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There’s been a lot of commotion about the new Canon 7D Mark II, and how it is the best action sports camera that the market has ever seen below $5,000. After reading the reviews, I’m inclined to agree!  Flagship sports camera performance for $1800?  Yes, please!

(Click here for PT1 of Anthony Thurston’s 7D mk2 review from a sports and wildlife perspective!)

Is the 7D mk2 useful for anything other than action sports and flying birds?

When one of these puppies arrived on my own doorstep though, I went in a different direction.  If you tell me that a camera is good at high ISO, the first thing I think about isn’t a dark sports stadium, or wildlife at dusk.  I think of wedding ceremonies in dimly lit churches, and I think of landscape astrophotography in the wilderness.

So, why would I buy a 10 FPS, semi-pro action camera to use for slow-paced, un-demanding landscapes and general portraiture?

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Mainly because the landscape photography conditions I find myself in aren’t as traditional and boring as you’d think.  (And to some extent, the same goes for my wedding photo style too). I like to shoot my landscapes in extreme weather conditions, so weather sealed cameras and robust construction are a good thing.  Then again, I like to backpack many miles to get to where I’m going to shoot, so a full-sized flagship isn’t really a good option either. I also like to shoot astro-landscapes, or landscape astrophotography, which involve shooting landscapes in basically the worst possible conditions: at wide-open apertures and very high ISOs. So it’s no longer just about setting any ol’ camera on a tripod, hitting a sharp aperture at a low ISO, and going for it.  It’s a relatively demanding environment for any camera to be in, and many of the cameras in the 7D mk2’s price range are lacking some of the features it offers.

There’s also one more thing that makes a huge difference to me: professional controls and customizations.  I’ve been a little spoiled over the years by having access to pretty much every pro and flagship camera on the market, and for those of you who have yet to graduate from your 70D or D7000, let me tell you that even though the image quality and overall build quality is indeed awesome on beginner cameras today, there is a huge difference in the functionality and customizability of a pro-oriented camera.  Simply put, it’s a huge collection of small details about a camera that individually don’t amount to a deal-breaker, but collectively they really start to matter.

18canon-7d-mk2-reviewSwitches and dials (and customizable buttons!) are a serious photographer’s best friend!

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7D mk2 for NightScapes and Timelapse Photography

With that in mind, I’m very excited to report on the 7D Mark II‘s fantastic performance, and exciting new features, for those of you outdoorsy, adventurous folks who are looking for an innovative camera that lets them push the envelope as far as they want. (Despite it being grey and star-less here in my hometown for almost the entire time I had the 7D Mark II. Go figure!)

03canon-7d-mk2-review-astro-landscapes7D Mark II, Canon 18-55 EF-S STM, FotoPro C5C tripod
240 sec. @ f/5.6 & ISO 100

Pros / Highlights

Built-in Intervalometer
This is probably the most mainstream of the new features that I’m excited about on the 7D Mark II; a lot of people are getting into timelapse photography these days. It’s a feature that Nikon DSLRs have had for many years now, but it’s highly welcome either way.  In fact, Canon’s implementation of this feature is kinda cool, compared to other cameras, because it offers an “infinity” setting so it will just keep clicking pictures until the camera dies or the memory card fills up. Bravo, Canon!

Programmable Bulb Exposure
This is huge for any landscape photographer who has ever stuck around after sunset very long.  Most cameras’ slowest shutter speed is 30 seconds, and if you’re shooting after sunset at ISO 100 and f/11 or so, you can bump up against this limit in just a few minutes.  Before, you’d have to use an external trigger and time your exposure using a stopwatch if you wanted to create a 1-minute or 2-minute exposure.  (Or, hold your finger on your shutter for that long, if you like blurry images…) Now, you can program your bulb exposures to be precise and automated.

(Unfortunately, these two features are mutually exclusive, so you won’t be able to create timelapses consisting of >30 sec. exposures.)

Zero long exposure noise to at least 30 minutes
This isn’t as exciting since many cameras these days have great long-exposure noise reduction, but I thought I’d mention it nonetheless.  I tested the 7D Mark II‘s long exposure capabilities all the way up to 30 mins, with no discernible noise.  This simply wasn’t possible just a few camera generations ago, even though long exposure noise reduction has been around for a long time.

