Canon EOS 7D DSLR camera review

4.5 out of 5
£1699 (body only)

For

Build, image quality, viewfinder, performance and speed, AF, flash control, HD video, ergonomics, LCD

Against

Looks pricey, purple fringing on some high contrast shots with 18-135mm kit lens

The new EOS 7D is a fully redesigned EOS with high performance in mind so the new, extremely well-specified, EOS marks a step change for Canon's EOS models featuring an 18MP APS-C sized sensor and HD video to name two of the key features.

At first glance the EOS 7D seems to be like many other Canon EOS DSLRs with the familiar, slightly swooping top plate design and deeply recessed handgrip. The pentaprism housing hosts a useful pop-up flash unit and it is this that starts to mark the 7D out as being a little different from recent EOS models, such as the 5D Mark II, to which it is closely allied.

However, the 7D is a quite radical departure for the EOS marque, one designed to slot between the 50D and 5D Mark II and a not insignificant price tag of just shy of £1700 may need some justifying for many tempted by its treats.

It is also a camera designed to help Canon pull back market share that competitors have been nibbling away at over recent months, to provide a professional level of control and performance within a body priced at the semi-professional level.

Headline changes are impressive, a new APS-C sized, 18MP CMOS sensor and 19 zone (all cross type) AF setup, which sports its own processor making AF accurate and blisteringly fast, particularly when tracking fast moving subjects.

8fps sequence shooting is very good indeed, the AF tracking across the frame proving no problem. However, slightly more challenging were subjects moving directly at the camera, which were less well handled.

However, given the camera is shooting at a class leading 18-megapixels at 8fps - for up to 126 JPEGs - that's not bad. Though to get that speed and buffer power, you'll need to use UDMA CF Type I/II storage.

This is key when shooting RAW; the buffer starts to bulge at 15-images but the camera's all new image engine, dual DIGIC 4 image processors, means that while the frame rate does drop as the buffers fills, it'll continue to shoot at around 3fps as the camera gulps down the huge, (up to) 30MB gobbets of RAW image data. Still, the only camera to compete with it in terms of speed is the 10fps professional-level EOS 1D Mark III.

You can fully customise the AF set-up; the AF points used for both camera orientations as well as the AF mode used can be changed or tweaked to how you want them; you can also build-in specific AF tweaks for specific lenses if required. The 7D’s AF makes use of the camera's accelerometers, which also provide data for the camera's rather natty built-in electronic spirit level system.

One caveat to the AF speed is when shooting in Live View, which has three focus modes of Live mode, Face AF Live mode and Quick mode. The latter is relatively fast, as you'd expect, but the other two settings are slower and of course when shooting in Live View, you have to factor in the time needed to get the mirror up and out of the way; then back again and between each exposure.

One of the best things about the 7D is its new, clear and bright viewfinder; the 7D is the first EOS offering a 100% field of view finder, at 1.0x magnification and it's probably the best APS-C DSLR viewfinder we've come across.

We particularly like the transmissive LCD used for a clever heads-up-display for framing and AF point selection indication, and it provides a comprehensive level of shooting data that helps make this finder a joy.

A 22mm eyepoint makes using the finder excellent when wearing spectacles, but only just, as the bottom extremes of the data information are only just visible. The large pentaprism “hump” denotes the camera from its older 50D sibling and hides the aforementioned pop-up Speedlite, a useful addition for those moments where a puff of flash can lift a backlit shot, say.

One disappointment centres on the otherwise superb 3-inch Clear View II LCD screen, with its 920k-pixel resolution. It is not articulated and while it features a wide 160-degree viewing angle (Canon has stripped away the air gap between the protective cover and liquid crystal found on previous iterations of such screens to improve contrast and reduce glare, which it does) reflections can still be an issue in bright conditions when using the screen at such oblique angles.

A magnesium alloy body has a suitably tactile covering, so holding the thing is reassuring and making it easy to hang on to in the rain – while environmental seals ensure the camera is in no way compromised by such shooting conditions.

Wireless flash control means the 7D has another EOS first. It's the first EOS to have an integral Speedlite transmitter, allowing remote control of (up to) three groups of four flashguns - an impressive pro' level of performance at the price.

In terms of the physical controls, the most obvious thing is they are larger than on both the 50D and 5D Mark II, ideal for use wearing gloves in inclement weather and, now there's a dedicated switch for Live View and movie shooting with an integral Start/Stop button for recording. This marks a step change because at last the camera's movie mode is an integral camera system, part of the default kit and operations, as opposed to a seemingly add-on feature as on previous EOS models.

Otherwise, the layout is typically EOS, though the control dial lock and power switch have been separated; the on/off switch now nestles below the mode dial on the top plate, along with other adjustments, a much more logical - and welcome - handling enhancement.

A couple of new controls include a dedicated button to quickly change the selected image quality setting to RAW + JPEG and a new “Q” button, which activates an interactive display of your control options on the screen, which you can browse and select using the control dial, the multi-selector control and the Set button.

This is nice since those familiar with the physical controls of an EOS, and the menus, can carry on as before, while those less familiar to the camera (or EOS models, if trading up or across to the 7D) can still get at everything, quickly and simply and importantly, learn the controls and what they do as they go.

And it is here that we get even closer to the beating heart of the 7D since, despite all the new kit and the 1080p movie making frills, it still looks quite pricey. Yes, it has significant enhancement over the 50D, but the question is simply this: “Should I consider trading up to this model?”

