Thursday, March 25, 2010

And he gets his Canon 7D

I've been waiting a long time for digital SLR (DSLR) cameras in the class of the Canon 7D and Nikon D300s to come down to the $1,500 price point while still having all of the features that I find most important for my photography.

It took many years, but that time is here! This week I purchased the Canon 7D after a lot of angst over shelling out that much money for a new camera body. I'm glad that I did! I've been shooting with my Canon 30D since 2006 and it was time for a technical upgrade to start taking advantage of the great new features available in the high end DSLR's these days.

I plan to offer my initial impressions of the Canon 7D in this article. This is not meant to be a technical or holistic review of the 7D. If you want that type of review then you should also visit these great sites to see them (one of which is a review in video) because they're better equipped to do that type of review than I am:

1) Canon CPS Europe information on 7D

2) review of 7D

3) review of 7D

4) review of 7D

5) Steve's Digicams review of 7D

6) review of 7D

7) DigitalRevTV on YouTube - Video review of 7D


Canon and Nikon have competed head-to-head in the film SLR camera market for quite a long time. When things turned digital, however, Canon led the DSLR race from 2000-2007 with their state-of-the-art technology and image quality.

Nikon, tired of being second in this race, flattened Canon beginning around 2007 with the surprising release of the D3, D700, and D300 in a short space of time. These three cameras showed that Nikon was seriously back to have their share of the top end market again, and it was good news because it drove Canon harder and everyone benefited from the resulting great new technologies in 2009/2010 (as well as price drops). As of March 2010, Canon and Nikon are both pretty even again with regard to their technology and having competitive cameras at all levels.

Initial impression:

The 7D is a monster of a camera (I mean that in a good way!). As with most DSLR's it can be set in point-and-shoot mode for when you have to hand it over to someone other than yourself for a quick photo without explaining things. Or, it can be operated in full manual mode with a ton of custom options and capabilities. And anything and everything in between!

I can't stress enough how much this camera can be customized by the user. Everything from the metering, to the auto-focus, to the movie options, to the menu system, and even the buttons on the camera itself can be set up to suit your needs. Dare I say that if you buy a 7D and can't find a way to make it work effectively for you then you'll probably never be happy with any camera from any manufacturer. The 7D is that good.

As the other reviews mention, this camera is a tank. Sturdy, solid in the hand, and no "plasticky" feel. It's definitely a class above the Canon xxD line below it.

The important stuff:

The new metering, flash metering/management, and auto-focus systems are terrific. The exposures of my test photos are more consistent from shot to shot than with my older 30D. The flash exposures are much more consistent and achieve a significantly better balance of flash with the available light for a given shot. Canon seems to have done very well on these subsystems after taking a beating from Nikon in these areas in the recent past. Canon needed to come up with better systems, and they did.

The auto-focus system is so flexible and customizable that it's almost overwhelming at first. Canon has thrown the "auto-focus kitchen sink" into this camera, and now the user has many options to make the system work effectively for them for any given circumstance.

In my test shots the auto-focus was perfect and fast. The new 19-point format (all cross type) has clearly paid off. I will put it through its paces with some sports and other action shots in the coming weeks and will edit this article if I find differently then, but I doubt that I will. It seems like Canon nailed its new premium focus system.

The other in-camera image enhancement features (Auto Lighting Optimizer, Peripheral Illumination Correction, etc) all work as advertised. Nice and clean with good results when you need them. These features will hopefully save you time touching up photos on your computer.

And the video:

The video options on the 7D are great to have for casual video. I should state up front what my goals are for video in a DSLR. My main goal was not to have to haul around a DSLR and a video camera everywhere I go because I don't shoot a tremendous amount of video. A clip here and a clip there of important events is really all that I need. Of course I want them to be in full high definition. The 7D can handle these needs fine. No issues. When I need more than that then I'll carry my video camera.

However, it should be clearly stated that people should not expect any DSLR with video (i.e., Canon 7D, Nikon D300s, etc) to substitute holistically for a dedicated video camera, because it won't. If you have heavy duty video needs, you'll still need a video camera.

The quality of the video is not the issue here. In fact, the quality of the video from the 7D is terrific.

The current Achilles heel of DSLR's with video is the auto-focus speed, and it probably always will be until a new method is designed to address auto-focus for video in a DSLR. Using a DSLR auto-focusing system designed for still photography to also try to handle auto-focus for video is going to be slow and basically almost unusable for practical purposes just because of the physics of the components involved.

