Canon 1D Mark II Review

January 13, 2009 ·

Michael Reichmann

Photo Courtesy Canon USA

If you’ve never held a Canon 1 Series camera, you likely won’t understand the almost visceral charge one gets from handling one of these cameras. They seem to be carved from a solid block of unobtainium. After a few days of use in the studio or on location almost any other camera starts to pale by comparison. These cameras are tough, beautifully made, and as feature-rich as one could want. They also traditionally produce excellent image quality.

The newest member of the Series I family is the 1D Mark II. Announced in early February 2004, this latest Canon DSLR is to start shipping to photographers in early April. In mid-March Canon sent me a full production camera for testing, just a few days before I was scheduled to do a wildlife shoot in Nebraska. What better venue than shooting birds in the wild to test out this new high-speed camera.


Since 1989 Canon’s flagship cameras have been part of the 1 Series. The latest (and likely last) film-based 1 Series camera is theEOS-1V, which appeared in April 2000. In late 2001 Canon released the first 1 Series digital SLR, theEOS-1D, and then in September, 2002 theEOS-1Ds.

The 1D used a 4 Megapixel CCD chip EOM’d from Matsushita (Panasonic). It could shoot at 8 frames / second. Because of its high frame rates, rugged build and excellent image quality it quickly became a favourite of wildlife photographers, photojournalists and sports photographers. Its only drawback was the relatively low-res sensor, which limited ultimate image size for some applications.

With an 11 Megapixel CMOS imaging chip the 1Ds was the first (and to some people’s minds still the only), digital SLR that could match, and in some cases even exceed medium format film in image quality. It has been a huge success for Canon, and even after a year and half is still usually in a back-order situation, and the price has hardly budged. Indeed the high price is one of the only impediments to acquiring a 1Ds for many photographers . The other is its slow frame rate — only 3 FPS to a maximum of 8 frames before the buffer is full. For many fashion, sports and wildlife photographers this simply isn’t fast enough.

I know of at least one famous fashion photographer who has two 1Ds bodies with matching lens sets. He shoots models until the buffer is full and then is handed a fresh camera by his assistant so he can continue shooting until that buffer too is full. By then the first camera has cleared and he’s handed that one to continue shooting with.

I felt the drawback of shooting with slow frame rates and a too small buffer on a recent wildlife shoot in Africa. 3 FPS for 8 frames simply isn’t enough when shooting animals in the wild. One of the photographers who was part of my workshop was shooting beside me one day with his new high-speed Nikon D2h and I had nothing but envy for his machine-gun like bursts when there was rapid action.

Now, with theEOS-1D Mark II(simply called theMark IIfrom now on), Canon users have what may be the best of both worlds — large file size, high image quality, and fast shooting ability.

Windmill. Nebraska — March, 2004

Canon 1D Mark II with 500mm f/4L IS lens at ISO 400

What Makes it Different?

There’s little point in me writing endless pages of specs, and listing all of the buttons and knobs. There are many sites available that do this much better than I can, and much of what the Mark II is about are features carried over from the 1D and 1Ds. If in addition toCanon’s USA web pageyou’d like more, have a look atDPReview’s detailed analysis.

The reason that you’re likely reading this review though is to find out what’s new and special about this camera, and in particular how it handles in the field. My previous reviews of theEOS-1V,EOS-1DandEOS-1Dsare available offering my analysis of this new camera’s predecessors, many of the features of which are very similar.

So what’s new and special about the Mark II?


The first thing to note about the Mark II is the high shooting speed coupled with the large image size. The camera is capable of 8.5 FPS for up to 40 frames in large / fine JPG mode, or 20 frames in RAW mode. This betters the Canon 1D, which was slightly slower and with a chip offering half the resolution of the new Mark II. Canon has also increased the speed at which data is transferred to the CF card, which is now 50% faster than it was on the 1D, with a speed of 5 MB / second. Speed of data handling is also increased through the use of a second generation proprietaryDigicchip which is able to move data from the chip through 8 simultaneous channels.

Not to make this in any way a competitive report, but Nikon’s D2h, which started shipping shortly before the Mark II, only has a 4MP chip, like the Mark II’s 1D predecessor. Canon’s accomplishment in producing a camera that can shoot such large files at such fast speeds is nothing short of remarkable.


