Canon EOS 7D Review
By Hamish Brown, December 2009
The Spec You Get
- 18 Megapixel APS-C CMOS Sensor (1.6 Crop Factor)
- 19 Point Autofocus
- 63 Zone “iFCL” TTL Metering
- 8 Frames per Sec
- ISO Range 100 – 6400 (12800)
- Dual Digic 4 Processors
- Full HD Movie
- 3 Inch Clear View II LCD
The Spec Continued and Expanded (a little…)
The spec list of the Canon EOS 7D seemingly goes on forever. To the above list, you can add 100% viewfinder coverage (a bona fide pro feature that should be on every camera but isn’t), an Integrated Speedlite Transmitter, 920,000 dot resolution in your Live View Screen (the same number of dots as the excellent screen on the Canon 5D Mark II), a magnesium alloy body that is weather sealed beyond belief (or in Canon’s own words “offers weather sealing equivalent to the acclaimed EOS-1N” – for EOS-1N think performance, durability, the mid-nineties, and lasting forever in a good way).
Something that we should get used to, if we haven’t already, is the “leak” of information made available in the build up to a new release. It usually comes from a middle of nowhere camera shop accidently posting info about a camera via its website, and it’s always info that it should never have had the info about in the first place!
By the time the accidental leak is out, the information has been withdrawn from the “rogue” website, if it was ever there in the first place. The Canon 7D was no exception, and the marketing peeps had clearly done their bit for the world of ‘viral’ advertising. It got me tapping “EOS rumour” into Google quite a bit anyway!
There had been plenty of wild speculation, but not many were prepared for just how high spec the EOS 7D would be. “I’m sorry, you say how fast?!”
How Fast Indeed!
Whilst everyone has been getting carried away with just how many megapixels one is punching, Canon have been doing their thing with DIGIC 4 processors, not just one, but in the case of the Canon EOS 7D, two.
For the sake of comparison, the recent “built for speed” Canon EOS 1D Mk IV has two DIGIC 4 processors, the Canon 5D Mk II has one, the Canon 1Ds Mk III has “dual DIGIC 3 processors”, and with the exception of the 5D Mk II, these are cameras at least twice the price of the Canon 7D. Whilst the processors aren’t entirely responsible for image capture at high speed, they go a long way to bolstering the speeds the Canon EOS 7D can shoot at, and the at is a “standard” 8 frames per second.
In practice, I found the extra speed a real bonus in terms of getting the shot with moving subjects. If action or wildlife is your thing, then you’re onto a camera that will serve you very well. Talk to any of the top action / sport photographers and I’m sure they will tell you that timing still has to be impeccable, but a good frame rate will certainly help. With the drive set to H for high speed, press the shutter release and you will see what I mean; and that’s just the sound: it purrs. I’m glad it’s not a film camera.
Just taking two aspects of the camera, frames per second and file size and we’re already looking at a very hi-spec camera. I’m not going to start second-guessing the development guys at Canon, but there’s almost a Formula 1 to high street car theory working in reverse here, simply in the way that all the R&D for Formula 1 allegedly works itself down to the cars on the street – I can see more than a few features of the Canon 7D working their way into the future versions of the pro spec models.
What about the size?
Well in this case, about 18 Megapixels. This is the area which more than any other gets the obsessive treatment. And why not? It matters after all. This APS-C sensor is packed with pixels, and I’d like to make this the last digital review where we read “Ooh, you can print up to A3″. That’s old news and it’s now a minimum requirement. For up scaling fans, you’ve got an even better starting point to play with, but it’s good to know that you probably won’t need to.
From the tightly packed sensor we’re getting RAWs at 5184 x 3456, which through Adobe’s Camera Raw software, process out to 51 megs, and the “L” JPEGs take the same pixel dimensions. There will always be more detail in a RAW image than in a JPEG, that’s kind of the point, but if you shoot JPEG, or in both as I did, you’re well covered whatever your preference. And as it’s fast becoming the norm, in addition to differing JPEG quality settings, you’re also getting RAW, MRAW, and SRAW. The 1.6 conversion of the sensor will also increase the effective focal length of your lenses in 35mm terms; a good benefit to sport and wildlife shooters, not to mention portrait… Noise was on the good side throughout the range, and the jumps between ISO are a lot more subtle than a few years ago where you’d go from ISO 200 to 400 and suddenly you were looking at mush. I used the camera in low indoor and outdoor light comfortably at ISO 1600. It’s like noise is the new grain, each step in ISO adds a little noise.
