Canon EOS 7D £1699
21st Dec 2011 | 16:53
A superb top-end DSLR with loads of features and HD video
The Canon EOS 7D is Canon's top of the range APS-C camera. Below it sit the compact forms of the EOS 1100D,EOS 600D and EOS 60D and above it the full-frame glory of the £200 more expensive EOS 5D MKII.
The big difference between the 5D MKII and the 7D is inside. The 5D MKII is the cheapest of Canon's line-up to offer a full-frame sensor – the 7D has approximately the same size image sensor as cameras such as the 600D, Nikon D5100 or Sony Alpha 77.
There's also a slight difference in resolution - the 5D MKII has the edge with its 21.1MP sensor, versus the 7D's 18MP APS-C CMOS.
Build quality is basically indistinguishable from the 5D MKII. The body – with the exception of the memory card and battery doors – is made from tough-feeling magnesium alloy. Every point of contact is coated in thick, tactile rubber, making the 7D easy to hold on to through a pair of gloves.
And, unlike Canon's smaller consumer range – the EOS 1100D, or EOS 600D for instance – the grip is practically sized for grown up hands, and feels like the body will be perfectly balanced paired with one of Canon's L-series telephoto lenses.
It's been weather and dust-proofed as well. The battery and memory card doors have a thin layer of rubber where the door meets the body to prevent contaminants getting in.
The body is festooned with buttons, which while initially intimidating for beginners, will be unbridled joy for anyone upgrading from a consumer body.
Focus area, drive mode and sensitivity (ISO) are controlled from a row of buttons next to the shutter release. Each of these buttons controls two functions – one button manages white balance and focus zones, for instance – and you choose which setting you want to change by using either the click wheel on the back or the command wheel on the right hand shoulder.
Learning which wheel does what means the 7D has a relatively steep learning curve, but after a while making important changes to shooting modes takes a few seconds, and you'll only need to refer to the onscreen menu system when reaching for more obscure functions.
All this is helped by the presence of a secondary LCD screen on the top-plate which shows shooting information. A final button on the top shoulder controls a handy backlight for making changes in the dark.
For those who like checking settings via an onscreen display, the Q button on the camera back gives you a big-screen glance at the camera's settings. The inclusion of a raw/JPEG button is useful for one-off RAW shooting – when faced with a scene with particularly wide dynamic range, for instance.
Canon makes a few concessions to those still learning the ropes. Switch the shooting mode to CA and you can make changes with reference to the main screen. Settings such as aperture and exposure are broken down into layman's terms such as Blurred<->Sharp and Darker<->Brighter.
And for when all else fails there's always the green square mode for letting the camera handle everything.
Unlike the 5D MKII, the 7D has an integrated pop-up flash. A potential weak spot in the otherwise rock-solid body, the flash feels secure and activates via a reliable-sounding motor release. It is of mixed value - attach a hood to most lenses and the flash will be obscured. However, the 7D was the first Canon to come with an integrated Speedlite transmitter
This is immensely valuable for creative flash techniques. If you have a standalone flash you can set it to fire remotely without needing to spend money on a flash transmitter or PocketWizard setup.
Canon states the maximum continuous shooting rate of the 5D MKII is 4fps (four frames per second). In our tests, the 7D was little short of unbelievable. Canon claims it will hit 8fps when a UDMA card is used.
That makes it an incredibly good wildlife camera. There is no shutter lag making it very responsive. It's so responsive, in fact, that there's a second continuous mode that shoots at a more manageable 3.5fps.
The smaller sensor hides another plus for sports and nature photographers – the 1.6x focal length magnification factor means every lens you attach gains a little distance. A 400mm lens on a 5D MKII, for instance, will be a 640mm lens on the 7D, getting you closer to your subjects.
Responsiveness is helped by the 7D's excellent focusing system. It has 19 cross-type focus sensors and in our tests it was only limited only by the speed of the lens' focus motor. It tracks superbly. Interestingly, the 7D's autofocus system is superior to the Canon 5D MKII's. The 5D MKII has nine autofocus points, but only one is the more accurate cross-type sensor, against the 7D's 19.
In total the 7D has five ways of selecting the AF point, but there are 3 in the default setting: Single-point AF, Zone AF and Auto-select 19-point AF.
The first and last of these are standard options similar to those found on most other SLRs. The first enabled the photographer to select the AF point, while Auto-select 19-point AF leaves the decision to the camera. The downside of Auto-select 19-point AF is that it tends to target the nearest object.
In Zone AF mode, the 19 AF points are divided into five zones and the photographer chooses which of these to use. This is a good choice with moving subjects that are tricky to follow with a single AF point.
When AI Servo focus mode is in use with Auto-select 19-point AF mode selected the photographer can select the starting AF point, but the camera tracks the subject as it moves.