The processor that performs autofocus on the Mark II is rated as being twice as fast as that on the original 1D. After shooting about a thousand frames on location I can only say that I never found it unable to track a bird in flight once it had locked on. What I did find was that it sometimes would focus on infinity rather than on the bird, but this usually can be helped by switching to a reduced number of autofocus points.


The chip in the Mark II is not full frame, like that in the 1Ds. Rather it has a 1.3X effective magnification factor, the same as that in the original (now discontinued) 1D. This means that there are still compromises to be made when it comes to very wide angle coverage, but not nearly as much as with the 1.5X and 1.6X consumer-level DSLRs.

As mentioned earlier, unlike the CCD chip in the ID, the Mark II features a Canon designed and manufactured 8 Megapixel CMOS chip of 28.7 X 19.1mm in size. Each pixel is 8.2 microns, and Canon is claiming even lower noise than seen on the already ultra-clean 1Ds. According to Canon’s technical literature, the Mark II’s chip uses larger microlenses on the chip itself, but which have gaps between them that are 1/3rd the size of those on the 1Ds. Apparently these narrower gaps increase the efficiency of light convergence onto the chip and also greatly reducingbirefringence— Canon’s moniker for "purple fringing".

Dual Cards

In addition to all forms of CompactFlash cards (including 2GB+ designs that use FAT 32), the Mark II also has an SD card slot. These cards can be used separately or in conjunction, if you wish creating an automatic backup of every file as you shoot. Files can also be copied between them in camera. If the cards are used separately the Mark II will not automatically switch cards when one is full. You need to do this manually.

Colour Histogram

Canon’s been listening to us. The Mark II is the first Canon camera to provide a 3 colour histogram, with each channel shown as its own separate histogram next to a thumbnail of the image. It’s now possible to determine after taking a shot which channel might be blown out, and to take preventive measures. Of course a standard luminance histogram is also still available along with a flashing blown highlight warning.

LCD and Review

The LCD is much better than the one on the 1D or 1Ds. It is sharper and brighter. There is also now the ability to magnify images while reviewing them without the silly Personal Function setting needed with the 1Ds. But, the LCD on the Canon Pro1 is actually brighter and sharper. Go figure!

During field testing what really floored me was how fast the Mark II was able to display a post-exposure review image. On the 1Ds it takes about 3+ seconds from when the shutter is released until the image appears. On the Mark II it is on the screen by the time you’ve moved your head away from the eyepiece enough so as to be able to view the LCD — less than a second. This makes exposure adjustment using the post-exposure review histogram that much more intuitive and responsive.

Variable File Sizes

While many photographers want to shoot as large and high-resolution files as possible, many pros, especially newspaper photographers and photojournalist, make do with much smaller files. This is the case when these are destined for newsprint use, or for satellite or rapid modem transfer.

The Mark II can shoot RAW, of course, and also JPGs in the following sizes…

  Image Size File Size RAW 8.2 8.3 Large 8.2 2.8 Medium 1 6.4 2 Medium 2 4.3 1.7 Small 2 1
Sizes in Megabytes

There is even a setting available to refine the JPG quality setting for each of the different sizes. It’s hard to imagine a photographer of any description who won’t be able to find a files size, quality setting and other parameters that won’t meet his or her needs.

Saving Custom Settings

While most digicams can save one or two, or more custom settings, few DSLRs have this ability. While adding the ability to save custom settings (virtually every mode and setting that the camera has, including all Custom and Personal Functions), the Mark II takes a different road by writing these to the memory card instead.

This is a great feature for photographers working at studios, newspapers and magazines where cameras are a shared resource. Simple saveyourcustom settings to a memory card and then the next time you pick upanycamera body of the same model just load them from the card. It just takes a couple of seconds. The camera is then right back to either the way you prefer to use it, or to a special configuration that you may have set.

My only complaint is that only one recording can be made to any one card. What a silly limitation. One way around this is to use low capacity and therefore inexpensive SD cards to store multiple custom setting profiles, and just load them in as needed. Of course the question needs to be asked, why Canon doesn’t also allow for saving one or more sets of profiles to non-volitile memory in the camera. This is an example of when a company places a great feature on its consumer models but forgets to provide it on the pro models.

