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Canon EOS 7D Gordon Laing, November 2009
 
   
 

Canon EOS 7D verdict

Canon’s EOS 7D is a tough and very quick semi-pro DSLR that’s an absolute joy to use. It may look similar to the earlier EOS 50D from the front, but inside features a huge array of enhancements across the board, many of which surpass even the EOS 5D Mark II. As such it arguably becomes the most professional of Canon’s non-pro models, despite not having a full-frame sensor.

The EOS 7D also represents a departure for Canon which at this level always slotted its models in-between those from Nikon. So in the past you’d have the EOS 50D fitting roughly between Nikon’s D90 and D300s for example. Canon also seemed happy to let Nikon have the very high-end cropped frame market to itself, and while models like the EOS 50D overtook Nikon on resolution, the D300 and D300s maintained a dignified lead in viewfinder, AF and drive performance.

Not any more though. The EOS 7D is pitched directly against the D300s and clearly intends to become the new high-end cropped body of choice. As such it’s not surprising to find Canon equipping the 7D with a higher resolution sensor along with the addition of more movie modes, but the big shock in today’s often gradually-evolving market is just how much else has been improved – and revealingly much of the inspiration comes from existing Nikon models.






For example the EOS 7D now features a transmissive LCD in its viewfinder, allowing you to electronically switch an alignment grid (along with other graphics) on and off. The AF system boasts considerably more points than before, but they never clutter the viewfinder thanks to the LCD technology which displays them. The viewfinder itself boasts 100% coverage and the brand new metering system takes colour and distance information into account. The new custom controls menus show their positions using schematic diagrams of the camera, the popup flash can act as a wireless transmitter, and there’s now a handy electronic levelling gauge too. Even the subtly redesigned grip feels kind of familiar.

Yes, all of this and more have been seen before on models like the D300s and its predecessors; indeed testing the EOS 7D gives you a real sense of déjà-vu at times. Canon’s essentially cherry-picked the classy features which previously differentiated Nikon’s top models from its rivals, enhanced a number of them (for example, by offering a dual axis gauge and AF zoning), then ensured it trumps all-comers in the numbers game by boasting higher resolution video, faster continuous shooting and 50% more pixels than its closest rival. Oh, and the body-only price is roughly the same too.

In terms of specifications, it’s both an aggressive and impressive strategy. Most of it bears out in practice too. As mentioned above, the body may look roughly similar to the EOS 50D, but in your hands it feels a little more solid and comfortable than both it and the 5D Mark II. Combine this with subtly repositioned controls and you’ve got Canon’s most comfortable and well-built non-pro DSLR yet.

The look and feel are matched by the compositional performance. The viewfinder is large, bright and accurate, and while it’s still smaller than the view through the full-frame 5D Mark II, it remains the best experience from a cropped-frame Canon to date. Canon’s also embraced the on-demand graphics, using them not just for the alignment grid and AF points, but also the spot-metering area and zoning boundaries. Like Nikon’s viewfinders, these graphics effectively disappear when not in use, so never clutter the view.

 
 

The 3in VGA screen may match the specification of recent DSLRs, but by filling the air gap with an elastic material, Canon’s greatly reduced glare. In bright direct sunlight, it still becomes hard to view at times, but is an improvement over the 50D, 5D Mark II and D300s.

The new 19-point AF system is a big step-up from the 9-point system employed by Canon for so long at this level, and is a triumph in customisation. It’s very useful to find the AF Point Expansion inherited from the pro models, while brand new options like zoning and setting different points for vertical orientation really show Canon taking time to think about how different photographers work. Nikon’s 51-point system may ultimately boast a higher density, but Canon’s wealth of options could see it preferred by many.

The EOS 7D is also very fast in operation, and in our tests came very close to delivering the promised 8fps in practice. This makes it comfortably the quickest DSLR in its class, and coupled with the excellent AF system, a viable option for pro sports photographers on a budget. Remember the EOS 1D Mark IV only shoots slightly faster at 10fps, and it’s ‘only’ working with 16 Megapixels of data per frame. Obviously there are many other benefits to the 1D Mark IV, but in terms of continuous shooting, the 7D comes very close at a much more affordable price point.

Video on DSLRs is maturing fast, and it’s amazing how far Canon’s come in just one year since the 5D Mark II. The EOS 7D inherits the Mark II’s manual exposure from day one, and couples it with both a choice of resolutions and frame rates, along with an external microphone input. Sure, the full-frame sensor of the 5D Mark II ultimately gives it the potential for better low light performance and shallower depth-of-field effects, but the 7D is certainly not compromised in either respect. So long as you understand and work around the caveats involved in shooting video with any DSLR, you’ll enjoy great results. Find out more in our Movie Mode section.

