Thursday, September 5, 2013

Canon EOS 70D Review: Part 1 - The Camera of Today

This is a wrap-up of sorts for what has turned out to be the season of the Canon EOS 70D. With no new Nikon launch to compete with and a novel autofocus system, Canon certainly has given the photography community something to talk about since it's announcement earlier in the summer. In terms of marketing, Canon has pulled off what something nearly impossible; they've turned what could have been a boring iteration into one of the summer's hotly discussed topics. Smart shoppers know to skip at least one generation when buying DSLR's; skipping two generations is even easier on the wallet. Were it not for the new sensor, the 70D would have been barely a nudge over the 60D, and would have suffered the same launch indifference that the PowerShot G16 received.

A body that's barely changed and a modest, even minor improvement in image quality over the 60D... yet, the 70D is an immediately likeable camera.

Because of the lengthy amount of time between announcement and shipping, there has been plenty to talk about with the various leaks and pre-production samples. For reference, this is a list of deeper dives into the 70D:

Analysis of pre-production image quality
High ISO image samples from a retail-spec camera
Why the 70D image quality isn't as clean as the Nikon Cameras
Dual Pixel Autofocus speed compared to Panasonic GH3 and Sony SLT A-55
The limits of how well the Dual Pixel on-chip PDAF works

However, a camera is the sum of its parts, and the overall experience with the 70D is quite satisfying.

In Your Hands

Nothing much has changed since the 60D. That's generally a good thing, as consistency of design and control layout is a benefit to the consumer. It's a tad bit smaller than the 60D... 9mm narrower, 7mm shorter... albeit the body is slightly thicker by 5mm. I think the 70D is a more handsome camera than its predecessor; it looks a bit more purposeful... slightly straighter lines, more pulled together body. Actually, I'm showing my bias here, because what I'm actually trying to say is that I like it because it is more Nikon-like.

In your hands, the 70D, like the 60D and 50D before it, is comfortable to hold. Though the thumb rest area is smaller and straighter than on the 60D, the 70D is a pleasure to hold in your hands because of the texture of the rubber thumb rest and because of the notching on the front of the grip for your middle finger to hook under. I've always said that Canon's are the best cameras to grip securely, but that Nikon's are the better cameras for changing parameters on the fly. Between the 70D and the D7100, that opinion hasn't changed.

A complaint I have about the 70D is the 8-way multi-controller. The usage is familiar to any Canon owner, but on the 60D I found it too small, making it a bit of a reach to get your thumb to when you've got the camera up at eye-level. That hasn't changed with the 70D; the control dial really needs to be larger in diameter as it is one the 7D to make the operation more thumb-friendly. The other complaint about the 70D multi-controller is the tactile feel of the selector pad. It quite frankly stinks; there's not much travel, and what little travel there is doesn't feel intuitive. Worse, it's quite sensitive, making a trip through the menus more hair-trigger responsive than it needs to be.

Which leads into the biggest complaint I have... Which buttons do you think get the most usage on a DSLR? If you said the shutter release, you would be partly right. You might not re-adjust ISO, aperture or shutter speed for every shot, but the he shutter release is used every time (unless you have magically rigged your camera to operate by voice command); this is especially true if you only use the central AF point. However if you are concientious about focusing, there is a button that you will be using more than the shutter release: that would be the AF selector. Though it can be broken, the Rule of Thirds often makes for the best composition. That means that it takes more than one press of the toggle to move the AF point from side to side.

The immediate problem is that there is no AF toggle on the 70D, which is an unfortunate carry-over from the 60D. This is an understandable but unfortunate design choice. When the 60D went down-market, so did some of the pro-level features. By not having a dedicated AF toggle, you can tell that Canon thinks that they consider that a good proportion of the intended user base will use the center AF point only. Regardless, merging the AF toggle with the controller pad makes for sub-optimal handling.

However, most of the rest of the body is just about right. The internal metal frame was lost in the switch between the 50D and 60D, but that also makes for a lighter body, and one that is less intimidating for anybody stepping up from the likes of a T3i and such.