Another thing to note is that even in warmer conditions, there is no long-exposure noise in the range of 30-60 sec either.  This is another annoyance that an astro-landscape photographer faces – it becomes almost impossible to shoot long exposures on a warm summer night, due to the fact that a warm sensor is a noisy sensor.  Well, I am happy to report that even at around 60-70 degrees, the 7D Mark II‘s long exposures are quite noise-free.

For you camera geeks out there, reports confirm that the 7D Mark II‘s “thermal dark current” is 10X lower than any other Canon DSLR, including recent full-frame cameras. (Click here to check out clarkvision.com’s awesome 7D mk2 test page!)

General superb performance and feature set
I’ll just clump everything else into this last category, as it pertains to adventure photography, astro-landscape photography, etc.  Here goes! The high ISO performance is superb, even better than older full-frame cameras!  The AF and shooting speed are world-class, in fact, they’re the epitome of why DSLRs are still relevant in this age where many casual and serious photographers are jumping to mirrorless.

Also, speaking of reasons to prefer DSLRs, the battery life of the 7D Mark II is amazing, too. From an astro-landscape perspective, I’ll put it this way: The 7D Mark II can shoot just over 3 hours of continuous timelapse exposure on a single battery charge. This is quite a feat for a digital camera.

Lastly, as I hinted at earlier, the overall control layout is “flagship style,” which makes a huge difference for experienced shooters. I can adjust my ISO with my right hand, without taking my eye from the viewfinder.  I can instantly zoom to 100% during image playback using the SET button, instead of the silly “zoom, zoom, zoom, scroll, scroll, scroll” situation. The dual command dials are nice, even though I prefer Nikon’s arrangement of command dials.  The dedicated joy-button for Af point control is awesome. And of course, the body is magnesium-alloy and weather-sealed, yet lighter than say, a Canon 5D Mark III.

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Cons

Dynamic range is still Canon’s status quo
DXOmark clocks the 7D MarkII’s dynamic range at the “usual” 11.8 EVs, a number that hasn’t fluctuated very much in about 10 years. (The 1D mk2 from 2004 clocks in at 11.1 EVs)  But that’s on paper.  In the real world, I’m happy to report that the 7D Mark II‘s dynamic range will leave nothing to be desired for most photographers. Only the most high-contrast scenes will force you to start bracketing, situations in which any normal person would be inclined to bracket anyways. Oh, and as usual, highlight recovery is incredible, much more impressive than any other brand of sensor that I’ve seen.

No articulated LCD screen
I know some elitist folks will shake their head in disgust at me, but in my experience, “pushing the envelope” with my landscape photography has absolutely inclined me to appreciate the ease with which I can now create extreme angle shots. Sometimes when I am creating an astro-landscape or astro-timelapse sequence, I want to use my “monster” tripod, the one that goes so high I’d need a step-ladder to see through the viewfinder.  Other times (more often), I find myself shooting at extreme low angles where the back of my camera is right up against a rock, a branch, etc. Simply put, it may not be a feature that a traditional action sports or portrait / wedding photographer might deem necessary, but those who do unusual or extreme things would have appreciated it.

05canon-7d-mk2-review-astro-landscapes7D Mark II, Canon 18-55mm EF-S STM, FotoPro C5i Tripod, 3-stop ND filter
1.3 sec @ f/10 & ISO 100

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Despite conditions being seriously overcast every single time I took the 7D Mark II out for a spin, I was able to sufficiently test the long exposure and timelapse capabilities of the camera, and I’m really excited to see what people can do with this camera in the coming years.  I hope it finds its way into many adventure photographers’ bags, whether it’s for the frame rate to photograph downhill mountain bikers in the mud, skiers in the snow, or the Milky Way in the middle of the desert.  If you’re into anything extreme or adventurous, the Canon 7D Mark II is one of the best options available!

Canon Sensor Dynamic Range – Blown Out Of Proportion?

