Four and a half years ago I bought a Canon 550D. I was no stranger to photography, had never owned my own DSLR, but knew it was time to trade in the digital point-and-shoot for something closer to the film SLR’s I had owned. In the intervening period I took photos with that camera pretty much every day – often two or three times a day. It got to the stage where I could operate it blind-fold, in a wind tunnel, using oven gloves while playing a Peruvian wind flute. Which is great. What isn’t so great is that it also got to the stage where I was finding the camera quite limiting – particularly its low-light performance – and I knew it was time to upgrade.
After much soul-searching and agonising over questions like full-frame vs crop, I decided to buy Canon’s new flagship cropped-sensor DLSR, the 7D Mark II. If budget had not been an issue then I might well have gone for a 5D Mark III and splashed out on the 16-35 and a walk-about, but budget was an issue. Even given the cost of going full-frame and replacing all my most-used lenses I still came close to biting the bullet … and then I read the first reviews of the 7D Mark II.
Given how well received Canon’s overdue update to the legendary 7D was, I quickly realised this camera was the best-fit for my photographic needs. It meant I could keep my existing EF-S lenses and enjoy pretty much all the benefits of a pro-grade camera, without having to sell my only child to laboratory research to fund it. Having looked near and far for a suitable retailer I eventually plumped for DigiDirect in Sydney who were matching the Hong-Kong based grey importers and offered a full Australian warranty. These then are my impressions of the camera – I’m not a ‘lab’ sort of a guy – I don’t really care about DxoMarks and similar stuff, all I care about is how the camera handles out in the real world.
Why the 7D Mark II?
So what were the selling points that lead to my handing over just over $2000AUD for a body-only 7D2? They went something like this (and in roughly this order):
- Full magnesium body
- Awesome low-light performance
- Weather sealed
- Cropped sensor
- 20.2 megapixel APS-C Canon sensor and dual DIGIC 6 image processors
- Built-in GPS
- Built-in intervalometer
Now you will note that some of the 7D Mark II’s most famous features are missing from my list. This is because, while they are highly desirable features, they aren’t central to the kind of photography I’m into – namely landscapes. Fast focus, 65 focus points, 10fps, scene detection and movie capabilities are great things to have but they’re not in my must-have list. Besides, the auto-focus on my faithful old 10-22mm has been broken for over two years now and even if it worked I’d never use it. I only ever focus my landscape shots manually.
One of the main selling points for me was that magnesium body. While the 550D has battled through some pretty nasty situations, it was starting to show its battle scars. My 550D has been dropped a few times and, on one occasion, fallen from about a metre onto rocks. It’s been chipped, scratched and smashed and had its case replaced in the repair shop after a tumble. So I needed to know that my next camera was built to higher specifications and since the 7D2 sports the same shell as the 5D Mark III, it was a big selling point.
Along with the metal body, weather sealing was another huge plus. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to sprint for cover because the heavens opened and the non-weatherproof 550D was in danger of drowning. I’m not suggesting I’ll be standing out in thunderstorms from now on (particularly since my lenses are not listed as weather-sealed) but it’s good to know that rain will not destroy it.
The low-light performance is a big deal for me. I tend to shoot very early in the day (usually an hour before sunrise) and long after sunset. In addition I love night photography. I had heard that there was very little noise in shots taken as high as 16,000ISO on the 7D2 and since my 550D started displaying grain from 400ISO upwards, it was a huge deal. Being able to take night shots at very high ISOs means I’ll get more of those scarce night-time photons hitting the sensor and therefore more detail in the resulting images.
The GPS functionality is incredibly useful. I’ve always geo-tagged my photos, but I either did it using GPS loggers or (more often) by hand. Simply not having to worry about adding GPS co-ordinates to my images is a huge benefit. It also means my GPS tagging will be much accurate – previously I would simply look up the general co-ordinates using Google Maps and copy and paste them into Lightroom during the image import, now I’ll now to the nearest couple of metres where every single shot was taken.
Having a built-in intervalometer is another biggie for me. I love making time-lapse movies and this previously required the use of either some add-on hardware (I used TriggerTrap) or custom firmware (MagicLantern). Now I don’t have to worry about having the right firmware card loaded or lose my iPhone for the duration because it’s all right there in the camera.
The first thing I noticed when handling the 7D2 was the heft of it. It feels substantial, weighty, but not heavy! The front grip is more angular and more defined than my old camera and all the better for it. It sits in my hand incredibly comfortably. When I’m out taking shots I often stroll along with the camera in my right hand hanging at my side and it feels perfect there.
The layout of the camera is different, but familiar. The mode dial on the top has a locking function which I already appreciate – we photographers sometimes get lazy and fail to check settings before taking shots – knowing that my camera settings will be where I left them when I take it out of its bag is great. The one thing I am missing is a battery grip, but that can be rectified easily enough. The rest of the dials are also new, but familiar, within only an hour or two I’m already quickly changing aperture and ISO.
Once I’d become more familiar with the camera’s layout I started getting down to practicalities. I always shoot bracketed photos, whether I plan to combine them later or not – I just like knowing the possibility is there if I want it. Since the MagicLantern firmware isn’t available for the 7D2 (yet!) I enabled bracketing in the normal way and then hit the first snag. In order to take all three shots I had to do three shutter presses – with MagicLantern it did all three for me one after another. If I shot with the two or 10 second timer on the 7D2 it did all three, but not when fired manually. Then I discovered that it did work if I selected continuous shooting mode and simply held down the shutter for slightly longer than usual. It soon became a very natural way of doing it and I learned to appreciate having continuous mode on for those moments when wildlife appeared and I could quickly rattle of some shots in the hope of photographing it.
