Hands On with the Canon EOS 7D
The Canon EOS 7D offers a complete set of photo and video imaging tools for creating rich, digital content. Similar in form to the popular 10D-50D bodies, the 7D adopts numerous 1D-series attributes in addition to a host of ambitious new features for professional and advanced photo and video shooters. Featuring 18 megapixel resolution, 8 frames per second burst mode, a completely redesigned AF system and viewfinder, wireless flash control, and a host of selectable HD video recording modes, the 7D stands out as a completely new class of EOS camera. Priced under $1700, the body is sure to be popular with a variety of professional and advanced users.
Canon shooters should have no problem finding their way around the 7D. While the camera is easily recognized as a member of the EOS family, the build quality and control layout are quite unique. The body is composed of rigid magnesium alloy panels, with seals protecting the battery and memory card doors, as well as the buttons and dials. A rounded rubber grip seats nicely in the hand and offers a comfortable amount of flex. A slight protrusion into the palm allows the thumb to fall comfortably into the 11 o'clock position. This provides natural interface with the rear Quick Control Dial, Multi-controller joystick, and newly-developed Live View/Video switch. A first for the EOS line, this dedicated round switch enables Live View and Video mode with greater efficiency than other Canon models. Start/stop is engaged using a button centered in the switch. The addition of this controller solidifies Canon's commitment to hybrid photo and video shooting. It would not surprise me to see this type of controller on future EOS models.
|The 7D Live View/Video switch highlighted in red
The main buttons on the back of the camera are arranged vertically down the left side, with ample spacing and size to accommodate shooters wearing gloves. A new RAW/JPEG button offers space-conscious JPEG shooters a one-touch solution for recording an individual frame in the RAW file format. Conversely, this allows RAW shooters to record a JPEG along with their next RAW file. Quick Control, another 7D first, provides quick access to shooting settings. The power switch now operates as a single function control—no longer doing double duty as a lock/unlock switch for the rear Quick Control Dial. Similar to the current Rebel lineup, the power switch is located next to the mode dial on top of the body. The camera also has an incredibly solid pop-up flash. I've always seen built-in pop-ups as a nice convenience at the expense of durability. The 7D has changed my mind.
|The well-built, pop-up flash of the 7D
The camera is powered by the Canon LP-E6 lithium-ion battery. This is the same battery used in the 5D Mark II.
Professional Grade Viewfinder
Looking through the newly designed viewfinder of the 7D is an absolute pleasure. Boasting a large, all-glass prism and 100% field of view, the finder is bright from edge to edge. Because of its pro-grade accuracy, what you see in frame is what will be recorded during capture. This eliminates second guessing composition and the need for post-production cropping.
A unique LCD overlay displays on-demand AF points, a grid display, spot metering circle, and an all-new dual-axis level. Of course, the LCD can be turned off completely for users that prefer to see nothing but their subject. This is quite a departure for Canon. Previous EOS models employed optional focusing screens to aid in composition and capture. It's nice to have such a wide variety of viewing options available on-demand and in-camera.
|An animated look through the customizable, 100% viewfinder of the 7D
63-zone, iFCL Metering
The 7D uses an all-new 63-zone metering system to calculate proper exposure. Collecting data from all AF points (not just the ones in use), measuring AF distance, and precisely analyzing available light, provide stable exposure readings under a variety of shooting situations. To provide even greater metering consistency, the 7D utilizes a unique, dual-layer sensor to identify red/green and blue/green color information. This is the first Canon design to specifically factor color into metering. Canon calls this new system Intelligent Focus, Color, and Luminance Metering or iFCL for short.
True to its EOS lineage, the 7D offers three distinct autofocus modes. One-Shot AF allows the user to focus on a stationary subject and lock focus by halfway depressing the shutter button. As long as the user keeps a finger on the shutter, focus stays locked. This makes establishing focus and recomposing simple and easy. AI Servo AF tracks movement across the frame regardless of the subject's speed. From a baby's first steps to the Kentucky Derby, this mode is designed for subjects in motion. A third mode, AI Focus AF, allows the camera to automatically toggle between One-Shot and AI Servo.
Though AF frame coverage is similar to the 50D and 5D series cameras, the 7D boasts faster response and improved performance. This comes from the 1D design standard employing a dedicated autofocus processor. The diamond-shaped AF array is composed of 19 cross-type sensors, with the center point sensitive to lenses f/2.8 and faster. Extra AF point density not only speeds performance, but also significantly improves accuracy. Five user-selectable AF configurations are available on the 7D.
