Canon EOS 1D Mark II N SLR Review
The Mark II N is essentially Canon's mid-life upgrade to its most popular pro dSLR, the EOS 1D Mark II. Although nearly identical in many ways to its predecessor, the Mark II incorporates a number of refinements in performance, usability and image processing; this conclusion will concentrate only on the differences between the 2 cameras.
You'll have to look quite carefully at both cameras to notice their physical differences, the front carrying the "Mark II N" designation, and the rear including the 1/2-inch larger LCD monitor and slightly smaller monochrome LCD panel. The 50% larger (in area) LCD was a welcome addition, providing easier to read menu text and a larger image to examine in review mode. The normal LCD brightness setting made it somewhat difficult to view in bright outdoor situations, but its brightest setting overcame all viewing difficulties. Although the rear monochrome LCD is a bit smaller that the Mark II's, its reorganized display was easy to read. In our review of the original Mark II, I complained that the vertical (portrait orientation) shutter button was too sensitive; I'm happy to say that Canon has fixed this problem on the Mark II N.
In addition to growing to 2 1/2-inches, the LCD monitor has also received usability enhancements. Its wider 170-degree field of view allows played-back images to be viewed from nearly any angle. Playback zoom has also been improved with an option to enlarge the image from its center or from the selected AF point, the ability to enlarge an image in Quick Review, and the inclusion of image size in the information display. The viewfinder has also received attention, displaying ISO so that your eye can remain at the viewfinder to adjust sensitivity.
The Mark II N uses the same large NP-E3 Ni-MH battery pack as the Mark II, but uses it much more efficiently; the Mark II N captured well over 1,000 images before the low battery warning appeared, including a lot of time exploring the menu system on the LCD display, a two second image review and LCD brightness set at medium.
The Mark II N is a more robust performer than its predecessor. From power-on until the first shot was captured took only 3/10 second, the same time it took to wake it from auto power off and capture the first shot; you will not miss many unposed spontaneous moments with the Mark II N in your hands. Pre-focused shutter lag is almost non-existent, measuring less than 1/10 second. Autofocus shutter lag varied based on the number of AF points being used; it ranged from a remarkably fast 1/10 second when using the center AF point to 4/10 second when using auto AF point selection; the Mark II N's shutter lag was essentially the equal of its predecessor. Shot-to-shot performance was improved from the Mark II; I was able to capture images at 3/10 second intervals in single shooting mode using the center AF point, beating the Mark II by 2/10 second! A Canon EF 17-40mm f/4 L lens was used for this test.
The Mark II N's continuous capture rate essentially equaled that of the Mark II, but the depth of continuous capture of JPEG images was significantly improved. And as with the Mark II, the throughput of SD media exceeded CF media. In high speed continuous shooting mode with CF media I was able to capture 49 JPEG L images in 5.6 seconds, with buffer clearing taking 83 seconds and the full buffer capture rate slowing to 1.1 second intervals; our original test of the Mark II yielded only 33 JPEG L images at full speed. Switching to SD media, the Mark II N captured 67 JPEG L images in 7.5 seconds, with the full buffer capture rate slowing(!!) to 3/10 intervals and buffer clearing taking a remarkably quick 15 seconds!
The Mark II N's capture rate did not slow when shooting RAW images, but its capture depth was reduced. Using CF media, it captured 21 images in 2.4 seconds, with the full buffer capture rate slowing to 1.5 second intervals and buffer clearing taking 64 seconds. Again, the SD media produced better performance, 23 images in 2.6 seconds, with a full buffer capture interval of 8/10 second and buffer clearing taking 18 seconds. Things slowed a bit shooting RAW + JPEG L, the CF media recording 19 images in 2.1 seconds with a full buffer capture interval of 2.2 seconds and buffer clearing taking 76 seconds. SD media again performed better, recording 20 RAW + JPEG L images in 2.2 seconds with a full buffer capture interval of 1.1 second and buffer clearing taking 22 seconds.
In RAW + JPEG recording mode, the Mark II N has a new feature that allows you to split the recording of the JPEG and CR2 files across the installed CF and SD media. With JPEG's directed to CF and RAW directed to SD, the Mark II N captured 19 RAW + JPEG images in 2.1 seconds, with the full buffer capture interval slowing to 1.2 seconds and buffer clearing taking 24 seconds. Recording RAW to CF and JPEG to SD, the Mark II N's capture rate and depth remained the same, but the full buffer capture interval slowed to 1.5 seconds and buffer clearing slowed to 30 seconds. While this mode didn't quite equal the performance of the SD card alone, it is an effective way to increase the camera's image storage capacity while coming close to the superior performance of the SD media alone. SanDisk Ultra II 8GB CF and SanDisk Extreme II 1GB SD media were used for the performance testing.
Perhaps the most significant change in the Mark II N is its new image processing function called Picture Styles, replacing the Mark II's Parameters and Color Matrix. Picture Styles are included for a wide variety of requirements, and each can be adjusted in terms of sharpness, contrast, saturation and color tone. Please see our sample photos for examples of the results obtained from each of the Mark II N's Picture Styles. I found that a combination of Standard, Landscape and Portrait styles met the needs of the vast majority of scenes I captured. In addition to the pre-defined Styles, the Mark II N provides for 3 user-defined Picture Styles that can be configure in the camera or uploaded from the Camera Window software. CameraWindow documentation claims that Picture Styles can be downloaded from Canon's web site, saved on your computer and registered in the camera, although there are none on Canon's site at this time (October 2005). The Picture Style function was an effective way to control the Mark II N's image processing; I expect Canon's future camera releases to implement this function, now available on the EOS 5D as well.
The bottom line is always image quality, and the Mark II N does not disappoint. Most pro's will opt to shoot in RAW mode, using software tools to adjust for the desired degree of sharpness, saturation and contrast. But the Mark II also produces high-quality finished JPEG images courtesy of its Picture Styles. While image noise is noticeable at sensitivities over ISO 800, ISO 1600 and 3200 produce quite usable images.
With its 8-megapixel imager, accurate autofocus system, precise metering system and robust performance, the Canon EOS-1D Mark II N is photographic tool that is unrivaled in the industry at the time of this test (October 2005). While users of the original Mark II probably can't justify an upgrade to the Mark II N based on its marginal improvements, those who have lusted after the Mark II might find these improvements enough to push them over the edge, especially considering the Mark II N's $3999 price tag, fully $500 less than the Mark II at the time of its introduction.
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