I’ve been trying to leave this till later in the review, but it keeps nagging at me to pay it some attention. The pop-up flash is simply class. It’s probably a feature that most people are familiar with already on their DLSRs, but it’s lacking or considered not necessary on many pro models. On the Canon EOS 7D the pop-up flash is incorporated neatly in front of the hot-shoe on the top middle plate of the camera, where you can mount a “proper” flash gun. But with a guide number of 12, a 3 second recycling time, and a flash sync of 1/250, you can buy less effective separate flash guns! That’s not to say that this is a be-all-and-end-all, but it certainly has some very good uses! From a fill-in flash to those times when you just want to carry your camera and not your whole kit bag, then you’ve still got some flash with you when required. Personally I most appreciated it for nicely balanced indoor candid shots, kind of keeps the camera a little more discreet in that respect too.
A Good Weight and Some New Buttons
I’m a big advocate of the additional battery grips to add a little in-hand stability (and battery power), but I’ve found the Canon EOS 7D to be a good weight on its own and apart from when using a 70-200mm lens, I’ve shot hand-held. The grip feels nice too, but for Canon, having years of experience of making cameras that are designed to be hand held, it would be a shock if it didn’t fit nicely. Battery life seems pretty good (same batteries as the 5D Mark II and I struggle to wear those down in a day), and even if you’re a Live View / video addict, you still get a good service. To be honest, if you were about to depart on that once-in-a-lifetime critical photographic mission, you’d have the double battery grip on you anyway, or at least be keeping a spare battery somewhere nice and warm.
The on / off switch is now located on the top plate by the mode dial, a new one for Canon users and it took me a few minutes to find. No matter how hard I stared at where I thought it was meant to be it wasn’t there – had to refer to the manual for that one!
There’s a new Live View and Movie selector / button, a Q button, an M-fn button, and another called RAW / JPEG. The Live View / Movie Shooting switch is a welcome improvement on the 5D Mark II in terms of its simplicity. Too often I’ve pressed the equivalent on the 5D in the wrong sequence (maybe just a lack of patience on my part), but on the Canon EOS 7D, having selected with the switch whether you want Live View for stills, or to shoot in Movie mode, then it’s just a case of pressing the start / stop button located just underneath on the back plate.
The Q button – otherwise known as Quick control – is now a one-touch activation screen that appears, from which you can view all your current shooting settings from shutter speed, aperture, ISO, both flash and exposure compensations, mode, file type and so on. From this screen you can then select and adjust as necessary. Saves time when shooting on the fly and you don’t have time to dive into the full menu listings…
There’s a Multi-Function button too, just behind the shutter release on the top plate and primarily used to change the AF Selection area, but also used for the flash exposure lock function when you want to lock the correct exposure for a particular part of the subject. Useful if you’ve got to get it right…
There’s a slightly curious one-touch button for recording an additional RAW file if you’re set to JPEG only and vice versa if you’re set to RAW. It’s a one shot function that sets the camera back to the file type you were in beforehand once deployed. If you shoot exclusively on one or the other format, then you will probably get most use from this. I tend to shoot both simultaneously and use the JPEGs to edit and the RAW for the final images.
This was the area that had me a little stumped for more than 5 minutes, and it’s where a little downtime with the manual paid off. Part of me just wants to switch on and find out it’s the same as I’ve used before, job done. However it isn’t, and ultimately I’m glad, otherwise there would be no progression. This is one area that is more customisable than before; you can make your choice as complex or as a simple as you wish. The most simple is Manual; how old fashioned does that sound? But still ever so relevant.
