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Canon EOS 7D review

November 7, 2009

Overall Rating:

5

Canon EOS 7D


Manufacturer:

Manufacturer:

Price as Reviewed:

£1,699.00

At last, it appears Canon has raised its game, in response to Nikon, and introducing a new breed of camera, the EOS 7D. We put it to the test...

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Canon EOS 7D review at a glance:

  • 18 million effective pixels
  • Live View on 3in,
  • 920,000-dot LCD screen
  • 1920x1080p (Full HD) video recording at 30fps
  • Wireless flash control
  • Street price approx £1,699

Canon EOS 7D review – Introduction

When I first received Canon’s press release for the EOS 7D, I assumed the camera was a full-frame model, perhaps bridging the gap between the EOS 5D Mark II and the EOS-1D Mark III (since updated to Mark IV). However, to my surprise, I discovered that it’s an 18-million-pixel APS-C-format camera.

However, as I ran my finger down the specification list, I mentally ticked off the features on the wish list that we at AP have been giving to Canon for the past couple of years. I almost punched the air when I read that finally, after all the other major manufacturers have already included it, Canon has built wireless flash control into one of its DSLRs.

There’s also a new 19-point AF system that borrows features from the EOS-1D Mark III. In addition, the EOS 7D introduces Canon’s new Focus Colour Luminance (iFCL) metering system, which uses subject distance, colour and luminance information to help inform the metering system.

It all adds up to a pretty exciting package, and it could signal that Canon is ready to take on the challenge that was first set by Nikon with the arrival of the D3 and D300 back in August 2007. The single number name of the EOS 7D also raises lots of questions, such as what cameras will we see above and below it in future Canon line-ups, and will there be a full-frame (or APS-H-format) camera beneath the recently announced EOS-1D Mark IV that uses the same technologies?

Features

The EOS 7D is a digital single-lens reflex camera and it sits at the very top of strong>Canon’s APS-C-format range, a position previously occupied by the EOS 50D. While the EOS 7D’s 18-million-effective-pixel count is impressive, it also sets off alarm bells because of the possibility that the 22.3×14.9mm CMOS sensor might be overcrowded and, as a result, the images very noisy. This problem has dogged the Canon EOS 50D, but Canon claims it has found a solution with the new sensor, which has less circuitry to enable the photodiodes to be larger to boost the high sensitivity and dynamic range performance.

Canon has also used a new design for the diodes, which is claimed to allow more light to be converted into an electrical charge for a higher signal-to-noise ratio. Like the EOS 50D, the EOS 7D has gapless micro lenses over the photodiodes, but the distance between the photodiodes has been decreased (as in the EOS 5D Mark II) to enable more of the light to reach the photo receptors.

Despite the very high pixel count, but thanks to the EOS 7D’s two Digic 4 processors and eight-channel readout, Canon has managed to achieve a sports-photographer-friendly maximum continuous shooting rate of 8fps. That’s without the need for an additional battery pack, so if you head out for a spot of landscape photography and come across a field of deer or a cross-country race, you won’t be cursing the fact that you’ve left the power booster behind. Notably, it is 1fps higher than the maximum shooting rate that the Nikon D300s can achieve unaided.

I will discuss the viewfinder in more detail later, but it is worth pointing out here that the EOS 7D is the first EOS model to have a 100% field of view with 1x magnification (with a 50mm lens focused at infinity). Hence, the view looks very similar to the final image.

The viewfinder complements the 100% field of view offered by the LCD screen when Live View is activated. Even with grid displays and so on, it can be very difficult to get the horizon straight (especially when using a wideangle lens that creates barrelling) and built-in electronic levels are becoming increasingly common.

The EOS 7D is the first Canon DSLR to feature an electronic level, and as well as appearing on the LCD screen (with or without Live View mode being active), it can be set to appear in the viewfinder. When the option is selected in Custom Function (C.Fn) IV, pressing the new-to-EOS-cameras Multi Function (M.Fn) button near the shutter release button uses the AF point displays to indicate whether the camera is level or not.

The level works when the camera is in landscape or upright orientation, and the degree of tilt (up or down) is shown in addition to the horizontal yaw (left or right). Unfortunately, the level disappears from the viewfinder once the shutter release or AF-on buttons are depressed to activate the AF system, so it can’t be used ‘live’ during handheld shooting.