If you looked at the 7D as an EOS 5D Mark II “lite”, it might not look good value. The APS-C format means there is a 1.6x field of view adjustment needed for any focal length you use compared with the full frame 5D Mark II. Although the additional depth of field control this provides, certainly where portrait or macro work is involved, and the extra leg it gives any telephoto optics or zooms, arguably outweighs this as a possible niggle, compared to the full frame 5D Mark II.

However, throw in the fact the 5D Mark II costs around £1000 more, and you realise that much of your hard-earned cash would make a great fund towards more (or better) optics; it is certainly not as straight forward an equation as it might at first seem. So now consider this…

Compared to the £4000 (body only) EOS1D Mark III, the Canon it most closely resembles in terms of speedy performance, say, and suddenly you get another complexion completely. You could buy two 7D bodies for the price of one 1D Mark III and have plenty of change over for another lens.

Okay, so you loose a couple frames per second continuous shooting compared with the 1D Mark III but then you gain a greater sensitivity range; ISO 100 to a boosted ISO 12,800. And you get Full HD movies (with stereo sound when using optional stereo microphones) plus a superb new viewfinder.

Also bear in mind, the build quality is on a par with the 1D Mark III but the camera control is (arguably) better than the more expensive Mark III sibling. Oh! And you'll have a spare back-up 7D body into the bargain.

Metering and exposure control are pretty faultless, a new Focus Colour Luminance system measuring (as the name suggests) focus, and colour and luminance across 63 zones, while switching between the four metering modes of evaluative, partial, centre-weighted average and spot metering, provide differing “looks” to the same scene, depending on where you meter in a scene. On balance, my preference was for centre-weighted average, which gave the best overall metering balance overall.

Detail and colour are excellent; shooting RAW+JPEG gave superb results though the auto WB setting left things looking a tad warm. Processing the RAWs (I shot RAW + JPEG throughout) using the supplied Canon Digital Photo Professional software was easy, even if said software is a tad slow, particularly when exporting the RAWs as JPEGs.

One of the most impressive aspects of the 7D is the low noise performance at higher ISOs. Shooting between ISO 100 and ISO 2000 was a delight, since noise is non-existent at the lower end of that scale and almost invisible at the higher end.

A series of ISO test images show the amount of detail retained up to ISO 2000 is good, above ISO 3200 details starts to drop away but noise is still well controlled. Above ISO 6400 and detail is stripped away making images seem rather fuzzy, which is a shame.

The dual DIGIC IV engine really struts its stuff in the 7D, but arguably overdoing it a bit at ISO 5000 to 12,800. Noise processing can be adjusted (as can much of the camera settings) to your preference.

The only other slight niggle is some purple and blue fringing on some high contrast subjects shooting using the cameras new EF-S 18-135mm IS zoom; in RAW you can process this away if needed, but the net effect otherwise, is to give a slight softness to the images in which the fringing is present and add another level of work to post shoot processing.

The EOS 7D is the third EOS to sport Full HD at 1920 x 1080-pixels after the 5D Mark II and EOS 500D. Shot at 29.97fps the 7D provides superbly smooth widescreen video with sound. Stereo sound can be recorded with optional stereo microphones that can plug straight into the camera. Clips up to a second shy of 30-minutes can be shot in HD, providing you use UDMA CF cards. Otherwise the longest clip possible is of a lowly, 5 seconds duration. You also get full manual control over shutter speeds and aperture settings during shooting, though focusing adjustment needs to be done manually.

The camera's custom control interface is another example of how this camera's handling has been enhanced. Here, a simple diagrammatic representation of the camera control layout is shown providing a fast ready reckoner of what button does what. Each camera control location has a highlight and a range of adjacent options to change the behaviours of the buttons or control in the display, and that makes sorting your preferred custom camera control very easy and provides an almost endless range of options.

I shot around 1300 images for this test and all of that on two charges of the LP-E6 battery pack. The last charge is still at 80%, checked from within the camera's menus system; after a full, 2 days of shooting, I still had 23% of power to spare on the first charge and that after plenty of reviewing on the screen, frequent Live View shooting and a modest amount of (built-in) flash photography. This is very impressive power performance indeed.

Verdict

Well made, quickly intuitive to use, fleet-of-foot across most performance measures and able to produce stunning results, even at high sensitivity settings, all means the Canon EOS 7D is both a cleverly realised combination of professional specification and semi-professional pricing.

The EOS 5D Mark II is the step down model for those social photographers working on a tighter budget compared against the 1Ds Mark III, here, the EOS 7D provides the same job for sports or wildlife photographers compared with the EOS 1D Mark III.

The 1.6x APS-C field of view crop boosts your lens focal lengths, helping you help tuck your subject tight into the frame, while the smaller 18MP CMOS sensor (than the full frame chip in the EOS 5D Mark II) means it can be blisteringly fast too.

There's no compromise on image quality apart from (arguably) shooting above ISOs of 6400 and the purple fringing evident in some high contrast shots. The 7D might not be the natural substitute for those social photographers thinking of the 5D Mark II, but for those shooting sporty stuff or where longer focal lengths need to be considered for wildlife work, and you're on a tighter budget, the 7D makes a lot more sense than the EOS 1D Mk III. Looked at in that way, it also represents superb value for money as well.