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Canon EOS 20D

By: Shawn Barnett and Dave Etchells

Slightly smaller and lighter upgrade brings greater speed and ease of use along with higher res and lower image noise.

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Page 12:Test Results & Conclusion

Review First Posted: 08/19/2004, Update: 11/19/2004

Test Results

In keeping with my standard test policy, the comments given here summarize only my key findings. For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the EOS 20D's "pictures" page.

Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the EOS 20D with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!

As with all Imaging Resource product tests, I encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the camera performed. Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how the EOS 20D's images compare to other cameras you may be considering.

  • Color: Excellent color, hue-accurate, with good saturation. (These comments relate to the 20D's default color mode.) The EOS-20D's overall color was very good, generally hue-accurate, with appropriate saturation. Like many digicams, including most d-SLRs, the 20D oversaturates strong reds a fair bit, but other colors are for the most part appropriately saturated. Bright blues and greens are slightly oversaturated, and a range from yellow-green through yellow to orange are slightly undersaturated. That's the technical description at least, but it turns out that photos from the camera look much more accurate and natural than a strictly numeric analysis of its color characteristics would indicate. I suspect that this is because the 20D boosts the brightness in the same yellow-green to orange range through which it drops the saturation. The net result is very natural-looking and pleasing color rendition across the spectrum. All in all, excellent color. (For those interested, the illustration above from Imatest shows the color error for each swatch on the MacBeth chart. If you mouse over the image, you'll see the same plot for the EOS-10D, letting you compare the color response of the two cameras. - They're pretty similar, as you can see. See the 20D's Imatest page for more details.)

  • Exposure: An accurate exposure system. EOS-20D's exposure system accurately exposed most of my test targets, both indoors and out, generally requiring less exposure compensation on tough subjects than did other cameras I've tested. The "Sunlit" Portrait required only a +0.3 EV exposure adjustment to brighten the shot, resulting in bright midtones with good detail. The camera's contrast adjustment option worked very well, allowing the 20D to do a much better than average job of holding onto both highlight and shadow detail under the deliberately awful lighting of the Sunlit Portrait shot. The one hiccup I encountered (and a minor one at that) was the slight overexposure it delivered at its default exposure setting on the Far-Field test. The exposure error there was very slight though, I'd estimate it to be about 1/3 EV. All in all, very accurate exposure, and excellent dynamic range, particularly when the contrast adjustment was dialed down.

  • Resolution/Sharpness: Very high resolution, 1,500 - 1,650 lines of "strong detail." The EOS-20D performed very well on the "laboratory" resolution test chart. It started showing artifacts in the test patterns at resolutions as low as 1,200 lines per picture height in the horizontal direction, and around 1,000 lines in the vertical direction. I found "strong detail" out to about 1,650 lines/picture height horizontally, 1,500 lines vertically. (Some reviewers will doubtless argue for higher numbers than these, but I tend to be more conservative in how I "call" the resolution of cameras with this target. My rule of thumb is to not count lines of resolution beyond the point at which artifacts start to obscure the target lines, even though one's eye may see signs of the target lines beyond that point. Here, the target lines in the horizontally-oriented resolution hyperboloid (which tests for resolution along a vertical axis) show considerable aliasing beginning at about 1,500 lines, even though there's evidence of subject detail at least as far as 1,600 lines. Consequently, that's where I called the vertical resolution.) Using its MTF 50 criteria and correcting to a standard 1-pixel sharpening radius, Imatest reported the 20D's resolution as 1513 lines/picture height along the horizontal axis, and 1707 lines/picture height vertically, for an average of 1610 lines. "Extinction" of the target patterns didn't occur until right at 2,000 lines. Very impressive.

  • Image Noise: Really excellent noise characteristics, especially at high ISOs. Low image noise is one of the real standout features of the EOS-20D, particularly at very high ISOs (1600 and 3200). The chart above compares the 20D's image noise levels against those of other d-SLRs, but as I've noted in the past, graphs like this tell only part of the story, because they don't reveal what the image noise actually looks like. In the case of the 20D, its noise pattern is particularly fine and tight-grained, which makes it much less visually apparent and objectionable than that of many cameras. At the same time, the 20D's noise-suppression technology does an excellent job of holding noise in check, without losing subject detail in areas of subtle contrast. It's easy to have low image noise, if you don't mind giving up a lot of subtle subject detail, but the EOS-20D seems to avoid this tradeoff almost entirely. Most impressive is the extent to which Canon has managed to reduce image noise at ISO 1600 and 3200, relative to every other camera on the market, including even their own 1D Mark II. At ISO 1600, the 20D's image noise looks as good as or better than that of many competing cameras shooting at ISO 800, and even its ISO 3200 images are entirely usable for many applications. All in all, a really excellent performance. (See the 20D's Imatest page for more details.)

