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Canon EOS 70D review: A fast camera, but not for pixel peepers

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Editors' note: We've updated the rating to reflect the 70D's current rank relative to cameras that have been released since it first shipped. This includes dropping the subrating for features to 7 and performance to 8.

The Good

The Canon EOS 70D's new sensor delivers excellent autofocus performance and the camera itself is quite fast. Its design is reasonably streamlined and the feature set appropriately tailored to the target market as well.

The Bad

The image quality doesn't overly impress for this price class, and certain aspects of the design -- notably single card slot, hard-to-control multicontroller and the Wi-Fi/movie mode conflict resolution -- are annoying.

The Bottom Line

An overall excellent camera, but one that fails to capture the best-in-class prize for image quality.

There's so much to like about the eagerly awaited replacement for the Canon EOS 60D, the 70D. It comes with a completely overhauled, Live View/video-optimized autofocus system that doesn't require special lenses; a more streamlined body design with an articulated touch screen; and Wi-Fi support. And with only a couple of exceptions, I like the 70D and enjoy shooting with it; it's fast and fluid. However, pixel peepers will likely be disappointed with the still photo quality, which really should be better for the money.

Image quality

The image quality didn't change noticeably between my preproduction tests and my final tests, but my opinion has. It's...fine. Not outstanding for the money, but not bad, either. However, it's simply not as good as the Nikon D7100. Yes, it's still an advance over the 60D, but not enormously -- I don't think you even gain a full stop of usability, and any advantages seem to stem from the slight increase in resolution. It's a bit better than the Rebel T5i across the entire sensitivity range, though you really have to scrutinize them. (The T5i looks better starting at ISO 1600, but that seems to be because the T5i meters a third of a stop brighter.)

Canon EOS 70D photo samples

See all photos

I'm beginning to think Canon really pushes the contrast on its default Picture Style to increase perceived sharpness of the photos, because when you look at details closely they seem awfully soft. You lose a lot of shadow and highlight detail if you leave the Picture Style on Auto, though. The dynamic range doesn't seem especially wide, without a lot of recoverable highlight data in the raw files and shadows that are difficult to bring up without introducing noise. The new sensor does seem to have a finer noise pattern at higher ISO sensitivities than previous sensors, though.

JPEG shots look OK up to about ISO 1600; beyond that it depends upon scene content. I was occasionally able to produce sharper images at ISO 1600 by shooting raw, but not always.

Click to download
(note: these are in the Adobe RGB color space)
ISO 100



ISO 400

ISO 1600

Thankfully, the video from the production unit looked better than the preproduction unit, though it suffers from the same general softness as stills, compounded by the relatively low resolution of HD. It displays edge artifacts -- ringing, aliasing, moire, and crawling edges -- which, as is common, get worse as ISO sensitivity rises. It looks a little better than the T5i, though not obviously, and most casual users probably won't see a big difference. Low-light video has nice tonality and a reasonable dynamic range, but there's still quite a bit of color noise.

Performance

With the exception of focusing speed in dim light, the 70D delivers excellent performance. (Looking back at my preproduction report, I think I misstated that result as 0.3 second rather than 0.7 second.) It powers on, focuses, and shoots in about 0.4 second, not quite Nikon fast, but generally fast enough and better than many Canons. Time to focus, expose, and shoot in good light runs a zippy 0.2 second and in dim light a modest 0.8 second. Two sequential JPEG or raw shots also run about 0.2 second, rising to only half a second with flash enabled. In Live View mode, that rises to 1.5 seconds.

Continuous shooting operates really fast for this class, with a sufficiently deep buffer to make the speed useful. JPEG runs past 30 shots at a rate of 7.1fps; raw shooting slowed down to about 2.5fps after about 17 shots during testing, but in field testing I sustained reasonably fast 9-shot bursts of raw+JPEG with Servo AI focus. That's pretty good for a prosumer model. (Using a 95MBps SanDisk Extreme Pro SD card.)

