The Canon 7D Mark II: A Bird Photographers Review
Written by: Glenn Bartley
I am a very practical photographer when it comes to making equipment choices. I make decisions based on what “tools” will allow me to capture better images of the subjects that I covet most – birds. Furthermore, I would consider myself primarily a field photographer that rarely sits in blinds or shoots in controlled scenarios where subject distance is under the control of the photographer. For these reasons effective focal length is the primary concern for me when choosing a camera body. The APS-C camera bodies have always been my choice when it comes to photographing birds – even given their limitations in controlling noise. With good control over exposure and solid post processing technique I will take an APS-C body (such as the 7D) over a full frame body (such as the 1DX) any day of the week.
The Canon 7D has been a fantastic camera for me over the past 5 years and I have travelled throughout the New World Tropics photographing birds in a wide variety of scenarios. With this said, I will also be the first to admit that there are some major downfalls and limitations when it comes to the original 7D. Even upon its release way back in 2009 I remember being extremely underwhelmed at the improvements in noise over the EOS 50D (my previous camera). The noise was certainly easier to deal with in post processing but was, for the most part, still there. Noise, dynamic range and overall image quality has without a doubt been the Achilles heel of the APS-C camera.
Given the lengthy timeframe between the release of the original 7D and the 7D mark II one would have to assume that significant improvements in image quality should indeed be possible. Technology has come a long way in those five years. If you throw in improvements to autofocus algorithms, faster frame rate and a healthy set of user interface and hardware improvements what you end up with is a lot of nature photographers like me daydreaming at the idea of getting their hands on this new model. The real question is – will it deliver?
Last week I was in Costa Rica photographing birds and, knowing the specifications of the new 7D Mark II, found myself extremely eager to get my hands on one of the new cameras in several shooting scenarios. Photographing birds in the dimly lit rainforest necessitates the use of higher ISO speeds. With my old 7D I found myself reluctant to push the ISO past 800 and yet with much hesitation was forced to shoot at ISO 1600. Even at ISO 1600 shutter speeds hovered around 1/25 of a second. All I could think about was “if only I had the new 7D mark II”!
Another scenario that had me really anticipating the new camera was when shooting at a dimly lit feeder setup. Several of my clients were using 1DX bodies and I could hear their cameras lock on to the subjects while my 7D hunted for focus. Not only that, but I was also forced to use the center focus point as this was the only focus point that seemed to accurately lock on in the dark shooting environment. I missed a lot of shots of fast moving birds because of this. Once again my thoughts echoed – “if only I had the new 7D mark II”!
I returned home on Saturday to find my new camera waiting for me and was anxious to find out if the new Canon 7D mark II is indeed the camera that bird photographers like me have been waiting for. In this initial review I will discuss my preliminary findings.
FEATURES AT A GLANCE
A quick summary of the new Canon 7D mark II features:
- 20.2 MP APS-C CMOS Sensor
- Dual DIGIC 6 Image Processors
- 3.0″ 1.04m-Dot Clear View II LCD Monitor
- Full HD 1080p/60 Video & Movie Servo AF
- Dual Pixel CMOS AF with Live View
- 65-Point All Cross-Type AF System
- Native ISO 16000, Extended to ISO 51200
- Continuous 10 fps Shooting
- Magnesium Alloy Body Construction
- Built-In GPS Receiver & Digital Compass
- New intelligent and customizable viewfinder
- Improved custom controls for autofocus
- Built in intervalometer and bulb timer
Ultimately the most important feature of the new camera is its ability to produce clean files at higher ISO values than its predecessor. Practical photographers will realize that there are limitations to what can be achieved in an APS-C sensor and will not be expecting the image quality to rival the 1DX. My hope has always been that the new model would achieve at least a 1 stop improvement. 2 stops would have me absolutely thrilled!
In the first few days that the 7D mark II has been out the image comparisons that I have seen are largely of subjects shot in bright shooting environments that would not even necessarily necessitate the use of a high ISO. Those of us forced in to the upper realms of the ISO scale know that noise really becomes a problem when shooting in low light and especially in the underexposed portions of an image. For this reason I set out to test the capabilities of the new camera in a more appropriate shooting environment. I did three controlled test shoots comparing the 7D and 7D Mark II. I also took a variety of bird images in poor light at a variety of ISO speeds. These images can be seen and downloaded in the sample images section of this review.