06canon-7d-mk2-review-astro-landscapes7D Mark II, Canon 18-55 EF-S STM, FotoPro C5i Tripod
1/2 sec for highlights and 1 sec for shadows @ f/9 & ISO 100

I have been relentless in shaming Canon for being “so far” behind Nikon and other sensors when it comes to dynamic range.  Namely, shadow recovery just isn’t there when it comes to Canon’s in-home sensor designs.  The 7D Mark II is Canon status quo, and its dynamic range trails a full two stops behind even Nikon’s lowliest beginner DSLRs.

But how bad is it, really?  Not that bad, not for most photographers.  You have to be pretty crazy and envelope-pushing in order to see a real difference.  And even then, when you do bump up against the limits of what a Canon sensor can offer, the solution is usually just one extra click (of the camera, and then a handful more in PS) away.

Here’s a 100% crop of the above image, which is a combination of two different exposures.  As you can see, the difference in the shadows and highlights isn’t that bad, both images come pretty close to handling the entire dynamic range perfectly.

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True, these exposures are only one stop apart from each other, but the point is that neither of them are that bad or un-usable, and they can be blended together in Photoshop in literally under 60 seconds.

Then, there’s the fact that most people who do think they need all kinds of dynamic range are often over-doing it, digging into shadows that actually might look more artful if they were dark and moody in the first place.  Seriously, whatever happened to silhouettes, to faint detail in a shadow?

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Alternatives to the 7D mk2

What else is out there, that might compete with the Canon 7D Mark II? There really isn’t much, if you consider everything.

If you’re more focused on action sports, the Samsung NX1 has FPS and a lot of mirrorless bells & whistles going for it, but will be a letdown for anyone accustomed to Canon’s flagship AF.

If you’re more focused on travel and landscapes, the Sony A6000 is an awesome adventure / landscape camera that is extremely compact and lightweight, with better dynamic range than the 7D Mark II and a built-in intervalometer (if you buy the app), as well as allegedly the best AF of any mirrorless camera. However, it lacks weather sealing, lots of the flagship-style customizations that I prefer, and has a far smaller native lens lineup.

If you’re shopping Nikon, the D7100 competes decently with the 7D Mark II, except for the slower FPS and smaller buffer. Oh, and despite Nikon’s advantage in dynamic range at base ISOs, Canon’s dynamic range is superior at higher ISOs where lots of astro-landscape shooters find themselves much of the time.

All in all, there are a handful of alternatives out there.  However, as long as you consider them carefully, you won’t be disappointed if you decide to go with the 7D Mark II.

Verdict

All in all, I know I give Canon a hard time for certain things, but there is no denying that this is a formidable camera, and more of a jack-of-all-trades than other sites’ reviews are letting on.

In fact, the 7D Mark II‘s feature set, at its price of just $1800, have really crystallized a thought that has been in my head for a while: Most photographers just don’t need full-frame anymore.  There are plenty of APS-C lenses to cover all the focal lengths and shallow depths that you might desire.  There is practically no difference at all in image quality at most ISOs.  Lastly, for any landscape photographer who might find themselves doing a lot of hiking and lightweight traveling (or shopping on a budget), a Canon 7D Mark II is a far better choice than a Canon 5D Mark III or a Canon 6D. And finally, of course, if you’re into astro-landscapes or timelapse photography, the 7D Mark II‘s new features make it the ultimate tool.

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The New Ultimate Canon Kit

If I were a Canon landscape shooter who was into astrophotography and timelapse photography, there are a few different “ultimate kits” I might consider:

If you have the budget for both formats, a Canon 7D Mark II + Canon 6D would be a fantastic way to get the best of both worlds. Pair that up with a couple EF-S lenses (like the new Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM, review coming soon!) and a couple L or Rokinon full-frame lenses, and you’re set.

Or, if you only have the budget for a crop-sensor system, pair the 7D Mark II with a couple Canon EF-S STM lenses and a couple Rokinon astro-landscape lenses like the 16mm f/2.0, (review here!) and you’re golden!  Or, for telephoto sports photography, forget those $6,000 monster primes, just get a Canon 70-200 2.8 L IS mk2 with a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter, and you’re covered between ~110mm and 450mm or 600mm, at f/2.8 or f/4!

Stay tuned for our next Canon 7D Mark II review, which will cover its use in wedding and portrait photography!

Take care and happy clicking,
=Matt=