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Joanna Mead shares her experience of getting to grips with a digital camera

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Category: Soapbox

The Digital Experience - Joanna Mead takes us through her experience of switching to using a digital SLR camera from film.

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Sixteen months ago, I purchased my first digital SLR – the EOS 20D.  I had resisted the temptation to jump onto the digital bandwagon for reasons related to cost and handling.  Until the EOS 20D came along, going digital meant sacrificing speed and performance compared to even a mid-range film body.  The specification of the EOS 20D promised much, and as an EOS 3 user, I didn’t want to return to life in the slow lane.  How has the digital experience matched expectation?

Expectations
Build quality - With a magnesium alloy chassis, a good solid camera was expected, though without the bomb-proof characteristics and weight of the pro models.

Good handling - Good start-up time, good autofocus and fine-tuned metering.  Convenient controls. Fuss-free, logical menus for the camera settings.

Flexibility - Going digital meant the flexibility of seeing the shot immediately after capture and being able to alter the ISO from shot to shot if required.

Good battery life -  No endless recharging of batteries.  They need to last for hundreds of shots.

Image quality - Low noise, lots of detail, accurate colours.

The EOS 20D - Its key features
Let’s take a look at the key features of this camera and assess some of its key features.

Ergonomics - I like the 20D.  It’s solid and feels good to hold.  My small hands can easily reach the controls when I want them.  The buttons in front of the top LCD have dual functions, the first is accessed by the main input dial by the shutter, and the second via the quick control dial on the rear.  Yes, I have twiddled the wrong dial and I suspect all will make the same mistake from time to time.  It does save having an excessive number of buttons or key features hidden within the menu system.  Given a choice, the latter option would frustrate me a lot more.

If I were to fault the camera, the viewfinder seems very small and dark compared to my film cameras, both of which had large viewfinders to accommodate the eye control focus point selection.  The 20D has a smaller mirror, and this may be one reason for the viewfinder feeling so small and dark.  The smaller viewfinder is a slight disadvantage as a spectacle wearer, but I have found that the shape of the spectacle lenses has a big influence on this.  It’s more of an issue in portrait mode than in landscape.

Some have commented on the mode selector dial – no, it doesn’t feel as robust as you might expect on a semi-pro camera.  However, it does the job and is easy to operate even with gloves on.  The buttons on the camera are generally easy to operate and are friendly to glove-wearing photographers, though you will need to remove gloves to load batteries or change the CF card.

Metering - The EOS 20D uses a 35 segment metering system that has been featured in the EOS D30, EOS D60, EOS 10D and EOS 300D before it.  The same metering pattern first appeared in the EOS 300 film camera, it was also used in the mid-range EOS 30 and 30V.  It is a reasonably good system that is let down only when faced with strong backlighting.  In the 20D, it continues to perform reasonably well, though the 20D does seem prone to underexposure.

The 20D lacks the spot metering and multi-spot metering.  I have missed the spot metering on odd occasions, but not dramatically so.  The partial metering does the job most of the time.  Only when photographing subjects against a light background do I wish for that spot metering.

Autofocus - The nine-point autofocus system on the 20D is excellent.  I consider it an improvement over the seven-point system in my EOS 30.  The spread of points in the diamond shape is very useful indeed.  The system is responsive and works very well.  It rarely struggles to focus except in very low light/low contrast conditions.  This is influenced by the lens used, add a fast wide aperture lens and this camera is superb.  The manual selection of the focus point takes getting used to after a number of years using the eye control feature on the EOS 30 and EOS 3, but I admit that I often have either automatic selection or the central point selected.  The nine autofocus points do not cover as wide an area as the 45 point system on the EOS 3. However, having used the camera for some time, I have not found this to be a major handicap.  It’s worth getting accustomed with that eight-way control on the back of the camera.

If you’ve previously used an EOS 3 or 1V and have been used to being able to use a 1.4x extender on the EF 100-400 LIS zoom and retain autofocus, you will be disappointed that the 20D can only focus down to a maximum aperture of f/5.6.  In its defence, I will say that the autofocus at f/8 is only useful in bright lighting conditions, and the crop factor means that I have never missed being able to use the extender.

