Canon EOS 1D MKII User Review (2004)

8.5 Frames Per Second, 8 Megapixels, ISO 50, CF and SD Card Compatibility...

Canon EOS 1D Mark II User Review

Before I begin, I want to explain that this Canon EOS 1D MKII user review is purely from an average user’s point of view. I won’t go into finer details about all that this camera has to offer (there are only so many hours in a day!).

However, I will review it as though I was telling a friend about it if they were thinking of buying one. It comes from my personal use in a professional and sometimes stressful capacity.

I realise that this camera has been out for a while now and the purpose of this review is fairly simple. With the impact digital is having on many people and the constant introduction of new cameras, DSLR’s like this one are coming down in price already and therefore becoming more accessible. Especially within the second hand market.

Canon EOS 1D MKII User Review: Introduction

If you are considering this camera to add to your kit, I assume you have either used a pro film SLR or made your way through the ranks of various Semi professional DSLR's? Without wanting to sound patronising, if you are new to photography or SLR's in general, this camera may be too much for you at this time, consider maybe one of the semi pro SLR’s such as the Nikon D70 or Canon EOS 20D to start with.

If you have owned a DSLR such as the Canon EOS 40D, 30D, 20D, 10D, D60 etc, or even looking to jump ship from the Nikon D70 or D100 you are in for a big surprise!

Look and Feel

WOW! That was my first thought when I took this camera from its nice shiny black box. I have owned professional film SLR's in the past including the large Nikon F5 back in the 90's, but this is something else. This camera is big and heavy and you can immediately tell it is sheer quality! The solid, titanium, rubber sealed body gives you an instant feeling of "money well spent".

I am 6 foot tall, with a large frame and relatively large hands and after a full days use with "L" glass on the front, this camera had my arms aching but I didn't care! It is approximately twice the weight (1220gms) of the 20D (685gms) without battery grip so be warned.

The Canon EOS 1D MKII also looks the part. I don't mean just from the "pose" factor but ergonomically, aesthetically and the layout of functions is great once you get used to it.

I have read user reviews that complain of having to access the menu to get to certain features, why? If the camera was designed to meet the needs and requirements of each individual photographer, it would be a black case smothered in buttons. Once you learn where everything is, it takes seconds to make any alterations needed for everyday use.

The camera fits nicely in the hands as long as you have "reasonably" bigger than average hands. The bottom grip and placement of duplicate buttons makes portrait shooting as easy as you like. I find myself almost speedily throwing the camera from horizontal to vertical in a flash and knowing instantly where the required buttons are without looking.

Ease of Use

Canon EOS 1D Mark II User Review

I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I felt at home with the EOS 1D MKII. After using the EOS 20D for so long I was expecting a steep learning curve but the transition was easy. Personally for me, the lack of a function “dial” on the top left of the camera was a bonus.  I never used "sports" or "close up" modes anyhow, just Av or Manual for me.

The clever integration of the 3 buttons (Fig.1) that replace this dial put a smile on my face. By pressing just one of each, or a combination of each, got me into most of the functions I needed quickly and easily. For example these 3 buttons are used to alter the following;

  • Mode - Av, Tv, P, Manual, Bulb
  • Auto focus settings - One Shot, AI servo
  • FEC
  • Metering Modes - Evaluative, Spot etc.
  • Exposure Bracketing
  • ISO - Settings/Bracketing
  • Drive Speeds - One Shot, Continuous Low (3.5 FPS approx), Continuous High (8.5 FPS)

Personally, this suits me down to the ground, and during a recent wedding, not once did I find myself scrambling around with these, and neither did I get lost in the menu screen.

Canon EOS 1D Mark II User Review

Having a second LCD screen at the back is fantastic (Fig.2). The more information you have "at a glance" the better, and being able to see the ISO setting (after a quick custom function change) without entering the menu or pressing any buttons is very important to me. 

Speed (and knowledge of your settings) is sometimes of the essence.  I have on a couple of occasions while using the 20D, forgotten to change back the ISO during a shoot.  Luckily the low noise and use of Neat Image got me out of that one fairly easily.

At the end of the day, it is like anything, familiarise yourself with the camera and before long you know where you are.

Functions and Features

Again, I won't go into too much detail here, I will leave that to the experts at other sites. What I will do is explain the more noticeable differences when upgrading from a semi professional DSLR.

