Canon EOS 7D Review
I recently spent about a month with the Canon EOS 7D solely evaluating its video quality, and the results were impressive. When using the optimal lens, the camera has phenomenal depth of field and excellent sharpness, and it is less noisy than any of the prosumer camcorders that I've tested under similar conditions. It's also small, portable, and unobtrusive.
On the other hand, with a maximum record time of about 14 minutes and primitive audio capabilities, the 7D isn't the optimal first or only camcorder for any shooter. Still, if you're looking for a platform to add more artistic touches to your productions, the 7D, which costs about $1,700, is definitely worth a look. Since most video shooters also need still images every once in a while, I should also note that the 7D is easily the most capable digital SLR that I've worked with and can earn its keep in that realm as well.
Let's start with a brief look at the specs and then user controls. Once you get a feel for the camera and how to use it, I'll discuss my results.
At the heart of the 7D is an 18-megapixel CMOS sensor that's 22.3mm by 14.9mm in size. The camera shoots at 1920x1080 in 24p or 30p, and at 1280x720 and 640x480 in 60p, storing the video in H.264 format using the Baseline Profile. I spent most of my time working with 720p files, which the camera stored at a bit rate of 45.7Mbps, compared to 25Mbps for DV/HDV and up to 35Mbps for Sony XDCAM EX. The camera captures 16-bit PCM stereo audio at 48kHz, and it stores all audio, video, and still images on a Type I or Type II CompactFlash card.
I ingested and edited video shot with the 7D in Adobe Premiere Pro and Apple Final Cut Pro and encountered no issues whatsoever. I recall that during the early days of Canon's video-enabled digital SLRs, there were format-compatibility problems with some video editors, but these apparently were resolved before the 7D was shipped.
In terms of operation, you set the camera in movie mode via a switch on the back. The camera then displays live preview on the 3in., 920,000-pixel LCD panel. You can run the camera in full-automatic mode, full-manual mode, or a hybrid mode that lets you set shutter speed and aperture while the camera chooses the ISO setting. If you're shooting in automatic mode, you can lock exposure so it doesn't change inadvertently during the shoot.
You can set the shutter speed and aperture manually, but there are no guides such as a waveform monitor or zebra stripes to assist your efforts. There is no gain setting, but there is an ISO settingwhich, as you recall from your readings on photography, has much the same effect: brightening the image at higher speeds but adding noise to the signal. On the 7D, ISO settings range from 100 to 12,800.
Though there is no peaking guide for focus, you can set focus using the autofocus control before you start shooting. You can also zoom into the frame using the magnification button before shooting to set focus. For white balance, you can use auto white balance; choose from a range of presets such as daylight, tungsten, and fluorescent; dial in a color temperature; or white balance manually. You can connect a monitor using composite or HDMI connections to assist with setting all of your camera controls.
Audio is picked up by a small onboard microphone with a 1/8in. microphone input, but there is no manual gain control or a meter—it's all automatic. This actually worked reasonably well during some of my real-world shoots, though the camera did tend to boost gain to find some sound to capture during quiet periods. For most serious uses, the lack of an XLR input is a problem, though you'll have no trouble getting good reference audio from the 7D for syncing purposes.
One potentially serious limitation is that the camera will stop recording a file after 29 minutes and 59 seconds, or when the file reaches 4GB, whichever occurs first. If you're shooting in either 720p60 or 1080i30, this means about 12 minutes of recording before you have to stop and restart. If you're shooting takes in a movie or documentary, this probably isn't a big deal. On the other hand, for longer interviews or many performance events, this could be a problem.
This limitation relates to the FAT32 storage format that the 7D uses. It's also why files written to P2 cards max out at 4GB. Of course, P2 files seamlessly spill over to another file for longer recordings. I asked Canon reps if they planned to work around this limitation, and they indicated that nothing was planned in the short term.
I started testing by running some resolution tests on the 7D and the 24mm-105mm lens using the DSC Laboratories CamAlign ChromaDuMonde chart. As with all tests on a tripod, I used a support system from Redrock Micro. The 7D produced fabulous results in terms of clarity, color fidelity, and resistance to noise. Specifically, I compared the results with the output of two other camcorders, the Canon XH A1 and the JVC GY-HM700U.
All the cameras did a good job capturing high-resolution detail. In terms of contrast and color accuracy, however, the 7D was miles ahead, easily outclassing the other two. I've worked with the XH A1 a lot, usually with excellent results. However, the 7D in automatic mode produces a much more striking image than I could achieve with the other two camcorders, even after extensive customization. Playing back the test videos in my video editor, the 7D was also less noisy than the other camcorders, which all recorded under identical lighting conditions.
Many times in the past, when testing camcorders on these charts, I would take a still shot with my Canon Digital Rebel camera to provide an image that I could input into my video editor or Photoshop to compare with the frames captured by the videocamera. The Digital Rebel frame represented the reality that the camcorders were attempting to match in terms of detail, contrast, and color fidelity. With the 7D, the footage that I shot was better than the stills from the Digital Rebel, and it was already video. If I were shooting charts for a living rather than ballets, concerts, and the like, I would throw away all my camcorders and simply use the 7D.