The new Dual Pixel CMOS AF (DPA) autofocus system is a definite update over many previous Canon models, both from a performance and features perspective. Typically, a single photodiode -- the element on a sensor that collects light and converts it to an electrical signal that carries the image information -- only passes on image data. DPA splits each photodiode in two, comparing the signals from each half using a phase-detection algorithm for autofocus, in addition to using the signal from the entire photodiode for image data. In contrast, Canon's Hybrid AF system, used by the T4i, T5i, SL1, and EOS M, simply supplements its phase-detection AF with contrast AF.

Canon USA

There are a few theoretical advantages of the new architecture. First, it has the potential to be faster, mostly because it drives the lens directly to the focus position; it doesn't have to iterate to fine-tune position like contrast AF does, and it can more quickly determine focus because it's measuring off the sensor rather than having to go through a separate phase-detection sensor cycle. Second, it covers about 80 percent of the frame (like the SL1's implementation), which improves off-center focus performance. And third, the lens shouldn't need to hunt, which makes operations like rack focus smoother when shooting video.

In practice, the system delivers; working in Live View is relatively seamless. For stills, it usually locks focus quickly and accurately, regardless of which AF-area mode it's in, and Live View is fast as well -- about 0.6 second to focus and shoot in good light. It's the first dSLR I've used in which Live View is really usable for stills. In dim conditions it's not nearly as great -- 1.5 seconds to focus and shoot. While that's not optimal for stills, it's excellent for shooting video in low light where you want the focus to glide in rather than snap. It racks really well with touch focus.

The only AF accuracy problem I ran into, and it's a common problem, is that Live View tracking AF is frequently misled into locking on things that aren't faces -- you can't disable face detection for this mode -- and tends to be too easily distracted from its target. I still wish the camera had manual focus peaking in Live View, though.

The 70D picks up Zone focus from the 7D, but I really wish it had focus-point expansion instead. Zone focus -- which lets you choose a group of AF points from which the camera then automatically selects -- helps a lot with continuous shooting, where it can be tough to keep the AF area centered over the subject. However, within the zone it still does a pretty poor of automatically selecting the correct focus areas.

The LCD is really nice, with a responsive touch screen and good visibility in most conditions. And the viewfinder, while annoyingly providing only 98 percent scene coverage, is big enough and bright enough for manual focusing.

Although it's not the fastest camera in its class in every aspect, I gave it extra performance ratings props for its overall speed and excellent Live View focusing and fluidity.

Design and features

I really like the design of the camera, though there are a few things I wish were a bit different. Overall, it's a slightly more streamlined layout than the 60D, so overall it's comfortable to grip and shoot, even single-handed.

On the top left sits Canon's now-typical mode dial with center lock button. It's got the usual manual, semimanual, and automatic modes, plus a single custom setting slot. On the right top above the status LCD is an array of direct-access buttons for metering, ISO sensitivity, drive mode, and autofocus mode (single, AI Servo, and AI Focus), plus a top dial and a second AF area select button. You cycle through your AF area options -- single-point, Zone (center 9 points or 4-point clumps on the top, bottom, left, or right), or auto 19-point -- by repeatedly pressing the button, then choosing the point or points using the back Quick control dial.

The back offers Canon's typical thumb-operated Live View/Movie switch with record button; AF-On, exposure lock, and second AF-area selection buttons arrayed above the thumb rest; Quick Control panel and review buttons next to the LCD; and the multicontroller navigation control inset in the quick-control dial around the Set button. It has a dedicated lock switch; you can choose to apply it to the main dial, quick control dial, multicontroller, or any combination. On the front near the bottom of the lens mount is a small, reprogrammable depth-of-field button. The viewfinder is sufficiently big and bright that the preview is usable.

