RAW converters: are they equal?
While I typically use Adobe Camera Raw (otherwise known as ACR, included with Photoshop) to process my RAW images, I’m always looking for other RAW conversion applications that may deliver higher quality or other improvements. There have been a number of RAW converter updates released recently, particularly Lightroom v3 beta, and CaptureOne v5, making a comparison very timely. LR3 beta contains a beta version of what will be the processing engine for LR3 and the next version of Photoshop/ACR, and there have been numerous improvements made to the program. While I did use CaptureOne a few years ago, I have never warmed up to the workflow or the look and feel of the images.
At this point I’m using Bibble 5 under Ubuntu (Linux), for photo organizing, such as culling images, keywording and other asset management tasks. Any images I select for processing are then processed under ACR in an XP VM. While it’s not the most ideal solution, Lightroom does not run natively under Linux, and although it does offer excellent RAW conversions, there are significant performance advantages to running Bibble, both due to its architectural speed advantages, but also by running it natively and not in a resource-constrained VM.
Without further ado, here are some samples of an image processed in various converters, using the default settings.
While CaptureOne has great detail extraction, it’s noise handling is not as visually appealing with lots of fine grain; while perhaps not that apparent in this photo it’s my experience in general. Bibble 5 offers good conversion, but needs more tweaking to get similar looking images to the other converters, and exposure and levels can initially be quite off. LR3 has more pleasing noise characteristics and delivers warmer tones using the default (as shot) WB setting. Canon’s DPP offers excellent RAW conversion, as one would expect from manufacturer supplied software. The workflow is clunky enough with fewer adjustment options that I don’t even see DPP as a viable competitor.
I haven’t decided which program I will use for my 7D images, though it will likely be ACR. The image quality is lacking at this point with the beta profiles, so for the time being Canon DPP or CaptureOne 5 would be better options. I’m still enjoying the 7D, and it’s easily the most impressive crop body I’ve used so far. One thing I’ve really noticed is the faster card write speeds, and even when shooting in L-JPEG + RAW I didn’t run into the small 6 shot buffer limit too often. Even though I was using a non-UDMA Sandisk Extreme III card, the large 18MP images were still dumped to the card very quickly. By comparison, on the 1D III I would often fill the 30 shot RAW buffer and then wait a considerable amount of time for it to clear. The 1D IV will be even better in this regard, offering a 10% larger buffer than the 1D III, which is much larger than the 7D’s, while writing at similar speeds as the 7D.
Canon 7D Review – Part 2: Field Test
I managed to take the 7D out for a few hours of test shooting. With few subjects around I couldn’t test the AF to the limits, but had several opportunities with birds in flight. I will add more samples in the weeks to come to illustrate the image quality a bit further, both at high ISOs and hopefully some extended tracking sequences to show the AF capability.
What immediately struck me was that despite using the same battery as the 5D Mark II, the 7D appears to be more power efficient. It should be quite possible to achieve 1200+ shots per battery, compared to a maximum of about 800-1000 in my experience with the 5D II (I’m extrapolating a bit, so YMMV). Needless to say, battery life won’t be an issue unless you shoot video or review images a lot, and the 7D offers respectable battery life even if it can’t quite touch the 1D which gets to 2000-3000+.
With few ducks around I had to rely on gulls to test the AF on birds in flight, which admittedly aren’t quite as challenging as small, fast flying ducks. The 7D seemed to track beautifully, even against busy backgrounds the zone and 19 point AF would track well, as long as there was enough contrast between the bird and the background and the bird wasn’t too small in the frame. Of course, this type of shooting is much better suited to the single point AF selection mode.
One new feature on the 7D is that it’s now possible to have the camera display the AF point it has selected when shooting in AI Servo and not manually selecting a point. It’s a great addition and allows you to confirm what the AF is tracking and gives valuable feedback to the photographer.
Overall the focusing felt similar to the 1D III, about the same in acquisition speed and I’d say even better in tracking, as surprising as that may sound. The extra AF modes also allow for more flexibility, and I think the zone AF mode will be more useful than single point + expansion for birds in flight against a clean background, simply because you don’t have to keep the AF point right on the bird and it gives more room for error. Using all 19 points seems to be much more effective than using all 45 on the 1D, The one noticeable difference is that when acquiring a target that’s really out of focus, the AF will search for a subject, but often not long enough to actually acquire the subject, or it may lock on while still very misfocused. This is similar to my experience with other prosumer bodies, while only the 1D tends to search for focus long enough to accurately acquire a grossly out of focus target. In practise this is probably not a significant concern.
