Tuesday 21 November 2017

Review: Canon's 6D Mark ii - All you need to know (the good and the bad)

 Camera: Canon 6D Mark ii

 Price: €2,199

 Pros: great new flip-out touchscreen, good in low light

 Cons: disappointing dynamic range, limited video options

Canon 6D Mark ii
Canon 6D Mark ii
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

I’ve been a Canon 6D user for three years.

Like many others, I was drawn to it as the most affordable ‘full frame’ model in Canon’s lineup, the cheapest Canon camera that would let me get the full benefit of Canon’s higher-end ‘L’ lenses.

In those three years, I’ve been pretty happy with my camera. It excels in low light and has more than enough features to get fantastic photos for an amateur photographer like me.

Like many others, I’ve been fascinated to see what the company’s upgraded model will deliver. After a month testing the 6D Mark ii, I’m pretty pleased with it. But I’m still not completely sure I need to upgrade to it.

Before I go deeper into the camera’s pros and cons, I’ll just say that the main feature tempting me to buy is the new flip-out touchscreen -- it genuinely lets me get photos I couldn’t get before. But is that enough?

Here’s a look at the camera's main pluses and minuses. (If you want to skip to my conclusion, it's at the bottom.)

 

1. THE DYNAMIC RANGE CONTROVERSY

 One of the big issues that some professionals have challenged Canon on is the disappointing ‘dynamic range’ from the new camera. In English, this means that when you shoot a photo (in Raw format) and try to ‘recover’ detail from dark or shadowed areas, it returns relatively poor results. This could hurt some wedding or landscape photographers, as shots taken in varied light often need to be treated in post-production to rescue overly dark parts of the photo. In my case, it’s a minor consideration. I mostly shoot in the jpeg format, where this isn’t much of an issue at all. I also don’t depend on rescuing detail from shadows all that much in my own photography anyway, which is a mixture of portraits and landscapes. Whether or not this is representative of other photographers’ needs, I genuinely don’t know. But it wouldn’t materially affect my buying decision.

 

 2. LOW LIGHT SHOTS

 Aside from the dynamic range controversy, the 6D Mark ii is supposed to perform better in low light than the original 6D. This would be a remarkable feat, given its greater megapixel count and considering just how good the original 6D still performs in low light. I ran multiple tests on the 6D and 6D Mark ii using the same lens each time. I could barely discern any difference in the image quality between the two. But this is fine: it means that the 6D Mark ii can still be counted as a top performer in low light.

 

 3. DOES THE HIGHER MEGAPIXEL COUNT IMPROVE IMAGE QUALITY?

 The 6D Mark ii ups the megapixel count to 26 from the original 6D’s 20 megapixels. It’s a marginal yet significant upgrade: it mainly means you can crop a little more into images. Engaging in a little pixel-peeping, I could see a tiny bit more detail in some images taken from the 6D Mark ii than the original 6D. In other images, I couldn’t detect any noticeable extra sharpness. Suffice to say that the quality of the image is probably equally (if not more) dependent on the lens you’re using rather than the camera’s sensor. In this vein, Canon isn’t as dependent on its sensors as rivals such as Sony or Fuji, partly because its range of lenses is so good.

 

 4. VIDEO

 By now, everyone has heard of the biggest gripe levelled against the 6D Mark ii -- it has no 4K video recording. It’s a stubborn move by Canon, which keeps the recording resolution at ‘full HD’ 1080p (up to 60 frames per second). This seems to fly in the face of what every other modern camera manufacturer (and smartphone manufacturer) is currently doing. And YouTube is full of videos from disgruntled photographers saying it’s a deal-breaker for them. Oddly, I am not one of their number, for two reasons. First, I rarely use my camera for video. It doesn’t matter to me whether it has 1080p, 4K or even 8K video recording -- I’ll barely touch it. Secondly, even if I were to use it for video, I believe that 4K recording is vastly overhyped. Unless you’re watching a 50-inch screen, there is little benefit to recording something in 4K. On a phone, a tablet or a laptop, you simply can’t see the difference between a high frame-rate 1080p and 4K. But there are huge disadvantages to recording in 4K, as I have found out when doing so from a drone. The file sizes are prohibitively large: most laptops or iPads don’t have enough memory or processing power to edit or store the clips. Advanced videographers will point out that 4K lets you crop into a video clip while still maintaining a high degree of resolution. But that is nowhere near my use case for a DSLR camera.

 It’s fair to say now that where Canon once led in DSLR video recording (especially with the 5D Mark II), it now seriously lags Sony and Panasonic (in particular). That may put some off the 6D Mark ii. But it just doesn’t make any difference to me.