Normally I process my RAW image files in Adobe Camera Raw. Unfortunately the new camera is not yet supported by this software so I was forced to use Canon’s DPP. To compare the files I applied no noise reduction and a small amount of unsharp mask (Strength of 2).
After looking at the test images as processed in DPP I would say that noise on the 7D mark II is approximately 2/3 of a stop better than the original 7D. There is absolutely an improvement in image quality although I was certainly hoping for a greater improvement in ISO performance. I am hoping that the ACR update will allow for slightly better image processing and perhaps the true gain in ISO performance will be closer to a full stop.
** Hopefully soon we will be able to see the DXO scores to truly compare the Canon 7D and 7D mark II.
**Note that these are my opinions and the RAW files from this test are available for download if you would like to form your own conclusions (see link below).
Download RAW files for the following images (150mb +)
When it comes to the autofocus capabilities there are essentially two aspects. The speed and ability to track a subject (largely subjective and difficult to measure) and the actual functional capabilities of the camera such as frame rate, number of AF points, etc.
To begin with, the Mark II offers a vast increase in the number of selectable cross-type autofocus points (from 19 to 65). These points are distributed throughout the image sensor over a wider area than any previous EOS camera. This is definitely a wonderful upgrade and allows for precise focus and composition. In my brief preliminary testing I also felt that the autofocus was faster (especially away from the center point) than the previous model.
Another tangible upgrade is the increased frame rate of the camera which has gone from 8 to 10 frames per second. This too is a welcome upgrade as wildlife photographers are always looking for more frames that could potentially capture the perfect moment. Furthermore, the cameras RAW buffer has been increased from 25 to 31 RAW frames allowing all of these images to quickly and effectively be recorded to the card.
The 7D mark has also enabled center point autofocus at apertures up to f/8. This is a first for a Canon APS-C camera and means that those of us using super-telephoto lenses now have a whole lot magnification at our disposal. The maximum possible magnification is now a whopping 1920mm (600mm + 2x converter multiplied by 1.6x crop factor).
How noticeable is the difference between using the 600mm with a 1.4x and with a 2x? If we consider that 1200mm is 43% more magnification than 840mm. This however translates into 105% more pixels on the subject (due to the fact that we are talking about area). Or if you want to get mathematical:
- 840mm2 = 705,600 (600mm + 1.4x)
- 1200mm2 = 1,440,000 (600mm + 2x)
- 1,440,000 / 705,600 = 2.05
Personally I don’t imagine that I will use the full 1920mm available very often. But it will be extremely nice to have the option when the need does arise!
One final tangible upgrade to the 7D Mark II is the ability to customize autofocus settings to several buttons based on how you shoot. Many bird and wildlife photographers for example have long been assigning “back button focus”. Doing so allows the user to allocate the AF-ON button to control the autofocus and the shutter button as the release mechanism. This setting has the advantage of allowing the user to focus, recompose the shot, and then trip the shutter at the pivotal moment without having to re-acquire focus. The 7D mark II takes such settings a whole lot further. Now the AF-ON and AE Lock buttons on the back of the camera can be assigned specific autofocus capabilities. You can literally configure any autofocus setting to one of these buttons and have two completely different scenarios based upon how and what you shoot.
Below is a quick look at how I have configured my two autofocus buttons:
- AF-ON: Used for birds in flight or moving subjects where I want to be able track the subject. In this scenario I have the focus points set to the AF point expansion (4 pts). I have also enabled a custom AF scenario that is designed to hold tightly to objects once focus has been acquired (-2,0,0).
- AE-LOCK: Used for subjects that are not moving. One shot focussing and single-point spot focusing. This setup is great for static subjects such as perched birds.
Custom Controls and Autofocus Settings
OTHER NEW FEATURES
In addition to the features of the new sensor and new autofocus capabilities the 7D mark II introduces several other improvements. The camera is said to have better weather sealing, has a higher resolution LCD screen, and the shutter is now rated to 200,000 actuations instead of 150,000 in its predecessor. The new model also incorporates built in GPS functionality and now offers two memory card slots (one compact flash and one SD). Another great feature of the new camera is that the optional battery grip now features a second joystick controller to make moving autofocus points easier when shooting vertically. Finally, a very cool and highly customizable “intelligent” viewfinder is now offered that allows for virtually all of the major camera settings to be immediately available in the viewfinder.