The body feels fast overall, with a more muted shutter sound than the 1D, but shooting at nearly the same speed. The new ergonomic enhancements are a great addition and the body feels great in the hand, even without a grip. By comparison the 5D II feels much more cheaply built and the combination of the shutter sound and burst rate contribute to feeling of it being a lower-class camera. In addition, the viewfinder feels similar to the 5D II or 1D III, despite the smaller sensor and increased crop factor and is a joy to use, especially with the extra spacing between the viewfinder and the LCD (as with the 1D), leaving a bit more room for your nose!
While the 1.6x crop factor can cause issues with framing being too tight at times, it’s a great help for wildlife under most conditions, where you are typically always in need of more focal length. I had forgotten how nice it was to have a 1.6x FOV when shooting birds, and with 18MP, the ability to put many pixels on a bird is not to be dismissed.
White Balance & Metering
The white balance mode seems to have been significantly improved. I often get results in automatic WB (AWB) that look similar to what I usually use cloudy WB (for warmer colour temperatures) on my other bodies. This can take some getting used to as it’s now possible to rely much more on AWB. Metering has been revamped with the iFCL system and more metering zones. While it is more intelligent than before, one still has to apply correction, especially if there are white highlights in a small portion of the frame, particularly with the rest of the frame being darker in tone. However, this is to be expected from any metering system that uses most of the frame to calculate exposure, and can’t really be attributed as a flaw. For more consistent results, spot metering would work best under those circumstances.
These are all unprocessed images, uncropped and straight out of the camera as JPEGs.
The noise levels and detail at ISO800 are still extremely good. I would be hard pressed to say the 1D Mark III is much better once the filesizes are equalized for a proper 1:1 comparison. In bird photography, typically when you need extreme ISO (3200+), the light quality isn’t worth shooting in, but I will try to post some real world very high ISO samples soon.
Overall I’m very pleased with the image quality of the 7D. While the results are not quite as good as what a larger sensor would give you, I think the reputation it already has for being the lowest noise crop body is well deserved. While there certainly is noise, it’s nicely controlled and in a pleasing pattern, with no banding to be seen. This also makes it very easy to clean up. The 18MP resolution also gives a lot of flexibility for cropping or printing large prints, and this is especially useful for wildlife photography when you are often cropping. It’s clear to see that especially with an excellent lens attached, fine detail is superb and these files can be heavily cropped.
The 7D delivers a punch in a smaller package, with performance not too far off that of the much larger and more expensive 1D series. I could see this becoming the body of choice for anyone into bird or wildlife photography, and particularly for those who want to save money over the pro bodies but still enjoy excellent performance. I only wish Canon would use the 5D II sensor in a 7D body; as good as the 7D is, a full frame sensor will always have the image quality edge, and having a full frame, high resolution small-bodied camera would be fantastic, with the major detriment of the 5D II being its autofocus and less than professional class body . That said, having both the 5D II and the 7D in your bag would be hard to beat, and ably cover all applications from landscapes to birds. I foresee myself using the 7D for focal length limited situations, such as more distant waterfowl and small songbirds, when the light is good. I do look forward to what the 1D III’s successor brings, and will probably use that as my primary body with the 7D as backup, or when pixel density is of concern.
Canon 7D Review – Part I: General Impressions
I recently acquired Canon’s hottest new body – the 7D. It combines 18MP on a 1.6x crop, shooting at 8fps in a very well-built body and includes many features new to Canon, such as new auto-focusing modes and enhanced video. I’ll break up the review in subsections for easier reading. I’m currently shooting with the 1D Mark III as my workhorse body and the 5D Mark II, and therefore my review will compare the 7D to these bodies in particular. I don’t intend this to be a comprehensive review, but a quick review of the body from a nature photographer’s perspective.
Body Handling and Build
The body feels absolutely solid and feels very close to a half-body 1D. The rubber is thick and grippy, and the new contoured grip makes it more comfortable to hold. Buttons feel very solid, and require a definite push to activate them.
Shooting modes are still controlled by a mode dial, with the power switch being relocated to just under it. I’m not entirely convinced of this decision as I never had a problem with the power switch being near the bottom of the body, but when shooting without a grip there is a possibility that the camera could bump against you and be switched off.
