flagship lens line-up now coping with 50 megapixels (and no doubt there will be even bigger to come) my entire range of L lens looked marvellous on the 1DX Mark II. In my opinion we are now entering another golden era of technology.
Dynamic range is superb, giving a greater (but only marginal) head room over the 1DX Mark I. The files respond well to post processing, so should you accidentally underexpose, images can be lifted and corrected without noise or degradation. It is not the same level as the new 5D Mark IV, which leads the Canon line up in flexibility.
Well, I am not exactly the person to speak to about focus tracking, but on static subjects the 1DX Mark II performed as flawlessly as the 1DX Mark I. After switching to surveillance mode and tracking tourists driving the winding roads to Grange, the results were once again flawless. I really appreciate the width and size of the AF array. I switched the AF point to cross type and also the 9-point square type for the duration of the trip, to increase focus accuracy and everything performed as expected.
It’s exemplary, building on the boasting confidence of the 1DX Mark I. I found the camera could effortlessly perform at ISO6400, a stop over its predecessor. It’s not just the necessity to impress at high ISO’s that’s important, it’s the ability to post process and noise-reduce the images as well. Just like the EOS 5D Mark IV, the camera is literally devoid of colour noise, meaning some good noise reduction techniques in software can make full frame images sail to the loft heights of ISO12800. But, and I have to say again this, the 5D Mark IV excels here, which I would happily shoot one stop over at ISO25600, in good light anyway. Remember you can’t just head off out in the pitch dark, multiply the gain by 256 times and expect everything to be noise free, so action photographers will take this far further than I creatively would.
It’s worth asking why do these excessive ISO values even exist? Let’s not forget using mRAW and sRAW – some would prefer insane levels of ISO, with a smaller picture size. It’s about high frame rates in terrible light. Professionals in sports / news / military / police need to get that shot at any cost, not just romancing the camera on fell tops like me. Do consider that the military and the police are big and unpublicised reasons to create a camera that can literally autofocus in the dark and reveal the moment.
Ever since the Canon EOS 6D, I have championed GPS on my cameras and I am sure that all 1DX Mark I users will herald its arrival. The Map module in Adobe Lightroom is a total life saver… ‘Rach, where did we put those travel maps of Barcelona?’ – it used to be a frantic Google Maps orientated scramble when keywording and captioning images for Getty Images. GPS has saved me from a world of administrative hell and I advise everyone to use it, even if it’s just for future proofing.
The camera now has a couple of necessary GPS modes that the Canon 6D hasn’t got – the ability to stop logging between shots and to stop logging when powered down. It all seemed simple from the offset of the 6D, but now these features are in the form of Mode Types which can be set accordingly. I would say the GPS is more accurate than I am used to, its faster to pickup satellites and more accurate, so I left it switched on the entire time, throughout my week in the Lakes. I really think a digital compass needs to be included, so you could also see the direction in which you were shooting in Maps, but here’s why it doesn’t.
The GPS doesn’t not have the same functionality as the Canon GP-E2GPS Receiver module and I suggest those requiring even further shot information use one of these. It is only on this device that the camera can also show your shooting direction. Apparently its too much technology to cram into the mirrorbox area, so for the best GPS information available, use Map Utility and fit a GP-E2 to your hotshoe. I have used one on non GPS equipped cameras like the Canon EOS 5DS and 5DS R, as well as my 1DX Mark I and it works superbly.
I missed the dual CF card slots, but that’s a bit like missing a 1Tb hard drive over a 6Tb. The CFast card slot will come back into play when prices started to reduce and they certainly have form 12 months ago. The cheapest and smallest CFast 2.0 card I could find (and it has to be CFast 2.0) was a 32gb Sandisk Extreme 3500x card for £135 on the Park Cameras website, which is near three times more expensive than a standard Sandisk Extreme CF card, so bear that in mind if you need dual write performance. Rather humorously, I am still in the shallows, using somewhat ancient Lexar 8Gb cards in my cameras, but they work fine. I get a little paranoid about card corruption, losing days of work from, but I know I am in the minority here.
The battery performance of the 1DX Mark II is superb and as expected it requires higher levels of power, more so than the 1DX Mark I. I took three other 1DX batteries (a 1DX battery and some old 1DS Mark III batteries) for the trip duration. Even with these older batteries, the camera only needing a fresh battery approximately every day and a half / two days, with conservative use. Power drain relates to my excessive use of Live View and Playback, certainly not blasting frames per second. I don’t think that GPS drain will ever be a problem again, like the Canon 6D, where it is essential to disable the GPS in menu, or it spends the next twelve futile hours looking for satellites inside your Lowepro.
Be aware that the touch screen is only for focusing point positioning, not for menu selection or other camera settings like the 5D Mark IV. I was shown the video joys of ‘pull focusing’, choosing two points and being able to seamlessly slide focusing between them which sent me into a dream of a full scale Lakes movie production. I am certain I should give this a go one day.
