May 7, 2016

SUBJECT: Birding with the 1DX Mark II - Part I

I have gone from one extreme to the other. Last month I had in my hands the very inexpensive, lightweight and tiny Sony A6300 and this week I received the Canon 1DX Mark II—a very expensive, heavy and large camera. If you are wondering if I have lost his mind, I will leave that up to you. It certainly is debatable.

I have had a love-hate relationship with Canon's flagship cameras over the years. My first top-of-the-line Canon camera that I owned was the 1D Mark III. If anyone remembers this camera, it was plagued with auto-focus issues. Eventually Canon "fixed" the problems, but to this day I never was convinced it was fixed entirely.

Then came along the Mark IV. Now that was/is a great camera. If you can find a good used one, I highly recommend it. The only downside for me was that it was not a full-frame sensor camera.

Then came along the 1DX. Canon decided to ditch the cropped sensor and produce a camera that could shoot 12 fps (frames-per-second) full-frame. The 1DX was a fantastic camera for those who do bird photography except the loud shutter would frighten birds when shooting at close range from a bird blind. The camera does have a silent mode but at 1 fps, it's use was limited. I found myself using the 5D Mark III for close-range work the majority of the time.

As time progressed, I found myself in a bit of a quandary. I was doing more and more 4k video work and yearned for ONE camera that could do it all. That camera did not exist. I found myself shooting with two camera bodies: one for stills, one for video. What a pain!

I had hoped that the Sony line of mirror-less cameras with an adapter to mount my Canon-mount lenses would work. Unfortunately, the Sony mirror-less cameras just aren't good enough at autofocussing with long telephoto lenses. My last hope was to use the Sigma MC-11 adapter with the Sigma 150-600mm (C) lens. I received one of these adapters a few weeks ago and was sorely disappointed. Although auto-focus worked in video mode, auto-focus did not work in continuous mode for stills. That was the last straw for me. Back to Canon I go...

The Canon 1DX Mark II


To summarize this camera, if you missed the shot, it's your fault! The auto-focus system on this camera is almost flawless. I gave the 1DX Mark II a full workout testing the camera's auto-focus capabilities in very demanding circumstances. I used various modes: single-point spot, single-point, point expansion, zone, large zone and automatic.

Maybe I'm just a creature of habit, but I still prefer single-point or point expansion. I feel these work best for birds-in-flight. If I were shooting white birds against dark backgrounds, I'm sure I could use wider zones and automatic, but those situations are rare. I'll stick to the center points.

With the sun about to set, I wanted to test the camera's auto-focus capabilities in a shadowy environment with a dark bird flying by at a fast rate. The 1DX Mark II was able to hold focus through a sequence of shots. Very impressive!

FPS - Frames Per Second
At 14 fps, it is hard to miss a wing position with birds-in-flight except for smaller birds which beat their wings at over 5 wing-beats per second. Nonetheless, the chances of capturing a wing in a fully extended up or down position increases with the speed of the FPS of the camera. At this time, the Canon 1DX Mark II is the fastest DSLR on the market. And the camera can shoot high-resolution 4k footage at 60 fps. (Tests of this feature in Part II of this review.)

Eastern Bluebird in-flight

Canon 1DX Mark II, Sigma 150-600mm (C) @ 293mm, ISO-1600, f/5.6, 1/8000 sec.

As in most cases, photographing birds are from set distances in which you can't walk closer to your subject. You must photograph from where you stand. Because of this, photographers need to concern themselves with resolution, noise and crop factors. I will not belabor this point here, since I have discussed it numerous times in the past. In a nutshell, the 1DX II has a full-frame 20.2 MP sensor. For comparison, the Sony A7RII has a full-frame 42 MP sensor.

The Sony A7RII will definitely have much more resolution than the Canon 1DX Mark II. With that stated, the 1DX has a lot less noise. It will however not resolve as much feather detail as the Sony A7RII. One must not forget however that there is a price to pay for such high-resolution. The file size of the Sony A7RII images are huge and the buffer fills up in very short order.

The bottom line is that if you need super high resolution, look elsewhere. There are plenty of cameras available from Canon, Nikon and Sony to fill this need. Nonetheless, the superb low-noise capabilities of this camera allow for quite a bit of cropping with plenty of feather detail and of course 14 FPS. (See images below.)

Female Eastern Bluebird with spider

Canon 1DX Mark II, Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + Canon 1.4x TC @ 840mm, ISO-1000, f/5.6, 1/800 sec. (Full-frame image.)


Female Eastern Bluebird with spider

Canon 1DX Mark II, Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + Canon 1.4x TC @ 840mm, ISO-1000, f/5.6, 1/800 sec.
(Same image as above, cropped in post-processing.)

More to Follow in the Coming Weeks...
So far, I am very pleased with the 1DX Mark II and I will have more comments and examples to share in the coming weeks. To close, here are few more samples taken at a rookery:

Canada Geese Gosslings

When I first arrived at the rookery there were Canada Geese chicks running around everywhere. This pair decided to bask in the sun.

(Canon 1DX Mark II, Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + Canon 1.4x TC @ 840mm, ISO-200, f/7.1, 1/1,000 sec.)


Great Egret in-flight

Although most Great Egrets are now on nests, there's still maintenance to be done on the nests.

(Canon 1DX Mark II, Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + Canon 1.4x TC @ 840mm, ISO-250, f/6.3, 1/1,000 sec.)


Great Blue Heron In-Flight

Great Blue Heron in-flight with twig.

(Canon 1DX Mark II, Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + Canon 1.4x TC @ 840mm, ISO-500, f/5.6, 1/2,000 sec.)


Black-Crowned Night Heron In-Flight

Black-Crowned Night Heron in-flight.

(Canon 1DX Mark II, Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + Canon 1.4x TC @ 840mm, ISO-500, f/5.6, 1/2,000 sec.)


Great Egret in-flight

A Great Egret's wings are illuminated by the setting sun.

(Canon 1DX Mark II, Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + Canon 1.4x TC @ 840mm, ISO-800, f/5.6, 1/1,600 sec.)

—Alan Stankevitz


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