Next, I wanted to run some tests to get a feel for depth of field, so I loaded the 7D up on Redrock Micro's The Event hybrid rig and started bugging friends and family. As an aside, I found the rig indispensible when shooting off tripod. The microFinder loupe on the back (not included with the rig) was helpful for assessing focus and getting a video-like feel from the camera. I also liked the microFollowFocus attachment on the camera's left (also an option). It provides easier access to focus adjustments, which you can address with your hand on the grip. Absent this attachment, you'd have to remove your hand from the grip to focus. Even with the shoulder support on the back, you'd likely tilt the camera at least a bit, and things would get dicey if you were shooting a high-action scene and trying to focus at the same time.
The first test was my daughter Rose sitting at my desk. I toggled between focusing on her face and focusing on my laptop behind herwhere, for some reason unbeknown to me, she was shopping for a tent online. I say unbeknownst because the closest either of my girls have come to camping is in the outdoor department at the local Walmart.
This was shot using ambient fluorescent lighting in my office; I'm about 4ft. from Rose, who's about 3ft. from my notebook. I'm pretty amazed by the depth of field and lack of noise in the video, not to mention the crispness of detail that reminds me yet again that Rose didn't wash her face after breakfast. (Please don't tell her mother about this video.)
Next, I lined up Rose and her sister, Whatley, bracketing their buddy Jaison to further assess depth of field. Again, I'm about 4ft. from Rose at the front of the line, with Jaison about 3ft. from her, and Whatley about 3ft. behind Jaison. In the video, I pan through the line, focusing on all three in turn, then I come back to Rose with the focus set on her sister in the back.
Again, the results were very good, though the video was starting to look noisy. At this point, I started wondering whether the relatively high f/stop level of the lens (f/4) was limiting depth of field and low-light performance. This led to this exchange with my Canon product rep.
Me: The two lenses that you sent me both had a minimum aperture of 3.5 or 4, which is relatively high. This would seem to both reduce performance in low light and reduce depth of field as compared to a lens with an f/stop of 2.0 or less. I got very good results in most tests. I'm just wondering if performance in poor lighting might have been improved.
Canon: If you would have used a lens with an f/stop less than 3.5 or 4 the performance in low light would have been better. Using a lens such as a 50mm f/1.2 would have made a major difference.
Me: Thanks for letting me know. Just out of curiosity, why didn't you send a lens like that?
Canon: We didn't have any of those lenses available at that time. Sorry about that.
There you have it. If you're a serious digital SLR user or have experience with high-end videocameras with detachable lenses, or film cameras, you already know that your video will only be as good as the lens that you attach to your camera. If most of your experience comes from camcorders with fixed lenses, you've learned to get the best results with what you've got. With the 7D, if you don't like the results, you can buy and use a different lens, which is one of the camera's charms.
Overall, though, so far, so good. Great results with the charts, impressive depth of field with little noise in one test, and good depth of field with slightly more noise in another. This gave me the confidence to take the 7D out for a real test run, and here the results weren't so good.
Specifically, a couple of ballet students in my wife's company wanted audition clips to send to ballet schools and colleges. I decided to shoot with the 7D. To be honest, the pressure wasn't really on. Ballet schools and colleges are used to videos shot by parents with $300 camcorders. Assuming I could live up to that standard, my experimental work wouldn't hurt the dancers, and there was substantial potential upside.
The shoot was technically challenging. Lighting was provided by the fluorescent lights in the studio, and the positioning of the shoot forced me to use the wide-angle lens. I shot the auditions separately. In the first, I set ISO at 6400, shutter at 125, and f/stop at 4, which was the lowest available setting. The ISO was clearly too high, and there was noticeable noise in the background. The video was better than an amateur's, but not by much.
After watching the results from the first interview, I decided to try Auto ISO (with shutter again at 125 and f/stop at 4) and then completely Auto. This time, I brought the JVC GY-HM700U along to perform some other tests and kill two birds with one stone. Both were manual-focus cameras, and because the dancer moved around a lot, I focused before each shot.
In both shooting modes, the 7D was noticeably noisier than the JVC, and the image was slightly softer. Both of these results are probably attributable to the wide-angle lens, which can be softer than a longer lens. Speaking with others who have shot with the 7D, I've found that connecting a large viewfinder to the camera or using an optical viewfinder is essential for accurate focusing; I wish I had either alternative at the shoot. Moreover, its minimum aperture of f/3.5 couldn't compete with the JVC's Canon lens, which opened to f/1.6. You could probably throw in a bit of user error there as well; I'd have to spend lots of time with the 7D to figure out the optimal ISO setting.
What does this add up to? Overall, the 7D has fabulous potential for some well-defined roles. With a decent lens under normal shooting conditions, the 7D will produce amazing depth of field and a relatively noise-free signal, even if you're just getting to know the camcorder. Under more challenging conditions, you'll need a lens that's up to the task and a monitor, time to experiment, or both.
There's nothing groundbreaking here. We all know that you have to get to know a camera to produce the optimal results. The difference, though, is that the 7D is devoid of the focus and exposure tools that we're used to using. Instead, it throws a completely new variable, ISO, into the mix, not to mention the need to assess the capabilities of whatever lens you attach to the body. If you're transitioning over from a film camera, the learning curve is probably minimal. If you're used to shooting with integrated camcorders, give yourself plenty of time to experiment before you take money from a client.
Product: EOS 7D
Assets: Outstanding depth of field and little noise in images.
Caveats: Devoid of familiar focus and exposure tools.
Demographic: Videographers who want striking depth of field. Photographers who want video capability.
Price: $1,699 (MSRP)