Canon EOS 7D

Canon's new mid-range DSLR shines as a video camera but high-resolution sensor stumbles in the dark.

Dec 2, 2009
By Dan Havlik

Canon 7D

The EOS-7D offers some very advanced new HD and still image features and is a great "second" camera in your bag.
The so-called mid-level pro digital SLR category has been a pretty popular one for budget-conscious photographers so it's been a surprise that Canon has released such lackluster cameras at this price point in recent years. You know what I'm talking about. Canon EOS 30D, 40D, 50D anyone?

While these models may have been pretty decent sellers for Canon in the $1,200-$1,300 prosumer sweet spot, they didn't exactly thrill when it came to new features or dramatically improved image quality. It didn't help much that with each new mid-level pro introduction,Canon upped the resolution on the camera's APS-C sized (aka non-full-frame) image sensor, making it just a bit more susceptible to noise at high ISOs.

So most of the smart money this fall was on conservative Canon releasing a rote follow-up to the 50D, maybe with a few more pixels, a slightly faster frame rate and a new badge with a 60D model name on it. Instead, what we got, while not quite revolutionary, was definitely unexpected: the HD-shooting Canon EOS 7D.

Though adding high definition video to a mid-range DSLR was, perhaps, inevitable, it's the level to which Canon has amped up the HD video features on the 7D that's turned heads among photographers and independent filmmakers. This was no mere replacement for the 50D. It felt like a whole new category.

And that, according to Canon, is quite literally true. The company says the 15.1-megapixel 50D will remain in the line-up (at the time of this writing it was still selling for around $1,300) while the 18-megapixel 7D ($1,700) will carve out a new niche just below the full-frame HD-capable 5D Mark II ($2,700). Canon's mid-level lineup seems to be getting pretty crowded, no?

As already mentioned, the 7D seeks to stand head and shoulders above other cameras in this category—including Canon's own models—by attempting to overhaul just what a mid-level digital SLR can do. And in many ways Canon succeeds with the 7D, offering a bounty of selectable frame rates (24p, 25p, 30p) for 1080p HD capture; a stellar new autofocus system; and very fast overall performance with 8 frames per second shooting speed and a fat buffer that'll let you keep on shooting and shooting.

There are also dozens of helpful picture-taking tweaks including a new spot autofocus mode; a Dual Access Electronic Level control for keeping shots straight; and a completely revamped metering system. (And that's just to name a few.)

But where the camera breaks little new ground is in its image sensor technology. With the 7D, we once again have an APS-C sized CMOS sensor with a 1.6x magnification ("crop") factor that will help you get closer to the action but won't do your wide-angle lenses any favors.

And there's the requisite bump up in resolution to 18 megapixels, making the individual pixel size on the 7D's chip just about as small as any Canon DSLR I can remember at just 4.3 microns. (In contrast, the 50D's pixel are 4.7 microns while the consumer-oriented Rebel T1i are 4.5 microns apiece.)

Though these are "gapless" pixels which Canon claims have better light gathering capabilities than regular pixels, and the 7D boasts twin Digic 4 image processors to help tamp down noise, what does this mean to image quality? Let's take a look.

VIDEO STAR

I received a 7D loan about the same time as my occasional PDN co-tester Jason Groupp, www.jasongphoto.com, was forced to make a last minute rental of a 7D after his 5D workhorse was stolen while shooting a wedding. Though losing the 5D was a bummer for Jason, I was anxious to hear his thoughts on the 7D since he was now in the market for a second body to replace the stolen camera.

In the past, Jason has owned Canon 20D's and 30D's as back-up bodies but switched to strictly full-frame models after the 5D and 5D Mark II came out. Though he was considering buying a 5D II as a second camera, even used models were selling for several hundred dollars more than a new 7D.

Plus, the 7D has the coveted 24p frame rate HD mode which mimics the look of a traditional "filmed" movie and is easier to transcode than 30p. If you're a working videographer, 24p is really the only way to go.

Yes, Canon has said it plans to offer a firmware upgrade for the 5D Mark II in the first half of next year which will allow it to shoot 24p, but who knows when that'll really happen. And who has time to wait?

Jason, like a lot of wedding photographers out there now, has been adding video to his list of services and a camera like the 7D could be a very useful tool. What photographers are quickly learning, though, is that just owning a DSLR that shoots HD is not the answer.



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