Shutter noise - Many folks berated the shutter noise on the EOS 20D after its launch.  True, it’s not as whisper quiet as the 10D or its film equivalents.  The 20D has a beefed up shutter mechanism to cope with shutter-happy digital photographers.  It is not as loud as the EOS 3 by any means.  I have taken photos with the 20D in lots of different places and shutter noise is not a problem.  It’s the price we pay for demanding extra durability. 

The 20D uses the same type of remote release as the EOS 3, so it is compatible with the timer remote and the RS-80N3.  The socket is located behind one of the rubber covers on the left side of the camera and is a little fiddly at first.  The socket is also orientated differently to the EOS 3.  Insert the connector with the cable pointing towards the rear of the camera.

White balance - If you shoot in raw mode, the white balance isn’t important as it can be changed after the event.  If you shoot in JPEG mode – the auto white balance gets it right most of the time, but not always and the tungsten setting gives results that are too warm.  Sometimes it is worth taking some test shots and using what gives you the result you like most for a given lighting situation.

Data handling - The 20D inherited the Digic II processor from the 1D MkII.  The result is a camera that rarely freezes out because the buffer is full, especially if you shoot in JPEG mode.  Put a fast CF card in the camera such as the Lexar 80x Pro series and files are written (and read) very swiftly indeed.  I use only 1Gb Lexar 80x Pro cards in the camera.  I have four in total, with a Flashtrax for downloading should the need arise.  To date, that has been more than adequate.

The camera has been connected to the PC only twice.  Using a card reader is far more convenient than messing around with cables.

The ultimate test
The ultimate test for any camera is the image quality.  It can have the fastest handling or the fastest autofocus in the world, but if the image quality isn’t up to scratch, it’s an expensive ornament.  The image quality from the 20D is excellent.  Since the purchase, all the zoom lenses have been upgraded to L series glass and one can tell the difference.  The camera has been used in a wide variety of situations and has performed well throughout.  Images have plenty of detail and accurate colours too.

Battery life hasn’t proved to be an issue even when used with image stabilised lenses, or in cold weather.  I have two spare batteries and that is more than adequate.  The camera has been a pleasure to own.

The software that Canon bundled with the EOS 20D has taken a lot of criticism.  The EOS Viewer Utility has now been discontinued.  Digital Photo Professional is now at Version 2.03 and the later version has improved much on the original one that came bundled with the camera.  However, two raw conversion options are the tools of choice:

Rawshooter Premium 2006
Adobe Camera Raw v3

Digital Workflow
Getting the colour management and the digital workflow sorted out are two of the first obstacles faced by the photographer new to the digital darkroom.  Working in a colour-managed system helps, so having spent lots of money on camera and lenses, a calibrated monitor is a must.  You cannot adjust images if what you see on screen isn’t a true representation of the image.  Prints should also be a good likeness of the on-screen image.  If they are not, printer profiling will be required.  Running a good quality inkjet printer is expensive, so avoiding poor prints can make a huge difference to the economics of the digital darkroom.  A borderless A4 print on the Epson R800 costs just under £2 to produce.

The Economics
Does digital save money – well unless you take lots of photos, the answer is no. Without considering the cost of lens upgrades, it’s still an expensive hobby.  The EOS 20D at launch was £1169.  They now sell new for about £750 and the residual value of a second-hand example would be even less.  Add to that the cost of memory cards, spare batteries, the Flashtrax, an external hard drive and DVDs for backing up images; to make savings, I need to keep the camera for three to four years.  That also excludes the need for a reasonable spec computer, software, a good monitor, and an inkjet printer.  When I was using film, my annual bill for film and processing was about £500.

Verdict
There is no doubt that the digital experience is mostly fun with just a few frustrations along the way.  It’s certainly more time consuming – processing large numbers of raw files takes time and effort even with good tools.  The EOS 20D has been reliable and proved to be a good performer. There will be something newer, better, with higher resolution around the corner, Canon SLRs have a short product lifetime, but the 20D remains more than adequate to meet the needs of many photographers.

In summary the positive features are:
Convenient
Flexible

and the negative features are:
Initial costs
Good workflow and backup systems required
Colour management can cause a great deal of frustration.

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Comments

BertieP
BertieP  725 forum posts Scotland
10 May 2007 - 11:03 AM

An extremely well-informed article. You certainly know what matters in a camera!

BobP

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