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Canon EOS 7D review: Canon EOS 7D

An excellent midrange dSLR, the Canon EOS 7D delivers for the money.

Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
Expertise Photography, PCs and laptops, gaming and gaming accessories
Lori Grunin
12 min read

Editors' note, May 12, 2015: I've updated the ratings to more accurately reflect how this older model fits into the current market at its lower price and with respect to its replacement, the 7D Mark II.

The Good

Very fast; excellent photo quality; flexible autofocus system; big, bright viewfinder; streamlined interface; adds wireless flash control.

The Bad

Single card slot; some annoying small and hard-to-feel buttons; limited to three shots for bracketing; Live View focusing still slow.

The Bottom Line

An excellent midrange dSLR, the Canon EOS 7D delivers for the money.

Canon basically ceded the entry-level pro performance market to Nikon in 2005 with the arrival of the D200; since then, Canon's 30D, 40D, and 50D have taken the slower but less-expensive road, with a relatively stagnant AF system, which Nikon leapfrogged. But with entirely new AF and metering systems, a new high-resolution eight-channel readout sensor coupled with dual Digic 4 image processors and a new 100 percent coverage viewfinder, plus 1080p video capture, the 7D looks like an aggressive attempt to make a comeback.

In addition to a body-only version, Canon sells the 7D in a kit with the 28-135mm f3.5-5.6 IS lens (44.8-216mm equivalent). I'm not really fond of it, though, and if you're looking for a starter kit, I'd recommend the newer 15-85mm f3.6-5.6 IS USM lens (28.8-136mm equivalent) instead. It's a lot more expensive and a bit shorter, but I think it's a significantly better lens.

One of the heavier single-grip dSLRs available, there are no radical design departures in the 7D but there are tons of subtle, and a few conspicuous, interface changes that greatly enhance the fluidity of the camera's operation. The new viewfinder is great, comparable with that of the D300s: big and bright, with an optional overlay grid. It's also slightly more comfortable than the D300s' because of the larger eyecup. (Since I didn't get to take the camera to Antarctica to test its weather sealing, cold resistance, and ruggedness, I'd follow Ole Jørgen Lioden's testing on that, if you're interested.)

Adding to its traditional array of buttons for metering, white balance, autofocus, drive mode, ISO sensitivity, and flash compensation the 7D now includes an M-Fn button used to cycle through the AF point options, plus Canon brings the LCD illumination button into action for registering the orientation-linked AF points. Unfortunately, the buttons are very difficult to differentiate by feel, and the M-Fn and illumination buttons are even smaller and harder to use than the others. Following trends in consumer dSLR design, the 7D now also has an interactive control panel for changing frequently accessed settings, called up with the Q button. Though I generally prefer buttons and switches for quick access, the control panel is ultimately easier to use than trying to differentiate between the small buttons on the top of the camera without looking.

Canon consolidated the screen for programming the behavior of the buttons and dials with a visual guide as to where they reside on the body. It's a very nice design.

By adding a specific switch with start/stop button for Live View and Movie capture modes, Canon removed a lot of the operational ambiguity of the 5D Mark II (where you have to have a custom setting enabled just to trigger Live View, for example), and allows the Playback button to function normally, unlike the D300s. It definitely adds to the usability of these modes. More subtle enhancements include an updated switch for the thumbwheel lock and the odd addition of a silver ring on the thumbwheel. The joystick remains unchanged, but I think its design could have stood some tweaking; it's still a bit too easy to accidentally push up when you're trying to go left or right.

Canon EOS 50D Canon EOS 7D Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Sensor (effective resolution) 15.1-megapixel CMOS 18-megapixel CMOS 21.1-megapixel CMOS
22.3mm x 14.9mm 22.3mm x 14.9mm 36mm x 24mm
Magnification factor 1.6x 1.6x 1.0x
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 3,200/12,800 (expanded) ISO 100 - ISO 6,400/12,800 (expanded) ISO 50 (expanded)/100- ISO 6,400/25,600(expanded)
Continuous shooting 6.3fps
16 raw/90 JPEG
15 raw/94 JPEG
14 raw/310 JPEG
95% coverage
100% coverage
98% coverage
Autofocus 9-pt AF
all cross-type
19-pt AF
all cross-type; center cross-type to f2.8
9-pt AF
center cross-type
Shutter speed 1/8000 to 30 sec.; bulb; X-sync 1/250 1/8000 to 30 sec.; bulb; X-sync 1/250 1/8000 to 30 sec.; bulb; X-sync 1/200
Metering 35 zone 63 area 35 zone
Live View Yes Yes Yes
Video (highest resolution) No 1,920x1,080 at 30fps 1,920x1,080 at 30fps
LCD size 3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
Shutter durability 150,000 cycles 150,000 cycles 150,000 cycles
Wireless flash controller No Yes No
On-camera flash Yes Yes No
Battery life (CIPA rating) 640 shots 800 shots n/a shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 5.7x4.2x2.9 5.8x4.4x2.9 6.0x4.5x3.0
Body operating weight (ounces) 29.8 35 32.9
Mfr. Price (body only) $1,199.00 $1,699.00 $2,699.00

