‘The only camera that ever got me a date’ – Remembering the Canon EOS-1D Mark II

I dropped it because I was drunk. It was a brand new Canon EOS-1D Mark II, and I was drunk because I hadn’t eaten any dinner. It fell from hip-height onto the sand-covered floor of a shipping container, which had been converted into a tiki bar at an outdoor music festival. It was 2005 – tiki bars were a thing back then. 

The camera survived the fall, but the attached 24-70mm F2.8 did not. The lens took most of the impact, and jammed badly and permanently at around 50mm. A sobering (literally) lesson was learned, and in the subsequent weeks I shot quite a few jobs at 50mm before I could afford to send it in for repair. 

Another lesson from what I came to remember as ‘The Tiki Bar Incident of 20051‘ was that no matter how carelessly it was treated, the Canon EOS-1D Mark II was a very hard camera to kill. Based on the chassis of the original EOS-1D, the Mark II seemed to have been hewn from a solid lump of magnesium alloy. Like a Henry Moore sculpture, there wasn’t a straight line or hard corner anywhere. Also like a Henry Moore sculpture, it was large, expensive and heavy as hell.

Compared to the EOS 10D, the 1D Mark II was actually capable of proper flash metering – quite a novelty for me, back in 2005. That said, with the benefit of hindsight there’s no excuse at all for this slow sync zoom effect. 

For me, upgrading from an EOS 10D to the 1D Mark II was like entering an entirely different world. The 10D wasn’t cheaply built by any means, but the 1D series has always been in a league of its own. I got talking to a sports photographer a few years ago who still used an original EOS-1D, and over years of hard use, he’d worn the paint off virtually every part of the camera until it looked like a lump of roofing lead. Despite appearances it still worked perfectly, regularly getting smacked by soccer balls in its retirement role as a static goalpost camera. 

I owned my EOS-1D Mark II for about four years. I don’t remember any close encounters with soccer balls but it certainly absorbed its fair share of abuse.

It also absorbed a lot of beer. Shooting live music in major venues isn’t glamorous. During my (short) career I was pelted by bottles, kicked in the head, stolen from, and on one memorable occasion, almost swallowed by a collapsing floor2. And almost every night, someone would throw beer3 at the stage, which would inevitably fall short and drench the photographers instead. Back then, one of the most useful items I carried in my camera bag was a towel. Come to think of it, that’s still true.

Canon EOS-1D Mark II, 2004-8

At the time of its launch in 2004, the EOS-1D Mark II was unmatched. Nikon’s game-changing D3 was still three years off, and Olympus and Pentax had quietly retreated from the professional SLR market, leaving Canon at the top of the tree. The EOS-1D Mark II had the best sensor and the best autofocus system of any professional DSLR and (arguably) benefited from the best lens lineup, too. Its modest APS-H crop factor of 1.3X provided a welcome focal length boost for telephoto work, without hobbling wideangle lenses too much (the 17-40mm F4L, for example, became a still very usable 22-50mm equivalent).

Shot from a prone position, on the stage side of the very skinny security barrier at Newcastle’s Carling Academy (stage 2). Compared to the 10D, the 1.3X crop of the EOS-1D Mark II wasn’t too severe, meaning that wide lenses were still reasonably wide.

It was from a similar position on the same stage that I was accidentally kicked in the head by a crowd-surfing metal fan a few months later. He was very nice about it, and most apologetic.

Compared to my 10D, the 1D Mark II was a racehorse. Suddenly I could shoot at ISO 1600 and upwards without worrying too much about noise, and take more than a handful of Raw files in a sequence (at 8 fps, no less) without the camera locking up. One battery lasted for thousands of exposures. I could use off-center autofocus points without fear. The EOS-1D Mark II even got me a date.4 It was the first camera I ever really loved, is the point.

So when I found a used 1D Mark II in my local camera store last year for a couple of hundred dollars (Glazers Camera in Seattle – be sure to visit if you’re ever in town) I couldn’t resist.

Can we all just agree that this is a good-looking camera? The EOS-1D Mark II is nothing but compound curves. In keeping with a lot of late-2000s reboots, the Mark III ditched the friendly curves for sharper, more aggressively-sculpted edges. Shame.  