  • Closeups: (No info here, as macro performance is entirely dependent on lens selection.)

  • Night Shots: Excellent low-light performance, with bright exposures, good color, and very low image noise. Thanks to several recent improvements in Canon's CMOS sensor technology (several of which made their first appearance in the 1D Mark II), the EOS-20D's image noise levels are just amazingly low, particularly for an 8-megapixel chip. As a result, the 20D's low light performance is arguably the best I've yet seen from a digital camera, at any price point. The EOS-20D produced clear, clean images down to the 1/16 foot-candle (0.67 lux) limit of my test, with good color at all six ISO settings. Color balance turned slightly warm as the light level decreased, but the color shift was pretty minor. Because image noise was so low to begin with (there were essentially no "hot pixels" to be found anywhere), enabling or disabling the camera's Noise Reduction system didn't make a lot of difference, at least at the light levels that I cover in my tests. Even at ISO 3,200, image noise was relatively low, and didn't interfere with color balance or detail.

  • Viewfinder Accuracy: A pretty accurate (94%) optical viewfinder. The EOS-20D's digital SLR design proved fairly accurate, showing about 94 percent of the final frame. I prefer SLRs like the EOS-20D to have as close to 100 percent accuracy as possible, so the EOS-20D fell slightly short here, although it's important to note that most other d-SLRs have viewfinders that are only 95% accurate as well. Typically, only very high-end models like Canon's own EOS-1D Mark II and EOS-1Ds Mark II have true 100% viewfinders.

  • Optical Distortion: (Here again, no comments in this category, as distortion will depend entirely on the lens in use.)

  • Shutter Lag and Cycle Time: Excellent shutter response and cycle times. Shutter lag in an SLR will obviously depend on the particular lens in use, since different lenses can adjust focus more or less quickly. Regardless of the lens we hung on it though, the 20D was very responsive to the shutter. With the "kit" lens, it showed shutter lag ranging from 0.15-0.16 second. In Manual focus mode, it showed an average lag of 0.114 second, and prefocused (by half-pressing and holding down the shutter button before the exposure itself), it showed an average lag of only 0.080 second. Shot to shot cycle times were also very good, an average of just 0.48 seconds/shot in single-shot mode, with the buffer holding 31 large/fine JPEG images, or 6 RAW or RAW+JPEG frames. In continuous mode, it can capture up to 31 large/fine JPEG images or 6 RAW or RAW+JPEG ones at a rate of 4.80 frames/second, and clears the buffer of all 31 JPEG frames in just 19 seconds with a Lexar 80x memory card, or all 6 RAW frames in just 12 seconds. (The 20D takes good advantage of fast memory cards, so a fast card is a good investment with it.)

  • Battery Life: Excellent battery life, although I can't measure it directly. Because it lacks an external power terminal, I couldn't perform my usual direct measurements of power consumption on the EOS-20D. I can attest to its excellent battery life though, as I should shoot literally for days without exhausting a fully-charged battery. Canon rates battery life at 1000 shots without the flash, or about 700 with 50% flash use, at 20 degrees C / 68 degrees F, which certainly seem like reasonable ratings given my personal experience with the camera.



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Smart design and attention to the most important aspect of a digital camera--the images--has made for an excellent photography tool. Now that we've fully tested a production model of the EOS-20D, it's clear that our early enthusiasm was well-founded. The camera performs superbly in every respect. Color is accurate, image noise very low, resolution excellent, and the camera is very responsive, both to the shutter button, and from shot to shot. Particularly impressive is the extent to which Canon managed to decrease high-ISO image noise, while at the same time going to a sensor layout with physically smaller pixels. Canon has had over a year since their EOS-10D was announced to talk to photographers about what the next mainstream pro digicam should be, and it's clear from the 20D that they listened. In all respects, Canon has really outdone themselves, offering a camera that not only captures excellent images, but which provides photographers with unprecedented levels of control in an extremely easy interface. Expected upgraders will be D30, D60, and 10D owners. Digital Rebel owners wanting a little more control will also want to give the 20D a look. Anyone looking for the benchmark of quality in a relatively affordable D-SLR with a lens should look at the high-end bundle with the image-stabilized 17-85mm EF-S lens. It's a bit steep at US$2,000, but it saves a net $200 (you save $100 on the $600 lens, plus you don't have to pay the extra $100 for the 18-55mm lens). This zoom range is versatile enough that most consumer photographers will never have to change it. Just in case you didn't already guess, the Canon EOS 20D is *highly* recommended!

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