Saturday, 23 June 2012

Review: Canon 7D

So I figured that since I wrote a whole post yesterday on my new Canon 17-40mm lens, this is probably as good an opportunity as any to write in a bit more detail about some of my other gear, starting with my photography kit! Today's review is on the Canon 7D DSLR body.

The Canon 7D
Canon 7D with 300mm F4 IS L lens + 1.4x teleconverter.

The Canon 7D was released a couple of years ago now back in Autumn 2009 effectively as a 'sports' alternative to the Canon 5D Mk2 which was released about the same time. With the 5D Mk2 offering a massive number of megapixels (22.2), a HUGE ISO range (up to 25600) and the same amazing image quality as its predecessor, the 7D had a lot to live up to. By comparison, the 7D has (slightly) fewer megapixels (18MP), a (1.6x) crop sensor, and worse ISO performance. But then again, none of that really matters because this camera is built for speed.

You can read all about the specifications of this camera elsewhere, but the most interesting updates from my point of view when I bought it were the really fast and accurate autofocus (said to rival the AF of the much-adored Canon 1D Mk II) and the whopping 10 frames-per-second (fps) continuous shooting rate. The accuracy of the autofocus was something I was keen to improve at that point, as I'd been shooting with a Canon 40D for a while by then and was finding it frustratingly slow at times, particularly when trying to shoot birds in the chaos that follows behind fishing boats.

First Impressions

I spend two days looking at specks of flying drool and wondering why they weren't sharp enough. Sigh.

My first impressions of the 7D when I bought it two years ago were that it a) sometimes took awesome photos and b) was a far more technical camera than I had been used to up to that point. I spent a few weeks with the manual and testing it out at Caerlaverock WWT reserve on geese and on my (rather quick) dog and his frisbee. Then I spent another few days driving myself crazy looking at 100% crops of the images I was taking and wondering why they weren't quite up to the standards I was expecting. After testing the sharpness of my lenses (all are spot on) and deciding that it probably wasn't the 7D body (results were inconsistent), it turned out to be user error (I was basically using too slow a shutter speed for too-fast subjects!). Interestingly though, I'd written off a lot of soft images from the 400D or 40D as being the fault of the camera and it took the 7D to make me really reassess the way I had been shooting and how to really get the most out of a camera. It probably means I was always a bit unfair on the other cameras I'd had, but it forced me to become a better photographer and to think a lot more about what I was actually doing when I went out to shoot.

Later Impressions
After that rather steep learning curve at the start, the 7D has never disappointed. The AF isn't perfect, and it will miss subjects, particularly when there's low contrast (e.g. shooting grey birds on a cloudy, grey day) or if they're moving fast over a close backdrop (e.g. low flying over the sea) but when it gets a subject (and it will catch on quickly!) it will definitely catch it. One problem I had with the 40D was that it would partially focus on subjects fairly often, but the 7D doesn't do this nearly as much and things tend to be either in focus or completely missed. The 10 fps is also very handy, and although using long bursts will eat up the processing power within a second or two, it can make for some cool time-lapse sequences and if used sparingly, can often make the difference between getting a usable or a completely useless photograph. 

Shot at ISO6400 in the middle of the night with only a ship's light to illuminate the sea. It's not brilliant, but perfectly acceptable as an ID photo.

The ISO performance on this camera is pretty good too. At anything much above about 400ISO, you do really start to notice the graininess coming into the images, which is a bit of a shame but probably fairly inevitable given the number of MP squeezed onto the sensor. Image quality in general though is excellent, and I must admit that the 18MP resolution means you can crop an image in pretty far and still maintain a good resolution image, which is a nice cheat if you can't afford a super-zoom (I can't).

After two years of trying I was finally able to get this shot!

One of the main reasons I wanted a camera upgrade was so I could get a decent photograph of a gannet diving into the water. For whatever reason, I'd never managed to get that shot before with my old gear, but the hit rate went up massively with the 7D, so I'm guessing it wasn't entirely down to human error! Gannets can reach 60mph when they hit the surface of the sea, so they present a pretty big challenge to spot, focus on, track and shoot. Thanks to this camera (and plenty of practice), I was able to FINALLY get the result I wanted!

Environmental Sealing
Shooting a timelapse series of our journey down the Clyde at the start of our last research cruise. My camera's under the hat and the timer is in the rucksack. It was cold.

I thought this might deserve special mention since I've probably done just about everything to this camera short of dropping it or drowning it (and it's come close to the latter). In the two years I've owned my 7D I've taken it out on about a dozen fishing boats, covered it in mud, salt, fish slime and water and battered it off several walls, floors and railings, and in all that time it's never had any kind of issue (not even a dusty sensor). It undoubtedly helps that I almost exclusively use weather-sealed lenses when I'm outdoors but it's pretty reassuring. After all, what's the point in owning something if you can't use it when you want to?

Stuff I never thought I'd use
As you've probably noticed, I've really only talked about the AF and the fps so far, because those were the things I bought the camera for, but there are a ton of other features that I've slowly started to use, even though I never thought I'd bother with them. The HD video is one of those features, and it's still not something I'm using a lot. It has been good fun to play with though and if nothing else is enough to satisfy my curiosity about whether video is something I want to get into a bit more. I wish it had continuous autofocus, but aside from that, seems to be pretty nice!

The other feature I've started using more is the live viewfinder on the back. Not being a macro photographer, I've never really bothered with this as a feature as I prefer using the 'normal' viewfinder (I'm oldskool like that!), but it certainly has it's uses and I've found myself using it increasingly to frame shots at awkward camera angles which is handy. I also understand why people love adjustable live viewfinders!

Before I bought this camera I used to spend a long time hopelessly lusting after cameras like the 1D MKIII or IV wishing I had something that would just shoot a bit faster or grab subjects a bit quicker. Since owning the 7D I don't think I've bothered to look at any other cameras - this one is still going strong and it provides everything I need in a camera body. The crop sensor, high resolution and really fast speeds all combine to make it an excellent sports or wildlife camera. You don't get quite the resolution or the image quality that you can get with a (full frame) 5D MKII or III, so if those things are important to you, then the 7D might not be the camera you want. If you're after something reliable, super-fast and affordable for shooting fast-moving things then you could certainly do far, far worse.