Canon went from very few AF options to a gazillion in one model. Of course, there's the veteran full automatic AF selection. Spot AF is a subarea of the traditional single-point AF, and for both of these you can choose from any of the 19 AF points. AF point expansion uses the three or four (depending upon location) points surrounding the chosen one. Zone AF is similar to AF point expansion in that it allows you to define clumps of points in the center, top, bottom, or sides of the full AF area, but in contrast to expansion, where you still choose the primary focus point and it only uses the other points if the subject moves, the camera automatically chooses points from within the defined zone. The bulk of these are really designed to improve focus tracking during continuous shooting, and, much like Nikon's AF system, you have to think very carefully about matching the AF choice with the shooting situation or you can end up with surprising results. Ditto for the flexible global and lens-specific microadjustment tools, which it carries over from the higher-end models. Very few users need all of these options, and Canon provides a solid interface for enabling or disabling the choices to minimize on-the-fly confusion. In Live View mode you have three AF options: Live mode (contrast AF), face detect Live mode AF, or Quick AF (the "traditional" faster Live View AF, which uses the faster phase-detection scheme but requires more mirror flipping).

Navigating all the new autofocus options--spot, single point, expanded, zone, and area--is pretty straightforward. In a nice touch, you can selectively enable or disable each option for speedier selection under pressure.

Unlike the Nikon D300s, which changes modes electronically, Canon retains its mode dial, with three custom settings slots. Which design you prefer is very subjective; I happen to like the dial better, especially for accessing custom settings. Unfortunately, with great power comes great interface responsibility, and the custom settings interface is groaning under the weight of the new features. While the dial is faster for access, Nikon's implementation of separate configurations for shooting and operation is less likely to make you crazy. That's because shooting settings tend to vary a lot, while operational controls tend to remain similar. In order to make sure to retain the settings you want you have to first set all of those, then register them to all three slots. That's fine if you never change your mind or make mistakes.

Then there's something like the linked AF-point capability, in which you can register a default AF point, zone, or scheme for each orientation (horizontal and two vertical). It's a truly useful capability, especially in conjunction with the saved settings. But you have to globally enable it, which means you then have to set it for each custom slot; otherwise, when you go vertical it will default to the dumb automatic 19-point area AF setting (which no one shooting this class of camera should use).

Another so-close-but-not-there implementation, at least for me, is the Raw+JPEG override button, which, if it's set for Raw or JPEG, will override with Raw+JPEG for one frame. Because of they way I shoot (Raw+JPEG with the occasional need for just a low-res JPEG), I'd find it a lot more useful if you could do the opposite as well, the way the Olympus E-620 does: program it to override Raw+JPEG with just JPEG.

Canon EOS 7D Nikon D300s Olympus E-3
Sensor (effective resolution) 18-megapixel CMOS 12.1-megapixel CMOS 10.1-megapixel Live MOS
22.3mm x 14.9mm 23.6mm x 15.8mm 17.3 mm x 13mm
Magnification factor 1.6x 1.5x 2.0x
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 6,400/12,800 (expanded) ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 1,600/6,400 (expanded) ISO 100 - ISO 3,200
Continuous shooting 8fps
15 raw/94 JPEG
n/a raw/100 JPEG
16 raw/unlimited JPEG
magnification/effective magnification
100% coverage
100% coverage
100% coverage
Autofocus 19-pt AF
all cross-type; center cross-type to f2.8
51-pt AF
15 cross-type
11-pt AF
all cross-type
Shutter speed 1/8,000 to 30 sec.; bulb; X-sync 1/250 1/8,000 to 30 sec.; bulb; X-sync 1/250 1/8,000 to 30 sec.; bulb; X-sync 1/250
Metering 63 area 1,005 pixel 49 point
Live View Yes Yes Yes
Video (highest resolution) 1,920x1,080 at 30fps 1,280x720 at 24fps No
LCD size 3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
2.5 inches articulated
230,000 dots
On-camera flash Yes Yes Yes
Shutter durability 150,000 cycles 150,000 cycles n/a
Wireless flash controller Yes Yes Yes
Battery life (CIPA rating) 800 shots 950 shots 610 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 5.8x4.4x2.9 5.8x4.5x2.9 5.6x4.6x2.9
Body operating weight (ounces) 35 34.2 31.6
Mfr. Price (body only) $1,699 $1,799.95 $1,399.99

A first for Canon, the 7D introduces an in-camera wireless flash controller. It's pretty straightforward to use, and supports up to four channels and three groups. You can set the flash exposure compensation and firing output ratios independently. However, since the system communicates using light pulses from the built-in flash, there's always some illumination coming from the on-camera flash.

For the HDR crowd and other bracketeers, the 7D's capabilities look mixed. On one hand, it can bracket up to 3 stops in 1/3-stop increments, which beats the 5D Mark II and 50D's 2 stops or the D300s' 1.3 stops. However it's limited to three shots per bracket, which is pretty disappointing. Another comparative feature note: quiet shooting, in which the mirror slows to lessen the slapping sound, is only available in Live View on the 7D, while it's available in both regular and Live View shooting modes on the D300s.

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

Canon EOS 7D

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8Image quality 8