The Canon EOS 7D Review
The Canon EOS 7D – The Camera We Want to Love
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In early October we were lucky enough to test the soon-to-be released Canon EOS-7D. Samantha, a Nikon user, was interested in testing the camera, as a possible replacement for her aging D200. Samantha had hit a wall with her Nikon D200, finding the files lacked the detail she wanted for her intimate landscape photography. She rented and tested a Nikon D300 and was impressed by how much better the details were in the files compared to the D200. She posted a blog about her tests and started to save up her pennies for a D300. Canon at the time had no APS-c sensor camera that had the features and price point of the D300. Nikon had the market cornered on mid-priced semi-pro cameras.
Enter the Canon EOS 7D, a direct competitor to the Nikon D300 (now discontinued and replaced with the Nikon D300s). Darwin was interested in the Canon 7D as a possible replacement for his Canon Rebel XSi (EOS 450D). Darwin uses his Rebel as a backpacking camera and thinks the quality/price ratio of this little entry-level camera is unmatched. He uses the Rebel for professional stock and magazine work. The Rebel XSi, although a solid performer with fine quality files, simply does not have professional level controls or responsiveness. Darwin finds it works fine as a landscape camera for deliberate and slow images but as a quick action, travel, people or wildlife camera it lacked important features of a pro camera. The 7D promised pro-level controls and more.
Samantha also wanted a camera that was super intuitive to use AND had great files. The specs of the 7D (18MP, 8fps, Live View, 1080P video, 100% viewfinder) looked great to both of us. We were pumped to test the new Canon camera.
Out in the field, the Canon EOS-7D did not disappoint. We loved the handling and customizability of the camera. Darwin has used almost every Canon camera ever made since the Canon AE-1P was released in 1981. Of all the Canon cameras Darwin has used the 7D was the most exciting, intuitive and fun camera he has tried. Darwin was immediately sold; he wanted this camera!
Samantha was so impressed by the logical and easy to use features of the 7D that, after several days of using the camera, she was ready to switch from Nikon to Canon. Samantha is not easily impressed by gear and has a sentimental attachment to Nikon, so for her to consider a switch said a great deal about Canon’s design innovations on the 7D.
For example, in our opinion, Canon’s Live View is superior to Nikon’s because Canon includes a simulated histogram (to preview exposure) and the ability to preview depth-of-field on the rear LCD by pressing the DOF preview button and changing the aperture settings on the fly. So far Nikon does not have these features. We also like Canon’s Roll and Pitch leveling feature over Nikon’s and almost everyone agrees that Canon’s video feature is much better than Nikon’s. In many ways the Canon 7D was just easier to use than many cameras on the market (although Nikon’s D300/D300s are amazingly intuitive as well). And the autofocus on the 7D seemed zippy and fast. What was not to like? For a complete list of specs and features please visit dpreview .
Our final test was to look closely at the files. We had a Canon Rebel XSi, a 12 MP entry-level dSLR, and the 21 MP Canon 1ds Mark III (Canon’s flagship camera) as cameras to which we would compare the 7D files. We had big expectations–we admit it. We thought the quality of the files from the 18 MP Canon 7D should fall somewhere in between the quality of the Rebel and the Mark III. After all, the price of the 7D in Canada ($2100) is more than triple that of the XSi ($625) but is still 1/3 less than the 1ds Mark III ($7500).
Here is how we tested file quality. We shot various subjects with all three cameras at 100 ISO. In all comparisons we outfitted the cameras with the same lens. We used numerous different lenses on the cameras as well. We tried to match compositions, which meant we had to move the full frame 1Ds Mark III a little closer to the subject to get the same framing as the Rebel and the 7D. We always used Live View and 10x magnification on each camera to get precise focus using manual focus. We turned off IS (image stabilization) on the lenses, we used solid tripods, cable releases, mirror lock-up and apertures that we would actually use in the field (f8 to f16). No filters were used on any of the lenses in our tests. We shot all cameras in RAW mode and processed all files in Canon’s Digital Photo Pro (DPP) software. In DPP we turned off all noise reduction, turned off sharpening, and processed images in ‘standard’ picture mode. All settings (white balance, contrast, brightness etc.) were the same for all camera files. We then brought the processed RAW files up in Photoshop CS4 and compared the files at 100%.
We first tested the cameras in the studio. We shot the images below with all three Canon cameras using a Canon 45mm TS-E lens at f13.
Because each camera has a different number of pixels on the sensor it is difficult to do a direct apples-to-apples comparison but below are the 100% views of the 7d files compared to the Rebel and Mark III files.
To our eye, the 7D file looks the least sharp, seems to have less detail in the shadows and seems ‘flat’ and muddy with very little snap. The Rebel and Mark III files look noticeably better.
Just for fun we interpolated the Rebel’s 12 MP files up to the size of the 7D’s sensor at 18 MP and downsized the 1Ds Mark III files from 21 MP to 18 MP. We used Photoshop’s bicubic interpolation for resizing. We left the 7D at its native 18 MP resolution. This is not really a fair test because upsizing and downsizing reduces image quality. So the 7D is really at an advantage here. No sharpening was added to any file. Below are the results.