Canon's articulated touch screen remains a favorite of mine for shooting video, and the 70D keeps the same interface as the T5i. It's responsive and has an intelligent user interface, including the usual capabilities, like touch focus, that streamline Live View shooting. You can view the screen pretty well in direct sunlight. You don't have to use it if you don't want to, though operations like selecting ISO sensitivity go much faster when you can directly select rather than having to cycle through them. Overall, I find Canon's interface straightforward and easy to use.

The 70D's multicontroller is slightly smaller than the 60D's. Sarah Tew/CNET

I've never been a fan of the multicontroller design, though. It looks sensible and straightforward, but it's too flush with the control dial and now that it's smaller it's even harder to precisely manipulate without stopping and concentrating.

In other interface quibbles, I don't really like the viewfinder level display either. It's a tiny camera icon with em dashes that project from it indicating the degree of off-level rotation. Unfortunately, it's really hard to use -- nay, impossible -- in dim or dark conditions. In contrast, other viewfinder implementations use illuminated bars along the bottom and sides and provide information for two axes, not just one.

Also, the camera still has only a single card slot. Boo. And though it has built-in Wi-Fi, you have to disable movie mode in order to turn it on. I don't mind that they can't work simultaneously, but jeez, if I try to turn on Movie mode why not disable Wi-Fi for me? Don't just say, "Movie recording is disabled when [Wi-Fi] is set to [Enable]." It's really annoying to be unexpectedly forced to delve into the menu system because I'd forgotten to turn the Wi-Fi option off. I've missed shots because of this nonsense.

Canon EOS 60D Canon EOS 70D Canon EOS 7D Nikon D7100 Pentax K-5 II/IIs
Sensor effective resolution 18MP CMOS
14 bits
20.2MP CMOS
n/a
18MP hybrid CMOS
14 bits
24.1MP CMOS
14 bits
16.3MP CMOS
14 bits
22.3x14.9mm 22.5x15mm 22.3x14.9mm 23.5x15.6mm 23.7x15.7mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.6x 1.6x 1.6x 1.5x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 6400/12800 (exp) ISO 100 - ISO 12800/25600 (exp) ISO 100 - ISO 12800 ISO 100 - ISO 6400/ 25600 (exp) ISO 80 (exp)/
100 - ISO 12800/
51200 (exp)
Burst shooting 5.3fps
16 raw/58 JPEG
7fps
16 raw/65 JPEG
8fps
25 raw/130 JPEG
6fps
(7fps in 1.3x crop mode)
n/a
7fps
8 raw/30 JPEG
Viewfinder (mag/ effective mag) 96% coverage
0.95x/0.59x
98% coverage
0.95x/0.59x
100% coverage
1.0x/0.63x
Optical
100%
coverage
0.94x/0.63x
Optical
100% coverage
0.92x/ 0.61x
Autofocus 9-pt AF all cross-type; center cross to f2.8 Dual Pixel CMOS
19-pt phase-detection AF all cross-type; center cross to f2.8
19-pt phase-detection AF all cross-type; center cross to f2.8 51-pt phase- detection AF
15 cross- type; center to f8 or faster
(Multi-CAM 3500DX)
11-pt phase-detection AF
9 cross- type
(SAFOX X)
AF sensitivity 0 to 20 EV -0.5 to 18 EV -0.5 to 18 EV -2 to 19 EV -3 - 18 EV
Shutter speed 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/180 sec x-sync
Shutter durability 100,000 cycles n/a 150,000 cycles 150,000 cycles 100,000 cycles
Metering 63-zone iFCL 63-zone iFCL 63-zone iFCL 2,016-pixel 3D color matrix metering II 77-segment
Metering sensitivity 0 to 20 EV 1 to 18 EV 1 to 20 EV 0 to 20 EV 0 to 22 EV
Video H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/ 60p/50p H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/ 60p/50p H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/ 50p 1080/60i/ 50i/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/ 50p H.264 QuickTime MOV
(60i/50i only in 1.3x crop mode)
1080/25p; 720/30p/ 25p Motion JPEG AVI
Audio Mono; mic input Stereo; mic input Mono; mic input Stereo; mic input; jack Mono; mic input
Manual aperture and shutter in video Yes Yes Yes Shutter only n/a
Maximum best-quality recording time 4GB
(approx. 12 minutes)
n/a 4GB/29:59 min 4GB/29:59 min 4GB/25 min
IS Optical Optical Optical Optical Sensor shift
LCD size 3-inch articulated
1.04 megapixels
3-inch articulated touch screen
n/a
3-inch fixed
920,000 dots
3.2-inch fixed
1,228,800 dots
3-inch fixed
921,000 dots
Memory slots 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 1 x CF (UDMA 7) 2 x SDXC 1 x SDXC/ SDHC
(SDXC requires firmware upgrade)
Wireless connection None Wi-Fi None None None
Wireless flash Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Battery life (CIPA rating) 1,100 shots
(320 Live View)
920 shots
(210 Live View)
800 shots
(220 Live View)
950 shots
(n/a)
740 shots
(n/a)
Size (WHD, inches) 5.7x4.1x3.1 5.5x4.1x3.1 5.8x4.4x2.9 5.3x4.2x3 5.2x3.8x2.9
Body operating weight (ounces) 27 27.2 35 27.3 26.1 (est)
Mfr. price $899.99 (body only) $1,119 (body only) $1,599 (body only) $1,199.95 (body only) $1,095.95/
$1,199.95 (body only)
$999.99 (est, with 18-135mm lens) $1,349 (with 18-55mm STM lens) n/a $1,599.95 (with 18-105mm lens) $1,249.95 (with 18-55mm WR lens)/n/a
n/a $1,549 (with 18-135mm STM lens) n/a n/a $1,449.95/ n/a (with 18-135mm WR lens)
Release date August 2010 August 2013 December 2009 March 2013 October 2012

