Sunday, January 29, 2012

Looking Back at the Canon 7D

Photo by Greg Howard
I sold my Canon 7D last week after owning the camera for only 8 months in hopes of replacing it with either a Canon 1DmkIV, or the soon to be announced (possibly) 7DmkII or 5DmkIII for the 2012 wedding season.  I enjoyed owning the 7D and picked it up last May to serve as my backup to the 5DmkII at weddings, alleviating me from carrying two brands of camera (I had been carrying an Olympus E3) with two sets of incompatible lenses to every job.  The switch helped me save a lot of weight and the 7D worked really well with the Canon 135mm f2.0 lens (effectively about 200mm with the crop) as a second camera during a ceremony.

I ended up shooting just under 6000 frames on the camera before I sold it which means it was really still brand new but I did get a good sense of the camera and what I liked and didn't like about it, so I thought I'd share a little post-mortem review for any of you that may be considering purchasing one.

Photo by Greg Howard
As the backup to my 5D I will say that it was a little frustrating that Canon chose a different layout to buttons for each camera.  I tended to hunt for some functions when switching between the cameras.  You'd think that a single manufacturer could settle on one layout for similar sized cameras.  And the 5DmkII and 7D are very similar in size. The most notable differences are the on/off switch moving up to the top left of the camera and the addition of a start/stop dedicated video recording button.  The 7D felt better built than the 5DmkII, a camera I've always thought felt cheap and plastic considering the price.  The 7D also proved to be very robustly weather sealed compared to the 5D which I found would fog up in damp weather and be unusable.  The rubbery texture of the 7D feels great in the hands and the video functions are much easier to use than on it's full frame sister.  The 7D always gave me the impression of being a well built solid camera worthy of professional or advanced amateur use.

Photo by Greg Howard
Compared to my other crop sensor DSLR cameras the Olympus E3 (which took all the images in this post with the Zuiko 35mm Macro lens) and Olympus E5 the 7D holds up very well.  It is not as well built or weather sealed, but it certainly compares well to them anyway and can be used in the rain as I've witnessed from my buddy Adam's camera.  The 1.6 crop factor of the Canon has a larger sensor than the 2X crop factor of the Olympus but noise compares very similarly to the new E5.  While the 7D has more focus points and customizeability and a faster frame rate, the Olympus is more reliable in focus and has as many focus points as I need.  The two differ on wheel and button layouts but both cameras pretty much have all the functions you need right at hand.  Both cameras have a 100% field of view viewfinder, but the Olympus one is brighter and easier to look through.  The 7D and E5 lcd are both bright and crisp, but the one on the E5 articulates which is nice for tripod based shooting or video.  The video on the 7D is much better though in quality and makes for a far better video camera.

Adam's 7D working in the rain
My biggest complaint with the 7D over the 8 months I used it was ISO performance and focus reliability.  As far as the ISO goes, the 7D just doesn't compare to other crop sensor cameras on the market like the Nikon D7000 or Pentax K5 and I'd even put it maybe a third of a stop behind the Olympus E5.  They jammed so many megapixels on that sensor, I just feel they would have been better off with 12 or 14 to help the image quality.  Having all those pixels sure helps in the resolution department, but I'd trade noise control and dynamic range over megapixels any day of the week.  I found the camera to be good up to about ISO 1600 and usable at 3200 if you nail your exposure or maybe expose a little bright. Your taste may vary.

Photo by Greg Howard
With the 8 frames per second and super advanced autofocus system on the 7D you'd think this would be the ultimate sports camera for any Canon shooter without a 1DmkIV pocketbook.  And it is.  For me, I actually never shot it in high speed mode once despite that it is sitting in that mode for the image above, but that isn't really my style even when shooting sports.  The autofocus system is very much as advertised with customizability like I've never experienced in a camera before.  I loved using it, though I admit I really should have invested more time in figuring out all the intricacies of the system.  For me though, and this isn't a 7D thing but more of a Canon thing, I found the autofocus to be unnervingly unreliable.  You think you have something on the LCD in crisp focus and later on the computer you realize it has missed just slightly.  The camera did improve with use as I became careful with my technique, but I will say I've never enjoyed Canon autofocus and often joke that it's actually a feature I'd like to see introduced into Canon cameras one day.  In time I was able to get most of my images in focus with the camera, but you can't be lazy with it.  As none of my Canon lenses have image stabilization you absolutely have to make sure you are shooting at a shutter speed that exceeds your focal length (unless, as in the studio image in this post you are shooting with movement stopping lights) for the sharpest images.  Meaning I was keeping it at least 1/200 of a second for my 135mm lens, which often meant my ISO was higher than I ideally would have wanted it.  But you live and learn, and everything with photography is a trade-off isn't it?

