Canon 7D Mark II DSLR with 600EX-RT flash

Hands-on Review of the Canon 7D Mark II

There are lots of reviews of the Canon 7D Mark II that lean heavily into its specs, but that’s not what you’ll find here. I shoot photos and videos primarily to indulge my interests. It’s a hobby, and I make purchases largely based on emotion. These are the primary forces that drove me to buy this beefy camera.

After years of looking at images from other photographers, I found that always appreciated and desired the punchiness of photos shot with pro-level Canon DSLRs, Canon L-series lenses, and high-end Canon flashes. I wanted to use these creative tools myself, so I grabbed them.

At this point a naysayer would likely point out that they could make the same kind of images with a Canon SL1, a Yongnuo 50mm f/1.8, and a Sunpak RD2000. To this person I say: good for you. I’m the foolish amateur who spends lots of money for equipment that’s far more advanced than they are. I’m okay with that. I want to take striking photographs, and this is how I chose to pursue them.

To me, the choice of the Canon 7D Mark II was a massive compromise. I wanted the 5D Mark III at the time, in a very big way. I wanted the full-frame sensor. I wanted the more portrait-focused features. But, in the end, I opted for the 7D Mark II instead.

I bought it in August of 2015 when the 5D Mark III was a haggard three-year old. The new 5D Mark IV was due to arrive at any time. Plus (and this was a big plus), the 5D Mark III was far more expensive than the 7D Mark II. There was no way I could afford the 5D body, an L-series lens, and a high-end flash without seriously threatening my marital status and hampering my distant retirement.

Why did I wait two years to write this?

I review lots of products on my blog (the site you’re reading right now), but I didn’t feel the need to rush this particular review. There was a lot I had to learn about the 7D Mark II. It’s taken me a while to get to the point where I felt I could clearly articulate my impression of this camera. I’m there now.

Why use a DLSR?

I love mirrorless cameras. I love their smaller, lighter bodies. I love that you can use so many different kinds of lenses with them. I absolutely love electronic viewfinders. I had used my little Panasonic Lumix GH2 almost exclusively for five years. But, during that time I couldn’t help but to feel like I was missing out on something.

As nice as mirrorless cameras are, when I look at photographs from digital cameras, shots from DSLRs stand out as superior to my eye. This is strictly my opinion. Even photos from top-end mirrorless cameras like the Sony Alpha a9 don’t look as appealing to me as images from a professional-level DSLR. Call me crazy, but I see a difference.

Ever since the introduction of the 5D Mark II in 2008, I had been quietly lusting after a full-sized DSLR. I was intensely curious about owning one of these cameras for seven years. The only way to truly quell my curiosity was to plunk down the money and buy one. It was costly, but two years later I have no regrets.

Why the Canon 7D Mark II?

Even though I wanted a full-frame camera, there was something appealing about the 7D. It was fast. It was preferred by many for shooting sports (something I was interested in doing). I truly appreciated its dual-pixel auto-focusing feature for shooting video. It was the right choice for me at the time, and it was half the price of the 5D.

What sold me on the 7D Mark II was my discovery of the Canon 17-40mm f/4L lens. Part of my deep desire to get a full-frame DSLR was to also get a 24-70mm zoom lens. I liked the versatility of that focal range, and it seemed to be the most popular bread-and-butter lens for the majority of serious DSLR shooters.

Due to the crop factor of the APS-C sensor on the 7D Mark II, the 17-40mm f/4L lens delivers an extremely similar focal range. Plus, it’s a fancy L-Series lens, which was another indulgent desire of mine. It certainly didn’t hurt that the 17-40mm is the least expensive L-Series lens you can buy. Once I found this lens, I knew I had found my new system.

As I mentioned before, I love how you can adapt so many different kinds of lenses to the mount of a mirrorless camera. The main lenses I use with my GH2 are Canon FD lenses from the 1980’s, the 24mm f/2.8 S.S.C. and the 50mm f/1.4 S.S.C. I bought both of them on eBay for a song ($75 for the 24mm and $60 for the 50mm back in 2012).

With my DSLR, I wanted to use a system-compatible lens that took full advantage of the auto-focus and cross-communication capabilities of the body. The faster versions of the lenses I want are painfully expensive. Instead of spending all of my cash on a single fast lens, I opted for the combination of the slower 17-40mm f/4L and the mighty Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite.

Goodbye fast glass. Hello speedlite!