Inevitably, after more than a decade my ardor has cooled a little. I’ve used a lot of cameras in the interim. I’m older, more jaded perhaps. More… experienced. And with experience comes perspective. The EOS-1D Mark II is still beautiful, but it’s not the forever camera I thought it was when I was just starting out.

The smile of a man who can barely afford to pay rent, but who’s having a good time anyway. This is a selfie taken on the balcony of the Newcastle Carling Academy in 2005, before ‘selfie’ was even a word. The EOS-1D Mark II is on the right.

By today’s standards, its most obvious deficiency is the small rear LCD screen, which isn’t sharp enough to judge critical focus with any degree of confidence. And then there’s the user interface. I’d forgotten how obsessed Canon used to be with preventing accidental button input in its professional cameras.

Even something as simple as scrolling through images or navigating the menu requires a cramp-inducing combination of ‘press, hold, scroll, press again’ actions that take a while to learn. I used to be able to operate the Mark II entirely by muscle memory, but shooting with it again recently I was struck by how complicated it seems compared to more modern cameras.

A youth theatre production of ‘Les Miserables’ in Durham, in 2005. The EOS-1D Mark II was my main camera for theatre and music photography for several years. 

Fussy user interface aside, when the EOS-1D Mark II is placed alongside the current EOS-1D X Mark II it’s amazing how little some things have changed. Canon got a lot right with the control layout of the EOS-1 back in 1989, and the continuity of design over almost 30 years of development is impressive. If you’ve shot with just a single one of the EOS-1 series, the chances are you’ll be able to pick up and use any of the rest without too much of a learning curve.

In 2005 the EOS-1D Mark II was replaced, sort of, by the torturously-named Canon EOS-1D Mark II N. Essentially the same camera with a larger LCD screen, the ‘N’ stuck around until early 2007, when Canon unveiled a more substantial update in the form of the EOS-1D Mark III.

For low light photographers like me, the Mark III was a better camera in all respects. It brought serious improvements to image quality and low light autofocus performance, it was faster, and it introduced a more modern user interface. It also marked the switch from Canon’s older, heavy NiMH battery packs to the lithium-ion batteries we still use today. Unfortunately, its AF system was bafflingly complicated compared to the Mark II, and turned out to be plagued with unpredictable accuracy issues when tracking moving subjects in daylight.

Aside from the small LCD, the EOS-1D Mark II’s rear control layout is extremely similar to today’s EOS-1D X Mark II. The essentials of the 1D II’s design were actually laid down in the original EOS-1, way back in 1989.

For whatever reason, the Internet responded to these problems with pure fury5, and Canon, caught on the back foot, struggled with damage limitation. A series of firmware fixes didn’t convincingly ‘fix’ the issues, and adding to the company’s woes was the fact that unlike the Mark II, the Mark III had some serious competition. A few months after the Mark III was introduced, Nikon upped its game considerably with the full-frame D3 – a colossally capable next-generation camera that eventually persuaded me (and a lot of the photographers I knew) to switch systems.

Because the EOS-1D Mark III had developed such a toxic reputation (unfairly, I would argue, but please let’s not get into all that again…) the Mark II/N enjoyed quite a long ‘life after death’, holding its value on the used market for a couple of years after it was officially discontinued. Ironically, that worked out well for me in 2008, when I sold mine to pay for a Nikon D3 – but that’s a whole other article…

Original Canon EOS-1D Mark II review samples (2004)

1 Overshadowed in my memory only by ‘The Royal Festival Hall Cloakroom Disaster of 2009’, which I still can’t talk about.

2 I’m pretty confident that most of it wasn’t personal. Except perhaps for the floor.

3 At outdoor festivals, on the other hand, one of the first lessons you learn is that it isn’t always beer…

4 On the same day as the Tiki Bar Incident, actually. How’s that for karma? (It never happened again).

5 I got caught up the backlash myself, having published a largely positive review of the Mark III in the spring of 2007 for my previous employer, based largely on analysis of low-light shooting (like I said, it was spring in England). Since joining DPReview in 2009 I’ve been regularly subjected to violent threats by anonymous Americans over something I wrote on the Internet, but back in 2007 it was still a novelty.