Which finally brings us to the still image quality, and probably the only aspect which doesn't involve superlatives. Don’t get us wrong, it’s very good, just don’t expect miracles or for Canon to have somehow changed the laws of physics. Equip the EOS 7D with a decent lens and shoot at its lower sensitivities and you’ll enjoy the highest resolution from a cropped-frame body to date. As you’d expect, it can capture visibly greater detail than the EOS 50D and especially the D300s.

In terms of noise, it’s present if you’re looking for it from as low as 200 ISO, but remains fine-grained and fairly unobtrusive. We’d certainly be happy using the 7D up to 800 ISO or 1600 ISO at a push, although beyond this point, the quality noticeably deteriorates. Ultimately the EOS 5D Mark II unsurprisingly remains the Canon body which delivers the best image quality, but for a cropped sensor, the 7D has nothing to be ashamed of. You can see how the image quality compares against the EOS 50D, 5D Mark II and the Nikon D300s in our High ISO Noise results.

Speaking of comparisons, let’s now see how the EOS 7D measures-up against its biggest rivals.


Compared to Canon EOS 50D

 
 
     

The EOS 50D is positioned below the EOS 7D in the current Canon range, and will continue to sell for the foreseeable future. Since the 50D is a year old, its online pricing has now comfortably fallen to a level that’s approximately 40% lower than the EOS 7D. Unsurprisingly the 7D out-performs it in most respects, but the 50D remains a powerful option at an increasingly affordable price.

In its favour, the EOS 7D features three extra Megapixels, a choice of HD movie modes, quicker continuous shooting (8 vs 6.3fps), a slightly bigger and more accurate optical viewfinder with on-demand graphics, a more sophisticated 19-point AF system, a screen with less glare, a built-in wireless flash transmitter, improved metering, an electronic levelling gauge and a body that’s a little tougher.

There’s no doubt the 7D is the superior camera overall, but you may not want or need its additional benefits. The 50D's build quality, handling and viewfinder may not be quite as good as the 7D, but they’re still very respectable. Boost the 50D’s relatively soft default output and the image quality actually comes quite close, and there’s nothing shabby about shooting at 6.3 fps. The bottom line is the 50D may not be as impressive as the 7D, but it’s still a great camera.

Certainly if you’re on a budget, or can live without the 7D’s enhancements and movie capabilities, then the EOS 50D remains an excellent choice, especially for the money. Even if you could afford the 7D body, the price difference between it and the 50D opens up more budget for lenses and accessories which may ultimately add up to a better kit. So despite the 7D comfortably out-featuring the 50D in almost every respect, Canon’s older body is still a contender. Look out for bargain deals, and see our Canon EOS 50D review for more details.



Compared to Canon EOS 5D Mark II

 
 
     

Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II is positioned above the 7D in the current range, but both models have their pros and cons. In its favour, the 5D Mark II’s full-frame sensor still delivers by far the best image quality of any model in the current EOS range, and if this is your primary concern, then it should be the model you go for.

The full-frame sensor also means you get a larger viewfinder and no field-reduction with lenses. But it’s important to remember having the best still image quality doesn’t necessarily make it the better camera for every photographer, and in pretty much every other respect, the EOS 7D takes the lead.

In its favour, the EOS 7D features a choice of HD movie modes, continuous shooting that’s more than twice as fast (8 vs 3.9fps), a slightly more accurate optical viewfinder with 100% coverage and on-demand graphics, a more sophisticated 19-point AF system, a screen with less glare, a built-in flash with wireless transmitter capabilities, improved metering, an electronic levelling gauge and a body that’s a little tougher.

Admittedly Canon’s promised 24 and 25fps options for the 5D Mark II with a future firmware update, but still, the overall feature-set of the 7D is better while also coming in cheaper. This makes the 7D the more appropriate choice if you’re into shooting action, or simply can’t wait for the adjustable movie frame rates.

But if you can live without the 7D’s frills and won’t find the 9-point AF system, 3.9fps continuous shooting or absence of a built-in flash limiting, then the 5D Mark II is a wonderful camera that will give you the best image quality from Canon to date. So once again if you’re happy to trade speed for image quality, it’s worth spending the extra on the 5D Mark II. See our Canon EOS 5D Mark II review for more details.