  • Speed! - Admittedly, the first thing I tried once the battery had charged was the awesome speed. Start up was fast, maybe a "little" slower than the 20D but not enough to notice. I thought that the burst rate of 5 FPS was quick on the 20D until I tried the 8.5 FPS 1D MKII! Just a touch of the shutter button and the camera was reeling off shots like an Uzi! This is great for me as I enjoy sports and nature photography as more of an unpaid hobby and the extra speed will ensure that I don’t miss a thing. I can also get a bit "arty" with my slideshows, but that is for another day.
  • AF - The auto focus is also noticeably faster with more accurate tracking, meaning I take fewer shots knowing I have more "keepers". I wasn’t that fussed about the 45 points with AF as I tend to mostly use just the centre point for much of my work. Although I can see it being of paramount use in certain situations such as tracking moving subjects for the afore mentioned sports and nature photography.
  • ISO 50 - I was pleased to have this expansion for a couple of reasons. Where it doesn't (in my opinion) match the quality of Fujichrome Velvia, it is less noisy and more colour rich than other settings. I haven’t had time to test this extensively but anything that requires less Photoshopping to enhance colours is a plus in my book. Another good reason to have this is when you specifically require slow shutter speeds in "brighter-than-you-would-like" situations. For example, you just have to get that milky water effect at your favourite waterfall but it is too bright to get the required shutter speed of a second or 5! Set the camera to ISO 50, aperture at its smallest and add a polarising filter and you should be there. This doesn’t justify the cost of this camera alone, but all these features add up.
  • 1.3x Crop Factor - Admittedly, you could buy the latest "super wide" DSLR-ready lenses such as the EF10-22mm, but it is nice to get some of that focal length back from my growing arsenal of lenses without having to buy more. When I first tried the 16-35mm L on the EOS 1D MKII, I couldn’t believe the difference that .3x could make. What a set up for my interior work! Now saving for the full frame 1Ds MKII and then I am set for life, or until they upgrade it.
  • Battery Life - Impressive! After shooting and reviewing all day at a recent wedding, from 1.30pm right up until around 11pm, the battery was still showing full charge and no signs of depletion. Obviously it had used power but the bar wasn’t showing half full at this point. Even my Speedlight, which had been used quite a bit for fill in flash and evening shots showed no signs of depletion. However, this is still no reason to skimp on the cost of a backup for important work.
  • Noise Levels - To be honest here, I was a little disappointed with the noise levels when I first used the camera. I think that coming from the exceptional lack of noise in the 20D, it would be hard to beat, as the 20D is more recent and has the benefit of a few extra months R and D (research and development). Again, once you get used to it, any noise is quickly and easily removed via Neat Image, although most well-exposed shots are spot on and noise free.
  • Quality - If I were to take identical shots from the EOS 20D and the EOS 1D MKII, using the same everything (lenses, exposure, CF card, lighting, post-processing), I can almost guarantee that you would be hard pushed to notice any difference between the two. Maybe under ultra scrutiny, you would see a slight gain with the 1D MKII, but for the A3 prints I have done from each, there is very little in it. The 20D still blows me away with its quality of images.

Canon EOS 1D MKII User Review - Special Features

The Canon EOS 1D MKII not only has the above, but also a few extra "neat" features that I find incredible. They are the sort of thing that I wouldn't miss if I didn't have them, but as I do, they are most useful!


I come from the historical world of manual focussing; my first SLR had nothing else so I had to learn fast. For other die-hards that like that extra bit of control, the Canon EOS 1D MKII has a nifty little feature. You can disable the "shutter button auto focussing" by using Custom Function 4 on a setting of 1 or 3, which will allow focussing to be made by just using the cameras back button with your thumb just behind the shutter release on the back of the camera.

One instance springs immediately to mind where this would be useful for me is that I like to move the camera slightly to focus the central point on the eye of my subject and then re-frame to shoot to ensure the eyes are pin sharp. Often the camera will re focus slightly off the subject as I do this so I need to fire a few off at any one time.

By using this feature, I know the focus will not be affected by the shutter as I re-frame, and fire away as the focus is locked in meaning I can confidently take fewer shots.

I tend to use just the central focus point anyhow, but this feature will really help out to get crystal clear, sharp images as the focus point is not affected by the shutter button at all. It also keeps the meter reading (using the shutter button) and the focussing (using the back button) separate for more control.

