Canon EOS 7D Review
Reviewed by Shawn Barnett, Dave Etchells, Zig Weidelich,
and Mike Tomkins
Hands-on Preview: 09/01/09
Review Posted: 01/15/10
The Canon 7D is the digital SLR that many Canon fans have been waiting for, with a list of long-absent features that the lineup has needed to take on cameras like the Nikon D300.
Not shying away from the megapixel race, the new Canon 7D has a brand new 18-megapixel APS-C sensor with a 1.6x crop factor. Each pixel is 4.3 microns in size, though Canon says that with their gapless microlenses, the new sensor gathers plenty of light.
The Canon 7D is designed for speed, with dual DIGIC 4 chips to speed processing of these large 14-bit files, as well as keep up with the shutter's 8-frame-per-second top speed. Even the sensor had to be tweaked to enable such speed, with an 8-channel readout to more quickly draw the image off the sensor.
The Canon 7D's buffer can handle 94 JPEGs at top speed, or 15 RAW images.
For its part, the Canon 7D's shutter mechanism is rated at 150,000 cycles, and is the same design used by the 1D-series of Canon digital SLRs.
EV compensation has been expanded to five stops in either direction, and the ISO ranges from 100 to 6,400, with an expanded setting up to 12,800. The Canon 7D also sports an HD movie mode that will capture full HD at 30p.
The built-in flash has a wider range to handle up to 15mm wide-angle lenses, like the new EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM, and the flash can also serve as the remote commander for up to three groups of flashes, another first for Canon.
Other new features include an electronic level, a RAW button, and a new Multi-function button for quick, programmable access to various functions. And don't forget the new 19-point autofocus system, complete with a new LCD viewfinder display overlay, complete with a grid, obviating the need for interchangeable screens.
The Canon 7D is expected to ship toward the end of September 2009, and retail body-only for US$1,699. A kit with the 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens will sell for US$1,899.
Canon EOS 7D User Reportby Shawn Barnett
The long-rumored Canon 7D has finally materialized: an advanced subframe digital SLR that Canon says is in the same class as the 5D Mark II. This is not the 60D with a new name, we're told, but a whole new line; whether the 7D supplants the 50D is not clear.
What is clear is that the Canon EOS 7D is replete with features, many of which seem like the fulfillment of an enthusiast checklist. Other features are clear responses to just about every corner of the digital SLR market, features that are heretofore only seen on one or two cameras from Nikon, Pentax, Sony, Olympus, and even Canon's Rebel line. The end result is that much of what Canon users may have admired in other cameras is now available in the Canon 7D.
Competition is good.
The Canon 7D also goes a long way toward tempering fears that the next round of Canon digital SLRs would be full-frame, as several of the advancements take advantage of the sensor's smaller size to achieve greater frame rates. Though the new sensor is 18 megapixels, the Canon 7D is still capable of capturing eight frames per second while maintaining 14-bit analog-to-digital conversion thanks to its dual DIGIC 4 processors. That makes the Canon 7D essentially the company's pro-grade subframe digital camera, going up against the Nikon D300S, leaving the current 50D to compete with the Nikon D90. It's interesting that Canon has essentially had no camera in this category until now.
There's a lot of detail to fill in, but let's get to the walkaround first to provide the usual context. The Canon 7D is similar in size to the EOS 50D, just a little larger, measuring 5.8 x 4.4 x 2.9 inches (148.2 x 110.7 x 73.5mm), and weighing 33.3 ounces (2.08 pounds, 945g) with a battery and CF card. With the 28-135mm kit lens, it weighs 51.75 ounces (3.23 pounds, 1,467g).
Look and feel. Falling somewhere between the 5D Mark II and the 50D, the Canon 7D will feel familiar to either type of user. It has a big, comfortable grip with an indentation for the middle finger. The pentaprism housing is a little larger than the 50D, but a little smaller than the 5D Mark II. That's interesting, because the pentaprism in the 7D is actually larger than the 5D Mark II, to support the 100% viewfinder with 1.0 magnification, something we'll get to shortly. Unlike the 5D Mark II, the Canon 7D has a pop-up flash built in.
Canon has nested an infrared sensor into the front of the grip for remote release, something that they've left out of higher-end EOS cameras, instead confining it to the Rebel series. It's a welcome inclusion, giving new life to my RC-1 remote control that dates back to the 1990's. Upper right are four holes for the microphone. The Canon 7D also has a stereo microphone jack for those who are serious about getting quality audio from the camera's HD video output.
Like the 5D series, the Canon 7D's Mode dial is devoid of Scene modes, the first visible sign that this is a pro sub-frame camera. The good news is that you can build you own Custom modes, thanks to the three Custom positions on the dial (C1, C2, and C3), great for quickly setting the camera to a group of settings you use frequently. (I shoot a lot of product shots, for example, but often use the same camera for casual family photography: I usually assign a Custom mode for each of those, then set the third one to black and white mode.)
