If you know anything about Samantha and I, you know one thing for certain, we are slow and careful about upgrading our cameras. Sam still shoots with a four-year old Nikon D300s and I have an ancient Canon 1ds Mark III ( six plus years old). Unless there is compelling reason to do so, we stick with out cameras for a long time. It makes more sense to invest in quality lenses than to update our camera bodies at every upgrade of our chosen model. Most camera body upgrades are cosmetic and with no real creative advantage to the photographer. Also I have been burned too many times in the past buying the latest model only to find serious issues with the camera (mostly with auto-focus with –ahem!–a certain brand). Sam and I vowed to carefully test over a long term any new camera we might be interested in. Hence this review.
Why the 70D?
First, of all, thanks to thanks to McBain Camera in Red Deer for the long term loan of a Canon 70D – you guys are awesome. I was interested in the 70D because the Dual Pixel AF technology introduced with the 70D seemed likely to offer serious creative advantages for live view still photography but even more so for video. Canon designed a whole new sensor with pixel level phase detection autofocus that would make autofocus in live view and in video mode super fast, accurate and work across 80% of the frame. This kind of live view AF performance is unheard of in dSLR cameras.
We love live view and the ability to have the camera focus almost anywhere in the frame using a scrollable focus point or using touch screen technology really intrigued us. As well, face recognition tracking focus in live view means that anywhere the camera sees a face in still or video shooting it will keep that face sharply focused no matter where the face moves in the frame. That seems really handy especially for our assignment work and to make videos. We were intrigued enough by this advance in technology to ask McBain Camera for a 3 month loan of a 70D to see if this camera would be worthy of adding to our camera bag. Our decision? Read on to find out!
Besides the potentially awesome new live view autofocus system, the 70D also has many desirable features that appeal to beginner and advanced photographers alike. Most of this stuff is not new but sure is nice to have especially if it’s been a long time since you upgraded your camera (e.g. 20.2 MP sensor, 7 fps motor drive, built-in Wi Fi, in-camera HDR and multiple exposure capability and a vari-angle touch screen LCD).
OK… So Cut to the Chase… Does the New Live View Autofocus System Work?
In a word – YES!
And we found this new live view autofocus to be a game changer for dSLR photography and video.
For still photography, live view is awesome because you see 100% of the scene, viewing your photo on a beautiful 3 inch LCD. Seeing a bigger photo allows you judge your composition better than when looking through a tiny viewfinder. In the past, with dSLR’s, live view AF was sluggish at best and most often restricted to the AF area of the sensor. For us, we always used manual focus in live view because we were so much faster and more accurate than the camera was with live view focusing. The 70D changes all that. Now we can get fast focus in live view especially when using FlexiZone Single focus point. We simply touch the LCD screen and the camera will focus the scene at that point (you can also set the camera to trip the shutter once you touch the LCD as well). Or, you can use the Multi-controller dial to move the focus point around the LCD.
In the beginning, I almost always used the Multi-controller on the back of the camera to move the focus point around on the LCD. But the more I played with the touch screen, the more I liked how fast and easy that approach was for getting fast focus. Of course, I just assumed that for winter photography, the touch focus would not work with gloves on. But I was surprised to find it works perfectly well as long as you are just using thin liner gloves when touching the screen. I am now a touch screen convert!
The other live view focus mode that we love with the 70D is the Face Detection + Tracking AF. In this mode the camera recognizes a face and locks focus on the face no matter where the face is in the frame (well, nothing’s perfect: the tracking breaks down if the face is very small and at the far edges of the frame). If the face is moving in the fame, the tracking feature keeps the face in focus. With images without faces you can use tracking AF and touch the LCD where you want focus and then if you recompose the camera the selected part of the scene will stay in focus. Or if the part of the scene you focused on moves (e.g. a piece of wind-blowing ice) then tracking will keep the moving subject in focus.
One of the disappointments of the Dual Pixel AF system we found was when the camera was in tracking AF and the motor drive was set to continuous (high or low). With these settings the LCD went black after the first shot was taken. The moving subject was rendered perfectly sharp as it moved towards the camera but live view shut down and we could not see the subject or the composition! The good news is you can return to viewfinder AF and use servo follow focus and continuous motor drive to make action images of moving subjects (and it works pretty darn good!).
Video AF Revolution!
We loved the AF performance in video mode on the Canon 70D!
FlexiZone Single AF worked just as flawlessly in video as it did in still photography letting us place focus almost anywhere in the scene just by touching the LCD (or by using the Multi-controller selector). We especially like the ability to quickly pull focus from a near foreground to a distant background seamlessly.
Also, Face Detection + Tracking AF worked perfectly to keep faces in focus even as the face moved in the scene. We loved using wide aperture prime lenses to keep the face sharp while the background was blurred!
Even with relatively fast moving or erratic subjects the tracking focus in video did a great job. For the first time dSLRs now acted like more like conventional camcorders. So awesome.
The new Dual Pixel AF opens up creative possibilities using wide aperture primes for precise focus with moving subjects but keeping beautiful bokeh backgrounds. Oh yeah!
There is a big caveat with this new Dual Pixel AF and making videos – - if you are using the built-in camera mic or a hot shoe mounted mic, the sound of the lens focusing (even a USM lens) will be heard in the video. Canon has new STM lenses to overcome the focus noise issue but these lenses are optically not that great in our opinion. Instead get your mic off camera and close to the subject where it belongs and the noise from a continuously focusing lens won’t be an issue. Then you can use those sharp, fast lenses you saved your money to buy!
The new Dual Pixel AF is compatible with 103 of 156 Canon EF lenses. I mostly used Sigma AF lenses for all my tests and found no issues whatsoever with AF performance, even when using the Sigma 85mm f1.4 or the Sigma 18-35 f1.8 lens. The camera focused these lenses precisely.
The Live view autofocus really sold us on the 70D but the camera has every feature we need to do advanced photography – see this link for a complete set of features. Below are some features we really love that make our photography easier and more creative:
- that awesome tilt and swivel LCD!
- really good image quality from the sensor
- low noise that we found acceptable to 6400 ISO
- auto-bracketing in 2, 3, 5, or 7 frames at up to +/- 3EV for serious HDR photography
- 7 fps motor drive for action
- multiple exposure function for cool creativity
What We Didn’t Like
- no head phone jack for audio
- really crappy DOF preview button – c’mon Canon fix this problem with your low and mid-range cameras!
- substandard viewfinder (small and tinny looking) – Nikon’s mid-range cameras’ viewfinders are way better!
- that nasty problem of blacked out live view when using tracking AF and continuous motor drive
- battery life suffers significantly in the cold with constant use of live view
- battery life also suffers significantly with WiFi and GPS enabled
If you don’t use live view much, don’t plan to use video and really shoot mostly static nature photos then the 70D is probably not a great investment for you – buy a second hand 50D or 60D. The only reason to buy the 70D is to take advantage of the Dual Pixel AF system. We found the new live view AF really useful for our assignment work, for creative work with wide open apertures and fast lenses, and mostly for fantastic AF in video. In the end we bought the camera. Now we just fight over who gets to use it!
Thanks again for letting us test the 70D, McBain’s in Red Deer!