Out of the box, the camera is enabled for Automatic AF point selection, Manual AF point selection, and the all-new Zone AF selection. Two additional modes for choosing AF points, Spot AF and AF Point Expansion can be enabled via Custom Function III-6.
Since the early 1990s, every EOS SLR has offered Automatic AF point selection. In One-Shot AF mode, this activates all 19 AF points to find the closest subject with the maximum detail. Confirmed AF points are highlighted in the viewfinder. In AI Servo mode, all 19 points are used to track action in the frame. Previous EOS models started tracking movement from the center AF point. With the 7D, users can preselect the starting AF position from any of the 19 AF points. This feature is particularly helpful when capturing a subject running from one side of the frame to the other. Destined to become a standard in other professional EOS bodies, this start-point selection option makes a welcome debut in the 7D.
Manual AF point selection has long been the choice for discriminating image makers. The photographer selects an AF point, and the camera uses only that point to acquire focus. Spot AF (available as a Custom Function) ups the ante by further reducing the size of the selected AF point. Shown in the viewfinder as a point-within-a-point, this mode offers the highest level of AF precision for critical focus applications. This more than proves itself as a worthy Custom Function when focusing a subject's eye or the petal of a flower. It's important to note that the reduced AF point is actually larger than the visual representation shown in the finder. This isn't such a big deal with hand-held portraiture, but is helpful to keep in mind with macro work.
|Spot AF used in a macro photography application
Zone AF is all new and represents capabilities never before seen in the EOS line. This method employs 5 user-selectable zones for autofocus. The zones effectively function as AF clusters at the left, right, top, center, and bottom of the frame. Priority is placed on the subject closest to the lens. One of my biggest problems with the 40/50D AF system is lowlight responsiveness using any AF sensor other than the center point. By clustering AF points into the zones, the 7D completely changed my opinion of the AF possibilities in non-1D cameras. I tested the Zone AF with the EF 17-40mm f/4L and EF 50mm f/1.2L lenses and found it equally responsive to the 1D Mark III (using One Shot, Manual AF point selection). For weddings, street reportage and shoot-from-the-hip scenarios, this mode is a real game changer.
|A look at the 5 selectable areas of the all-new Zone AF selection method
AF Point Expansion was previously available only for 1D series cameras. Enabled as a Custom Function, this selection method allows shooters to manually choose a primary focus point. Should this point lose the subject, surrounding AF points are enabled to assist. Often a savior in low light situations, AF Point Expansion is also particularly useful in high-contrast action sports and wildlife photography.
While the 7D employs a similar 922,000-dot, 3.0" LCD as other Canon models, it appears to have greater brightness and contrast. This most likely comes from the implementation of new materials in the manufacturing process. The 7D is the first EOS camera to use optical glass to cover the rear display. This allows superior light transmission over previous resin designs. An impact-dampening filler material between the optical glass and LCD further enhances durability without effecting display quality. The screen has a slimmer black bezel than other Canon bodies. This saves space, allowing for the uncluttered arrangement of the Live View/Video switch and larger function buttons on the rear of the camera.
Menu text and camera settings look great, but the power of the screen is best demonstrated in Live View and Video mode. The new dual-axis level plays well here, too. This feature detects pitch and roll within a single degree of accuracy. From landscapes and architecture to still life and art copy work, the exactness of the level combined with the precision of the new LCD offers users another powerful productivity tool.
Integrated Wireless Flash Control
Built-in E-TTL Flash Control has been one of the most requested EOS features for many years. With its pop-up flash raised, the 7D can control an unlimited number of compatible Canon EX Speedlite flashes. In the current lineup this includes both the 580EX II and 430EX II. Ratio control is simple and intuitive using the cameras rear LCD. The pop-up flash can even be tuned off to eliminate unwanted frontal lighting.
Advanced Video Capabilities
While the 7D is not the first DSLR to offer HD video recording, it is perhaps the most refined to date. Compatibility with EF/EF-S system lenses, variable frame rates, manual exposure control, and exceptional light sensitivity should help the camera find a niche with discerning filmmakers. Alex Buono, a director of photography at NBC, has already utilized the 7D for various projects on the 2009/10 season of Saturday Night Live. Future commercial and independent productions are sure to employ DSLR video capabilities.