In the Field
This year I took a lot more risks with my photography, so I did some extensive planning, map gazing and fell walking, more than I ever have to be honest, getting lucky on a number of occasions and loosing very badly on others. An average day saw me loading a ThinkTank Streetwalker Pro camera bag with Canon 1DX Mark II, Canon EOS 6D, 16-35mm f/4L IS lens, 24-70mm f/4L IS lens, 100-400 f4-5.6L IS II USM lens, 24mm f/3.5L TS-E II lens and a 1.4x III Extender, filters, iPad Mini (for maps) and a large bottle of water. All in all, the bag weighed about 8 kilos, so it was a touch on the heavy side, but I attribute this to the water and the new 100-400mm lens, which is new to me. As it turned out, two lenses (the 16-35mm f/4L and 24mm TS-E) became unnecessary and I never ended up using them.
The 1DX Mark II and all the lenses feel very balanced in the hand and easy to use, intuitive to operate, once you know the layout. There are so many controls available, so much technology packed onto the camera’s exterior, it’s absolutely incredible when you think about it.
Despite being an action photography favourite, the 1DX Mark II and 100-400mm lens could feel slightly over the edge for some, mainly when hand holding. It’s nearly 2.5kg, making it an uncomfortable weapon to wield at first, but you will be surprised how you get used to things. Picking up a friends EOS 5D Mark III with a 70-200mm f2.8L IS II lens seems light in comparison and that’s no lightweight glass.
Can I sidestep a moment - If you have not shot a 100-400mm but think your 70-200mm is still perfectly fine in the landscape, then you’re living in the somewhat restricted past. It has made me wave goodbye to a 70-300mm f4-5.6L IS and a 300mm f/2.8, 1.4x II and 2x II extenders. It’s single handedly the best landscape optic on the market - it’s a killer 100-560mm lens with the 1.4x III extender and it’s utterly incredible for macro and plant portraits, thanks to its 1 metre minimum focusing. I swear to you, you will never look back.
The most memorable shoot from the trip was from the top of Ivy Crag. In the face of adversity, I woke up one miserably wet Sunday and drove reluctantly over the back of Grasmere to get some elevation. There were gaps in the clouds to the southeast, so I climbed an easy route to look over the top of Loughrigg Tarn and into the Great Langdales. If I had decided to check my emails on my phone in the car, or taken a little longer to climb upwards in the wind and rain, I would have missed the most glorious one minute and forty seconds of the entire week.
After catching my breath and embracing the scene, I set up the tripod and attached the 1DX Mark II and 24-70mm f/4L IS USM lens. Suddenly, as though someone pulled a lever, the sun lifted above the sodden clouds and illuminated the copper-bronze and russet red canopies of oak and beech, as far as the eye see. This is why we do it! Two eleven shot stitched panos later, as the heavy rain turned to sleet then snow, the light faded as the sun climbed upwards into the clouds. I made my way back with sodden down and the biggest of smiles.
OK, perhaps my Lakeland visit did not push the camera like a refrigerated Finland winter, but the quality of those images, the colours and the intuitive operation made sure the moment came together beautifully. The shots were lazer sharp, vibrant, truthful and a joy to post process.
Days later I was still hiking and wandering new locations. The weight felt more stable I was able to come to some personal conclusions about the 1-series system, which after working with the 5D Mark IV, lead me to an epiphany.
The 1DX Mark I is a superb camera, but for the first time since 2008 I conclude it’s no longer for me. The reason is obviously not to do with quality, resilience or build, it is because I have changed and so has the technology. The 1DX Mark I was my night vision camera, for shooting aurora and the night sky. At the time (2012) there was nothing on the market to touch it. Its ISO performance was a total revelation and its image quality is still staggering to date, making it one of the best second hand bargains on the market. The 1DX Mark II takes the baton and runs even faster, tighter, more accurate then ever before, but I now feel content to cut this thoroughbred champion loose.
The 1DX Mark I spent a lot of time lounging around in hotel rooms whilst the 6D was out shooting. For those geographical adventures, it is untouchable in the field, but it is very important to be aware of a few overlooked points. Its sheer size makes it an attention seeker, a talking point, a military grade professional that can actually reverse a creative mind, until working with a 1-series camera becomes instinctive. It boasts wealth and affluence. It also says (like it did recently in Morocco) ‘I am a press photographer, I am a photo journalist who is here to work in your country’. Alongside fascination, it raises suspicion everywhere. It’s also worth remembering, that not everyone working in a fruit market will act naturally when this behemoth swings in their direction.
It will be the first time I have not had a 1-series body in the last eight years as I head back to the 5-series, but I am nervously wondering whether I will live to regret it. If you shoot landscapes, wildlife or action photography of any kind, at an advanced or professional level, then the 1DX Mark II would be my immediate recommendation, over any cameras, of any make. If your adventures require extreme weather sealing, a camera to operate in all conditions, from dust to nose freezing cold, then the Canon EOS 1DX Mark II is the leader of the pack.