Photo by Greg Howard
In the end I learned to like and appreciate the 7D.  The files were good, and typical of my Canon cameras they stood up well to abusive post processing and showed good dynamic range.  I liked the feel and build quality of the camera and I very much enjoy working with a crop sensor and full frame sensor in tandem at jobs allowing me the benefits of both.  The camera worked very well for me as a backup to my 5DmkII and I'm glad I had it for one full wedding season.  I'd recommend this camera to Canon dedicated photographers looking for an affordable sports camera or wildlife camera.  The crop factor and performance will be welcome for you, and for wedding photographers looking for a backup camera it is a good choice.  I'd say portrait photographers might prefer a full frame camera, even the 5D classic.  If you are not a Canon photographer and don't own Canon lenses, then I believe other brands make nicer crop sensor cameras of similar build quality and with similar features.  Most notably the Nikon D7000 (with dual card slots which the Canon doesn't have), the Pentax K5 with superior build and class leading noise control or the Olympus E5 which you all know I just like because I'm an Olympus fan (so you can ignore that last one!).  You can still buy the 7D in stores new from between $1400 and $1500 if you find a sale and really not much less used as my quick internet search has found them between $1200 and $1400 used.  Given it's build quality, I'd say a used one would be a good bet provided it has been reasonably well looked after.

Canon 7D with 100mm f2.8 Macro lens at f14, ISO 100 and 1/50 of a second.  Shot in studio.
Thank-you for dropping by the blog.  I'm planning on reviewing my Pentax 645N medium format camera soon so check back again!

Canon 7D and 85mm f1.8 lens at ISO 1600


Wolfgang Lonien said...

Neil> "As far as the ISO goes, the 7D just doesn't compare to other crop sensor cameras on the market like the Nikon D7000 or Pentax K5 and I'd even put it maybe a third of a stop behind the Olympus E5."

Wow. This would give you cheerios on the Olympus DSLR forum over at DPReview, but I really thought they'd wipe the floor with anything Olympus. Tho, as a second thought, Kirk Tuck rates his "good" up to ISO 800, and I've read somewhere else that the smaller (and newer, tho the sensor is the same) 60D is a tad better here, maybe up to ISO 1600.

ISO 800 would be just one stop better than my Olympus E-520, which is more or less ok up to ISO 400 - and I think even an E-5 should be up to this (the Pen E-PL1 is an improvement over mine already).

I like to take portraits, and as much as I'd love to love a Canon (my brother-in-law works there, making lenses), I think a D700 or even a MF camera would be the tool for me, at least for studio work. Cannot afford both at the moment, so this is purely theoretical stuff. And for studio work (ISO 100 and flash), my E-520 with the 50 Macro (or with the superb little 40-150mm, a much underrated lens) is just nice. Maybe one day if I decide I really need a high ISO monster which can "see in the dark", I might get that D7k - the British Journal of Photography calls it the "Mini D3s". And just today I noticed that the price for a K-5 with kit zoom (all weather sealed) came down to under 900€ here in Germany - a steal for such a camera. A new Canon 7D body only would still be some 1200€.

Thanks for the report anyway; great read!

Neil Gaudet said...

Hey Wolfgang

This ISO stuff is all subjective. I find I tend to tolerate more grain than most photographers. I just think Canon was still pumping out the megapixels when the 7D was released and now you can see they've learned their lesson with the 1DX and the 1DmkIV which is cool. The 7D is a really good camera though, I just don't think it's class leading with crop sensors. The D7000 or K5 are really good options. I just wish Pentax would improve their autofocus. It struggles way too much in poor light. The Olympus E5 is good up to ISO 1600 in my opinion and usable at 3200 if you nail your exposure (and expose maybe a bit bright) but the Canon files are easier to manipulate in post. I always found the Olympus files fall apart in bit in post if you push too hard.

Wolfgang Lonien said...

Yeah that right Neil - mine fall apart already if I have to push from ISO 400 (on the E-520) or from ISO 800 (on the E-PL1). So you can use these settings to take photos, but then you have to really get your exposure on the dot.

As the guys over at show, a Nikon is the tool which you can push in post - much more so than a Canon. Both have some lovely lenses, even if they won't compare to Oly HG or even SHG ones.

Sometimes I'm wasting time reading about cameras it seems ;-) But thanks still for writing this, and for answering. Greatly appreciated.