Am I complaining? No. I knew this was the case before I bought the 7D and I still wanted video for the reasons mentioned above. The 7D (and I would imagine the Nikon D300s and other DSLR's with video as well) fill the need fine. However, to consider video (and auto-focus for video) a true usable option on a DSLR, the manufacturers will have to design their way out of this Achilles heel. It will be interesting to see what they come up with...

Image quality:

And finally....the most important thing....image quality! I can state up front that I'm not a pixel-peeper who examines photos on a computer monitor for hours at 100% size looking for flaws. I look at "real world" image quality. If you want pixel level information about the 7D, the folks who write the reviews at the links above are very capable of providing sophisticated technical reviews of this camera.

That being said, the photos that I'm getting out of the 7D are very nice. Great tones, great colors, great sharpness, you name it. The pictures I'm getting have eliminated my fears that a ton of noise would result from Canon cramming 18 megapixels onto an APS-C sensor. Would they have been better off from a noise perspective leaving things in the range of 15 megapixels? Of course. But even with that being said, the noise on this camera is not an issue for my needs. If you're worried about it, try one out before you buy it to ensure you like the image quality.

If you do try before you buy, I would recommend shooting at all ISO speeds in a controlled environment. Shoot first with the noise reduction system completely off (it has multiple strength settings), and then turn it on to see how it helps the situation. That way you can see what the camera does natively versus with noise reduction turned on.

Some tips:

1) Everyone is not kidding when they say you need a more recent and high powered computer to handle 1080p high definition video. My Dell Dimension 4600 from 2003 with Pentium 4 and 2-gig of RAM can't keep up with the video from the 7D. It plays back with skips and long pauses. For now, I'll just have to hook the camera directly to my Samsung high def TV via HDMI when I want to watch the video. Which leads me to my second point...

2) After buying the 7D, I discovered that it uses a mini-HDMI jack instead of a regular size HDMI jack. This means that you either need to buy a special 'HDMI to mini-HDMI' cable, or a regular HDMI cable and a $5 connector for one side to reduce that side to mini-HDMI. I'm going with the latter route because I already bought the regular HDMI cable.

3) You're going to need bigger memory cards if you're planning to be active with video! Full 1080p video gobbles space on the cards, so I would suggest picking up a few high speed CF cards in the range of at least 4 or 8-gig. Many people are even opting for 16-gig cards these days. Prices are falling rapidly so buying high capacity cards is not as big of a deal as it used to be. But be warned....2-gig cards are not going to cut it if you shoot video.


In summary, I'm very happy with the 7D. It completely blows away my older Canon 30D in absolutely every respect. Other than the issue mentioned above about auto-focus during video (which everyone already knows about and I'm sure Canon and Nikon are working on for future cameras), I have very little (if anything) negative to say about the 7D.

Is it perfect? No. There are a few things "missing", but the things that I think are missing would cost more money and then the camera would be driven out of the price class that I needed/wanted it to be in. If I had a wish list, I would have liked to have seen:

1) Dual memory cards slots with the ability to send video to one card and pictures to the other.

2) On-board GPS capability to tag photos.

3) A built-in stereo mic would be nice. The holes for the mono mic on the left side of the camera are so tiny that it makes me wonder why they couldn't squeeze in an additional mic on the right side of the body to make built-in stereo sound recording possible. Even though the quality wouldn't be fantastic, it would still be in stereo and this (in my opinion) would make the built-in audio for the video much more useful without having to attach an external stereo mic.

4) A built-in auto-focus assist light!!!!! I don't know why Canon stopped putting them on their DSLR's years ago, but the concept of using the pop-up flash for focus assist in dark situations is completely ridiculous. Come on.....what could that stupid little light possibly cost?!

But....these things would make the camera cost $1,700 and then I wouldn't have bought it, so I'll take what I can get! :-)

As I said above, it's a monster of a camera that takes terrific photos and offers you many options to do things the way you desire to achieve better technical results in your photography. If you decide to purchase a 7D, enjoy! It's a hell of a good camera for the money.

1 comment:

  1. Nice write up john. It was good to read your real-world writing style and you linked to the more technical reviews as a bonus for that side of the story. Good little site here. Be back.