Points in Focus Photography

Image: Canon USA

Things in the EOS-1D X mark II that I’m Excited About

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A couple of weeks ago, Canon announced their latest flagship camera, the EOS–1DX mark II. At the time, I tired to post something, anything, about it, if only to get my thoughts together on the matter. Like the vast majority of photographers, Canon doesn’t send me hardware to test, trial, or use. And like the vast majority of photographers, the EOS–1 series cameras are at the upper edge of my budgetary bounds.

At the same time, Canon has shown with the 5D mark III and EOS–1DX, that they’re willing to put 1-series features in at least 5-series bodies, even if there are some limitations. With that in mind, when I look at an EOS–1 that I probably won’t be buying — even though I’d love to have one — I’m looking in part for the things that I really want to see become more pervasive.

So without further ado, these are by far the top features that I see in the EOS–1DX mark II that I think change the game in a big way.

Autofocus

I wrote about the utility of autofocus patterns a couple of weeks ago just after the Nikon D5 was announced, and just as the rumor hit that the 1DX mark II would support AF across the whole pattern at f/8. Suffice to say I would rank this as one of the biggest improvements in SLR camera designs since well, autofocus itself maybe.

I’m not going to go into a huge amount of detail on this here, as I covered it extensively in my other article. But suffice to say, the limitations imposed by the aperture limits in existing AF systems places the biggest obstacles on those users who aren’t in a position to drop mega-bucks on a big moderately fast super telephoto prime. Those of us dropping a 1.4x TC on a 100–400 to eek out that extra little bit of reach reap huge rewards.

Actually, even if you are willing and able to drop big bugs on the super telephoto prime, the tradeoff still exists. The big lens is heavy, and that’s a pain in the rear to truck around all day. On the other hand, while there are certainly some tradeoffs in background quality a smaller lighter slower lens can save a massive amount of weight — and back pain. Moreover, even with the big lenses, it enables a much greater degree of freedom in composition not having to only focus at the center of the frame.

Of course, at $6000 a 1DX mark II isn’t the cheapest option either; though it is $3000 cheaper than a EF 500 mm f/4L IS II USM.

But the real hope for me is that Canon doesn’t keep this AF tech locked up in the 1DX; that it comes to a 5D mark IV or 7D mark III.

Actually, having looked over the whole shooting match, I’m fairly impressed by the new AF sensor as a whole. It covers significantly more of the short width of the frame compared to its predecessor, and even compared to the Nikon D5. Moreover, it does this while not being all that much narrower along the wide-length of the frame than the sensor in the D5. In fact, in looking at the patterns side by side, the coverage is about the same.

Moreover, Canon’s not playing marketing nonsense with the number of points; which is always a win in my book. This of course, does bring up the matter of potential tracking issues. Nikon spread out their AF pattern, then added intermediate points between a lot of the selectable points to increase the coverage. Even though Canon moved the points apart some, I’m not sure that it really makes all that much of a difference.

Nikon has always been very cagy about putting out details about their AF chips. At best you get a picture of the assembled unit. On the other hand, Canon generally provides much more information about the chips as a whole, including often times images of the chips themselves.

In both the 1DX and 1DX mark II both the images of the chip and the accompanying literature suggest that the chip isn’t just a bunch of AF points, as much as confluences of much larger continuous sensor stripes.

For example, Canon’s chip has 11 continuous vertical columns of AF sensors that correspond to the 11 columns of AF points in the viewfinder. The points themselves seem to be more like logical subdivisions of the entire strip.

If you were to borrow a page from Nikon and clutter up the viewfinder with “points” where there was sensor but nothing marked out on the viewfinder, the pattern might look more like the following image.

And if you were to count up all the extra dots, and add them to defined points, you’d end up with 157 “AF points”, and then you could go brag about something to those who care about numbers more than images.

As a total aside, this may very well be what Nikon has done in the D5. That is, built the sensor as a series of long sensor stripes, then broken them down into logical points after the fact.