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Photography Competitions: Are They Even Worth It?

I was sitting in my dorm room at Arizona State University. To my left I had my XBox on (as it was pretty much 24/7) with some racing game on pause. In front of me I had my future, for I was entering a photography competition that I believed would make me famous and rich beyond my wildest dreams.

To this day, I can’t remember if I won any prize in that specific competition, but I remember that was the genesis of the idea that photo competitions were how you become successful in this career.

As I grew in my career, I paid less attention to trying to win competitions and focused more on learning my craft and developing a style that would serve my clients well. In the same way that I worried schooling for photography would train my eye to be generic, I worried that results (be it good or bad) in a photography competition would jade the direction of my style. So for that, and many other reasons, I decided to save the money that I would spend entering them and put it towards camera gear.

One day this changed. I had just had a good year and the emails for two competitions that I held in high regards arrived in my inbox. One was Luerzers Archive (Best Advertising Photographers) and the other was Communications Arts (Photo Annual). To be honest, I entered them both the same night and with the same image for one reason: I had been trying to learn how to make a really good dirty martini, and after my third attempt, I was lit and so I decided to enter a couple of photography competitions instead of making a fourth.

By some twisted stroke of luck, I won both.

I remember being overcome with a sense of gratitude, pride and excitement. I was grateful for the people around me that had helped make it happen, proud that we could accomplish it together and excited for what the future held for us. After all after winning those two competitions, everything was going to change, right?

Not really.

Yes, I got some trophies and recognition, but my life and career were not much different. I wrote a blog post announcing the awards, but bragging about them wasn’t something I felt would do much good. It was at this point I really started to see the value in photo competitions, and to be honest, it wasn’t much.

However, as time went on, we began to see the demise of industry magazines and that all clung to the life raft that was the competition. At first it was the PDN Photo Annual, then the PDN Faces competition, then another and another. What I began to see was that no longer was the idea of a photo competition unique anymore, and more than anything they were just ways to get money from beginning photographers with the promise that they would be famous for winning. I vowed not to enter another.

As even more time passed, and I imagine a lot of us, have had days where I would get emails to enter 10 different competitions, all promising greatness and charging $30 to $40 an entry. It was disingenuous, and seemed to prey on the hope and ambitions of those wanting to pursue a future in the industry. All of this was capped off by last week’s controversy over Shutterfest.

If you haven’t read about it yet, I highly recommend heading over to Imaging Resource and having a read of Jaron’s in-depth article about what happened. Long story short, the photographer puts on the competition and collects the entry fees from many young eager-to-learn photographers (of whom many of are already paying to attend his speech).

When the results came out, he, the guy who puts on the competition, wins most of the categories, denying the entrants any of the prizes and recognition they strive for. As if we hadn’t hit an all time low yet, he proceeds to make jokes about this and brags about expensive gear he has.

What happened to teaching the generation that is up and coming, with the idea that we will someday celebrate their successes as we have celebrated ours? We have an opportunity to help advance the knowledge of young artists around the world, yet people like this guy seem to only want to make money off of their aspirations.

Money and art will always co-exist, however when your pursuit becomes based on money, your art will die.

About the author: Blair Bunting is an advertising photographer based out of Los Angeles, California. You can see more of his work on his website, blog, Facebook, and Instagram. This article was also published here.

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UPDATED: Sony a9 offers powerful pro-level customization

Sony has certainly rippled some tides with the announcement of its a9, which we got our hands-on recently at a launch event in New York. We’ve been thoroughly analyzing its capability, which you can follow in our updated First Impression Review, and if you’re an a7R II owner, check out our comparison slideshow here.

Perhaps at least as important as its technical capabilities is that the a9 comes with some serious ergonomic improvements. These features (which we’ve been asking for, for a long time) could change everything for fast-paced shooters. 

We can all agree direct access to certain camera features is a huge plus, vs. menu-diving. That’s exactly what Sony has given us.

