Video: Real World Experience

By Dale Baskin

The EOS 1D X II isn’t a camera I expected to like for video, despite being the first Canon DSLR in a long time to support 4K. I knew that 4K would come with some limitations, and I wasn't crazy about shooting video on a rather heavy camera with DSLR ergonomics. Fast forward a few weeks: I’m impressed.

Taking into account that most of the excitement around video on this camera relates to its 4K capabilities, I spent most of my time shooting in that mode. As a result, my comments on this page pertain primarily to 4K video.

Natural Looking Images

As we've seen, the 1D X II is capable of producing very nice 4K video. In fact, it looks surprisingly good even when upscaled a bit on the 5K iMac I used to edit most of my footage.

What probably impressed me most about the video is the color. In my opinion, Canon generally gets color right on their cameras, and while that Canon color does come through in 1080 footage, it really looks great when you step up to 4K resolution.

With most still cameras that capture video, I’m used to doing a fair amount of color grading to get colors to look the way I want. On the 1D X II, as long as I exposed correctly, I was surprised at how frequently I looked at unedited clips in my timeline and thought to myself “You know, this looks pretty nice just the way it is.”

The video below, which is also featured on the Video Quality page, is a good example. For the most part I haven’t touched the color; I limited my editing to a few very minor exposure tweaks and fixed a bit of audio, but otherwise this is pretty much straight out of camera using Canon’s standard picture style.

You may need to use Google's Chrome browser to watch the video in 4K. As with other 4K video samples from the 1D X II, we've cropped the extreme edges of the DCI frame since YouTube only supports 4K/UHD resolution.

There are a handful of clips that could probably stand some white balance adjustment, but the camera actually did a pretty good job of transitioning between the very cool pre-dawn light and the warmer scenes once the sun was up.

However, my early morning shoot exposed a weakness to Canon’s picture styles: there’s no Canon Log (C-Log) recording option as there is on the company's professional video cameras, or even the compact Canon XC10. I missed a few shots once the sun started coming up because the contrast between highlight and shadow areas was just too much for the built-in (or user customizable) picture styles to handle.

I also really appreciated the minimal rolling shutter as well, which adds to the cinematic quality of the footage. Rolling shutter is something I frequently struggle with on other cameras, even some that capture great 4K footage. The Samsung NX1 is a great example: even very small movements of the camera can make the whole image look like a tray full of Jell-O. In contrast, rolling shutter is very well muted on the 1D X II, and in practice I really didn't notice it. In fact, when looking through all my footage I really struggled to find examples of it. It’s there, but short of doing a whip pan or shooting something moving really fast I hardly ever noticed it.

The User Experience

One of the real joys when shooting video is Canon's Dual Pixel autofocus, which provides depth-aware phase detect AF to the entire sensor. It just works tremendously well. But to take advantage of it you have to have the necessary controls. A couple years ago when I reviewed the EOS 7D Mark II I was critical of it for exactly that reason. Although the 7D II’s AF system is very similar to the 1D X II, it lacked the necessary controls to fully leverage it. In particular, it didn’t have a touchscreen or support tap to focus.

This video, which I shot for our review of the EOS 7D II, shows how well Dual Pixel autofocus works. Notice that there's no focus hunting at all. If anything, it works even better on the 1D X II.

I know touchscreens can be a polarizing issue for a lot of people, and every time I praise a well-implemented one I can depend getting a pile of messages telling me why I’m wrong, but the touchscreen on the 1D X II basically addresses all the problems I described when shooting video on the 7D II.

The most important feature the touchscreen enables is tap-to-focus, and it's great because subject tracking in video works so well. There were numerous occasions when I just framed my composition, tapped my subject, and hit record. A lot of the shots in the pond video above were focused exactly that way. The touchscreen is also great if you want to rack focus between subjects, something that was very difficult on the 7D II for lack of a good control.

A good example of where I was able to use subject tracking to my advantage was when shooting the bison video seen on the previous page. I was able to quickly set focus on a moving bison and the camera faithfully followed it across the frame, even ignoring the grass in the foreground as I panned past it.

This still frame is from the Bison video on the previous page. I tapped to focus on the front bison when it was closer to the right side of the frame. The camera followed it and maintained focus, even after it passed behind the grass in the foreground. Photo from video by Dale Baskin

I was discouraged to discover that the camera still lacks some basic video tools, such as focus peaking or zebras, which can even be found on point-and-shoot models like the Sony RX100 IV. Canon seems stubbornly intent on not including these features on DSLRs (I know, Canon... you really, really, really want me to use Cinema EOS cameras to get these features), but I was still a bit surprised not to find them on a $6,000 camera.

However, having just leveled that criticism, I have to admit that I didn’t miss focus peaking as much as I thought I would on this particular camera.

