In the Field with the Canon 70D

Canon 70D Review
Canon 70D
    As I always mention before my review, my observations are completely subjective. There are no photographs of brick walls, ISO charts, or the like. What you will read is purely my observations in the field. I do not test every feature, just the ones that I feel will improve my speed, accuracy or workflow. As a professional photographer I rely on my cameras to be an invaluable tool to help me produce salable images. If something stops me in that endeavor or frustrates me, I will make a note of it. Conversely, if something helps me, you’ll see it in my review. Now, with that said, on with the field review of the Canon 70D.

    A young owlet tilts his head in curiosity in Badlands National Park, South Dakota.
    What’s Up?

    Why did I purchase the Canon 70D?

    First, a little history. My very first DSLR was the Canon 20D. I remember that camera fondly. It was quite capable even if it was only 8 megapixels. It made some very salable images for me, images that I continue to offer to this day. I used the 20D for everything, landscape, portrait, wildlife, you name it. My next DSLR in the x0D line was the Canon 50D, a camera I still own. Once again, a very capable camera, decently high FPS, good image quality, ok autofocus (still better than my 5D Mark II). I acquired the 50D sometime in early 2009. Since I already owned a 5D, I used the 50D strictly for wildlife and macro. The frames per second and crop factor for the wildlife and the crop factor for the macro. This delineation has worked well and I continue to operate in this fashion with few exceptions to this day.

    A few months later the Canon 7D was offered. While I wanted to move to the 7D, I couldn’t justify the outlay of another $1,800 for 1.7 frames per second more and 3 megapixels. Sure, the autofocus was far superior and while I wanted one, I decided to use the 50D until the 7D Mark II came out. It would only be a couple of years, right? Better to spend money on lenses I thought. Retrospectively, I still believe this to be a wise move.

    Fast forward to early 2014. My 50D was about to have a 5th birthday. I had tens of thousands of shutter actuations on the camera (but it was still going strong). In those 5 years I had purchased a 500mm f/4L II lens and I was dying to couple it with a more capable camera. I was still patiently waiting for the 7D Mark II, but it seemed like that was a distant date. I was preparing, like I always do in the beginning of the year to shoot the Sandhill Cranes as they passed through Central Nebraska. For this, I wanted (and perhaps needed) something with better autofocus, more frames per second, and more megapixels. At the time, I could find the 70D for around $1,100. At this point the camera evolution had taken the 7D, duplicated it and improved upon it in several instances and made it cheaper for me.

    I decided to stop waiting for the 7D Mark II and to go for it. Like I always say, the best camera is the one in your hand now.

    A Sandhill Crane struts on a sandbar on the Platte River in Nebraska.
    Morning Strut

    How is the capture experience?

    While I did do some initial testing prior to my Sandhill Crane trip, the real test was when I was in the blind with my new camera. I took along my 5D Mark II as well, but for wildlife the fps pales in comparison and the buffer fills way too fast, but I had a fall back just in case. The weekend I went out it was in the upper 50s (F) during the day and in the lower 40s at night. While photographing the cranes, I slept in the unheated blind overnight so the camera was pretty chilly the entire time, but not frigid cold. The interface on the 70D is easy to use and touchscreen based. My first touchscreen camera was the SL1 so I appreciate the feature, but I often find myself fallen back to the switches and dials. Speaking of dials, the 70D does not have a dial and now has a “multi-controller”. Many complain about this controller, but I find it adequate. Not great, but once you get used to it, it becomes almost as quick as the dial.

    On the evening of the first night, I setup my tripod, mounted my 500 f/4L II and attached my 70D. I snapped away happily capturing hundreds of images of cranes very quickly. The biggest thing I noticed was that I would fill the buffer, fast. I had purchased some fast SD cards, but it was evident that the faster the SD card, the better here as you really want to take full advantage of the 7 FPS. As I began to grow accustomed to the buffer, I begin to anticipate the buffer fill and I find myself shooting in better, more controlled bursts, letting up on the trigger when I know I won’t capture anything else and letting the buffer empty. This is an experience thing here, and once mastered, it really helps.

    The autofocus is snappy, it felt liked it locks on much quicker than my 50D and this was true in lower light too. I really liked the 19 autofocus points as it really opens my compositional possibilities while still performing. While there are three autofocus options – zone, point, and auto, I find myself mainly using the point. The autofocus button was new for me and it took a little bit to remember it was there. As the night drew closer, I had to fall to using the center point only, but during the dusk hours any of the points worked well.

    One last note regarding autofocus. The 70D comes with Dual-Pixel technology which allows for faster autofocus in live-view mode. This works pretty well, actually. While I would usually not use it for wildlife as it is still not quick enough for that, it has performed very well with my Macro technology and a welcome addition. I look forward to seeing where Canon takes this.

    So for 2 of the 3 reasons I upgraded – frames per second and autofocus, the 70D performed admirably. Next we’ll look at picture quality.

    Four burrowing owl chicks watch quietly outside their home in a prairie dog town in Badlands National Park, South Dakota.
    Siblings

    How is the picture quality?