The power switch is in an entirely new place, jutting out toward the rear from under the Mode dial. The Status LCD illumination button is upper right of the LCD, as on the 5D, rather than as on the 50D. And the new Multi-Function (M-Fn) button is just behind and left of the shutter release button. This button can be programmed to quickly adjust several camera parameters.
A new LCD design graces the back of the Canon 7D. Canon has eliminated the air gap between the LCD and cover glass by sandwiching a special optical elastic material between the LCD and the cover glass. This optical elastic material has the same high refractive index as the glass itself. The cover glass is also a reinforced glass instead of the acrylic used on the 50D and 5D Mark II, so they also eliminated the special anti-reflective and scratch-resistant coatings found on the other recent EOS cameras. The appearance of the LCD is indeed reminiscent of instruments like a liquid-filled compass, with added contrast and less glare. Better yet, it doesn't give your images a blue cast that makes color harder to judge, especially when outdoors with the 50D or T1i. I really like the new display.
Also new on the back is the Quick menu button, which brings up the Standard status display, allowing easy navigation and adjustment of the various controls. Where the Live View activation button currently exists on the 5D and 50D, a new RAW+JPEG toggle button has been added, an innovation first seen on Pentax digital SLRs. Whether you're in RAW or JPEG mode, pressing this button turns on RAW+JPEG for the next frame, then reverts to whichever mode you had active. Just lower left of the optical viewfinder are three holes for the speaker. Also new is the Live View/Movie mode switch and start button. When the surrounding switch is set to Live View, as shown above, the Start/Stop button enters and exits Live View mode. When set to Movie mode, the Start/Stop button starts and stops recording.
Another welcome change is actually a return to the old, with the five standard buttons aligned to the left of the LCD, rather than their more awkward position beneath the LCD on the 50D.
Because Canon moved the power switch to the upper left under the Mode dial, a new Quick control dial Lock switch was necessary, appearing lower left of the dial. Just upper left of this dial is the ambient light sensor, which the Canon 7D uses to automatically adjust the LCD backlight.
Viewfinder. A significant upgrade to the Canon 7D is its stated 100 percent viewfinder coverage (we've measured it at 98%), something currently only available on a very few competing digital SLR cameras, including the Pentax K7 and the Sony A900. Furthermore, the Canon 7D's viewfinder delivers 1.0x magnification.
The Canon 7D's pentaprism is quite a bit bigger than the Canon 50D's, as shown above.
Much as we've seen in Nikon SLRs, the Canon 7D now uses a Polymer Network LCD as the focusing screen, which includes 19 autofocus points that seem to appear from nothing, rather than the static AF points of old. That also means that gridlines can be turned on and off electronically, rather than requiring a system of interchangeable focusing screens, and the 19 AF points can be clustered as needed.
In low light, a red LED comes on to illuminate the LCD's features, much like the Nikon system, only a little brighter in the early unit I used. In auto mode, the system would detect the light level rather rapidly and switch the LED off and on as light levels dictated. You could also turn this feature off.
Another new feature for Canon includes visible indication of focus tracking as a subject moves across the viewfinder. Canon notes that in very cold weather, the LCD might respond more slowly than the AF system itself is making changes, thanks to the reduced response of LCDs in cold weather. And just like Nikons, the viewfinder gets darker and blurry when you pull the battery, since the liquid crystals go back to a relaxed state without power.
In Live View mode, the leveling feature is easier to understand and considerably more attractive. Looking much like an airplane's attitude indicator, with its artificial horizon line, the lines light up green when your pitch and roll have settled into a nice even state, as seen at right.
This view is also available on the rear LCD in a larger size without Live View mode active. In these latter two modes, the level displays 360 degree roll and 10 degree pitch in one degree increments. Pressing the Info button cycles through the available displays. The Dual-axis Electronic Level display is also available in the Canon 7D's Movie mode.
Sensor. While Canon led the retreat in resolution for the sake of low-light image quality with the announcement of the 10-megapixel PowerShot G11 and S90 in mid-August 2009, the new Canon 7D continues the subframe SLR's charge ahead to 18 megapixels, up from 15.1 in the Canon 50D. The new CMOS sensor's 4.3-micron pixel pitch is the smallest Canon has included in an SLR, but they've improved their sensor performance and image processing sufficiently to handle the smaller size. Canon continues to use gapless microlenses, which are also said to be improved. Sensor dimensions are 22.3 x 14.9mm, with a 1.6x crop factor.
The Canon 7D's new sensor also required a boost in image readout speed, so it's fitted with an 8-channel readout, plus faster reading for each individual column; the 5D Mark II and 50D both have a four-channel readout. Canon has also improved the photodiodes that make up each pixel, reducing the size of the circuitry around each, and allowing a larger photo-sensitive area, resulting in better high-ISO performance. If you make a more sensitive photodiode, though, you're faced with greater chance of overload in bright conditions, so Canon also increased the capacity of each photodiode for better low-ISO performance as well.
