Canon 7D Mark 2
Canon's original 7D has been their stalwart APS-C flagship since 2009 but has been showing its age against newer competition. Probably one of the most popular enthuasiast-amateur camera models in their range, fans have been clamouring for a replacement but with that comes high expectations amidst better-than-ever competition. I recently had three weeks with one of the latest release models and put it through its paces.
It's pretty widely held that the crop-sensor models tend to be favoured for sports or wildlife shooting. That's not to say they're somehow "unsuitable" for other shooting - far from it - but the crop factor does help in these situations. That said, historically I've not really done much of either kind of photography but because I figured many people interested in this camera would be looking to use it in these kind of situations I tried where I could to find shooting scenarios to demonstrate its capabilities, alongside more general useage so I could give as comprehensive an opinion as possible.
The question I had foremost in mind before beginning my review was whether or not Canon could produce a pro-grade camera with an APS-C sensor and would it stack up in terms of quality against the full frame DSLR and mirrorless opposition. The landscape has changed since the original 7D... is the 7D2 still going to be relevant?
Out of the Box
Everything you'd expect. The camera, battery, charger & USB cable, as well as the usual array of Canon software CDs and a neck strap round things out. Also, an odd black plastic clip-thing... not 100% sure what that is for admittedly :)
My review kit also came with an 18-135mm kit lens though that's an optional extra and not covered in this review.
Usage & Handling
My overriding first impression upon picking it up, without a lens attached, was one of heft. I don't mean that it was heavy - though at almost a full kilo in weight it's not a small puppy - more than it felt reassuringly solid. With my own personal 6D in my other hand, the two felt pretty similar in terms of physical size but the added weight of the 7D2 was noticeable. That said, I don't think it was too heavy and as I found later, I thought that the extra weight in the body did help the overall balance when lenses were attached. Mirrorless fanboys will no doubt be horrified by the 7D2's physical characteristics but as is to be expected for a DSLR, it felt like solid & dependable piece of kit.
Canon has stuck to their tried and tested control layout approach so the vast majority of functions will be instantly familiar. The rear view looks almost identical to the 5D3 layout, for example, and the top LCD panel/button arrangement is similar to many other models. This consistency is just a small thing but shouldn't be understated; having the ability to pick up a different model to what you normally shoot with and already have a good understanding of how to use it isn't something other camera manufacturers always get right. Sure, historically I've mainly been a Canon shooter and maybe I'm biased... but if I AM biased it's because of little details like this that can have a profound impact on how we use our kit.
That said, I'm not a fan of all of the controls. I think the on-off button should be on the right hand side to facilitate one-handed shooting (Nikon cameras do this better). I don't see the benefit of having dedicated review/rating buttons. Worst of all though? The little d-pad joystick control in particular is utterly awful. Small, difficult to use and after a while it gets painful to nudge this tiny nipple of plastic around with your thumb. I hate it and much prefer the directional pad you get on the 6D or even the 7xxD-series cameras. I don't understand why it's there. It's also irritating to use it to navigate menus because you then need to move your hand to press the SET button. Definitely needs a redesign.
Beyond these gripes it's otherwise a standard & well thought out layout that's easy to use. Having a larger body gives more room to have an ergonomic, sensible layout (as compared to smaller, more cluttered mirrorless cameras). With the setting lock slider and a locked mode dial, I never found myself changing the settings by accident.
A new control is the AF mode selection slider, co-located around the d-pad joystick. This lets you quickly and easily choose between different AF-point groups on the fly, from the single central point out through to all 65-points. It's a useful, easy to reach control but the best feature is the ability to reassign it to a different function to suit your own shooting style.
The 7D mark 2 doesn't come with a touch-sensitive rear screen. Having used the touch screen on the 760D I now think Canon's touch-screen implementation is one of the best around - albeit with scope for improvement - and not having a touch screen on the 7D2 is a shame, particularly because it's so much quicker and easier to change settings this way. Especially because the stupid d-pad joystick thing is such an irritating alternative! With the enhanced phase detect AF useable in live-mode, the ability to touch-focus would have been a great addition that's sadly overlooked.
