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Technical

Evolution and revelation: Marc Aspland on the EOS-1D X Mark II

Evolution and revelation: Marc Aspland on the EOS-1D X Mark II

© Marc Aspland/The Times

May 2016

Since early 2016 Marc Aspland has been working with the 20.2 Megapixel EOS-1D X Mark II DSLR, covering many of the major events in the sporting calendar and shooting portraits of top sports celebrities in his role as Chief Sports Photographer of The Times newspaper. In an exclusive interview he spoke to CPN writer Steve Fairclough on how he uses the camera and how it has helped to push the boundaries of his photography...

© Marc Aspland/The Times
© Marc Aspland/The Times

Cambridge University celebrates winning the 2016 Boat Race against Oxford by two-and-a-half lengths in 18 minutes and 38 seconds on the tideway between Putney and Mortlake, London, England, 27 March 2016. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with an EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER 1.4x lens at 519mm; the exposure was 1/2000sec at f/5.6, ISO 1600.

Having an EOS-1D X Mark II is the only major change in Marc Aspland’s kitbag this year as he currently uses: “…all of the same EF lenses that I used with the 1D X – ranging from my 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye all the way through to the 70-200mm f/2.8L and the 200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER 1.4x. In fact, at the [English] FA Cup Final I used a 2x Extender on it so I had an 800mm [focal length]. So, it’s anything from 15mm all the way up to 800mm, which is probably the stock choice of any sports photographer.”

Marc has been a lifelong user of Canon cameras but his style of sports photography is usually more about capturing the essence of an event, often in a creative way, rather than the key single ‘action moment’. He explains: “I don't need to be constantly pressing that ‘send’ button on the back of my camera to send everything – as the agency guys might do because their market is so vast. I know what my sports editor is after and I know what players the writers in the press tribune are specifically writing about – a manager or a player – so I can be a great deal more selective about the pictures I send. I don’t need to plug my camera into the ethernet… obviously I can but it's not a difference in speed to me – it’s a quality rather than quantity issue with my photography.”

Pushing creative boundaries

In a similar offbeat fashion, whilst Marc is fully aware of the capabilities of the EOS-1D X Mark II – which include shooting at up to 16 frames-per-second (in Live View mode), ISO up to 409,600 and an improved AF system in terms of speed and accuracy – it is not the camera’s bare technical specs that have impressed him. “I’ve read a lot of articles that have very much promoted the EOS-1D X Mark II in terms of its new capabilities and the technical aspects of this new camera… but, for me, it’s more all about having a camera in my hand which stretches and pushes my capabilities. Quite obviously that goes hand-in-hand with the technical stuff, but if I know I’ve got a camera in my hands that’s going to push boundaries further for me then I will push this camera to achieve the creative pictures that I want to achieve… which I maybe wasn’t able to before. I now have a tool where it is stretching me, rather than the other way round.”

© Marc Aspland/The Times
© Marc Aspland/The Times

Manchester United players Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick lift the FA Cup as the lid comes tumbling off the old trophy following their team’s 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace at Wembley Stadium, London, England, 19 May 2016. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with an EF400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens fitted with a 2x converter for a focal length of 800mm; the exposure was 1/500sec at f/5.6, ISO 4000.

Marc adds: “If I’ve got the Mark II in my hands now I find I’m using this more for my own way [of shooting]. If I see a creative picture I know I’ve got a tool in my hands that can achieve that by pushing so much further forward than previously. You can talk about the WiFi, the ISO, the low noise… everybody pretty much understands all of the technical brilliance of this camera but, for me, it’s all about having this tool that’s able to push me a great deal further creatively. I’m coming at it from a creative point of view.”

So what features of the camera have allowed Marc to push his sports photography into fresh creative avenues? “Any new camera is a learning curve and it is a step on from the [original] 1D X. But, now I’ve got used to it, I will push… If I shoot a creative picture in low light or something which I feel that I’ve seen that the 20 photographers sitting next to me at the Europa League final haven't quite seen – whether it’s a fan at the top of the stands; maybe a young boy with his father – I’ve now got the capabilities to either push that ISO [value] with no noise and that ability to then swing that camera round and have that super fast, super accurate focus system – even at f/8 with a long lens – on the player running towards me. Within the blinking of an eye I can take it from very, very low lighting – and pushing the camera a lot harder – to swinging it round and capturing the very point of the reason why I am there, which is to capture live sport at a cup final.”

