Points in Focus Photography

Image: Canon USA

Thoughts on the Canon 6D mark II Announcement

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The last time I wrote about a new camera I wasn’t planning on getting was when Nikon announced the D5 and D500 back in Mach of 2016: more than a year ago now. Since then, mum’s been the word, mostly because I just don’t find cameras to be all that interesting to talk about anymore.

In fact, I generally find the commentary that comes with a new camera to be obnoxious to the extreme. Still photographers are shouted over by people whining about 4K video and frame rates in cameras that are still principally, if by ergonomics alone, still cameras. Moreover, there’s generally so much noise about stats, often being represented incompletely or inaccurately, as if the performance of the camera’s sensor was the primary thing that made a picture good.

Or maybe I’m just getting prematurely old about all of this.

One point that’s been repeatedly driven home to me over the last 3-4 years is that the sensor doesn’t matter nearly as much as the person behind the camera. A great sensor will never make a mediocre picture better, and a comparatively poor quality sensor will never made a emotionally resonant picture fail. The difference between the widest dynamic range in the best medium format camera and the poorest APS-C sensor pales in comparison to what the person using it puts it to.

Instead of caring so much about the sensor itself, I’m increasingly becoming convinced it’s the ancillary and supporting features that make the most difference. Things like GPS, autofocus, metering, frame rate, and most importantly the user interface—the things that make it easier to convert your vision into an image—that matter the most.

GPS

Ever since my Alaskan cruise in 2015, I’ve increasingly become a proponent of GPS systems being built into cameras. Admittedly the utility of such things will vary form person to person. Wildlife, landscape, and travel photographers, as well as photojournalists will undoubtedly have more use for knowing exactly where an image was taken than say a portrait photographer working out of a studio. However, the costs are so low on the whole, and benefits are so high relative to having to deal external GPS units or worse having to try to sync clocks and tag images after the fact that not having a built in GPS is a major detractor to me.

Interestingly, built in GPS support seems to be something that Canon is really getting behind. At least in their higher tier cameras. It’s a standard feature in the 1Dx mark II, 5D mark IV, and now the 6D mark II. While it hasn’t become available as a standard option in lower end APS-C cameras, the increasing support is something I’m please to see Canon continue with.

Like the GPS unit in the 5D and 1DX, the GPS unit in the 6D mark II supports GPS (USA), GLONASS (Russia), and the Japanese quasi-zenith Michibiki GPS extensions[1]. All told this means that the camera has the potential to see and receive data from 57 satellites currently in orbit. The high number of potential satellites should insure that the GPS unit on the 6D (like it’s brethren) can quickly establish a lock and accurate positional information.

AF Coverage

For all outwards appearances, it seems that the 6D mark II uses the same AF system as introduced with the 80D. It’s a 45-point all cross-type system. Like most modern Canon AF systems it’s organized as a central rectangle, in this case of 15 AF points. Flanked by 2 wings of 15 points each.

While reusing an APS-C size AF system in a full frame camera doesn’t produce a horrific situation, it does mean that the AF pattern area is considerably smaller than the pattern in say the 5D or 1DX.

Assuming the sensor is the same as the sensor in the 80D, there’s 1 high precision (f/2.8 and faster) double cross sensor under the center point.

Autofocusing with a lens and teleconverter achieving an aperture of f/8 is also supported. Again, assuming that the AF system is the same as what’s in the 80D, for many lenses, including some of the latest super-telephoto primes like the EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM with a 2x III extender, this will result in only a single central AF point being available. For some other combinations, for example using the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM with a 1.4x III, 27 points will be available 9 of which will be cross type.

I’m not completely sold on the use of an APS-C sized AF system on a full frame camera, even though Canon has been largely doing just that since the original 5D. The benefit, if you can call it that, is that the density of the AF area is good, and that’s good for tracking performance. However, the overall pattern size is quite small and it’s focused entirely in the center of the frame.

In fact, while the 5D mark III and newer have usable AF points in the four rule of thirds intersections, the 6D mark II will not. This in turn puts some real limits on achieving critical focus in focus-and-recompose situations.

That said, on the whole I find the 6D mark II to be so compelling of a camera, that if Canon had included the 5D mark 3’s or 4’s AF system, there would be precious few reasons to buy a 5D mark IV.

ISO

The max ISO is 102,400; not insane, thank you Canon.

One of my biggest fears when Nikon announced the D500 and D5 was that we were now entering an era of the ISO wars. When Canon didn’t materially change the ISO range of the 5D mark IV, I was somewhat relieved. With the 6D mark II carrying the same overall range (50-102,400) and a base range only 1/3rd of a stop higher (100-40,000), it seems I may be able to breathe a sigh of relief that Canon isn’t trying to go crazy.

That said, the reality is that ISOs higher than about 12,800 become subjects to increasingly diminishing returns in terms of utility. In general, I would argue that photographers as a whole are better served by improvements between ISO 100 and 6400 than any increase in top end ISO.

The 6D mark II instead goes for an entirely reasonable range from the looks of it. The increase of 1/3-stop over the 5D mark IV is entirely reasonable given the lower resolution sensor and the potential for the pixels to preform slightly better individually.

Moreover, since Canon doesn’t seem to be trying to optimize for ridiculously high ISO numbers, I don’t expect that they would need to make design decisions that could compromise the low ISO performance of the camera.

Of course, as with all image quality points, time and proper testing will tell for sure.