The All New 7D Mark II Intelligent Viewfinder
The most exciting new video feature of the 7D mark II is that the new dual pixel technology allows aspiring cinematographers to focus on moving subjects. The digital SLR video revolution has proved that the image quality that these cameras can produce is indeed impressive. Up until now though movies of birds and other wildlife had to be fairly static as manually focussing on a moving subject with a super telephoto lens is essentially impossible.
I for one really enjoy shooting movie clips of the birds that I photograph and am excited to start filming and producing more dynamic movies of birds. I think that as the video functionality of digital SLR cameras, and the proliferation of sites like YouTube, continues to advance we will see a lot more people shooting videos as part of their portfolio.
WHO IT’S FOR
The price point of this camera and its impressive feature set make it a very attractive camera for a wide range of photographers. This camera is going to find its way in to the bag of many sports and wildlife shooters. For those of us bird photographers that demand maximum focal length for the subjects that we shoot this camera is an absolute no brainer!
It is hard for me to believe that even photographers currently using a 1DX will not see the tremendous advantages that this camera offers. Consider for example that a 7D Mark II and a 400mm f/5.6 lens would cost $3,139, weigh 4.75 lbs / 2.2 kg and give an effective focal length of 640mm. To get the same magnification on the full frame 1DX would require the 600mm f/4. This combo would weigh 12 lbs / 5.5 kg and cost $18,800.
WHO IT’S NOT FOR
The 7D is a remarkable camera. Nevertheless it is not the best possible camera for everyone. Wedding photographers, landscape photographers and even wildlife photographers who shoot mostly in controlled settings (e.g. from a photo blind) may still be better served by one of Canon’s full frame offerings such as the 6D, 5D III or 1DX. Do consider though that you could have a 5D III and a 7D II that both use the same batteries and still cost less than a single 1DX. This combination of camera bodies would meet the needs of almost any nature photographer in the world.
The Canon 7D mark II brings a lot to the table. Between the fantastic autofocus system, impressive build quality, video features and the improvements in image quality it is an incredible value.
Compared to Nikons closest offering the D7100 the Canon 7D Mark II offers:
- RAW buffer of 31 vs 9
- 10 FPS vs 6 FPS
- Built in GPS
- 65 vs 51 AF points
- Fewer MP at 20.2 instead of 24.1
- More advanced video features
I think it is safe to say that unless Nikon fires back with a well-equipped D400 the Canon 7D mark II is the new king of APS-C cameras.
As I stated in the introduction I am a very practical photographer. The primary question for me is whether this new camera will allow me to capture better images than I could before. I believe that the answer to this question is a resounding “yes”! I can hardly wait to take this camera down to Cuba in a few weeks to really give it a proper field test. I will report back in mid-December with a follow up to this review.
- Slightly improved ISO capabilities in an APS-C camera (2/3 to 1 stop better than the 7D).
- 1.6 crop factor allows for maximum effective focal length. Additionally, autofocus at f/8 now allows use of a 2x teleconverter with super-telephoto lenses.
- 65 autofocus points that are all cross type.
- Fantastic autofocus and frame rate (10 fps).
- Battery grip with vertical joystick. This will be great for moving the focus point around all of those 65 points while shooting vertically.
- Dual card slots, locking mode dial and built in GPS. Definitely nice hardware upgrades.
- New live view/video AF capabilities. Can now track moving subjects while shooting videos. This should be fun!
- New intelligent viewfinder. So much info available and completely customizable.
- Ability to customize AF settings to several buttons based on how you shoot.
- Better weather sealing, shutter durability and LCD screen.
- Price. This is A LOT of camera for under $2,000!!
- ISO performance and dynamic range can definitely still be improved (based on the Sony sensors).
- No built in Wi-Fi (may be a concern for some).
- Would have preferred dual compact flash card slots instead of one CF and one SD.
- Would love to see built in radio transmission to external flash.