As I mentioned earlier, the EOS 7D is the first EOS DSLR to have an Integrated Speedlite Transmitter, which allows the camera to trigger an external flashgun wirelessly. This transmitter works in the same way as the Speedlite 580 EX II and can control up to three groups of EX-series Speedlite (or compatible) slave flashes. When acting as a controller, the EOS 7D’s flash fires a pre-flash even when it is not being used to supply illumination during the exposure.

Provided the detail resolution is high enough, the extra reach provided by the 1.6x focal length magnification factor combined with the impressive continuous shooting rate, new AF system and extensive feature set makes the EOS 7D very appealing to the budget-conscious pro sports or wildlife photographer who doesn’t need an APS-H or full-frame camera.

Plus, with a street price of around £1,700, it could persuade a few enthusiasts who have been saving for an EOS 5D Mark II to opt for a smaller camera.

Build and handling

In terms of size and weight, the EOS 7D sits between the EOS 50D and the full-frame EOS 5D Mark II. Like them, it has a magnesium-alloy chassis and sealing against water ingress. Canon states that the seals in the EOS 7D’s construction put it in the same league as the EOS-1n professional-level film camera.

While at 820g (body only) it is a fairly heavy camera, its contoured shape and rubberised grip coatings make the EOS 7D feel comfortable and safe in my hand. After shooting the full 80 minutes of a rugby match, however, my hand was starting to feel the strain despite using the comparatively small and light EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM lens.

The control layout of the EOS 7D is closer to that of the EOS 5D Mark II than the EOS 50D, but there are some significant differences. For example, the Live View button found on the left-hand side of the back of the EOS 5D Mark II, above the LCD screen, has been shifted to the right of the EOS 7D’s viewfinder and is now surrounded by a switch that changes between Live View and video mode. It’s a sensible move as it is now within reach of the right thumb when the camera is held for use.

The space vacated by the Live View control is occupied by two other buttons on the EOS 7D. One, marked Q, is used to access the Quick Control screen, while the other changes the recorded file type from raw or JPEG to simultaneous raw and JPEG. As soon as the shot is taken, the camera reverts to the original single file mode. It could be useful when, if shooting JPEG files to get the maximum burst depth, the odd raw file is needed for the extra adjustment flexibility.

Sixteen of the most commonly adjusted settings, including Auto Lighting Optimiser, are displayed on the Quick Control screen. These may be navigated using the mini-joystick multi-controller and the settings are changed using either of the control dials. I find it useful for quickly checking the camera settings and making some changes, but I still habitually use the top-plate buttons for selecting the white balance, AF modes and so on.

Like all recent Canon DSLR menus, the EOS 7D menu is divided into screens that each fit onto the LCD, making it easier to find the feature you are searching for. The video controls are located on a designated ‘page’, allowing the camera to be quickly set up for video recording.

With the addition of video technology and the extra AF and flash control options, the My Menu settings screen is starting to get a little restricted with space for just six features. Other than that, I find little to complain about with the EOS 7D’s handling.

It is interesting that Canon has opted for a switch rather than a button to alternate the camera between Live View and video mode. I wonder if this could be the start of a change in Canon camera design. Is it possible we will see a few other switches replacing buttons over the next few years, perhaps to select the AF or metering mode?

White balance and colour

There doesn’t appear to be anything new about the white balance system of the EOS 7D and it puts in a solid performance in a range of lighting conditions. Images aren’t over-corrected and they contain a hint of the colour of the light at the time the shot was taken.

As usual, the EOS 7D has a collection of preset Picture Styles (Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, Faithful and monochrome), plus three that may be set to the user’s preferences. Control is provided over the sharpness, contrast, saturation and colour tone of colour images, and the sharpness, contrast, filter effect and toning effect of monochrome shots.

The Standard mode can be a little oversaturated for my taste, and I usually prefer to use the Neutral or Faithful options.

When I used the supplied Digital Photo Pro software to apply the Landscape Picture Style to a few raw file images of autumn leaves, I found the reds became very uniform and unnatural-looking, with a loss of tonal gradation and detail.

This JPEG image was taken at ISO 12,800. There is no visible banding, the noise is well controlled and there is plenty of detail in the sharp areas of the shot, but there are a few bright red pixels that stand out from the surroundings more than they should.

Metering

This is the first time we have seen Canon’s new 63-zone Focus Colour Luminance (iFCL) metering system. It uses subject distance data from the AF system along with colour and luminance (brightness) information to help determine the correct exposure. Instead of one metering sensor, the EOS 7D has two: one that is sensitive to red/green light, and another that is dedicated to green/blue light. The aim is to make the camera’s metering less sensitive to red light.

