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Canon EOS 30D

By: Shawn Barnett and Dave Etchells

Myriad minor feature and interface tweaks make a great SLR even better.

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Page 3:Executive Overview

Review First Posted: 04/14/2006

User Report

In my 20D review I opened by saying, "Too many digital camera purchase decisions are based on pixel count." When I said that in late 2004, the 20D's 8.2 megapixel sensor was actually ahead of most digital SLRs in the pixel race. My point then was the same as it is now: one or two million pixels in either direction don't have as much effect on image quality as does the sensitivity and accuracy of those pixels. Megapixel-oriented consumers are disappointed that Canon didn't increase the count to answer rivals like the Nikon D200, but Canon maintains that it is pixel size, not pixel count, that makes the sensor, and until they can increase the sensor's ability to gather light more efficiently, the 6.4 micron pixel pitch was the right size to maintain for good high ISO performance.

Just like the 20D, every aspect of the 30D is focused on one purpose: to help photographers make excellent images. Our tests indicate that the 30D's images are just as good as the 20D, which is high praise.

The shape, size and weight of the 20D and 30D are similar enough that without both at your disposal, it's hard to see the differences. The grip is different, but only a little, with a lip just below the shutter release that increases the camera's overall thickness by 2mm. On the front, where the camera badge is mounted, it looks like they took a little bondo to fill in the hard edges for a more futuristic effect. They also removed the word "DIGITAL" from the front of the camera; perhaps a sign that its no longer necessary to make the distinction, but it could be because their new taper removed the flat surface for the pad printer to lay down the ink.

It's only from the back that you get a different feeling, reminding one more of the 5D than the 20D. It's that big 2.5 inch screen that does it, and it pushes all the controls and buttons out to the left and down. I never thought there was anything wrong with the 20D's 1.8 inch LCD until I started working with the 5D and 30D. First, the menus look gigantic, making menu operation that much easier, especially in sunlight. Of course, image review is also better, in more ways than just size. The new TFT has a 170 degree angle of view, whereas the 20D's image disappears from certain oblique angles. That means you can chimp with more people than ever before, without having to turn the camera every which way.

Canon redesigned the raised area around the LCD, and they enlarged and modified the eight-way joystick somewhat. I'm not seeing a huge difference from the 20D's joystick in performance, however. Both seem to work pretty well.

The one slight indication of glitz appears on the Mode dial, whose knurls are slightly finer and the icons are ringed with a chrome band, bringing to mind the Mode dial of the Digital Rebel XT. Otherwise, as was the 20D, the 30D is all business. A black body with black buttons and black wheels with silver and blue words and icons. It is a tool, and as such it has only and exactly what's needed to get the job done.

Mostly due to the larger LCD, the 30D is around 20 grams heavier than the 20D. It's noticeable, but only just. The larger screen is worth the extra weight.

Another addition is the Print/Share button appearing on every new camera in Canon's vast array. It shines blue when connected to a computer or PictBridge printer to signify that it's ready for uploading images. It works as advertised, and opens up a new world of camera to printer capabilities. My favorite is the ability to make an old-style contact sheet, straight from the camera, complete with fake film notches above and below the images.

Where the 30D gets more exciting than its practical, tuned EOS exterior is when you go inside its magnesium alloy and stainless steel construct. There you'll find much of what lies in the 20D: Canon's speedy DIGIC II processor, the same low pass filter, the nine-point AF sensor array, a magnesium alloy body with a stainless steel frame, and a five frame per second shutter mechanism.

But that shutter is where the differences begin. The 30D's shutter can run at two speeds: five frames and three frames per second. They added the lower speed for those who didn't want to fill the buffer so fast, but still get a variety of shots off. I also like it because it decreases the likelihood that I'll fire off two shots when I only wanted one, something the 20D does all the time when in continuous mode. Another enhancement is the way the shutter button itself works. With the 20D and Rebel XT, you press the shutter halfway to focus and set exposure, then press it all the way to trip the shutter. To take another shot in One Shot mode, you have to release the shutter button completely; the camera then re-focuses and re-meters and you can shoot again. It still works that way in the 30D, with the exception that you can fire again without releasing completely, thus maintaining your focus and exposure settings shot after shot. If you time it right, you can roughly equal the five frames per second, but if you re-press the shutter too quickly, nothing will happen and you'll have to press again.