You can also fine tune your focussing using the manual ring on the lens at the same time when using this feature.

Another focussing feature is that the central "sweet spot" in the auto focus mode is expandable to 7 points, meaning you are more likely to hit those beautiful, sharp images every time, especially when shooting fast moving objects.

Raw plus JPEG

Like many new DSLR's, the Canon EOS 1D MKII is able to shoot RAW and JPEG simultaneously. This is great if you need to do detailed work on your large RAW files but need to email some JPEGS immediately. It means you don’t have to waste time processing the RAW images and then resizing for email.

CF and SD cards

The Canon EOS 1D MKII has the ability to hold and use 2 data storage medias cards at the same time. You can either record the image to both cards at once for back up, or know that when one card is full, you can just make a quick change in the menu to start using the empty card.

Fine tune your colour "in camera"

Quite often with Digital SLR's, the cameras metering can be fooled by heavily weighted and saturated colour scenes like a field full of green grass. The colour ends up being slightly out and a correction (magenta in this case) is needed in Photoshop to correct it. With film this was always done at the labs so you would never have known.

The Canon EOS 1D MKII has a white balance compensation feature which is like having colour correction filters built in to the camera itself. Filters like the amber 81a or 81b are mimicked by upping the levels by one or two points up to a total of nine.

Any feature that saves work later on in Photoshop is always a bonus for me.

You can also use the white balance bracketing feature which will record 3 separate images for each photo you take using 3 different white balance settings. You can alter the amount of bracketing before shooting which is useful when shooting in an environment where the light is constantly changing. Be warned that this burns a lot of storage space if you are not careful.

Gripes and Remedies

After shooting over 1200 images last weekend, I returned to find that 50 or so images had become corrupt. Even worse, they were the group shots. A message reading "corrupt or damaged data" appeared when opening (or not) in Photoshop, and when opened in ACDSee I just got a black screen. I could, however, see a thumbnail image so I assumed the data was there somewhere. By right clicking on the thumbnail and "open with" Microsoft Image Editor, the image appeared (thank you Bill) and I simply saved and overwrote the original…Phew!

A simple remedy would be to use the backup function on the 1D MKII and write to both cards simultaneously, a great and obviously useful feature. I since discovered that it was a firmware issue with the Lexar 2GB 80x card and not the camera. Nice.

When shooting at night during an outside reception, I want the camera and speedlight to work quickly and in unison so I set the camera to Program (P) and the flash to ETT-L, (auto is not my cup of tea but useful in these situations). The autofocus worked well in all but pitch-darkness but the shutter and aperture combo is a constant 60th/sec at F4.

I like more depth of field, so a quick way around this is to underexpose by 2 stops to get around F6.3, and "up" the Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC) by a couple of stops to counterbalance this. The shutter speed is almost irrelevant as the flash at night takes care of speeds.

My Conclusion

In a word - "Magic". The Canon EOS 1D MKII is "almost" everything I could want from a camera. If Canon could somehow, sometime combine this speed with the image quality of the 1Ds MKII, and the noise free 20D, I would have my photographic utopia. However, for Images up to A3 and even up to A1, the quality is superb. The speed is phenomenal and I can't imagine needing anything faster than 8.5FPS that I couldn’t get with a quality DV recorder (famous last words).

The benchmark was for me, as you may have guessed, at the last wedding I shot just over a week ago. I had both the 1D MKII and the 20D around my neck with different lenses on each, although I found myself using the 1D MKII a lot more. I feel almost sorry for my beloved 20D, it has served me very well and is still an exceptional camera, but after holding and using the 1D MKII, I can’t help but feel it is second best and with good reason.

Out of the 1,250 images shot, I would say 80% were with the Canon 1D MKII and of those images there were very few that were not exposed correctly or out of focus. The camera is a trooper and rarely fails in its tasks. The metering and focussing are totally reliable, it is simply down to the user to use the camera correctly.

If you are looking at making the move up to a professional digital SLR and have the resources, you will not be disappointed. Try not to read too many of the photography forums when deciding, there are many different people out there with differing ideas, needs and wants from a camera. The only way to test it is to use it for yourself and my final piece of advice if you go ahead? Start pumping iron! ; )

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