 As for the actual video performance on this camera, its dual-pixel autofocusing system makes for better tracking. However, although it has a microphone port, there’s no headphone port. So you’ve no idea whether the audio levels will be correct or adequate as you’re filming.

 

 5. AUTOFOCUSING

 One of the most-touted reasons to get the 6D Mark ii is the camera’s upgraded ‘dual pixel’ autofocusing system, which is imported from Canon’s 7D Mark ii and 80D. It’s much faster and, in theory, more flexible than the 6D Mark i partly because there are more autofocusing points and they’re ‘cross type’ points, which means you can get to the point you want quicker. There’s a big caveat, though. The autofocusing points are all clustered in a small box in the middle of the screen - there are none outside this tiny area. In other words, you can only move them around in about 20pc of the entire picture. That’s actually no bigger a space than the original 6D Mark i’s focusing zone. So yes, there are more autofocusing points, but they cover the same concentrated area. So if you want to have something in focus at the edge of the frame, you’ll have to swing your camera over, focus on that point, and then swing the camera back to the original position. Or else you’ll need to switch to ‘live’ mode, where you can touch the part of the screen you want the camera to focus on. (This method also allows for one-touch autofocus and capture, a useful benefit.)

 But outside this live mode, it’s an upgrade with very limited pragmatic benefit because of the lack of focusing points outside the middle area. There’s also no joystick to guide your autofocusing, meaning you’ll need to use the pad on the back of the camera.

 If you want more focusing points, you will need to consider Canon’s much pricier 5D Mark IV or its non-full frame 80D or 7D Mark ii.

 

 6. CONTINUOUS SHOOTING CHALLENGES

 The engine in the 6D Mark ii is definitely faster than the 6D but still lags other cameras at similar price points. It shoots up to 6.5 frames per second [or four frames per second] in ‘live’ screen mode. In full flow, I found that it worked for around six seconds (40 frames or so) before slowing down to four-frames per second. That’s pretty respectable and should meet the needs of most people, even some professionals.

 However, those who shoot continuously often also need to keep the camera focusing continually on a moving subject. Here, the 6D Mark ii struggles a little to keep up. It works, but not as well as rival cameras such as Panasonic’s GH5, Fuji’s X-T2 or Nikon’s D500 (although none of those are full frame models). So you may well miss a couple of shots. (I did when I tried this.)

 

 7. FLIP-OUT TOUCHSCREEN

 As I said at the start, the flip-out touchscreen is probably the main reason to upgrade from a 6D. It’s very useful in loads of situations, from shooting babies and pets to getting a clear shot at parades and other events when in a crowded zone. You’re no longer pointing and hoping, especially as you can take the shot by touching the screen, which makes the camera autofocus on the bit of the picture you touch. What’s more, this isn’t a half-baked flip-out screen as some cameras have. It’s a fully-articulating touchscreen that swivels around 180 degrees, allowing you to see your framing if you’re photographing or filming yourself. It’s a really excellent addition for those of us who want more flexibility from our cameras.

 

 8. SILENT SHOOTING MODE

 The 6D Mark ii has what it calls ‘silent modes’ for shooting. In reality, they’re still pretty noisy; they definitely shatter the silence in a church, school hall or other enclosed space. However, they’re a little quieter than the full default mode. Conventional DSLRs will never be able to shoot silently because they have flappy shutters. If you want an actual silent camera, it needs to be a mirrorless model such as Canon’s ‘M’ series or models from Sony, Fuji, Panasonic or Olympus.

 

 9. BATTERY AND OTHER FEATURES

 If the 6D Mark ii is compared critically on some features to some mirrorless models, it’s only fair to point out its advantages to not being mirrorless. One of these is battery life. Put simply, the 6D Mark ii blows mirrorless models away when it comes to battery life. You can shoot for almost a full day on a single charge here -- you’d easily go through two Fuji, Sony, Panasonic or Olympus batteries in the same period.

 On the other hand, not having a second memory card slot compares unfavourably with models such as Fuji’s X-T2, Nikon’s D500 or Panasonic’s GH5. Memory cards fail more than you would think: at this price point, it’s frustrating not to have a second slot. Physically, the 6D Mark ii is almost exactly the same size and weight as the original 6D, although the front main grip is a little bulkier.

 The new model also adds Bluetooth to the wifi of the original 6D. This means the camera can stay tethered to your phone, a handy feature.

 

 10. IS IT WORTH THE MONEY FOR SOMEONE DECIDING ON A NEW CAMERA AFRESH?

 It honestly depends on what you’re going to use the camera for and whether you mind carrying cameras around.

 To illustrate what I mean, I’ll compare it to one of the most popular enthusiast cameras around right now -- Fuji’s 24-megapixel X-T2.