Yup. The fastest maximum aperture on my lens is a paltry f/4. By also buying the 600EX-RT, I’d have great light to shoot with every time I picked up the camera. Shooting indoors and in lowlight would be a whole new world. Plus, buying a great lens and an awesome flash sets me up nicely if I ever decide to upgrade to a full-frame Canon body in the future. I bought a DSLR starter kit.

Enough blah-blah-blahing. What do you think of the camera?

Owning a big, beefy DLSR with a big, beefy lens, and a big, beefy flash has been an interesting and beneficial experiment. What’s been interesting is that as much as I appreciate shooting manual, for the first year or so that I owned this camera system, I mostly used automatic settings.

There was something strangely intoxicating about getting an impulse to take a picture, taking the 7D Mark II out, turning it on, and shooting immediately. Super fast boot up time, super fast focus, super fast nearly auto settings that communicate with the flash, and BOOM. I could make a usable, nice looking photo in seconds in any lighting environment.

When I bought this gear, I did the “buy once cry once” approach. I bought everything I needed in one shot: camera, lens, flash, CompactFlash card, card reader, and an extra battery (which is probably the most important accessory). The kit I bought from B&H came with a free camera bag, which I’ve used non-stop.

Even though I had all of this great, new stuff, I adopted it slowly. I didn’t take everything out of its box, assemble it, and run around firing the shutter. Instead, I used just the camera body and lens for the first few months. After I felt somewhat comfortable, I started using the flash. The 600EX-RT flash was so easy to use and produced such nice looking images that, in hindsight, my slow approach was likely unnecessary. But, that’s what I did.

One thing that surprised me about owning this 7D Mark II system is how useful it’s been for work. I handle the marketing at a software startup, and we often need images for blog posts, a static webpages, social media, etc. My 7D Mark II became my go-to tool for work-related images. I get clean, eye-catching, usable images very quickly. There is no friction about the work required to get good pictures. It’s always fast. We need something and boom boom boom boom. Under ten minutes later, it’s done and looks great.

Similar to how it took me a while to start using the flash, it took much longer for me to truly embrace shooting manual with the 7D Mark II. One annoying foible in life is that camera manufacturers use different nomenclature for the same features and settings. For example, shutter priority has a different name if you’re using a Canon or a Nikon, even though it’s the same thing.

Canon 7D Mark II dial control

Suffice to say, the way that you adjust the manual controls on my Panasonic GH2 are wildly different than how they’re done on the Canon 7D Mark II. I’m the old dog who needed to learn new tricks. It took a while, but eventually I spent a little time getting to know the new manual controls, and I was instantly much happier when shooting. If you never shoot in manual mode, you must try it. It changes everything, and makes the act of shooting much more enjoyable.

What about all that other stuff that people love about the 7D?

When people talk about the 7D Mark II, they always boast about how it can shoot 10 frames per second, and how it’s the world’s best camera for shooting indoor sports under florescent lights, and stuff like that. So far, I haven’t used these features. This is my 5D compromise camera, and it’s great at it.

The slower f/4 lens and flash combination has been fun to shoot with, but I must admit, I sincerely miss shooting wide open with a fast lens. I miss the blurry, creamy backgrounds. I miss the selective focus. I miss bokeh. But as soon as I start shopping for fast L-Series Canon glass, I’m so shocked by the prices. But then I remember the humble Canon EF 50mm f/1.8, and everything is okay.

Final thoughts

The 7D Mark II is big, heavy, and it takes some getting used to, but it’s a lovely thing to own. It’s given me a new sense of confidence that I can make great-looking photographs extremely quickly. It doesn’t matter how light or dark it is, or even if it’s raining. I can get the shot.

If you’re like me, you will occasionally lust after the hottest new mirrorless cameras of the day. You’ll look at the size and love it. You’ll marvel at the design and swoon. But, when push comes to shove, you’ll look at the pictures they produce and you’ll know, deep down, that they fall a little flat. There are cameras available that take the kind of pictures you want. These cameras are oddly large, and they’re a little heavy. Get a DLSR, proudly sling its bulky case over your shoulder, take it with you and shoot amazing stuff. That’s the 7D Mark II.

If this review was helpful, support this site by using the links below…

Purchase links:

Canon 7D Mark II - Amazon USA,,,
EF 17-40mm f/4L lens - Amazon USA,,,
600EX-RT Speedlite - Amazon USA,,,
Extra battery for 7D Mark II - Amazon USA,,,

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Writer, musician, photo taker and video maker. When not writing somewhat longish articles for this blog, I write incredibly short things on Twitter: @SamMallery

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