Compared to Nikon D300s

 
 
     

Nikon’s D300s is without a doubt the main rival for the EOS 7D. In the past Canon and Nikon used to pitch many of their DSLRs in-between each other, so you’d have, say, the EOS 50D roughly sandwiched between the D90 and D300. But with the EOS 7D, Canon’s aiming for the same high-end cropped-sensor market as Nikon’s D300s – and with similar pricing, both cameras are absolutely going head-to-head.

There’s certainly a lot of similarities between the two rivals. Both have tough build quality, APS-C sized CMOS sensors, 100% viewfinders with roughly the same apparent size (the 7D’s fractionally greater magnification off-set by its fractionally smaller sensor), both have 3in screens with VGA resolution, built-in wireless control of flash guns, HDMI ports, on-demand LCD graphics in the viewfinder, external microphone jacks for their movie modes, electronic levelling gauges, metering systems which take colour information into account, and shutter blocks rated at 150k actuations. Both models also sport HD video capabilities, very fast continuous shooting and sophisticated AF systems, but it’s the fine detail within each where the differences really emerge.

Starting with the most obvious difference though, the EOS 7D boasts 18 Megapixels to the D300s’ 12 Megapixels. When equipped with a decent lens, the 7D certainly can resolve more detail than the D300s, and despite having 50% more pixels in total, the noise levels are actually quite similar at the lower end of the range. You can see a full report in our results section.

In terms of comparing numbers though, the 7D has more than just higher resolution in its favour. It has double the maximum sensitivity (12800 ISO versus 6400 ISO), slightly quicker continuous shooting (8fps versus 7fps for the bodies alone and the advantage of maintaining this for 14-bit RAW files when the D300s falls in speed), and the choice of HD video resolution and frame rates, when the D300s only offers 1280x720 fixed at 24fps. The 7D also comes with free remote control software.

In its favour, the D300s boasts dual memory card slots allowing you to record duplicate images to both cards for instant backup, or RAW files to one and JPEGs to the other for easier management. It also features much better exposure bracketing (up to nine frames compared to just three on the 7D), a built-in intervalometer and many more auto-focusing points (51 versus 19) although it’s lacking the 7D’s zoning and other innovative AF options.

Ultimately while the dual card slots, 51 AF points and exposure bracketing are definite advantages over the EOS 7D, the Canon is better-featured overall. But at this level a great deal boils down to personal preferences on ergonomics and brand loyalty, not to mention existing investments in lenses and accessories. As such we expect the D300s to remain a big seller despite its toughest competition yet. One thing’s for certain: Nikon no longer has the high-end APS-C market to itself. See our Nikon D300s review for more details.



Canon EOS 7D final verdict

Canon’s EOS 7D is a direct response to Nikon’s D300s. The company has taken a good long look at the areas where Nikon always had the edge over models like the EOS 40D and 50D, and addressed almost all of them here. No longer can Nikon claim a bigger viewfinder, faster continuous shooting, colour-based metering, on-demand viewfinder graphics, wireless flash control or superior AF as reasons to go for its model over its closest rival.  

Indeed about the only aspect where Canon hasn’t ‘taken inspiration’ from Nikon is when it comes to exposure bracketing, bizarrely sticking with a basic three frame option here. This, along with the dual card slots and higher AF-point density are now the only major advantages the D300s has over its rival.

Canon’s also listened carefully to feedback on its movie mode, which now uniquely offers the choice of resolutions and frame rates, along with full manual control over exposure. And always one to play the numbers game, Canon’s significantly trumped Nikon on Megapixel-count with 18 to its rival’s 12.

As described above, this all adds-up to Canon’s quickest and most confident non-professional DSLR to date and one which we can Highly Recommend. In a market where we’re used to minor updates, Canon’s impressively enhanced almost every aspect of the 7D to deliver a powerful array of features which we hope will be deployed across many future models.

It may not boast the full-frame sensor and the ultimate image quality of the 5D Mark II, but in every other respect it excels. Taking everything into consideration, the EOS 7D is arguably Canon’s most successful and satisfying overall DSLR to date.



Good points

Tough build and superb ergonomics.
Zonable 19-point AF and 8fps burst shooting.
Big viewfinder with graphics. VGA screen.
Adjustable HD resolution and fps with mic input.

Bad points
Basic 3-frame exposure bracketing.
Single card slot versus dual on D300s.
Flash flickers for AF illumination.
Image quality surpassed by 5D Mark II.



Scores

(relative to 2009
semi-pro DSLRs)

Build quality:
Image quality:
Handling:
Specification:
Value:

Overall:

19 / 20
18 / 20
19 / 20
19 / 20
18 / 20

93%


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