Again to our eye the 7D files look soft and mushy compared to the snap in the other two files. Of course we expected the flagship Mark III to outperform the mid-priced 7D but we did not expect the entry level Rebel to better the 7D especially when the Rebel’s 12MP files were interpolated to 18MP!
In the field we thought it best to just compare the Rebel and the 7D since they both had an APS-c sized sensors and the 7D is probably a camera for people who might be moving up from something like the Rebel or the Canon 30D or 40D.
In our first test we made an image of hay bales in the country. As always we used Live View and manually focused on the hay bale. We used a 70-200 f4L lens at f16 (mirror lock-up, cable release, sturdy tripod etc.). The detailed comparison shot follows the overall view.
We were surprised by just how much sharper the Rebel images appeared in the field tests.
Every time we put on a telephoto lens and shot distant scenes, the 7D came up much softer than the Rebel. Remember, we were using the same lenses in every comparison, the same apertures, Live View focusing, mirror lock-up etc. We processed the photos in Canon’s DPP exactly the same with no sharpening or noise reduction. In each case, the 7D file did not match the performance of the Rebel.
The example below shows the problem we kept running into with the 7D. The image looked tack sharp on the LCD using Live View at 10x, but the actual details in the file were mushy.
We were continually dismayed at the soft, muddy files we were getting from the 7D. In test after test, the 7D files were especially poor when using telephoto or wide angle lenses with distant scenes. When the subject was closer to the camera (like the original still life) the 7D performed slightly better. Below is a scene taken at 20mm at f11 (with a 17-50mm f2.8 Tamron lens). The detailed file has the characteristic ‘mushy’ look we grew accustomed to seeing from the 7D. Both photos are ©Samantha Chrysanthou
We did not directly compare the 7D against our little Canon G9 (a 12MP point-n-shoot), but we happened to take very similar shots one morning of the same subject with the two different cameras. When we processed the RAW images in DPP we were surprised by the fact that the G9 files looked nearly as good as the 7D files!
A Second and Third 7D Body
The files from the Canon 7D were so disappointing to us that we began to wonder if we had received a dud camera. We borrowed a different body. Off we went for round two, again shooting numerous scenes with both the 7D and the Rebel XSi. We got the exact same results: the little Rebel bested the 7D every time in terms of file quality. The second 7D body performed as ‘poorly’ as the first.
So… we got a THIRD 7D body and ran more tests. We went out and shot a city scene with three different Canon cameras; the new 10 MP Canon G11 point-n-shoot, our trusty Rebel XSi, and the 7D. We also threw the 12 MP Nikon D300s into the mix just for fun. With the G11 we used a tripod, f5.6, IS off and used auto-focus. With the Rebel and the 7D we attached a 45mm TS-E lens, used f8, Live View for precise focus and mirror lock-up with a cable release. On the Nikon we also used Live View and manual focus, mirror-up, a cable release and a 17-55 f2.8 Nikon Lens. The Canon cameras were at a default setting of 100 ISO, the Nikon at its default of 200 ISO. We processed all the Canon files in DPP using auto white balance, standard picture style, and all noise and sharpening off. We processed the Nikon image in Adobe Camera Raw 5.5 with all sharpening and noise reduction off and all controls zeroed out.
Here is the overall city scene followed by the detailed comparisons
The little $575 G11 point-n-shoot can definitely hold its own against the 7D in terms of file quality. This is especially noticeable if you compare the points of contrast in the image, such as the window frames in the building. For some reason, even though we processed both RAW images in DPP using the same picture settings (standard) and white balance (auto), the two cameras gave very different colour renditions of the scene.
The photo above is consistent with what we saw with in all of our tests, the Rebel comes out on top in terms of fine details captured in the scene.
There is simply no question that the Nikon comes out on top in terms of detail and nuance of tonal capture. In fact, we think the D300s outperforms our trusty little Rebel—which you would expect from a higher end camera like the $1800 Nikon. Even though both the Canon 7d and the Nikon D300s camera files were processed using ‘auto’ white balance the difference in colour cast is not surprising given that these are two different brands of camera (Canon and Nikon) and that we used two different RAW converters (Canon’s DPP and Abobe’s Camera RAW). The top camera in this test was the Nikon
Finally, we shot a detailed wall of graffiti in the city with the Canon 7D, Rebel XSi, 1ds Mark III, G11 and the Nikon D300s. The 3 Canon dSLR’s were outfitted with the 45mm TS-E lens, the Nikon was outfitted with the Nikon 17-55 f2.8, and the G11 with its built-in lens. We tried to match the exact composition with each camera. Below is the overall scene and following that the detailed results.
The G11 gives very vibrant colours even when the RAW files are processed with the exact same settings (auto white balance, standard picture settings) as the 7D. We’re not sure why. Disregarding the colour differences it looks like the little G11 produces files to compete with the bigger sensor on the 7D.