Processors. Further increasing the overall throughput are the dual DIGIC 4 chips, making the Canon 7D the fastest sub-frame camera at this price point, capable of capturing up to 8 frames per second, with a burst depth up to 94 JPEGs. With a UDMA CompactFlash card, that average goes up to 126 JPEGs. You can also get 15 RAW images, or 6 RAW+JPEG shots. All of these speeds are possible in the Canon 7D's native 14-bit A/D conversion mode, while the competing Nikon D300S slows from 7 frames per second in 12-bit mode to 2.7 frames per second in 14-bit mode.
For the first time on a non-1D EOS camera, Canon has dedicated two separate processors to Autofocus and A/D conversion, despite the extra power offered by the two DIGIC 4 processors. So Autofocus is not hampered by any work the DIGIC 4 processors are doing to remove noise from the captured images, nor is the Analog-to-digital conversion.
Sensitivity. Ranging from ISO 100 to 6,400, plus a Hi setting of 12,800, the Canon 7D seems to improve on the image quality found in the EOS 50D. The dual DIGIC 4 processors should help speed processing, as well as the results.
Included in the Canon 7D's features are Highlight Tone Priority, which biases the dynamic range to retain more detail in the highlight areas, important for wedding photographs, where typically white dresses often have blown detail. The ISO range for HTP has been expanded to include the range from 200 to 6,400 in the Canon 7D.
Shutter. The Canon 7D has a shutter mechanism that's rated at 150,000 cycles. Further, it's described as a rotary magnet shutter, the same design used in the Canon EOS 1v and the EOS 1D Mark II N and Mark III, but resized to fit the Canon 7D's APS-C sensor. This spec alone makes us want to describe the Canon 7D as the budget Canon 1D, as at least its frame rate makes it suitable for sports.
The shutter sound is quick and relatively quiet, without a bunch of winding and whirring, something I appreciate. Naturally it's a little louder with the lens off, but here's a sample video of what eight frames per second looks like.
Remember, it was only four years ago, September 2005, that the professional Canon 1D Mark II N hit the scene, offering 10-megapixel, APS-H sized images at eight frames per second for $4,000. Now you can get 18-megapixel, APS-C images at eight frames per second for under $1,700 with the Canon 7D.
Autofocus. The Canon 7D's autofocus system has quite a few new features worth mentioning, and some of them are related to the Metering system, which we'll get to in a moment. First, as we've covered in brief, the AF system has 19 autofocus points, each of them a cross-type, optimized to detect both horizontal and vertical features for greater accuracy across the frame. In the center of the screen is the X-type sensor, designed to detect diagonal lines as well. It also requires lenses of f/2.8 or better, while the other points will work up to f/5.6.
New to the Canon 7D is the ability to cluster AF points, and move them around the screen. You can also select a finer point than usual, called a Spot point, choosing from all 19 across the screen.
There are so many autofocus options that it can become rather troublesome cycling through them. You also have to learn to use the new Multi-function button, which cycles through the five options, one with each press. But Custom function III:6 allows you to disable the ones you don't plan to use so you can save time. A nice feature.
Canon is also making some interesting claims about the AI Servo AF system, which has a new algorithm that is expected to handle irregular movement better than the Canon 50D, which should mean better sports shots.
Another truly unique use of AI Servo technology is employed during Macro shooting. The new system can compensate and track so quickly with certain lenses that it can lock and track focus as you unconsciously move closer to and further from your Macro target, or if your target moves while you're shooting it, like a flower. It essentially adds a third dimension to any IS-capable lens.
And as you're tracking a subject that's moving rapidly, the new AF points will illuminate as your subject moves on the screen, further evidence that the Canon 7D has seen your target and is keeping it in focus.
Speeding things up. The idea of Orientation-linked AF is intriguing, and it goes further than we initially thought. Set with Custom Function III:12, you can select not only the AF point you want to maintain, but also the AF point selection mode while the camera is oriented, say, horizontally. Then, when you rotate the camera to vertical, you can pick a different AF point selection mode and a different point or zone if you like. Once each orientation is set, the Canon 7D will remember both the type and point you selected and switch back automatically. A likely use for me would be switching from shooting horizontal group shots, where I'd want to use Zone AF, to vertical portrait shots, where I'd want to rotate right and use Single-point AF with the point centered on the subject's eye. Rotating instead to the left activates yet another mode, or else perhaps Zone AF again, for vertical group shots.
I tend to use both right and left rotation as I shoot in crowds of people, depending on where I am with respect to others. But this opens up a new use for camera rotation, switching AF modes without having to consult even the Quick menu. Once you learn to use it, it's easy and quite helpful, and would be excellent for the busy wedding photographer who needs to focus more on catching valuable moments than on his gear. Mount a flash bracket, of course, and you might have trouble with one of the vertical orientations, but two out of three ain't bad.
Metering. As I said, the Canon 7D's new AF system is tightly linked to the Metering system, much like recent Nikon systems, and even the concepts are similar; but the uses are not the same. It all comes down to the Canon 7D's iFCL, or Intelligent Focus Color Luminosity metering system.
First the new meter, shown at right, has 63 zones, and they are linked to the 19 autofocus points. Sound familiar? The metering sensor has two layers: the top is sensitive to Red and Green, and the bottom layer to Blue and Green. So it can measure a full spectrum of RGB, rather than just luminosity; and when it compares the data between the AF system and its own color system, the Canon 7D has a better understanding of the image area; not only what colors there are, but what is where.