New Shutter

Canon claims to have improved the already very high longevity of the shutter mechanism, from 150,000 frames found on the 1D and 1Ds to 200,000 cycles. That means you could shoot the equivalent of one roll of film a day for the next 17 years before the shutter is likely to give you trouble.

Farm Equipment Flyby. Nebraska. March, 2004

Canon 1D Mark II with 500mm f/4L IS lens at ISO 400

Video Out

The 1D and 1Ds didn’t have video out capability. The Mark II now does. This will be welcomed by photographers working in studio settings who want to be able to output to a TV monitor while reviewing shots taken.


The Firewire connection on the Mark II has been changed from 6 pin to the smaller 4 pin type style connector. This has made room for the connectors for both a USB 1.1 interface (for direct printing), and also for the new video-out connection.

The Firewire speed has also been increased, from 40 Mbps on the 1D, and 60 Mbps on the 1Ds, to 100Mbps on the Mark II.


Canon’s flash metering system has been enhanced on the Mark II with the availability of what Canon calls E-TTL II. This takes into account distance information from the lens in calculating mixed flash and ambient conditions. I did not have an opportunity to compare this to the previous generation system, but flash exposures seemed very well exposed.

No External WB Sensor

The Mark II no longer has an external White Balance sensor. All white balance readings are taken from the sensor data rather than being integrated with a sensor on the camera body that reads ambient light, as on the 1Ds. Frankly, I don’t know if this is a good thing or not. Shooting with the 1Ds and the Mark II side-by-side for several days it seemed to me when examining comparative frames that the 1Ds did a better job of getting the auto-white-balance correct. Since I shoot in RAW mode almost exclusively I’m not terribly concerned with colour balance, since I set this in post-processing. But a photographer shooting in-camera JPGs may find this issue to be worth exploring in greater detail.


Of interest to photojournalists, the Mark II now writes IPTC data to JPGs rather than RAW files. It also now supports the EXIF 2.21 version, which adds Adobe RGB to the colour space information. This means that Photoshop automatically sees that the file is in the Adobe RGB colour space during loading.

Body Texture

It’s a small thing, but the Mark II has a slightly different body finish material than does the 1Ds. It’s finer grained and a little more "rubbery" feeling. Overall I think that this will make for a slightly firmer grip when ones hands are perspiring.

Card Door Latch

I’ve recently been razzed by some folks online for commenting in my reviews about how well, or poorly, cameras handle with gloves on. People with little experience of shooting extensively outdoors in inclement conditions simply don’t understand the importance of this aspect of camera design.

Canon does though, and they have specifically redesigned the latch on the memory card door so that it’s easier to open with gloves on. The Mark II will also not damage or lose your data if you accidentally open the card door while its being written to. When you close the cover it will resume writing to the card.

Mule Deer Stag. Badlands National Park — South Dakota. March, 2004

Canon 1D Mark II with 500mm f/4L IS lens at ISO 200

Notes from the Field

Shooting a thousand frames with the Mark II alongside a 1Ds over the period of a few days was both fun and instructional. Here are some varied thoughts on operational issues as well as functional differences between these cameras.

The Viewfinder

Though the bodies are almost identical, the viewfinder on the Mark II is simply not as bright and large as the one of the 1Ds. This is due, of course, to the use of a 1.3X smaller than "full-frame" chip, and the fact that the viewfinder image is therefore smaller and thus less bright. If you’re used to a Canon 10D or other 6MP camera you’ll find the viewfinder of the Mark II to be bright and large, but it does suffer in this regard by comparison with its "big-sister", the 1Ds.

Frame Rates

When I did wildlife with my 1V film body it could do 8 FPS, but I’d be through a roll of film in 4 seconds. Because of the cost, I would rarely feel free to shoot like that, not to mention the fear of running low on film when working in remote locations.

With the Mark II and a 4GB Microdrive you can shoot the equivalent of 10 rolls of film (375 frames), but you do have to stop every 20 to 40 frames for a little while to allow the buffer to clear. And, there’s no cost associated with shooting like this, since when ones cards become full they can be copied to a notebook PCs hard drive in a few minutes and then reused.

