Canon EOS 7D review: Canon EOS 7D

The 7D expands on the video format options available in the 5D Mark II, including a 60fps 1,280x720 mode. Like the D300s, it offers full aperture, shutter, ISO sensitivity and white balance control, as well as Picture Styles and other image presets. For what it's worth, it won't let you drop shutter speed below the frame rate, which the D300s does. Keep in mind that like dSLR-based video capture, the camera really has some usability issues; while it's fine in a pinch, with some juggling and contorting (unless your subject is such that you can just shoot on a tripod), it really requires a rig that runs a few thousand dollars from a company like Redrock Micro or Zacuto, primarily to enable you to hold it steady while manually focusing.

(For complete information about the 7D's features and operation, download the PDF manual.)

Based on CNET Labs' test results, Canon raises a new performance standard bar for this class with the 7D; it's a hair faster overall than the more expensive 5D Mark II, and even gives much higher-end models like the Nikon D3S and Canon EOS-1D Mark IV some competition. It powers on and shoots in less than 0.2 second. Autofocus in both bright and dim conditions leads its class, with speeds of 0.3 second and 0.5 second, respectively. And it has excellent file processing throughput, as evidenced by shot-to-shot performance of 0.3 second (0.4 second for raw, 0.5 second with flash) and the capability to sustain a best-quality JPEG burst at 7.3fps for, essentially, an unlimited number of frames. To obtain the advertised 8fps, you need to drop to a lower quality. (As long as your scene is bright enough; regardless of settings--even with completely manual exposure and focus with no noise reduction-- it will automatically drop to about 4fps at low EVs.)

In my field testing (shooting with the aforementioned 15-85mm lens as well as two L series lenses, the 24-70mm f2.8 and 16-35mm f2.8), the 7D displays some of Canon's best AF performance to date. The zone and expanded point options seemed to significantly reduce focus loss in AI Servo mode--such as locking on the ground when a fast-moving subject slipped slightly out of area--which I frequently encounter with other Canon models. The spot and single-area AF also seem to work faster and more accurately than in models like the 50D and 5D Mark II. (Although there's been a bit of discussion on the Web from people who've experienced autofocus problems--a chunk of which I attribute to the complexity of the new AF options and issues with comparisons across differing resolutions and settings, but some of which potentially raise valid quality-control concerns--I had no problems with our test unit.) Autofocus in Live View and movie capture modes remains slow and clunky, however, and is still difficult in direct sunlight because of the LCD.

With the 7D, Canon introduced a new 63-area metering system as well--iFCL (Intelligent Focus, Color, Luminance)--intended to improve exposure accuracy and consistency in scenes with high contrast or frequently changing lighting. Like Nikon's system, it incorporates a color sensor in addition to a light sensor, plus it works in conjunction with the AF sensors in order to better weight the importance of the subject in metering decisions. In practice, it worked very well under the challenging lighting of the dog run at midday--extremely high-contrast light, interspersed with shadows and dogs running through them all, poses some serious exposure issues. On occasion, though, it still exhibited a few explainable but annoying inconsistencies; for instance, on two burst shots taken a quarter of a second apart (in continuous low) with similar lighting and pattern metering it exposed 1/3 stop differently. It's explainable, because in the expansion point AF mode the chosen area was slightly darker in one shot than another because the dog's body position changed. But annoying, because pattern metering should obviate the effect of small changes like this. (The white balance changed visibly as well.) Overall, however, I'd say the system is an improvement over its predecessor.

I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by the 7D's photo quality. The higher-resolution sensor necessarily has extremely small pixels, which never bodes well for image quality. But its noise profile fares well, even compared with the lower-resolution D300s. For JPEGs, photos looked clean and sharp through ISO 400; at ISO 800, when viewed side by side, you can start to see a little softening, though no perceptible increase in noise. Also note--not just with this camera, but with many of them--even at moderate sensitivities like ISO 400, subjects at a distance, like dogs at the dog run, can still appear rather mushy-looking. A bit of softness appears at ISO 800, but both ISO 800 and ISO 1,600 still look good (although as usual that depends upon lighting and scene content). I'd consider ISO 3,200 the highest I'd feel safe shooting in general; photos taken at ISO 3,200 and above are visibly soft and show a lot more noise. Processing as raw files allows you to change your sharpness/noise trade-off, but as far as I could tell by experimenting, the JPEGs are pretty optimally noise reduced and sharpened at the Standard Picture style (though the tonal range is visibly compressed).

The 7D's automatic white balance generally seems a tad warmer than the D300s', even on the Neutral picture style, but the camera's color is still extremely accurate as well as pleasing. While the raw files have excellent dynamic range, the tonality in the JPEG versions look a little more compressed than I'm happy with, and more than can be explained away by a difference in bit depth (the same raw image opened as 16-bit in Photoshop and then downconverted to 8-bit retains better contrast).

As for the video, it looks very good, though to me not nearly as sharp or saturated as a midrange Canon HD camcorder (the trade-off, here, of course, is interchangeable lenses for a reasonable price).

The biggest draw for current Canon users thinking of stepping up from the 50D (or that class of camera) to the 7D is the improved autofocus and better photo quality at higher ISO sensitivities; it's significantly better than the 50D in those respects, and well worth the price differential. Things aren't quite as clear when compared with the 5D Mark II. On one hand, the 5DMII's photo quality remains superior across the board, and the benefits of getting true wide angle on a full-frame camera shouldn't be understated. But the 7D's autofocus is perceptibly faster and more accurate, the operational controls are, for the most part, more streamlined to use, I like the viewfinder better, and the 7D's video options are more flexible and better implemented. That's a lot of "but" for about $1,000. I also think the 7D slightly edges out over the D300s, in part thanks to better body design and performance, though the former is clearly subjective. Nevertheless, I don't think this is the Canon model that will (or should) have Nikon owners selling their lenses just yet.

Ultimately, the EOS 7D is a great entry-level pro dSLR debut for Canon.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot
Raw shot-to-shot time
Shutter lag (dim light)
Shutter lag (typical)
Canon EOS 7D

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