Canon EOS 7D Mark II First Impressions (Podcast 453)

Canon EOS 7D Mark II First Impressions (Podcast 453)

A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a Canon EOS 7D Mark II, and last week used it to shoot three days with the adorable Snow Monkeys in Nagano, four hours north-west of Tokyo, and I’m now in a position to talk about my first impressions. I’ll follow up with a more detailed review later, but here are my initial thoughts on this new camera.

1.6X Crop Factor

Before we jump in and look at some photographs, let’s talk a little about the camera itself. Probably one of the most important aspects for many is that the Canon EOS 7D Mark II is a crop factor camera. I have been shooting with full frame bodies since the first generation 5D and 1Ds, and although my old 1D Mark IV that I used for wildlife had a 1.3X crop factor, since the release of the Canon EOS 1D X I have been shooting exclusively with full frame cameras.

The 7D Mark II has a 1.6X crop factor, which means that if you are shooting at a 100mm focal length, the camera actually captures an image that is the equivalent of a 160mm focal length. Now, for wide angle shots this is obviously an unwelcome limitation, but my main use for this camera is going to be wildlife, and similarly for sports photographers too, getting a little bit more reach out of our telephoto lenses is generally a good thing.

100% Viewfinder

I’ll try to go into more detail on all the new stuff when I have more images to share and more experience with the 7D Mark II, but for now, here are a few other things that I am very happy to see in this new body. Firstly, I was very pleasantly surprised to see that the viewfinder on the 7D Mark II is approximately 100%. The original 7D also has a 100% viewfinder, although I never used the 7D. My old crop factor cameras had very dark viewfinders though, which I never really liked. You don’t necessarily notice this if it’s all you shoot with, but once you start shooting with a 100% viewfinder the narrower field of view models seem dark and difficult to really see well.

Intelligent Viewfinder II

I also really like some of the new features in the Intelligent Viewfinder II, such as the ability to turn on a permanent digital level that displays whenever you half-press the shutter button. On my other bodies, I have to map the M-fn button to display this level whenever I press it, and I was stumped initially that I could not map this button in the custom functions of the 7D Mark II, but then I found how to turn this on in the viewfinder, and love that it’s there all the time now as I shoot.

Here’s a screenshot from the User’s Manual to show you what I mean. The digital level is at the top of the frame, above the focusing points, which means that you can now simply glance at that whenever you need to ensure you have the camera level, rather than pressing a button to display this information using the focus points, as is the case for the 5D Mark III and 1D X that I also use.

Canon EOS 7D Mark II Intelligent Viewfinder II

Canon EOS 7D Mark II Intelligent Viewfinder II

You can also now display various camera settings to be displayed in the Intelligent Viewfinder, such as your auto-focus mode, which I love being able to do. I switch between One Shot and AI Servo quite a lot, and being able to see that right there in the viewfinder is very useful. I’ve also turned on displaying my image quality in the viewfinder as well. I only ever shoot raw, but I have found myself in JPEG through reasons I can never understand in the past, and have had to reshoot images in raw, so I just like to be able to see this in the viewfinder as a double-check.

65 Focus Points!

Of course, the other major change and probably the reason that I decided to buy the 7D Mark II is that it has an almighty 65 Focus Points, all cross-type! The 5D Mark III and 1D X have a very respectable 61 focus points, but even the 1D X with it’s incredible auto-focussing only has 41 cross-type sensors. Now, does this mean that the 7D Mark II has better autofocus, well, unfortunately it doesn’t really, as we’ll see.

10 Frames Per Second!

Another feature that sports and wildlife shooters are always interested in, is the number of frames per second, and the 7D Mark II shoots a very respectable 10 frames per second. This is the same as the 1D Mark IV, which was the top of the line sports camera from Canon before the 1D X, and even the 1D X only beats that by 2 frames per second in raw mode, so again, 10 fps for a $1,800 camera is just crazy-talk. Amazing! As an aside, the shutter sound of the 7D Mark II is pretty sweet too. Not very loud, but a nice solid sound that’s very easy on the ears. [Listen to the audio to actually hear the shutter sound I recorded.]

GPS Built-in

I also really like how GPS is now built in, which saves me from having to use my GP-E2 which I’m still using on my 5D Mark III and 1D X to geotag my images. In the 7D Mark II settings you can set the camera to either just tag images, or create a track-log and tag the images at the same time. One thing that I don’t like is that the camera continues to record coordinates even after you turn it off. This means that you have to go into the menus to disable GPS when you no longer need the track-log to be created. In my opinion this should turn off when you turn off the camera, or at least have an option for it to be turned off with the camera, which would save going into the menus each time.