The Rebel wins again both in terms of micro contrast and tonal capture.
Because we were using a 45mm TS-E lens on cameras with two differently sized sensors (the 7D has an APS-c sensor while the Mark III has a full frame 35mm sensor) we needed to move closer to the scene with the full frame camera. We did not get the framing exact. The 1Ds files should look larger because it has more megapixels. Nevertheless the end result is still the same. The $7500 1Ds Mark III gives much better files than the $2100 7D (we should hope so!).
In this comparison the D300s easily wins in our opinion. The fine detail is really nice, the tonal changes are subtle. The Canon 7D file has a characteristic mushy look. But one could argue that the 7D could be enlarged bigger because it has more pixels on the sensor.
In the next test we interpolated the Nikon D300s file up to 18MP. Then we tried to match the colours and contrast of the two files for a ‘finished’ image. The final two images look pretty close – below:
Even at a disadvantage the interpolated Nikon file simply trumps the Canon file. In our opinion there is no contest, the Nikon D300s produces better files than the Canon 7D.
Of all the cameras we have ever used, we loved the handling of the Canon 7D the best. What a little sports car of a camera! We so much wanted to love this camera. But in test after test we constantly were disappointed in the quality of the files. For our purposes, landscape and nature photography shot using RAW images, the 7D just does not cut it. Darwin is definitely keeping his Rebel (a great camera for the money) for backpacking. We were so impressed with the Canon G11 that we plan to add it to our camera bags as an everyday walk around camera.
Sam has since purchased the Nikon D300s because it gives her the both great file quality AND strong performance and handling.
We looked on the web for reviews of the Canon 7D and almost every review site RAVES about the camera both in terms of features and performance (we agree) but also in terms of file quality (huh?). Also on photo sharing forums a lot of photographers think the file quality of the Canon 7D is awesome. Maybe our expectations were too high? We thought the 7D should give us files better than a Rebel or G11. Maybe we are just too anal?
Here is what we know. The Canon 7D is not good enough for us to buy and use for the way we shoot (RAW). A whole lot of people love the camera and are super happy with it. Different strokes…. We suggest before buying ANY camera, rent it if you can and go out and shoot stuff you normally would shoot. Compare it with the camera you already own. Is there a jump in quality and performance? Don’t listen to the hype and reviews, go test for yourself. We did and we are content with our choices.
Royce Howland has made some ’suspicians’ about why he thinks the RAW files look ‘mushy’ on the Canon 7D
- Effects of different levels of AA filtering that may require different initial “capture” sharpening to normalize the images from different bodies for apples-to-apples comparison. My suspicion is the 7D has one of the strongest AA filters ever on a Canon body which would put its files at an immediate disadvantage in zero sharpening comparisons.
- Effects of diffraction limitation and depth of field when comparing different sensor formats. Looking critically at my own shooting of late, I’m now trying to stay in the sweet spot of f/8 to f/11 because it’s amazing the softening impact of going to narrower apertures (not to mention focus errors) on these densely packed sensors.
- Effects of things like picture style differences in DPP, even though equivalent RAW conversion settings were selected, which may contribute to the flat appearance of the 7D files. I don’t think the DPP conversions are really normalized with each other across different bodies for the same style settings, which is one reason I don’t like DPP. (See also the super saturation of the G11 shots.)
Some of these things, ironically, might be better equalized for apples-to-apples comparisons by shooting JPEG in the camera instead of RAW. This would give the camera’s own engine the chance to produce its best-effort output given a set of baseline picture style controls.
But regardless of those things, at the end of the day when you look at the results out of the camera, softer is softer and flatter is flatter. One clear conclusion is that the 7D RAW files will need more work to compete with other camera images that need less work. When you start off with the RAW image further behind the 8 ball, it limits how good you can go… especially without getting into a “digital processed” look.
There are concerns about Canon’s DPP making 7D files look soft while Adobe’s Camera RAW does a better job. Below is the same 7D image shot at f8 using the Canon 45mm TS-E lens. The left image was processed in DPP (auto white blance, standard picture style, no sharpening or noise reduction). The image on the right is with the latest version of Camera RAW in Photoshop CS-4 (auto white balance, all controls zeroed out, no sharpening or noise reduction). Is DPP bad? You decide.
We have summarized the deluge of comments on this review here
And if all of the ‘serious’ comments have you shaking your head, cruise on over here for a good ha ha.
Jan 31, 2010 Update. Comments on the 7D Review posting are now closed. We received a lot of great and helpful comments on the 7D review that should give people a lot of resouces to check out and a lot of information to judge the validity of our tests. In the end you should just rent the camera, see if it fits your needs and decide for yourself if the 7D is a good match for you. I am closing the comments for one main reason. There is a small vocal minority out there that just want to flame, and name-call, and act like kids by posting rude and offensive comments on this blog. In short they are not following this blog’s House Rules. Rather than spend all my time policing other people’s behaviour I am ending comments on the review.