Richard Walch - EOS-1D X Mark II
Getting creative with the EOS-1D X Mark II
The EOS-1D X Mark II refines many of the features found in its groundbreaking predecessor, and adds new technology to the mix. But how does all this translate into better photography? Richard Walch, one of the first professional shooters to use the camera in real-life situations, reveals his experiences.
There aren't many photographers out there right now who know as much about the new EOS-1D X Mark II as Richard Walch does. The German-born snow-sports and motorsports specialist has been collaborating with Canon as an ambassador for the last four years, and even had some input into the new camera's development.
"It was at Visa pour l'Image in Perpignan that we had the Canon round-table discussions," Richard recalls, casting his mind back to 2013. "I was showing a demo of how to frame-grab single images from 4K footage recorded on the EOS-1D C, and we all agreed that this should be something the new EOS-1D X series camera should be able to do too, but more easily. I said I wanted to see the same kind of AF tracking when shooting video as you get on the EOS 70D. And it should all be controllable from your smart device. That's all in the EOS-1D X Mark II, plus a whole load more of course.
"It's very gratifying when you realise how much the engineers at Canon listen to what end-users want. It's never just one person who brings up an idea, but if they hear the same thing being mentioned by people in Europe, Japan and the US then they take notice. The want to know which way to turn – for example more pixels, or more dynamic range? They'll say 'look, we can't be everywhere at once, but which direction do you think we should go?' It's a very open and honest way to work, that requires a lot of trust, I think."
Richard says that those who have already shot with the EOS-1D X or EOS-1D C will be able to pick up the new Mark II camera and start using it straightaway, although doing so might be missing the point. "Everything you already know is still there and more or less in the same place. But then if that's all you do then you'll be missing out on all of the great new stuff it can do," he chuckles. "I think you can summarise the EOS-1D X Mark II by saying that it's a camera that lets you photograph what you couldn't before. To operate creatively at your personal extremes.
"For example, if you really want to use the fastest autofocus and continuous shooting speeds currently available to achieve new levels of creativity, then you are going to have a great time with this camera. Or if you want to push what can be done at high ISO and with more exposure latitude. It's a complete package – I think every aspect of the original EOS-1D X's performance has been polished in some way.
"For me, the biggest different between EOS-1D X cameras and other DSLRs has always been responsiveness. The camera feels more alive in your hands, and that suits the way I work. It's become like an extension of my thinking in a way. Very instinctive to use."
Working with extremes
When Richard talks about creative extremes he says he is describing the ways in which the camera's 'faster, higher, better' specification translates into more creative photography. "An example is that we can now shoot very quickly, at 14fps, which is 2fps more than we used to have," he says, adding that this give him a real-world advantage in many sports photography situations.
"I'll give you an example. When I photograph skiing or snowboarding I usually shoot off-piste, so there is a lot of powder spray. I'm trying to get the moment where the spray is the biggest but when I can also still see the skis and the sticks, otherwise it's just a head flying about in the snow. So that is a situation where 14fps can make a difference. I think whenever action involves another element – like water or snow – then that's where these high frame rates really come into their own."
Richard comments that high frame rates on their own are not enough if the camera's other features cannot keep up – particularly autofocus "The EOS-1D X Mark II isn't just about 14fps, it's about 14fps in combination with improved autofocus that locks on more quickly and tracks more accurately. That marriage of features is important: if you can shoot at 14fps, but only 10 out of 14 of those frames are sharp, then really you have a rate of 10fps. But with the new camera, every frame is sharp – and that is really crucial."
Even file storage has been beefed up: "You are shooting even more frames, so you're then thinking 'how do I get all these files onto my hard drive?' Well now we have CFast [2.0™] memory cards, so you can do this at double the speed of before. If you have a 128GB card full of images, and you are uploading to a fast drive, you really notice this – again, it's a little advantage, and they all add up."
As with other EOS cameras, like the EOS-1D X and EOS 7D mark II, the autofocus system in the EOS-1D X Mark II can be adjusted to suit the type of action being photographed, and Richard warns that it's essential to do this in order to get the best focusing performance. "You must use the AF Cases to fine tune the camera's behaviour", he says. “The Cases change the sensitivity of the focusing, and tell it whether to expect constant acceleration or erratic sudden movement.
“The camera is only as accurate as it is because it predicts what is going to happen, based on the subject's movement so far and the AF Case selected. So for instance it might look at frame 1, frame 2 and frame 3 and think 'OK, this thing is traveling at 70mph so in half a second it will be at this position.' I think what has changed in the EOS-1D X Mark II is just how well it can anticipate like this."
Richard recalls shooting some snowboarders with one of the first pre-production EOS-1D X Mark II bodies. "You have these four guys popping moves in the air right out of the blue – they appear from nowhere. That's a really difficult situation for the camera, but it nailed every frame, even the first one. There are more cross-type sensors at f/8 and the processing power is better. It just locks on and you know it's going to be sharp.