The Wi-Fi implementation is identical to the Canon EOS 6D's and not bad for remote shooting using the EOS Remote app, which currently lets you change shutter speed and aperture, ISO sensitivity, and exposure compensation. Configuring the connection is neither notably easy nor difficult; the camera acts as access point that you then set as the device's Wi-Fi connection, then launch the app. However, as with many of these cameras, it doesn't always connect to the phone the first time.

You can also wirelessly tether the camera to a computer using Canon EOS Utility, but only through an access point, not peer-to-peer; that renders it useless for a subset of cases. Setting it up is a little more convoluted than I'd like (or than I expect in 2013), and the camera didn't consistently see my work network.

The 70D offers a reasonably broad set of video-specific features, though like most of the company's dSLRs it ostensibly can't output clean HDMI for external recording (I wouldn't be surprised if that capability eventually surfaced in a Magic Lantern hack, though.) Like many of the dSLRs that Canon's been churning out, there's nothing else notable in the 70D's feature set; a reasonable set of still shooting options but no photographer-friendly frills like time lapse/intervalometer, multiple card slots, or multiple custom-setting slots.

For a complete accounting of the 70D's features and operation, download the PDF manual.

Conclusion

I wanted to give the camera an image quality rating of 7.5; it's very good, but overall not quite as good as the D7100, all things considered. It's unfortunate, because the rest of the package -- excellent autofocus system, streamlined shooting design and appropriate feature set for the price -- adds up to a camera I really like.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)


0.4
0.2
0.2
0.8
0.2

Canon EOS Rebel T5i
0.7
0.3
0.3
0.8
0.2

Nikon D7100
0.3
0.2
0.2
0.5
0.4

Canon EOS 6D
0.6
0.3
0.3
1.3
0.4

Nikon D600
0.3
0.2
0.2
0.6
0.5

Nikon D5200
0.3
0.2
0.2
0.8
0.5

Typical continuous-shooting speed (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Canon EOS 70D
7.8

Canon EOS 70D

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 8Image quality 8