Fast and rugged: Canon 7D MkII excels at sport and low light

Fast action, mixed lighting with huge contrast are a test for any camera, but the Canon EOS 7D Mark II handles it well

Just when any serious action or wildlife photographer thought Canon had abandoned any hope of a new APS-C size camera in favour of full-frame only, along comes the new Canon EOS 7D Mark II. It’s been five long years since Canon unveiled the original 7D, which won favour not only with action shooters but also film makers as unlike the full-frame 5D Mark II, it offered 60fps for slow-motion movies. That, plus the extra reach of the crop-sensor in a weather sealed and rugged body made it a great all-round camera ideal for a pro who didn’t want to stretch to a larger and far pricier EOS 1-series body.

Fast forward five years and camera technology has marched on in leaps and bounds. The vast majority of pro-level offerings from the big two of Canon or Nikon are now full-frame, with the advantages of lower noise at high ISO and the ultimate in quality, although you do need larger and often more expensive lenses to suit. That tends to leave leave smaller APS-C size sensors more often in consumer-level DSLRs or the new breed of high-end mirrorless cameras like the Samsung NX1 or Fuji XT-1. Cameras that are brimming with new technology like wifi, up to 155 cross-type AF sensors, 4K video, tiltable screens, super-fast yet compact lenses, 15fps motordrives, electronic viewfinders and bigger touchscreen LCDs. _D811149-2Compared to all that, the Canon EOS 7D Mark II does actually look like it may have missed the boat a little as it offers few of the latest gizmos that some photographers now take for granted. The screen size is still just 3in and isn’t touchscreen or tiltable, the video resolution hasn’t really moved on too much and certainly isn’t 4k, the ISO range has only expanded to a now-unspectacular 16,000 and resolution has been upped a bit from 18 to 20.2MP.

But a totally different way of looking at it is that Canon has studied the pro and semi-pro user base of its 7D and chosen to improve on areas that make a real difference to them. So the weather proofing has been improved hugely, the ISO has been expanded into a more useful area, the pixels increased sufficiently to give bigger file sizes without affecting high-ISO performance that can blight super-high MP cameras, and of course they’ve fitted twin card slots that pros love. OK, one might be CF and the other SD but at least they are all very affordable card formats unlike Nikon’s unusual XQD card in its range-topping D4S. And the new LPE-6N battery has a greater capacity than the older LPE-6 battery, but these still fit so if you have a stock of lithium cells from a 7D or 5d Mark II, you’re in luck. Unfortunately the battery grip off the 7D doesn’t fit the new camera, though. And although the new battery lasts longer than the old one, for serious use you’ll need a spare battery or preferably the battery grip for double the number of shots.

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But when it comes down to it, what really matters to action shooters is that the camera is fast enough to keep up in terms of frame rate, but crucially to get the photos sharp. A weather-sealed, affordable camera with a huge buffer, a good APS-C sensor that gives their lenses extra reach and without the need to buy new lenses, a blazing 10fps frame rate and a speedy autofocus system borrowed from the range-topping EOS-1DX is a recipe that should have Canon sports shooter salivating. And that’s exactly what the Canon EOS 7D Mark II is. Well, plus a few nice gizmos like built in GPS so wildlife shooters can keep a record of where their shots were taken and some in-camera time lapse controls, too.

One of the highlights is, of course, the 10fps frame rate which until now has only been in the realm of fully professional DSLRs like the EOS-1D series. It’s a good job Canon has upgraded the shutter to a more sturdy unit that’s increased in rating from 150,000 to 200,000 shots – again, a pro-grade level – as this camera just goads you into keeping your finger down as you bid to get the ultimate shot. And where the old 7D’s buffer filled up at 130 JPEGS, the new camera can hold up to 1090, although the Raw buffer capability is only listed as up from 25 to 31. But in using the camera to shoot action sports while recording in Raw and Jpegs, we never had the frustration of filling up the buffer at all, probably because we were also using very fast memory cards.

The Canon 7D MkI might not be an unobtrusive stealth camera for street reportage but is not too big to be ridiculous. It's a do-all camera
The Canon 7D MkI might not be an unobtrusive stealth camera for street reportage but is not too big to be ridiculous. It’s a do-all camera

Fast frame rate is useless if the shots aren’t sharp and perhaps the biggest benefit of the 7D Mark II is its new autofocus system which is aided by Canon’s Dual Pixel AF design. Simply put, even when the camera’s mirror is up – such as when you are shooting fast sequences – the system uses information directly off the image sensor to capture information about the position of the subject the AF is aimed at. In practice, this means that the AF seems to lock onto a subject and stay with it faster and more accurately than pretty much any other camera on the market. When we shot fast-moving supercross motorbikes in a the low-light of a sports stadium – a real test for any AF – it locked on and tracked superbly well. The hit rate for in-focus shots was incredibly high which is a real result for Canon.