Nikon uses this same type of data to track objects moving through the image area, augmenting their continuous focus mode. Canon does not. They have other fish to fry. First, they make up for the normal foibles of silicon sensors by detecting Red and compensating for silicon's red sensitivity, which gives it a tendency to overexpose red objects. The Canon 7D's meter, now having color vision, can make the necessary change.
The Canon 7D also uses the color information to better identify objects, merging that information with the AF sensor data -- which tells the Canon 7D not only which AF areas are in focus, but which areas are out of focus -- to calculate an object's total range of distances; in that way it can set the aperture to keep that object in focus, if desired.
The color information also becomes important when trying to focus more accurately when shooting under unusual light sources, like sodium lights, whose unusual spectrum often fools AF systems into backfocusing significantly. When light sources like these are detected, though, the Canon 7D can compensate. For more on this element of the Canon 7D, see our Exposure page.
Flash. The Canon 7D's built-in flash is able to cover a wider angle of up to 15mm, though its range is limited as a result, with a guide number of 39 (12 meters) at ISO 100. The Canon 50D's flash had a guide number of 42 (13 meters), but the extra wide-angle coverage will be appreciated nonetheless.
In another answer to a long-ignored Nikon capability, the Canon 7D is the first EOS camera able to control up to three groups of wireless flashes direct from the built-in pop-up flash, using E-TTL or Manual control. Previously you needed either Canon's high-end flash (550EX, 580EX or 580EX II) or the ST-E2 controller to enable wireless flash control.
Canon sent us some interesting illustrations to outline the basic capabilities of the EOS 7D's wireless flash. They're a little large, though, so I put them all into one graphic, whose thumbnail you can click on at left. I did a little test using the pop-up flash as Master controller for just one 580EX, then expanded it to include three 580EX flashes, which you can see below in my Shooter's Report.
Movie mode. The Canon 7D's Movie mode supports Auto and Manual exposure and multiple frame rates. Maximum resolution is 1,920 x 1,080 pixels at 16:9 aspect ratio, or Full HD. Other resolutions include 720p and 640x480 at 30 frames per second. How you activate your movies has changed from other recent models, with both Movie and Live View modes linked to a single switch and button combination, placed within easy reach of your thumb, shown at right.
Movie mode on all digital SLRs is not really ready to replace the family camcorder, however, because lenses don't focus quietly or quickly enough for the average consumer; as a result, we don't recommend you base a purchase decision on this feature alone. If you want to know a lot more about this feature, though, see our extensive writeup, complete with test videos, on the Canon 7D Video tab of this Review (or click here).
Incidentals. Copyright info can be input into the Canon 7D without connecting it to a computer, unlike all previous EOS cameras, using an on-camera interface. The Canon 7D also includes EICS, or EOS Integrated Cleaning System, which uses special coatings in the camera to reduce dust generation, repels dust from the sensor, and removes dust when the unit is powering on. Software also allows removal after capture.
Shooting the Canon EOS 7D
Where to start? That's a good question with the Canon 7D, because it's a good deal more complicated than any of Canon's previous intermediate digital SLRs. Past designs in the prosumer line, whose last representative model is the 50D, have emphasized reliance on a standard set of controls, with glacial evolution from one model to the next, while the Canon 7D grafts on a new set of controls as requested by advanced users. But the new controls don't draw heavily from Canon's 1D series; instead they contain elements from competing designs and new buttons designed to open up new avenues of control.
While that sounds great, it also means that the user stepping up from the 50D and its predecessors will have a steep learning curve to confront. But as one who's tired of being underwhelmed by interface enhancements to Canon's intermediate line, the 7D offers a welcome challenge.
Dedicated button. First on the list of intelligent changes is the addition of the Quick Control Menu button. The Quick Control Menu itself isn't new -- it was activated by pressing down on the Multi-controller on the 50D -- but the new button gives the very visual, icon-driven interface a clear and visible point of entry. After activation, you still use the Multi-controller to navigate onscreen, and once you've arrived at the item you want to adjust you can either turn the Quick Control dial or the Main dial to change a setting, or press the Set button in the center of the Quick Control dial to go to the full menu screen for each item. Options include Shutter speed, Aperture, ISO, EV, AF point selection, Picture Style, White Balance, Metering mode, Resolution, AF mode, Drive mode, and Custom controls.
It's pretty much all the stuff you can also adjust from the Canon 7D's Status display on the top deck, plus a few additional items you'd have to use the menu to adjust. As one who often has to make adjustments with the camera mounted high on a tripod, I'm grateful for a second interface on the big LCD to make adjustments quickly.