He adds: “What I will always be wanting to do is to sum up the 90 minutes – that will be the expression of the manager who has just seen his team throw away a one-nil lead or the superstar player that’s just missed a fine chance. Something that gives me the capability to look at things and know that it will focus very, very quickly and sharply on something unique that I’ve seen… I think that that’s what I’ve come to appreciate about this camera.”

Increased frame rates and AF speed

One of the key step ups between the original 1D X and the new camera has been the frame rate – which now offers 14fps continuous shooting of full resolution RAW or JPEG files, plus the ability to shoot at 16fps in Live View mode. But has this frame rate increase proven useful for Marc? “Yes, because for the winning goal at a cup final I will now be getting a chance to capture four, five or six frames of that very, very brief moment in time, at 1/2000sec, when a man kicks a ball. So what you’re getting goes hand-in-hand with what I was talking about before – it’s giving me more of an opportunity to be creative because it’s giving me more of a frame rate… so it’s pushing me further because I know the camera is capable of it; therefore I become more capable.”

© Marc Aspland/The Times
© Marc Aspland/The Times

Action from the 2016 Cheltenham Festival, shot from a low angle, March 2016. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 25mm; the exposure was 1/2000sec at f/5.6, ISO 320.

He elaborates: “I have noticed that the autofocus is quicker, even at f/8. Again, that’s what I meant before… it gives me the confidence in that tool to work that way. I’ve also noticed that the frames per second have been markedly quicker and I’ve noticed that I can push the ISO so much further than I did previously as a sports action photographer.”

But it’s not just Marc’s action images that are benefitting from working with the 1D X Mark II: “I’ve noticed, when I’ve come to do my features, its absolute clarity and sharpness in the image. If I’m using an 85mm f/1.2 lens with the most minimum depth-of-field, at f/1.2, I can actually look through the viewfinder and know what I’m looking at and focusing on. Basically the pupil of a subject will be sharp and his eyelashes will be out of focus. I can see his eye is pin-sharp and that gives me the confidence to take those sort of pictures.”

Customisation, lens use and handling

Marc admits he customised the 1D X Mark II: “…a little. I’ve only customised the focus.“ He adds: “I like to keep my 1D X and my Mark II similar [in terms of settings]. But saying that… I have one of my 1D X bodies only with my 70-200mm and one I’ll only use with my 400mm so they’re almost calibrated together. However, with the Mark II, I will change and swap between a super wide-angle lens and an 800mm lens – I know that camera is capable of catering for all of my lenses because I don't necessarily have to utterly tailor it to the finer details that some people do. I don't necessarily need to do that because I’ve got enough faith in it that it will work for me as it is.”

Dual DIGIC 6+ processors and a new mirror drive system on the EOS-1D X Mark II enable ultra high-speed continuous shooting up to 14fps, rising to 16fps in Live View mode.

As for handling the new DSLR he reveals: “I’ve never used anything else but Canon. The EOS-1D X Mark II is not a revolution; it’s an evolution of the 1D X but it has been a revelation. It has been a revelation to me on how very, very capable it is – there are aspects of it which have been an absolute revelation for me as a creative tool.”

So what has been the major revelation about the EOS-1D X Mark II? Marc thinks for a moment, then replies: “I would say it’s overall capabilities, knowing I have a tool in my hands that could push my imagination further. Yes, I can talk about shooting at 1/8000sec and ISO 6400 at 16 frames-per-second on a CFast card – all of those sort of details are what make up the possibility to push my abilities because I know this camera is capable of this.”

Portrait work and build quality

As well as his action shots Marc is well known for his eye-catching portraits of famous sports personalities, shot exclusively for The Times. For these he admits he has given Live View mode “a go”, but explains: “Because I’m an editorial photographer I will shoot my portraits, my exclusives, in RAW and JPEG. I either will set up some studio lights or I will set up [using] some very good available light, which gives me the best opportunity for that camera to work at its best. For instance, in low light I would rather put that person in front of a window where there’s natural light, lower the ISO and then use a very small depth-of-field or raise the ISO and have a physically large depth-of-field. So, again, I will use this tool in my hands to give me the picture I want when I’m looking at a person.”