Helpfully, when Custom Function III-10 is enabled and one of these automatic AF selection modes selected, the active AF point(s) illuminate. This makes it easier to see if the camera is tracking the correct subject or not.
Two further AF point selection modes can be added to the default list via Custom Function III-6 enables to additional AF selection modes: Spot AF and AF point expansion.
Spot AF mode is the same as single-point AF, but the points are smaller and this allows the photographer to be more precise about the area for focusing.
In AF point expansion mode the photographer selects the AF point manually, but when tracking moving subjects the 7D may also use the surrounding AF points to achieve focus. However, unlike the Auto-select 19-point AF option in AI Servo mode, the surrounding AF points do not illuminate when they are active.
The EOS 7D also has more advanced AF customisation options that allow the photographer to specify how quickly the system adjusts to changes in subject distance. These options are found in the custom menu, AI Servo tracking sensitivity (C.Fn III-1) and AI Servo AF tracking method (C.Fn III-3) and they are designed to avoid things such as the camera focusing on a post or spectators when panning around a stadium following athletes etc.
These options are also found in the EOS-1D Mark IV and EOS-1Ds Mark III, but they are not available in the EOS 5D mark II. Canon has put similar functionality into its new EOS-1DX, but the revised menu system makes it much clearer what each option controls.
The one area build quality is a little off the mark is the lens that you can get bundled with the 7D. The Canon EF-S 18-135 lens was announced at the same time as 7D, but doesn't feel like it matches the body for build-quality
It's made from all plastic, for a start, and unlike more expensive lenses doesn't have full-time manual focusing, so you can't simply grab the focus ring if you don't like what it's trying to do by itself
Its specifications are nothing exciting, with a maximum aperture of f/3.5 at wide angle and f/5.6 zoomed in. On the plus side, it's a good starter lens if you're getting the 7D for video – it has image stabilisation, which greatly reduces frame shake when you're zoomed in
Unfortunately its good video credentials are sullied by the fact that it isn't a USM (Ultra Sonic Motor) lens, and so makes all kinds of whining noises while hunting for focus. You only save £160 if you opt for the 7D without the lens, but once you start spending more money on more advanced lenses you're unlikely to look back.
The lack of a full-frame sensor naturally means that the 5D MKII beats the 7D in a straight image quality comparison – but only just. Compared with shots taken by an original 5D, the 7D's 3200 ISO images were noisier, but not to the point of destruction.
The difference between the 5D MKII and the 7D comes when you compare the maximum ISO – the 7D will go as high as 12,800 if you tinker with the custom settings. The 5D MKII goes twice as far, to 25,600
Otherwise it almost goes without saying – the 7D's image quality is almost beyond reproach, and its chief limiting factor will be your abilities as a photographer and the lens you partner with the body.
EOS 5D MKII users had to wait for a firmware upgrade before they had manual control over their cameras' video mode; the 7D provides an incredibly powerful manual mode out of the box. Fully automatic modes are still there for those who want to point and shoot, but flick the mode wheel to manual and you can set your own aperture, shutter and ISO speeds.
There are four video modes. You can opt for 25fps 1080, 24fps 1080, or 50fps 720 or 640 x 480.
Quality is unbelievable – sharp, with rich colours that, with the frame frozen, may as well have been still images. Sensor wobble (also known as the 'jello' effect) is less in evidence in our test videos as it is with some other cameras, most recently the Pentax K-x, although we noticed problems with vertical objects when the camera panned quickly.
Trees, for instance would lean towards one side of the frame depending on which way we panned the camera, and while this is a simple enough problem to correct (pan slower), it means the 7D isn't without the odd chink in its armour.
However, there's much more to like than dislike. The manual mode provides a massive amount of flexibility and power, besides being easy to use. Your changes are reflected in real time on the screen and you can change the aperture and shutter speed while video is recording.
Shooting for a day is instructive. You can forget about telephoto work unless you have a reliable stabilised lens and ideally a tripod. You can focus during recording, as long as you're happy to live with relatively slow contrast detection focusing, which is less accurate and takes longer. The 7D's integrated microphone also picks up a fair amount of handling noise, although you get an external microphone socket on the side. A headphone socket is the only obvious missing detail.
We also had huge problems with our 4GB Crucial memory cards. Having never showed signs of slowness before, the very longest video we captured in the 7D's 24p 1080 mode was 50 seconds long, and that was the exception. Our videos averaged between eight and 10 seconds each before the camera ran out of buffer and stopped recording. To call it frustrating is a masterpiece of understatement.
Canon says you'll need a UDMA Compact Flash card that can write at least 8MB/sec to shoot HD video reliably.
You'll also need plenty of space. The smallest still image the 7D produced was 3.29MB, but the average was a sturdy 7MB. And, with HD video taking around 60MB for a 10 second file, a Compact Flash card with a capacity of 32GB goes from being a luxury to a fairly strict necessity.