Insurance. A good many working photographers still shoot JPEG, though most would admit there are times they wish they had that RAW backup to rescue moments lost to exposure error. Well, if they think of it in advance of the shot, the Canon 7D now gives them the option to turn RAW on for the next shot with a press of the RAW/JPEG button. If they're shooting in RAW mode, they can likewise add a JPEG shot to the mix. You can choose which JPEG or RAW file size you want to add when you press this button via Record menu 3, under One-touch RAW+JPEG. It's a feature I very much enjoy when shooting Pentax digital SLRs, so I'm happy to see it here. You can't use the button to switch between RAW and JPEG-only, nor to enter RAW+JPEG for more than one shot; for that you have to use the Main or Quick Control menu, or else use the Custom Controls option to assign Resolution to the Set button. As I mentioned, this kind of convenient customization can get complicated.
100% viewfinder... nearly. Having a real viewfinder that shows you the entire image isn't rare if you're used to shooting only digicams, but when you're used to adding some fudge factor to your mind's eye when framing with a traditional digital SLR, every choice you make becomes more critical. If you don't see something in the viewfinder, you're not going to get it at all. That is quite good, but it's important to remember when you're arching your back over the truck behind you to fit that last important element into your shot. That's what I was doing when I snapped this shot of a favorite storefront, and the extra efforts I made got in just a touch of the awning while maintaining the feet of the chairs (check the plaque on the door to see what kind of business was undertaken at this establishment in 1914; the Canon 7D's 18-megapixel resolution makes it an easy read at 100 percent).
This extremely accurate view isn't quite as accurate as we've been told, at least according to our tests, but it sure seemed like it was to me. That it's at least as close as it is makes another reason to spend the extra money on a Canon 7D, since the many inaccurate optical viewfinders on the market are not just off by a percentage of the frame, they're very often off-center and even tilted from what you'll get from the sensor.
New focusing screen. As a fan of the old EOS focusing screen, I'm still surprised when I put the Canon 7D to my eye and see no AF points etched into the screen. But I have to admit, I like the new screen just fine. The Zone AF system has proven remarkably helpful at times. Though I usually prefer a single point, having a cluster of AF points that I can move around is nice too, and could be more effective, especially with a zoom lens mounted, as they generally have a greater depth of field. Fine brackets mark where the cluster area lies. Here's one where Nikon certainly led the way and Canon picked up a quality feature. (Click on the image at right to see viewfinder callouts.)
Changing AF points. Switching between AF points when in Spot AF, Single, Expansion, and Zone AF is easy and familiar to EOS users. But switching between AF-point modes is new: You have to use the M-Fn button just behind and to the left of the shutter button while looking at the AF screen. It's a toggle that switches from one setting to the other, and unlike most any other Canon control, it does not use the Main or Quick Control dial. It's a bit of a nuisance when you're in a hurry, but use only the 7D and the nuisance factor will wear off quickly.
Focus troubles. I spent some time shooting with the new EF-S 15-85mm, and got generally good results, except when shooting landscapes at wide-angle, like 15 and 24mm. While shooting a series to later convert to panoramic images, at both of these focal lengths, the Canon 7D didn't focus to infinity. Nether the buildings in the distance nor the closer trees with Christmas lights were in focus across more than a dozen images. Luke noticed this earlier when looking at this lens on his Canon 50D, so it's not likely a problem with the Canon 7D, and we get the same front-focusing from the Canon 20D, so this is likely a problem with the lens, which we've sent back for inspection.
A more troublesome problem showed up when we were using Contrast Detect autofocus to set focus for our Indoor Incandescent test shots (INB): it just didn't work. Using our standard Sigma 70mm f/2.8 lens, the Contrast detect AF system would rack forward and back past the obvious focus point, settle on some very blurry position, and put up the focus confirmation, complete with double beep and green box. We have few additional non-Canon lenses with which to test the EOS 7D, but the Sigma 70mm shows up as Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro when you access the 7D's Microadjustment feature. This suggests that the 7D is making adjustments to the Sigma's focus based on its expectations from the Canon 50mm f/2.5. Other lenses that use this method to "trick" the camera into accepting the lens also might have trouble with the Canon 7D in Contrast Detect AF mode.
The Canon 100mm f/2.8 works well with Contrast-detect autofocus, but it is not perfect, often showing a clear image just before locking focus, then jumping to a position slightly out of focus when the confirmation beep sounds. It can be very frustrating to see the AF system so clearly attain focus only to choose a slightly softer position before you take the shot.
Phase-detect autofocus works fine with both lenses. It's surprising that Contrast-detect doesn't do a better job.
Frame rate and tracking. Capturing at a rate of eight frames per second, the Canon 7D is the first digital SLR to bring meaningful speed for action shooters to a price under $4,000. Focus tracking gave mixed results. I shot a few runs of my kids on a bike and the best I got were about 70% focused, which isn't too bad. But other sequences were only 40% in-focus, which isn't as good. This was under cloudy skies, though, so we also did a another test tracking a car moving at about 30 miles per hour.
Canon 7D tracking a car moving at about 30 miles per hour. At left is a 100% crop of the right headlight. Toward the end of this sequence, it looks like some motion blur is a factor, perhaps when the car hit a bump, or else when I moved. Shutter speed at that point was 1/400 second. Lens used was a Canon 70-200mm f/4. You can see the original shots in the Gallery.