Resolution

Canon bumped the 6D mark II up to 26.2 MP, up from 20.2 MP. Resolution is a point I’ve become increasingly torn on in practice versus in theory.

In theory, more resolution is almost always a good thing. At a minimum, the increased number of pixels means that noise is more finely grained and as a result less intrusive to look at. Additionally, with comparably good glass, it also means obviously you get more fine detail. And of course, ultimately more resolution with good quality glass and so forth behind it, means you can make bigger prints while still maintaining good detail.

On the other hand, in a very practical sense, I’ve found that as I’ve gone to higher and higher resolution cameras, I’ve found increasing real world limitations. Tripods become a vastly more necessary thing to maintain pixel sharp images. Lens quality becomes more of an obvious issue, and handholding becomes increasingly hard to do sharply, even with IS lenses.

None of those points are insurmountable problems, they just mean that the camera is more demanding of you to perform at its best.

Now admittedly, the 6MP or 30% increase in resolution from the 6D to the 6D mark II isn’t an earth shattering jump, and should be reasonably easy to adapt to for existing 6D and even 5D mark II and III shooters. And 26 MP isn’t so high that it’s should or would be incredibly problematic. In fact, all things considered I’m coming to the conclusion that 24-36MP is right about the sweet spot rage for a full frame camera, at least in my opinion.

Frame Rate

Along with the increase in resolution, Canon also bumped up the frame rate of the 6D mark II, as well. Now 6.5 FPS (max), up from 4.5 FPS.

The 6.5 FPS shooting rate, puts the 6D mark II surprisingly close in terms of performance to the 5D mark IV’s 7 FPS. In fact, even digging further into the specified performance, the 6D mark II and 5D mark IV carry the same expanded notes on high FPS shooting.

Maximum continuous shooting speed with 1/500th sec. or faster shutter speed, maximum aperture( varies depending on lens), at room temperature (23° C / 73°F), flicker reduction disabled, with a fully changed LP-E6N battery pack.

Functionally speaking, the half frame per second difference in frame right might as well not even be considered. It simply doesn’t materially matter. In fact, based on what I’m reading, in terms of frame rate at least, the difference between 5D mark IV and 6D mark II is functionally meaningless.

What well stand to differentiate the to cameras, at least when it comes to bursts, will be the buffer size for continuous bursts. With the 5D mark IV, it’s entirely possible to get more than 3 seconds of shooting at 7 FPS with a fast UDMA 7 compact flash card. The 6D mark II is limited to UHS-I SD cards, and with that typically 50MB/s and at best 104MB/s transfers.

6D mark II vs. 5D mark IV

The 6D mark II instigates an interesting point in Canon’s camera lineup. Namely in a great number of ways it undermines the 5D mark IV. While it certainly doesn’t match the 5D mark IV in many instances:

  • 4MP less resolution
  • 0.5 FPS lower frame rate
  • Smaller 45-point AF grid
  • No 4K video support

The reality is that in many cases, a lot of that stuff doesn’t really matter.

At greater than 20 MP, either of these cameras posses more than adequate resolution for making fine art prints up to reasonably large sizes (16×20 at >300 PPI, and 20×30 at >200PPI). Moreover, the 4 MP difference doesn’t make a meaningful difference between the two cameras.

The same can be said for the 0.5 FPS difference in frame rate. The 6D mark II is slightly more than 7% slower in terms of FPS than the 5D mark IV. From a practical stand point, and I can say this having shot a 40D (6.5 FPS), a 5D mark III (6 FPS), and a 5D mark IV (7 FPS). The difference in performance doesn’t materially create opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. The jump from say 4.5 FPS to 7 FPS, or 7 FPS to 10 FPS is much more obvious and appreciable.

Of course what does make a meaningful difference between the two cameras is the size and capabilities of the AF grid. The 6D mark II’s smaller, and honestly less capable, AF grid really does make a difference when tracking subjects. A larger higher density AF grid for shooting birds in flight was the primary reason why I moved from a 40D to a 1D mark III, and was one of the major reasons I was comfortable moving form that 1D mark III to the 5D mark III and now 5D mark IV.

That said, people shooing primarily landscapes and travel type pictures — as I find myself doing more now — aren’t nearly as in need of a big high performance AF pattern than action and wildlife photographers. And with that, one has to strongly weigh how much that larger AF field is really worth.

Finally, there’s the video situation; something I see a lot of whining about in many online discussions. As a still photographer, video and especially 4K is one fo those things that aren’t very high on my list of priorities. Moreover, I’m very much of the opinion that DSLRs as a form factor make very poor video cameras. They can do it, but they don’t do it well.

But that just bring us back to 4K, and the value associated with it. The 6D mark II is slated to be priced $1500 less than the 5D mark IV. That’s a pretty significant price jump for 4K, especially on a platform that’s limited to 30 min of recording and ergonomically not really designed for it.

Which really leaves the question now, what makes the 5D mark IV worth $1500 more than the 6D mark II? Because I’m not seeing it other than in very specific circumstances.

Wrapping it up, on paper at least, the 6D mark II looks like a pretty strong camera in Canon’s line up. Admittedly a lot remains to be seen in terms of image quality. However, the short of it is pretty simple: for little more than half the price of a 5D mark IV, the 6D mark II appears to give you way more than half the features and capabilities.


  1. The Japanese quasi-zenith are really only useful in band from Japan to Australia, as their orbits and function is intended to supplement the regular GPS satellite network so that user’s in Japan’s urban canyons can still get GPS coverage. ↩︎

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