For the most part I found myself using the 1D X II in ‘less controlled’ environments where things tended to move: sports, events, wildlife, etc. In most of these situations I tended to use autofocus because manual focus pulling on a moving subject, with a 70-200mm F2.8 L lens, while trying to maintain a steady picture, all while shooting handheld, basically sucks.

But I also felt as though I could really trust the AF system to focus on the assigned subject and focus accurately and follow my subject with a high degree of confidence. I can’t say that about a lot of cameras. I would still prefer to have peaking available than not, and there are definitely times when I would have used it, but as I said I didn’t miss it as much as I thought I would.

Zebras patterns, on the other hand, would have been really helpful when managing exposure in real time. Sure, there's a histogram available before you start shooting, but for video zebras are really helpful. Come one Canon, at least give me zebras!

The 1D X II lacks zebras. Not these actual zebras, but the kind that help you judge exposure while shooting video. Photo by Richard Butler

One of the other things I enjoyed doing with the camera was capturing stills from video. Thanks to the great AF, minimal rolling shutter, and well rendered color in the 1D X II's video files, this is relatively easy to do. (As long as you've managed your shutter speed appropriately.) In fact, as I'm demonstrating throughout this article, extracting stills from video can be a very useful technique if your primary purpose is shooting video, but need a few stills to help tell a story.

However, I probably wouldn't do it unless I knew I really needed both video and stills of the same shot. After all, the 1D X II shoots 14 fps through the optical viewfinder, has one of the best AF systems in the world, and Raw stills give me much more data to work with than video frames.

Stills from video are no substitute for a high quality Raw file, but as I've demonstrated several times in this article it can be a useful technique to get a photo. Photo from video by Dale Baskin

Other Considerations

There are potential drawbacks to using the 1D X II as a video camera, with one of the big ones is reliance on Motion JPEG to record 4K video. As a result of the high bit rates, I only averaged around 8 minutes of video on a 64GB CFast card when shooting 4K/60p.

In fairness, I could have recorded 4K at 24p/30p and used UDMA 7 rated CF cards instead. By doing so I could probably manage to squeeze 30-40 minutes of video on a 128GB CF card, which isn’t horrible considering the quality of the footage. Motion JPEG isn’t a showstopper, but I really wish Canon had provided additional codec options.

You can shoot 4K/24p or 4K/30p with a fast CF card, but if you want to shoot 4K/60p for more than a few seconds you'll need a CFast card. In either case, you'll need a lot more memory than with most DSLR-type video cameras thanks to Motion JPEG recording.

But here's the thing... I kept gravitating toward shooting 4K/60p. Not just because I could, but because it looks so nice. I say that as someone who has historically been a hardcore 24p shooter who avoids 30p at all cost. But the look of 4K/60p is addictive, and provides some slow motion opportunities to boot.

One other minor annoyance is that there’s no option to record UHD resolution. Sure, you can crop the DCI frame in post, but I suspect that most people using this camera will be delivering content for UHD, such as on YouTube, or maybe even for TV. As of today, YouTube doesn’t even support DCI resolution, so you’ll either have to add this extra step to your workflow, or drop DCI footage into your UHD timeline and accept a small amount of letter boxing. What’s particularly frustrating is that this seems like an arbitrary limitation and would be easy to fix: just collect 256 fewer horizontal pixels and you have UHD.

The 1D X II only records in DCI 4K. There's no option to record in the much more common (outside the cinema world, at least) UHD 4K. As a result, you'll have to accept a bit of letter boxing when adding clips to a UHD timeline, or add a workflow stop to adjust the clips by cropping the extreme edges of the frame. Photo from video by Dale Baskin

My Take

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I really like 4K video on the 1D X II. As with any camera, however, not everything is perfect and there are invariably tradeoffs. Whether it’s the right video camera for you comes down to balancing those tradeoffs against your particular requirements, as well as your personal preferences.

Ultimately, this camera doesn't have the depth of features required for many serious video shooters. It lacks basic shooting tools such as peaking and zebras, offers no alternative to Motion JPEG for 4K (with no option for 4K-out), and has no Log gamma option. Its weight isn't, by itself, a negative factor (many pro video cameras can weigh as much), but when combined with the ergonomics of a DSLR it becomes challenging.

Realistically, I doubt that many people are going to consider this camera solely for shooting video. If that’s your need, go out and look at some of the dedicated video cameras you can get for the same price. On the other hand, if it’s a camera that also meets your needs for still photography, or if you need a camera that can shoot both stills and high quality video, it’s certainly worth a look.

I think Canon came very close to having the right balance of features, quality, and performance for the camera's intended audience. Thanks to its excellent focus system, great straight-from-camera footage, and touchscreen controls it's great for shooting short clips and action. It should come as no surprise that this would be a great camera for sports shooters, event photographers, or journalists who need to capture some video in addition to stills, potentially at very high quality. For those users, I think Canon got it mostly right.

(Can I have my zebras now?)