    As a wildlife photographer ISO is very important. Animals don’t care about sun position or ambient light. Sandhill Cranes for example may land after dusk and take off before dawn so high ISO quality is key. The 50D did okay in this respect. Not great. The 70D performed much better. At 800 the quality was very good. At 1600 it was quite usable. At 3200 I could maybe make some images work. For me, I have high standards when it comes to picture quality as many of my images are enlarged to 20×30 or beyond. If I see too much noise at 50% zoom in photoshop I pretty much give up on the image. If you’re going to not be printing that big, I’m sure you could go further. The key for me is that I could shoot earlier in the day and later at night and still get salable images.

    From a megapixel standpoint for me more is better. I know that megapixels are not everything and I’m not going to debate how far megapixels should be pushed, if they’re a marketing ploy, etc. My experience tells me, more megapixels generally means better picture quality and the more I can crop. This is all contingent on good quality lenses, of course. If I had my wishes, the camera would have had at least 24 megapixels like the comparable Nikon, but you work with what you have. Over my 50D the extra 5 megapixels was very welcome. The details are crisp and I can easily enlarge these images (and some with minor crops) to 30×40 without worry.

    A beautiful sunset illuminates Branched Oak Lake in Lancaster County, Nebraska on a cool August evening.
    Stone and Light

    Any other features that stand out?

    Honestly, I feel that I’m pretty easy from a bells and whistles standpoint. While I’m not saying I won’t use the newer features, there are some basic features I need and beyond that I’m pretty good. Honestly, I started with a Pentax K-1000 which was a completely manual camera, it didn’t even autofocus. But anyway, there are a couple of items I do want to address.

    The 70D comes with Wi-Fi that supports two major features, remote image viewing and capture and image download. With the first feature you can remotely see the screen on the 70D via Wi-Fi (either with or without a Wi-Fi network) and capture images. Combined with the Dual-Pixel technology for autofocus and this feature could have some potential for situations where you do not want to disturb your subject, such as some limited wildlife photography or insect photography.

    The second Wi-Fi feature is the ability to download images to your phone or device. Once there you can email them, text them, Facebook them, etc. I’ve used this feature a couple of times. Once, when I was in the blind photographing the cranes, I downloaded an image and was able to text it to my wife and kids (I did have cell coverage). The second time I was in South Dakota and had just finished photographing a family of burrowing owls and I once again wanted to text some images to my family. The big drawback to this feature is that if the card is high capacity and full it takes a very long time for all the images to come up. I think with the second instance, I had to wait about 15-20 minutes before the image came up that I wanted. Sure, it was cool and I’d like to do it again, but for the work I do it doesn’t really add anything to my professional experience. Most days I download all my images at night anyway so I could accomplish most of what I needed then.

    A Mariposa Lily grows in the open sun on the side of a ravine in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
    Capturing the Sunlight

    AF micro adjustment on the 70D is very good. On this camera you can adjust at either end of a zoom lens, both the short and long ends. This was a complaint from photographers for many years so I’m very happy to see this added.

    Lastly, I do want to mention the articulated screen. From a macro photography perspective the screen has some real possibilities. Otherwise, I probably would not use it and find myself leaving it out positioned like my 50D. I also worry that it would break easier than having the screen that doesn’t move. I’ll have to see on that one.

    A crow taunts a Bald Eagle in high tree near his nest. Amazingly, the eagle ignored this visitor as he swooped by his head several times. Eventually, the crow tired and simply sat on this branch every so often chirping his indignation.
    The Taunting Crow

    How was the movie capture?

    Movie capture was what I would expect from the 70D. I’m not a videographer so you’d have to check in with someone else regarding that experience, but I do occasionally want to get some video and the camera does a good job of that.

    IMG_9135-tulip-2

    What are the negatives?

    Really, I have very few negatives. I wish I could have ISO 50. I don’t know why Canon wants to leave that “feature” for more expensive cameras, but they do. I rarely use it and really only need it for landscapes, but sometimes this is the only camera I take and would like to have it as an option. Beyond that I would have liked more megapixels, but it’s got enough to do what I need for now. It’s certainly capable and it’s a very, very minor nit.

    Dew drops cling to verdant blades of grass in the early morning at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
    Drops of Dew

    What are the positives?

    Autofocus, frames per second, image quality. In that order. Really, for the money I feel that Canon really packed in a good feature set into the 70D. At about $1,100 I feel it really fits the bill with features per dollar.

    A spiderweb sparkles with dew drops like a string of diamonds early on a July morning in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. - See more at: http://www.journeyoflight.com/photo/diamonds-from-dew/north,dakota
    Diamonds From Dew

    Any last notes?

    With the 7D Mark II reportedly around the corner, for some it might be a hard choice. I’m sure the new 7D will have better autofocus, more frames per second, and probably a better sensor. The 7D will also be much more expensive. It will really be up to you to decide if you need all that at a more expensive price. With that being said, as of the writing of this article the 7D Mark II has not been announced and once announced it may take several months to hit shelves. The 70D has performed excellently for me and in the 6 or so months I’ve owned it I’ve been pleased with the images that have been produced. Really, in my final opinion if you decide to get the Canon 70D, you’d be getting a camera chocked full of features at a pretty reasonable price.

    If you liked this review you might also like these others:
    Magnifying the World with the Canon 100 f/2.8L IS Lens
    In the Field with the Canon Rebel SL1
    135mm of Pure Joy

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