I tended to set a defined AF focus point and track the main subject with that, as that’s how most cameras still work best. Especially if you choose the centre AF point as it’s the most sensitive and focuses in the lowest amount of light compared to the Canon’s other 64 cross-type points. The new Canon also has Intelligent Tracking and Recognition (iTR) focus technology borrowed from the range-topping EOS-1DX. This allows you to initiate focus with a half-press of the shutter release then allow the camera to track the subject automatically as it moves across the frame.

As camera’s autofocus systems become more advanced they also become more complicated, and using iTR worked perfectly sometimes, and not so well other times when the subject was erratic or the background a bit close and confusing.

With all the very latest AF systems, there is now a steep learning curve as you need to experiment to find out which set-up is best in different circumstances. There are lots of different options of expanded AF point selection using different zones, automatic AF selection zones and much, more. There’s certainly no single setting that works perfectly for all shots, all the time. But start with single-point AF and you can’t go far wrong as it’s simply fantastic.

Perhaps the only small gripe is the position of the AF-ON button on the rear of the camera. Many sports shooters disable the AF function from the shutter release button and assign it purely to the AF-ON button which is activated using your thumb. Time and again it felt like it was just a little out of where your thumb would naturally rest. Although it would probably feel totally natural to long-time Canon shooters as it hasn’t been moved. In fact, the controls are all very familiar to Canon shooters, with a few exceptions like the zoom button to review and zoom in on shots you’ve taken. Now you have to push the button, then turn the front control dial to zoom in rather than just keep pushing the zoom button. It makes it a marginally more fiddly two-handed operation although you soon get used to it. And perhaps a firmware upgrade could give you the option to revert it back to the older way of reviewing images.

In fact the 7D Mark II has a very similar layout to the old Mark I camera although a few buttons have moved places slightly and the main mode button now has a locking knob. But controls are instantly familiar to Canon users although anyone swopping from any other brand may find the large rear thumbwheel a bit odd at first.

The left side of the back panel has a new “rate” button so you can give direct star ratings to your shots – or it can also be re-assigned as a “lock” button to stop you accidentally deleting your best images. And another button gives direct access to picture style, multiple exposure menus and in-camera HDR, if that’s your thing.

The LCD monitor is still the same size as the old camera but has a higher resolution and is slightly easier to see, especially in brighter light, thanks to a new coating to reduce reflections. The main connection is now a USB3 cable for either shooting tethered or downloading photos if you like, which faster than the old USB2. And the shutter is also much quieter than the old model, and has a silent mode that’s even less obtrusive.

The new Canon keeps up well with race starts. Not 15fps like some CSC's though! But quick enough
The new Canon keeps up well with race starts. Not 15fps like some CSC’s though! But quick enough

Focusing in the dark can be an issue though as the camera doesn’t have a built-in AF illuminator. To aid night-time focusing you pop up the built-in flashgun which strobes and is annoyingly bright. Best to fit a Canon hotshoe flash and use its AF pattern to pick up focus.

A really useful addition is the twin card slots, which lets you choose whether you want to record RAW files to one slot and Jpegs to another, or set one as a complete backup of the other or just use one as an overflow. But the menu to set this was confusing and if you are not a Canon EOS-1 user you’ll probably need to consult the manual to work out how to use it.

The new 7D lacks the old camera’s “creative auto” mode button on its main exposure dial, but few pros would ever use it anyway – sticking to the usual PASM modes for the vast majority of shots, although the Program mode probably gets very little use on a camera of this level too.

What is more useful is the Auto ISO mode, now available in all-manual mode too. This lets you set a shutter speed and aperture and the camera works out the right ISO. You can also customise the way Auto ISO works so you can specify upper and lower ISO limits as well as minimum shutter speed dependent on the focal length of lens you’re using. You can also set the camera to adjust the minimal acceptable shutter speed and even allow exposure compensation by changing the ISO using the thumb switch. Confused? You should be. Unless you’ve spent time playing with Auto ISO functions then there are so many options that it takes a lot of reading the manual and experimentation to get it right. At the end of the day, it’s only adjusting aperture, shutter speed or ISO but it all seems complex, especially for any pro who tends to set a suitable ISO then work manually or use aperture or shutter priority. Spend time to get it working for you and it can be a real bonus in saving seconds between shots in changing light conditions.