Assuming we’re opting for the auto method to start with, you make your choice from One Shot, AI Focus and AI Servo, which translates as for still subjects, moving subjects, and still subjects that may start to move… Then you can choose your AF area from Single Point, where you choose which of the 19 points you want as your point of focus (this is my choice, and you can change that point on the fly easily enough), Zone AF, where the 19 points are divided into five zones, and Auto Select, where all 19 points are used in the fully automatic modes. You can also save your choices as custom settings. Using the Zone AF mode the camera is inclined to focus on the nearest subject. For me this was the out-of-the-box setting, hence the need to read the manual! A psychologist can probably provide an insight into why the easiest thing to do is also the hardest. Spanking new camera or 250 page booklet? Which one would you pick up first?!
63 Zone iFCL (Metering)
It’s new, so only one question then. What does iFCL stand for and what does it do? Ok that’s two, but for the majority of time with 35mm, the in-camera meter is pretty essential, so we need to know it works well. iFCL to quote Canon, is “a new 63-zone dual layer metering sensor [that] analyses Focus, Colour and Luminance Information, providing accurate and consistent metering”. Well, one would hope so. Without wishing to be flippant, the usual suspects in the mode selection for metering are here, with Evaluative, Partial, Spot, and Centre Weighted to choose from, the most handy for me was the Evaluative, swapping to Partial when the backgrounds get brighter than the subject. I went out of my way to find scenes of high contrast that would trick the meter and in the majority of instances we were doing a good job together. I stopped short of shooting the old school unreal examples of a pure white rabbit on mound of coal with detail in each, but I’d guess it’d handle the clichéd example of a white wedding dress pretty well.
There were times when the sky was a bit too singular in tone, in particular blank cloud that led to an under or over exposure depending on whether you had a lot or a little sky, but a quick check on the back of the screen and adjustments can be made. Unsure still? Employ the exposure bracketing a little either side of the cameras reading to go home happy.
I should really have titled the metering section “you can’t have everything, but this is close”. I used different applications to process the RAW files, Adobe Camera Raw 5.6 (beta version) and the supplied Canon Digital Photo Professional and I’m hard pushed to spot any significant differences.
Well documented from the introduction of the Canon 5D Mk II is the facility to record HD video, and from earlier in the review Canon have already improved the ease of transition from stills to video. It can be as simple as the Start/Stop Button; you can still shoot a still photograph during this process (the movie will have a still within the movie). You can choose the quality of recording too, in a similar fashion to picking your JPEG size, with settings at 1920 x 1080, 1280 x 720, and 640 x 480. 1920 being the full-on version, and if you’re shooting in this mode, bear in mind you’ll need a large capacity UDMA Flash card – 12 minutes will take up 4GB.
I’d recommend too the addition of an external microphone if this is going to be a regular choice. I picked up a Sennheiser myself to get the best quality sound within reason. That’s not a slight on the cameras in-built mic, but an external microphone will almost always be better with any system. It’s a small additional outlay to get the best from your system. You get three different frame rates at 1080 in the video mode at 24, 25 and 30 fps and at 720 you can get slow motion effect frame rates of 50 and 60 fps. It’s not like it’s just a great quality HD video camera, it also gives you plenty of options to get creative rather than just point and shoot.
In retrospect and conclusion
I’d read the manual first, preferably for at least a day, instead of checking the battery is charged and heading off (without the manual like I did). There’s now a well thumbed instruction book heading back to Wex Photographic after the loan of the camera; the only thing I can suggest is they make it a gift (the camera and the manual) in my direction!
Did I mention the screen was also reduced glare and scratch resistant? Maybe they figured they could take the business from the guys that make screen protectors – but shouldn’t this level of screen protection be the norm? At least it is here. There’s also the integrated speedlite transmitter which allows you to fire up to three separate speedlites from the camera, I didn’t try this due to a lack of speedlites! There’s also the option to show grid lines in the Live View mode on the screen and Dual axis display… Think of a pilot’s landing display to keep the plane level – great for landscapes and architecture.
Canon has taken the developments both pre and post digital, and provided a fast, high quality camera body for both stills and video. It has improved metering, focusing and a gamut of new features that raise the stakes across the DLSR board.
So what would I improve? Probably the only change I’d want to make would be a full frame sensor, but that has as much to do with me being a 35mm diehard as anything else. We want it all in a camera, and taking into account the spec and the price that this is available for, you’re going to get a camera that is reducing the use of the word “limitation” considerably. Just read the manual first…