Autofocus

When everything's dialed in, the 1D X Mark II's autofocus system won't fail you. Just make sure it's dialed in. You'll also find the cross-type points achieve focus reliably even in backlit situations. Processed and cropped to taste from Raw. Canon 70-200 F2.8L II @ 200mm | F2.8 | 1/1250 sec | ISO 800. Photo by Carey Rose

With the 1D X Mark II, Canon has revamped its autofocus system. It retains 61 user-selectable points like its predecessor, but they come with a larger vertical spread. Five central points are dual-cross type, offering diagonal cross-sensitivity in addition to traditional cross-sensitivity (both a x sensor and + sensor). The diagonal cross sensors have longer baselines, which means they offer enhanced precision with F2.8 and faster lenses. And they work; with a calibrated lens, these 5 points offer nearly contrast-detect levels of AF precision with fast lenses. The center point is now sensitive down to -3EV.

With the right lenses, all AF points can function at F8, with 27 central points remaining cross-sensitive - particularly relevant to birds-in-flight and wildlife photographers shooting long lenses with teleconverters (there are some restrictions). There's also an updated 360,000 pixel RGB+IR metering sensor that the camera uses in tandem with the AF module in iTR (Intelligent Tracking and Recognition) mode.

As you'd expect, the 1D X II's autofocus systems is highly capable; once you dial it in for your specific situation, you will be greeted with a high quantity of keepers. But there is a flipside to that - as with Canon's other professional offerings, the autofocus system is highly customizable, and getting the absolute best results necessitates some basic knowledge of all the settings, some experimentation, and some time.

Of course, it's natural for the seasoned Canon pro shooter to set up his or her new camera as closely as possible to the previous model - or two or three models back - to make sure to never miss a shot. But in doing so, there's a possibility of missing out on some exciting innovations that could result in both more keepers and different shooting philosophies (better AF accuracy means better luck with wider apertures, as an example).

Autofocus Presets

Canon offers six presets of the AF system's three fine-tuning parameters. Hold the 'info' button, and you'll see that each preset has a description of the type of action it's designed to cover. It's a useful aid to help get you close to the ideal autofocus setup for your particular shooting situation.

The 1D X II's six presets will be familiar to all 1D X users. They're a means of getting close to the ideal setup of the three tracking parameters, based on the type of movement you're trying to shoot.

Despite the (at first) daunting complexity of the setup system, it's an approach that makes a lot of sense - three variables with multiple settings, each of which can have quite a significant impact on your hit rate. Unfortunately, that adds up to 75 possible combinations, which we've seen can be difficult to get right and easy to get wrong without a degree of guidance - further reinforcing the usefulness of the six case presets.

But don't forget - to help you further dial the camera in for your particular shooting scenario, you'll need to pay some attention to the autofocus area modes (AF Point Selection in Canon vernacular) as well.

Autofocus Point Selection

If you can follow the action yourself, Single-point AF works well under almost any lighting conditions. Processed and cropped to taste from Raw, with 1.5 stop exposure boost and mild noise reduction applied. Canon EF 50mm F1.4 USM lens @ F1.4 | 1/200 sec | ISO 12800. Photo by Carey Rose

There are six autofocus 'cases' that serve to fine-tune the performance of the 1D X II's autofocus tracking behavior, there are six AF area selection modes for you to choose from as well.