A battery grip will come in handy as well – at the end of a day's shooting, in which we captured 8GB of stills and video, the 7D's battery was half-depleted, meaning you'll need to take spares if you're going somewhere with limited access to electrical outlets.
The 7D's battery (part code LP-E6) is the same as the 5D MKII's, and will set you back around £30 for a replacement. An alternative is the BG-E7 battery grip, which takes two batteries or, usefully for those heading for the wilds of Siberia, universally-available AA batteries.
As part of our image quality testing for the Canon EOS 7D, we've shot our resolution chart with the Sigma f/1.4 50mm lens mounted.
If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 100 the Canon EOS 7D is capable of resolving up to around 24 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.
For a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them please click here to read the full article.
Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:
ISO 100, score: 24 (see full image)
ISO 200, score: 24 (see full image)
ISO 400, score: 24 (see full image)
ISO 800, score: 22 (see full image)
ISO 1600, score: 22 (see full image)
ISO 3200, score: 22 (see full image)
ISO 6400, score: 20 (see full image)
ISO 100, score: 28 (see full image)
ISO 200, score: 28 (see full image)
ISO 400, score: 26 (see full image)
ISO 800, score: 26 (see full image)
ISO 1600, score: 24 (see full image)
ISO 3200, score: 24 (see full image)
ISO 6400, score: 24 (see full image)
Noise and dynamic range
We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.
A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.
For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.
JPEG images from the Canon EOS 7D compare reasonably well against the newer 24.3 million pixel Sony Alpha 77, and whilst at the lower end of the sensitivity scale the 12.3 million pixel Nikon D300s has the edge, at sensitivities above ISO 800 the Canon EOS 7D shows better low light performance.
This chart indicates that the Canon EOS 7D's JPEGs capture a good amount of tonal detail across the sensitivity range, beating the Nikon D300s at all sensitivities except ISO 800. However, it is out performed by the Sony Alpha 77 and Pentax K-5.
TIFF images (after conversion from raw) show a similar trend to the JPEG files with results showing a higher dynamic range than the Nikon D300s at all sensitivities except ISO 800. Again, it is out performed by the Sony Alpha 77 and Pentax K-5 though.
The excellent Nikon D300S looms large over the 7D and matches it in virtually every way. The Nikon's build quality is superlative, its continuous mode performance is just about the same, and usability, while significantly different from the 7D's, is great.
The D300S is just as fast to use, easy to adjust, and easy to control as the 7D. And, its autofocus system is about the same thanks to its 15 cross-type sensors, making it just about as good for sports and wildlife.
Just about the only area in which the 7D is significantly better than the D300S is its video mode. The D300S' is seriously hampered – only five minutes of recording time per clip, a maximum of 720p resolution and the generally less impressive overall quality of Motion-JPEG compared to the 7D's silky-smooth H.264 all make the 7D better for aspiring videographers.
That means, naturally, that the 5D MKII beats the 7D in a straight image quality comparison – but only just. Compared with shots taken by an original 5D, the 7D's 3200 ISO images were noisier, but not to the point of destruction. The difference between the 5D MKII and the 7D comes when you compare the maximum ISO – the 7D will go as high as 12,800 if you tinker with the custom settings. The 5D MKII goes twice as far, to 25,600.
There's also a slight difference in resolution - the 5D MKII has the edge with its 21.1MP sensor, versus the 7D's 18MP APS-C CMOS.
The 7D's high-ISO performance is hardly bad, and compared to the 5D MKII it's £200 cheaper, offers twice the maximum frame rate and a significantly more advanced auto-focus system.
The 1.6x crop factor of the 7D's smaller sensor is also a potential advantage. It's also built incredibly well and the video mode, while not perfect, is better than any other HD-DSLR we've seen, thanks to its excellent quality, full manual control and 24p frame rate.
That kit lens isn't the greatest and with 18 million pixels you can fill up your memory cards pretty quickly if you shoot continuously.
The obvious decision for anyone looking to buy a Canon is whether to go for the 7D or splash out on the 5D MKII. With the 5D MKII costing around £450 extra, it's not an easy choice.
For the most fine-grained image quality, and particularly for professional photographers who cover tricky events such as weddings, the 5D MKII is the one to go for. The full frame sensor and massive pixel give you control over your pictures that the 7D doesn't quite match - although it's not far behind.
Wildlife and sports photographers, however, will find that the EOS 7D gives better results once they have learned how to set up its rather complex AF system to suit them and the subject.
If you haven't already taken the plunge with Nikon or Canon and stocked up on lenses, the D300S is is also worth considering and the best way to make a decision will be to actually pick each camera up and decide which feels best.
If you want to shoot video, the decision swings towards the 7D. The 7D is undeniably excellent camera, but for once, that doesn't make the decision any easier.