STM Lenses

Unlike Nikon, Canon is branching out into video-specific lenses with stepper motors. These lenses aren't as fast as traditional USM lenses for still photography, but are better suited to video because they are quieter and don't produce noise when focusing. One thing I will note about the STM kit lenses: though they won't be confused for better, they are considerably less cheap-looking than the kit 18-55VR that Nikon packages with its lower tier cameras.

Traditional Focusing

7D/70D AF Array
Having covered the liveview and video focusing, I do want to add one thing: the traditional view-finder based focusing of the 70D is underrated. This is the 19-point unit from the 7D, where all of the points are cross-type, meaning that they are equally sensitive to vertical as well as horizontal detail. Whereas the Nikon AF units, with their 39 and 51 points are clever, the Canon 19-point unit is dependable.... both have their merits, each better at some things, not quite as good as others...

60D AF Array
... but at the very least, the new AF pulls the the 70D out of the dark ages of the 60D's 9-point array. In fact, all the talk of the 70D's liveview autofocusing distracts from the improvement that most DSLR users are going to benefit the most from; namely, improved conventional PDAF. The extra granularity of control is a welcome addition. In operation, the 70D's viewfinder focusing was fast and snappy... it doesn't seem as brutally fast as the 7D, but it's competitively fast with the Nikons.

Image Quality

Canon 70D: 35mm, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 1/125s, +1EV with 18-55mm STM f/3.5-5.6

If there has been one disappointment, and a loud and persistent one at that, it's that the image quality of the 70D isn't much of an improvement over the 60D. As covered before, the architecture of the hardware doesn't really allow for Sony-like ultra-low read noise levels. In practical terms, it won't matter as much to the intended audience. Though not class leading, the texture of the image noise isn't intrusive, and will likely not matter much to the 70D's intended audience. Compared to the Nikon D7100, the 70D stays with traditional Canon defaults and tends to meter "less aggressively" than a comparable Nikon. If you look at the picture of the watch above, you'll note that +1EV compensation was dialed in to simulate a more "Nikon-like" bright/vivid rendition. This has nothing to do with sensor capability, though and more to do with the different philosophy behind the default settings. The overall image quality is a smidge better than the 60D, but in all honesty, if you wanted the best APS-C image quality above all else, Canon wouldn't be your first choice.

Video quality is up to Canon's standards, though my feeling is that the output is great, but just a tad bit muddier in tonality than output from the 5DmII or 5DmIII. In other words, even though the 70D is the better on-the-go videography camera, the full frame cameras still produce the best output by virtue of their larger sensors.


EOS 60D Shooter: Skip, unless you are significantly increasing your video load. Even though, don't buy until you can bundle with some sort of discount if at all possible. Despite all of the new technology and features, there isn't enough here to break the "skip generations when upgrading" rule for still shooters. As a word of consolation if you have decided that you won't upgrade, the video autofocusing works fantastically, but serious cinematographers will still prefer to do manual focusing, which you can still accomplish on the 60D.

EOS T4i (650D)/T5i (700D) User: You're basically in the same camp as the 60D guys. Basically everything said about them applies to you as well.

EOS T3i or Earlier Devotee: Yes, this would be a worthwhile upgrade. Though most of the features are the same, they all work a little bit better. An additional plus is that the T3i still commands good resale value as it it's far behind the modern cameras. Just be mindful if you are keeping the lenses that you likely won't have as easy a time unloading your T3i without the basic kit lens.

EOS 7D Owner: Wait a bit longer. The 70D makes a nice backup to the 7D, but you're caught in an awkward position. The long-awaited 7DmII may (or may not) come, and even if it does, see once again the "skip generations rule" The 70D doesn't solve any issues that are core to the serious-enthusiast/semi-pro ethos of the 7D, which was a pretty good camera to begin with. Again, the caveat would be if you are doing more video work than before.

Nikon D90/5100 Cross Shopper: The 70D is an interesting alternative to the D7000 and D7100, though we are comparing apples to oranges here. From the D5100, the image quality is a side-grade at best... more resolution, but noisier files. However, you are getting a flip out LCD again, something that Nikon doesn't offer on any of their other DSLR's. Just be warned that it takes a bit of getting used to switching between Nikon and Canon systems if you've never done it before. It's not that one is better than the other (though everybody has an opinion), but the re-learning period does blunt a bit of the joy of trying a new camera, at least until you get the hang of things.

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