On the first pass, the Canon 7D didn't seem to pick up on the idea that I wanted it to track the oncoming car, instead focusing on the house in the background until the car was quite close. However, it did much better on the second, third, and fourth passes, staying pretty well on target. It was as if the camera were learning as it went. Tracking a black car is a fairly tough test, and the Canon 7D did surprisingly well.
At eight frames per second, the Canon 7D captures a whole lot of what you're shooting. JPEGs seemed to be saved before I could look at the write light on the back of the camera, but RAW+JPEG combos were less forgiving, capturing about six images before requiring a wait of about nine seconds in our lab tests. Shooting RAW only, we got off 16 shots with a wait of 10 seconds. That's not bad, but it adds up quickly at eight frames per second, and a 10 second wait to clear the buffer can seem like long time at the racetrack.
The fastest framerate we captured in our laboratory tests at Continuous High was 7.98 frames per second. I figure that's close enough; but if you're into splitting hairs, or absolutely need 8 fps for some kind of calculation, it might be good to know. Continuous Low, by the way, measured 2.99 frames per second.
Live view. Much easier to activate than on the 50D, the Canon 7D's Live View nevertheless starts up slowly, taking as much as a second an a half to serve up a live image. I need to offer the usual warning that contrast-detect autofocus is often very slow, and with some lenses, like the Sigma 70mm I mentioned earlier, it's downright inaccurate. Switching to Quick mode AF (phase-detect) is faster overall, despite the momentary interruption to the live view, and a good deal more accurate and reliable in my experience. According to our tests, though, both methods are pretty close to one second of shutter lag time. Contrast detect is better used when outdoors in brighter light.
Live view has lost some of its novelty, but it's still useful when shooting in odd, off-angle situations. The Canon 7D's excellent high-resolution LCD screen is absolutely gorgeous, though, which makes framing your images a pleasure. I'm a little disappointed that they still don't have a translucent histogram for the Live View mode, because activating the histogram covers around one-sixth of the screen.
When shooting in Quick AF mode, which uses the traditional phase-detect AF sensors, you have to leave Live View to change selected AF points, which is cumbersome to say the least.
Movie mode. Operated off of the same switch, the Canon 7D's Movie mode is more easy to access than ever. While shooting stills, it's a quick motion of the thumb to flip the 7D into movie mode, whether you're in normal or Live View mode. It took me awhile to get used to the idea that this serious still camera had a movie mode, so I don't have any usable examples of when I saw a moment more worthy of video and made the switch, but it has happened, and there have been more times when I wished I'd have remembered. So bottom line, if you remember, Movie mode is right there at any time, and you can capture video snippets as quickly as you can a photograph with just a flick and a press of the Start/Stop button.
Capturing stills while shooting movies is even easier: Just press the shutter button! The still is inserted into the video while a full-size image is saved to the card and movie recording commences. This is a favorite feature of mine, mostly because it keeps the still option open. Oddly, the manual says that if you shoot stills while recording a video, the still image will have a mask, but I think they mean the still that's inserted into the video, not the final, full-res image.
It's more important when you're shooting with a narrow depth of field, of course; and in the end, that's the advantage that shooting video with an SLR gives you, so my main warning is to be very aware of your aperture and focus, and shoot in short clips whenever possible, because the Canon 7D can't focus while you're shooting.
The flip side of that is that the Canon 7D won't start seeking for focus while you shoot video in low light like most camcorders are wont to do, so you have more control. For more on the Canon 7D's video ance, see our Video page.
Flash as master. After years of leaving Nikon users an important advantage when it came to wireless flash control on a budget, the Canon 7D's pop-up flash will finally serve as a master controller when used with Canon's various wireless flashes (though, of course, the Canon 7D isn't necessarily the most economical choice when on a budget). Since it is so new, I decided to take the new system for a spin with a trio of 580EX flashes.
There are some limitations to how the Canon 7D's flash works with other flashes, and the new system creates some unnecessary confusion along the way. The Canon flash system uses the concept of power ratios rather than exposure values as on the Nikon flash system; Canon's method will be more familiar to studio photographers, but can be a little unusual at first to consumer photographers.
Though I had three flashes, I first wanted to try a two-light system, using the on-camera flash as fill (A), and an off-camera 580EX (B) as a key light.
I mounted the 580EX on a light stand with a Photoflex Shoemount Multi-clamp, added a 32-inch umbrella, and aimed the wireless sensor toward where I'd be shooting, then entered the Flash settings menu on the EOS 7D to make my settings.
If you're using a 580EX as master, you can move from 8:1 ratio to 1:8, but with the Canon 7D's on-camera flash, you're limited by its lower power when compared to the 580EX. In a keylight arrangement, that's okay, because you want to vary the power of your keylight, using your on-camera flash as a consistent fill light. So with the on-camera flash as A and the off-camera flash as B, you can go from a relative power ratio of 1:1 to 1:2, 1:4, and 1:8, right?