However, because the evaluative metering takes information from the AF point, it can make a huge difference where the AF point is positioned. With the AF point positioned over the grass of a landscape, for instance, I found the foreground was well exposed and the overcast sky burned out, but when the AF point was on the sky, the land was underexposed while detail was revealed in the sky.

Although the evaluative metering proved effective in a range of situations during this test, like many similar systems it can struggle in overcast conditions. It is something I want to continue to experiment with in the future.

Autofocus

The EOS 7D has a new 19-point AF system. All the points are of the biaxial type and effective with lenses with a maximum aperture of f/5.6 or greater. For extra precision, a second, diagonal (‘X’) f/2.8 or faster cross is located at the central point.

In addition, there are two offset horizontal lines in the middle top, bottom and central points for greater precision. As usual, there are three AF modes: One-shot (for stationary subjects), AI Servo (for moving subjects) and AI Focus, which switches automatically between One-shot and AI Servo when the subject starts or stops moving.

In its default setting there are three methods of selecting the AF point: Single-point AF, Zone AF and Auto-select 19-point AF. The first option allows the photographer to select the AF point, while the last completely hands control over to the camera.

With the Zone AF option, the 19 AF points are divided into five zones and the photographer selects the group of points to use to achieve focus. It is useful with moving subjects when they are tricky to follow with a single AF point, but it tends to target the nearest object in the zone.

It is also harder to keep the focus on a specific part of the scene – the head of a particular player in a football match, for example – than it is with the single-point AF, but at least it helps keep the focus on that player.

The Auto-select 19-point AF setting is a good choice with subjects that move very erratically, but again it tends to look for the closest potential subject. When AI Servo focus mode is in use, however, the photographer can select the starting AF point and the camera tracks it.

Reassuringly, with these modes selected, the active AF point(s) illuminate when Custom Function III-10 is enabled, so it is fairly easy to see whether the camera is tracking the correct subject or not, as with the Nikon 3D tracking system.

Two further AF point selection modes can be added to the default list via Custom Function III-6. These are Spot AF, which is the same as single-point AF but the points are smaller for greater precision, and AF point expansion. In the latter mode the photographer selects the AF point manually, but the EOS 7D may also use the surrounding AF points to achieve focus. I found this very useful when shooting a rugby match. Unlike the Auto-select 19-point AF option in AI Servo mode, though, the surrounding AF points do not illuminate when they are active.

Two options in the custom menu, AI Servo tracking sensitivity (C.Fn III-1) and AI Servo AF tracking method (C.Fn III-3), add a little extra flexibility and complication to focusing on moving subjects. These options have previously only been seen in the EOS-1D Mark III and EOS-1Ds Mark III, and they determine whether the EOS 7D should continue focusing on the subject when a closer object comes into the frame and, if not, how quickly it should respond.

The aim is to help photographers track their desired subject and, where necessary, ignore the sudden appearance of a post or pillar (for example) in the frame when panning. I am impressed with the EOS 7D’s AF system. With subjects that are easy to follow in the viewfinder, I had a success rate in excess of 90%.

In more complicated situations my hit rate dropped because of the increased difficulty of keeping the AF point (or group of points) over the correct subject, but, nevertheless, when the AF point was over the subject I got a sharp result in the vast majority of cases. Provided there aren’t lots of potential subjects milling around the scene, the Auto-select 19-point AF option does an excellent job of tracking the subject in AI Servo mode.

Using the EOS 7D’s wireless flash control, I fired a Speedlite 550 EX flashgun to illuminate these bottles from behind while the built-in flash lit the labels from in front. I found a lighting ratio of 3:1 (external: built-in flash) worked best for this setup.

Resolution, noise and sensitivity

Our laboratory tests indicate that Canon has made significant steps in the control of noise across the entire sensitivity setting range since the EOS 50D. The difference between images from the EOS 50D and EOS 7D is most noticeable at ISO 12,800, when the amount of noise is approximately halved. Even at ISO 3200, there is a reduction of around 30%.

Interestingly, the noise figures for each channel are quite close to each other, indicating that the noise has a neutral mix. Although high-sensitivity images from the EOS 7D have a granular texture, they are far smoother than results from the EOS 50D. They look great in monochrome and, significantly, there is no banding in the darker midtones.

At 100% on the computer screen, high-sensitivity JPEGs have plenty of detail, but there are some coloured blotches. These aren’t especially objectionable, but they are visible when images are sized to make A3 prints. Images taken at ISO 6400 and above also have the odd hot red pixel. As the resolution chart images show, the EOS 7D resolves a lot of detail. Even at ISO 12,800 it puts in a reasonable performance.