“Enhanced” Weatherproofing

At first, I thought this might be a bit of clever marketing blurb, as it was with the 5D Mark III, but Canon claim that the 7D Mark II has “enhanced dust and weather resistance”, and go on to state in the camera specifications that the camera’s seals are built to resist water and dust, which in addition to the rigid magnesium alloy body make the 7D Mark II “ready for almost anything”.

Now, I’m still not going to take this at face value until I’ve really given the weather proofing a good hammering, but we had a fair amount of rain on one afternoon with the snow monkeys, and it snowed for most of the rest of the time, and the camera held up fine so far, without any kind of protection. Now of course, snow isn’t wet until it melts, so that’s not such a great test, but the rain didn’t bother it at all, in the few hours that I got mine wet. More to come on this later as I really put the camera through it’s paces.

7D Mark II in Snow

7D Mark II in Snow

Built-in Intervalometer and Bulb Timer

I also want to give an honourable mention to the built-in intervalometer and bulb timer, which has been a long time coming, and I love this, but, it’s totally wasted for me on this camera, because I will almost certainly never use this feature on my wildlife camera. This is something that I would have loved in the 5D Mark III, and will be happy to hopefully see in a future full-frame camera, which is what I’ll use for my landscape work.

Field Test

OK, so they’re the main features that I am impressed with, and that lead me to pick up my own 7D Mark II, but how did it handle in the field?

As I said, I used the 7D Mark II for three full days shooting the Snow Monkeys with some private tour customers that I took over to Jigokudani for four days last week. I shot all of the images that we’ll look at today with the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L II lens without an Extender fitted. I’ll update you on these findings after I’ve taken this camera to Hokkaido with me to photograph the red-crowned cranes, whooper swans and sea eagles for a total of almost four week in January and February, but my initial impressions based on photographing the snow monkeys are as follows…

Slight Start-up Lag

First of all, if you want the ultimate sports and wildlife camera, the 1D X is still it, for a number of very subtle reasons, but when you consider that the 7D Mark II is almost a quarter of the price, the reasons could become pretty insignificant. One of the reasons is that there is a very slight lag when you first raise the camera to your eye to capture something in a hurry.

A number of times I’d see a snow monkey doing something that I wanted to capture in an instant, but the camera takes just a split second or maybe even half a second or so to respond as you try to focus initially. Now, this could be down to the Intelligent Tracking and Recognition, or iTR Autofocus which the manual says can slow down focusing a little. I prefer to leave iTR AF turned on though, because it uses subject colour information to continue to focus on the subject, which is pretty important when tracking a subject around the frame.

It’s also very possible, if not likely, that the lag that I saw was due to the cold weather, which slows down the liquid crystal action that is used to display the in-screen information, giving the impression that the camera itself is slow. The temperature was between 1 degrees Celsius to around minus 8 during our time with the snow monkeys, which is certainly cold enough to start seeing this behaviour.

So, is this slight lag a big problem? Not really. I can totally live with it, especially when you consider the cost of this camera compared to the 1D X. We aren’t really comparing apples to apples by expecting it to be quite as snappy. I’ll let you know how the camera fairs in really cold conditions once I’ve used it in Hokkaido, but I don’t think this is going to be a big issue. Plus, Canon only actually support the camera down to freezing point, which is ridiculous when you consider how these cameras are used, but that’s their decision to make I guess.

AI Servo Performance

The other thing that wildlife and sports shooters are going to be interested in hearing about, is the AI Servo focusing performance. Once again, so far this doesn’t seem as accurate as the 1D X. Let’s look at a series of 30 frames of a snow monkey coming straight towards the camera. This burst was literally three seconds long, so I didn’t stop shooting at all between these thirty frames.

Snow Monkey Autofocus Test

Snow Monkey Autofocus Test

The very first frame was totally sharp, so the camera had no problem locking on to the face of the snow monkey quickly as I raised the camera. Note that in the settings I have the camera setup to give priority to focus for the 1st AI Servo image, so this is as expected. I also have the AI Servo 2nd image priority set to Focus rather than Speed, so I was expecting the following frames to be perhaps more consistently sharper, but that wasn’t the case. The camera kept sharp focus until frame 5 when it ran off a little for a total of 5 frames, before locking back in on the face in frame 10, the last image on the top row.

100% Crop of First Frame

100% Crop of First Frame

[UPDATE] I’m adding the above and below 100% crop of the first and the tenth frame of this series in reply to a comment. This first frame was the sharpest of the first 10 frames, with the rest varying slightly between that and the following tenth frame image.

100% Crop of Tenth Frame

100% Crop of Tenth Frame

After that, frames 11 through to 17 were also slightly soft, with the focus just slightly behind the face. Frame 18 was sharp again, and then the focus ran off very slightly again for five frames, getting gradually worse, until the focus almost locked back in again on frame 24 and it got really sharp again by frame 26. Unfortunately by that time the snow monkeys foot was starting to leave the bottom of the frame. The last two frames were totally soft, as the monkey dropped out of the frame.