A major selling point for the 7D mark 2 is the "Dual Pixel CMOS AF" system, originally seen on the 70D, but the 7D mark 2 has the 65 AF points vs only 19 AF points on the 70D. This is a huge jump in performance compared to its predecessor and it even shares features with the 1DX. I've not tested the 1DX personally but reports indicate that this new AF suite eclipses the top-end model in overall capability. Based on my experience though I'd be inclined to believe it! Without reservation it's the single best AF system I've ever used, bar none*. Speed & accuracy are the two most important measures and in this case I think the 7D2 is best in class. My own personal shooting style doesn't tend to use the full AF system of my cameras much and I typically use the central focus point only. I have to admit, turning on the full-range of AF points and letting the camera choose where it focused was a little nerve-wracking but I needn't have worried. I experimented on as many different subjects as possible, ranging from static/stationary objects through to fast moving wildlife. While no AF system is perfect, the 7D2 is best-in-class and by the end of my time with the camera I was perfectly comfortable with the AF system and picking the right mode for the scene at hand.
You may have wondered what the asterisked caveat was? Here's the catch - to get the best out of the AF you need to have capable lenses that can do it justice. I tested with a number of different lenses over the period I had to review the camera and the 70-200 f/2.8 II was, maybe unsurprisingly, the stand-out winner. The AF performance when these two were paired was close to supernatural! It just worked; fast, accurate and on exactly what I wanted to focus on. Other lenses were excellent too, particularly the venerable 100mm f/2.8 Macro, but when I used third party lenses the performance dipped. Don't get me wrong, performance is still absolutely fantastic, but it's not on the same "mind-readingly good" level you get when paired with top-tier Canon glass. It's the first time I've personally experienced the claim that third party lenses lag behind their Canon equivalents for AF performance but that's almost certainly because I rarely tax an AF system like I did during my time with the 7D2.
The only grumble I have relating to the AF system isn't really an issue with the AF system at all, rather it's a side-effect of the metering system performance lagging behind AF! As I've said, typically I use the central focusing poin-> spot meter -> recompose. However, with the 7D2, because the AF is so good it can often mean the metering settings are incompatible with the focal point. For example, evaluative/partial/centre-weighted metering are often too general to render a scene properly but using spot metering when your subject & AF are fixed away from the central point will still mean you exposure is off. The best solution would be to have the metering trigger off the same AF points used - however given that the AF system also uses the metering sensor to improve speed & accuracy it may still technically be difficult to implement.
The AF system also has dedicated menu options allowing the user to select from one of six predefined "AF cases" -
Another of the standout features of the 7D mark 2 is the 10fps burst mode, a speed only previously reached (and exceeded) by the top-end 1DX. At full speed the camera sounds like a machine gun and is rated to have a 31 RAW image buffer capacity - in practice, with fast cards, I found I hit at least 35 images before I experienced slow-down, sometimes considerably more. Shooting RAW+JPG and it still managed an average of 25 frames, still very respectable. Though bear in mind, at full whack that's "only" 2.5 seconds of shooting!
It's hard to convey the effect of shooting at 10fps in still images but in an attempt to demonstrate what's possible I shot the cyclists in the park and converted the resulting burst into a GIF.
While experimenting and playing around with the 7D2 I thought it'd be fun to film the shutter in slow-motion at full 10fps-speed. What I saw surprised me and I've shared the results in the video below. As you will see in this clip, which lasted for 5 seconds of "real time", the shutter starts out initially at its typical fast speed. After a couple of seconds though it suddenly slows down dramatically. Though I'm not certain, I think the reason for this is that I shot the slow-mo video without any memory cards in the camera - this leads me to believe that the performance of the internal buffer is linked-to and depends heavily on the memory card used. Based on my other observation that the buffer often exceeded the advertised maximum when I used fast SD cards, I think it's a fairly safe assumption to make that the internal buffer relies heavily on shuffling images to the card almost immediately and you will see considerably better performance using fast cards.
The third most important new feature is a new "anti-flicker" feature for the auto white balance setting. If I'm being honest, I hadn't realised how much of a problem this could be until I did more research into it - then looking back at my own library of images I could easily see where I'd captured photos that experienced this effect.