Using any metering mode is dependent on the quality of the built in meter and he new 7D Mark II uses a new metering sensor that borrows its technology from the 1DX camera but omits its ability to use spot metering from a selected AF sensor point. For the majority of shots the meter was accurate enough but strong backlighting easily fooled it, even in flat lighting. It isn’t the best meter around but luckily with digital it’s relatively easy to tweak exposure using exposure compensation. It does mean you could miss the shot, though. At least the Auto White Balance was very good, important if you are shooting Jpegs straight out of camera as many sports shooters do.

So as a camera, the 7D Mark II is a great bit of kit that’s fast and with great AF. The real test is in the image quality, and it’s here that the results were surprisingly good in terms of image quality, dynamic range, colour and noise.

At low ISO, the colours are accurate, noise pretty much non existent and the image quality excellent – although in reality not noticeably better than any other 20MP APS-C sensor camera on the market. This does make it a good all-round camera that can be more than adequate for landscapes, cityscapes, candids and just about anything else. We even tested it in a commercial studio situation at base ISO and the results are very good. Not quite as detailed as a 36MP full-frame camera of course but you’d have to be really pushing the image size to tell a real difference.

The Canon works well in a studio at low ISO, too
The Canon works well in a studio at low ISO, too

But it’s when the ISO starts to creep up that’s a true test for a cropped-sensor camera which now costs around the same as entry level full-frame DSLRs. Simply put, most full frame cameras handle noise better at high ISOs. That’s their forte and that’s why many people lust after them. But the Canon EOS 7D Mark II is shockingly close behind, offering high ISO performance with low levels of noise that’s significantly better than the outgoing model and is shockingly good. Although we didn’t get to directly compare it to its rivals in a controlled experiment, it’s got the potential of being one of the best APS-C sensors in terms of high ISO performance on the market. Add a touch of noise reduction in post processing and it’s even better. At the moment, the only Raw converters available are Canon’s own which doesn’t have the same noise reduction performance as Adobe’s Lightroom. Noise reduction on Jpegs are impressive in Lightroom, so when the software is updated to read Raw files then chances are the results will be even better.

VERDICT

If you are a gizmo-obsessed camera junkie who wants all the latest toys with Wifi and titling touchscreen technology, or a pixel-peeping type who insists on maximum image quality at base ISO or noise-free images at higher ISO, then the Canon EOS 7D Mark II probably won’t set your world on fire.

If you want a camera that’s not only a great and rugged all-rounder that will take all your EF-S lenses, but one that excels spectacularly at fast frame rates and autofocus speed and accuracy plus amazing image quality as ISO creeps up then the 7D Mark II should be very high on your shopping list.

Of course, the ISO performance isn’t quite as good as full frame action cameras like the Canon EOS-1DX or Nikon D4S, but they can cost around triple the price. And the other huge factor is in lenses.

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With the APS-C sensor being a 1.6x crop, it means a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens is the equivalent to a 110-240mm f/2.8 on a full frame, yet at around a third the price and 1.1kg less weight of a 300mm f/2.8 prime you’d need on a full-frame camera to get even close to the long end of the focal length.

Or if you’re a genuinely serious sports or wildlife shooter, a 7D Mark II and latest Canon 300mm f/2.8 IS lens would set you back around £6200 and give a field of view equivalent to a 480mm lens. If you wanted a Canon EOS-1DX and latest 400mm f/2.8 to give you almost the equivalent view it’s £12,500. Twice the price for not quite as much reach, and a small advantage in high ISO noise and frame rate and it would weight 2.6kg more. That’s a big premium.

So despite its lack of obvious bells and whistles, the Canon EOS 7D Mark II offers a rugged body, fast speed, amazing AF and superb image quality as the ISO levels creep up. If you’ve always dreamed of a sports camera like a EOS-1DX but at a fraction of the cost, the new 7D Mark II could be just what you’re looking for.

Specs Canon EOS 7D Mark II

Contact www.canon.co.uk

Price £1599 body only

Resolution 20.2 million pixels

Sensor 22.4 x 15mm APS-C CMOS with anti-aliasing filter

Lens mount Canon EF/ EF-S

Exposure modes Programme automatic, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, manual, bulb, scene intelligent auto.

Image stabilisation None

Metering Multi, centre-weighted, spot, partial

Drive 10fps

Number of focus points 65 cross-type

ISO range 100-16,000 (expandable to ISO 51,200)

Movie mode Full HD, 1920 x 1080 pixels, 60p

LCD screen 3in, 1040k dots

Shutter speed range 30s – 1/8000sec

Flash X-speed 1/250 sec

Storage media Twin SD/ SDHC/ SDXC and CF

Dimensions (WxHxD) 149mm x 112mm x 78mm

Weight 910g (including battery).