I’m checking sharpness at 100% as I always do, because I want maximum sharpness, and honestly, I think the performance was under par, and I found this to be continuously the case for around eight similar bursts. The sharpness comes in for some frames, but then runs out again, and you just don’t see that level of failure with the 1D X with the same tracking and sensitivity settings.

Don’t get me wrong, if you aren’t worried about critical sharpness, many of these frames are usable, but they aren’t totally sharp. Here’s a 100% crop from frame 18, which is probably the sharpest of the series, so that you can see how sharp it got. I’d use this at a push, although I’m not totally happy with it. The settings for this series by the way was 1/800 of a second, at f/8, ISO 640.

Snow Monkey - Frame 18 100% Crop

Snow Monkey – Frame 18 100% Crop

Here too (below) are frames 19, 20 and 21, which gradually run more and more out of focus, from left to right. Don’t forget to click on the image to enlarge it to see the detail, or lack of detail in this case. This example is about 66% of the original, so it’s downsized very slightly to enable me to show you all three images together. Frame 19 is just about usable at a push, but frames 20 and 21 are unusable really. Now, in a burst like this, I’m happy if I have some usable frames, so this is not necessarily a bad result, but it’s not as good as I’d expected either.

Snow Monkeys Out of Focus - 66% Crop

Snow Monkeys Out of Focus – 66% Crop

So, these results are probably not what many of you were hoping to see and hear about, but this is the reality. Do bear in mind that even when using the 1D X we aren’t necessarily going to nail every frame, but the hit ratio is usually a bit higher than this in similar conditions. As I say though, this was from just over a handful of bursts, and I’ll be giving the 7D Mark II another good test in January and February on my Winter Tours & Workshops, and I will be sure to report my findings in March when I get back.

My auto-focus settings here were by the way were Tracking Sensitivity at zero, so equal priority for Locked on and Responsiveness. Acceleration/deceleration Tracking was set to 1, which should help to track a subject moving at various speeds, and AF point auto switching was set to zero, as I usually prefer the auto-focus to stick with my subject rather than easily moving to surrounding objects.

ISO Performance

OK, so before we finish for this first impressions review, let’s take a quick look at the ISO performance. I shot between ISO 640 and 1600 over the three days, and was pretty impressed with the ISO performance to say that there are 20.2 megapixels on the 7D Mark II’s APS-C sensor. I’ll need to do some straight comparisons to really compare the 7D Mark II and the 5D Mark III and 1D X, but from what I’ve seen, up to ISO 1600, the 7D is seems to be pretty much on a par with the 5D Mark III. Here is a 100% crop from an image shot at ISO 1600, 1/125 of a second at f/8.

Grooming Junior - 100% Crop

Grooming Junior – ISO 1600 100% Crop

Click on the image to view at full size, as the above image is resized for the blog post, but you can see in the full sized image that there is a little bit of visible grain creeping in, but it’s very organic, and nothing that I’ll worry about when I have to start to increase my ISO in low light. I’ll do some direct comparison’s later, but for now, all I can say is that I’m pretty happy with the ISO performance of the 7D Mark II.

Here too is the image that I cropped this last example from, just in case you were wondering what this little guy looks like in context.

Grooming Junior

Grooming Junior

And here to finish with is another shot of a little monkey, just because. You’ve gotta love these little guys. This was shot at ISO 800, 1/400 of a second at f/5.6.

Little Monkey

Little Monkey

Current Conclusion

So, after that you’re probably wondering how happy I am with the 7D Mark II. Well, at this point in time, despite the new 65 cross-type focus points, I’m happy enough, but not overly impressed with the auto-focus. I’ll know more about this soon, but for now, it’s good, but not amazing. ISO performance is good, especially considering the 20.2 megapixel resolution, and there are a bunch of other features that I mentioned that are very welcome too.

All-in-all, it’s a big thumbs up, and when you consider that I’m basing most of my comparisons with the Canon EOS 1D X which is almost four times the price, you really can’t go wrong with the 7D Mark II. As a cheaper alternative to the top of the line, you’ll get what you pay for, and much, much more.

100-400mm Mark II Review Coming Up!

I have actually just also picked up the new 100-400mm Mark II lens released on Dec 19 (2014) the day after this visit to the Snow Monkeys. I will be taking the 100-400mm on the road in January and February, and will be reporting my findings on that in March too, along with the 7D Mark II update. If you don’t usually follow my blog, do bookmark it, subscribe to the RSS feed or subscribe to the Podcast in iTunes etc. so that you don’t miss these upcoming reviews along with all the other photography goodness that I publish.

Show Notes

Canon EOS 7D Mark II on B&H:

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens:

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens:

Music by Martin Bailey


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