Ultimately, yes, but that's not how the 7D refers to it. Because instead of calling the on-camera flash "A" and the off-camera flash "B," in a standard A:B configuration, they show an icon for the off-camera flash first, then an icon for the on-camera flash, separated by a colon: [off camera flash]:[on-camera flash]. So when you're setting your flash ratios, you have to do it backwards: B:A. That makes your power options: 1:1, 2:1, 4:1, and 8:1, again with the first number representing the power of the off-camera flash. The drag about this is that it becomes confusing when you switch back to using a 580EX as master in a multi-flash arrangement, where the meaning of these ratios is reversed.
After some trial and error, I got pretty good results with the two-flash arrangement, but I didn't like the shadow that was cast on my background from the pop-up flash, even at an 8:1 Key:Fill ratio, so I tried to switch to an A:B C mode to add a background flash. Given my limited time, I went ahead employed all three 580EX flashes, remote controlled by the Canon 7D's pop-up flash and captured the fifth shot shown here. After that, I moved the third 580EX, or Group C, to serve as a hairlight.
The seventh shot shows how my DynaLite studio flash does with the same large softbox and umbrella to modify the light, an apt comparison.
The Canon wireless flash shots look pretty good. Flash brackets, stands, soft boxes and umbrellas are fairly inexpensive, travel pretty easily, and make these small flashes seem like studio lights without the cords.
Adequately modifying the Canon 7D's pop-up flash to remove shadows is a little more difficult, though, especially if you're shooting vertically as I was. Had I shot horizontally, the shadow would have largely disappeared behind her head thanks to her hair, but the same would not be true for people with shorter hair, so I recommend using a second 580EX as a master controller for best results if you're going to do a Key:Fill combo as you see here. The pop-up flash can also be used to control an off-camera flash or flashes while providing no light of its own to the exposure, a handy technique for product shots and other situations where fill flash is not wanted.
Adding the flash control feature to the Canon 7D shaved at least $200 off the price when compared to the Canon 50D, as controlling external flashes would require at least an ST-E2 infrared flash controller; shave a total of $400 if you would have gone for a 580EX II, which provides both master control and on-camera fill or bounce flash. Of course, if you never use this wireless flash feature, that point is moot. It's important to note that the Canon 7D's built-in flash is also a little less powerful than the 580EX when it comes to its control range. It can control a flash at a maximum of 23 feet away from the camera, while the 580EX will control a flash from up to 32.8 feet from the camera.
I have three complaints about using the pop-up flash and 580EX flashes wirelessly on the 7D. My first complaint is the noise made by the pop-up flash. It isn't the pop, but the loud servo sound emanating from somewhere inside the Canon 7D. It really draws attention in a quiet room. It's about as loud, but significantly longer than the shutter sound, and also lasts longer than it takes the flash to pop up. I can't imagine why it makes so much noise. My second complaint is with flash recycle time on the 580EX units, which kept me from shooting as spontaneously as I can with the DynaLite packs. But of course you'd want to invest in external battery packs to mitigate that problem. Finally, drilling down into the menu to make all these settings requires too many steps. I assigned it a spot in MyMenu, but even then it takes three steps to get to where I can finally select and change a flash setting, while it's more readily accessible on the back of a 580EX.
Otherwise, shooting the Canon 7D with wireless flashes is pretty fun and effective. As Joe McNally has ably demonstrated with the Nikon Creative Lighting System, you can do a lot with these little strobes; and while they're not cheap to the average consumer, they are generally cheaper and easier to bring along than most studio lighting equipment, and you can achieve greater power by adding more flashes to one of the three groups. The Canon 7D's Flash menu is pretty easy to use, too. Though you have to scroll quite a bit, you can easily adjust all three groups to get the result you want in short order.
Canon 7D Image Quality
Overall, the Canon 7D's image quality is impressive, as are its printed results. It compares almost evenly to its competition at ISO 1,600, both from Canon and Nikon, but as expected there's a noticeable difference when we compare this APS-C sensor to its full-frame rivals the Canon 5D and Nikon D3x, both of which earn the extra money their makers charge. Remembering that the Canon 7D costs quite a bit less than these full-frame cameras brings it back into perspective. In the end, the Canon 7D gives you a little more detail than its 15 and 12-megapixel competition, while maintaining impressively low noise, even at the highest ISOs.
Canon 7D vs Canon 50D at ISO 1,600
Canon 7D vs Nikon D300S at ISO 1,600
Nikon D300S at ISO 1,600
The Nikon D300S has slightly higher contrast than the Canon 7D, but the 7D still offers more detail. The Nikon D300S, just like the Canon 50D, is more faithful to the leaf pattern than the 7D.
Canon 7D vs Nikon D700 at ISO 1,600
Canon 7D vs Canon 5D II at ISO 1,600
Canon 7D vs Nikon D3x at ISO 1,600
Canon 7D vs 50D, D300S, D700, 5D, and D3x
Printed results. Around here, we learned long ago that peeping at pixels onscreen is only worth so much. It's when we print the images that we get to the relevant performance of a camera's lens and sensor. And the Canon 7D's images print remarkably well.