No Palm Strap

There was no palm strap in the box. One should be standard issue with all Series 1 cameras because of the camera’s weight. It’s the first accessory that I would buy for this camera.

Changes I’d Like to See

There continue to be a few operationalgotchasthat I hope Canon will one day address. That it takes four button presses to turn mirror lock-up on and off is really unacceptable. There was a dramatic shot that I lost while photographing a sunrise inBadlands National Parkbecause I was shooting at 1/2 second with a 500mm lens. Even with a heavy tripod, gimbal mount and IS turned on, the resulting frame clearly shows a double image due to mirror vibration. I knew at the time that I should set mirror lock-up, but the light was changing too quickly and I didn’t want to miss the moment while fumbling through all the screens and button presses necessary to activate it.

100% detail
double image due to mirror bounce

It’s also about time that Canon recognized that changing the ISO on the fly is something that photographers often do with their eye to the viewfinder. Having to look at the top LCD panel is annoying when trying to follow a subject, or waiting for a precise moment. I’ve missed more than a few shots over the past 18 months with the 1D, 1Ds and now the Mark II because of this.

Colour Rendition

As always with viewing colour charts online, please go by what I say, not by what you see.
Even if you have a profiled and calibrated screen, because this file has been converted to sRGB
from Adobe RBG there will be differences between what I see on my Sony Artisan monitor and what you may see.

I was not that pleased with the Mark II’s colour rendition. Whereas the cooler end of the spectrum, blues and greens and pastels, were rendered very well, the warm end lacked accuracy. Red is weak and the oranges lack saturation. Yellow also is anemic looking. There’s nothing here that a custom profile can’t fix, but overall I wasn’t that impressed with the Mark II’s colour accuracy out of the box.

DxO Analysis

Naturally I was very curious to see how the Mark II would compare with the 1Ds in terms of noise characteristics. The 1Ds is known for producing clean images, even at high ISOs, and so before my field tests I put both cameras on the DxO test system, along with a Canon 10D for good measure.

Chart 1

Chart 1 tells the tale. It looks as if with every generation of chip and support electronics Canon improves the signal to noise ratio a little more. In their technical literature Canon claims that the Mark II has lower noise than the 1Ds, and here we see the proof. Needless to say I was also surprised to see how well the 10D did in this regard.

Test frames were all taken at the same time at f/5.6, with a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L at 70mm. Standard deviation on the measurements was between 1.9 and 3. Please note (as mentioned in this site’sDxO Tutorial), that — "DxO Analyzer is in pre-release, and S/N measurements are based on the average luminance level of the test image. This means that it is not possible to accurately compare cameras whose test shots were made at different luminance levels". For this reason, please do not compare these S/N numbers to any others on this site. The tests above though were all done at the same time at the same illumination level and therefore are self-consistant. I believe that they therefore reflect the actual S/N difference between these cameras, and certainly between the specific camera bodies that were tested.

What’s in a Name?

It struck me when I first heard it that1D Mark IIwas a bit of an awkward moniker. Why not1Df(ffor fast), or something like that )? Then I realized what the answer might be. There will be a1Ds Mark IIat some point. This allows Canon to keep two members of the family going with a consistent naming plan, while developing separate but related market positions and messages. The 1D is the PJ’s camera while the 1Ds is the studio, fashion, landscape etc. camera for those that don’t need especially high speed.

Given the faster image throughput that Canon is now able to do, a 11MP chip could likely handle 5-6 FPS vs. the current Mark II’s 8.5 FPS, and the larger buffer could hold probably a dozen frames vs. the 1Ds’ current eight. But then, who says that it’ll "only" be 11 Megapixels?

If I were a betting man (which I am), I’d guess that the 1Ds Mark II, whatever it may be, will be announced no later than Photokina in September, 2004 — right around the time that Nikon announces their full frame camera (assuming that they do). This is all conjecture of course, though it’s fun, but something tells me that this speculation makes some sense.

The Myth of The Tweaked Camera

Prior to the publication of this review of the Mark II I noticed a discussion on one of the Net’s photography forums to the effect that the cameras that reviewers get are "tweaked". That is, that they are hand-selected by the manufacturer to perform better than is typical. This urban myth has been seen before over the years.