Canon updated the shutter in the 20D significantly from the 10D, but they never specified an expected life. The 30D's shutter life is declared to be at least 100,000 cycles, just like the EOS 5D. Viewfinder blackout time has been slightly improved over the 20D's 115 milliseconds, with the 30D measuring 110 milliseconds, according to Canon.

The EOS 30D starts up in 0.15 seconds according to Canon (0.1 according to our own timing), a minor improvement over the EOS 20D's 0.3 second startup time. This difference is hardly discernible.

There are actually four metering modes on the 30D compared to the 20D's three. Evaluative, Partial, and Center Weighted have been joined by a Spot metering mode that measures 3.5% of the viewfinder area. The circle you see in the viewfinder delineates this zone, which is smaller than the circle on the 20D. Partial metering measures a 9% area. A true Spot metering mode is a welcome addition.

Also welcome is the 1/3 stop adjustment for ISO settings. Whereas the 20D offered only seven settings (100, 200, 400, 600, 800, 1,600, and 3,200), the 30D offers 14 (100, 125, 160, 200, 250, 320, 400, 500, 640, 800, 1,000, 1,250, 1,600, and 3,200).

One of the only disadvantages to the EOS 30D is the lack of an AF assist lamp. AF assist is only possible when the built-in flash is deployed. The camera uses a rapid set of flash pulses to momentarily illuminate the scene. Both the pop-up and hotshoe-mounted flashes use Canon's new E-TTL II for better flash performance, using lens focus data to determine distances of objects in the frame.

The new Picture Styles menu is an improvement of a feature that I didn't think needed improvement; turns out it did. I think the naming of styles makes more sense: Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, Faithful, and Monochrome are more clear than Parameter 1 and Parameter 2. I also like that there are nine steps for Contrast, Saturation, and Color tone rather than just five, and eight settings for sharpening. Greater resolution in these settings had been requested for some time, so it seems like Canon really was listening.

Shooting with the 30D is nearly identical to the 20D. It is fast, nimble, and produces satisfying images. It's just slightly more capable with the addition of the features mentioned. The big display does make it hard to go back to the 20D's smaller screen, the 3.5% spot meter is attractive, and the ability to view the ISO in the optical viewfinder is also a nice addition (one that could probably be applied via firmware to the 20D). I like the inclusion of the low speed continuous mode, and the improved handling of files to increase the buffer slightly is also welcome. And the ability to store nearly ten thousand frames in a single folder makes so much more sense than having only 100 per folder.

So the story isn't a brave new camera that blasts through new barriers of performance. The 20D did that already; and unlike other companies, Canon didn't really need that. But it is a refinement of an already stellar performer, bringing it up to date with later competing designs from other manufacturers that include many of the features now seen in the 30D.

The Canon EOS 30D is good news for both existing Canon 20D owners and those looking to upgrade. There are enough improvements to move to, but you don't have to feel like your formerly superb 20D is now an obsolete hunk of black magnesium. I agree with those who say that Canon could have badged this camera the "20D N" or "20D Mark II," given its evolutionary design. The unfortunate name of 30D will probably fool some eBayers into mistakenly buying a D30 thinking they got a real deal. (The D30 was the original 3.25 megapixel Canon dSLR from way back in the year 2000). So buyer beware.

The EOS 30D is impressive. We'd call it a carefully planned amalgam of speedy components, refined imaging, tuned design, taking the banner from the 20D as the best Canon currently offers for the price of a mid-range digital SLR. Image quality is superb and the performance can't be beat for the money. Its main rival is the Nikon D200, and some would say the Canon 5D. But there's no question that many millions of professional images will be created with the 30D in the years to come.

 

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