"This means you can take more creative risks with your photography. You can go lower on the slope to make it look like your rider or boarder is jumping higher even though this means you'll see them later and not have as much time to focus. You can just push it a little more, because you know the camera is going to get the shot. You can find more angles; push your photography because the camera is allowing you to do so."
When it comes to improving image quality in the EOS-1D X Mark II, Richard explains that a decision was made on whether to focus on pixel count or dynamic range, following discussions with many EOS-1D X users. "I remember at the round-table discussions we were talking about which direction to take, and my colleagues and I were adamant that boosting dynamic range was the way to go. For me, 20 megapixels is enough for 90 per cent of what I shoot, and for the rest you have cameras like the EOS 5DS and EOS 5DS R, which I use if I want to compete with medium format," he says.
"The improvement in dynamic range is noticeable immediately. More details in highlights and shadows translates into a tangible difference in image quality. I also think this is something that perhaps benefits JPEG shooter more than Raw shooters: if you are shooting JPEGs then you are usually doing it for speed, so you don't have time to play about with highlights and shadows in post production. So I think the sports guys, they'll be especially happy with the improvement in image quality with the Mark II."
Versatile with video
Something Richard is famous for is the way he uses 4K video to produce still photos, extracting single frames as 8-megapixel images. It's a trick that he's used the EOS-1D C to pull off previously, but now he can do it with the EOS-1D X Mark II. "It's much easier to do now", he says. “I used to import the video footage into Apple's Aperture software and export a still frame from there, but now I can do all that in camera. Just playback the footage, scroll back and forth to find the right frame and hit a button to write a JPEG to the memory card."
So does this mean we can now shoot stills at 60fps? "Well, yes, but with some caveats. It's not like you can just shoot perfect video and hope to have perfect stills too," Richard explains. "When we shoot video we usually use a shutter speed of about 1/90sec for a frame rate of 60p, which means that anything that moves is going to blur a bit. That's perfect for movies, because your eyes are going to understand it perfectly, but when you pull a frame as a still photo you might think, "I should have shot that at 1/2000sec.
"Of course, if you are not bothered about using the video too, then yes you can shoot footage with a shutter speed of 1/2000sec and 60fps, and you'll be able to select a certain instance. For instance if you are photographing a bird diving into water, it's a great way of selecting that perfect moment."
More conventional use of the EOS-1D X Mark II's video capabilities has yielded some fantastic results for Richard too. In fact, he was handed one of the first pre-production cameras and asked to produce a promotional film that showcased its video capabilities – a job he really enjoyed. "I was given cart-blanche to film anything I wanted, which was amazing", he reveals. "In the end we decided to go to the circus!"
Richard's film shows a live performance, which meant he couldn't simply wade in and ask the performers to stop and do something again if he missed it. It was a situation that made the most of what Richard describes at the EOS-1D X Mark II's "game changer" video feature: AF Tracking.
"Usually for a job like that I'd have used a focus puller – a guy sitting there, separate from the camera operator, who's only job is to concentrate on changing focus to keep the subject sharp as it moves. But with this shoot we didn't have one, and I didn't need one because that job was done by the camera," Richard says.
"As soon as the camera sees a face, or you tap a face on the touch screen, it starts to track it – adjusting focus continuously. You can even pull focus when there are no faces in the shot by tapping different objects in the frame. What's even more impressive is that you can do this from the screen of your phone or tablet, if you are working with Wi-Fi. So when we were shooting the circus movie I could walk next to the camera operator with my iPad – I was director and focus puller all in one!"
A good example of this can be seen in one shot in particular: "There is a moment where we linger on a girl's eyelashes as she puts on her mascara. It's a playful shot that turned out beautifully.
"Again this is technology in the EOS-1D X Mark II letting me work more creatively: I can go closer than before, use longer lenses than before. I can freestyle more than before, and move about. It frees you up to try things you might not otherwise do. For instance, a low-budget production might not be able to afford to employ a focus puller, so ordinarily they wouldn't attempt those shots. But now they can. And while it performs amazingly with STM lenses, because they are silent, AF Tracking works with ordinary lenses too."
Just do more
After talking to Richard about his experiences with the EOS-1D X Mark II, perhaps the best way of summing up what's new about the camera is that it lets you just do more. “In the past, I think photographers might say 'I only shoot sports' or 'I only shoot people' but all of those 'onlys' make it harder to find work. Photographers are looking to broaden their horizons and tackle more subjects and work in new and interesting ways. This is where adding features like those we see in the EOS-1D X Mark II is important.
“We have the ability to capture even faster moments, and push what we can do creatively in sports, reportage and wildlife photography. We can capture better quality pictures straight out of the camera, and shoot amazing 4K footage at 60 fps more easily than ever before, which opens up all kinds of opportunities. My best advice is to try one: hire it for a weekend and see what you can do. It's really a complete package and you have to look at it in this way."