There is no greater draw to DSLR filmmaking than optics. Canon has over 60 lenses in production that are fully compatible with the 7D. From the wide angle capabilities of the 14mm f/2.8L II to the super telephoto effect of the 800mm f/5.6L lens, there's enough diversity in glass to meet or exceed the needs of even the most demanding filmmaker. Third-party options, such as the Lensbaby Composer and Lomographic's Diana F+ adapter and lenses, create magical perspectives and temporal, dreamlike effects.
Manual exposure gives the shooter amazing control over motion and depth of field. With so many possible combinations of shutter speed and aperture values, the aesthetics of the moving image can be adjusted with the highest levels of precision. For the smoothest level of video capture, it's best to keep the shutter speed at or below 1/125 sec. This isn't to say that faster shutter speeds don't have their place. The fast, choppy look lends itself well to action and high drama content. Shallow depth of field characteristics are made possible by a combination of the cameras large sensor and fast EF/EF-S lenses.
High sensitivity (up to ISO 6400) allows for video recording under lowlight. Obviously, more conservative ISO ratings offer cleaner footage, but it was astonishing to see how well the 7D video files held at 3200 and even 6400. With these levels of sensitivity available, one could conceivably shoot a feature film with only natural light.
The 5D Mark II, Canon's first video-enabled DSLR, records beautiful HD footage at exactly 30 frames per second. This is great for producing direct-to-web content, but very difficult to work with on the timeline of a nonlinear editing (NLE) system. The fixed 30fps causes a host of problems. Not the least of which involves poor sound sync and incompatibility with the 29.97fps footage from other dedicated HD/SD video cameras. There are plenty of workarounds for these issues, but the 7D tackles the problems during capture. Whether the project uses a 29.97, 23.976, or 59.94 frame rate, the 7D captures the footage appropriately. Full 1080p HD is recorded at both 30 (actual 29.97) and 24 (actual 23.976) frames per second. In 720p HD, the camera records at 60fps (actual 59.94). For filmmakers, these edit-friendly frame rates eliminate the need to conform the footage, saving significant post-production time. PAL shooters will also appreciate the standard recording with 1080p at 25fps and 720p at 50fps.
Much like the 5D Mark II, an integrated mono microphone records audio with video, and higher quality mics, mixers, or wireless transmitters can be used with the camera's 3.5mm stereo input. The audio sample rate steps up 48khz. If you don't require sound, audio recording can be disabled for video-only capture.
HD video takes up a lot of space and requires fast media. If you plan to flex the might of the 7D's HD capabilities, the appropriate memory cards are required. SanDisk Extreme and Extreme Pro cards provide fast, UDMA-enabled file transfer in a variety of capacities.
It's important to note that the 7D uses the same H.264 encoding as the 5D Mark II and Rebel T1i. This compression codec looks great through QuickTime playback and ports nicely to the web. There is a downside however. H.264 is not a very stable format on an editing timeline. Dropped frames, inaccurate scrubbing, and the need to constantly render the timeline to see the most simple effects, is inefficient and time consuming. The answer to this problem is proper transcoding. This changes the original files into a format that's more stable for post-production. The process is a bit involved, but I walk you through it step-by-step in our companion article, The DSLR Filmmaker's Workflow: Transcoding to Export.
The landscape of digital imaging has changed dramatically in the past year and will only continue to do so. From reportage to wedding photography, still and moving images command equal power in our lives. As the way we consume information changes, our methods of collecting and creating content must evolve, as well. The EOS 7D represents a powerful tool for capturing professional quality photos and video.
Hybrid technologies have never been offered in such a well-considered form factor. From 8fps burst shooting with Zone Autofocus to HD frame rate selection and dedicated video controls, the 7D is the very first camera of its kind. In both handling and capability, the camera directly addresses the needs of creative image makers and professionals.
The Canon EOS 7D is available as body only or in a lens kit. UDMA-enabled memory cards are a must for burst shooting and HD video recording.
Please Note – Shortly after the release of the Canon EOS 7D a few reports of occasional image ghosting in the form of trace images from preceding frames were reported by some but not all Canon 7D owners. The camera used and owned by the author of this article (David Flores) did not display evidence of this problem, even when David intentionally tried to replicate the problem.
Canon has since released a free, downloadable firmware update that according to Canon corrects this problem.
David Flores is a photographer and filmmaker based in New York City. He is a member of the B&H Creative Content Team.