Saturday, July 21, 2007

Review: Canon 20D

So I finally got around to this review. It has been a long time coming, and I apologize in advance if you expected more. If you need nitty-gritty specifications, there are already a ton of nice reviews out there (some of them are listed on my camera body comparison page). These are mostly my personal impressions of the camera after upgrading from a 350D (Digital Rebel XT).

As you probably know, I bought a refurbished 20D from eBay for $640 and added a $55 SquareTrade warranty to it. I'll provide a color-coded list with illustrations (green means something good about the 20D, red means something bad):

  • User Interface. I can't tell you how much it helps to have the thumbwheel on the back of the 20D. It makes everything more efficient, from manual mode to setting ISO. The best part is menu navigation: now I can zoom through the menu with a flick of my thumb. Even the little buttons seem to have a better feel. When I picked up the 350D recently the buttons seemed really cheap.
  • Improved Shutter. The faster (and supposedly more reliable) shutter is a big reason to upgrade, and I noticed it immediately. Not only is there less black-out time, but there is less shutter lag. My first few shots I had a distinct feeling of "Whoa, it's already done?". The improved shutter also allows a 1/8000 sec shutter speed and a 1/250 sec sync speed, relatively minor increases, but they'll help in extreme situations. The side effect is a very loud (but reassuring) sound.
  • Improved Viewfinder. This is another must have aspect of the 20D. The 20D viewfinder is definitely larger and brighter than the 350D. It also seems to be less finicky about viewing angle (if my eye isn't perfectly centered on the 350D I start seeing shadows creep in). Since I spend so much time looking through the thing, I'm very excited that I'll have a clearer, larger view. The improved focusing screen actually seems to make a difference too.
  • Glitchy Autofocus. The jury is still out on this, but I think the autofocus on my 20D is pretty crappy. It seems like I have more trouble getting it to focus, which is surprising since that it one of the big advantages of the 20D over the 350D. Currently, I'd say the 350D does a better job of focusing than my 20D. Specifically, thin objects have given me a ton of trouble with hunting and just generally missing focus, even when the focus area is right on it. I'm planning on giving the focus system a thorough test in the near future and reporting the results here (and sending the camera to Canon for repairs if necessary). From what I have read, it is very common for 20Ds to have autofocus problems.
  • Size and Handling. Although the 20D is larger and heavier, it is much more comfortable in my hand. I picked up the 350D the other day to take the pictures that accompany this review and got an instant hand cramp. While the 20D seemed tiny in it's box, it felt like a monster when I picked it up since I was used to the 350D. Either way, I really enjoy the way it feels in my hands (FYI, I'm 5'9", 175 lbs with average build).
  • Sensor. The sensor is, in my estimation, no better (or worse) than the 350D. Not that I expected anything, but when you pay this much more for a camera, you hope for a slight improvement. Overall, I've gotten good images with it, although I feel like long exposures (>10 seconds) are worse than the 20D.
  • Incompatibility with 350D accessories. While I understand the motivation, it annoys me that I have to buy new batteries and a new remote release for the 20D. At least it has a PC jack though. But I still miss the 3.5mm shutter release jack that let me make my own remote releases.
  • 5 FPS. A big selling point of the 20D is the increased continuous shooting speed of 5 FPS instead of 3 FPS. And boy do you notice. The downside is you'll fill your buffer in a little over a second if you shoot RAW (something that is alleviated in the 30D). And I wouldn't mind a 3 FPS option, but I really do like this feature. It makes you feel so powerful to shoot a fast string of photos (even if they are all almost identical). Once I get a chance to shoot some sports, I'll be able to give a better report.
  • Durability. While the magnesium panels probably don't improve the strength of the camera as much as they claim, the 20D definitely feels like a more solid camera. In particular, the CF door on the 350D always felt cheap and moved around a little bit underneath my palm. The 20D has none of that.
  • Status LCD on the top instead of the back. I had no idea how much this would bug me, but I find the top LCD very annoying. After all, I'm usually looking at the back of the camera anyway (to look through the viewfinder) and so I really have to move away from the viewfinder and shift my head to set the ISO, auto focus, etc. Even worse, if I have it on a tall tripod, I can't see the status at all. Very annoying.
  • On/Off button location. This is a minor gripe, but I really liked the location of the XT power switch. Since it was right under my right thumb, I could pop it on and get it into place in a split second. The 20D location is a lot less convenient, but with auto-shutoff, I guess I shouldn't stress too much.
So, overall, I'm very happy with the purchase. Other than a few minor UI annoyances, the only major drawback of the 20D is the autofocus, which I really need to evaluate.

And, just to prove it is really a refurb, here's the box.

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