First outing with the Canon 7D Mark II

On Sunday I wanted to take the new Canon 7D Mark II out and see how well it worked in field conditions, so Laurie and I headed out to Radio Road in Redwood Shores for a while.

Radio Road are settling ponds of a sewage treatment plant and it’s the first time I’ve had time since they re-opened the ponds; they were closed for about 18 months after an outbreak of avian botulism started decimating the birds and the area was fenced off and drained so the soils could be solarized to clear out the infection. Prior to that it was one of the standard go-to bird photography spots for ducks, shorebirds and water birds and so I’m really happy it’s back and function again (and not killing its residents in large numbers).

It is an easy place to find egrets, terns, ducks and shorebirds and other waders, so it’s a reliable place and a great place for testing and experimentation because you can reliably find subjects to shoot. The Forster’s Terns are nesting there so it was bustling (and noisy), although this is a location that really comes into its own during winter migration.

I mean, honestly, how better to test a new camera body under ideal field conditions than head out into the mid-day (11AM) clear sky high glare sunny conditions and try to take pictures of black and white birds? Hey, if a camera can produce usable work in these conditions, the rest of bird photography is a picnic, right? RIGHT?

For the purposes of this test, I took the Canon 7D Mark II and attached my bird lens to it — the Canon 70-200 F2.8L IS II with a 2.0X II teleconverter, which gives me the equivalent of a 150-400 F5.6. This lens combo is unbelievable sharp and fast focussing and very flexible and I love it, and given how much I’ve used it on the original 7D, it’s a good lens to use to compare with the new body.

The camera was set basically to factory settings with a few changes — I enabled raw mode, back button focus, AI Servo AF mode, set to ISO 400 and Aperture priority at F5.6. I didn’t tweak anything else other than playing with different focus points and focus region settings. the camera was set for Evaluative metering with exposure compensation set to zero. In other words, what you’re seeing is an unbiased and untweaked view of how the camera decided to focus and expose these shots to the best capability I could create.

In my Lightroom processing I kept it basic: some basic sharpening, white balance set to daylight, vibrance and clarity set to 25, and then I hit the “basic” button in the processing pane and then tweaked the white/black/highlights/shadows. In a couple of cases I did some minor vignetting and in one or two I tweaked HSL to see if I got blotching when darkening a sky (answer: not today. yay).

It took me about ten minutes to figure out how to set the AF the way I wanted (regional point selection rather than spot focus) because that’s attached to a button and not in the quick menu or menu, time that I stick in the “here’s why you should really read the stupid manual before going into the field and looking stupid” bucket. Once I caught on to that, the button placement and usage was quite logical, and frankly, I really like how they set it up — it’s just different than the 7D, but in a good way. Once you figure it out.

The Canon 7DmkII is a ten FPS burst shooter when shooting in RAW mode. That’s a lot faster than the 7D and the first time you mash the shutter you want to twitch at the camera’s reaction. It’s like changing from a Kia to a Porsche. this tells me I’m going to eat more memory cards out in the field — and have to throw even more images out during editing. As a bird and action wildlife shooter, this is not a bad thing, as long as I continue to make sure I stay committed to only keeping the best and not bloating my keepers with duplicate or me-too shots. The slow burst is a good option and one I’ll need to remember to use more.

My basic test goal was to see how the AF worked in field conditions. To do this, I basically pointed the camera at things flying around, triggered the AF and then fired off bursts of shots. I had (especially compared to the Canon 7D AF system) wonderfully few AF mistakes, and even when a burst started out with poor focus, the system seemed to pick up on what was moving quickly and mid-burst it would correct itself and lock on to the right objects, even with high clutter such as brush and trees behind the subject. That I’m really, really going to like.

My second test goal was to see how well the camera handled exposure in some of these challenging conditions (what, you think pure white birds in noontime glare sun against a blue sky isn’t challenging?) — how well was it going to figure out the exposure and was it going to blow out the bird? or the sky? How about the shadows in the under wings? Will it be sharp? Are the images going to be capable of being processed into something usable?

Short answer: oh, yes. Very happy with the results. Look at the egret below and realize that was shot in bright noon sun. I’ve darkened the sky a little in that shot, but the processing to get to that image is quite mild. With the marbled godwits, the shadows opened up quite nicely in the underwings and the focus locked on amazingly well. In the third shot, you can see how the AF locked onto the terns in front of the trees and I got nice, sharp wing feathers instead of branches. That’s a huge change from the 7D AF.

Overall, the exposure system in the 7D mark II was able to get the exposure to a place where I could keep the shadows open (and basically noise free) while not blowing out the whites in the bird. About the only thing I couldn’t easily do was pull detail out of the absolute blacks of the tern heads while keeping the bodies white with good detail — and I think with some brushwork and custom tweaking in Lightroom I can probably fix that.

So, my first reaction to this body is — wow. The AF locked on quickly and reliably, allowing me to focus on the subject, not trying to get the camera to cooperate, and I found the exposure system amazingly accurate given the major contrast issues of the subjects and light. My next test will be in late and dim light to see how things react, but this kind of harsh light is a good way to get a sense of how the camera will handle ugly conditions, and IMHO, it passed with flying (ahem) colors.

Looking forward to the next few thousand images to come out of this new body. I’m keeping it.