  • Single-point Spot AF allows you to manually select a single point, which will only focus based on a very narrow area. It's great for pinpoint accuracy, such as a subject's eye, even through something like a motorcycle helmet, or a small bird surrounded by branches. It is not recommended for moving subjects.
  • Single-point AF functions identically to the previous mode, but with a less narrow area. It's more suitable for focusing on still life or an eye during traditional portraiture (Single AF), or continuously focusing (AI Servo) on a subject that is easy for you to follow. This is the default mode of focusing.
  • AF Point Expansion works with either four or eight additional autofocus points surrounding the point you've manually chosen. This is an ideal mode for shooting sports - if you accidentally let your chosen AF point slip off your subject, the camera will (depending on the case you've chosen) attempt to use the additional four or eight 'helper' points to intelligently determine whether you wish to keep focus on that subject, or re-focus onto a new subject. It's most suited for moving subjects in AI Servo, as the system can get distracted for still life or portraiture in Single AF - it might not acquire focus exactly on a subject's eye, for example.
  • Zone AF divides the camera's 61 autofocus points into nine zones which are user-selectable, and is again meant for continuous focusing on moving subjects. According to Canon, it's useful for larger subjects or subjects moving over a larger area, as the camera decides where to focus within that chosen zone. It's not great for situations where obstacles might block your subject.
  • 61-point Automatic Selection AF works as you might guess - it lets the camera do the work. In Single AF, it will automatically select an AF point(s) for you, based on information from both the AF module and the metering sensor. In AI Servo, it'll do the same, but use those same two modules to intelligently shift the AF point(s) to stick to your subject as it moves (and the system will give priority to faces if you have this option enabled in the menus). Changing a menu option allows you to specify the initial subject yourself by selecting an AF point and placing it over that subject before initiating focus. This is most similar in practice to Nikon's 3D Tracking in that it allows you to constantly reframe your composition without having to move the autofocus points or follow the action manually.

So, as stated earlier, that's a lot to keep in mind while shooting. Of course, depending on how wide (or narrow) a variety of subjects you shoot, you may find one or two modes that work well for you most of the time - but it does take some understanding of what exactly the adjustment parameters do so that you can adjust them if you're noticing the AF system struggling with your subject. Basically, it pays to read the manual.

Subject tracking with iTR

As stated in our Nikon D5 review, the depth tracking abilities (refocusing on approaching or receding subjects) of flagship DSLR cameras have been very good and very reliable for a long time - so long as you've dialed in your case settings properly anyway. We still shoot with and test these modes, but we pay a bit more attention to what's arguably more new and novel, especially for DSLRs - subject tracking through the viewfinder.

But if you can follow the action yourself perfectly well, why even bother with subject tracking? Strictly speaking, you may not need subject tracking, but it does open up some creative possibilities.

For this image, the camera was set to center point with AF Expansion (top, bottom, left and right) and Case 4. Processed to taste from Raw. Canon 70-200mm F2.8L II @ 200mm | F2.8 | 1/800 sec | ISO 10000. Photo by Carey Rose

In the above image, focus was maintained by keeping the center cluster of AF points over the player in white, with the camera set to an AF Expansion area mode, and not using the full spread with iTR. With iTR, and the full spread of AF points, it would have been possible to let the camera track that player on its own by automatically switching autofocus points. In doing so, it would have been possible to recompose the scene so that player could be on the left side of the frame, the goalie would be in the middle and his arm wouldn't have been cut off, and it would have been possible to get some of the net on the right side of the frame for more context.

There is a counterargument to be made here, though: a more 'seasoned' soccer shooter may have been able to better predict this play, and move the cluster of AF points manually off to the left to get the same framing without having to rely on iTR. But in the heat of action, a camera can be far faster at doing so than you, particularly if you're not an expert on the movement and strategies of your subjects. And in such cases, iTR has merit.

For an example outside the world of sports, combine 61-point iTR with F8 autofocus and you have a compelling tool for focusing on and tracking birds in flight. Where it may be difficult for a photographer to manually keep a single point centered over a fast or erratic bird with a longer lenses with teleconverters, it can be rather easy for a capable phase-detect AF system to understand that a subject that was 30m away and under the left-most AF point has now moved to the center point - because the left-point is now registering infinity while the center point is now registering 29m.

And that's the real story about why subject tracking is important - it can lessen the stringent requirement of keeping an AF point strictly over your subject. What's more, even for fast moving subjects, having more compositional freedom will often result in a very different photograph. But, as we saw with the D5's 3D Tracking, Canon's iTR isn't infallible. We'll get into how it performs in the real world a little more on the following pages.

iTR vs Nikon '3D Tracking'

Compared to Nikon's 3D Tracking, though, Canon's iTR works a little differently. While Nikon's system chooses a single point that sticks to a subject with remarkable tenacity, Canon's iTR uses almost a 'cloud' of AF points that tend to be a little less 'sticky' with regard to the exact spot on your subject where you initiated tracking.