These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, still-life scene and a grey card. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.The section of the still-life image contains the emblem on a standard sized matchbox.

Dynamic range and gamut

In its default settings the EOS 7D has a dynamic range of 12EV, which is up with the best DSLRs we have put through our testing regime. Like the more recent high-end DSLRs from Canon, the EOS 7D has two dynamic range optimiser options: Auto Lighting Optimizer (with Low, Standard, Strong and Disable settings), and Highlight Tone Priority. For the first time, Auto Lighting Optimizer, which brightens image shadows, can be used in manual exposure mode, but cannot now be used at the same time as the Highlight Tone Priority mode.

Consequently, it is better to use the exposure controls to retain the highlight details and then use the Auto Lighting Optimizer to bring out the shadow detail of JPEG files. The brightening effect can also be applied to raw files when they are processed using the supplied Digital Photo Professional software.

Understanding the graph

This graph shows the brightness values recorded by the test camera when it is used to photograph a stepped graduation wedge. The wedge has transmission values in 1⁄2EV steps ranging from 0 to 12EV. The camera’s exposure is set so the 12EV section in the wedge has a brightness value of 255. Software analysis of the image then determines the recorded brightness values of all the other steps and calculates the camera’s dynamic range.

Gamut

When set to Standard Picture Style, with the Adobe RGB colour space, the EOS 7D is capable of recording almost the entire base of the ICC colour space, with very smooth reds, mauves and purples. As usual, though, the green coverage is a little restricted so it doesn’t quite encompass the entire Adobe RGB space.

LCD, viewfinder and video

Canon EOS 7D LCD screen

While the EOS 7D has a fixed focusing screen, Canon has given it a transmissive LCD, which enables a composition grid, electronic level (using the AF points) and the AF points and zones to be displayed.

In most situations the view is smooth, clear and bright, but on some occasions I noticed a texture on the screen when looking at out-of-focus areas of bright, even tone.

Although the EOS 7D’s viewfinder is bright enough to allow manual focus, in most situations in which I opted to focus this way, I chose to use the magnified view on the LCD screen. It’s easier to be precise when a section of the scene is enlarged. Both views offer a 100% view.


As we have now come to expect from a high-end DSLR, the EOS 7D’s LCD screen is 3in across the diagonal and has 920,000 dots (307,000 pixels). To reduce reflections and glare, Canon has filled the gap between the crystals of the display and the new hard glass cover with an optical elastic material, which has a similar refractive index to the glass. This seems to have paid off, as I found the screen provides a very clear view even in quite bright ambient light.

Movies may be recorded at 1920×1080 pixels (Full HD) at 30fps, 25fps or 24fps, or 1280x720pixels (720p) and 640x480pixels at 60fps or 50fps. As in Live View mode, contrast-detection AF is possible during movie recording, but it is often better to take manual control as the system is prone to drifting past the intended target.

Also, if the internal monaural mic is being used to record sound (there is a socket to accept an external mic), button presses and hand movements are best kept to a minimum. At the highest resolution and frame rate, movies have plenty of detail and movement is smooth.

Our verdict and focal points

Nikon’s enthusiasm for putting the same (or similar) technology in top-level and mid-range DSLRs has rather emphasised the gap between Canon’s professional-level EOS-1D series and its semi-professional and enthusiast-level cameras. The EOS 7D closes that gap a little and raises questions about the positioning of the EOS 5D Mark II, which looks a little dated in comparison.

The new AF system in the EOS 7D is impressive, and getting the best from it requires a good understanding of the subject as the camera sees it, as well as the available custom functions. It brings the Canon camera’s AF into line with that of Nikon’s higher-end offerings.
EOS 7D’s AF system combines well with the 8fps maximum continuous shooting rate, making the camera a good choice for serious sports enthusiasts and professionals who cannot justify the £4,499 price tag of the EOS-1D Mark IV, or those who don’t need a larger sensor.

Canon’s engineers certainly appear to have been earning their salaries over the past couple of years, and the EOS 7D is a significant improvement over the EOS 50D. Its ability to resolve detail has increased, and noise is much better controlled across the sensitivity range, making the camera much more versatile.

It is worth noting here that none of the images I took during this test exhibits the ghosting phenomenon that has been reported in some images taken with the EOS 7D in its high-speed continuous shooting mode. Canon USA has stated that a firmware upgrade will be issued to deal with it.