 In Ireland, the Canon 6D Mark ii costs €2,199 for the body only, or €2,599 for the body and the (original, not latest) 24-105mm ‘L’ lens. For €2,199, you can get Fuji’s X-T2 with an 18-55mm (28-88mm equivalent) lens and still have cash left over. Or you can get one it with one of Fuji’s small, specialist prime lenses for around the same price.

 The Canon beats the Fuji for landscape shots and in low light because of its bigger sensor. It also delivers deeper, better images when matched with Canon’s most expensive lenses (often over €1,500 each).

 But the Fuji is way more versatile, completely silent, is much more portable and consistently delivers really impressive photos of its own with an increasingly impressive set of lenses. Ask any ‘street’ photographer and they’ll pick the Fuji every time. The same might be said for travellers: it’s simply much easier to pack the Fuji (especially when there is more than one lens), which still delivers high-end quality.

 In my own case, I now always pack a Fuji (X-Pro 2) or a Panasonic (GX7) when travelling or ‘out and about’. But If asked to take a family photo of someone or a portrait, I’ll still reach for the Canon. However, this is only because I have both the 85mm f1.2 and 70-200mm f2.8 lenses, both of which are still a notch above anything you can get for a mirrorless camera (but both of which cost almost as much as the camera itself). If I only had the kit lens that comes with the Canon 6D Mark ii, I’d prefer to use a Fuji with the 56mm lens or a Panasonic with the 42.5mm Nocticron lens, both of which might deliver superior results to the Canon combination.

 As for sunrises or sunsets, I now alternate between the Canon and the mirrorless cameras, depending on where I’m shooting. If forced to pick based on absolute quality alone, I’d give the Canon the edge. But that doesn’t mean I’ll haul a heavy bag abroad just in case I might happen to see a nice sunset.

 So if I was starting from scratch, would I buy the Canon or the Fuji? It would depend on what was left in my bank account: if I also had the money to buy the expensive lenses, I’d buy the Canon. If I didn’t, I’d buy the Fuji and buy a better lens to start with.

 

 CONCLUSION: WOULD I BUY THE 6D MARK II?

 I still haven’t made my mind up. I love this camera’s flip-out touchscreen and the image quality is as good, if not better, than the original 6D (which I’m already happy with). I also don’t care about either of the big criticisms being thrown at this camera, namely the mediocre dynamic range and lack of 4K video recording. And I’ve amassed a considerable array of pricey Canon ‘L’ lenses (and some equally impressive Tamron equivalents) that can only really deliver their full quality to me on a Canon body.

 So it seems clear -- I should go out and buy, right?

 Not so fast. First, my original 6D still takes great shots and is easy to use. It has wifi, too, which means I’m already sorted for instant transfers to my phone. And other than the flip-out touchscreen (which I love), there’s no killer feature on the Mark ii model. 26 megapixels is not a big enough upgrade over the 6D’s 20 megapixels. I can’t detect enough of a difference in low light performance, either. And the autofocusing upgrade isn’t of much benefit to me because they’re all clustered in the middle of the screen: I ended up focusing in much the same way as my own 6D.

 But there’s another non-Canon factor, too: mirrorless competition. Despite my investment in Canon’s lenses and ecosystem, I’ve been heavily seduced by the benefits of quality mirrorless cameras in the last two years. Both Panasonic and Fuji have come out with some incredible cameras and lenses that almost match Canon’s high-end quality but bring massive bonuses that Canon’s DSLRs don’t have. In particular, they shoot completely silently (a huge advantage) and are much more portable than flappy-mirror DSLR cameras. With each passing year, I’m getting deeper into these ecosystems: almost all the lenses I’ve purchased in the last 18 months have been for one of these mirrorless systems. Yes, Canon’s high-end lenses still beat the mirrorless models on absolute quality (I own both Canon’s 70-200mm and Fuji’s high-end 70-200mm equivalent lens and Canon’s wins hands down). But Canon lenses are two to three times the size and weight of Fuji or Panasonic lenses without being twice as good. The result is that I now grab a Fuji or Panasonic when I travel and rarely a Canon. What does that say?

 I’ll still keep using the Canon gear on big holidays or special occasions, as the smaller mirrorless models still don’t have anything that quite replicates the beauty and depth of images that come from Canon’s 85mm f1.2 or the aforementioned 70-200mm (although Panasonic’s 42.5mm Leica Nocticron lens comes close).

 But do I need to buy a new Canon 6D Mark ii in this context? Unless I decide to ditch my expensive Canon lenses, I’ll definitely need a new Canon DSLR camera sometime in the future. But unless I decide that I really need the 6D Mark ii’s flip-out touchscreen sooner rather than later, I may well hold off until my current 6D starts malfunctioning.

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