The viewfinder (VF) on the 7D is unlike anything Canon has put in a DSLR before, namely that it includes an LCD overlay and can superimpose anything on the display, instead of having just fixed AF points show. One can project grid-lines directly onto it, and even view the new electronic horizon. It’s also the first 1.0x magnification, 100% coverage VF included on a 1.6x crop body. This translates to a viewfinder that’s big and bright; in fact I’d say it’s equal to the 1D Mark III in both respects, whose VF is in turn similar in size to the 5D Mark II’s. To have a 1.6x crop body have a similar viewfinder to a body with much less crop factor is impressive, and makes using it enjoyable.
The only possible downside is that focusing screens are not interchangeable. This is due to Canon’s implementation, though with Nikon offering LCD overlays with interchangeable screens I’m left to wonder if Canon will allow for changeable screens in the 1D(s)4, as there are sound reasons for changing focusing screens, and it’s not uncommon either.
LCD & Menus
As with the VF, the LCD sets a new bar for Canon. It’s even better than the already stellar 50D/5D Mark II LCD, appearing sharper, with more contrast and easier to view outdoors. The LCD on the 40D/1D(s)3 seem positively archaic when compared side by side.
Menus have undergone changes as well, with many options (especially custom functions) being more user friendly and with more explanation and diagrams. For instance, when programming the M-fn button, a small graphic of the button possibilities is shown, in addition to a textual description.
I am not a heavy video user so this section will be light, but there are some changes worth mentioning. Like every current Canon camera, the 7D offers video mode, but when compared to the 5D Mark II, the 7D improves further. While the actual quality is no better due to the somewhat inferior sensor, there are far many more options. These include shooting 720p video at 24, 25, 30 or 60fps, and also 1080p at 24, 25 or 30fps, while the 5D Mark II is limited to 30fps only. Due to the dual DIGIC IV processors, it seems as if the LCD display refreshes more often, resulting in a much smoother view than with the 5D, especially at high ISOs when more data needs to be transferred. Liveview/video autofocus modes are still not comparable to shooting with the regular autofocus, but contrast detect autofocus works effectively and very quickly. Due to the jerky focusing this would not be desirable for video production, and manual focus will no doubt remain the mode of choice.
Anyone reading this review will no doubt be very interested in this section. With the 7D, Canon has introduced many new features for autofocus, including spot and zone AF modes. Spot AF mode takes a smaller than normal single AF point for focusing, and due to this size great precision can be achieved, but it’s also very unforgiving if you happen to let the point leave your target. Zone AF selects up to 9 AF points in a cluster, which can be either the left or right most, top or bottom most or the center area of the AF zone. This mode promises to be very useful for shooting birds in flight against a clean background, leaving the photographer more leeway in tracking the subject. Against busy backgrounds, I’m positive that like AF point expansion, this mode should be avoided unless the target is large in the frame and has high contrast against the background, otherwise the camera will tend to focus on the background. Other AF modes are as with previous Canon bodies: single point, single point + expand (enables another 4 points around your selected point) and all points. New to the 7D is the ability to select which AF point you want the camera to start tracking with when using all points; previously it always had to be the center point.
In my very limited testing, the 7D locked focus just as fast as the 1D Mark III. Tracking on static objects was very stable. In fact, I would say that stability on low-contrast, low light subjects was even beyond what the 1D can do. Due to the less densely spaced AF points on the 7D it may become necessary to enable AF expansion if focusing on very low contrast objects.
It is a bit early to make conclusive judgment of the image quality, but I’m cautiously optimistic about it. Images have very natural looking noise that can be very easily removed further if desired by using noise reducton software. Noise levels can’t quite touch the 1D Mark III, but given the far smaller pixels that is to be expected. It is far better than the 50D, both for noise amount and quality. A key consideration when comparing noise between cameras is to equalize the file size to give a true 100% 1:1 comparison. Once that is done, the difference between the 7D and Mk III should be fairly small. To have this type of noise performance on such small pixels (18MP on 1.6x crop vs 10MP on 1.3x crop) is really an achievement.
As the Canon DPP software is not my typical processing software and also delivers a different look to the images, I can’t say conclusively how they compare to my regular Adobe ACR processed RAW files.
Check back soon for my field test of the Canon 7D with samples images, coming soon!