Focal Points

A/D conversion
Like Canon’s other high-end DSLRs, the EOS 7D has a 14-bit A/D converter that turns the electrical signal from the sensor into digital code. Using a 14-bit device enables a wider range of tones to be generated in each colour channel for better colour and smoother gradations than from 12-bit cameras.

Dual Digic 4 processors
The EOS 7D is the first non-EOS-1D series camera to feature dual Digic processors. As well as boosting the maximum continuous shooting rate, this enables more complex noise-reduction algorithms to be carried out.

Manual control of exposure in video mode
Full manual or automatic control is provided over the exposure in video mode. This is set before recording is started and the slowest shutter speed is dictated by the selected frame rate. Exposure compensation may be adjusted to ±3EV during the exposure.

Wireless flash
The EOS 7D’s built-in flash may be set to control up to three groups of Canon EX-series Speedlite (and compatible) flashguns wirelessly. It’s easy to set up and set the flash output ratios via the Flash Control option at the bottom of the first shooting menu screen.

The competition

There isn’t really any direct competition with the Canon EOS 7D. Nikon’s top-end APS-C-format DSLR, the D300s, has a considerably lower resolution of 12.3 million effective pixels. It also has a street price of around £1,250, almost £450 less than the current street price of the EOS 7D.

Meanwhile, the 14.6-million-pixel Pentax K-7 retails for around £1,000. Although the Nikon D300s and Pentax K-7 are both impressive for their pixel count, neither can quite match the detail resolution of the EOS 7D.

It also trumps both of their maximum sensitivity expansion settings of ISO 6400. Without a head-to-head shoot-out it is difficult to say whether the Canon or the Nikon AF system is faster, but both beat the Pentax K-7. However, on paper at least, the Nikon 300s would appear to offer the slightly better deal with a detection range of -1-19EV instead of -0.5-18EV and a total of 51 AF points rather than 19.

The EOS 7D does, however, have more cross-type AF points than the D300s, as all 19 are biaxial rather than just 15 in the Nikon camera. Either model would meet the needs of the sports enthusiast, but some may be put off by the comparatively high cost of the EOS 7D.

  • Video: MOV files, 1290x1080 pixels (at 29.97, 25 or 23.976fps), 1280x720 pixels (59.94 or 50fps), 640x480 pixels (59.94 or 50fps), max duration 29min 59secs or 4GB size
  • Built-in Flash: Yes, pop-up unit GN 12m @ ISO 100
  • White Balance: Auto, six presets, plus one customsetting and Kelvin adjustment
  • Dioptre Adjustment: -3 to +1 dioptre
  • Shutter Type: Electronically controlled focal-plane
  • Memory Card: CompactFlash (inc UDMA)
  • Output Size: 5184x3456 pixels
  • LCD: 3in Clear View II TFT with 920,000 dots and 160°
  • Viewfinder Type: Pentaprism
  • Field of View: Approx 100%
  • Max Flash Sync: 1/250sec default or 1/8000sec with compatible EX series Speedlites
  • Sensor: Canon CMOS with 18 million effective pixels
  • AF Points: 19 points selectable individually or automatically in reflex mode, roaming-point in Live View mode
  • Focal Length Mag: 1.6x
  • Colour Space: Adobe RGB, sRGB
  • Drive Mode: Single, continuous high/continuous low, self timer (2 or 10sec delay), 8fps max for 126 large fine jpegs or approx 15 raw files
  • Shutter Speeds: 30-1/8000sec in 1⁄3 or 1⁄2EV steps plus B
  • File Format: 14-bit raw, JPEG (two levels of compression available), S-RAW1, M-RAW, JPEG + raw(or S-raw or M-raw) simultaneously
  • Exposure Modes: PASM, Creative Auto, plus three custom modes
  • Power: Rechargeable Li-Ion battery BP-511A (supplied)
  • Weight: 740g (without battery or card/s)
  • Exposure Comp: ±5EV in 1⁄3 or 1/2EV steps
  • Focusing Modes: Manual, One Shot AF, AI Servo AF, AI Focus AF, contrast-detection AF in Live View mode
  • ISO: ISO 100-6,400 expandable to ISO 100-12,800
  • Lens Mount: Canon EF (EF-S compatible)
  • Dimensions: 145.5x107.8x73.5mm
  • DoF Preview: Yes
  • Metering System: 63-zone evaluative, centreweighted, spot (approx 2.3%) and partial (9.4%)
  • Connectivity / Interface: USB 2.0 Hi-Speed
  • Compression: Two-stage JPEG
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