The range from ISO 100 to 800 can produce a 20x30-inch print with ease. Yes, I said ISO 800. Most cameras have results that are limited to 11x14 at that setting. By ISO 1,600 we need a slight reduction to 16x20 inches. That's really crazy, and by that I mean good. ISO 3,200 shots are great at 13x19-inches. ISO 6,400 shots increase in contrast and noise, but are still usable at 11x14 inches, and with the same comments, the ISO 12,800 shots are quite usable at 8x10.
We also processed ISO 100 images in Canon's Digital Photo Pro, sharpening in Photoshop, and came up with an image that is truly tack sharp printed at 20x30 inches. By extension, you could process the other ISO settings from RAW and surely get better results. It's one of the best printed performances we've seen.
One minor note we noticed after a few portrait shoots: skin tones can come out a bit cooler than we're used to from Canon SLRs, both onscreen and in prints. Our Imatest results bear this out as well.
Analysis. The Canon 7D is long overdue. It's been rumored for something like five years, though most of those rumors spec'd it as a full-frame camera. But I think this is just right: I don't think they could have included another important feature without making the Canon 7D look absurd. Okay, maybe a real AF-assist lamp is all that's missing. Everything else is in there. Simple things like a RAW button, a programmable Multi Function button, and a Quick-menu button for easy navigation on the rear Status display all make using the Canon 7D easier, without having to delve so often into the menus. And I think Canon has figured out a good solution for Live View and Movie modes, building-in a button for both, with a switch to select between them.
Nikon users have for too long been able to get away with buying just one flash to create interesting lighting with their cameras, while Canon users have had to buy at least two to take advantage of the company's powerful wireless flash system. Now, with the wireless flash control built into the Canon 7D, Canon fans just have to buy one of the more expensive -- but certainly more affordable -- digital SLRs in the lineup. Indeed, now you can have an 18-megapixel digital camera that does eight frames per second for under $2,000! Before now, you couldn't have one at any price.
This is the camera that Canon enthusiasts, indeed many camera enthusiasts, have been waiting for, and I suspect it will sell very well. Our extensive testing shows the Canon 7D to be an excellent camera, and our printed results emphatically reinforce that conclusion.
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In the Box
The Canon EOS 7D comes with the following items in the box:
- Canon 7D digital SLR camera body
- Body cap
- EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens (if purchased as a kit)
- Lens caps (if purchased as a kit; front and back)
- Wide strap EW-EOS7D
- Battery charger LC-E6
- Battery pack LP-E6
- Video cable
- USB cable
- Software CD
- Instruction manuals and registration information
Canon EOS 7D Conclusion
With just about everything this photographer could want and more, the Canon 7D is an impressive digital SLR camera. Canon took a well-established camera design and added several key features that users overwhelmingly requested, raised the resolution and frame rate, and added HD video to create a very capable tool for more serious photographers.
Though the image quality is not quite up to the standard of the $2,600 full-frame EOS 5D Mark II, the crop-frame 7D does stand up quite well to its current competitors, both in resolution and high ISO image quality.
Even when compared to the 5D Mark II, the 7D does have a few advantages of its own. To start with, that eight-frame-per-second frame rate is just what serious photographers on a budget have needed to capture sporting events without an outrageous initial investment. The 7D's large buffer means you can capture more JPEGs and RAW images at a run, and they process and save very quickly, essential for capturing rapid action or model shoots. And the ability to control a full set of flashes with just the built-in flash offers lighting unmatched versatility among EOS camera bodies.
The built-in electronic level is very helpful when shooting landscapes, whether you're shooting handheld or on a tripod, and it even helps as a reality check when shooting indoors, where you can't see the horizon, but it can still help you line the camera up with gravity when necessary.
The new viewfinder system looks great and is easy to work with, and the near-100% field of view inspires more confidence when framing. Likewise, the new Live View and Movie activation button is better conceived than past options, allowing mode changes with the flick of a switch. Adding a RAW or JPEG image to whatever you're shooting at the time is also as easy as pressing a button. Such conveniences are what makes the Canon 7D ideal for the serious photographer.
Image quality finishes the list of the Canon 7D's strengths. Canon managed to exceed the resolution of all competitors while improving image quality at all ISO settings. Even the 12,800 setting is usable when printed at 8x10, straight from the camera. Add some noise processing, and you have a very clean image. That's remarkable, and it makes the Canon 7D a great choice for low light shooting. The Canon 7D's Movie mode is quite good, despite the lack of continuous autofocus, and a viable alternative to the more expensive EOS 5D Mark II.
We did have some issues with focusing in Live View's Contrast-detect mode, especially with our Sigma 70mm benchmark lens. It seems likely that this is due to simple incompatibility between the camera and lens. But we're not sure what was happening with the new EF-S 15-85mm that seemed like such a natural fit for the Canon 7D. It front-focused by a few hundred feet, refusing to focus to infinity when zoomed to 15 and 24mm settings. That, at least, we proved was the lens, not the camera, so be careful to check yours for this bug if you choose this lens.
In short, the Canon 7D is a stunning achievement, a camera we'd buy ourselves, and a clear five-star Dave's Pick.