Thoughts on the Canon 7D Mark II after owning a Rebel

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I recently switched from a Canon T2i to the acclaimed Canon 7D Mark II. I’ve had some time to play with it, but not enough to be as thorough as I’d like to be with it. Regardless of my intimacy with this camera thus far, I have enough to say about it worth sharing. The Canon 7D Mark II is a beast of a camera and can be overwhelming to beginners, but it is a fantastic camera and worth growing into! The image quality isn’t mind-blowingly better than my T2i, but enough that I can shoot at higher ISOs than I had before and it offers far more control over the photos I take.

Coming from an entry level camera to a professional one has been quite the transition. The Canon Rebel series cameras, such as the T2i I used previously, are great cameras, but they’re aimed at beginners. Most people don’t need anything beyond a Rebel, but I had outgrown mine. I was limited by a few aspects of my Rebel, mostly the focus and noise present at higher ISOs. What I didn’t expect going from a Rebel to the 7D Mark II was the world of customizations and features that just don’t exist on a Rebel.

Lots of focus points!

The obvious differences can be found in the Canon 7D Mark II’s spec sheet, which I won’t spend a lot of time going through here. If you’re researching this camera, you should have seen the spec sheet or will very soon. I want to focus more on the things less obvious on the spec sheet or not included on it. However, I can’t ignore the sophisticated focus system the 7D Mark II has. My T2i only had 9 focus points and only the center was cross-type. The 7D Mark II has 65 focus points and all of them are cross-type. The 7D Mark II also has one of the most advanced motion tracking systems in a camera as well. AI-Servo mode, or the mode which tracks motion to keep your subject in focus, is both intelligent and fast! Coming from an entry-level DSLR to this can be overwhelming and I am still wrapping my head around how to best use all of the focus system in this camera.

First of all, cycling through just 9 points of focus is fairly simple and easy to do on the fly at an event. I had this down very well to improve composition and maintain my subject in focus. The problem was  that these 9 focus points were too limiting for me. I made due with them, but I found I had to compose my shot to crop in post or move to get the right composition to line up with the focus point I wanted to use. I never used the AI-Servo mode to track motion in the T2i either. I’ve experimented with it but it appeared to lack any insight as to what I wanted it to track.

With 65 focus points, I’m no longer limited to what I want to focus on. Instead, I may have a new problem: too many to choose from. Fortunately, a tiny joystick rests within thumbs’ reach on the back of the camera to allow you easy selection of the focus points. This is one of those areas I have to spend more time with exploring, however. This is an intimidating aspect of the camera and I’m nervous to experiment with them at a live event at the moment. I’ve read of a possibility to limit the focus points to a smaller number and I may explore this option to get comfortable with the new system. The motion tracking focus system is also incredible and accurate. This needs little elaboration as there are countless reviews that cover this topic thoroughly and probably explain it better than I could at this point. Just note that it is very very good!

Noise and Higher ISOs

The other reason I picked up this camera was for the improved ISO range and reduced noise at the higher ISO levels. This is a careful subject for me to get into as these areas are greatly improved, but I feel like the claims elsewhere on the web are misleading. Yes, the 7D Mark II can use up to ISO 25,600 and expand even higher. Yes, noise is much better controlled in this camera than most DSLRs in this class, at least by Canon. However, don’t expect miracles, especially shooting RAW.

One thing to keep in mind is that there is absolutely no noise reduction when shooting in RAW. Any in-camera noise reduction is only applied to jpeg images instead of RAWs. What this means is that because I shoot RAW and not jpeg, I see all of the noise this sensor produces, and it is obvious beyond ISO 6400. Many reviews and sample photos show little to no noise as high as ISO 12,800, however. This is likely due to shooting jpeg rather than RAW. This matters because review sites are misleading the noise and ISO performance of this camera by using the method that reduces noise and ignoring results from the RAW files and it’s up to your RAW editing software to reduce the noise, which can be better than that in the camera if you know how to use it.

While the reality of the Canon 7D Mark II is that it still produces a lot of noise in RAW, it is significantly improved over the T2i I had previously. The T2’s maximum native ISO was 6400, but the noise that camera produced was not acceptable beyond ISO 3200. The Canon 7D Mark II is capable of a native ISO up to 25,600, but I currently capped it to 6400 ISO. The amount of noise present at 6400 is similar to the noise I saw on my T2i at 3200. This means improved light sensitivity with less noise. I must admit, the noise present even at 12,800 was acceptable, but it was still noticeable.

I did see an interesting improvement in the way the Canon 7D Mark II handles noise overall. The noise at even the highest ISOs looked much more like film grain than noise. Depending on what you shoot, the noise present may be artistically acceptable if your style includes film grain. Very little of the noise the 7D Mark II produces is color noise. Most of the noise I have experienced so far has been luminance noise, which lacks color. This is far more aesthetically pleasing than the noise my Rebel T2i produced and has opened me to accepting noisier photos than I had in the past.

Feel in the hand

My first thought picking the Canon 7D Mark II up was regarding the weight of this camera. It is noticeably heavier than any Canon Rebel I have held. The magnesium alloy body mostly contributes to the weight of this camera. The weight wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. It’s heavy, but feels sturdy. Holding the camera is comfortable and it feels like it’s built like a tank. After watching DigitalRev try to destroy the first generation 7D and fail ,reading that the 7D Mark II has improved durability over the first generation,, and feeling the sturdy construction of this camera in my hand, I have no worries about damaging the 7D Mark II — I worry more about my lenses than the camera body’s durability now. If you expect to carry this camera often and for long periods of time, especially with an equally heavy lens, then you might view the weight negatively. It’s a trade-off for the nearly indestructible construction of this camera.