The point is, that there appears to be AF sensors under the vast majority of the area covered by the AF pattern. Given that, I expect that even though the points themselves are a little further apart, the performance of the AF pattern as a whole won’t actually suffer any at all.

GPS

Some would argue that the age of Geotagging has come and go. There certainly was a bit of a push some years ago for geotagging in the consumer market space that really didn’t go anywhere. On the other hand, geotagging has some benefits for pro shooters in several categories. Sure everyone is going to know where a sports photographer shooting at the Super Bowl made their images. But what about the guy on the streets working the local beat, or in a war zone.

There are also pretty tangible benefits for landscape and wildlife photographers to be able to pinpoint where they were and potentially go back in the future. I’ve never been a huge enthusiast for geotagging images, but my tune has changed somewhat reviewing my images from my Alaska trip last year. There are a number of instances where I know generally where I shot something, but my accuracy is on the order of miles or 10s of miles. Not nearly something that I can hope to use to revisit in a future trip under different circumstances.

The problem as it’s stood until the 1DX mark II was that geotagging was something of a mess requiring an external device hooked up to the camera, or just one logging. I tried for years to use my phone to record GPX track logs that I could add to my images after the fact, only I’d always forget to start the logger on my phone or it would run my phone out of battery and I wouldn’t be able to use it.

Pretty much any external GPS has these problems and their compounded by the need to have the camera’s clock accurately matched to the GPS’s as well. If you’re off even by a few dozen seconds, that can be the 100s of feet in recorded error.

To me, built in GPS support is a huge deal. It means no more need to carry a separate device. No need to worry about having something in the hot shoe, or having a cord hanging out of the camera. When I want to tag things, I can just turn on the internal GPS and go. If I don’t care, I can leave it off.

Oh sure, I may not use geotagging all the time, but the alternative of using an external GPS and all the fiddly things and timing stuff related to that is a far bigger pain than the tiny costs that the GPS chip and antenna can add to the body. About the worst thing you can say about the GPS on the 1DX mark II is that the antenna cover on the top of the pentaprism is kind of ugly.

120 FPS 1080p Video

I get the appeal of 4K for cinema users, and even not-quite-so-cinema users, I really do. The resolution really is a necessity for the big screen, and increasingly something that can be used on the small screen. But I don’t do work like that, and while I certainly won’t begrudge anyone the capabilities — and I’ll be honest, If I could shoot in 4K when I do video, I probably would too — those capabilities just don’t get me excited.

On the other hand higher frame rates at 1080 does.

In photography, I subscribe to the philosophy that you can add more interest to your work by using the camera and lens to show the world in a way that is different from how we normally see it. For example, I prefer wide angle or telephoto lenses to ones that produce results similar to what we see normally.

When it comes to video though, the repeating image aspect curtails a lot of the things you might want to try and do. You can’t really drag the shutter like you would in a still. At best the shutter speed can be 1/FPS. Going the other way, while a still with an ultra-high shutter speed can freeze things that you’d never see, upping the shutter speed in video well, it just doesn’t work that well.

Well, that’s not entirely true. The video equivalent of a high-shutter speed frozen still is high speed video played back at normal speeds. And that’s why this is so exciting to me.

Sure the 1DX mark II isn’t the first camera to support 120 FPS capture. Heck, 120 FPS isn’t even really that high speed anyway. Played back at 24 or 30 FPS it only slows things down by 1/4 or 1/5 of their actual speed. Even that though, can be enough to give insight into the world we miss.

Of course the 1DX mark II, like ever other modern DSLR is packed to the gills with features, and not every feature is going to appeal or be needed by every potential user. Beyond that, plenty of us photographers, myself included, probably aren’t going to be getting 1DX mark IIs either.

That said, to me the technology isn’t exciting because it’s in a flag ship camera that may be out of my immediate reach. The technology is exciting because it shows what can be done. And as time goes on, and technology and capabilities trickle down the tiers, we look forward to seeing these technologies in a future 5D or 7D class cameras. Cameras that are in most of our reaches.

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