The problem is that many forms of lighting, most frequently fluorescent or LED lights, actually flash on and off many times per second. Although this is almost always imperceptible to the human eye, it's often easily seen in our photographs and is more prevalent when shooting several frames in quick succession. What Canon have implemented is the option to shoot in AWB mode with an additional anti-flicker setting you can toggle on/off. When turned on, the camera analyses the lighting in the scene and will only trigger the shutter when the lights are on - the benefit of this is the lighting will be consistent and identical across all of your images, the drawback is that the camera will delay the shutter for a fraction of a second until the lighting is "correct". In practice, I found that delay in shutter triggering was only ever noticeable when I was trying to detect it and in all other cases it wasn't something you would really pay attention to. For me at least, I would leave the anti-flicker feature on at all times. It really is a useful new feature. Although sometimes it will "save" an image that would otherwise have been ruined by light flicker, for the vast majority of times you will see the biggest saving in post-processing. See the images below for more detail on what I mean. To show the effect, I've created a few more GIF images below.
The first two are from an underpass exclusively lit by fluorescent lighting. As you can see from the first GIF, the flickering is hugely pronounced! The second image is the same scene with anti-flicker enabled. The third image is another scene, this time an MRT station lit mostly with fluorescent lighting but with other light sources present to give a more "real-world" example of the feature in use.
Notice here how the colour of the scene above changes as the camera AWB varies significantly between each frame. This is caused by the light flickering and although it's normally imperceptible to the human eye, when shooting under these conditions it can often lead to strange, tricky to correct colour casts on the final image. You can see too that the lighting flicker isn't synchronised and each light flickers on/off at different times. This means you have multiple, different colour temperatures to deal with in the final image which causes a headache when it comes to processing.
This is the same scene - but after changing the AWB to anti-flicker mode. Notice how the lighting is rock-solid consistent... though it's SO good you'll just have to trust me it's actually more than one frame and is actually a GIF! You can see some minor alignment warping in the end of the tunnel as my position shifted over the last few frames if you don't believe me :)
To show the anti-flicker feature in a different context, here the lighting conditions within the MRT station are almost the same as the underpass - set to anti-flicker mode and you can see the WB is always consistent. There's a small amount of colour variation caused by converting the JPGs to a GIF for the animation.
After testing this out I am sure this feature will become standard across the rest of Canon's range and with the new 760D this is indeed the case - Canon seems to be implementing it on all new cameras, even the amateur end of the range, because it's just so damn useful.
Battery life is excellent, based in no small part due to the LP-E6 battery, now upgraded to the E6N version. It comfortably lasts more than 1,000 shots and can sit in standby for days on end. Running the 6D and 7D2 side by side for a full day photoshoot the 6D was left with a good 200 images "in the tank" though, implying that the 7D2 is a little more power hungry than its full frame cousin. Still, it's an order of magnitude better than a mirrorless equivalent.
Overall I drew two conclusions about how it felt to use the 7D mark 2. It's reliable, the AF is fantastic and the 10fps burst mode is a dangerously addictive (albeit spray-and-pray!) feature I'd love to have on my other cameras. That said, over the three weeks I had with it, I didn't "bond" with it... but don't get me wrong, that's not a bad thing. The camera is very capable indeed, and very good indeed at what it does. It is a great tool for the job but I found myself being more impressed by it's features on a technical level than falling in love with it.
A huge part of what a camera is capable of depends on the lens you pair it with and I tried to shoot a range of scenes & scenarios with as many lenses as I could to produce these sample images. Many have been processed but my philosophy when reviewing is to show both unprocessed images and what you can then achieve after processing - only those still learning or people who should know better just use what they get straight from the camera! I think it's better to see exactly what the camera & the photographer can ultimately produce rather than a dump of unprocessed JPGs! Check out some of the things I was able to do with the 7D2.
I touched on the ISO performance earlier with the pit viper image but all cameras have a trade-off somewhere. Despite its otherwise impressive array of features, the 7D2 still does suffer from image noise at higher ISOs. It's basic physics which dictates smaller sensors are noisier than larger ones and although the noise characteristics are MUCH improved over its predecessor, it's still not on a par with full frame sensors. The image below is taken at ISO 100 - below that are examples of cropped centre-edge sections. Click on the comparison composite below to see a larger version. In my opinion, I found anything up to 1600 was perfectly useable but 3200 was limited - sometimes the images could be rescued in post-processing, sometimes not. I found ISO 6400 was rarely useable for colour scenes but could sometimes be saved by converting to black & white. Mostly not though. Even with high ISO and long exposure noise reduction enabled the quality was just better but ultimately not useable.