The other change I noticed was with the rubber grips. The Canon T2i used a silicone/rubber material for the grips. It was very soft and comfortable — but there’s a very common problem with silicone materials when combined with the oils of our hands. Silicone tends to stretch and expand as it absorbs the oils and moisture from our bodies and environment. After 4 years owning the T2i, the rubber grip near the shutter started to expand and detach from the body. I had to glue it twice to keep it from coming off completely and just dealt with it for the last year I owned it. I’ve read that Canon has since abandoned this material for their grips and settled on a harder material that won’t suffer the same problems, though I can’t recall if this is used on all Canon cameras or if the silicone-like material is still used on the Rebel series cameras. Regardless, the 7D Mark II uses the harder material which appears to be much more durable and hopefully won’t suffer any kind of peeling. Although it isn’t a soft material, I hardly could tell a difference from the grip on the T2i. It’s still comfortable to hold and matches the level of quality throughout the camera.

White Balance

I won’t spend a lot of time on the automatic white balance, but I do have a gripe with it. Because I shoot RAW and can modify white balance in software anyway, I tend to keep the white balance automatic. I don’t always like the preset tones either and prefer taking control myself. While the automatic white balance is fantastic in outdoor environments with natural lighting, I find it awful at producing accurate colors indoors, especially with mixed lighting. Mixed lighting is a challenge for any camera, so I’m not upset that it struggles. I’m upset that my Canon T2i handled auto white balance indoors much better than the 7D Mark II does.

I do have some ideas why the 7D Mark II appears to be less accurate in the white balance than my Rebel was and I may just be upset of aesthetics rather than accuracy. For instance, the 7D Mark II might be accurate in what it is capturing, but it’s unattractive and more obvious in the photos. If this is the case, then the Rebel is catered to aesthetics rather than accuracy. I’d rather have accuracy than aesthetics as I will make my own aesthetic corrections anyway. My indoor testing has not been with studio lighting or in any real controlled situations, but rather using the already existing lamps and indoor lighting in family’s homes — let’s face it, this kind of lighting is very unattractive to any real photography anyway.

I will add, however, that the white balance does correct and clean up much nicer in software than it did with my Canon T2i, which might add to the thought that the 7D is more accurate while the Rebel is catered towards aesthetics.

Control, control, control

The amount of options in the menu and buttons on the body give the photographer seemingly unlimited control and can be a little overwhelming. Canon’s Rebels are limited to the basic needs of photography, but the 7D Mark II is all about letting the photographer dictate how the camera operates. There is too much to cover and so much I don’t know yet that I urge you to read the lengthy user manual (possibly several times) to set this camera up to your liking.  I’ve only just started customizing this camera and will likely keep making modifications over time as I find myself in various situations of shooting.

One of the biggest improvements to my photography since owning the 7D Mark II was setting up back-button focus on the AF-On button. I didn’t just switch this button to focus, however. I set the AF-On button to activate AI-Servo mode as long as I’m holding the button. The shutter button still works as single focus when half-pressed this way. When I shoot concerts, sometimes single shot focus is all I need, but sometimes I also need to switch to AI-Servo as the performers become more active. Taking the time to switch this in camera may mean missing shots. Being able to press a button while composing my shot to make the change is much more efficient. I also chose this setup for the sake of family picking my camera up when I’m in the shot. It’s much more natural for others to pick up the camera and press the shutter button to focus and snap the shot. I would love to switch the shutter half-press to lock exposure instead, but I may have to setup a custom option to turn this on/off quickly and only use it as needed rather than permanently.

The Canon T2i and other Rebels can set the AF-On button to focus (back-button focus), but it didn’t seem as capable as it does on the 7D Mark II. This was fine for single shot focusing on the Rebel, but the experience is far greater on the 7D Mark II. The Rebels also don’t have the same level of customization either. For instance, you can create custom menu pages on the 7D Mark II to quickly access options you may frequently change.

Summing it up

Jumping from a Canon Rebel to the 7D Mark II is quite a large jump, but well worth growing into if you’re interested in growing. The image quality is improved over the T2i and the noise is greatly improved — just don’t expect perfectly clean RAW images at high ISOs. The 65 focus points might be a little overwhelming, especially coming from a 9-focus point system like I had, but it adds more control to the focus system and aids the motion tracking system. The automatic white balance may not look the best in some lighting situations, but it’s easily corrected in post if you shoot in RAW. The last takeaway is that this camera is all about control and customization. There are more options in this camera than I thought could exist and all of them cater towards the photographer’s style and workflow. It might take some getting used to and a lot of experimentation to customize the camera to you, especially after coming from a Rebel which lacks so much control. The Canon 7D Mark II is a fantastic camera and worth every penny, but it’s quite the learning curve coming from an entry-level camera. If you have the patience, it’s worth growing into. Otherwise, aim for the Canon T6s or 70D as a mid-range camera to ease the growth into a higher-end camera. Keep in mind that the T6s is still an entry-level camera, but adds more controls and likely customizations you might find in an upper-level camera.

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