Shooting Experience (continued)

Autofocus System:

In day-to-day shooting I found the AF system to be extremely responsive, with focus being almost instant on faster lenses. AF speed was impressive – as it should be for a camera that shoots 10 frames per second. Unfortunately, I didn't have an opportunity to shoot anything too exotic like running cheetahs or Olympic bobsledders [Note to DPReview management: please consider budgeting for this in the future.], however, I did find myself near a busy bike trail frequented by hard-core cyclists that tend to zip along fairly quickly.

I had a Canon 70-200mm F4 L lens in my bag so I found a nice position along the path and started shooting away. Admittedly, the 70-200 F4 isn't one of the fastest lenses out there, but even so I had no problem shooting quickly approaching cyclists while maintaining focus on almost every shot. If I can eventually get DPReview to send me off to shoot those cheetahs and bobsledders, I'm pretty confident that the 7D II will be up for the job.

The 7D II quickly achieves focus on fast moving subjects, such as this bicycle rider approaching and crossing the frame. (Shot with Canon 7D II and 70-200mm F4 L lens.)

One thing I was excited to try was the Mark II's iTR capability (Intelligent Tracking and Recognition), which promises to identify and track faces and other objects around the frame. In practice I found iTR to work well, though not perfectly. While walking around Seattle's famous Pike Place Market I discovered that it did a great job at detecting faces (as long as they weren't too small) even amongst the busy scenes and distracting backgrounds at the market. I've shot with many cameras using EVFs that feature face detection, but it's not quite the same experience as using a real optical viewfinder. While the 7D II didn't always get face detection right with iTR, it got it right often enough that I didn't hesitate to rely on it most of the time.

With iTR enabled the 7D II fairly consistently identified faces, even against busy and distracting backgrounds.

iTR does have its foibles, however. While I found it to be very effective at finding faces, it often struggled to track faces and other subjects after focus was acquired. Once a subject started moving around the viewfinder, either on its own or because I was shooting in 'focus-and-recompose' mode, the AF system often struggled to track it. This was particularly frustrating because I got the sense that the AF was really trying to follow the subject. I could see the AF points diligently following the subject around the frame but often lagging just behind it. As a result, I ended up with quite a few shots where the focus point was right next to the subject instead of on top of it. Had I given the AF system just another half second before pressing the shutter it's likely that the focus points would have caught up, but that's not always an option when things move quickly.

Image 1 Image 2
In the above pair of images I initially focused on the fruit vendor's face, then moved the frame around as if recomposing before finally taking the shot. In Image 1 the focus points lagged behind a bit and didn't quite catch up with his face before I pressed the shutter. In Image 2 I moved the frame around a bit more slowly and the focus points were able to maintain their position over his face.

One thing that was a bit disconcerting was the tendency for the AF system to display a flickering cloud of five or more AF points over a subject. Even when a subject remained completely still, the AF points would constantly flicker and move around. This cloud of AF points was pretty good at staying on top of the subject, but I could never be quite sure what part of the subject was actually being focused on. I kept wishing the system would pick one or two AF points and just commit to them, but it never quite did that. This isn't a big deal when shooting at smaller apertures, but if you're shooting wide open at F1.4 the difference between focusing on a subject's eye or nose can make a big difference.

Shooting in live view using the built-in screen is a great experience thanks to Canon's Dual-Pixel autofocus system, which uses two photodiodes for each pixel on the sensor to make on-chip phase detect autofocus possible. I'll discuss Dual-Pixel AF in detail in a later section, however I'm comfortable saying that it mostly lives up to Canon's marketing hype, and can be especially useful when shooting video. (We're currently working on a detailed write-up of the camera's video capabilities as well, so stay tuned.)

Shooting in live view using "Face + Tracking" focus mode, the Dual-Pixel autofocus immediately locked on to the fishmonger's face and tracked him with a high degree of precision. Despite him moving around the frame, turning his head to the side, and even a person who ducked in front of me briefly covering the lower half of the frame, the camera never let go of its focus point.

I was disappointed, however, that Canon hasn't addressed a couple of issues we highlighted in our review of the EOS 70D, Canon's first DSLR to feature Dual-Pixel autofocus. Most notably, as good as the Dual-Pixel AF system is at identifying and tracking subjects, it's not available during continuous shooting. Once you press the shutter focus is locked immediately, and during shooting the screen remains blacked out just as it did on the 70D. This is a real shame, because the system is so darned good at tracking subjects.

Working with Raw Files:

Working with the 7D Mark II's Raw images is a definite improvement when compared to the 7D, particularly with regards to dynamic range. Like many photographers, I was frustrated by the visible banding that occurred when pulling up detail in shadow areas of the 7D's Raw files (and those of most other EOS models as well). Banding doesn't appear to be a problem in Raw files from the 7D II, which gave me a lot more confidence that I could recover usable information in shadow regions.

Unedited raw file

Adobe Camera Raw conversion. Exposure +1.50, Shadows +100, Highlights -33.

This is a fairly extreme example, but using ACR I was able to pull quite a bit of detail out of the shadows in this image.

*Shot with a pre-production 7D Mark II body, but with final image quality.

While the noise profile of the Mark II isn't the cleanest in the DSLR universe, its files are definitely more malleable than those of its predecessor. There's still some chroma noise if you start looking closely, but those dark areas are much more manageable than in the past. The 7D II still isn't capturing as much dynamic range as recent Nikon models, but Canon has made noticeable improvements nonetheless.

What's Missing:

The 7D II doesn't include a touchscreen. At first glance it's easy to look at the camera and think that it really doesn't need one, and depending on how you use it that could very well be true. In fact, it wasn't something I ever noticed while using the Mark II in traditional SLR mode. As a pure SLR it's really outstanding to use, touch screen or not.

However, once I started using live view for anything (and particularly for video) I immediately found myself reaching for, and not finding, the touch screen that wasn't there. To Canon's credit, this stems from the fact that the Dual-Pixel AF system is very, very good. I would have loved to have been able to tap to focus on a subject rather than fumbling around with the joystick to move the AF point around. Other cameras, such as the Panasonic GH4, and even Canon's own EOS 70D, have this type of touch screen implementation. Tap. Focus. Done.

What a camera like the GH4 lacks however, is Dual-Pixel autofocus. Tap on your subject to focus and, sure enough, the camera will focus, but usually not without that little back-and-forth focus hunting flutter that's typical of contrast detect autofocus systems. That little flutter is what can visually set apart a professional focus puller from the amateur look of home video. With Dual-Pixel AF focus is very smooth, especially with Canon's STM lenses such as the EF-S 18-135mm STM, and it usually nails focus right away without hunting back and forth. This may be the first video AF system I've used in an DSLR that I might legitimately trust to perform focus pulls between subjects. Except that there's no reasonable way to do it. Needs. Touch. Screen