On his admiration for the original EOS-1D X he adds: “For example, I photographed [football manager] Carlo Ancelotti for an exclusive we did. The point of the piece on Carlo Ancelotti is in his book he talks about how he never loses his temper, never shows his emotions – rather unusually for an Italian – however, his superstar players know that when he’s cross only one of his eyebrows raises up. When I came in to do the portrait of him I simply had him standing opposite me with a black background on a wall with available light and I specifically said ‘just look at me as if you were cross’. He literally just looked at me and raised one eyebrow and you could absolutely sense this ‘hard stare’, a glare – I really did feel that emotion come through, so goodness knows what those players must have felt, and click, click, click… off I went. But, again, it was down to that camera I had in my hand and that small depth-of-field. All I focused on was his left eyebrow – that was the picture.”

© Marc Aspland/The Times
© Marc Aspland/The Times

New Zealand rugby captain Richie McCaw and his victorious ‘All Blacks’ celebrate with the Webb Ellis Trophy after winning 2015 Rugby World Cup Final 34-17 against Australia at Twickenham Stadium, London, England, 31 October 2015. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 27mm; the exposure was 1/640sec at f/2.8, ISO 1250.

As for the build quality of the EOS-1X Mark II, Marc notes: “What I did notice is the attention to small details. That’s what’s impressed me in terms of it being more of an evolution and a revelation. The CF cardholder flips open and is spring-loaded and the back buttons are far more user friendly, so you could almost use them with your eyes closed – they've become a lot more sensitive to the touch. They’ve actually taken a great deal of thought [towards how people will want to use the camera] – it’s the small attention to details that make the camera a revelation when you’re using it. It’s the small attention to detail that I actually appreciate.”

So, would Marc recommend the 1D X Mark II to other photographers? “I would recommend it because it gives photographers the ability to make them think differently. Its capabilities will make the photographer think of different pictures because the camera is capable of different pictures. Someone far better than me will talk about the very, very technical details of this camera but I wouldn't recommend it to a photographer ‘you must do this because it takes a CFast card and reads RAW files at 16 frames per second’ – that’s not so important to me if I’m recommending this camera. For me, it’s all about the creativity and the artistry – I would recommend this camera because it will push a photographer and enable that photographer to have the ability to see and capture pictures which he probably wouldn't have thought were possible before.”

EOS-1D X MARK II – KEY FEATURES

  • Continuous shooting at up to 14fps for full resolution RAW or JPEGs; up to 16fps in Live View mode.
  • Burst rate of up to 170 RAWs in continuous shooting at up to 16fps and 4K movies using CFast cards in new CFast 2.0 card slot.
  • New 20.2 Megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor with ISO range of 100-51,200; expandable up to ISO 409,600.
  • 61-point High Density Reticular AF II system with 41 cross-type points; improved centre point focusing sensitivity to -3EV and compatibility down to f/8.
  • Accurate subject tracking for stills and video with new EOS Intelligent Tracking and Recognition AF with 360,000-pixel metering sensor.
  • View and control over stills and video via the 3.2-inch touch panel LCD with 1.62 million dots.
  • Increased resolution and fine detail with lens aberration correction and diffraction correction via new in-camera Digital Lens Optimizer technology.
  • Built-in GPS provides geotag information including auto time syncing with Universal Times Code (UTC) via satellites.
  • New optional Wireless File Transmitter WFT-E8A is compatible with IEEE 802.11ac/n/a/g/b; supporting both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz WiFi bands.
  • Durable and rugged magnesium alloy body with dust and weather resistance for demanding shooting situations.

Biography: Marc Aspland

Marc Aspland

Marc Aspland is the Chief Sports Photographer at The Times newspaper in London, where he has worked since 1988. He has covered four FIFA World Cup finals, plus almost every English FA Cup Final and each Wimbledon final since 1988. He has also shot at a host of British Open golf championships, World Athletics events, F1 Grands Prix, Six Nations rugby, and every Rugby World Cup tournament since 1991. In addition to photographing sport (and winning numerous awards for it), he also shoots other genres and was once named Royal Photographer of the Year. In 2009 he became a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain.



Showcase

Football manager Carlo Ancelotti pictured during a shoot for The Times newspaper, April 2016. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF85mm f/1.2L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/3200sec at f/1.2, ISO 640.