This is simply wrong, and if I wasn’t such a polite guy I’d say —stupid and uninformed. The reality is that reviewers getearlyproduction cameras. They don’t come directly from the factory, they come though the national distributors. Each country just gets a handful, and these go to distributors, salesman, reviewers, advertising agencies and the like. The production of any complex assembly-line manufactured product usually improves over time. First samples are rarely as good as the ones produced weeks or months after production has commenced and any manufacturing kinks have been worked out. Chances are that the camera you buy a few months after first reviews appear is likely to be better than the one that a reviewer got to test. Many manufacturersslip-streamimprovements without announcing them as well.

Back to tweaking. That there is someone who sits and fine-tunes a review sample is laughable as well because of the number of times that I’ve received faulty and even DOA cameras for testing. If this is tweaking, god help the consumer.

No my friends, this is not the way the real world works. If anything, early production cameras are inferior to later ones. The national offices of the major companies around the world don’t have the time, the staff or the ability to tweak. Just another urban myth promulgated by the know-nothings that troll the Net discussion boards.

Western Bowling — Nebraska. March, 2004

Canon 1D Mark II with 24-70mm f/2.8L @ ISO 100

The Bottom Line

There isn’t much to add by way of summary. The Canon 1D Mark II offers the photojournalist, wildlife and sports photographer possibly the finest shooting tool yet seen. Image quality is excellent, shooting speed is as fast as we’ve ever had, and ruggedness of construction and quality of materials is a given.

Many well-heeled amateurs will buy one simply to have bragging rights to the latest and greatest, while thepixel-peeperswill continue to obsess over trivia and to speculate ad nauseum about what the next model will be like. In the meantime many pros will be placing their names on their dealer’s waiting list — which is bound to be a long one.

I’ve written before that "most cameras are better than most photographers". In the case of the Canon 1D Mark II, it will be the exceptional photographer indeed that is able to push this particular picture taking machine beyond its limits.

Nicely done Canon.


In the first few hours since when this review was first published several questions were asked on this site’s discussion forum and also in some private e-mails. Here are my replies in summary form…

Why no mention of sharpness?

I didn’t mention "sharpness" because there isn’t much to say. The camera is from the same image quality mold as the 10D and 1Ds, and Rebel for that matter. The imaging chip may have slightly different pixel pitch and size, but otherwise they are of the same design, though as I stated each generation gets a bit better.

People shouldn’t look for some dramatic change in this area. The real story with this camera is the shooting performance, not the image quality — which is terrific.

At 8MP it will produce bigger prints than those from a 10D and smaller ones that those from a 1Ds. There will be small differences in noise at any particular ISO and small differences in colour balance. Otherwise Canon’s current cameras produce pretty similar image quality. The rest is pixel peeping.

What about the new Canon RAW software?

I wasn’t impressed. It is marginally better than what came before, but still not in the same league asCamera RAWorCapture One. I processed my files with a beta version of Camera RAW. I compared results with those from the new Canon software and didn’t see any appreciable colour or other differences. This is related to a question I received as to whether this might account for the colour balance issues that I discussed. No, it doesn’t.

What about sensor dust?

The camera I tested arrived out of the box with an absolutely clean sensor. By the end of the first day of shooting it had moderate-sized dust spots. Nothing new here.

Why no shots to illustrate image quality?

That’s not what I do. I don’t post huge files for people to download and pour over at 100% in Photoshop. Other sites photograph a standard image of toys or dolls and such so that people can compare yesterdays model with tomorrows. I simply go out and use the camera to do what I do, which is landscape and wildlife work. Sometimes I get good, and even great images. Sometimes not, such as on this shoot. In no case do I ever use these other than as pleasant images to illuminate the field review.

What I do, and I believe that I do it as well if not better than most, is tell readers what a given camera is like to use in the real world. What works well and what doesn’t. Anyone that wants to compare close ups of small coloured objects will find these on other sites, not here. Those reviewers do a much better job of that than I could, or want to. But where else will you learn if the controls are easy to use when wearing gloves? 🙂

Avatar photo

Michael Reichmann is the founder of the Luminous Landscape. Michael passed away in May 2016. Since its inception in 1999 LuLa has become the world's largest site devoted to the art, craft, and technology of photography. Each month more than one million people from every country on the globe visit LuLa.

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