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.
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.
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).
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 date4. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
About the author: Barney Britton is an editor at DPReview. He entered the photo industry in 2006 and worked as a technical writer before joining DPReview in 2010. You can find more of his work on his website, Flickr, and Tumblr. This article was also published at DPReview.