This high ISO performance is, for me, the single biggest let-down. Though better than the previous generation it's not significantly improved at higher speeds. Sometimes to get the shot, particularly with birds & wildlife, you have no option but to ramp up the ISO and sadly I had a number of images which just didn't cut it when the light began to wane.
At-A-Glance - Specifications & Comparison to the 7D
The 7D2 is an upgrade over its predecssor in almost every way. Here's a rundown of the 7D mark 1 vs the 7D mark 2 in a few key attributes. See my conclusion for more detailed thoughts.
- 18 megapixels -> 20 megapixels
- 8fps burst mode -> 10fps burst mode
- 19 AF points -> 65 AF points (in addition to an expanded range of AF modes)
- ISO100-6400 (12800 expanded) -> ISO100-12800 (51200 expanded)
- 0.92mp rear LCD screen-> 1.04mp LCD screen (ClearView II)
For full, detailed specifications you can check the Canon site here
Canon 7D2 vs Canon 6D (or "crop vs full frame")
This is another common question I've had recently, especially from photographers looking to move up from the a more basic/amateur body to something more capable. It's not a new question, full-frame vs APS-C has been a much-discussed topic for years! Sadly I'm not going to provide any kind of revelation... the answer is always "it depends what you want to acheive with the camera".
Though the 6D is by no means the most advanced full-frame out there, it's priced at a similar level so it's understandable that many will look at the 7D2 and the 6D and wonder which is right for them. I always prefer talking about someone's photography first before making a recommendation but in the broadest sense I'd make the following recommendations.
Choose the 7D2 if
- You already have a number of top-end EF-S lenses covering a range of focal lengths
- Your priority is shooting wildlife or sports to benefit from the extra reach afforded by the crop sensor
Choose the 6D (or full-frame) if
- You value improved image quality - in the form of better high-ISO capability, more versatile DOF & superior dynamic range
- Your shooting preference is more general - landscape, street, studio... anything that DOESN'T benefit from the crop-sensor
- You haven't invested in EF-S lenses or you're planning on expanding your EF lens collection
Remember - these are completely generalised and very, very broad guidelines. If you are debating what camera to get next and have any questions, feel free to get in touch
- Top-of-the-range autofocus system
- 10fps burst mode with insanely large buffer to back it up
- New Anti-flicker AWB
- Solid, professional weather-sealed build
- Sensor quality lags behind full-frame sensors - most noticeably in terms of high-ISO performance
- Lower resolution than competing models
- Needs equivalently good glass to get the absolute best out of its strongest features
I haven't included the fact it's a crop sensor as a pro or con. Rather, it's a a facet of the camera that your personal preferences will mean it benefits or complicates your shooting.
The Canon 7D2 is undoubtedly a major upgrade over the mark 1. Every important feature, from image quality, autofocus to even how the camera handles white balance is upgraded and refined. If you love your 7D & have invested in the APS-C platform and want an upgraded & improved model the 7D2 won't let you down at all - I can definitely recommend it. It may "only" be an APS-C sized sensor but it's 100% a professional camera. It definitely outclasses many, if not most, of the CSC options on the market, particularly m4/3 cameras which have the benefit of a cropped sensor but lag behind in other aspects.
This is where the 7D2 gives me pause for thought though. Canon is pitching it as an alternative to professional full frame models such as the 5D3, not to mention top-end full-frame mirrorless rivals. With the super-resolution 5DS/R models imminent, it will be interesting to see if the 7D2 can hold its own in the future; will we all be shooting at 50+ megapixels and cropping, rather than used a cropped sensor? My gut feeling is that Canon have come as far as they can with their existing approach to the APS-C sensor format - the 7D2 is the pinnacle of APS-C evolution, rather than revolution - and Canon will need to make some fairly hefty improvements in sensor performance for a future 7D mark 3 to impress as much as the 7D2 has. The 7D2 is good and can stand toe-to-toe with the current competition. The problem it faces is the competition is moving fast indeed.
To summarise... If you shoot nature, it's a fantastic option; just get it. If you want a pro-grade second body to backup a full frame camera, get it. It's a lovely camera and in its own particular niche, the best I've seen so far.
The Canon 7D2 is available now for approximately £1,999, S$2,499 USD$1,499, body only.