The spirit level, though I didn’t know I was getting it, is very useful. Get the camera level and you save yourself wasted pixels in cropping when straightening in post. One thing I do wish is that the 7D2 had an articulated screen. I realise that this is due to the requirements around weather-sealing, but they’re incredibly useful things to have. The screen itself is great – clear and very detailed – perfect for shooting in LiveView mode.
I have noticed that the camera seems to be a lot more power-hungry than my 550D. Obviously this would improve greatly with the addition of a battery grip, but the power consumption does seem a bit on the heavy side – if you’re buying a 7D2 get a spare battery or two when you buy it.
In the Field
My first outing with the 7D2 saw me in my usual environment (Seven Mile Beach) about an hour before sunrise. I had the usual kit with me – camera, tripod, spare lens, insect deterrent and mug of coffee, but one of those items turned out to be excess baggage. I never did use the tripod. It was something of a revelation if I’m being honest.
I knew the 7D2 had a great new sensor that was excellent in low light so on that first morning I put it to a somewhat extreme test and shot entirely handheld in aperture priority mode, relying on automatic ISO settings to keep my chosen aperture (f/8) at reasonably fast exposures. With my super wide-angle 10-22mm lens I can stay handheld all the way down to 1/10th of a second and retain sharpness. This isn’t something I’d recommend, because you always want to aim for as low an ISO as possible, but I wanted to see what the resulting images would look like.
While I was shooting I monitored the ISO settings and noticed that we started out at 6400ISO. That setting on my old 550D would render the photograph similar to a George Seurat painting, but when I was going through my shots in Lightroom afterwards, the results were excellent. I’ve included a shot from that morning with no noise reduction applied at all either in-camera or Lightroom – it’s totally unedited. I’ve included a 100% close-up too so you can see the sort of grain that 6400 gets you. The results are terrific, they’re great like this and with standard noise reduction applied you’d be hard pushed to be able to tell the difference between this and a 200ISO shot.
By way of variety I’ve also included one I took at my local New Years Eve fireworks display. The conditions for photography here couldn’t really be much worse. I was shooting handheld, f/8 in a murky arena lit by large sodium floodlights from a shaded bandstand. I’ve included a 100% detail shot in the totally unedited image (with zero noise-reduction) so you can see the clarity of the resulting photo. I think the results are outstanding.
After a couple of days using the camera I realised I could save myself considerable time and effort by utilising the programable ‘C’ modes on the dial. These are simplicity itself to set-up – you just dial in the settings you want to keep and then store them against C1, C2 or C3 in the menu. I set up my default landscape settings (AV mode, f/8, ISO100) in C1, my bracketed mode in C2 and a ‘wildlife’ mode (exposure priority, 1/1000th, f/8). This means that if some wildlife shows up when I’m out shooting landscapes (dolphins at the beach, a sea eagle overhead, a seal diving for starfish off the rock shelf) I can very quickly switch settings and get the shot.
As the 7D2 comes with an ‘HDR’ mode I have, of course, tried it on a shoot. The results are surprisingly okay, but the mode isn’t one I’d use with any regularity as I want full control over the shots and how they’re combined. But if I didn’t have access to Lightroom, Photoshop and Photomatix then I could see it proving useful. I found the resulting image a bit on the flat side. I’ve also tried the various picture styles built into the camera but, since I always shoot RAW, these aren’t a feature I’ll be making a great deal of use of. Due to weather conditions I’ve been unable to test the camera’s night-sky capabilities as yet, but I’m hoping that the new sensor can bring more detail out in the Milky Way when I photograph it next.
Standard daytime shots with the 7D2 are excellent. Beautiful, large and smooth images with excellent clarity. As with all cameras, image quality has as much to do with the lens you’re using as it does the camera and I get the best results with my 10-22mm and my 50mm lenses. The LiveView mode is great for ensuring that focus is sharp from front to back and I’ve started using it far more than I did on my 550D.
Some Concluding Thoughts
It’s still early days with my 7D Mark II, but if interrogated by professionals they’d be unable to find even a hint of buyer’s remorse in me. Everything about this camera oozes quality, from the design of the body, to the firmware that powers it. The 7D2 is a far from obvious choice for landscape photographers, but I would argue that it is a terrific option for anyone looking to move up from an entry-level cropped sensor DSLR, such as the T[x]i range.
As with all cropped-sensor camera bodies, there are drawbacks and advantages. From a landscape photographers perspective, a full frame camera produces a larger image with more pixels in it, but there’s very little difference between the 22.3 of a 5D Mark III and the 20.2 of the 7D2. To be honest, if more pixels is your main requirement then you’re better off getting a Nikon D810 which has a 36megapixel sensor, than a 5D3! All cameras are about trade-offs – sensor size, megapixels, low light capabilities, auto-focus speed, shutter speed, cost, sensor type, LCD screen, weight – all these features and many more need to be considered when purchasing a camera.
For my part I’ve found the image quality on the 7D2 to be first-rate. You are not compromising by having a sensor with ‘only’ 20.2megapixels when the resulting images are as clear and vibrant as the 7D2 produces. Combine all that with the competitive pricing, the value-added features (that magnesium shell, GPS, weather-sealing, 10fps stills, 60fps video, class-leading auto-focus, dual card slots) and you have a great landscape camera, but also a superb adventure camera, a great wildlife camera and a world class sports camera. I look forward to many years of quality shooting with my 7D Mark II, wherever that photography takes me.