We can all agree direct access to certain camera features is a huge plus, as opposed to menu-diving. And that’s exactly what Sony has given us. Instant camera overrides at the press of a button. With one simple button press you can switch the camera from Aperture Priority with 1/125s minimum shutter speed in Auto ISO to Shutter Priority with 1/2000s shutter speed to freeze the action. This can allow you to instantly switch from panning shots to ‘freezing the motion’ shots – with one button press.

Sports/action shooters should take note, but I’m particularly excited because the ability to assign different autofocus area modes plus autofocus activation (among other options) to different custom buttons, just like you can on a Nikon D5 (and to a limited degree on a Canon 1D X II), has changed the way I personally shoot.

I can instantly adapt to changing scenarios, much like with the Nikon D5 here, with a simple button press – potentially rescuing shots I’d have otherwise missed diving into settings to change AF modes. Watch our video below to see the implementation on the a9:

On the a9, what allows one to quickly activate any AF mode is not just Sony’s dedicated function to do so (called ‘Registered AF func.‘ – which only recalls one AF area mode) but, instead, ‘Recall Custom hold’. This function instantly overrides a number of camera settings, including: Shoot Mode, Aperture, Shutter Speed, Drive Mode, Exposure Comp., ISO, Metering Mode, Focus Mode, Focus Area, and AF On (whether or not to engage AF). Choose to override or leave alone any particular parameter by checking or unchecking the box to its left (see video thumbnail above; refresh the page if you’ve already played the video). This is similar to Canon’s ‘Register/recall shooting func’, but with the added benefit of 3, as opposed to Canon’s 1, banks.

That means that on Canon DSLRs, you can only ever recall one set of overrides (even if you assign this function to multiple buttons, they all do the same thing). Nikon only allows certain settings to be overridden – like AF area and metering mode – but at least allows any number of buttons to be assigned arbitrarily to any AF/metering mode.

So what Sony allows via ‘Recall Custom hold’ is a sort of best-of-both-worlds: marrying Canon’s flexibility to override multiple settings with Nikon’s ability to assign any button to a number of AF/metering options, not just one particular bank. Canon’s custom controls are so complex and inflexible that you can only assign a button to change and activate an AF mode via ‘Metering and AF start‘ or ‘Recall shooting func‘, which are themselves only available to two buttons: AF-ON and AEL. And That’s it. Read more about it in our 5D IV review, which covers all this in detail.

Sony: you’ve one-upped Canon and Nikon – in an ergonomic regard no less.

The Sony a9, on the other hand, simply affords you 3 banks to allow to quickly switch between 3 different commonly accessed operating modes with utmost ease. Kudos, Sony: you’ve one-upped Canon and Nikon – in an ergonomic regard no less.

This is a powerful feature that allows me, for example, to instantaneously switch between subject tracking AF, complete auto AF when the former fails, Eye AF for portraits, or good old center-focus-and-recompose when everything intelligent fails. All with one button press. That can be the difference between nailing the shot, and missing it.

Memory Recall

But that’s not all that’s different about the a9. Memory Recall functions have been extended to be far more like the Custom modes Canon, Panasonic and Olympus allow – instantly changing most/all camera settings with one switch of the mode dial.

Memory Recall modes on Sony cameras are like ‘Custom’ Modes on Canon, Panasonic, and Olympus cameras – they recall many cameras functions simply by switching to that mode. In the past Sony’s M modes have not been very comprehensive, but the a9 remembers more settings.

Memory Recall now remembers far more features than in previous Sony cameras. Ideally, it’d remember all of them – including button customizations – so as to recall the state of a camera precisely and immediately (as with C modes on certain other brands). This would deal with the simple fact that the set of features one may wish button (or Fn menu) access to in video are typically different those in stills. So, while Memory Recall still isn’t entirely comprehensive, the extended set of settings remembered is welcome and significant.