We've found that Canon's iTR works very well with subjects that are some distance away (shot with telephoto lenses) versus subjects that are closer up (shot with wider lenses), which to us indicates the system is biased slightly more towards the AF module's depth information than the pattern recognition that's theoretically possible via the high-resolution metering sensor. We had hoped the jump to a 360k-pixel metering sensor would spell more pinpoint accuracy for the system, but it still displays the lack of specificity we observed with the 5DS - unable, for example, to track the eye of a subject you initiated focus on. It also exhibits some strange behavior, occasionally refocusing to such an extreme that the whole scene is out of focus, before then refocusing properly - something we've tended to observe consistently across recent Canon DSLRs.

The 1DX II's iTR implementation generally works well, having kept a cluster of AF points on the left-most rider - something that would have been difficult for me to do myself as I flailed around on the ground, in the dirt. Processed to taste from Raw. Canon EF 70-200mm F2.8L IS II @ F4 | 1/800 sec | ISO 100. Photo by Carey Rose

So while the 1DX II's autofocus system works appreciably better than any other Canon camera in iTR mode, and indeed often works very well, it's still behind Nikon's 3D Tracking in terms of dependability - meaning you'll have to gauge whether or not it truly offers enough advantages over single or expanded point AF modes to merit using. iTR doesn't display the level of consistency we'd like to see from a subject tracking system. Even with the same subject or situation, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

Preferred setup

Despite the updated autofocus module and metering sensor, the actual focus modes and area options are identical to the original 1D X (or 7D Mark II for that matter). As such, if you have a preferred set of parameters that works well for you, dialing in the same settings in on the 1D X II should work just fine.

In our experience, we chose to use the built-in guide on the 1D X II to help us decide what case to use as a starting point for what we were photographing, and then some quick Googling to see what area mode Canon recommends.

For soccer, for example, we used Case 4, and AF Expansion with four additional points around the user-selected point (we also used iTR for testing purposes as well). For photographing a rodeo, we used Cases 1 and 4 at default settings, and experimented with Case 6 with 'Accel / Decel Tracking' boosted one notch (also with AF expansion). Without that 'Accel / Decel Tracking' adjustment, we noticed that the AF system seemed to lag slightly behind very fast moving - particularly erratic - subjects. Once we made that adjustment though, the system had no trouble keeping up.

There's a tradeoff to this though - once you've biased the system for fast and erratic moving subjects, the camera becomes a little 'jumpy'. This can be particularly problematic with static subjects, occasionally resulting in slightly out-of-focus images, but even with moving subjects, where focus can momentarily wander well off your subject. For static subjects, at least, you can assign a custom button to switch from AI Servo to One Shot AF, which reliably locks focus with a very high degree of accuracy, even if you haven't changed the case settings you're in. If you have time, it's also best to switch to single-point AF, as using the expansion settings (particularly 61-point iTR) on static subjects can also result in very slight mis-focus, due to the unreliability of the subject tracking system we alluded to above.

AF in Live View

Live view autofocus on the 1D X Mark II functions very much the same as it does on the older 7D Mark II, which is to say it's very, very good thanks to Dual Pixel AF. The 1D-X II adds touch functionality similar to the 80D. You can tap to move the area of focus, as well as pick a subject for the camera to track. Unfortunately, focus locks as soon as you hit the shutter, so you cannot track a moving subject, or get continuous AF during bursts. A shame, given how good Dual Pixel is at subject tracking.

It's worth noting that Dual Pixel AF in Live View is incredibly accurate, thanks to focusing using the very image sensor taking the image, and the fact that on-sensor PDAF tends to generally be insensitive to residual spherical aberration. If you're having difficulty achieving accurate focus at a wide aperture due to focus accuracy issues (lens/body miscalibration), you can quickly switch to Live View. Helpfully, face detection is very accurate in this mode.

And with that, let's take a look at how the 1D X II performed in the real world.