Below we outline the settings Memory Recall modes save on the a7R II, followed by the additional settings remembered with the a9:

Memory Recall bank options on a7R II
  • Drive Mode
  • Shoot Mode
  • Shutter speed
  • Aperture
  • ISO speed (or Auto)
  • Metering mode
  • Flash mode
  • Aspect Ratio
  • Resolution
  • Quality (Raw/JPEG)
  • Video record setting
  • Video File Format (XAVC S 4K/HD, AVCHD, MP4)
  • AF mode
  • AF area
  • White Balance
  • White Balance fine tune
  • DRO mode
  • Face Detect
  • Creative Style
  • Contrast, Saturation, Sharpening (Creative Style fine tune)
  • Picture Profile
  • Picture Effect
  • Panorama: Direction
  • Dual Video REC
  • Selftimer during Brkt
  • Bracket order
  • Red Eye Reduction
  • AF Illuminator (stills)
  • AF drive speed (movies)
  • AF Track Sensitivity (movies)
  • Exposure step
  • ISO Auto Max
  • ISO Auto Min
  • ISO Auto Min. Shutter Speed
  • Long Exposure NR
  • High ISO NR
  • Center Lock-on AF
  • Soft Skin Effect (stills)
  • Auto Object Framing (stills)
  • SteadyShot (on/off)
  • SteadyShot Adjust (Auto/Manual)
  • SteadyShot Focal Length
  • Color Space (stills)
  • Auto Slow Shut. Speed (movies)
  • Audio Recording (on/off)
  • Audio Rec Level (0-31)
  • Audio Out Timing (Live/Lip Sync)
  • Wind Noise Reduction (on/off)
Additional options on the a9
  • Shutter (Auto, Mech, Elec)
  • Finder frame rate (Hi, Lo)
  • APS-C/Super 35mm (Auto, On, Off)
  • Shading Comp.
  • Chro. Aber. Comp.
  • Distortion Comp.
  • Self-timer Type (Single, Continuous)
  • Bracket Type (Single, Continuous)
  • Priority Set in AF-S (Balanced Emphasis, Release, AF)
  • Priority Set in AF-C
  • Swt. V/H AF Area (Off, AF Point Only, AF Point + AF Area)
  • AF Track Sensitivity, stills (1-5)
  • AF System, adapted lens (PDAF, CDAF)
  • Pre-AF
  • Eye-Start AF
  • AF Area Auto Clear
  • Disp. cont. AF area
  • Reset EV Comp. (Reset, Maintain)
  • Spot Metering Point (Center, AF point)
  • Exposure Std. Adj. (Multi)
  • Exposure Std. Adj. (Center-weighted)
  • Exposure Std. Adj. (Spot)
  • Exposure Std. Adj. (Average)
  • Exposure Std. Adj. (Highlight-weighted)
  • Exp.comp.set (Ambient&flash, Ambient)
  • Priority Set in AWB
  • Focus Magnif. Time
  • Initial Focus Mag.
  • AF in Focus Mag. (stills)
  • MF Assist (stills)
  • Peaking Level
  • Peaking Color
  • S&Q Record Setting (24, 30, 60p)
  • S&Q Frame Rate (120, 60, 30, 15, 8, 4, 2, 1 fps)
  • Marker Display (movies)
  • Video Marker: Center
  • Video Marker: Aspect
  • Video Marker: Safety Zone
  • Video Marker: Guideframe
  • Video Light Mode
  • e-Front Curtain Shut.
  • Release w/o Lens
  • Release w/o Card
  • Zoom Setting (Optical, ClearImage, Digital)
  • DISP Button:Monitor
  • DISP Button:Finder
  • Zebra
  • Grid Line
  • Exposure Set. Guide
  • Live View Display (Setting Effect On/Off)
  • Shoot. Start Disp.
  • Shoot. Timing Disp
  • Cont. Shoot. Length
  • Auto Review

During our shooting event in NYC Carey assigned 1 to Stills (M with Auto ISO, 1/1000s, wide open), 2 to 4K/24p at 1/50s, and 3 to 120 fps S&Q slowed down 5x to 24p with 1/250s shutter speed. This allowed him to quickly switch between stills, 4K, and slow-motion shooting with a quick turn of the mode dial (which remembers 3 banks). This was very helpful during the stressful shooting scenario with multiple sporting events occurring simultaneously.

We hope that in Sony’s next iteration, the camera will also remember button customizations.

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